Easy (but delicious) Sour Cream Coffee Cake

Coffee Cake final Now, I'm a firm believer in the joy of pancakes. There are few weekend-related pleasures like making hot, fluffy, buttermilk pancakes on a lazy Saturday or Sunday morning. But the breakfast food world is a wide one, ladies and gentlemen. And despite tried and true pancake pleasures, sometimes its fun to change up your weekend routine. Not that coffee cake is a newbie to the breakfast or brunch world. In my mind at least it appears permanently attached to weekends with house guests, Mother's Days, Christmas Day mornings, you get the idea. And, of course, any meeting, no matter the subject, that took place before noon was obliged to have it on offer. You know, somewhere at the back of the room, nestled amidst the jugs of Tropicana and the carafes of moderately warm coffee. But that store bought stuff doesn't hold a candle to the homemade variety.

Of course, it's a bit of a misnomer to call it coffee cake, as it doesn't contain any actual coffee. It exists as breakfast food, simply on the justification that it is cake that one serves *with* coffee. And on those weak legs alone, it achieves authentic breakfast or brunch status. Cake for breakfast. Just because someone said it went well with coffee. Amazing.

Anyway, there are about 1,001 recipes for coffee cake. Like many simple breakfast foods, almost every family has the "perfect" recipe for it, handed down over generations. Now, if my family ever had one, it has sadly been lost. But thankfully, books such as Edna Staebler's Food that Really Schmecks, first published in the 1960s, has come to the rescue. Based on a collection of recipes from Mennonite counties in southern Ontario, the book reads like your grandmother's cooking notes. For example: "Sometimes Mother would buy a piece of headcheese at the Kitchener Market, put it in a pot of 1/4 cup of water and let it heat till it melted and bubbled; then she'd serve it to us over boiled hot potatoes. With an endive, lettuce or dandelion salad, it was a real treat". It's an amazing testament to how folks used to cook and eat. This is not high dining cooking, but a much richer cultural touchstone.

Although some of her dishes don't feature regularly in many kitchens anymore (I'm looking at you "Chellied/Jellied Chicken"), her recipes are still ironclad. And that's why we turned to her for her solid expertise on the institution that is the coffee cake. And it was exactly what I was hoping for. Easy. Straightforward. Delicious. Don't be fooled by how easy the recipe looks. This is the coffee cake of legend.

Makes: 1 round cake

Ingredients

1/2 cup butter (unsalted) or margarine

1 cup white sugar

2 eggs, beaten

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup sour cream

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 3/4 cup cake flour (sifted)

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 cup brown sugar

1 tablespoon cinnamon

3/4 cup finely chopped nuts (e.g. walnuts)

Method

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Blend butter and sugar together until creamy. Then add the eggs and vanilla and beat well. In a separate bowl, combine the sour cream and the baking soda with a spoon (the cream should expand, almost doubling in volume). In a separate bowl, combine the flour with the baking powder.

Alternating, add the flour mixture and the sour cream mixture to the butter, sugar, eggs, and vanilla mixture. Spread half of the batter in a greased cake pan (either a 9x9 square pan or a circular springform pan).

In a bowl, combine the brown sugar, cinnamon, and nuts. Sprinkle half of this mixture over the batter. Then cover with the remaining batter and sprinkle the rest of the topping on top.

Bake for 45 minutes. Let cool in the pan for about 5 minutes before digging in.

If there's any left, it can be wrapped in foil and reheated.

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Refrigerator Dill Pickles

IMG_2092 I love me a good pickle. And it is officially "canning season" up here in Toronto. Coming from a land devoid of seasons (i.e. Phoenix), the idea of an annual activity of canning, jarring, or preserving the year's harvest was entirely foreign to me. The first August I was in Canada, I was amazed to see pallets upon ballets of mason jars in local supermarkets and boxes of gelatin or pectin stocked to the roof. First I thought the Canadians were just *really into* the whole mason jar trend. But, turns out, they had a proud jarring tradition. That they actually used mason jars for, you know, what mason jars was originally intended for.

But I digress.

Pickles (or even dill pickles) are perhaps the most well-known of the old-school preserves. Actually the name is a bit of both a misnomer and a catch-all. Technically, this recipe is for pickled cucumbers in particular. As the concept of "pickling" can really be applied to any foodstuff: onions, garlic, watermelon, peppers, etc. It's only in recent years that referring generally to "pickles" implies cucumbers in particular.

