What goes around comes around: classic carrot cake with cream cheese icing

'Life is just what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.' Or so the song goes. I thought, to help people (and myself) with New Year’s resolutions, I would make January healthy soup month.

But birthdays happen. When my friend Yelena asked me to help her celebrate her husband’s birthday I asked her, “What’s his favorite cake? “

“Well,” she replied, “I usually buy him a carrot cake from the grocery store, and he likes that.”

Whoa! Throw down the gauntlet! A store-bought cake for a birthday! Not while I live and breathe and have an oven.

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Warning: I’m winding myself up with a story here that may go in tangential directions, so skip to the recipe if that’s what you came for.

Yelena and her husband are part of a small meditation group that meets every week at our house. And it just so happens that carrot cake, a child of the seventies like me, was on the menu of the restaurant where I worked at the time. The restaurant was affiliated with an ashram near Woodstock, New York. That’s where I lived and worked and where all this meditation business started. In fact, our little group today is a direct descendant of it. So even though Yelena and Arkady were still living in Russia when I made this cake every day, it felt quite fitting to celebrate the occasion of Arkady’s birthday with it.

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Making it brought back memories of a time and place: How I learned to cook on the fly for total strangers who were willing to pay for it (!) How I cried every night with exhaustion on the two-minute drive home from work in the deep dark of mountain night. How living in what was essentially a monastery with twelve-hour work days has shaped my life. How I am a nature girl at heart though I now live in the city. How I miss the country, especially the quiet in the winter and the hush of pure snow.

Sometimes I lie on my back and look at the winter sky. It is twelve degrees out as I write this. The view is as close as I will come to a country feeling without taking half an hour to dress for it and another half hour to get there.

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Making this cake reminded me of some of the roads I have traveled and where I might go next: My evolution in the restaurant kitchen with a wonderful chef/mentor who lived down the road from the ashram. A painful chapter when I moved to Indiana to another ashram after my teacher died and how I wrenched myself away from an unhealthy and unhappy situation. The quirkiness of fate, which turned around, curtsied and gifted me a life partner.  A tear-filled journey to parenthood that resulted in the adoption of a beautiful boy who is now in college and blessed me with the best gift a mother could have hoped to receive. Ever. Once again, the road forks in the present, as I contemplate another chapter: I am excited at the prospects of what I could do next, but right now, I have no idea exactly what that might be.

All that. From a cake.

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Classic carrot cake with cream cheese icing

Carrot cake purportedly emerged in Britain as a creative solution to rationing (hence the oil). Somehow it caught on in the United States in the seventies, and you will find dozens of recipes for it, all pretty much the same. I’m not sure where ours came from, but I think it was from a girl called Maureen who knew what to do with a cake. The olive oil in the recipe supplies moistness and acts differently from butter in a cake. Butter, when it is beaten with sugar, forms tiny air bubbles that expand with leavening. With no air bubbles from oil, you need a little more leavening. The technical sciency explanation is that oil coats the flour proteins and reduces gluten formation, which makes the cake tender.

Makes 1 8-inch layer cake

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1 3/4 cups sugar

1 cup neutral-tasting olive oil 

4 eggs

Finely grated zest of 1 orange

3 cups grated, raw carrots

1 cup chopped pecans, toasted

3/4 cup raisins

Whole pecans for garnish

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter two 8-inch round cake pans and coat them with flour, tapping out the excess. Line the bottom of the pans with circles of parchment paper.(Or butter a 9 by 13-inch baking pan and bake for 40 to 45 minutes. Ice (or not) and cut in squares.)

2. Whisk the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, baking soda, salt and cloves together in a bowl.

3. Whisk the sugar and olive oil together in a large mixing bowl. Whisk in the eggs and orange zest. Stir in the dry ingredients with a rubber spatula and mix gently until evenly blended. Stir in the carrots, pecans and raisins and mix well. Divide the batter between the prepared pans and bake for 45 to 50 minutes, until a toothpick poked into the center of the cake emerges clean.

