Banana Pudding for all my friends!

The tastiest banana pudding also happens to be the easiest to make!

The tastiest banana pudding also happens to be the easiest to make!

I’ve been on this banana pudding kick lately, which has greatly benefitted my friends and neighbors and their kids. Even though Regina and my own kids love the stuff, we simply couldn’t eat our way through the three huge batches I’ve made recently. We needed help and so Julie and Tim and Zach and Sarah have gotten containers in the past week; I believe they shared them with their kids but it’s possible they didn’t. This banana pudding has a way of making your forget your vows, disregard your children’s welfare, and consider committing higher crimes. Zach refers to the pudding as his “afternoon delight” which conjures up images better left unimagined.

The recipe for this banana pudding is old-fashioned and simple to make. You don’t start from scratch, you start from mixes, like lots of the great American comfort foods of the past fifty years. Canned milk and pudding mix and boxed cookies. Super-easy and super-yummy!

If you’ve ever been to Magnolia Bakery either in NYC or LA you might notice that their banana pudding tastes remarkably similar to this. Well, it should. It’s their recipe and I happily cribbed it. Because it is superb!

You will need:

  • 1 can (14 oz) sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 box (3.4 oz) Jello brand instant vanilla pudding
  • 1.5 cups cold water
  • 3 cups heavy cream
  • 4 cups sliced ripe bananas
  • 1 12-ounce box of Nilla wafers (use the Nabisco kind)

Now do this:

In a stand-up mixer whip together the condensed milk, pudding mix, and water for about two minutes at medium speed. You could use an electric hand mixer if you don’t have a stand-up Kitchen-Aid mixer, of course. Make sure after you’ve whipped it that you don’t see any yellow specks, which would be undissolved pudding powder; beat it a bit more if you need to. Pour pudding into a big mixing bowl and chill until completely set, maybe three hours.

When the pudding is set whip the heavy cream to stiff peaks. Fold the whipped cream gently but completely into the pudding mix. It should be well-combined and not streaky.

Into a big deep bowl put about a third of the cookies in a layer. Top with a third of the bananas and a third of the creamy pudding mix. Make three layers. Chill for at least four hours so the Nilla wafers can soften nicely.

I like to make it the day before. It improves with a full overnight chill-out. It will last three or four days refrigerated although I have no doubt you and your fam will polish it off before that!

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I like this cute pink pudding goblet. Thanks for the loaner Julie Semple!

Atlantic Beach Pie

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Amazing Atlantic Beach Pie!

My good friend Margaret turned me on to this recipe, knowing how much I love to make pies and eat pies. One of my favorite pies is Key Lime and this interesting riff on the citrus custard pie turned out to be truly phenomenal. And a breeze to make.

I’m not going to get into a long dissertation on the origins of this pie. I’ve included a link to the original recipe below. Check it out if you want a bit more backstory. But in short, apparently it’s a local specialty of the North Carolina coast. This recipe is from a restaurant called Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill. The proprietor, Bill Smith, says it takes all of four seconds to make. Although it wasn’t quite that quick, it was incredibly easy.

The most intriguing aspect of the pie is the salty-sweet crust made from crushed saltines. You pair that with a tart lemon-lime custard and pillowy whipped cream and the pie just sings.

This is Bill Smith’s recipe with my notes:

Atlantic Beach Pie

For the crust:

1 1/2 sleeves of saltine crackers

1/3 to 1/2 cup softened unsalted butter

3 tablespoons sugar

For the filling:

1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk

4 egg yolks

1/2 cup lemon or lime juice or a mix of the two

Fresh whipped cream and coarse sea salt for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Crush the crackers finely, but not to dust. You can use a food processor or your hands. Add the sugar, then knead in the butter until the crumbs hold together like dough. Press into an 8 inch pie pan. Chill for 15 minutes, then bake for 18 minutes or until the crust colors a little.

While the crust is cooling (it doesn’t need to be cold), beat the egg yolks into the milk, then beat in the citrus juice. It is important to completely combine these ingredients. Pour into the shell and bake for 16 minutes until the filling has set. The pie needs to be completely cold to be sliced. Serve with fresh whipped cream and a sprinkling of sea salt.

