Free! Green Onions

There was little doubt that my latest science project would work, but I wanted to know how long it would take and whether it was worth the effort.

I’d been reading that green onions will grow indoors in a mere glass of water with roots attached. Now, that’s appealing.  Rather than throwing trimming away, I love the idea of recycling onions for another growth or two.

This summer my doorstep garden has kept up a steady supply of my favorite herbs, but I’ve missed fresh picked chives or green onions. When I returned home from grocery shopping with another bag of very healthy green onions, I was more than ready.

I got busy, grabbed a handful of green onions, chopped all the greens off, down into their whites and set the pile aside for later use.

Scallion starts

I located a small jar, perched the 2-inch rooted starts around the edge and poured an inch or so of filtered water into the bottom. Like most sun loving plants they do best with at least 6 hours of sun per day, and my summer kitchen window supplies that and more. They get a daily change of water and grow so fast it’s like having a live YouTube channel for entertainment.

Free scallions!

By the end of week one, the green onions had grown from 2-inch starts to 6-7 inch lengths. Now, that’s cause for celebration! I cut 4 onions down to 2-inches again.

Scallion Pancakes

Enough to make a batch of scallion pancakes.

Scallion Pancakes

Ingredients
½ cup AP flour
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp Montreal Steak Seasoning or salt & pepper blend
2 Tbsp minced green onion
1 egg, beaten
¼ cup water, approx.
½ Tbsp canola oil

Instructions
1. In bowl, combine flour, baking powder, salt and pepper.  Add the minced green onion and blend well.
2. Beat the egg and stir into the flour.  Add enough water to form consistency of pancake batter.
3. Heat skillet over medium-high heat with oil.
4. Drop 1 tablespoon or more batter onto skillet, cook cakes until bubbles form on top, turn and cook 2-3 minutes per side.   Makes 6-12 cakes, depending on size.

Finish idea: top with thin sliced smoked salmon, salted yogurt, and a sprinkle of green onion.

Forbidden Rice for Everyone

Here’s a rice with benefits worth knowing about. Yes, rice is a staple in much of the world—it comes in a variety of strains from white, to brown, and even black.  I’m late coming to the rice party, perhaps reluctant, in thinking it lacked nutritional value. That was until I became acquainted with black rice.

Forbidden Rice

Black rice, often referred to as Emperor’s Rice in China, harkens back to ancient times when it was prized for its medicinal attributes and thought to contribute to longevity.  So rare, it was reserved as tribute food for those of the highest status.

Times have changed and these days strains of black rice are available throughout Asia—where it is recognized as a source of anthocyanins, those coveted antioxidant wielding phytochemicals found in blueberries and acai. Interestingly, its black color transforms into a muted purple when cooked.

Black rice is considered a whole grain since the husk and germ remain in tact. It has more fiber and protein than brown rice and is also gluten-free. Studies have found black rice may reduce cancer, act as an anti-inflammatory, and even help with memory functions. Its toasty flavor and chewy texture are reminiscent of wild rice.

On the stove top, black rice can take up to an hour to cook, but I’ve come up with a more efficient method. I discovered Forbidden Rice from Lotus Foods, a heritage black rice that cooks in 30 minutes and now available in most well stocked markets.

Soaking rice also reduces cooking time. It’s worth noting than many sources believe the addition of an acid such as lemon juice during the soaking process is helpful in removing phytic acid, which can inhibit mineral absorption.

Steamed Forbidden Rice

In tandem with presoaking, steaming black rice in the Instant Pot or other pressure cooker can cut cooking time down to a mere 12 minutes. Once the pot is disconnected, a 6 minute natural release of pressure has just enough residual heat to finish the cooking process and allow a brief rest to separate and swell the rice.

Zucchini Rice Patties

The prepared rice is ready to use in any recipe calling for cooked rice. Forbidden Rice is not regarded as a sticky rice, but it does hold together when necessary. Here, Zucchini Rice Patties assemble quickly for a  tasty appetizer, a nutritious side dish, or entrée. They shine with a squeeze of lemon, or dress them up with raita or other light yogurt sauce.

