Thursday, June 26, 2014

Hummingbird Cake


Ever since I first flipped through the pages of The Back in the Day Bakery Cookbook I was intrigued by the Hummingbird Cake. I had never heard of it before, but apparently it's a pretty traditional Southern cake and I can see why it's so popular.

The key components include banana, pineapple, and pecans with a luscious cream cheese frosting (is there anything more Southern?). Spiced with warm cinnamon, this layer cake is reminiscent of both banana bread and carrot cake.

If you like both, you will LOVE Hummingbird Cake. Between the sweet and tangy frosting and the crunch of the nuts, and even the tart bits of pineapple with are almost citrusy, there's a lot about this cake that reminds me of carrot cake (without all the tedious grating of the carrots of course).

Add a lot of mashed banana and you have a moist, decadent, sweet but not too sweet layer cake that is impressive enough for entertaining, and delicious enough for any family gathering. A halo of chopped pecans around the edges of the cake add a stunning touch that really makes this cake as beautiful on the outside as it is on the inside.

The original recipe calls for twice as much cream cheese frosting as what I feature here. Cream cheese frosting is one of my favorites, but it can definitely be on the sweet side. I felt that half the original recipe was plenty to fill and frost this cake. In all honestly, even my sweet tooth may not have been able to handle more. If you desire, feel free to double this frosting if you plan on being more indulgent with your frosting proportions.

My cakes barely domed so I didn't bother trimming them, just facing the slightly domed sides toward the inside so the bottom and top of the finished cake are both flat. If your cakes dome, definitely trim them to yield flat surfaces for a more elegantly finished cake.

Hummingbird Cake
Serves 10 to 12
(Adapted from The Back in the Day Bakery Cookbook)

3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground mace
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1 1/4 cups canola oil
3 large eggs
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 cups mashed very ripe bananas (about 5 large bananas)
1 (8-ounce) can crushed pineapple, drained
1 1/2 cups chopped pecans

Cream Cheese Frosting:
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, at room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 1/2 to 3 cups confectioners' sugar

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees F. Butter two 9-by-2-inch round cake pans, then line the bottoms with parchment and butter it as well. Lightly dust the pans with flour, tapping the pans on the counter to shake out the excess.

Sift together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, mace, and salt; set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat both sugars with the oil for 2 to 3 minutes, until smooth. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition, then mix for 2 minutes, or until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla, bananas, and pineapple, mixing until just combined. On low speed, add the flour mixture in thirds, beating until combined; scrape down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Fold in 1/2 cup of the pecans.

Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans and smooth the tops with a spatula. Tap the pans firmly on the countertop to remove any air bubbles from the batter. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until a cake tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Let the cakes cool for 15 minutes, then remove the layers from the pans and cool completely on a wire rack.

To make the frosting: in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter, cream cheese, and vanilla until smooth and creamy, 3 to 5 minutes. Gradually add the confectioners' sugar, beating until light and fluffy, 5 to 7 minutes. The frosting can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 days.

To assemble the cake: if the cakes have domed significantly, level the tops of the layers with a serrated knife so they are flat. If they haven't really domed, leave them as they are and make sure the flattest sides are on the bottom and top of the assembled cake with the actual "tops" of the cakes facing the filling. Place one layer flat side down on a serving plate. Using an offset spatula or butter knife, spread the top of the layer with a dollop of frosting. Place the second cake layer on top, flat side up, and frost the top and sides with the remaining frosting. Decorate the sides of the cake with the remaining 1 cup pecans. The cake can be stored wrapped in plastic wrap in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Serve at room temperature.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Put 'Em Up! Preserving Answer Book


Last year, I had the pleasure of reviewing Sherri Brooks Vinton's Put 'Em Up! Fruit. After a day of blueberry picking with my nephews, I also whipped together the most perfect blueberry jam from that same cookbook. I'm sold on Vinton's talents when it comes to preserving and canning and was pleased to find a copy of her newest book Put 'Em Up! Preserving Answer Book in the mail recently for me to review.

The book isn't exactly a cookbook (it only includes 17 recipes), but what it lacks in recipes it makes up for with useful tips for all manners of food preservation, from freezing to canning to drying and more. The book is very useful for any novice in the field, because it really does address all concerns when it comes to food preservation. Would it be as useful to an advanced canner? I'm not sure since I myself am not advanced in this department.