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I didn’t have an eight-inch pie pan. Nine-inch pans are much more common, so I extended the recipe for the crust a little to make a bit more. I used a full two sleeves of saltines, which I put into a big ziploc bag and crushed with a meat mallet. I left the cracker crumbs pretty chunky. I increased the butter to a little over a half-cup (one stick plus another tablespoon or so) of unsalted butter. I used four tablespoons of sugar in the crust and added 2 tablespoons of water to help make the crust more paste-like and easier to press into the pie pan.

For the filling I didn’t adjust the quantities at all, but I did use a mixture of fresh lemon juice and fresh key lime juice. The end result was excellent — smooth and sweet and tart all at the same time. 

After I baked the pie and the filling was fully set, I set it on a cooling rack to come to room temperature. And then I chilled it for about twenty minutes in the fridge. Meanwhile I prepared some whipped cream to complete the pie. 

Bill’s recipe calls for whipped cream but he doesn’t provide any measurements. I whipped two cups of heavy cream at medium speed until I got medium peaks. I then added two tablespoons of powdered sugar to the cream and beat it at medium-high until I got stiff peaks. A quick tip: when making whipped cream always chill the whisk attachment of your mixer and the mixer bowl with the cream already in it. The cream will whip up faster and fluffier if everything starts chilled. 

Finally, for the finishing touch on each cut slice I sprinkled a bit of Maldon Sea Salt, that lovely large-flaked sea salt from England. It adds a bit of saline crunch on the palate that kicks up the sweetness of the pie.

The original post:

http://www.npr.org/2013/04/11/176279512/a-north-carolina-pie-that-elicits-an-oh-my-god-response

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The chunky-style saltine crust is what differentiates this stellar pie from any old boring lemon pie.

Pineapple Carpaccio with Homemade Coconut Sorbet

So yummy, so fresh.

Those of you lucky enough to have eaten at Red Ginger Pan-Asian Kitchen, my long-defunct restaurant in Half Moon Bay, will recognize this dessert as one of my signature sweet offerings. It was a fan favorite, healthy and refreshing. And very easy to put together.

To make this dish I shave slightly under-ripe pineapple on a Japanese Benriner mandolin about an eighth-of-an-inch thick. I lay the slices of pineapple on a plate and top with minced crystallized ginger, some crushed (salted) macadamia nuts, and a scoop of homemade coconut sorbet. I drizzle a little honey over the whole thing and then usually add a little fresh hand-torn mint leaf (although I seem to have forgotten it this time around).

The coconut sorbet is easy. I take two cans of organic coconut milk and add one cup of sugar. I heat it over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar dissolves. I stir in a tablespoon of Malibu rum and chill the mixture for about two hours. I freeze it in an ice cream maker until airy and creamy. It’s stupid-easy.

Anyway, this dessert is a keeper, a crowd-pleaser, and with a little planning (and some special but inexpensive equipment) a cinch to make. And, as an added bonus, it’s totally vegan!

Try it some time!

“Concord” Grape Sorbet

Man, those are some fine-lookin’ grapes!

Concord grapes are an American innovation, first cultivated by some guy named Ephraim Wales Bull in 1849 in Concord, Massachusetts. Apparently he won some prizes and the grape become famous for its robust sweetness and its distinctive bluish-purple color. For years it was the favored table grape of the Northeast until modern seedless varieties overtook it in popularity; the concord has a thickish skin and a large seed, after all. Still, the Concord grape is the number one variety for juice and jelly; it’s essential “grapiness” and stunning color have become synonymous with the jelly in that oh-so-American invention, the PB&J sandwich. And that purple grape juice from Welch’s that millions of kids drink every day is naturally Concord. But although we are all familiar with that Concord flavor, we are mostly unfamiliar with the actual grape. The “table grape” market is pretty much dominated by the ubiquitous seedless reds and greens, which can be quite good, but are mostly mediocre in flavor. You’ll occasionally find fantastic new varieties like Witch Fingers or Cotton Candy grapes, but generally speaking there’s not a whole lot out there. Even when you see Concords for sale, they are only briefly available.

