Sunday, January 31, 2016

How To Make a PERFECT Apple Pie

This apple pie is simply delicious. There are obviously lots of different and yet perfectly good ways to make an apple pie. But the results of this recipe are particularly exquisite, and make the perfect culmination to a special meal. More than 20 years ago, when I lived in England, I learned an excellent pie recipe from a professional chef, which I then further developed and improved into the one I am sharing here. The key to a really good pie is the crust. It is made from milk, flour and butter (at least 80% fat). You can make this crust for any fruit pie. If the fruit in the pie is of a kind that is juicier than apples are, simply use more corn starch (see the recipe below).

For the crust you need:

1 stick butter (125 g)
8 oz all purpose flour (240 g)
2oz (50 ml) cold milk
a pinch of salt

Place the flour, butter, and salt in a bowl, and with your hand crumble the butter together with the flour until it is all like a sandy mixture. Add the cold milk and mix it for few minutes until the dough is sticking together. Divide it in two unequal parts (1/3 in one ball of dough and 2/3 in the other).

Leave the dough at the room temperature while you cook the apples.

You need 2 lb (1kg) apples (Granny Smith, Jonathan, or any hard and tart variety)
1 1/3  cups of sugar (300 g)
1 Tbsp of lemon juice
1 tsp of cinnamon powder

1 Tbs corn starch

Peel the apples and cut them into small pieces. Place them in a pan together with the sugar and lemon juice. Turn the heat on medium. Stir it until it leaves a little juice, then place the lid on and leave it to simmer for 3-5 minutes until the apples soften just slightly. 

Then add the cinnamon powder and stir it once or twice. You do not want the apples mushy, so try not to stir them too much. Now they are ready to be put into the pie crust.

Turn the oven on at 425° F (230°C). 

In the meantime, on a floured surface with a rolling pin stretch the bigger ball of dough into a round shape and put it on a 9 1/2 inches oven-proof glass dish. Put the corn starch onto the unbaked pie crust in the dish and spread it evenly over the bottom. Then gently pour in the apples. 

Stretch the second ball of dough and place it on the apples. If you have a pastry cutter you can make holes in it first, as I did, or you can just simply poke it with a fork so the steam can get out. With your fingers, stick together the bottom and the top sheet of dough. Sprinkle 1-2 Tbsp of sugar on top of the pie.

Place the pie on the top rack of the oven at 425° F (230°C) and bake it for 20 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 350° F (150°C) and bake it for another 20 minutes. 

Turn off the oven and let it stay there for another half an hour. When it is ready it should look like this:

Serve it with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Daily salad

This salad is simple, tasty, healthy, easy to make, and easy to pack for lunch. Also, it is relatively cheap, compared with the pre-packaged salads from the stores. Here is what you need to buy:

1 iceberg lettuce
1 green or red or yellow pepper 
1 small onion (optional)
1 pint grape (or cherry) tomatoes
1 avocado
Parsley, oregano, and/or basil (fresh if possible, but dried is fine) 
Salt and pepper

These quantities make 4 portions of salad. If you need one portion only, you can divide the vegetables in 4, cut only one portion and refrigerate the rest.

Note that you will make not just your salad but many other recipes better if, instead of buying a jar of basil or parsley flakes, you buy a small basil or parsley plant and plant it in your garden. It will taste so much better you will wonder how you settled for dried leaves before, and at the end of the season you can pick any remaining leaves, dry them, and put them in a jar, and they will still be more flavorful than what you can buy pre-packaged in the spice aisle at your local supermarket.

Iceberg lettuce keeps better if you tear the leaves, instead of using a knife. After you cut the avocado, wrap it with cellophane, put it in a plastic container or a jar, and refrigerate it. You can place the rest of the onion and any leftover pepper in a jar in the fridge as well, as long as it is tightly closed. 

Also, you can use any other tomatoes, if you do not mind the liquid they leave in the salad.