I like knowing that I can reference this book as needed the next time I have questions. The book even includes a handy chart on page 147 for various ingredients and how long they can be safely frozen. I'm shocked to learn that I can freeze certain items longer than I expected.

As someone who has intentions to learn more about canning, experimenting with more recipes throughout the year, especially when I'm faced with a surplus of fresh ingredients, I think this is a great guide to add to my bookshelf. I won't be turning to it nearly as much as some of my other cooking references, but it won't stray very far, especially in the summer when fresh fruits are abundant!

Today I will be sharing a couple excerpts from the book addressing some common concerns. The first is regarding replacement sweeteners. I actually had someone recently leave a comment on one of my fruit preserve recipes asking about substituting honey. I know cutting back on sugar is often a concern, so I definitely wanted to include this particular question from the book.

The second excerpt I've included is regarding a problem I've personally had in the past, where my fruit essentially floated to the top of the jar and wasn't evenly distributed once I processed the jars. There are TONS of great tips throughout the book for anyone interested in preserving foods and it's definitely worth checking out if you plan on canning, freezing, drying, fermenting, making infusions, and more.

Q: Can I use other sweeteners besides white sugar?

A: Yes and no. Some home preservation processes, such as making classic jams and jellies, require sugar to get a good set. Without sugar, you won't get the proper jelled consistency.

Sugar also acts to preserve texture and color, so canned items made without it or with reduced amounts may dull in color or become too soft to be considered successful. This applies to sweet spreads and pickles as well.

That being said, eaters who prefer to limit their sugar intake often find the trade-off worthwhile and are willing to step away from what many would consider "perfect jam" if it means they can enjoy more of it. For such eaters, quick jams that use commercial pectin are the answer. Low-methoxyl (LM) pectin, which relies on calcium to gel rather than sugar, can be used in low-or even no-sugar spreads. You can also use alternative sweeteners such as stevia, agave syrup, and honey with this kind of pectin.

Artificial sweetneners, such as aspartame and sucralose, often take on a bitter flavor when cooked and are not recommended.

Q: How can I keep my jam from separating into fruit on the top and clear jelly on the bottom?

A: You are experiencing the dreaded "fruit float." It occurs when the air present in the cell walls of the produce hasn't cooked out because the food has been lightly cooked or not cooked at all. This trapped air causes the fruit to bob to the top of the canning jars during processing. Fruit float often settles over time in whole fruits but is very noticeable in jams, where the gelled texture prevents the fruit from redistributing over time. Here are a few ways to avoid it in your spreads:

- Cutting or mashing fruit or cooking it for an extended period of time is a good way to minimize fruit float. The mechanical process physically breaks the cell walls of the fruit, releasing the air that is trapped in them.

- Avoid overripe fruit, which tends to float more than just-right fruit.

- It is also most beneficial to cool your jam, just slightly, before ladling it into your jars; this gives the jam a chance to thicken to a point that will better suspend the fruit. Giving your jam a good stir for 5 minutes after you take it off the heat ought to do it.

- If you still have fruit float, you can flip your jars temporarily to give the fruit a chance to redistribute before the preserves set into their gelled texture. Wait until the seals have begun to form but the jam is still warm in the jars--1 1/2 to 2 hours after you remove them from the boiling water--and then invert them until cooled. Return the jars to their upright position for long term storage.

*Disclaimer* I received no compensation to write this review other than a free copy of the book. My opinions are always my own.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Strange Flavor (Bang Bang) Chicken


I'm going to be honest. The real reason I wanted to try making this dish is because of its awesome name: Strange Flavor Chicken. It's alternatively called Bang Bang Chicken, also a super awesome name. As if the amusing names for this Sichuanese dish weren't reason enough, I was very intrigued by the flavor profile of this dish. The "strange flavor" aspect refers to the combination of salty, sweet, sour, nutty, hot, and numbing flavors.

I really wasn't sure what to expect, but upon tasting the sauce for dressing this cold chicken dish, I would have to agree that it really embodies all of those flavors, perhaps with "nutty" being the standout from the assertive sesame paste.

