My favorite pear cake (or fixing things that are not broken)

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Talking to my mom earlier, I told her about the cake that I was baking. She said, “Oh, cake, what’s the occasion?” There was a pause and I responded, “Well, there were pears at the market and they were pretty. So now there is cake.”

As I write this, I am still waiting for the cake to cool so I will have to report back on the final results later, but today I took one of my very favorite cake recipes and changed a bunch of things. Nothing major. The bones are still there. I just made a few small tweaks.

This recipe for Bittersweet Chocolate Pear Cake comes by way of Smitten Kitchen, easily the best of all the home cooking blogs. You take a few eggs and whip them into oblivion. You add a little sugar and white some more. Then you add a basic flour-baking powder-salt mixture and browned butter (hooray) in alternating measures. You pour it into a springform cake pan and sprinkle diced pear and chocolate chunks on top. Here is what it looks like just before it goes into the oven:

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It takes about 40 minutes in the oven. I have made it many times, occasionally as a birthday cake and it is always greeted with enthusiasm. Today, however, I made three small adjustments.

First, I swapped out the 3/4 cup of bittersweet chocolate for 1/2 cup white chocolate and 1/4 cup dark chocolate. This was not so much a decision born of inspiration as a decision born of the contents of my chocolate drawer. (Wait, let us pause so I can explain the chocolate drawer. It is not as weird as it sounds. I have a big butchers block in my kitchen. It has two doors concealing a shelved spaced where pots and pans are stacked precariously as well as three smallish drawers. One of these drawers houses various kitchen doodads. One houses all my Indian spices. And the third and top drawer is the chocolate drawer. When you bake a lot, you end up with a lot of chocolate. Cocoa, baking chocolate, unsweetened, semi sweet, milk, dark, white, some in bar form and some chip form. It easily fills a drawer. Plus I get to reference my chocolate drawer, which delights me no end. End of pause.) So, with no bittersweet in sight but a half bar of high quality white chocolate and a handful of dark chocolate chips staring at me, the decision was an easy one.

The second adjustment was replacing all purpose flour with cake flour. I wanted a finer crumb here. And this is an easy switch to make. For every cup of flour, you use one cup plus two tablespoons of cake flour.

The last was born of the fact that I always miss a little hint of vanilla when tasting this cake but never wanted to add it the delicate alchemy of wet ingredients at work here for fear of screwing something up. Then it hit me. The diced pears! Before I started on the eggs and butter, I diced the pears and drizzled 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla bean paste over them, tossing them to coat them.

The baking of the cake hit a small snag. I shook the pan a little to check doneness. It was still wobbly in the center and my shaking instantly deflated the center. Ugh, this is such a rookie mistake on my part. You never shake the pan. The cake should still taste lovely though. It just has a little dip in the center.

UPDATE: And I can report that the cake’s flavor was in no way lessened by the slight dip in the center. This pear cake was delicious. The cake flour produced a much more tender crumb. The white and dark chocolate result in a cake that is less sweet and more layer upon layer of flavor. Also, the vanilla glazed pears were just lovely. Not sure why everything sank all the way to the bottom rather than being dotted throughout the batter, but it worked just fine for me.

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Chocolate Pear Cake
(Adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons cake flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 eggs, at room-temperature
4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter
3/4 cup white sugar
3 pears, peeled, in a small dice
1/2 teaspoon vanilla bean paste
1/2 cup white chocolate chunks
1/4 cup dark chocolate chunks

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour an 8 inch springform cake pan* and set aside.

Sift the flour, baking powder and salt into a small bowl and set aside.

Place the diced pears in a bowl, drizzle with the vanilla bean paste, and then toss to coat them. Set aside.

Now, make the browned butter. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium high heat, stirring pretty regularly (though not constantly). As the butter solids begin to brown, scrape the browned bits off the bottom of the pan. When butter has achieved a nice color (think that warm brown that has the tiniest hint of red in it, not quite amber but approaching it), pour off into another container and set aside. (If you leave the butter in a hot saucepan, it will keep cooking the butter even if you take it off the heat and you will risk burning it. So pouring it off is your best bet. Make sure to set aside somewhere warm so the butter does not solidify.)