4. Allow the cakes to cool for 10 minutes in the pan. Turn them out on a rack, peel off the paper and leave until completely cool before icing.

Cream cheese icing

12 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature

3 ounces (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

3 cups confectioner’s sugar, sifted if lumpy

Pinch of salt

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1. Use hand-held electric beaters, the paddle attachment of a stand mixer, or a wooden spoon to beat the cream cheese and butter until smooth and creamy in a large mixing bowl. Add the confectioner’s sugar and vanilla and beat until smooth and creamy.

To finish the cake

1. Place one cake layer upside down on a large serving plate. Place four 2-inch wide strips of waxed paper under and around the edge of the cake (to keep the plate clean.) Brush away any loose crumbs. Spread about 1/3 cup of icing over the top of the cake and place the second cake layer, right side up, on top of it. Cover the top of the cake with more icing; then cover the sides. Decorate with whole pecans. Remove strips.

How to toast nuts: Heat the oven to 350 degrees and spread the nuts in one layer on a baking sheet. Toast for 5 to 7 minutes, until fragrant.

You might also like Carrot cake with coconut, walnuts and pineapple   (Simply Recipes)

Carrot cake with whole wheat and bananas   (101 Cookbooks)

Posted on January 22, 2011 and filed under Cakes.

Mexico Camp Part II: Chicken Chilaquiles Recipe

There was little in the way of gifts to take home from my Mexican adventure, but Man of the House was happy with a bottle of tequila and some Mexican-inspired food. 

Casserole Style Chicken Chilaquiles Recipe

Mexican cooks are ingenious when it comes to creating something wonderful out of leftovers. Chilaquiles, in its many forms, is a dish invented for using up stale tortillas. Fry them and stir them with a bit of last night’s sauce, add some shredded meat or cheese or beans, and you will be rewarded with a breakfast feast (eggs optional.) The photo below is the stir-up kind of chilaquiles from Grand Velas, more typical than the recipe I am offering, However, what is lost in translation is gained in its make-ahead capability, and it has fantastic pot-luck potential.

To make chilaquiles without the requisite leftover tidbits would require more work (frying tortillas, making sauce, and cooking chicken) than you or I would be willing to devote to a weeknight meal. If you have some leftover roast chicken, you can put together this casserole version (a bit like Mexican-style lasagna with tortillas) in about 25 minutes, plus another 35 minutes hands-free time while it bakes in the oven. Even so, you may want to try it on a weekend to allow extra time if you are not familiar with the ingredients.

A big shortcut in this version is the use of unsalted corn tortilla chips. You won’t miss the frying nor will your waistline. So pick your battles: make the sauce from scratch. Once that is done, assemble and bake the chilaquiles. You will use the quirky (to us) Mexican technique of pureeing all the sauce ingredients before cooking, instead of sautéing onions first and layering the flavors in stages. This also makes chopping perfunctory since it all will be mashed up in the end. I often make the chilaquiles in two small baking dishes, and tuck one in the freezer for a future meal. (Freeze before baking, then take from freezer to oven, and bake a bit longer, covered loosely with foil if it browns too fast, at a lower temperature—350 degrees F.)

TOMATILLO SAUCE (makes about 4 cups)

2 to 3 large fresh poblano chiles, depending on the hotness of the chiles (*see note below)

2 pounds tomatillos

1/2 medium onion, coarsely chopped

2 large cloves garlic, sliced

1/2 cup loosely packed cilantro leaves

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 cup chicken broth or water

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1. Line a broiler pan or baking sheet with foil for easy cleanup and set a rack about 4 inches from the broiling element. Heat the broiler.

2. Halve the chiles lengthwise, remove the seeds and place them on the broiler pan with the cut sides down. Broil until the skins start to blister and blacken, 3 to 5 minutes. Put the broiled chiles in a bowl, cover with a plate and let them steam until cool enough to handle, about 5 minutes. Peel off the skins as well as you can. Don’t try to wash off the stubborn bits-they give the sauce flavor and character. If you must, rinse your hands, not the chiles.

