April 27, 2011

Spinach Spirals

Bismillahir Rahmanir Raheem

I love appetizers; I think they're the perfect introduction to any meal and can serve as a little teaser, a preview if you will, of the rest of the course that is to follow. It's also a sure-fire way to get conversation going for any dinner party. Though the idea of  appetizers (or hors d'oeuvres, if you're feeling fancy) can seem intimidating, it's actually much simpler than anyone would think. All you need to do is think of your favorite food and then scale it down enough to be an easy finger food. So you like chicken kabobs? No problem! Cook them up as usual but thread two to three pieces on a decorative toothpick and wa lah, an appetizer! Does your southern heart have a hankering for good ol' cornbread? Bake them up in a mini-muffin tins and bam! Another appetizer! See? It's easy.

On this particular occasion I went with a traditional fatayer stuffing that I normally use inside pockets of puff pastry. But by changing up the shape I was able to scale it down and make bite-size portions of a dinner-party favorite. It goes without saying that this can be customized so many ways: mushroom and caramelized onions or some ground lamb with feta, really you can use whatever you want. The beauty of this appetizer is in its beautiful pinwheel presentation.

Some tips on working with puff pastry:
- keep the dough chilled until ready to use. If the dough gets too warm then it becomes sticky which makes it not only super-hard to work with, but you also went get that trademark golden rising from the dough.
- if you're finding it hard to cut the pastry into spiral, pop the rolled up cylinder into the freezer for about 4 minutes to firm-up a bit before cutting.
- cut your spirals with a sharp serrated knife (like a bread knife) for the cleanest cuts.
- there's no need to grease your pan as there is plenty of butter in the dough to keep it from sticking. But if you do choose to use a cheese that will melt easily (like mozzarella) then it may be best to use parchment or wax paper to contain the mess.

Spinach Spirals
(Adapted from here  makes about 24 spirals)

1 package puff pastry, thawed
1 package frozen chopped spinach, thawed
1 medium onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons sumac
1/2 teaspoon garam masala (or ground cinnamon and ground cloves if you don't have garam masala)
2 tablepoons pomegranate syrup
3 tablespoons sun dried tomatoes, chopped
1/4 cup parmesan cheese
1/4 cup mozzeralla cheese
1 tsp garlic powder
4 tablespoons melted butter

1. Thaw both sheets of puff pastry according to box directions but make sure to keep refrigerated until you're ready to use. In a skillet over medium heat, saute onions and garlic until fragrant; about 3 minutes. Add thawed and drained spinach and cook for 3 more minutes. Add sumac, garam masala, pomegranate syrup and salt and pepper to taste. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.

2. In a small bowl, mix the garlic powder with the melted butter and brush on to an unrolled puff pastry sheet.  Sprinkle the entire sheet with half of each cheese. Followed by half of the spinach mixture and half of the sun-dried tomatoes.

3. Starting from the end closest to you, roll the puff pastry sheet up in a tight roll. Continue rolling and pinch the seams when you reach the end. Cut into 3/4" slices with a serrated knife and place on a baking sheet. Bake in pre-heated oven at 400 degrees until spirals are golden and puffy. Repeat with remaining ingredients on the second puff pastry sheet.

April 22, 2011

Oatmeal and Maple Biscuits

Bismillahir Rahmanir Raheem

Growing up, I was not a breakfast person; I would rarely eat anything before rushing out the door to school (I know, I know, shame on me). The weekends were the same story, unless grits were involved in which case that'd be about the extent of my breakfast. Now that I'm a parent, alhamdulillah, I take breakfast more seriously. No, I still don't eat it regularly but I do make sure my children do. I'm also not a fan of cold-breakfasts (see above: grits) and try to get something warm and filling in those growing bellies each morning.
Now before you go and get visions of a niqaabi June Cleaver let me tell you we have plenty of mornings of cold cereal around here, because that's just life. Mornings just always seem to be a bit chaotic and though I want something hearty and hot to serve my family, it needs to be easy and quick. All that and still yummy, too.

And that's exactly why these biscuits* are the new family favorite: they come together quickly, the kids love them and I don't have to worry about speculatively halal ingredients as is often the case with canned biscuits. But please don't even began to try and compare these to anything that pops out of a can. Thanks to the oatmeal these are hearty, thick and crumbly yet don't feel like a hockey puck sitting in your tummy. They have a slightly sweet crumb thanks to the syrup (DO NOT try and substitute any mrs-aunts-butter-jemima-junk for pure maple syrup!) but are still subtle enough to be slathered with your cheesecake leftovers. Wait...cheesecake? Huh?