Place the eggs in the bowl of a standing mixer and, using the whisk attachment, whip the eggs on high speed for five to ten minutes (depending on your mixer, a professional mixer can get it done in five, my mixer took ten) until the eggs are thick, custardy and doubled in size. Add the sugar and beat for a few more minutes.**

Now switch out the whisk attachment for the paddle attachment. With the mixer on stir speed, add the flour mixture and butter in alternating measures (1/3 flour mixture then 1/2 butter then 1/3 flour mixture then 1/2 butter then 1/3 flour mixture). As soon as the last flour mixture is incorporated, stop the mixer and pour the batter into the prepared pan.

Sprinkle the pears and the chocolate*** over the top. They will sink into the batter (if not immediately then certainly during baking).

Bake the cake for about 40 minutes until the top is golden brown and springs back to the touch. Cool on a rack and then serve with whipped cream or ice cream.

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* Most springform pans are 9 inches and that is fine to use here. I like the 8 inch because it results in a slightly higher cake that is still sizable enough to cut up and serve to a roomful of people.

** Make sure you do not let the eggs and sugar sit after being combined. You never want to let eggs and sugar sit together unless the recipe is specifically instructing you to do so. You may heard the expression that sugar can “cook” eggs. This isn’t technically true. Only heat can cook eggs But what sugar can do is absorb the water naturally present in eggs and cause the egg proteins to coagulate and clump together. (Salt can do this too.) So, letting eggs and sugar sit changes the structure of the eggs.  (A few minutes is fine, but don’t walk away from them for too long.)

*** The original recipe called for a 3/4 cup of bittersweet chocolate. I quite liked swapping this out for dark and white chocolate, though I might switch the ratio next time and do a half cup dark chocolate and a quarter cup white chocolate.

Funny Cake (aka cake inside a pie crust)

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I don’t remember how I first came across a recipe for Funny Cake, but I remember my reaction. “Wait, there is a way to bake a cake inside of a pie crust? And I have never done it?!?”

Very un-thorough research on the internet tells me that this is a classic Pennsylvania Dutch recipe for a breakfast dish. It also tells me that the Pennsylvania Dutch were Germans and were named “Dutch” because people thought that was their language when they said they spoke “Deustch”. These must be a remarkably easygoing people. This is the large-scale equivalent of telling someone that you are Bob from Dallas and that person then introduces you as a man named Dallas and you never correct him and everyone calls you Dallas forever and you just answer to it because, eh, it’s fine.

But back to the cake/pie. It really is the simplest thing ever and I have made it several times and EVERY SINGLE TIME I think I have screwed something up and it didn’t work. Literally, every time. But it does work and it is cool thing to watch if you are the sort of person who sits in front of their oven and watches something bake start to finish just to see what happens. (What? Sometimes its really cool!)

Here is the basic idea: You take an unbaked pie crust, fill it with cake batter and then pour a simple fudge sauce over the top of the cake batter. While baking the fudge sauce seeps down into the space between the cake and the crust, leaving streaks of fudge prettily over the top and creating this lovely layer of fudge between the pie crust and the cake. And it works! (Which doesn’t mean that I don’t recommend using a store bought crust for at least your first one. Don’t waste a homemade crust on your first attempt.)

It’s a fun combination. Unusual and, in my opinion, a little too sweet for breakfast but I have a friend who has requested this as his birthday cake on multiple occasions. It never disappoints and people are always delighted by the fact of it, as am I. It is also super easy to multiply the ingredients and make two or three of these at once. (Just saying, if making one for someone else and one for yourself at the same time is an easy thing to do, then it warrants consideration.)

Funny Cake

1 unbaked 9 inch pie crust
1 1/4 cups sugar, separated into 3/4 cup and 1/2 cup
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 large egg, room temperature
1 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup cocoa
1/2 cup hot water

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.

First, make your favorite pie crust. Roll it out, press it into a pie tin and put it in the fridge until you are ready to fill it.