Now Concords are a late fall crop and so if you run across any supposed Concords being sold in summer, they are probably not true Concords, but something very similar, like the Niabell Grapes I picked up a few days ago from Gelson’s Market. Niabells are almost identical to Concords in flavor and texture — relatively thick skin, satisfyingly gelatinous flesh, huge sugar, and a big seed in the middle. But I confess that the seed is troublesome for me. I’m an admittedly spoiled modern grape consumer and for me spitting out the seeds is a pain in the ass. However, I like the flavor of Concords (and their “Concordy” cousins) and so I bought four pounds.

Very close to concords.

When life gives you lemons you make lemonade, right? Well, when life gives me lemons, I make a lemon sorbet and add a Grey Goose floater! Just the way I am, I suppose. So when life gives me really fantastic and delicious Concordesque grapes during the hottest week of the year, well ya know I gotta make me some sorbet! I made a killer “Concord” Grape Sorbet not three days ago. No vodka this time; it was two in the afternoon, which is a bit early even for me.

This is how I made it…

Ah, precious purple grape juice!

I took the four pounds of Niabell grapes and pulled them off the stem. I rinsed them well under cold water and drained the grapes in a colander for a few minutes. I put them in a big pot with one-and-a-half cups of water and one-and-a-half cups of granulated sugar. I added a tiny pinch of salt for just the barest background note of savory. I covered the pot with a tight-fitting lid and brought the grapes up to a boil over medium-high heat. I removed the lid, turned the heat down to low, and simmered the grapes for about 30 minutes, gently stirring every few minutes. I then strained the grapes through a fine-meshed Chinois (conical strainer) although any fine-meshed strainer of any shape would work. Also, a colander lined with several layers of cheesecloth does the trick. Next I gently stirred the grapes around the strainer to drain as much liquid out the grapes as possible, being careful not to smash the grapes as I did it. And then I let the grapes sit undisturbed in the strainer for fifteen minutes, letting gravity work its magic.

The color of the sorbet is absolutely striking. What would you call this? Magenta?

I managed to get just about five cups of grape sorbet base. I transferred the juice to a smaller container and chilled it completely in the fridge, about three hours. I then froze it in my ice cream maker for about 30 minutes, or until it was very well-churned and airy, almost to the consistency of slightly icy soft-serve.

Now I have a pretty fancy Italian ice cream maker which costs hundreds of bucks, but I get the same results with a basic Cuisinart model that costs about $50. If you don’t have any kind of ice cream maker, you could use this base to make a granita by pouring it into a shallow casserole, putting it on a shelf in the freezer and letting it slowly freeze. Every half-hour or so fluff the mixture with a fork until you have a nice, flaky consistency. This base is very sugary, which means it won’t necessarily freeze into harder crystals, so if you plan on making a granita, you may wish to halve the amount of granulated sugar when you boil your base.

Just another money shot of these sexy orbs.

The sorbet was delicious and very refreshing on a hot day. If you stumble across grapes as flavorful as these Niabells, pick ’em up and make dessert!

A couple of notes:

I’m not really a grape expert, so don’t hold me to any real historical accuracy in my short exposition on Concords.

This post makes me want to listen to Flight of the Conchords, that hilarious Kiwi comedy music duo. Think about it.

Feeding the Family

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A casual dinner by the Willamette River.

Regina, Bennet, Vivian, and I visited my father and step-mother in Portland, Oregon last week. Dad and Joan have an absolutely gorgeous place by on the east bank of the Willamette River. Their house is set on a bluff overlooking a wide expanse of perfect lawn that leads down to the river bank. My father is a dedicated plant man and he’s got stunning vegetable beds, fruit trees, and grape vines growing vigorously on their property. Kale and tomatoes, lettuces and potatoes, rosemary, lavender, fig, eucalyptus, red chard, bartlett pear, apples, and more. In the eight years they’ve been in Oregon they’ve managed to create and maintain a home that is inviting and charming and that’s a reflection of their progressive thoughts on nature, food, health, light, and community. And on a late summer afternoon there’s nothing better than sipping a glass of my Dad’s homemade white wine and watching rowing sculls flit across the river’s surface, competing occasionally with the wake-making antics of jet-skiers. Birds loop in the blue skies, adopted fuzzball cats get fresh with your legs, a breeze stirs the perfect green beans clinging from their trellis, the occasional passenger jet carves contrails impossibly high above us. It’s all so perfect. So perfect, in fact, that Regina and I got married on these fair premises last summer.