3. Meanwhile, pull the husks off the tomatillos and rinse them in cold water. Quarter them and toss them into a blender jar. Add the onions, garlic, cilantro leaves, salt, chicken broth or water and broiled, peeled chiles. Puree until smooth.

4. Heat the oil in a 2-quart or larger saucepan over medium heat until it shimmers and add the sauce. Simmer, stirring often, for about 5 minutes to allow the flavors to meld. Taste and adjust the salt. If the sauce is thick, thin it with more water or broth so that is it is the consistency of light cream.

CHILAQUILES CASSEROLE (Serves 6)

About 4 cups Tomatillo Sauce (see above)

3/4 pound UNSALTED, good quality corn tortilla chips

About 2 cups cooked and shredded chicken

8 ounces queso fresco or farmer's cheese, crumbled

1 cup shredded Monterey jack cheese, about 3 1/2 ounces

Optional garnishes: (choose several or all): Sliced avocado, sliced radishes, chopped red onion, cilantro sprigs, red onion slices and crème frâiche, or sour cream.

1. Preheat the oven to 375°F.

2. Spread about 1/2 cup of sauce over the bottom of a 9 X 13-inch baking dish. Spread half the tortilla chips over the sauce. Distribute the chicken over the top followed by the farmer’s cheese. Pour slightly less than half of the remaining sauce over the baking dish.

3. Spread the remaining tortilla chips in the baking dish. Cover with the remaining sauce. Sprinkle the grated cheese evenly over the top. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until the cheese is melted and golden and the casserole is heated all the way through. Serve as is or top with a few garnishes.

If you are not familiar with Mexican ingredients:

Tomatillos or tomates verdes are tart, plum-sized green fruits that are not particularly juicy. They are covered with papery husks that must be removed and the fruits should be rinsed to remove the slightly sticky substance on the exterior. Thanks to recent widespread popularity of ethnic foods, they are now fairly easy to find in the produce section of large urban supermarkets. They are also available in cans.

*Chile Poblano is theoretically a mild, green chile, large and angular (on average, about 4 1/2 inches long) with deep, green-black skin. Ripened and dried it becomes chile ancho but for this dish you are concerned with the fresh ones. Taste before you add them to your sauce, as they can be very picante, to say the least. To turn down the heat, use fewer chiles. If you cannot find poblano chiles, substitute long Italian sweet peppers. They will give you some flavor, but no heat.

More like this:

Chilaquiles Recipe from Simply Recipes

Chipotle Chilaquiles from Matt Bites 

Chilaquiles from the Masa Assassin

Chicken (or Pork) Chilaquiles

from Dianasaur Dishes

Chipotle Chilaquiles from Rick Bayless via Food and Wine

Chilaquiles with Salsa Verde from Cooking in Mexico

Posted on January 13, 2011 and filed under Main dish.

Oh, Mexico! Food blogger camp, recipe follows

Last week I went to Mexico to a food blogger camp. At least I think I did. By the time I got to my stopover in Houston on my way home, the lines, the crowds, and the cold, harsh reality of business as usual hit me hard. I began to doubt myself. (Also business as usual.)

Thankfully, I took a few pictures. To prove I was there. Not as many as I should have liked to have taken, since part of my mission was to learn more about photography. However, my brain was deluged with so much exhilarating information that I felt like Regan Mac Neil in the Exorcist. And that was just on day one. So I took notes furiously and I only hope I can read my handwriting when it comes to implementing the brilliant insights my brain was recording. Somewhere in there.

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Of course, it didn’t hurt that I was in a beautiful setting with beautiful people. The resort, Grand Velas in Cancun, is indeed grand. Loveliness, color, sun, warmth, beauty at every turn of the head distracted me from my photography quest. I just wanted to soak it in without recording it on my camera.