Mix together the flour and baking powder in one bowl and set aside. Measure out the milk and pour the vanilla into it and set aside.

In the bowl of a standing mixer, combine 3/4 cup of the sugar, the oil and the egg. Beat on medium-high speed until well combined, about three minutes. Reduce the speed to low and add half the flour mixture. Mix until incorporated and then add the milk and mix until incorporated. Add the remaining flour and mix until no streaks remain. Do not overmix. Pour cake batter into pie crust and spread it evenly.

Make your fudge sauce by combining the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar with the cocoa and hot water. Whisk until smooth. Sauce will be quite runny. Pour sauce over the cake batter.**

Place the cake/pie on a baking sheet to catch any dripping sauce or cake batter. Bake for 30-40 minutes until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean. (The baking time will vary dramatically depending on the oven so keep a close eye on it the first time that you bake it.)

Place on a rack to cool. Cake will keep for a few days at room temperature and longer in the fridge.

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** It is this part, the fudge part, that always makes me think I screwed it up. To my eye, the fudge sauce always looks too runny and the fact that it just sits on top of the batter as you put it in the oven always makes me think it will not seep down to form that nice bottom layer. But it always does.

PHOTO NOTE: No one will care about this but me, but I am hugely disappointed in all my photos of this cake. I felt compelled to include one because I thought the visual was important here, but man, what a crap photo. It was overcast that day and I just couldn’t get the light I needed. I may update this photo later. Which may mean baking this cake again. Sigh. My life is so hard.

Apple Fritters

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I thought apple fritters would be harder than this.

I mean, really, shouldn’t they be harder than this? Don’t they look hard? But no, super easy. Every ingredient is something that I have readily available in my kitchen. The batter comes together in less than 15 minutes, and that includes the time it takes to peel and cut up the apples. Frying them all took maybe 20 minutes, since you do have do multiple batches. (I imagine if I owned a proper fryer than it would be even quicker, but a fryer has never been on my list of kitchen wants.) But really, one two three and poof, done. Dusted them with a little powdered sugar and served.

And these are absolutely scrumptious. The texture is great. The ratio of apples to dough is on point. And did I mention how easy and quick they were? Simple, tasty things that can be quickly whipped up for a crowd. What more can you ask for?

This is a recipe that I am excited to play around with more in the future. There is so much room for variation here. Playing with different kinds of flour to maybe up the yeast quotient a bit. Adding various spices to the dry ingredients. I’m thinking a little clove might be nice. Adding some cinnamon to the powdered sugar. I don’t want to screw up something that is solid without being fussy, but there is room for fun to be had here.

Apple Fritters
(from Martha Stewart Living)

2 cups all purpose flour
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (or 6 tablespoons) of granulated sugar
2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 cup whole milk
2 large eggs room temperature
2 tablespoons melted unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 sweet apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1/4 inch pieces
Safflower oil for frying
Confectioner’s sugar for dusting

Whisk the dry ingredients (flour, sugar, baking powder, salt) together in one bowl and the wet ingredients (milk, eggs, butter, vanilla) together in another bowl. Gently fold wet mixture into dry mixture until no streaks remain. Then fold in apple pieces.

Heat two inches of oil in a heavy bottomed pot over medium heat until a thermometer registers 350 degrees. Set a wire rack over a baking sheet. (I put a paper towel under the wire rack to absorb any dripping oil and make clean up easier.)

Using a small ice cream or cookie scoop (or a tablespoon if you have neither), drop balls of dough into the oil. Cook, turning once, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and transfer to wire rack to cool slightly.

Once cool enough to handle, dust with confectioners sugar and serve warm.

Ginger Raspberry Cake

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Do you ever misread directions and make a fantastic discovery?