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Always superb salmon can be found in the Northwest.

When we visit I usually try to cook one good meal for my family; we only seem to have time for one as we always have so much on our plate — other friends and family to see, zoos to visit, and breweries to tour. We like to eat outside, watch the sunset, play board games as we nibble dessert, and perhaps sip a little cheap sherry (that would be only my father and me) as we yak about our lives, politics, and what-have-you. This past week talk of politics, the food industry, my much-missed absent sisters, and (naturally) The Olympics dominated. We try to make the most of what Dad and Joan’s garden has to offer, we take a casual pace, and we enjoy each other’s company.

Joan and Jeff (my bro) contributed some excellent Coho salmon — each filet about a pound, very lean, but very fresh. Full of pin bones, even though I yanked out most of them. I patted-dry the fish very well, cut the filets down to individual pieces, and seasoned them with sea salt, pepper, and a big pinch of some random Penzey’s spice mix (maybe like a poultry seasoning) that Joan had in her cooking arsenal. I cooked the filets by first searing the fish skin-side down in a very hot skillet with some olive oil. After the skin was crisped I then flipped the pieces and cooked the other side about a minute. I then transferred the par-cooked pieces to a baking dish. The baking dish I popped into the oven and finished the fish at 375º F for about five minutes.

The fish was just cooked through, moist and delicious.

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A simple salad — romaine, tomato, radish, etc.

Our salad was definitely a family affair. Jeff contributed a perfect large Persian cucumber from his yard-garden, Joan added a bulb of fennel and a head of fresh romaine from her lettuce bed, and just that morning I’d gotten a few excellent tomatoes, celery, and radishes from the small but very inviting Milwaukie Farmer’s Market. At the market I also picked up some great local and organic goat-milk feta cheese. I whipped up a simple cider vinaigrette with some garlic, shallot, and a bit of minced fennel frond (and S&P, of course).

I (mostly) peeled, seeded, and chopped the cuke. I shaved the fennel and soaked it briefly in cold water to firm it up. I cut, soaked, and spun-dry the romaine. Cut the tomatoes, finely cut some celery, shaved some radishes, crumbled the sublime and creamy feta. I tossed everything together with some of the dressing. Basically a Greek-style salad with no olives or peppers, it was light and refreshing and complemented the fish perfectly.

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Potatoes fresh out of the ground are the best!

Dad dug up some potatoes from a mixed patch that yielded some good glossy reds, some Peruvian purples, and a few starchy Russet-style baker-types. After hosing them down, drying them off, and cutting the spuds down to similar sizes (think 3/4-inch thick cubes, about) I tossed them (in a big bowl) in melted butter and olive oil. Over the top I sprinkled generous amounts of kosher salt and cracked black pepper. I also threw in some minced herbs from Joan’s herb pots — fresh rosemary, a bit of fresh lavender, lemon thyme, marjoram, and parsley. A couple large cloves of garlic, crushed and chopped, completed the potato seasoning. I spread the taters in a roasting pan and cooked them at 400ºF for about 35 minutes, until the potatoes were browned and crisp on the edges but soft in the middle. I turned and tossed and moved the potatoes around a couple of times during the roasting to ensure even cooking.

Everyone loved the potatoes, and it’s a good thing I made a whole lot as we ended up eating them the next day as well! The dish wasn’t particularly hard to make or inventive. It’s  all about fresh potatoes. Fresh potatoes are heads above your typical grocery store spuds. They are moister, richer, earthier, and butterier. Just excellent. And according to Dad, pretty much toil-free as a home crop.

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Very simple sauteed green beans.