I can see why they call it Strange Flavor because I did find it to taste somewhat peculiar, in a good way. It took a few bites before I could really wrap my head around the contrasting yet balanced flavors in the sauce. I actually used store-bought rotisserie chicken which I shred up instead of cooking the chicken myself, which made for a much faster preparation.

I also love the way the julienned scallions curl once freshened up in some cold water. It makes for a really pretty presentation! This truly unique Sichuanese dish is a lovely component to any authentic Chinese meal. It's also a great idea for using up leftover roast or boiled chicken by dressing it up with this intense sauce.

Strange Flavor Chicken (aka Bang Bang Chicken)
Serves 4 as an appetizer
(From Land of Plenty)

1 pound cooked chicken meat, cooled
6 to 8 scallions, white parts only
1 tablespoon white sugar
Salt to taste
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
1 tablespoon Chinkiang or black Chinese vinegar
3 tablespoons well-blended Chinese sesame paste
1 tablespoon sesame oil
2 tablespoons chili oil with chile flakes (see recipe)
1/2 to 1 teaspoon ground roasted Sichuan pepper
3 teaspoons toasted sesame seeds

Cut the chicken, with any remaining skin, into slivers about 1/2 inch wide (if you want to be really authentic, hit it a few times with a rolling pin to loosen the fibers and then tear the flesh into shreds by hand).

Cut the scallions into sections and then slice these lengthwise into fine slivers. Put them into a bowl of cold water to refresh.

Stir the sugar and salt in the soy sauce and vinegar until dissolved. Gradually stir in the sesame paste to make a smooth sauce. Add the other ingredients except the sesame seeds and mix well.

Shortly before serving, drain the scallions and pile them neatly in the center of your serving dish. Lay the chicken slivers on top of them. Pour over the prepared sauce.

At the last minute, sprinkle with the sesame seeds.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Disney Cruise Line: Palo Brunch


This will be my fourth and final post on Mission: Food regarding my recent Disney cruise (but stay tuned because I have a couple that will be featured on the DisneyFoodBlog)! Today I will be discussing brunch at Palo, the adults-only Italian restaurant which can be found on all four Disney Cruise Line ships.

Inspired by the city of Venice, Palo has one of the most beautiful blown glass chandeliers I've ever seen. Ironwork and Italian paintings make up a big part of the decor in this lovely space. It's definitely more upscale in terms of service and food than the rotational dining rooms.

Palo features brunch on all sea days and dinner every night, each for an additional fee of $25 per person. Way back on our very first Disney cruise, we tried both brunch and dinner and both are excellent options. On the most recent couple of cruises we opted for brunch. A complimentary glass of Prosecco or a mimosa is included with the meal.

The highlight of brunch at Palo is the cold buffet. There are multiple stations set up with a variety of cold dishes such as shrimp cocktail, king crab legs, virgin bloody mary shooters with shrimp, smoked salmon, caviar, prosciutto and other charcuterie, a variety of cheeses, breads, and pastries and so much more. Here are some photos from the cold buffet as well as some of my personal choices :)

My first round of choices! Some crostini, prosciutto-wrapped asparagus, caprese salad, caviar, eggplant parmesan, smoked salmon, scallop, tuna, and bloody mary shooter with shrimp

And from another angle...

My second round of choices also include prosciutto with melon, olive bread, blue cheese and walnut bread, and a selection of cheeses

There is also a station showcasing the hot, made-to-order options which you can order from your server. They range from breakfast dishes to lunch dishes as well as including a variety of pizzas.

We decided to try a whole bunch of these and share. I have some favorites from past cruises (some of these menu items haven't changed in years), and I'm happy to say the dishes are just as delicious as I remember.

Spicy Italian Sausage Pizza - overall the pizzas are very good, but I felt the crust was a bit on the soft side and could have been cooked a bit longer to get some more flavor and texture

Blue Cheese and Grape Pizza - this also features a port wine reduction... super tasty, but once again, just a bit undercooked in my opinion

Chicken Parmesan - served over risotto, this is a small but delicious serving of a classic Italian dish

Beef Tenderloin - I didn't get to try this, but both of my parents did and they thought it was tender and delicious

Mozzarella in Carozza - basically this is breaded fried mozzarella, but it's way better than any mozzarella sticks you've ever had!

Lasagna Bolognese - perfectly seasoned, delicious meat sauce, nice and cheesy, definitely no disappointment here!