They are even good the next day topped with an egg.

Zucchini Rice Patties

Ingredients
1 medium zucchini or summer squash, (1 generous cup, grated)
½ tsp salt
2 Tbsp green onion, fine chop
2 Tbsp parsley or 1 tsp fresh minced thyme, dill or fennel fronds
1 egg, beaten
½ tsp each salt and pepper
1 cup cooked black, brown, or white rice (see below)
¼ cup flour + ½ tsp baking powder, approx.
2-3 Tbsp vegetable oil

Instructions

  1. Place grated zucchini and salt in a strainer lined with paper toweling or a coffee filter to draw out excess liquid. Let drain 30 minutes and squeeze well.
  2. Combine the zucchini with green onion and herbs; add the egg, salt and pepper. Lightly blend in the rice. Stir in enough flour and baking powder to thicken and bind.
  3. Divide heaping tablespoons into 6-8 rounds and shape into patties.
  4. Heat skillet over moderate heat with enough oil to coat bottom of pan. Add patties, gently flatten and cook 3 minutes per side until lightly browned. Drain on toweling. Cook in batches if necessary. Makes 6-8 patties.
  5. Serve with lemon, raita or yogurt herb sauce.

To presoak Forbidden Rice
1 cup Forbidden Rice
1 cup water
1 Tbsp lemon juice (optional)
Rinse and drain rice.
Combine lemon juice and water and pour over the rice.  Cover and let stand 7-8 hours. Use as is or rinse and drain.

To cook soaked Forbidden Rice in Instant Pot
1¾ cup water, divided
pinch salt
Lower trivet into liner; pour in 1 cup water and set pot to Sauté Normal to begin preheating.
In a heat proof dish or steamer, spread the soaked rice in bottom and add a pinch of salt; barely cover it with ¾ cup water. Cover with foil or a lid and set on trivet.
Seal pot and manually set to Hi Pressure for 12 minutes. When complete, turn off pot and disconnect; let pressure release naturally for 6 minutes. Carefully remove lid and lift out cooking container.
Fluff rice with fork and proceed as needed. Yields 3-4 cups.

Crumpets, another culinary distraction

Are you looking for an entertaining bread alternative? If so, you might want to give crumpets a try. They aren’t complicated and don’t even require an oven.

You can’t help but become smitten by crumpets if you’ve read much English literature. Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, vividly describes ‘dripping crumpets’ as part of a delectable and sumptuous tea. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, one gathering is served a splendid meal of turkey sandwiches, crumpets, trifle and Christmas cake, leaving everyone too full and sleepy to do much else.

Actually, crumpets originated in Wales as hard griddle cakes long before making their way into the British hearts. During the Victorian era, yeast was added to yield a soft, chewier dough and teatime would never be the same again.

Here in the US, we tend to lump crumpets and English muffins together, but in the British way of thinking, they couldn’t be more different. A crumpet is not a muffin.  Although they can both be cooked on a griddle, the English muffin is more bread-like; it is split, toasted, and served as two halves. The smaller thinner crumpet is heavier (even called rubbery by some) and typically served whole.

The crumpet’s claim to fame stems from interior holes that are formed during the cooking process. While hot, the little cakes are summarily smothered with butter and/or jam, which in turn drips down into the craters of the crumpet— creating the havoc that is so dearly loved.

Crumpets

To make this happen, crumpet batter is thinner than English muffin dough. After the initial yeast rise, either baking powder or baking soda is stirred into the batter to increase the formation of air bubbles.  While both tend to use rings to hold their shape, an English muffin is often a bit larger, but any size will do. I’ve come across stray rings and unopened boxes at local thrift stores. In a pinch,  5-oz tuna cans with tops and bottoms removed will also work.

Seeded Crumpets

As a savory alternative, try a few dressed up with seeds. I happen to have a handy jar of Trader Joe’s Everything but the Bagel Sesame Seasoning Blend.  Otherwise, a few sunflower seeds are delicious, or dust the tops with any or a combo of  white and black sesame seeds, nigella seeds, and poppy seeds.