Earlier that day Joan had picked some green beans. I trimmed these and blanched them in boiling salted water for about four minutes until tender. I shocked them in a ice bath to stop the cooking and then then drained them very well. I cut the beans into two-to-three-inch lengths. About five minutes before dinner time I heat up a big sauté pan and lightly browned (over medium-high heat) some chopped onion and garlic in a combination of butter and olive oil. I threw in the beans and cooked them for another minute. I added a splash of white wine (New Zealand Sauv Blanc), stirred the beans, and served them.

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Excellent lemon-garlic fettucine with butter, parmesan, lemon zest, and fresh breadcrumbs.

At the Milwaukie Farmer’s Market I also picked up a pound of very good organic linguine infused with lemon and garlic. First step in making this dish was toasting some homemade fresh breadcrumbs. I cut the crust off of a chunk of stale baguette and then cut the interior of the bread into smaller pieces, about a half-inch in size. I put the bread into a food processor and pulsed it down into crumbs. I then sautéed the crumbs in butter and olive oil until nice-and-crunchy; I pulled the crumbs from the pan and held them until later.

I set up a pot of salted water to cook the pasta. I set up another big sauté pan and melted a generous plug of butter in a couple of tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil over medium heat. Into the oils I added two cloves of coarsely garlic & once minced shallot. I cooked the garlic and shallot about a minute until softened and then turned off the gas. When the water boiled I cooked the noodles to al dente.

I drained the noodles but I retained a half-cup of the pasta-cooking liquid in a measuring cup. I put the hot drained linguine into the butter-olive oil mixture and tossed it well. I turned the heat up to high and added the cup of pasta-water. I threw in a handful of chopped red chard and about 5 basil leaves, which I tore up by hand. Over the noodles I added two tablespoons of lemon zest and the juice of one lemon. Using a pair of tongs I mixed the noodles to get everything together and then tested for seasoning. I added a bit of salt, a whole bunch of black pepper, and 1 cup of grated parmesan. I killed the heat, stirred the cheese in, and transferred the pasta to a big serving bowl. Finally, as a garnish, I topped the linguine with a big handful of toasted breadcrumbs. Voila! Garlic & lemon linguine with butter, chard, basil, parmesan & crisp breadcrumbs.

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Sitting down to a fine meal with fine people (clockwise from left): Jeff, Bennet, Regina, me, Vivian, Joan. (Missing from this photo: Dad, who took the pic, and my sister-in-law Kate, who had to work.)

Jeff brought some homemade beer (pretty yummy!) and we also drank lemonade and one of my personal faves — Nobilo Sauvignon Blanc (pretty decent and relatively cheap NZ white). For dessert we had this delicious crostata made from organic nectarines and a partially whole-wheat crust, which came out a tiny bit tough. I made a basic pate brisée but I think I screwed up the proportions of fat-to-flour. C’est la vie. Even the best of us screw up from time to time. Best of all, we topped off the crostata with vanilla ice cream from Graeter’s out of Cincinnati. Good, ole-fashioned iced cream.

Seriously, is there anything better than good food and family? Well, the view helped too. And the wine.

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Fresh nectarine crostata. Yummy!

Chocolate Wafer Icebox Cake

Very sweet, very easy, very addictive cake.

Chocolate Wafer Icebox Cake has got to be the easiest cake to make in the entire history of the world. It’s got only four ingredients, you don’t have to bake it, and the end result is sublime and beautiful. The only challenging aspect to this creation is waiting a day before eating it.

Over the weekend Regina and I were hanging out with Mitch and Stef, great friends of ours who have a lovely little place in Venice. It was one of those breezy, early-summer days with  gorgeous sunshine and the warm air hinting of the sea not a block away. It was mostly a day for doing nothing much at all — eating a bit, drinking a bit, talking a lot. We talked about food, of course. Most of our friends are as nearly food-centric as we are. Stef mentioned their upcoming trip back east and how she always looked forward to her uncle’s Icebox Cake. Of course this intrigued me; I’m always interested not just in the food, but why people are excited about a particular dish. Nearly always there’s a deep emotional connection to a specific food, some sort of sense-memory that holds a dish dear to our heart and palate. Often there’s a place involved, and a very particular moment in time, and it’s these stories I love.