I have made this cake before and it was always good, but never terrific. Never as good as I wanted it to be. I had the idea of incorporating some ginger into the mix as raspberry, lemon and ginger is an excellent combination that I definitely needed more of in my life. I woke up one morning and decided to just try it. (I have been told that this is not normal behavior. Waking up and randomly baking a cake first thing in the morning just because you want cake. Sometimes other people make no sense to me.) I got the ingredients from the original recipe out and decided to make two small adjustments. I added a little ground ginger to the dry ingredients and then swapped out the 1 1/2 tablespoons of sugar that got scattered on the top for 1 tablespoon of crystallized ginger and 1/2 tablespoon of sugar. (I also added a little kosher salt on top because I always want a little salty in my sweet. That is just how I roll.)

I was a little worried about my raspberries. I had a cup from the farmer’s market, but about half of them had gotten all smushed up. Wouldn’t the cake be prettier if they were whole? The answer there is no, not prettier, the combination of whole raspberries and some swirls of mashed up berries is actually both tasty and beautiful in the finished product. Oh, I also found a way to slightly up the lemon factor. The recipe calls for some lemon zest to be added to the wet ingredients. I took the lemon half that I zested and squeezed it over the berries and tossed them with it just before scattering.

But back to my giant mistake!

As I may have mentioned, it was morning. I was just drinking my first coffee of the day as I made this cake. And I accidentally put an ENTIRE stick of butter in instead of a half stick of butter. Baking is a delicate art. A slight variation on the proportions can ruin the whole thing. The cake looked good enough, but surely it would be too…ummm, nope. It would not be too anything. It would actually be completely delicious. Which means that you can make this cake with anywhere from a half to a whole stick of butter and it will work, it will just land at a different spot on the decadence scale. So, use your own judgment, but man oh man, I am sticking with these proportions. Swooning with every bite.

I am also happy to report that the addition of the ginger is lovely. The swapping out of the topping sugar for crystallized ginger keeps it from being cloyingly sweet and the fact that it is scattered on top means it is not in every single bite, so it comes and goes, there and gone and back again, which is very pleasant. Also, I think squeezing the lemon juice over the raspberries before scattering them gives them a nice little punch. Oh my, this is such a good cake. Such an easy cake. Excuse me. I have to invite some friends over before I eat this whole cake.

Ginger Raspberry Cake
(adapted from Raspberry Buttermilk Cake by Smitten Kitchen)

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 stick to 1 stick unsalted butter, softened (at your discretion)
2/3 cup plus 1/2 tablespoon granulated sugar, divided
1/2 teaspoon vanilla bean paste
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest (about 1/2 a lemon)
1 large egg
1/2 cup well-shaken buttermilk
1 cup fresh raspberries
Squeeze of fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon crystallized ginger, finely chopped
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

Preheat oven to 400°F with rack in middle. Butter and flour a 9-inch round cake pan.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and ground ginger and set aside.

In the bowl of a standing mixer, beat butter and 2/3 cup sugar on high speed until pale and fluffy, then beat in vanilla and zest. Add egg and beat into well incorporated.

On low speed, mix in flour mixture in three batches, alternating with buttermilk, beginning and ending with flour, until just combined. Spread batter evenly into cake pan.

Squeeze lemon juice (use the lemon half that you zested) over raspberries and then scatter raspberries evenly over top. Sprinkle with crystallized ginger, remaining 1/2 tablespoon sugar, and kosher salt.

Bake until cake is golden and a tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Cool in pan 10 minutes, then turn out onto a rack and cool to warm, 10 to 15 minutes more. Invert onto a plate and serve warm. Will keep at room temperature for several days, or longer in the fridge.

White Bean Dip

Sometimes I am surprised to discover that I have a strong opinion about something. Like guacamole. I never really thought that I had strong feelings about guacamole until recently when a friend said that they had encountered a dip that was made of peas instead of avocados and declared to be guacamole. I was outraged. Really and truly furious and I am quite tickled by the depth of that fury. Like a natural talent for a certain instrument that is never known because that specific instrument never lands in your hands, some opinions must be floating around our cortex, unformed because they have never been called upon, and then suddenly one day someone says that a pea dip is guacamole and that is OUTRAGEOUS on a level that you never could have anticipated.

I had a similar reaction the first time that someone referred to this white bean dip as hummus. But then I realized that I had no other moniker to assign to this dip. It is just white bean dip. That being said, it is a superlative white bean dip. It is the first thing that I think of when I need to make an appetizer or a snack for a crowd. Served with some pita chips or chopped vegetables, it is delicious.