Savory Seeded Crumpets

Crumpets

Ingredients
1⅓ cup AP flour
1 tsp instant yeast
¾ tsp sea salt
½ cup warm water
½ cup warm milk
½ tsp baking soda, 1 Tbsp warm water

1 Tbsp vegetable oil or spray
1 Tbsp Trader Joe’s Everything but the Bagel Sesame Seasoning Blend;  or sunflower seeds;  or a combo of a combo white & black sesame seeds, nigella seeds, & poppyseeds.
Finish: butter, marmalade or fig jam
Tools: 2 to 4  3-inch rings

Directions

  1. Heat milk and water to 12-130°. In 4 cup measure, combine flour, instant yeast and salt; Stir in the hot water and milk.  Combine all, then beat the batter with the spoon for 1 minute.  Cover and place in warm spot; let rise in warm spot until doubled and bubbly on top, approx. 1 hour.
  2. Stir the raised batter down. Combine the baking soda and water and thoroughly stir in. It should be loose and batter-like; thin with a little warm water if necessary. Completely oil the insides of the rings and the surface of a flat skillet or griddle.
  3. Heat the skillet to medium low, until a drop of water sizzles when dropped onto it. Add the rings to preheat. Spread @ 2 Tbsp batter into each, barely fill to ½” thickness; level out the batter to rise evenly using floured fingers. If using seeds, lightly sprinkle across tops now.
  4. Cook 7-8 minutes, until tops begin to blister and bubble and edges firm. Rotate the rings to cook and rise evenly. Remove the rings, cutting around edges with a thin knife; turn crumpets over and bake 3-4 minutes on second side, for a total of 10-12 minutes.
  5. Clean the rings, oil them and skillet again; repeat process until all batter is used. Cool on rack. Serve warm, spread with butter or jam. Can be reheated in toaster.  Makes 8 crumpets

If forks could talk

This morning I pulled my kitchen apart looking for a fork, a small insignificant fork of little value to anyone but me. I hadn’t thought about it for a while, and suddenly I needed to see it and feel it in my hands.

Oneida Enchantment

When I was in high school I collected an entire set of Oneida silverware with Betty Crocker coupons clipped from box tops and packages of General Mills products. I even saved appetizer forks and iced tea spoons. When I married, I considered this part of my dowry. We used the flatware regularly; it presided over family dinners and celebrations and even spent time in the picnic basket.

Most of the pieces have found new homes or gotten lost, but two appetizer forks remain. When I traveled with a chef’s bag, the forks always came along for backup service touches. They have had quite a life and contributed greatly to food outcomes. In my opinion, they make everything taste better, from shrimp cocktail to olives… and fresh fruit cups.

Fork with Fruit

I’ve been making lots of mixed fruit bowls lately. I like having a combination of fruit cut up, stashed in the fridge, and ready to eat. Once prepared, it’s on standby to go with morning cereal, for a mid-day snack, or in the evening as a refreshing dessert.

The secret to a good fruit bowl is fresh citrus; it seeps into the flesh of fruit pieces and brings them alive. Not only does it provide a bright punch of flavor, it adds moisture and helps keep fragile fruit from browning.

Mixed Fruit

For a well balanced mixture, use a variety of colors, flavors and textures. If more sweetness is required, add a handful of dried fruit such as figs, apricots, dates, or even crystallized ginger. When softened, they blend with the fruit liquid into a beautifully infused syrup.

Mixed Fruit Bowl

Ingredients
citrus: 1 orange or small grapefruit
1 apple and or pear
1 nectarine or other stone fruit
1 cup blueberries or other berries, sliced if large
½ cup dried fruit, figs, dates, apricots, prunes, crystallized ginger

Instructions

  1. Cut citrus into bite sized pieces, include any accumulated juices.
  2. Cut up remaining fruit, leaving skin on if not tough, trim away any core and seeds.
  3. Toss all and blend for at least 20 minutes. Will hold 2-3 days. Serve 3-4.

