Baked Apple Dumplings

Currently cooking from The Complete Cook’s Country TV Show Cookbook from America’s Test Kitchen.

I usually only like baked apples in pie, but this method of baking apples was pretty good. These dumplings aren’t the most elegant of desserts, but on a cool fall evening, with the season’s first apples, they really hit the spot.

The recipe starts out by having you make a biscuit dough using the food processor. Flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, shortening and butter are pulsed together until they form a mixture that looks like wet sand. At that point, the mixture is transferred to a bowl and buttermilk is stirred in until a loose dough forms. You knead the dough briefly until it comes together, then the dough is chilled for about an hour before it is rolled out and cut into squares..

For the apples, you peel, halve and then core four apples. For the filling, you combine softened butter, raisins (I hate raisins, so I used dried cranberries), cinnamon and sugar. The filling is stuffed into the apples, and the apple halves are wrapped in the dough. The dumplings are baked until the dough is golden brown and any juices that you can see are bubbling. The recipe also has you make a cider sauce, but I was feeling lazy and just served the warm dumplings with vanilla ice cream.

Sometimes making an apple pie is more work than I want to do, so this recipe is a great fallback. It is easy to make. It also makes smaller, individual-sized servings, so it is a great way to not eat a whole pie. At first I was a little thrown by the dough, as it tasted just like a biscuit. I kept expecting more of a pie crust taste and texture. According to the headnotes on this recipe, however, the biscuit dough was easier to work with and it absorbed the apple juices better than the pie crust dough.

Crispy Baked Potato Fans

Currently cooking from The Complete Cook’s Country TV Show Cookbook from America’s Test Kitchen.

I have a favorite way to bake potatoes (it’s actually smashed red potatoes that you brush with olive oil and then bake until the edges get crispy), but I was drawn to the picture of these potatoes in the book. Mine didn’t turn out nearly as pretty, but they tasted really good. I don’t know that I’ll give up my smashed potatoes in favor of this one, but it is nice to have a more elegant way to bake potatoes.

You start out by making a topping of bread crumbs, butter, Monterey Jack cheese, Parmesan cheese, paprika and garlic powder by melting the butter and mixing everything together. I made a few changes, mostly to save myself a shopping trip. First, I didn’t have bread, so instead of bread crumbs, I used panko. And I had just bought a chunk of cheddar cheese, so I used that instead of Monterey Jack cheese. The topping turned out fine, even with my changes.

On to the actual potatoes. You take four russets, slice them every quarter of an inch almost all the way through, then carefully wash them out, making sure to wash out the slices. This helps keep the potatoes from sticking together. Then, you precook the potatoes in the microwave; this way, they don’t spend two hours in the oven. Once the potatoes have softened in the microwave, you brush them with oil and bake them in a very hot oven (450 degrees) until they are completely tender and the skin has crisped up. Finally, you press on the topping and broil the potatoes until the topping is crisp.

These were very tasty, and I loved the topping. My only problem was that it was very hard to get the topping to stay on the potatoes. I had to really press the topping down and kind of squish it into the cuts, resulting in a few minor burns.

Of course I ate mine with sour cream, because everything is better with sour cream.

If you are bored with baked potatoes, this is an easy way to spice them up for not too much more work. They are also elegant enough to serve to company, say with a side of roast beef . . .

Classic Roast Beef and Gravy

Currently cooking from The Complete Cook’s Country TV Show Cookbook from America’s Test Kitchen.

I’ve always thought that roast beef was just another name for pot roast. It never occurred to me that roast beef was its own dish until I saw this recipe. And after making this, I have an elegant, delicious Sunday dinner to add to my repertoire.

This is really two recipes in one. There’s the method for roasting the beef, but there’s also a recipe for brown gravy. This isn’t a 30-minute dinner, but most of the time is hands-off while the beef is roasting. You’ll need to plan a little in advance, as the beef needs to sit, covered with salt, for at least an hour in the fridge before roasting.

Prior to roasting, you brown the beef on all sides, then transfer to a low oven (275 degrees) and let it bake, until it reaches the desired temperature. In the meantime, using the same pan you browned the beef in, you build the gravy. You start out by cooking mushrooms, onions, carrots and celery until browned, followed by tomato paste, garlic and a bit of flour. The pot is deglazed with wine and beef broth, and the liquid is simmered until it reduces and thickened. The gravy is strained and kept warm until the beef is done.