This is an endlessly versatile dip. The core of it is pureed white beans with fresh herbs. But the herbs can be mixed up and other things thrown in. There are also lots of shortcuts and lots of ways to spruce it up with a little extra effort. So, here I give you two versions of the dip preparation: the good version and the better one.

The White Beans
Good – Buy two cans of cannelini beans. Drain and rinse the beans in a colander. Add them to food processor and puree until smooth.
Better – Take 3/4 cup (6 oz.) of dried white beans* and soak them overnight. Drain and put them in a pot with one bay leaf. Cover with water (plenty of water, a few inches over the beans) and bring to a gentle boil. Simmer for 1 to 2 hours until cooked. (Time depends on the beans.) Reserve 1/4 cup of the cooking liquid and discard the bay leaf. Drain the beans and cool until beans can be handled. Add the beans and cooking liquid to the bowl of a food processor.

The Other Flavors
Good – Mince one tablespoon fresh flat leaf parsley and two tablespoons fresh dill. Add the herbs to the food processor with the beans along with one tablespoon good olive oil, the juice of half a lemon, and garlic (see below). Puree until smooth. Taste and add salt and fresh ground pepper to taste.
Better – In addition to the above, mince one teaspoon of fresh rosemary and zest the lemon half. Mix them into the tablespoon of olive oil and let sit for 20 minutes or so. Once the flavors have been absorbed to the oil, add the whole mix to the food processor along with the other ingredients. Taste and add salt and fresh ground pepper to taste with a pinch of smoked paprika or a dried red chile powder.

Garlic**
Good – Mince two cloves of garlic.
Better – Take two unpeeled cloves of garlic. Place them on a small piece of foil, drizzle with olive oil and a pinch of salt and pepper. Seal the foil tightly and roast at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. (Recommend setting foil packet in a pan so that if it leaks, you do not get oil on the floor of your oven. You can also do a whole head of garlic if you want to have extra roasted garlic around.  Trim the bottom off a whole clove, drizzle with oil, wrap in foil and roast at 400 degrees for 30 minutes.) Let the garlic cool until it can be handled, then mince two roasted cloves.

* If using dried beans, use any white bean. Cannelini are good but so are great northern beans. I dream of splurging on Haricot Tarbais beans and making this one day.

** There is a third option here, which is to use a spoonful of that garlic mojo which appeared on this blog a few weeks ago.

Grilled Steak Sandwich with Caramelized Onions and Arugula

You know you have a good sandwich when you give it to six different people and they all eat it exactly as given. No one adds more of something or takes something off. Everyone just consumes it. That is a good sandwich.

Some of my favorite people gathered at my place for the Fourth of July to eat a bunch of food and play croquet before we went to the beach to enjoy some mildly dangerous fireworks. The centerpiece of the lunch was this sandwich, though if I have time this week I may do a few additional posts with more of the menu items because there were quite a few stellar things that I want to share.

This is a deceptively simple sandwich. It has very few components and so you might think that I have very little to tell you about putting it together but you would be wrong. I am going to overload you with details on those individual components because they include two of my very favorite things in all the land — grilled steak and caramelized onions.

Let’s start with the steak. You are going to want to make this steak on a charcoal grill. (Pause to admit horrible bias for charcoal grills and against gas grills and that is never changing because charcoal is just better.) You can do all sorts of things on a grill, but my favorite thing will forever remain taking a good quality steak and cooking it to a perfect medium rare. A simple thing and yet there are myriad ways to screw it up. After having grilled dozens and dozens of steaks, I have some very strong opinions on how to grill a steak.

Season simply and season early. Kosher salt and pepper is all that I ever use to season my steaks. Marinades and complicated spice rubs are for when you are working with tougher cuts. With a good tenderloin, you do not need all the bells and whistles. I place a rack (the kind that you would cool cookies on) over a baking sheet and lay my steaks out on it. I season them generously with kosher salt and fresh ground pepper on both sides and then place the sheet uncovered in the fridge for at least four hours, but overnight is preferable. The combination of the rack and the salt does double duty in drying out the exterior of the steak and drawing all the moisture towards the center, which helps you achieve that nice brown crust and luscious pink center.