Be creative and add any other vegetable if you like, e.g. broccoli, green beans, radishes, etc. I buy vegetables which are on sale and in season. Peppers in particular tend to be more expensive when they are not on sale.

Salad dressing:

Mix together in a bottle:
1/4 cup of vinegar
1/4 cup of water
1/2 cup of olive oil

If you want a more filling lunch, you can add 1-2 boiled eggs, 1-2 oz. (50 g)  Feta cheese, or bacon. Leftovers of ham or grilled chicken can also be added, as can olives, and pretty much anything else you can think of. Choose your own choice of protein!

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Bhatura (Indian fried bread)

For quite some time I have tried to make bhaturas that were just like the ones I ate at an Indian restaurant, but they never turned out exactly like theirs. Bhatura (sometimes spelled bhatoora) is very similar to Romanian 'Placinte' but not quite the same. Today I tried another recipe (based on and adapted from one I found online), and I am very glad to say this is the right one. 

2 cups all purpose flour
2 Tbsp. semolina
4 Tbsp. yogurt
1/4 cup milk
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon salt 
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder 

Vegetable oil for frying

Make a soft dough from the above ingredients and leave it to sit at room temperature for 3 hours. 
Divide the dough into three balls and stretch them with a rolling pin to circles 6-7 inches in diameter. Divide them in 4 as you see in the picture.

In the meantime, heat the oil in a pan to a medium-high temperature and fry the bhaturas 1 minute on each side. 

Place them on a dish with a paper towel in it, and serve them warm with Indian food. 

At the end of the meal, I simply powder one with sugar and eat it as dessert. 

Here is a photo of a bunch of them:

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Tomato soup

On a cold wintry day, nothing can make a better choice for lunch than a nice hot tomato soup with toasted cheese sandwiches. 

For tomato soup you need 4 cups of of chicken and vegetable stock. (You can use store-bought chicken stock or simply make your own, as I do. I use a pressure cooker since it is a time saver and excellent for making soups. Together with 6 cups of water, add to the pot 1 pound of chicken on the bone [any part of the chicken may be used], 4 celery sticks, 1 medium carrot, and 1 medium onion cut in half. Add a teaspoon salt. Boil them for 20 minutes. Cool it off and strain the liquid. This is your stock. The boiled vegetables and chicken can be used for making salad - I will give you that recipe another day.)

1 can 6 oz (170 g) of tomato paste 
1/4 cup of olive oil
1/2 teaspoon of salt (more or less)
2 tablespoons of all purpose flour

Pour the oil into a big frying pan and turn the heat on medium high. Put the flour and stir until all is mixed with olive oil. Add the tomato paste little by little and stir continually. When it looks like a thick paste, pour the stock in small portions until it reaches the thickness you like. When it is ready, turn off the heat. In the meantime, heat up another pan for making the grilled cheese sandwiches.

For every sandwich you need 1 oz of butter and 2 oz of cheddar cheese. Put the butter on the heated pan, and one piece of bread or half of a bread roll. Add the cheddar cheese slices and cover it with the other half of bread. Turn the sandwich over with the second half downward, to toast for 1-2 minutes. When ready, place it on a hot plate and keep it warm until you finish all the sandwiches you want to make.

Makes about 4 portions - although it is so good you can easily share it between three people and not have any leftovers!

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Homemade yogurt

If you like yogurt and buy it often, you are going to like this recipe, which will teach you how you can quite easily make your own yogurt. You can eat it plain, or can add fruit preserves or just simply fresh fruit. For vanilla yogurt you need to add 1 oz (25 g) sugar per container (roughly) and a few drops of vanilla  essence.

You will need a small 4 oz (100g) container of plain yogurt (from any company) to get started. I use greek yogurt. Make sure it does not have any other ingredients in it apart from milk and active yogurt culture. You will also need plastic containers with lids - you can just reuse the ones from store-bought yogurt, as I do; a microwave safe tall dish, 1 gallon of the milk of your choice (1%, 2%, full fat or fat free). I use 2% and full fat since I use yogurt as desert, and as a substitute for sour cream in many recipes.