Anyway. Pickles. I love pickles. But the traditional jarring/pickling method was always a little too intense for me. I don't have a fruit cellar. I don't need to store pints upon pints of preserves away for the long winter. I'm a 21st century gal with a supermarket just steps away. That doesn't take away the sheer pleasure of home pickling though. Everyone I've ever met who enjoys a good pickle has fairly specific qualifications for what exactly makes a "good pickle". Spicy? Extra dill? Sweet? The variations are endless. So if you're got a little time (and I'm talking about 20-30 minutes here) and you like yourself a good pickle, it might be a good idea to try your hand at it.

This recipe also gets us away from the traditional preparation method, known as "processing", of sterilizing your jars in a hot water bath. Now, you're more than welcome to add this step if shelf-stable pickles are up your alley (and you've got a place to store reams upon reams of preserves). But I'm more than happy to keep a couple of jars in the fridge & eat them over the course of a few weeks rather than all winter long. Yes, refrigerator pickles may not last as long, but what kind you make all depends on how much space you have (and, really, how much patience you have). I have very little of either. So let's call this a recipe for impatient pickles.

I've borrowed from a number of different recipes for refrigerator pickles for this one (particularly thekitchn's very excellent introduction to dill pickles). As with most pickling recipes, the variations are endless. This is just one among many and, obviously, feel free to change almost any of the spices or vinegar varieties according to your own taste.

The key here is really the combination of cucumbers + hot vinegar + spices + time = pickles. That's all you need to know as a basic pickler.

Makes 4 2-pint jars of refrigerator pickles

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Ingredients

40-50 Persian cucumbers, washed and cut into spears

16 garlic gloves, peeled

8 tsp dill seed

4 tsp celery seed

4 tsp red pepper flakes

4 tsp red peppercorns (or black, whatever you have/prefer)

1 bunch fresh dill weed

4 tsp pickling spice (available in most spice sections of supermarkets or make your own of a variety of dill seed, coriander, celery seed, cardamom, etc.)

12 tbsp salt (we used sea salt)

8 cups vinegar (we used a majority of white vinegar with a splash of white wine vinegar, but you can substitute whatever flavor you prefer: rice vinegar, red wine vinegar, cider vinegar, etc.)

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Method

  1. Wash and dry your jars and lids. If you were planning to make shelf-stable pickles, you'd need to process them (cook them in a hot water bath, but since we're making refrigerator pickles, we're skipping this step)

2. Add the spices to the bottom of the jars. I put 1 tsp red pepper flakes, 1 tsp red peppercorns, 1 tsp celery seed, 1 tsp dill seed, 4 garlic cloves, 1 tsp pickling spice, and 1/4 of my fresh dill into the bottom of each. But, as I said, the variation here is entirely up to you.

3. Pack the cucumbers into the jar. Pack them as tightly as you can without smashing them.

4. Combine the vinegar, water, and salt in a large saucepan. Bring to a rolling boil.

5. Ladle the hot vinegar mixture into each of the jars. Fill each jar to within 1/2 inch of the top. Don't worry if you don't use all the brine.

6. Tap the jars gently against the counter to remove any excess air bubbles.

7. Seal the jars tightly with the lids.

8. Allow the jars to come to room temperature. Store them in the fridge. Try to let them sit for at least 48 hours before sampling them. The longer they age, the better they will be. They will keep in the fridge for several weeks.

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Shrimp & Grits with Roasted Tomato, Fennel, and Sausage

shrimp and grits I could probably eat shrimp and grits every day of my life. Really. They are the best of all possible worlds: grits/polenta, sausage, and shrimp. Delicious. I've been looking for a great recipe for shrimp & grits, an old southern classic, for years. And thankfully, the NY Times came through. It's a bit of a multi-step process, but overall an easy recipe, one that is consistent every single time. Get ready to get some pots dirty, but your taste buds will thank you.