Delicious but not Devastating

Incorporating vegetables into desserts is an appealing way to slip more valuable nutrients into our daily food intake. Carrot and zucchini cakes are solutions, likely loaded with exorbitant amounts of oil and smeared with heavy-duty cream cheese toppings. Any natural benefits have been all but cancelled out.

Delicious but not devastating, that’s my goal. Trying to elevate the plight of vegetable desserts, here’s my latest take on zucchini cake. First, I’ve learned that steaming, rather than conventional baking, can introduce moisture and lower the need for massive doses of oil.

I zeroed in on two other ingredients of interest: chocolate and nuts.  I like the chocolate and zucchini combination—but chocolate easily overwhelms, and I’m not looking for another chocolate cake (probably one of few to so admit). Nuts add deep taste, complexity, and crunch. Then, it made perfect sense: why not keep it simple and go with cacao nibs?  They have all that, and more.

Roasted Cacao Nibs

There is a difference between regular chocolate and nibs. Typical chocolate bars come from cacao seeds, which are fermented, ground, and further processed. Cacao nibs are crumbled pieces from the exterior cacao bean shell, with a bitter chocolate punch and nutty texture. Nibs are rich in flavonoid antioxidants, minerals, and more; they contribute plenty of fiber—but nothing extreme as gnawing on wood.

I’ve included another duo that works well together: coriander and orange. Instead of the usual grated zest, I’ve gone with tiny nibs of minced orange peel (white removed) for a super-charged citrus flavor that’s offset by the exotic perfume of coriander. The backdrop for all of this comes from a huge surplus of green summer squash, rather than zucchini.

Zucchini Cake with Cacao & Orange Nibs

The cake steams in 35 minutes—literally from the inside out—it cooks thoroughly, thanks to the center hole in the bundt pan. You would never guess it had been steamed; once turned out of the pan and cooled, it appears browned and perfectly baked. The cake’s surprisingly light texture is speckled with flavorful flecks from the orange, green squash, and chocolate brown cacao nibs. It’s quite a party!


Update! The pressurized steaming process also softens the cacao nibs. As the cake rests, the nibs seem to bloom (stored in the fridge). Their nubby texture relaxes, and more complex chocolate qualities unfold.  Fascinating… and highly delicious.


Steamed Zucchini Cake with Cacao and Orange Nibs

Ingredients
1½ cups AP flour
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp each baking soda and salt
1 tsp coriander
2 eggs
⅓ cup vegetable oil
½ cup each granulated sugar and brown sugar
2 Tbsp plain yogurt
1 tsp vanilla extract
1½ cups grated zucchini or summer squash, skin on
2 tsp orange peel, white removed, sliver and chop well
⅓ cup roasted cacao nibs

Instructions

  1. Thinly coat 8” bundt pan with Baker’s or nonstick spray.
  2. Prepare Instant Pot or other multicooker: fill with 1½ cup water and insert trivet. Cut aluminum foil cover for pan and prepare sling for pan.
  3. Combine flour through spices together and set aside.
  4. In mixing bowl whisk eggs, then beat in the oil. Whisk in the sugar to fully combine, and then stir in the yogurt and vanilla. Add the zucchini.  Stir in the dry ingredients just to incorporate and finally add the cacao and orange nibs. Scrape batter into the bundt pan and level the surface.
  5. Begin heating multicooker, set to Sauté More. Add 1 ½ cup water and place the trivet in pot.
  6. Cover filled bundt pan with foil. Fold the other length of foil into a long sling. Wrap it under the pan, up the sides, over the top, and lower it into the pot.
  7. Seal pot with lid, reset to Hi Pressure for 35 minutes. When complete, turn off unit, disconnect and let rest undisturbed for 10 minutes. Slowly release remaining pressure and open the lid. Using the foil sling, carefully lift pan out of pot and onto a rack. Remove foil and cool for 10 minutes. With thin knife, loosen any edges adhering to pan and turn cake out to cool onto rack.  Makes 1 cake, serves 10.