Nevermind. It was the people that really stood out. You will rarely encounter such generous and gifted teachers as I found in Elise Bauer, Jaden Hair and David Lebovitz on the blogging side, and fabulous (also generous and gifted) standouts Matt Armendariz, Adam Pearson, Diane Cu and Todd Porter on the food styling and photography side.

The Blogging Experts :Elise, Jaden and David drove home the finer points for bloggers. Here are some of them:

• understand what you are trying to do with your blog (huh?)

• hone your focus

• make your blog congruent with YOU

• make your front door (opening page/design) express all that 

• tell a story (why are you writing about the subject of your post ?)

• what value does your post bring to others?

• join the blogging community and link to other relevant posts

• you will never be as interesting to others are you are to yourself (really?)

• join the blogging conversation, which like any other conversation, means you need to be interested in others and what they have to say (high school’s over)

Get to know these people on line:

Jaden: That woman is a ball of fire, and kinda cute too—though I guess she overreached with her rush to get to lunch/encounter with a stairway (see photos here) If you want to learn about the business of blogging, study her pages. The energizer bunny part is harder to emulate by just reading, but you might want to try it anyway.

Elise: A lovely and thoughtful being. When you meet her you feel like it’s déjà vu all over again, even if you are not a woo-woo type like myself. And as we say in New England, she’s smaht, so very, very, smaht. If you want to know about marketing and how to take a simple idea (niche) to the max, (and do it better than anybody) study her pages.

David: Graciousness personified. David is a model of civility. At this particular juncture in our culture, that is inspiring. (I hear your protestations in advance, David, which exactly illustrates my point.) David will make you laugh and God knows, we all need that. If you want to learn about how to tell a story, entertain, and have your blog reflect who you are, recipes included, study David’s pages. I will be drinking a Lebovitz Isle in David’s honor. As often as possible. Or appropriate.

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The Photography Experts:

The dynamic duos Todd and Diane along with Matt and Adam took us through some key points on photography. Look at their blogs and study their photos. Over and over.

Diane and Todd: It’s about light, light and more light. Learn the direction of light and how it effects the mood of your photos. Study (and implement) the rule of 3’s in composition.  It’s not the camera or the lens that will make your photos great. It’s you, the photographer. If you want to upgrade, try renting first and experiment with different lenses. (Or if you don’t have a dslr yet, rent one and give it a whirl.)

Matt: Every picture tells a story. (In this one it's Matt likes pink champagne?) What do you want to convey with your photo? How does your light depict the mood you want to project? Sometimes it IS smoke and mirrors to get the highlights and shadows where you want them. I’d tell you more, but I can’t articulate what I haven’t really practiced yet.

Adam: Take the time to think about what elements will make your photos sing and don’t over-style. Get rid of clutter. Create movement and enhance texture. Look at Adam’s photos and Matt and Adam's book (when it comes out) Crazy for Cookies, aka, How We Photographed the Same Thing Over and Over Without Boring You. Study and collect good photos from magazines and look at the styling. Check out

The Food Stylist's Handbook by Denise Vivaldo.

The Blogger Participants:

Time was short, but I was able to connect with some very talented and interesting people while exchanging ideas embedded in wonderful conversations. Sally and Kent Cameron

shared stories and Kent gave me some good photo tips. Nancy and I talked about publishing and the book she is working on about Japanese farm cooking. Elana (whose blog is not up yet) made me laugh out loud. She does a great rendition of her grandmother. I just read Angela’s post from Provence about a dog bone bigger than her pooch’s head that she turned into stock, and her roomie Sarah and I commiserated about winter in the Northeast (are you being pummeled by the storm right now Sarah?) I loved meeting

Julie and Shawnda and Jason andStephanie and Maggie and Damaris and fellow Bostonian Aimee….and so many others. I haven’t even scratched the surface here. To discover some wonderful voices in the blogging world, go to Damaris's post with all the names of the bloggers and a rundown of the blogs.

The lady who made it all happen: Kate Moeller's organizational skills made everything run seamlessly. I don’t know how she did that. Thank you, Kate.

I can’t get that James Taylor song out of my head. Please God, make it go away soon.