My biggest problem is that the beef was too rare at the suggested temperature. I ended up putting the roast back in the oven for another 90 minutes or so. Even cooked longer, the meat stayed juicy and tender. The leftovers (and there were at least four more meals’ worth for Bryan and I) were just as good as the first meal. The recipe makes a lot of gravy, and I actually ended up throwing the last little bit out. Bryan said the gravy was almost as good as his mother’s brown gravy.

Red Velvet Cake

Currently cooking from The Complete Cook’s Country TV Show Cookbook from America’s Test Kitchen.

I didn’t think this was possible, but I found an America’s Test Kitchen/Cooks Illustrated recipe that I don’t like. I was so surprised I had to go back and retrace each step to see if I had messed up somewhere (I didn’t). So then I went online and looked for other opinions on this recipe. It turns out there are several people who have tried it and didn’t like it or liked another red velvet cake recipe better. Once the dizziness passed, I reverted to my tried and true red velvet cake.

I needed a red velvet cake because I wanted to do this:

And get this:

Let me recap. Two layers of red velvet cake sandwiching a layer of vanilla cheesecake and covered with cream cheese frosting. Was there anything in that previous sentence that didn’t sound good?

I made this for a friend, so I didn’t get to cut into it, but she was kind enough to snap a picture of it for me. It looks just as good as I thought it would. I may have to make one just for myself.

But back to that America’s Test Kitchen recipe. When my friend asked me to make her a cake, I thought it was a perfect opportunity to try this recipe. I was expecting another winner, and looking at the recipe, it seemed like it had all the right red velvet cake ingredients in it. Except for two big differences from my regular recipe—this one called for butter instead of oil and it had quite a bit more cocoa powder in it.

You start out by creaming the butter and sugar, then mix in the dry ingredients (flour, baking soda and salt) alternating with the wet ingredients (buttermilk, eggs, vinegar and vanilla). Finally, you make a paste of cocoa powder and red food coloring and mix that into the batter.

The cakes baked up tender and moist, with that trademark red brick color. But they just didn’t taste right. Have you ever tried to pin down the flavor of a red velvet cake? As I told Bryan, I can’t explain what it should taste like, but I know it when I taste it. This cake tasted more of chocolate and butter, and it didn’t have the tang that a red velvet cake should have. It was a good cake, but in my mind, it just wasn’t a red velvet cake.

Authentic Beef Enchiladas

Currently cooking from The Complete Cook’s Country TV Show Cookbook from America’s Test Kitchen.

I don’t make much Mexican food at home. Within about a three-mile radius of our house, we have approximately 59 Mexican restaurants or food trucks. Why should I dirty up the kitchen, leave a mound of dishes for Bryan to wash and end up with just okay food, when I can get the good stuff for less than $10 and a five minute drive? In my world, that’s a no-brainer.

Unfortunately, I happened to mention to Bryan that this cookbook includes a Mexican chapter and that the beef enchiladas looked pretty good. Next thing I know, I’m shopping for enchilada ingredients and watching the dishes pile up in the sink. This isn’t a 30-minute meal. Or even a 60-minute meal. This is a multistep dish that takes a good three hours from start to finish. But you end up with meltingly tender beef rolled up in corn tortillas and topped with a flavorful sauce and gooey cheese. I’m glad I tried the dish, but I’m not sure I’ll be making it again anytime soon.

The recipe starts out by having you braise top blade steaks in onions, garlic and canned tomato sauce until they fall apart. Then you remove and shred the meat and strain the liquid. The shredded meat gets mixed with cheese, cilantro and canned jalapenos, then rolled into corn tortillas. The braising liquid is spread over the tortillas and the whole thing is topped off with more cheese. The enchiladas are baked for about 25 minutes, covered by foil. At the end of the baking time, you remove the foil and let the cheese brown slightly.

I couldn’t find top blade steaks, so I ended up using a roast that I cut into pieces. I think I left the meat in too large of pieces, because my beef took almost an hour longer to get tender. I also only ended up with 10 enchiladas instead of 12 as the recipe stated. Other than those two things, the recipe delivered a great dish. It was tasty, and it tasted authentic. Even the leftovers reheated nicely, although the corn tortillas got a little soggy.

This is one of those dishes that I saw them make on television. At the time, I remember thinking to myself that it seemed like a lot of work for enchiladas. Now having made the recipe, I think I was mostly right. This dish is a lot of work, but if you are willing to do that work, you’ll be rewarded with a great meal. And lots of dishes.

Cornmeal Biscuits

Currently cooking from The Complete Cook’s Country TV Show Cookbook from America’s Test Kitchen.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I really like food that includes cornmeal. I also really like biscuits (and I’m gradually getting better at making my biscuits look more biscuity than hockey pucky). So it probably comes as no surprise that I’ve made this recipe twice in the past two weeks. The simple addition of a little bit of cornmeal elevates these biscuits from good to great.