To start, pour the milk in the glass bowl almost all the way up, leaving 1 inch of space at the top. Set the microwave oven to high for 25-27 minutes. This time could be shorter, or slightly longer, depending on the model of your microwave oven. The one I use is 800 Watts. The most important thing is to see when the milk starts boiling, and from that point it needs to continue boiling for 4-5 minutes (it should look like in the picture).

Take it out (make sure you use oven gloves) and with a ladle pour the hot milk into containers. The hot milk also sterilizes the containers of any unwanted bacteria. If you make more than 1-2 containers of yogurt, boil more milk and repeat the instructions above.

Fill up all the containers with the hot milk and let it cool off untill lukewarm. The milk will make a crust on the top, which you can take out with a fork. Then add 1 tablespoon of the plain yogurt to each of the containers and stir each of them for 1-2 minutes. Put the lids on the containers and place them in the oven at 100° F (37° C) for 3 hours. If you do not have an oven with a thermometer, wrap them up in tea towels (dish cloths) and a blanket. You can check and see if it hardened, and also if the taste is the one you like. If you leave it longer, the yogurt will be sourer. If you want your yogurt to be more solid, you can strain out the whey (which is good to keep for making bread!) - otherwise, stir it and put it in the refrigerator. It should stay fresh for  around 10 days. 

Here is how the finished product should look:

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Chicken Soup with Rice and Vegetables

This is a Romanian recipe, in fact it was passed down from my mother. It is really simple to make it, though getting the final taste to be just perfect it is quite hard to accomplish, and it has taken me years to get it just the way my mom used to make it. 

In Romania there are two kinds of soups. One type, called supa, is clear and typically has noodles or dumplings in it. The second type, called ciorba, is a sour soup because it features whey (the watery part that separates out from homemade yogurt), sour cream, lemon juice, and/or what Romanians call "borsch" (made from fermented bran), any or all of which give the soup a slight tangy taste that makes it quite distinct from the other kind of soup in terms of its flavor. Indeed, this distinctive element of Romanian soups earned them a mention in a book on the best soups in the world.

The soup in the picture is the latter kind, you'll be pleased to hear, and you can make it without needed to ferment bran. Lots of Romanian cooks nowadays opt for alternatives to the really old-fashioned way of doing this. But my recipe will get you as close to that traditional Romanian flavor as it is possible to get while still using readily available ingredients. 

Ingredients (for about 6 servings): 

1 lb split chicken breast (on the bone)
2 small carrots (or 1 large carrot)
4 celery sticks 
1 small onion
1 Tbs. salt 
2 Tbs. of rice
2-3 Tbs. lemon juice
2-3 Tbs. sauerkraut juice
6-7 cups (1 1/2 -2 l) of water
Parsley, finely chopped

Take the skin off from the chicken breast and place the chicken in a big pot. Pour the water and the salt over the chicken. Turn the heat on high. Separately chop the onion, celery and the carrots with the food processor and put them into the pot when the water is boiling. Add the rice too and stir. Cover the pot and let it simmer for about an hour. Add more water if it is necessary, to keep it at roughly the same level during the time when it is boiling. You can use a pressure cooker if you have one and let it boil for only 20 minutes. When the soup is cooked, take the lid off, take the chicken out (try and get it out in one piece if you can), then add the sauerkraut juice, lemon juice, and parsley, and let it boil one more minute. When the chicken is cold enough, take it from the bones and put it back in the soup in small, bite-sized pieces. Serve it with a dollop of sour cream in it. 

Makes about 6 servings. The soup can safely be kept in the fridge for several days.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Bread rolls

This recipe for bread rolls is the result of years of practice and experience. I make a batch every week.  