Stay tuned for a recipe for chilaquiles and don't be hatin' if you weren't there: check out the yin yang of it:

Posted on January 12, 2011 .

Hello winter, hello salad? Watercress steps up

Salad in winter is a tough sell for us Northerners.

When I shared an apartment with my friend Judith after college, she introduced me to the concept of clean food v. dirty food. At the time, health food was more fringe than trend, so Judith was instrumental in shaping my idea of how to eat better.

Salad: clean, French fries: dirty

Fresh fruit: clean, Greasy burgers: dirty

Whole grains: clean, Pepperoni pizza with extra cheese: extra dirty

Etcetera.

It is obvious. It is so, so obvious.

Why can we not grasp that anyone over the age of twenty-two can no longer recover from holiday eating with onion rings, pizza and junk food? We need to eat our greens with a vengeance.

Resistance to embracing this eating plan is common among the male members of the species. Perhaps because they can hold out longer without consequences. Just ask Man of the House. He still thinks steak and cheese subs should be on the menu for movie night.

Well, the chickens have come home to roost my friends. We are in full-tilt, post-holiday remorse mode and need to pack in the clean food. Find some winter-friendly greens like watercress or arugula. Add some fresh and dried fruit, some toasted nuts and a smattering of cheese, too. (Moderation is the key here.) They will take the boring out. Serve your zesty creation alongside some grilled fish or roasted chicken and you are eating like a king, dirty food be damned.

Watercress salad with oranges, cranberries, pine nuts and goat cheese

Reluctance to make a salad in winter is compounded by the fussiness of preparing watercress. Here’s what to do: Grasp the bunch of watercress with both hands and twist your hands in opposite directions to literally twist off the thick stems. Discard the stems and swish the remaining sprigs in the bowl of a salad spinner. Spin them dry and remove the few remaining thick stems and use the leaves, still attached to their thin stems, in the salad. Easy!

Serves 4

1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted

2 large oranges

1 tablespoon sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar

1 small pinch sugar

1/8 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/4 cup olive oil

2 bunches watercress, thick stems removed

1/4 cup dried cranberries

2 ounces goat cheese, crumbled

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spread the pine nuts on a pie pan or baking sheet and bake until fragrant and toasty, 5 to 7 minutes. Watch carefully. They burn quickly once they are hot.

2. Cut a slice from the top and bottom of each orange. Place them upright on a cutting board and using a sharp knife and a sawing motion, carve away the peel and white pith. With the oranges still upright, quarter them. Lay the quarters with the flat side down on the cutting board and slice across each one to make wedge-shaped slices. Reserve any excess juice on the cutting board for the dressing. You should have about 2 tablespoons.

3. In a small bowl, whisk together the reserved orange juice, vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper. Gradually whisk in the olive oil in a thin stream.

4. In a large salad bowl, combine the watercress, orange slices, cranberries and pine nuts. Pour the dressing over the salad and toss. Taste for seasoning and add more salt and pepper if needed. Sprinkle the crumbled goat cheese over the top.

Posted on January 3, 2011 and filed under Salad, Salad Dressing, Winter food.

Balance the scales with a quick shrimp pasta dish

Ah, the week of reckoning. I don’t know about you, but the last week in December brings about hope and regret in equal measure. 

Let’s start with the regret. It can be as simple as

“Why did I eat that? Why, oh, why did I eat that? Or so much of it?”

Those dastardly scales tell the tale. This is possibly the easiest regret to remedy. It’s an age-old formula: Eat less. Exercise more. Let’s see how we can complicate that by spending more money on a new diet book (the hope part) and then recall how we already overspent (the regret part, piled upon the first regret part.)

Then there are the other regrets. I stopped counting the things that didn’t happen that I had hoped for this year.