Oysters Rockefeller - another classic dish, not Italian but perfect for brunch... nice and briny oysters with spinach and a rich Hollandaise

After polishing up our huge array of hot dishes (assuming there's still room), there is another display of bite-sized desserts for your dining pleasure. Trust me, it's worth saving room to at least try a few tastes. I can never resist the tiramisu, but our favorites on this trip include the cherry tart with meringue and the chocolate creme pot! YUM!!


Lattes are an extra charge, but they are delicious and served stylishly in large martini glasses!

What more can I say about brunch at Palo? There's definitely something for everyone here, from the fantastic array of cold items in the buffet to the hot, made-to-order dishes that span from breakfast to lunch with both Italian-inspired dishes and classic brunch options. The desserts will hit the spot for any sweet tooth whether you want something fruity, chocolaty, or somewhere in between. Although there's an extra $25 charge, the quality and quantity of the food is absolutely worth it, the service is top notch, and the meal comes with a glass of bubbly! That's a win win situation ;-)

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Easy Cheese Borek


Borek is a staple in any Armenian household. The terminology is Turkish in nature, but I've never met an Armenian who hasn't enjoyed borek in some shape or form. Even Georgians have their own version which is called khachapuri (it's shaped a bit differently too).

Basically, everyone in the Caucasus area has their version of a cheese turnover, sometimes stuffed with different fillings. A fried Russian version I personally love as well is called Pirozhki (and also features various fillings--I'm a fan of the ground meat and mashed potato varieties more so than the cheese).

Every family has their own version of making this pastries. For borek in particular, some people use phyllo dough, but puff pastry is a common and much easier alternative. My mom has mastered the art of borek-making, and I always look forward to family gatherings where she whips these up. They are so easy to make, and are truly a perfect last minute appetizer or snack, especially if you have a stash of puff pastry in your freezer at any time.

I prefer Bulgarian feta for all my feta needs, but you can use any feta cheese for these boreks. You can also include some finely chopped parsley or dill (I don't care for dill so that's never an option I go for) to add a bit of color and flavor to the filling, but otherwise these babies require minimum ingredients.

We usually make larger boreks (nine per puff pastry sheet), but I recently assembled some mini boreks to take to game night at a friend's house. Not only were the boreks cuter and easier to snack on, but they browned up beautifully and were super crispy. I used some Trader Joe's brand puff pastry this time, which I actually think I prefer to Pepperidge Farm, but use whatever you can get your hands on.

Easy Cheese Borek
Makes 18 (or 32 mini boreks)

1 (16-to-17.3 oz) package puff pastry (contains 2 sheets, folded into thirds or rolled--depending on brand)
1 3/4 to 2 cups crumbled Bulgarian feta cheese*
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley (optional)
1 egg, beaten

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

Thaw the puff pastry and unfold/unroll it. Cut it along the folds (if folded) into three strips. If making mini boreks, cut into four strips. If using Pepperidge Farm brand puff pastry, it may be a little thicker than other brands (such as Trader Joe's, which is thinner). In that case, gently roll each piece lengthwise on a lightly floured surface until it is about 10 to 11 inches in length. Then cut each long rectangle into three squares. If making mini boreks, cut each strip into 4 squares. Each puff pastry sheet will result in 9 large squares or 16 smaller ones.

If using parsley, mix it into the feta cheese. Place a heaping tablespoon of feta cheese into the center of each square, packing it together (use a bit less for mini boreks). Fold the squares into either triangles or rectangles depending on your preference. Press the edges together with your fingers and then the tines of a fork to seal them well (they should seal easily, but if they do not, feel free to brush egg wash along the edge before pressing the dough together).

Place the boreks on the parchment-lined baking sheets and brush the tops with the beaten egg. Bake for about 18 to 20 minutes, switching the pans from top to bottom halfway through, until the tops are golden brown. Allow the boreks to cool slightly and serve either warm or at room temperature. The boreks are freshest served the day they are baked, but if necessary store leftovers in a sealed container at room temperature.

*If using a more firm Greek feta, grate the cheese on a box grater instead of crumbling it (the Bulgarian feta is too soft to grate, it will simply fall apart).

**To make meat borek, replace the cheese with an equal amount of gheyma. If making both types at once, fold one into triangles and the other into rectangles to differentiate.


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