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Posts Tagged ‘cheddar’

Too many days have been cold, gray, and wet recently – the kind of dismal December weather that always has me gravitating toward the kitchen, wanting to bake something.

catalog 2Among the many catalogs that appear at this time of year was one from the King Arthur flour company, which attracted me with a recipe for Cheddar Cranberry Soda Bread. The recipe was billed as being “like a giant scone, marrying the sharpness of Vermont cheddar with the tangy sweetness of dried cranberries.” That sounded good, the picture looked good, and I can get excellent loose dried cranberries from Kalustyan’s, in addition to the best dried figs and dates anywhere, so I decided to try it. It was a good choice.

Making the bread was perfectly easy. You mix dry ingredients: flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt – and cheddar cheese powder, a special KA ingredient. This was a new thing to me. Apparently it’s just the cheese, dried out and pulverized, which I must say I wasn’t going to purchase at well over $1 an ounce just for this recipe. Having read elsewhere online that the ratio of fresh cheese to powdered is 3:2, I just took a proportional amount more of fresh cheddar.

Then you work in bits of butter, as for making pastry, and add grated cheddar – lots of it, given my additional dose. I could hardly see the flour for the cheese.

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Once that’s all stirred together well, you add dried cranberries and optional chopped walnuts, then buttermilk and an egg. All that made a large amount of very stiff dough; I had to add more buttermilk to get all the dry bits to adhere. It also seemed like far more than would fit into a standard bread pan, but it did, pressed down and filled up to the very top.

I baked the dough at 375° for a little over an hour. It didn’t rise much, and it came out somewhat darker than the recipe’s picture, but otherwise looked pretty good.

my loaf

Tom and I tasted the loaf as soon as it had cooled, and it was indeed good, though I wouldn’t have called it extraordinary. The cheese flavor predominated, and the crumb was a bit dry.

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However, for breakfast the next morning we toasted some slices and slathered them with butter. What a difference that made!

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The warmth brought out a gentle sweetness from the cranberries (there’s no sugar at all in the recipe) and a nice nuttiness from the walnuts. The cheese flavor was still there, but mostly as an underlying support for the fruit and nuts. As butter penetrated the slices, their texture softened a little (maybe the cheese had loosened up from the heat, too). Altogether, they were quite splendid breakfast breads. And have remained good for several further days.

If you’d like to try the recipe for yourself, it’s given on the King Arthur website. I can highly recommend it for the festive season.

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Fritz Brenner, as every mystery reader knows, is Nero Wolfe’s personal chef. In any of Rex Stout’s Wolfe books, the famously fat detective seems to spend as much time at the dining room table as he does at exposing murderers. The dishes Fritz creates for Wolfe are no more than tantalizingly described, but faithful readers can learn more about them from The Nero Wolfe Cookbook.

I was recently re-reading one of the novels, in which Fritz serves a shrimp dish he calls Creole Fritters with Cheese Sauce. That gave me pause: I’d never thought of putting cooked cheese together with any kind of cooked shrimp, much less a cheese sauce on any kind of fritters. Would it work? I had to give it a try.

The recipe started out promisingly, simmering the peeled shrimp in just a little bit of wine and water, seasoned with bay leaf, peppercorns, and onion. The poaching liquid was then to be stirred into beaten egg and added to a bowl containing flour, baking powder, salt, and cayenne. Finally the chopped shrimps and some lemon juice were to be added, the batter shaped into cakes and fried in shallow oil.

I did all that – with some alterations, as you’ll see. The fritters behaved well in the pan, hardly absorbing any oil, and came out a nice golden brown.

Before composing the fritter batter, I had prepared the cheese sauce.

This started with making a flour-butter roux and stirring in cream. (The recipe specified light cream, but that’s hard to find in stores these days, so I used heavy cream and thinned it with a bit of water.) When that sauce base begins to thicken, the recipe said, add cayenne, lemon juice, and grated cheddar cheese; and when the cheese melts, stir in tomato paste and sherry.

Again, I did all that with some alterations. The mild cheese sauce went surprisingly well with the mild shrimp fritters. I’d thought there would be way too much sauce for the number of fritters I made, but we had no trouble finishing everything.

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But now for the culinary detective work.

Clue #1: The recipe’s name. You may be wondering how a dish of mild fritters with mild sauce came to be called Creole. So did I. Shrimp preparations with “creole” in their name are always highly spiced. Typical seasonings are many or all of the following: bay leaves, allspice, cloves, cayenne, chili powder, mace, basil, thyme, chives, garlic, and parsley. The mere smidgens of cayenne called for in both the fritter batter and the sauce of this recipe were undetectable.