Total Time: 90 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

For the roasted tomato

8 plum tomatoes, halved lengthwise

1 garlic clove, minced

2 tablespoons olive oil

salt

black pepper

For the fennel

1 large fennel bulb, trimmed fronds reserved and cut into thin wedges

2-3 cups chicken, vegetable, or shrimp broth, or water

1 tablespoon butter

salt

ground white pepper

For the Grits

1 cup coarse corn grits

salt

1 fresh bay leaf

1 1/2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon cream cheese

ground white pepper

1/2 teaspoon lemon juice, or to taste

1/2 teaspoon hot sauce, or to taste

For the shrimp and assembly

1 tablespoon olive oil

20 large shrimp, peeled and deveined

1 cup cooked smoked sausage or other smoked breakfast sausage

1 teaspoon lemon juice, or to taste

hot sauce

salt

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Preparation

1. For the roasted tomato; heat oven to 450 degrees F. Toss tomato halves in a bowl with garlic, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Transfer, cut side up, to a baking sheet. Roasted until collapsed and lightly browned, 25-30 minutes and set aside.

2. For the fennel: in a small saucepan, combine the fennel, half of the reserved fronds, and just enough broth or water to cover. Add butter and season with salt and white pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to very low, and simmer until tender when pierced with a fork, 8-10 minutes. Transfer fennel to a plate, discard cooking fronds and reserve cooking liquid.

3. For the grits: Bring 4 cups of water or broth to a boil. Gradually mix in the grits, a little at a time. Constantly stir, incorporating the grits with the broth/water. Season to taste with salt and white pepper, and add the bay leaf halfway through cooking (grits should take 15-20 minutes with constant stirring). At the end of cooking, mix grits with butter, cream cheese, white pepper, lemon juice, and hot sauce. Adjust salt as needed. About 10-12 minutes before the grits are finished cooking, prepare the shrimp and assemble the dish.

4. For shrimp and assembly: Place a large saute pan over medium heat and add the oil. When the oil is shimmering, add the shrimp in a single layer. When they are seared on one side, about one minute, turn them to sear on the other side.

Add the fennel, sausage, roasted tomatoes, and 1 1/2 cups of the reserved fennel cooking liquid. Bring to a simmer and season with lemon juice, hot sauce, and salt. If the mixture seems too dry, add more fennel cooking liquid as desired. Add chopped parsley and toss to mix.

To serve, place equal portions of grits on four rimmed plats or shallow soup plates. Divide the shrimp stew among the plates, garnish with remaining fennel fronds, and serve.

Angel Buttermilk Biscuits

IMG_0555 It's been a long hard road to get to good biscuits. Many (and I do mean many) recipes have been tried and there have been many (and I do mean many) disappointments. But thankfully Slate.com's Thanksgiving post on biscuits/rolls came through. A yeast-y biscuit that doesn't require a long wait time and they are buttery and fluffy as the day is long. Finally, the biscuit odyssey is complete!

Yield: 25-30 biscuits

Time: About 45 minutes

Ingredients 

2 1/4 ounce packets active dry yeast

5 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 cup sugar

4 teaspoons baking powder

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (2 1/4 sticks) cold unsalted butter

2 cups buttermilk

Method

1. Heat the oven 425 degrees F. Combine the yeast with 1/4 cup warm water- about the same temperature as the inside of your wrist- in a small bowl. Let sit for 5 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and baking soda in a large bowl. Add 1 cup (2 sticks) of the butter and blend with a pastry cutter or your fingers until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add the buttermilk and the yeast mixture and stir until just combined, then transfer the dough to a floured surface and knead 5 or 6 times (don't over knead!).

3. With a rolling pin, roll out the dough until it's 3/4 inch thick. Cut into rounds with a biscuit cutter or class and transfer to an ungreased baking sheet with the edges of the rounds touching. Gather up the dough scraps, roll them out, and repeat. Cover the pan with a clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap and let the dough rest for at least 10 minutes.

4. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat (or in a microwave-safe bowl in the microwave.) Brush the biscuits with the melted butter. Bake until the biscuits are golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes. Serve hot or warm.