Anytime Bagel

This really isn’t a recipe, it’s more a prompt for designing a Breakfast Bagel & Lox.  In its simplest form, you begin with a toasted bagel and smear it with a topping such as cream cheese, ricotta, even hummus; it’s crowned with a healthy portion of thin sliced smoked salmon—plus any other touches, such as capers, onion, & dill.

People have their preferences on smoked salmon. If you are from the east coast it’s probably Nova Scotian or Scandinavian cold smoked salmon. On the west coast, we are all over the board, with even hot smoked a consideration.  As far as I’m concerned it is all good, but I do love pristine Nova.

Creating your masterpiece, you could go two-sided and build up both bagel halves. I’m happy enjoying a really good onion bagel with the focus only on one side. That’s plenty, because I like adding an egg.

For the egg(s), lately I’ve taken to using an egg ring and either poaching or scrambling the egg. It’s good to butter the ring and the pan surface before dropping in the egg. Once it begins to set, add water to pan, cover with a lid, and steam until the white is set and yolk is pink and cooked to taste.

If you are a dyed-in-the-wool bagel lover, you know this is not just morning food. Rather, it falls into the breakfast-all-day category. It’s good anytime.

Breakfast Bagel & Lox

Ingredients
1 bagel, sliced in half
2 Tbsp or more cream cheese or fresh ricotta
1 sliced tomato
1-2 eggs, poached*, scrambled, or fried
1-2 ounces thin sliced smoked salmon
capers, red onion, fresh dill or other herbs, ground pepper, sliced tomato, radishes, fresh lemon

Instructions
Toast the bagel and spread both sides with cream cheese or ricotta.  Layer on slices of tomato and top with prepared egg*.
Drape with smoked salmon and add capers, red onions, fresh dill and sliced lemon. Serves 1 or more.
*For poached egg using egg ring, heat skillet to medium. Butter ring interior and pan surface. Drop egg into ring in pan and let it set briefly. Drizzle pan with a few tablespoons of water to create steam, cover with a lid 2-3 minutes, until white is set and yolk is pink, or cooked to taste.

Sweet Dreams

We all have our favorite places and cultures to visit. Mine has long been the northeastern corner of Spain, the mysterious Basque country and the Pyrenees Alps. It’s got the total package, a rugged coastline and breathtaking mountains, plus resourceful, resilient people with a world class cuisine.

Basque food has the unique ability to reach into the heart and linger there, and such is the case with the notorious Basque Gateau.  Popular versions of it crop up across the border in the Pays Basque region of France and down into the southern reaches of Spain.  It’s a simple pastry marked by crosshatches across the top and filled with either cherry jam or pastry cream. So, what’s the big deal?

People praise the cake’s holding powers and reverently speak of it as the item to take when traveling or visiting friends.  Admittedly, I’ve had my own visions of romantic adventures complete with this charming cake—safe in the knowledge it would sustain in any conditions.

I’ve considered making a Basque Custard Cake but have been put off by the complicated process and rich pastry. However, there is one recipe I have held onto for quite a while. It’s an interesting take from the French perspective by accomplished chef Michel Richard.  In my notes, he describes it endearingly as a “pastry cream encased in two cookie crusts; aka a weekend cake in France because it holds so well.”  Sweet.

The more I’ve studied Richard’s approach, the more I like it. For example, pastry cream often uses egg yolks with cornstarch for thickener because cornstarch does not not lump when added to hot liquid; however, it can break down with prolonged cooking.  Richard’s version opts for flour instead, which makes sense since this pastry cream cooks twice.  His should hold up very well and continue to maintain mass at room temperature or cold.

I’m impressed with Richard’s brilliant crust solution, too. Rather than a labor intense, buttery pastry, he elects to use the whites left from the custard.  He cleverly incorporates them into a light, resilient cookie/cake-like base. The first thin layer is baked just to set, the filling is added, remaining dough is spread on top and it is given a final bake.  Simple enough.