Bring to room temperature before cooking. Remove your steaks for the fridge about an hour before cooking. Some people say fifteen minutes is plenty of time to get the steaks to room temperature. The truth is that it takes multiple hours but I usually have too much going on in the kitchen and find that one hour gets the job done well enough.

Go indirect heat or go really high heat. Indirect heat is terrific for cooking steak. You bank all your coals on one side and cook your steaks on the grill over the opposite side. This method of cooking steak requires a lot of attention. It takes a little longer due to the lower temperature and the cooler side of the grill will not have an even surface temperature so the edges of your steak nearer to the banked coals will be getting more heat. You have to flip the steaks multiple times to ensure that the cook and brown evenly but the steaks do cook more gently and so you have a thinner brown crust and more lovely pink meat. I cannot deny that it is worth the time for the perfectly cooked result. However, I often find it an impractical way of cooking since I usually have other things that I am grilling that require direct heat and switching from a direct to indirect setup is just a huge pain and not terribly effective. So, take a good look at your menu and decide whether you want to spend as much time hovering over the grill as you will need to for indirect cooking. For this specific occasion, I used high direct heat and it all worked fine. When cooking with high heat, you get a very even brown but you have to be very vigilant so you do not overcook the meat. I set a timer for three minutes and then flip and set a timer for three minutes again. (The steaks may require another minute or two, but with high heat, always err on the lower side of your cooking time when setting a timer.) Keep your thermometer handy and remove the steaks as soon as they hit 135 degrees. Not a moment longer. The high heat results in a thicker brown crust but you should still have a lovely piece of meat as long as you rest it properly. Speaking of which…

Rest is critical. In grilling as in life. What does resting the meat mean exactly? It means you let it sit there for fifteen minutes without cutting into it. This is so important. Many a steak has been ruined because someone took a knife and made a small slice to check to see if it was done. This is the worst way to check to see if a piece of meat is done. When a steak (or indeed any meat) is cooking, the juices are all drawn towards the exterior. The nice brown sear is keeping them contained. When the meat rests, the juices are reabsorbed into the meat. If you do not let a steak rest properly, juice will run everywhere when you cut it because the juice is still concentrated just at the surface. You lose all the juice that should be in the steak onto the cutting board. Also, the meat continues to cook as it rests. 135 degrees is not the final temperature of the steak you are eating. In fifteen minutes of rest, the internal temperature will go up another 10 degrees or so.

End of my brief steak tutorial and on to the onions.

Caramelized onions are another of my favorite things. They are also something that I do not make that often because they take a lot of time. You are looking at about 90 minutes from start to finish. You won’t be hovering over them. They are not labor intensive. However, I recognize that some people might think that it is too big a time commitment for what could be dismissed as a condiment. If you want to cut down the prep time for this sandwich, you could simply grill your onions. But I will think less of you. Know that.

My favorite recipe for caramelized onions is based on Deborah Madison’s recipe. I make two significant swaps. Her onions slow cook in white wine. I use vegetable stock. She finishes her onions with sherry vinegar. I use red wine vinegar. Neither of these are drastic changes. The end result is still the silkiest, brownest, tastiest caramelized onions I have ever had.

I served this sandwich on lightly toasted pretzel bread with mayo and stone ground mustard and some arugula. (The combination of ingredients came from Smitten Kitchen though I executed this basic idea in a completely different way. She grilled her onions. Let’s not talk about it.) Everything balances perfectly here. The bitterness of the arugula balances out the intense sweetness of the onions. Mayo and mustard provide nice base notes. You can use another bread (I am sure a toasted french roll would also be nice) though I quite liked the pretzel here.

