Cooking and Gadgets

l.c.-finns-roasted-pears-028Some say it makes no difference what kind of vanilla is used in cookies, cakes, quick breads and custards. Some home bakers are sure artificial vanilla flavoring works just fine for giving the best flavor to their baked goods. Others would argue that you shouldn’t waste your time baking if you use artificial flavoring. Only the real deal, pure vanilla extract, will work for giving the best flavor to desserts.

I’m a member of the pure vanilla extract club. I would never use an imposter in the custard for our family’s special banana cake, layers upon layers of homemade vanilla custard, sliced bananas and vanilla wafers covered with a thick blanket of real whipped cream. My special pound cake would have something missing if it was made with artificial vanilla. Pure vanilla extract costs a bit more than its artificial look-alike, but to me, it’s worth every penny.

Chad Gillard and Lee Zwiefelhofer favor the real deal, too. The two Twin Cities guys were discussing the absence of locally-made vanilla extract – extracts of any kind, really, as they downed some Finnegans together. They decided they’d make it themselves. In 2010 they started a company called l.c. finn’s Extracts, l. for Lee, c. for Chad and finns for those Finnegans that were downed as the business ideas developed. A few months ago, they launched their first three extracts: vanilla, cinnamon and cardamom.

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bananachiptlebreadWhere do you get recipe ideas? Cooking shows? Food magazines? The Wednesday food section of your newspaper? Blogs? (Um, I hope you nodded "yes" to that last one.) How about Twitter and Facebook?

Last time I had some overripe bananas to use up I could have made my favorite banana, coconut, and Medjool quick bread, but I wanted something savory. Nothing was coming to mind, so I did what any connected food blogger would do: I asked my tweeps.

I tweeted, "Does anybody have any good savory recipes for ripe bananas?" Within minutes I had several responses, but it was Jill of @eatitdrinkit's response that intrigued me. She suggested I make chipotle banana bread. Chipotle chilis in banana bread? Really? Yes, really.

When I asked her for the recipe, she said she didn't have one. The flavor combo just came to her, and before she realized it, she was making a batch of Banana-Chipotle Bread. When she posted it on her blog, she triumphantly exclaimed, "It worked!"

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Sometimes we post letters that one of us receives just because they're so hilarious and on-point. That's how we feel about Don Seigel's response to Tracy Newman when she invited him to hear her play at Genghis Cohen.

Tray,

ImageRegrettably, we won't be able to make the show on Saturday night. I forgot that I invited my father-in-law over that night for dinner and the Pacquio fight. We will, however, catch you the next time you are there, or somewhere else.

As far as my cooking, I have discovered the absolute delight of the slow cooker. We've had one for years, but I never used it until a few months ago. Since then I have picked up a wonderful cookbook with recipes designed specifically for the slow cooker from Williams-Sonoma.

Yesterday, after dropping Julian off at school in the morning I returned home to make a Cuban Chicken. I cut up a chicken into eight pieces and browned the pieces for ten minutes in three tablespoons of olive oil and salt before placing them into the cooker.

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perfectly-flaky-pie-crust.jpg There are those who are intuitive cooks. They can just rustle up some ingredients from their pantry and freezer and blithely come up with a smashing meal with the effortless grace that leaves someone like me scratching their head feeling like a pair of brown shoes in a world of Tuxedos.

Sure, I can follow a recipe and that can fool some people into thinking I’m a good cook, but the thing that separates the gifted from the wannabes is baking.  One time I endeavored to create a fat-free, whole grain bar that my friend Marcia Strassman christened ‘tree bark’ after taking one bite.

My cupcakes have come out of the oven with all the promise of a Sprinkles alternative only to cool to the dry sludgy consistency of play dough mixed with sawdust.  I don’t get it. I did everything right. What’s the secret?

I could live with these set backs, if it weren’t for the fact that what I’d really like to master is a stinkin’ Piecrust and I can’t even get that right!  My Aunt Lovey, whose stuffing recipe is in the archives, also made a sensational Piecrust.  Often I considered Piecrust a necessary evil to get to the reward of the sugared fruit interior, but not her crusts. They had a crisp, savory texture of, well, I can’t think of anything to compare them to really. I just know that I loved nothing more than to break off the edges of them and crunch on them and combine their savory flavors in my mouth along with the sweet fruit of the pie.

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grilledpizzaI love making pizza, not just because it's fun, but also because I think mine can rival any pizza parlor's. I have the entire set-up, including a pizza stone and peel. But this time I put all that aside to try something new. Instead of the typical way of baking pizza, have you ever tried grilling it? For years I've been told that grilled pizza is the best, but I haven't actually done it myself until now. I was pleasantly surprised and impressed by the outcome.

Grilling lends pizza a smoky, charry flavor and makes the crust crispier than baking. This is pizza grilled directly on the grates, not on a stone. With this method you grill the dough on one side, then flip it over and top the just-grilled side with toppings. My recipe takes on the flavors of Caprese salad with slices of fresh mozzarella and tomato. Instead of tomato sauce, the base is pesto—it's a much more fresh flavor especially if you make the pesto yourself, which I do.

Recently Fleischmann's sent me packets of their new yeast, Pizza Crust Yeast. I was intrigued to say the least. Thinking it might just be a gimmick, I gave it a go anyway. Usually when you make pizza, the process of waiting for the dough to rise takes up a lot of time—it's almost as involved as making bread! But with this new yeast, all you have to do is mix together the ingredients, knead it a little, and you are ready to make pizza. Try it!

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