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.

Cornbread worth eating

Back making more soups and stews with cooler weather, I baked my favorite cornbread recently and was reminded how much I appreciate it.

In my opinion, cornbread tends to be either dry and crumbly or overly sweet. Well, maybe that doesn’t matter so much if it’s just an add-on for chili and such… Thank you, I’ll just have a bite and move on. But then, why bother at all?

Most cornbreads are designed as quick breads where dry and liquid are all mixed together and then immediately popped into the oven with ease in mind.  What makes this cornbread unique is that it begins more like a traditional cake batter. The butter and sugar are first creamed together, then the liquid is stirred in followed by the dry ingredients.

It makes a difference.  Yes, this cornbread has a moderate amount of sugar in it, but it aids in the structure of the loaf and enhances its corn flavor. I usually make this in an 8×8” or double it for a 9×13” pan. Baking it as a loaf was a switch, it rose evenly and baked beautifully. Even better I was delighted with how thinly it would slice.

This loaf truly is pure gold; it does not need to be relegated to a chili side. It stands on its own.  It goes with just about anything, but is particularly good with eggs, salads, stews and soup—anyplace a well-constructed bread is wanted.

Golden Cornbread

Ingredients
¼ cup unsalted butter, room temperature
½ cup granulated sugar
1 egg
2 Tbsp plain yogurt
1 cup milk or water
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1 cup all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 375° F.  Spray a 5×8″ loaf pan with bakers spray.
  2. Sift the flour, baking powder, soda, and salt and set aside.
  3. In a medium mixing bowl, beat the butter to soften and slowly beat in the sugar until creamy.  Add the egg and beat well. Beat in the yogurt and milk, then the cornmeal.
  4. Add the dry ingredients to the cornmeal mixture and stir until just blended. Transfer batter to pan.
  5. Bake until golden brown and tester comes out clean, 30-35 minutes. Cool on rack.
  6. Serve warm or room temperature.  Can be prepared a day ahead.  Cool complete.  Cover with foil and store at room temperature. Makes one loaf.

Without a trace

A couple of weeks ago I pulled a dish out of the freezer marked Spinach Torta, 5 pieces, with no date listed.  It was really good; well browned layers of spinach in a creamy base interspersed with pieces of thickly grated cheese.

It’s a mystery. I have found no backup, and I am pretty good at leaving a trail when it comes to recipes.  Even when I’m tinkering, I jot down a note for follow up. Either I was in a huge hurry or thought it wouldn’t matter, the question has remained with me, “How did I make that?”

I keep coming up with possibilities and theories… and here’s my latest bright idea.

Although I suspect I used fresh spinach, I opt for a carton of frozen chopped spinach. Right away, we know it will be different. We know that in working with spinach it’s all about eliminating the inherent moisture.  Once frozen spinach is defrosted, it’s simply a matter of squeezing this mass very well.

I also know that I would not be making a quiche, since I prefer something more solid.  I opt for a base similar to a Greek spinach filling with ricotta, plus a bit of bread crumbs for added moisture control and binder. The custard has more structure; reminiscent of clafoutis, it includes milk, egg, and a bit of flour.

Spinach Torta

So, there you have it.  This baby is not going anywhere, it has plenty of flavor and holds together beautifully.  Don’t be surprised when another version shows here, since that will likely happen again!

Spinach Torta

Ingredients
½ cup all-purpose flour
¾ tsp salt, divided
½ tsp nutmeg
5 eggs, beaten
⅔ cup milk
10-ounce frozen chopped spinach, thaw, drain, squeeze dry
1 green onion chopped and/or 1 clove garlic, mash & minced
⅔ cup ricotta
3 Tbsp Parmesan, grated
2 Tbsp bread crumbs
½ cup grated cheese, pepper jack, muenster or mozzarella

Instructions

  1. Spread a pie plate or quiche dish with non-stick spray.
  2. In a mixing bowl, combine the flour, ¼ tsp salt, and nutmeg.  Add the beaten eggs and incorporate the flour into the eggs with a fork. Then, stir in the milk and whisk until smooth. Let stand 20 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 375° F.
  4. In a medium bowl, combine spinach, green onion, ½ tsp salt, ricotta, and Parmesan.
  5. Stir the bread crumbs into spinach mixture. Whisk the batter down and add it to the spinach in thirds, stirring well after each addition. Pour the mixture into the baking dish and bake until it begins to set, rotating once, for about 30 minutes.  Sprinkle with ½ cup grated cheese and bake 10-15 minutes longer until puffed.  Serves 4 or more.

Painless Polenta

I just had to stop and pass on this memorable method for cooking polenta.  Finally, the nightmares are over: no more burbling projectiles of searing polenta. With no effort—and no pain—creamy, smooth polenta is ready in 30 minutes.

In cooking your polenta, it’s important to select the right type. There are instant polentas that cook up in a flash, for which this whole episode is likely a waste of your time. Coarser grains, such as authentic polenta, stone-ground cornmeal, or grits require a longer cooking time. That is what we are interested in here, we want the more traditional style for rich flavor and divine mouth-feel.