Yes, you heard me right. Strawberry cheesecake for breakfast, just without the chesecake part. That strawberry topping is perfect atop these biscuits straight out of the oven. You can easily swap for any other fruit, fresh or frozen. Refrigerate the sauce over night for best consistency. You can keep it for a few days in the fridge, though it didn't even last one day in our house, but anything beyond that may not be the best thing since this faux-jam is pectin and preservative free. Warm maple biscuits with homemade strawberry jam, now that's a breakfast I can get used to.
 (*the original recipe calls these scones but seeing as I'm all unrefined and can't tell the difference between a scone and a biscuit, plus my kids ended up calling this is a biscuit, I just went with the more American-y sounding of the two. Either way, it's delicious)

Oat and Maple Biscuits
Breakfast Lunch, Tea: The Many Little Meals of Rose Bakery
Yield: about 8 - 10, depending on your biscuit cutter size

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting surface
1/2 cup  whole wheat flour
1/2 cup rolled oats (I used quick-cooking)
1 very heaped tablespoon baking powder
1 very heaped tablespoon  granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon table salt
Scant 3/4 cup unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup milk or buttermilk
1 egg, beaten (for glaze)

1.Preheat your oven to 400°F  and butter a baking tray

2. Whisk the flours, oats, baking powder, sugar and salt together in a large bowl. With a pastry blender or your fingertips, work the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.

3. In a small dish, combine the milk and syrup, then add these liquid ingredients to the butter-flour mixture. By hand or with a rubber spatula, bring everything together to form a softish dough. If it feels too dry, add a little more milk but not enough that the dough is sticky. I usually end up adding another 1/4 cup milk but whatever you do, add in small amounts until the dough comes together and is no longer sticky.

4. On a lightly floured surface, pat or roll the dough out until it is 1 1/4 inches tall. Using a 2-inch cutter, cut the dough into rounds and place them on the prepared tray so that they almost touch. Glaze the tops with beaten egg and bake for 20 to 25 minutes until the scones are lightly golden. The scones will stick together, so pull them gently apart when they’ve cooled a bit.

5. Serve warm plain, drizzled with honey or slathered with jam.

Strawberry Jam
1 cup strawberry, mashed
1 cup sugar 
3 tablespoons cornstarch 
1/3 cup water

1. Blend sugar and cornstarch together in a small saucepan.

2.Stir in water and strawberries.

3.Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens and boils.

4. Boil and stir for 1 minute. Cool thoroughly before storing in a container and refrigerating. Keep in fridge overnight for best results.

April 20, 2011

Strawberry Cheesecake

Bismillahir Rahmanir Raheem

While planning out the menu for a dinner party, I mulled over several dessert options; should I go classic with  cupcakes? Rich with macaroons? Fruity with an orange cake? But then a thought came to me, a very sweet and creamy thought: cheescake. It's been entirely way too long since I've made one and technically, those were more along the lines of cheescake bars and not an actual cake. Whats the difference, you ask? The topping of course!


Another detail to tweak on a cake, that can't be done with bars, is that mile-high crust that New York Cheesecakes are known for in particular.I followed the Smitten Kitchen's notes on getting that high crust to creep up the sides but opted for a 'lighter' cheesecake recipe. Well, if you can call four packages of cream cheese light, that is.

Now I have to admit, I was skeptical about the topping. I can not stand canned pie-filling versions mounded on top of a cheesecakes, it's way too artificially sweet and seems like such a tacky way to finish such a timeless dessert. But I did have some frozen strawberries on hand (though the stores are full of beautiful fresh ones) so I was willing to try out a simple recipe. I figured if it didn't turn out good we can save it to serve over something else (more to come on that later insha'allah!). Turns out, it was a perfect fruity and slightly sweet compliment after all.

There are a lot of tips and tricks out there on how to get a perfect, crack-free cheesecake but I don't try and mess with those. As long as it tastes good in the end, I don't mind a crack or two. And besides, when you're gonna top it off with this super simple sauce, no one's going to know about any secret cracks.

Philadelphia Cheese Cake

1-1/2 cups Graham Cracker crumbs (I went with Deb's suggestion at used 15 whole graham crackers and whole stick of butter)
3 Tbsp.  sugar
1/3 cup butter, melted
4 pkg. Cream Cheese, softened
1 cup sugar
1 tsp.  vanilla
4 eggs
Heat oven to 325°F.Mix graham crumbs, 3 Tbsp. sugar and butter; press onto bottom of 9-inch springform pan.Beat cream cheese, 1 cup sugar and vanilla with mixer until well blended. Add eggs, 1 at a time, mixing on low speed after each just until blended. Pour over crust.Bake 55 min. or until center is almost set. Loosen cake from rim of pan; cool before removing rim. Refrigerate 4 hours. (I left it in the fridge overnight for best results)

Strawberry Sauce 
1 cup strawberry, mashed
1 cup sugar 
3 tablespoons cornstarch 
1/3 cup water

1. Blend sugar and cornstarch together in a small saucepan.

2.Stir in water and strawberries.

3.Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens and boils.

4. Boil and stir for 1 minute. Cool thoroughly before spreading over cooled cheesecake.


April 8, 2011

Chewy Cocoa Brownies

Bismillahir Rahmanir Raheem

I've recently made a discovery; a ground-breaking, life-changing discovery. I figured out why I wasn't happy with my usual, go-to brownie recipe (the Bakers one bowl recipe, in case you were wondering); I didn't like them because they didn't taste like boxed brownies, which in my opinion are some of the yummiest brownies around.