Soft Pretzels with Beer Sauce

I have an unabashed love of soft pretzels. They are the best and most wonderful of comfort foods. Salty, bready, and warm from the oven. But too often any access we have to soft pretzels comes from either a questionable cart on a busy city street or at a ballpark, where they have no doubt charged you at least an arm or a leg. These poor pretzels. They either suffer from sitting in that bizarre twirly glass box all day or have been so overloaded with salt you can't even taste if there's anything underneath them (and maybe you wouldn't *want* to taste it...).
The professionals would have you think that making soft pretzels at home is about as complicated as brain surgery. There are multiple steps and necessary complicated tools and gadgets you'll need. And of course, to make truly "authentic" pretzels, you'll need the feared baker's lye, the stuff of kitchen nightmares, where too much of it, and you'll kill your would-be consumers. 
But seriously. You don't need all that stuff. They're just trying to keep you from the doughy delicious salty glory that is the soft pretzel. And the good people at cookingandbeer.com have figured this out (and what a fantastic name for a blog that is). No lye. No crazy gizmos or gadgets. No crazy ingredients at all. Just a basic yeast-based bread recipe that yields some of the most tasty perfect soft pretzels you've ever had. They even throw in a beer cheese sauce recipe! Now that's thoughtful. 
Makes 8 pretzels 
Ingredients

For the preztels: 1 1/2 cups lukewarm water
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
1 packet active dry yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons)
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
2 teaspoons fine sea salt
4 cup all-purpose flour (more as needed)
1 tablespoon canola oil
2/3 cup baking soda
1 egg, beaten with 1 tablespoon cold water to make an egg wash
coarse sea salt
For the beer cheese sauce: 
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
12 ounces beer (IPA or Pale Ale)
1 cup whole milk
2 tablespoons hot sauce
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
salt
pepper
2 cups cheddar cheese, grated
Method

For the Pretzels:
In the bowl of a stand mixer (with dough hook attached), combine the water, butter, yeast, brown sugar and granulated sugar. Let stand for 5 minutes or until the mixture begins to foam.

With the speed set on low, add the fine sea salt and the flour until all has been added. Increase the speed to medium, and knead for 5-6 minutes. The dough should start to pull away from the sides of the bowl and form a ball. If the dough is too sticky, add more flour until the dough is easy to handle.
Drizzle a tablespoon of canola oil into a large bowl. Remove the dough from the stand mixer and form it into a ball. Place the dough into the large bowl and toss so that it is evenly coated with canola oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a damp towel and place it in an unheated oven to rise for 1-2 hours, or until it has doubled in size.
Once your dough has risen, remove it from the bowl and transfer it to a work surface. Cut it into 8 equally-sized pieces.
Preheat your oven to 425 degrees F and line 2 large baking sheets with silicone baking mats or parchment paper. Set aside.
In a large pot, bring 6 cups of water to a rolling boil.
While you wait for you water to come to a boil, take each piece and roll out into a very thin rope. Lay the rope horizontally in front of you and cross the right side over the left. Twist the ends once or twice and flip the ends toward you to form a traditional pretzel-like shape. Press the ends into the bottom of the pretzel to seal. Repeat this step for the rest of the dough. 
Once you have formed your pretzels, add the baking soda (you need to be very careful and slow at this point, it'll bubble up almost immediately) to the boiling water until all of it has been added. One or two at a time, add the pretzels to the water and boil for 30-45 seconds. Remove the pretzels from the water with a slotted spoon and transfer to your prepared baking sheets. Repeat this step for the rest of your pretzels.
Brush your pretzels with the prepared egg wash and sprinkle generously with coarse sea salt. Bake the pretzels at 425 degrees F for 12-15 minutes or until they are brown on top. You may need to switch the two baking sheets halfway through the baking process if your oven does not cook evenly. Remove from oven and let cool for 2-3 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes more.
For the spicy beer cheese sauce
Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Slowly whisk in the flour and cook for 1-2 minutes or until a nutty aroma fills the air and your roux is a golden color. 
Slowly whisk in the beer and continue to let it cook, whisking frequently, for 3-4 minute. 
Next, add the milk and whisk again to combine. 
Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer, and allow for it to cook until the sauce has thickened and is at a consistency in which you desire. 
Stir in the hot sauce, cayenne pepper, and a dash of salt and pepper. Remove the sauce from the heat, and add the cheese in half cup increments, making sure the cheese has completely melted before you add the rest.
Serve the spicy beer cheese sauce with the pretzels immediately, or store the pretzels in an air tight container where they will keep for about a week.
The cheese can be stored in the fridge for about a week also. When you go to serve it, add it to a small saucepan over low heat to warm gently.