This dough recipe can be used for making bread of lots of shapes and sizes, including in trays to yield loaves. I prefer rolls of the kind in the photo above, because after you have baked a large batch, as soon as they are cold, you can put them in the freezer in Ziploc bags. Then, when you need bread, just take out as many rolls as you need, and warm them in the microwave. If you warm them for just the right amount of time, they will be warm and delicious just like when they first came out of the oven. With my microwave, it takes about 45 seconds per roll to have them completely defrosted and warm but not dried out - you will need to figure out what the right amount of time is for your microwave, since they are all different.

I use Bakers Roses (formerly Five Roses) flour, which you can buy in bulk from international food stores. King Arthur brand bread flour also works well. The key is the high gluten content, which is essential to it rising and becoming light and fluffy. You can make them using only white flour if you prefer, but I like them better with some wholemeal flour added, as they are tastier and healthier. I also use fresh yeast, bought from bakeries, whenever possible, because the dough will rise faster than with dried yeast, not to mention that the taste is better. 

I also recommend using a stand mixer, since kneading by hand is very difficult and tiring. But I started out making bread by hand, and you can too - and like me, if you want to continue making bread, you can ask for a stand mixer for Christmas. 

5 cups of bread flour (1kg)
1 cup whole meal flour ( 200g)
2 1/3 cups of milk (375 ml)
1 spoonful of yogurt
1 spoonful sugar
1 spoonful salt
1/4 cup of vegetable oil (100 ml)
1 package (15g ) dry yeast or 1oz ( 25 g) fresh yeast

Where it says "spoonful" above, it refers to a standard soup spoon. 

Place 1 cup of lukewarm milk in the mixer bowl, and mix it with a spoonful of the bread flour. Add the yeast and mix it all together with a spoon for a few seconds, until smooth. Leave it in a warm (but not hot) place for 10-15 minutes or until it is frothy. 

Then add the rest of the lukewarm milk, bread flour, whole meal flour, salt, sugar and yogurt. Place the bowl on the stand and turn it on the first speed for a few minutes untill all the ingredients are wet. The dough should look hard and thick; if it is a little runny, add more flour. Lastly, add the lukewarm vegetable oil and turn the mixer up to the second speed for 10 minutes. The dough should look shiny and elastic. If it is sticky add a little more flour and keep mixing it for a few more minutes.

Then place the bowl in the same warm place, covering the top of the bowl with a slightly damp paper towel, and let it rise for an hour. The volume of the dough should double. See the picture below.

Tear off a big piece of dough and place it on the floured surface as you see in this photo below.

Make round balls of 4 oz in weight (100 g). You only need to weigh the first one, and then you can simply make the rest of them the same size. It is important to make them round by kneading them again with your fingers, bringing the dough from the margins of the roll towards the center as shown below. Roll them again through flour.

Place them on a baking sheet or tray that has been greased with butter beforehand. They should be about 1" apart so that they have room to grow. Leave them to rise again until the size of the balls of dough is doubled. This usually takes 1 1/2 to 2 hours. 


Bake them at 375° F (185° C) for 30 minutes if you want the crust darker and crunchier. Otherwise bake them at 350° F for 35 minutes for softer rolls. 

Take them from the baking tray immediately, separating the rolls from one another, and place them on a cooling rack, to avoid having them become soggy as a result of the evaporating moisture. Once they are cool enough to eat, you can enjoy them! 

There is a photo of the finished product at the top of the post, including one roll torn in half so you can see how it looks on the inside. Feel free to experiment - if for your tastes you would like the bread to be slightly lighter or denser, you can try using a little bit less or more flour until the result is just the way you want it. 

One last bit of advice: don't neglect to work on these in a warm place. Light, fluffy bread depends not just on high-gluten flour and good yeast, but also the temperature that facilitates it rising.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Chocolate Yule Logs

This is not a rapid and quick fix dessert. The quantities are in grams (it is a Romanian Christmas recipe, called "buturugi" in Romanian). I did not transform the quantities into ounces since most packages and scales have both listed. I would not recommend making this when you have very little time for it; however, I would say this is an amazing recipe, and it is worth the time and effort spent on it. This is one of the most popular desserts I have ever made. And while I am blogging about the things I made for the holidays, they are good all year around, and so feel free to call them something else and make them anytime!