I just assumed it was the missing chemicals, preservatives and HFCS and so I stayed content with my mediocre, made-from-scratch-love-and-lot-and-lots-of-sugar version. Then I stumbled upon a recipe or two for cocoa brownies and thought to myself, cocoa shmoco, how different could it really be? Like I said before, life changing.

Cocoa brownies are fudgier and chewier than their melted-chocolate brownie cousins. Albeit they're thinner but still pack a sharp, chocolate punch.These are basically as close to "from-the-box" as you can get without getting it from the box. And to top it all off, it can be made all in one bowl, too!I can finally say, without any hesitation, that I love this recipe.

Cocoa Brownies
Makes 16 larger or 25 smaller brownies

10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups sugar
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoonsunsweetened cocoa powder (natural or Dutch-process)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs, cold
1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1.Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 325°F. Line the bottom and sides of an 8×8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper or foil, leaving an overhang on two opposite sides.

2.Combine the butter, sugar, cocoa, and salt in a medium heatproof bowl and set the bowl in a wide skillet of barely simmering water. Stir from time to time until the butter is melted and the mixture is smooth and hot enough that you want to remove your finger fairly quickly after dipping it in to test. Remove the bowl from the skillet and set aside briefly until the mixture is only warm, not hot. It will look gritty and grainy, but don't worry, it'll smooth out once the eggs are added (I do this step in a microwave)

3.Stir in the vanilla with a wooden spoon. Add the eggs one at a time, stirring vigorously after each one. When the batter looks thick, shiny, and well blended, add the flour and stir until you cannot see it any longer, then beat vigorously for 40 strokes with the wooden spoon or a rubber spatula. Stir in the nuts, if using. Spread evenly in the lined pan.

4.Bake until a toothpick plunged into the center emerges slightly moist with batter (don't bake until it comes out clean, or else you'll have dry brownies), 20 to 25 minutes.

5. Let cool completely on a rack.Lift up the ends of the parchment or foil liner, and transfer the brownies to a cutting board. Cut into 16 or 25 squares.

April 4, 2011

Chipotle Chicken Tacos

Bismillahir Rahmanir Raheem

One of my favorite lazy Sunday afternoon activities is watching back to back episodes of Cooks Country. One of the beauties of PBS is their day-long marathons of a specific show, and I'm not one to complain of a full day of cooking shows! On one such afternoon, a particular recipe really caught my eye and after coming off my Cooks Illustrated high, I decided I was ready to jump back into a multi-process recipe with a slew of exotic ingredients.

 Ok, so yellow mustard isn't exactly what you'd call exotic, but the chipotle in adobo sauce...wow. And can someone tell me why it's taken me so long to embrace the chipotle? It's my new favorite ingredient, by the way, making an appearance in everything from stuffed bread to chili. And despite its actual description (smoked jalapeno in adobo sauce) there not at all spicy which did leave me a tad disappointed. But that didn't last long as I was taken in by the smoky-sweet complexity of this little pepper. It transformed the whole dish from a regular chicken taco to something that sings on your taste buds! Forgive me if I'm being overly dramatic, but this little can has really changed the scope of my cooking...for the better, alhamdulillah.

Like the General Tso, this dish takes a couple more steps than I would normally like, especially when a simple one-pot chicken fajita is a weekly staple around here. But variety is the spice of a life and when that variety has a hint of a adobe in it, well, then wonderful things happen.

I paired these with some country fries and jalapeno poppers, but their bold taste is enough to eat on its own. Left over filling would be amazing on some crispy salad too!

Easy Chicken Tacos Recipe
(serves 6, taken from Cooks Country)

12 flour tortillas (6-inch)
3 tablespoons butter
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons minced canned chipotle chiles in adobo sauce
1/2 cup orange juice
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
3/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 1 1/2 pounds)
1 teaspoon yellow mustard
Salt and pepper
Optional taco toppings such as shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, shredded cheese, diced avocado, and sour cream

1.Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Wrap the tortillas in foil and heat in 350 degree oven for fifteen minutes.

2.In a large skillet melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add garlic and chipotle and cook about 30 seconds. Stir in the orange juice, Worcestershire sauce, and 1/2 cup cilantro. Bring mixture to a boil, and then add chicken. Cover the skillet and simmer over medium-low heat for about 5 minutes. Flip the chicken over and continue to simmer in the covered skillet until the chicken is done (160 degrees) about 5 to 10 minutes more.

3.Transfer the chicken to a plate and cover it with foil to keep it warm and let it rest. Increase the heat under the skillet to medium-high and cook until the liquid is reduced to 1/4 cup, about 5 minutes. Remove skillet from the heat and whisk in the mustard. Set the skillet aside.

4.Uncover the chicken and using two forks, shred it into bite-sized pieces. Return the chicken to the skillet. Add the remaining cilantro and stir until everything is well combined. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with tortillas and desired taco toppings.