Clue #2: Using all the shrimp poaching liquid in the batter. That instruction troubled me immediately: There was an awful lot of liquid in proportion to the amount of dry ingredients. Cautiously, I left some of the liquid behind before adding the shrimp. And a good thing I did, because even so the fritter batter absolutely needed several more tablespoons of flour to hold everything together. Something had to be wrong there – especially since the recipe then said to form the fritters into cakes “with your hands.” That would have been like picking up handfuls of pancake batter!  I used a ladle.

Clue #3: The initial taste of the sauce. It was totally dominated by the cheddar. I had to add a lot more cayenne, lemon juice, tomato paste, and sherry than the recipe called for to get any evidence at all of those ingredients. Once I did, it had an interestingly subtle blended flavor.

The Final Deduction: Something has to have gotten lost between the way Fritz Brenner made this dish for Nero Wolfe — if you believe in Fritz and Wolfe; but don’t we all? — and the way the recipe was published in the book. Either the quantities listed were wrong or some ingredients had been carelessly left out. (Small supporting clue: the instruction said to add “the drained poaching stock” to the dry ingredients. How do you drain a liquid? Presumably it should have been “strained.”)

Since I had made some corrections for these problems as I prepared the fritter batter and the sauce, the dish we ate was pleasant enough, but hardly spicy or in any way “creole-y.” I can’t help feeling that Fritz would never have made the dish just this way; and if he had done so, Nero Wolfe would not have eaten it.

Nevertheless, its basic concept is sound, and I may very well work with it again, boiling down the poaching liquid to reduce the quantity (and intensify its shrimp flavor) and adding many more creole seasonings.

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Week 42: Creole Onion Soup

French onion soup is wonderful, but it takes a long time to prepare. Julia Child’s recipe, which I usually make (Mastering, vol. 1), says to allow at least 2½ hours. I’m not unwilling to do that, but I was happy to find another very good onion soup recipe that takes little more than half an hour.

The famous Commander’s Palace restaurant in the Garden District of New Orleans is owned by Ella and Dick Brennan. Their Commander’s Palace New Orleans Cookbook is a compendium of regional recipes, a combination of classic French and their own “Creolization” styles. Like most New Orleans cooking, this is not diet fare. Some years ago, Tom and I dined at the restaurant in company with our good friend Gene, a lifelong French Quarter resident who is also a friend of Ella Brennan’s. Every dish on every part of the menu was almost stultifyingly rich, as well as served in huge portions. I recall that, as we goggled at our plates, Gene remarked, “There is no such thing as an appetizer in New Orleans.”

Many of the book’s recipes are like that too, and many involve lengthy advance preparation, so they’re not for everyday occasions. But the Brennans’ Creole Onion Soup, which I tried this week, is a comparative breeze: Slice onions thin (think food processor, or a knife-handy husband), shred some sharp cheddar cheese, and you’re already halfway there.

The recipe headnote describes it as “a creamed onion soup that has no cream in it.” Well, that’s true, but don’t think this is a low-calorie dish: The New Orleans way of dealing with low-calorie food is to pump some calories into it. For 6 to 8 servings it uses two sticks of butter and half a cup of flour, in addition to onions, cheddar, chicken stock, white wine, and a bay leaf.

The onions are sautéed in the butter quite briefly, unlike the 30 or more minutes Julia’s onions get to begin with. In one of those tricky directions recipe writers love, the Brennans say to sauté the onions until “just before they become transparent.” (How are you supposed to be able to tell that?!) Stir in the flour thoroughly, then add everything else. When the crumbled cheese – I used a good English farmhouse cheddar – has melted, the soup simmers for only 15 minutes, and it’s done. I found it hard to believe the onions would be sufficiently cooked, but they were.

As you can see, it isn’t a glamorous dish, but it was beautifully flavorful. It didn’t even need any salt or pepper. Its effect was quite similar to a French onion soup, except that the onions stay pale rather than going golden brown and so aren’t quite as rich in themselves. (The brown flecks are from my chicken stock, for which I used the deglazings from a chicken roasting pan to strengthen some bouillon-cube broth.)

Of course, the glory of French onion soup is the gratineed version. I had generous leftovers from my half recipe of the Creole soup, so a few days later I decided to use them that way. I heated the soup, poured it into ramekins, floated on them toasted rounds of country bread heaped with freshly grated cheddar, and ran the little pots under the broiler long enough to melt the cheese.

It was fine: perhaps not as different from the freshly made soup as the French gratineed version is from its simpler form (How much richness can you add to richness?), but nevertheless a satisfying start to a good dinner.

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