Basque Gateau

I decided to give it a try.  Here are a couple of notes:  I further simplified Richard’s custard by using double the vanilla extract, rather than soaking a vanilla bean (which I was missing) for an hour in hot milk.  It also makes twice as much as needed, but that’s fine; it came in handy.  I also dabbed a small amount of cherry jam on the baked bottom crust before the pastry cream. It appears that cookie/cake dough is quite scant.  However, it blends beautifully with the pastry cream and works out fine.

Basque Custard Cookie Cake

So, there you have it.  I will definitely make this Basque Custard Cake again. (Actually, I did make it again. It was easier the second time with remaining custard and refined method. I kept my fingers off of it and it was just as good the next day!)  The cherry and custard combo gives it real character, but you could use either.

I dare you to eat just one piece—evidently, I practically polished an entire cake by myself!

Basque Custard Cookie Cake

Inspired by Michel Richard, Baking from the Heart

Ingredients
Pastry Cream
2 cups milk
pinch salt
½ cup sugar,  divided
2 tsp vanilla extract, divided
4 large egg yolks, room temp
⅓ cup flour
1 Tbsp butter
Cookie Dough
4 Tbsp butter, softened
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
3 large egg whites, room temp
½ cup AP flour, plus 1 Tbsp
½ cup cherry jam, optional

Instructions

1. Make Pastry Cream
In 4 cup microwaveable measure, heat milk in microwave with salt, and ¼ cup sugar for 2-3 minutes to dissolve sugar, add vanilla extract.
In small mixing bowl, beat yolks and remaining ¼ cup sugar until thick and pale yellow, 2-3 minutes.  Mix in flour.  Gradually pour in the hot milk and whisk to incorporate.
Pour the mixture into a small pan, set over medium heat and continue whisking as it thickens to avoid lumps and curdling.  Reduce to medium low and cook 2-3 minutes, whisking to keep smooth and not curdle. Off heat stir in butter and remaining vanilla. Scrape into a bowl and cover top with film. Chill 2-3 hours until cold, up to 1 day ahead.  You should have enough for 2 cakes.

2. Make Dough
Preheat oven to 350-375°F. Thoroughly butter and flour 9″ tart or springform pan.
In mixing bowl beat butter, add sugar in 3-4 batches, beating well after each addition until light. Beat in egg whites one at a time, incorporating after each. Stir in flour to just combine and form a soft batter.

3. To Bake
Spoon enough batter to thinly cover bottom of pan, about ½ cup spread ⅛” thick.  Bake 10-12 minutes, until dough is firm to touch, and edges turn golden brown.
If using preserves, randomly dot spoonfuls onto crust spreading away from edges. Top with cold pastry cream, leaving ½” border at edge.
Carefully spoon remaining dough evenly over all, spreading to cover cream and fill in border edge.  Bake 25-35 minutes, rotating pan until golden brown.  Cool completely on wire rack.  Release cake from pan and slice into wedges.  For best flavor, allow to come to room temperature for 1 hour prior to serving.  Cover and chill for storage.   Serves 6-8

The Unplanned Blog

As I sit here on the cusp of a new decade, I’m staring at a blank screen reflecting on the past 10 years.  This blog was in its infancy 10 years ago, a mere experiment.  I considered it more of a journal where it could record my adventures in food and tinker with an alternate form of writing.

Early on, my goal was to post 4 blogs a month… and for the most part I’ve stayed true to that.  There have been times when I could not see the point and had nothing to say, but somehow I found something to write.  It regularly amazes me that we are still at it, 10 years later!

Isn’t that the whole point, though? Oftentimes we don’t have a real plan, we just begin. Then, something drives us; we keep going, and life unfolds in beautiful ways. Culinary Distractions, the unplanned blog, has allowed me the joy of casting my discoveries and words out into the world and releasing them.

I’ve been happy not monetizing and for the most part, remaining add-free. However, in the coming year I suspect there will be positive happenings and changes worth including here.