The chocolate logs are made from two meringues stuck together with chocolate filling and then rolled through finely-grated walnuts.

You can make the meringues a day or two beforehand, or even more than that, and keep them in a ziploc bag in the freezer. In fact, I usually make a double portion since it is easier to make them with a stand mixer (rather than a hand mixer) which is more efficient with a bigger number of egg whites. 


For one portion of yule logs you will need: 
3 egg whites
200 grams powdered sugar
(If you make your own powdered sugar by putting granulated sugar in a grinder, add a teaspoon of cornstarch, since that is included in store-bought powdered sugar)
2 spoonfuls of lemon juice

Beat the egg whites first until they are fluffy then add the sugar little by little. Add the lemon juice and keep mixing it at the highest speed until the composition is thick. See the picture below. 

You can take small quantities of the composition with a spoon and drop it on a nonstick baking tray previously buttered. Or, you can put the composition in a ziploc bag, close it and cut one of the corners by half an inch or less and make little merigues as seen in the picture below (you can use a little help if you have it - my son helped me here).

Bake the meringues at 240° F or 105°C for an hour and 15 minutes. Turn the oven off and leave them there another half an hour or until they are cold. If you do not have an oven with a thermometer I would say bake them at the lowest setting with the oven door slightly open.

For the filling you will need:

2 sticks of butter ( 250 g ) at room temperature
200 g powdered sugar
3 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 tablespoon milk
A  few drops of lemon juice
2 cups of finely grated walnuts

Mix the butter with the mixer until it is fluffy. 

In a separate bowl mix (with a spoon) the sugar and the milk until it becomes a smooth mixture. Add more drops of milk if the sugar is not incorporated. Add the cocoa powder and keep stirring until all cocoa is covered and is wet. Then place the bowl with the mixture in the microwave oven for 5-10 seconds on high. Take it out and stir the composition. Keep doing this 3-4 times till the composition looks like a melted chocolate. It should be thick, and not running.

Leave it in a cold place to cool down to the room temperature. Then take portions of the chocolate with a spoon and add it to the butter, mixing it constantly with the mixer until it is finished. At the end, add a few drops of lemon juice which enhances the chocolaty taste. Now the filling is ready for use to assembly the yule logs.

Take one meringue in one hand and another one in the other hand and try to stick them together with the pointy sides towards one another. Press them against each other just slightly until you hear a cracking sound. Then hold them with one hand and with the other hand, using a butter knife, fill the space between them with the chocolate filling, rotating them until they look like a little cylinder that is white at the ends and black on the sides, to give them a shape of a yule log. When you are happy with the shape, roll it on the grated walnuts previously prepared on a large plate. Keep doing the same until you finish the meringues and/or filling. Ideally you should finish both of them in the same time. 

Here is another picture of the end result. 

Friday, January 1, 2016

French toast casserole

We love french toast on weekend mornings, when the kitchen smells of freshly ground coffee, mixed with aromas of cinnamon, vanilla, and maple syrup. Today we were invinted for a New Year's day pitch-in brunch party, and we brought with us a French toast casserole that I made. Everybody liked it and asked for the recipe. Here it is:

1 French or Italian stick loaf cut 1 inch thick (Franzela for Romanians)
7 eggs, beaten 
2-3 cups of whole milk
1 cup whipping cream
1 stick butter (100 g) melted
1 1/2 cups sugar 
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
A few drops of vanilla essence

Pour the melted butter on a 9x12 inch baking tray. Place the bread slices very close to each other to fill in all the space. Then pour the milk evenly over the bread. Leave it to soak for an hour or so.  In a separate bowl beat the eggs, add the cinnamon, vanilla, sugar, and cream. Pour the mixture on the soaking bread and bake it at 350° F (180° C) for an hour. You can sprinkle powdered cinnamon sugar on it. Then serve it with maple syrup. (Sometime soon I will tell you how to make your own maple-flavored syrup at home, too!)