I knew I wanted to make this cake that Stef has such fond memories of. I knew it would be easy to make, as she described this as the sole dish her uncle can put together.  Of course I didn’t quite realize how ridiculously easy it is.

Perhaps the easiest cake to make in the entire world!!

The ingredient list is amazingly brief.

I’m pretty sure this recipe was created by Nabisco back in the heady, extra-creamy days of yore when people took recipes on boxes seriously and three cups of heavy whipping cream in a recipe didn’t give pause. It certainly does now, but hey, it’s not like you’re eating the whole thing yourself, right? Right?

It might be challenging to find these Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers; perhaps they were ubiquitous and more “famous” once-upon-a-time, but I can only find them on the shelf at Gelson’s, my favorite all-purpose, higher-end market. You might have to check online or make a couple of calls to source them. But they’re excellent boxed cookies with lots of applications other than super-easy, cheater-cake. I use them for ice cream sandwiches and crumble them for the crust of ice cream pie. And they’re yummy just dunked in whole milk. They taste just like the chocolate cookie in an OREO, which is no surprise since that’s also a Nabisco product. In fact, this cake sort of tastes like a giant Oreo cookie. And that’s not a bad thing.

Seven cookies per layer!

The only thing challenging is waiting until the next day!

You will need:

  • 3 cups of heavy whipping cream, preferably organic
  • 4 teaspoons granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 2 9-ounce boxes of Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers
  • shaved chocolate, chocolate sprinkles, cocoa powder, or tiny chocolate chips as a garnish

Now do this:

With a hand mixer or a stand-up mixer whip the cream, sugar, and vanilla to soft-to-medium peaks.

On a plate arrange seven cookies in a circular pattern, with one cookie in the middle. Carefully spread about a half-cup of the whipped cream over the cookies. The first layer is a bit challenging as the cookies aren’t adhered to anything yet, but as you create layers and the cake takes shape, it becomes quicker and easier. You’ll find that boxes of these fragile cookies will contain quite a few broken ones, so I place those in the middle, leaving the nicer cookies for the edge. As I add each new layer I stagger the cookies so that the cake edges show a nice alternating pattern. Keep layering (seven cookies, half-cup cream) until you have used all the cookies and the whipped cream, or until one of the two runs out. I created twelve layers and still had some whipped cream left, although all the wafers were utilized.

Now cover the cake with plastic wrap and stick it in the fridge. Allow it to cool overnight. It’s very important to leave it overnight, at least; as it sits refrigerated the cookies soften and become very “cake-like”. As a garnish, sprinkle some little chocolatey things on top. I used sprinkles.

The end result was delicious. A cold glass of milk washed down a big slice of this excellent, old-fashioned cake perfectly.

Icebox cake is a crowd pleaser!

When I looked up this recipe, I realized that it’s virtually the same from site to site. Smitten Kitchen shows the same recipe as Oprah.com. Apparently this is one of those recipes that has entered the American consciousness and remained intact. Well, mostly intact, since I reduced the sugar a tiny bit for this recipe.

 

Strawberry Shortcakes Forever

Soul-satisfying old-fashioned strawberry shortcake.

My wife just pulled the pregnancy card. To be fair she hasn’t been especially demanding except for the occasional desperate and frantic request for trashy ice cream treats. A couple of days ago Regina told me unequivocally that she wanted, no required strawberry shortcake. And neither that phony, easy-to-make strawberry shortcake on the prepackaged spongecake you see moldering in the produce aisle next to the berries, nor some “shortcut” shortcake utilizing frozen Sara Lee pound cake, but real, honest-to-goodness old-fashioned strawberry shortcake with hand-whipped cream scented with vanilla, great berries, and warm sweet biscuits.

Of course she had to have it, and of course I had to make it. I got my son Bennet into the shortcake-making process and he loved it! He helped make the biscuits and assisted in assembly. As always, I encourage you to get your kids involved in the kitchen. The lessons learned are invaluable; it’s important for kids to garner an understanding of where their food comes from and how it’s made. It helps build self-confidence and the shared experience is critically important in building great family bonds. I could ramble on about this topic for hours, but you get the idea. Let’s make strawberry shortcake! Continue reading