And, there is no sticking or burning polenta, either…

This may sound like an infomercial, but I have nothing to gain but good food. The secret is in the multi-cooker and the trick is to use a bit more water than usual. Bring it all to a simmer, stir in the salt and polenta, then seal the lid and bring it to pressure. Let it burble away undisturbed for 20 minutes. Once complete, allow the pressure to release naturally (about 10 minutes). In this magical time, the polenta settles down, expands, and blooms. Carefully remove the lid, bring it all together with a wooden spoon and whisk in a little butter and grated cheese.

Now, you are free to do with it what you will. This polenta is good enough to enjoy without a lot of fuss, but the options are endless.

Spoon it loosely mounded into a bowl porridge-style topped with cheese, or with your favorite mushroom topping or tomato sauce.

Polenta thickens as it sits, so you can pour it into a flat pan or dish to firm up and cut into shapes later.

Make crostini type bites or cut into fingers for dipping. Or, form into cakes for a future side. It’s all good!

Creamy Polenta

Ingredients
5 cups water
1 tsp salt
1 cup coarse polenta
2 Tbsp butter
¼ cup grated Parmesan

Instructions

  1. Place salted water in liner of Instant Pot or other multi-cooker. Set to Hi Saute or equivalent and bring to a simmer. Whisk in polenta to dissolve any potential lumps.
  2. Seal lid, set to HI Pressure for 20 minutes.  When complete, turn off unit and disconnect. Let stand 10 minutes, then slowly release pressure.  Before opening, tap or shift pot to remove pockets of heat that may have formed in the polenta.  Carefully open and stir down with long wooden spoon.
  3. Whisk the butter and cheese into the polenta to incorporate and make smooth.
  4. Serve in spoonfuls, or pour onto oiled or plastic lined baking sheet, chill and let set. Cut into shapes and reheat in 375°F oven, or in a skillet over medium high with a coating of butter or oil until heated and toasted on each side.  Serves 4 or more.

Bread-and-Breakfast Special

My Friday pizza routine took a turn last night, it became more of a Saturday morning pizza. It was another affirmation that pizza is good anytime, even with an egg on it.

Pizza with Baked Eggs, fresh out of oven

I’m calling this my Bread-and-Breakfast special because it’s ham and cheese on fabulous pizza crust with as many eggs piled on as you wish.

Of course, the saddest part of this was that it was so good, there was none left for breakfast today.  But that can be remedied, since our standby pizza dough recipe (here) makes 2 medium pizzas or 1 large. It also works well because of the prebake process I’ve built into it. With the crust partially baked ahead, it’s a matter of adding toppings and giving it a final bake.

In this case, I wanted a thicker crust rather than the thinner style I usually prefer.  One that would hold a bit of an indentation for each egg to rest in, and soak up some of that eggy goodness. Since this dough is made with instant yeast, it requires little kneading and it rises in a flash. It takes little extra time to roll or pat it into the pan, spread on a little olive oil and let it rise for an extra 15 minutes.

While that was happening, I organized my toppings and began to preheat the oven to 450°F.  For the first bake that sets the dough, I made indentations in it for the eggs, scattered on strips of Canadian bacon tossed with red pepper flakes, and let it bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until it began to color slightly.

For the final bake I spread the cheese blend across the crust, then dropped the eggs in place with a little salt and pepper and more cheese.  I sprinkled herbs across it all and drizzled on a bit more olive oil.  Into the oven it went for another 8 to 10 minutes, until the cheese was bubbly,  egg whites were set, yolks runny, and the crust golden brown.

I learned the eggs continue to cook and set up once out of the oven.  The ham is a nice touch, but can be omitted for a simple cheese pizza. Or, swap it out with mushrooms, prosciutto, peppers, or whatever.

Ham & Cheese Pizza with Baked Eggs

Ingredients
1/2 recipe Pizza Dough
1-2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
3 thin slices Canadian bacon, sliced into strips (optional)
½ cup shredded mozzarella or Muenster cheese
¼ cup shredded Parmesan cheese
2-4 eggs
Sea salt and ground pepper
1/2 tsp herbes de Provence, Italian seasoning, or fresh thyme
To finish: 2 green onions, sliced

Instructions

  1. Using fresh dough, roll out to fit a well-oiled medium pizza pan, brush lightly with olive oil. Let it rest 15 minutes while preparing other ingredients.
  2. Preheat oven to 450° F.  Make an indentation in dough for each egg.  Scatter ham on top, and prebake the crust for 8-10 minutes, until set, firm and beginning to color slightly.
  3. If using prebaked crust proceed from here.
  4. Combine and sprinkle all but 1/4 cup cheese over crust. Drop eggs onto crust, sprinkle with salt and pepper and remaining cheese. Season all with herbs and drizzle more oil across the top. Bake 8-10 minutes, until cheese is bubbly, egg whites are set, yolk are set but runny and crust is golden brown.  Let stand briefly, scatter with sliced green onions and slice.  Makes 1 medium pizza.