Well, that’s how the cookie crumbles,

I say to myself as kindly as possible. These are not so easy to remedy, but there is no currency in hashing them over. So, I am going to take a very deep breath and think:

Things are no more imperfect this week than they usually are; I am just pulling out the scales—and I don’t mean the ones I step on most mornings. If am hard on myself all year long, I can have a really good beat-myself-up fest at the end of the year just for good measure. This year I don’t want to give in to that.

I have decided to focus on hope. I’ve revised the way I think of that, too. I’m trying not to hope for specifics, such as a huge influx of cash (oops, I’m always hoping for that). Instead, I guess you could say, I’m hoping for more peace. Wherever the chips fall, please God, let me be at peace with it. That is not to say that I won’t peddle as fast as I can to try for the things I need and want, but I would like, just for once, to be satisfied with and grateful for whatever comes of my efforts.

That narrows my new year’s resolutions to one. So much easier to keep track of one.

As for the eat less, exercise more bit, that’s not so much a resolution as a way of life. It’s kind of ongoing, and I am always trying to recommit to it. So, in that vein, I offer you a recipe for a quick, easy pasta with shrimp that is also very healthy. You can make it:

During a snow storm

When you have not gone shopping again

, but have stashed some shrimp in your freezer, and manage to have some olives, too.

When you have leftover shrimp cocktail from your New Year’s Eve party

When you convince yourself that the skinny strands of angel hair pasta will make you skinny too

When you really can’t think of what else to make and have almost no time in which to make it

When you are trying to counter balance all the unhealthy meals you just consumed (you could even buy whole wheat pasta if you want to be a good doobie)

Since shrimp arrive in our markets frozen, you should buy them that way and defrost them yourself (overnight in the refrigerator or in a bowl of cold water for 15 minutes) unless you are certain you will be cooking them on the same day you purchase them. A stash of shrimp in the freezer can help with a last minute dinner dilemma, too. (You can skip the fennel in an emergency, but try not to.)

To determine how many pounds you need, look for a number, which is more meaningful than a “large” or “jumbo” label. For example “U-15” stand for “under 15,” which means fewer than 15 per pound; “10/15” means there are between ten and fifteen shrimp per pound. This knowledge puts you in the driver’s seat when you are deciding upon the size you want.

A quick homemade tomato sauce is much more satisfying than that tired old sauce from a jar, and it tastes a lot cleaner and fresher too. Buy good quality whole tomatoes like San Marzano (I like Bella, which I buy locally) and break them up in a bowl with your hands. Don’t get me started on those cans of ‘crushed tomatoes.”  I don’t like them one bit because the are dense and heavy and will not give you the clean and lovely taste of tomatoes that a good can of plain ol’ San Marzanos will.

Angel hair pasta with shrimp, tomatoes and olives (Serves 4)

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 fennel bulb, trimmed, quartered lengthwise and cut in thin slices

Salt

Pepper

1 large clove garlic, thinly sliced

1 can (28-ounces) whole, peeled tomatoes, crushed in a bowl

1 pound angel hair pasta

1/3 cup pitted Kalamata olives, coarsely chopped

12 very large peeled shrimp, cooked or uncooked, cut in half on a sharp diagonal

1/4 cup chopped parsley

1. In a large (12-inch) skillet with deep sides, heat the olive oil over medium heat until it shimmers. Add the fennel, season with salt and pepper, and cook until it begins to soften but does not brown, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another 30 seconds. Stir in the tomatoes and cook at a gentle simmer for 10 to 12 minutes, until the sauce thickens slightly.

2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta for two minutes, until it is tender but still has a little bite. Drain in a colander.

3. Add the olives and shrimp to the tomato sauce and stir over medium heat. If you are using cooked shrimp, cook until hot through, about 1 minute. If you are using uncooked shrimp, add them and cook a little longer, until they are opaque in the center. Taste for seasoning and add more salt and pepper if needed.

4. Toss the sauce with the pasta and divide among four shallow bowls. Sprinkle each with chopped parsley.

p.s. the sauce is really good as an omelet filling or with scrambled or poached eggs, if you have any left

Posted on December 29, 2010 and filed under Main dish, Seafood, Pasta.