To all who visit this silly space, thank you for stopping. Thank you for your support and kind words.  They are never expected and pure frosting on the cake!

Here’s a sweet thank you and big New Year wishes.

Grape Clafoutis

Clafoutis is a favorite on this blog and the goofy grape idea has been rattling in my head for some time—it’s fun and really does work!

What a perfect time to share…  Happy New Year!

Grape Clafoutis  

Ingredients
butter for baking dish
3 cups seedless grapes, such as Scarlotta grapes
⅔ cup milk, warm
1 Tbsp butter
3 large eggs, room temperature
⅓ cup sugar
⅓ cup all purpose flour
¼ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp almond extract
½ tsp lemon zest
¼ cup almonds, slivers
1 Tbsp granulated sugar

Instructions

  1. Butter an oven proof shallow 9″ casserole dish, quiche dish, or pie plate.
  2. Warm the milk and the butter together. In a medium bowl, whisk eggs and sugar until frothy, sprinkle in flour, nutmeg, extract, zest, and whisk until smooth. Gradually add warm milk mixture, whisking until well combined. Let stand 30 minutes at room temperature.
  3. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350-375°F. Distribute the fruit evenly in the baking dish.  Pour the batter over the fruit. Scatter almonds on top and sprinkle with sugar. Bake for 40-45 minutes, until puffed and brown. Rotate dish as needed to brown evenly.
  4. Serve warm or room temperature. If desired dust with confectioners’ sugar; or add a spoonful of ice cream or sweetened whipped cream.  Cover and chill for storage.  Serves 6

Brunch Beauty

This holiday season I’ve gone crazy with fresh Homemade Ricotta.  Now that I have perfected the process, I’m looking for ways to use it and haven’t been disappointed with the range of spreads, dips and desserts that it delivers.

Here’s a brunch idea I’ve used for years and tweaked this Christmas.  It begins with a tasty and impressive French toast which can be cooked to order or made ahead for all to enjoy together.

French Toast Tower, Ricotta Cream, Berries

At its heart is a luscious Ricotta Cream, reminiscent of a cannoli filling, teamed up with plenty of fresh berries.  The scrumptious cream begins with a good quality ricotta cheese whisked with a bit of sugar or honey and flavored with fresh grated orange.

Despite its simplicity, the cream is incredibly versatile. You could include grated chocolate, pistachios or almonds, but they tend to get lost here.  Instead, add them on top with a flourish.

For bread, I’ve had surprising success with a bake-at-home sourdough batard sliced and soaked—without pre-baking. But any dense, day-old bread such as challah will work; one which absorbs and holds the soaking custard.  You’ll probably have extra dipping liquid, for more toast and taller towers…

Once all the bread is toasted a quick heat in the oven results in a lighter, crisper French toast. Let everyone personalize their toast with an assortment of toppings.

French Toast Tower with Ricotta Cream and Berries

Ingredients
8 slices ¾” thick, dense day-old bread
2 Tbsp melted butter
Soaking Custard
4 eggs
1 cups milk
1 Tbsp sugar
Pinch salt
½ tsp vanilla
Ricotta Cream (see below)
12-ounces strawberries or other berries, trimmed, sliced and sweetened with 2 Tbsp sugar
Toppings: chopped semisweet chocolate, or chopped toasted nuts;  ¼ cup confectioners’ sugar, honey or maple syrup

Instructions

  1. Ahead, make Ricotta Cream, slice and sweeten berries with sugar. Line 2 baking sheets with foil.  Preheat oven to 375°F.
  2. In a wide bowl for dipping, whisk the eggs with milk, sugar, and flavorings.  Lightly dip both sides of bread slices in the egg mixture and place on a baking sheet and repeat with all slices.
  3. Heat a wide flat skillet or griddle over medium heat and brush with butter. Place soaked bread onto hot surface and cook until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes.  Flip and brown the second side, 2 to 3 minutes longer.  Place on baking sheet, cover with foil and repeat. Prior to serving, place French toast in oven for 5-10 minutes, until heated and still moist.  Dust with confectioners’ sugar.
  4. To serve:  spread French toast with Ricotta Cream, top with fresh berries. Add another toast layer if desired, more berries, and dust with confectioners’ sugar, drizzle with syrup or honey.  Serves 4