Grilled Steak Sandwich with Caramelized Onions and Arugula
(adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

2 New York Strip Loin Steaks (about 10 oz each)
Kosher salt and pepper
1/2 cup caramelized onions (see recipe below)
2 handfuls arugula
6 pretzel rolls
Mayonnaise
Stone Ground Mustard

At least four hours (and up to twelve hours) before you will be grilling the steaks, season generously with kosher salt and pepper and place on a wire rack over a baking sheet. Place uncovered in the fridge. Remove the steaks from fridge one hour before you intend to grill them. (Leave them on the wire racks.)

Light your charcoal and bring it to high heat with coals evenly spread in the grill. Grill the steaks for three to five minutes on each side until an instant read thermometer reads 135 degrees. Let the steaks rest for fifteen minutes and then slice thinly.

Toast the bread on the grill. (Toasting bread on a hot grill takes seconds. If you put six pieces of bread on the grill, by the time you have placed the sixth piece, it is time to take the first one off.)

Spread mayo on the top side of the bun and mustard on the bottom. Lay the arugula and onions on the mayo bun and the steak on the mustard bun. Combine and devour.

NOTE: Since I was making this for a crowd, I used pretzel sausage rolls (buns designed for hot dogs rather than burgers) and halved them so everyone had a small sandwich and there were enough for folks to go back from seconds. On celebratory days, it is nice to be able to go back for seconds so I tried to portion things out to make that easier. The size was great and I would highly recommend it.

Caramelized Onions
(adapted from Deborah Madison)

2 tablespoons butter
3 lbs. white onions, sliced 1/4 inch thick
4 sprigs of thyme
1 1/4 teaspoons sea salt
1 cup vegetable stock
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

Melt the butter over medium high heat and add the onions and thyme. Cook for about five minutes until the onions soften, stirring frequently. Add the salt and lower the heat. Cover and cook for twenty minutes. Add the stock and cover and cook for an hour, stirring every twenty minutes or so. When the onions are richly browned, turn off the heat and discard the thyme sprigs. (Most of the leaves will have come off the stems.) Stir in the vinegar. (Onions can be stored in the fridge for a few days but reheat over low heat on the stove before using.)

Ode to Alice Waters’ Ratatouille

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I love summer. I did not always love summer. Growing up in California, I was fairly indifferent to it. When you live in a place where people wear shorts and flip flops in January, seasons seem like arbitrary distinctions. But nothing clarifies like contrast and the juxtaposition of winter and summer in the Midwest has given me a greater appreciation of a simple sunny day than I ever thought possible.

Summer here in the city means more than just the sun. It also means that every day of the week, somewhere in the city, there is a farmer’s market. All summer long, I turn corners and am greeted with fresh bread, good cheese, and rows and rows of vegetables. My favorite thing to do in the summer is to come home with a bag full of pretty things and make something that I could never make without really fresh ingredients. Like this ratatouille.

This is Alice Waters’ Ratatouille and if you aren’t familiar with Alice Waters, you should check her out. (When I want to cook vegetables, I trust two people above all others – Alice Waters and Deborah Madison. Go and seek out their books and learn. They are masters of all things veggie.) Alice’s recipe here is really straight forward. An equal amount of all the vegetables. Simple clean flavors. Everything gets cooked in one pot (though you will need a number of prep bowls for all the veggies). The eggplant gets some special attention at the start, which it needs because eggplant cooks differently than everything else in this dish, but the final result is nothing short of spectacular.

You salt the eggplant and let it drain before cooking it. This process draws the excess moisture out of the eggplant and prevents it from becoming too soggy when cooked. The technical name for it is “degorging”, which can be added to the pantheon of dirty sounding things that are done in the kitchen. Grinding, pounding, shucking, sweating, rubbing, whipping. The kitchen can be a pervy sounding place sometimes. It is important to acknowledge this and giggle about it a little. The minute you take the kitchen too seriously, your food becomes joyless.

Once the eggplant is degorged (hehe), you lightly fry it (over medium heat, be sure not to bring the heat up too high) and then set it aside while you soften the other vegetables. Starting with the onion, then adding the garlic and basil along with some dried chile flakes (or crushed red pepper). The tiny hint of heat from the chile here is what makes the sauce bowl licking good in my opinion. The remaining veggies get added in a specific order — peppers then squash then tomatoes — so that the ones that take the longest to soften (the peppers) get the most time in the pan. The eggplant gets added back in for the last 10 minutes to bring it all together.