Ricotta Cream
2 cups homemade or good quality ricotta cheese
4 Tbsp granulated or confectioners’ sugar
1 tsp vanilla or ¼ tsp almond extract
2 tsp grated orange zest, or ½ tsp cinnamon
3 Tbsp chopped semisweet chocolate, or chopped toasted nuts (optional)

Whisk the ricotta, sugar, vanilla, and orange zest to lighten. Adjust flavors.
Add or garnish with chocolate and/or nuts if using. Chill the cream for 2 hours or longer to set and blend flavors. Can be done a day ahead.  Yield: 2 cups

Just a Bite

Quail eggs aren’t something I have thought much about. Yes, they are cute, but so very small. In the past when debating such an idea I’ve moved on, figuring they were more trouble than they were worth.

This weekend at the Saturday Market I buckled.  So clean and colorful, the tiny eggs beckoned like shiny jewels, pulling me in from their counter top display.  Before I knew it, the friendly vendor had fully captured my attention with talk of cooking Eggs-in-a-Hole (or my favorite Egg-in-a Nest). As she packed up my eggs, she describes the quail’s shell and inner membrane as thicker than chicken eggs, and suggests tapping the shell with a sharp knife to crack it open, rather than wrapping it on a hard surface.

Later online I learn that quail eggs are far more nutritious than chicken eggs. They are packed with vitamins (B1, B2, A), good cholesterol, phosphorous, potassium, and minerals. A quail egg has only 14 calories… so tiny, so powerful.

This morning I revisited my childhood favorite Egg-in-a Nest (here), in its diminutive form. The bread of choice is a personal decision, but size matters. Lately my go-to bread has become the smallish Bake at Home Sourdough Batard which requires a quick bake in the oven to finish it. Rather than bake-off the loaf, I l prefer to cut as needed and toast off slices—also an ideal size for tiny nests. To create a round in the bread for the egg, I cut around the bottom of a toothpick holder, I’ve heard a shot glass will also work.

I cut into the egg shell with a sharp knife from the pointed end. Since there seems to be a larger ratio of yolk to egg, I start far enough down (about ¼ of the full length) to allow the entire yolk to escape the shell. Watch out for particles, since the shell tends to crumble.

It’s easier to spread the bread sides with butter before placing in the pan to toast. Once almost toasted on the first side, add a bit of butter in the center hole and drop in the egg. It will likely cook fully within a minute or two. Turn to the second side and cook about 30 seconds to set; the yolk cooks very quickly.

Tiny Egg in a Nest

The quail egg’s flavor is more robust than a chicken egg. Some call it gamey, which is an overstatement. It tastes the way you wish an egg would taste. Once you get going, it’s easy to whip up a batch of nests pretty fast. I see all sorts of possibilities with these cuties, not only for breakfast, but with salad or as a delightful snack. Not so fiddly after all, they are perfect when you are looking for just a bite.

Tiny Egg-in-a-Nest

Ingredients
per nest:
1 small slice of favorite bread, with the center cut out
1 quail egg
butter, softened
salt and pepper

Instructions

  1. Slice the bread ¼” thick and cut a small round from the center with a shot glass or similar form.
  2. To crack quail egg, quickly cut into the shell and membrane with a sharp knife. Empty the yolk and white into a small holding bowl.  Repeat with as many as needed.
  3. Using a small skillet over medium heat, butter the bread and round on both sides and place the two pieces in the skillet.  Move the bread a bit to coat the pan with butter where the egg will sit.  Allow the bread to toast, drop in a quail’s egg and let set.  Turn the bread with a spatula and cook to briefly to set the egg on second side.  Make sure the pan has a coating of butter where the egg will rest. Salt and pepper, and serve. Makes 1 nest.