This is also an easy recipe to halve, which is what I did. I used one small Chinese eggplant, two small onions, one red bell pepper, a bunch of baby squash, and a handful of large cherry tomatoes. The original recipe called for about 1 pound of each vegetable so halving or doubling it is easy math. I highly recommend eating this with some good quality bread because you will want to eat every last bit of sauce in the bowl. Though there is no shame in licking the bowl clean. Licking the bowl clean is a thing of triumph. Never let anyone tell you different.

Alice Waters’ Ratatouille

1 medium or 2 small eggplants
2 medium or 4 small onions
4 cloves of garlic**
1/2 bunch of basil tied in a bouquet with kitchen twine and 6 basil leaves, finely chopped*
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon dried chile flakes (to taste)
2 sweet peppers
3 medium summer squash (recommend a mix of yellow and green)
3 medium tomatoes (or about 16 large cherry tomatoes)
Olive oil (at least 5 tablespoons)
Kosher salt***
Flaky sea salt***

First, everything gets chopped into 1/2 inch dice so start with your eggplant. Dice it, then toss it with a teaspoon of kosher salt and set in a colander in the sink to drain while you chop the other veggies. Everything gets added at different times so make sure all the chopped veggies get their own prep bowls.

Once the eggplant has finished draining, heat about two tablespoons of oil over medium heat in a dutch oven or other large heavy bottomed pot. (You never want this pot to get too hot. No sizzling or smoking oil.) Add the eggplant and cook, stirring frequently until it is golden brown, about five minutes. If the eggplant sticks at all, add a little more oil. When the eggplant is cooked, remove from the pot and set aside.

Add two more tablespoons of oil and heat. Then add the onion and cook until soft and translucent, about six to eight minutes. Add the basil bouquet, the garlic and the chile flakes with a generous pinch of the flaky sea salt. Cook for two to three minutes to blend the flavors thoroughly into the oil. Add the peppers and cook for a few minutes, stirring frequently, until the color of the peppers soften. (You are not cooking until the texture softens, there will be plenty of time for that. You just want the color of the pepper to lose its sharpness.) Add the squash and cook for two to three minutes, stirring frequently. Add the tomato and cook for ten minutes, stirring frequently. (It sounds like you stir a lot making this dish, but just remember that stirring frequently does not mean stirring constantly. You just want to make sure that everything gets its turn at the bottom of the pot.) Now add the eggplant and cook for ten to fifteen more minutes until everything softens and gets a little saucy.

Remove the pot from the heat. Take out the basil bouquet, pressing it against the side of the pot to extract any oil. (Do not forget to do this. There is so much flavor soaking in those leaves. You want that.) Taste the dish and add more salt or olive oil to taste. Sprinkle with the finely chopped basil leaves and serve with crusty bread for sopping up all the delicious sauce.

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* The basil that I bought was one big bunch still attached at the stem so I picked off a few leaves for the garnish and simply left the rest attached at the stem and put that in without bothering with the twine. (And if you do not have any kitchen twine, you can substitute unwaxed unflavored dental floss for kitchen twine. I was trussing chickens with dental floss for years before I finally bought some twine. The floss always worked great.)

** Anyone who has read some of my previous blog posts knows that I made some garlic mojo (garlic slow cooked in oil with lime juice) not that long ago and have been putting it in everything. This was no exception. I swapped out the fresh garlic for a teaspoon of garlic mojo. I have no regrets. I think if I were making this and I had no garlic mojo on hand, I might still roast the garlic before putting it in because I really liked the softer taste from the garlic mojo here.

*** This is where I am getting fussy. When salting before cooking, I always use the kosher salt. The bigger grain does the best job of drawing out moisture without vanishing. But once the dish is on the stovetop, I use the nice flaky Maldon’s sea salt. It dissolves more cleanly, it has better flavor than your average sea salt, and a little of it goes a long way.