You start out by soaking cornmeal (the recipe tells you to avoid using coarsely ground cornmeal as that will make the biscuits gritty) in buttermilk and honey to soften the cornmeal just a bit. While that soaks, you use a food processor to combine the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt) and then to cut in the butter. Once your flour resembles coarse meal, you stir it into the buttermilk mixture and mix until a rough dough forms. Finally, you briefly knead the dough until it holds together, pat it out and cut out the biscuits. The biscuits are baked in a very hot oven (start them at 450 degrees and then, after about 5 minutes, turn the oven down to 400 degrees) until they are golden brown.

The cornmeal gives these biscuits a soft, golden hue and just a bit of corn flavor. Softening the cornmeal and using a finely ground cornmeal combine to make the cornmeal disappear into the dough so that you don’t encounter any hard bits. The honey adds just a tough of sweetness and the buttermilk gives them a little tang. These are big biscuits, tall and fluffy, but quite rich from all the butter. They aren’t the least bit tough, even those biscuits that I cut out after rerolling the dough. The only thing I might change is to try using a little less butter. The recipe calls for a stick and a half of butter, and while my tastebuds love that, my hips don’t (especially since I can’t stop at just one biscuit).

Pan-Fried Pork Chops

Currently cooking from The Complete Cook’s Country TV Show Cookbook from America’s Test Kitchen.

I love living in Northern Idaho. But sometimes I miss the conveniences that living in a city brings, such as being able to go to a specialty shop and finding exactly what I’m looking for. With this cookbook, it is meat. Every recipe that features meat calls for a specific cut, like these pork chops. Specifically bone-in pork rib or center-cut pork chops. At my store, I have a choice of bone-in or boneless. Period. No rib cuts or center cuts. I find myself scrutinizing package labels trying to decide what cut is closest to what the recipe calls for. That’s how I ended up with these Frankenstein pork chops. Oh, that one up there looks okay, but that was the best of the bunch. The rest were oblong shaped with different types of meat attached. Some of that meat was dark, some was light, and they all had thick veins of fat running through them. In the end, though, I think the dish was successful.

This is a straightforward recipe for fried pork chops. First you season the meat with garlic powder, paprika, salt, pepper and cayenne pepper. Then you dredge the meat in flour and set it aside while you fry up some bacon. Once your bacon is crispy, you save the bacon for another use (we used it to feed the hungry cook) and add a bit of veggie oil to the pan and heat it up. The pork gets another trip through the flour, then it goes in the pan with the bacon grease and veggie oil where it sputters and spits for about 4 minutes per side until the chop is brown and crispy.

Then you eat it. And it is pretty good.

One of the tips in the headnotes of this recipe is to cut two slits in the edges of the pork chops. This stops the chops from curling up and helps both sides brown evenly. Because I had some weird pork chops, my slits didn’t stop my pork chops from curling up. So I had one nice, golden brown side, and one spotty, slightly burnt side. They were still good, just not as pretty as the picture in the book. Leftovers were good as well. The crust softened up, but another short stay in the frying pan warmed the chops up and re-established that nice crust.

Better-Than-the-Box Pancake Mix

Currently cooking from The Complete Cook’s Country TV Show Cookbook from America’s Test Kitchen.

Malted milk powder seems to be popping up everywhere these days, but it still took me by surprise when I saw that it was an ingredient in these pancakes. And then I got another surprise when I realized that this recipe makes a whole lot of pancake mix. Not batter, just the mix. There are separate instructions on how to use part of the mix to make the batter. Confused? I was too, and the pancakes probably suffered because of that.

Let me explain a little more. The recipe makes a dry mix, similar to the mixes you buy at the store. When you want to make the pancakes, you measure out a few cups of the mix, add the wet ingredients, and make pancakes. I wasn’t interested in having 6 cups of pancake mix sitting in my fridge; we don’t eat pancakes very often, so I knew that mix would just sit and rot. Eventually, I’d have to throw it out, and then I’d feel really bad and hit Bryan or something. So I used my amazing (read sad) math skills to downsize the mix to an amount appropriate for one meal.

There is a reason I work with words, not with numbers. It took me longer than I want to admit to figure out that I needed to divide the amounts for the mix in thirds to match the liquid amounts that the recipe called for. What I ended up with was an extremely thick batter. Thinking the batter was too thick, I added almost another cup of buttermilk to get the batter to a consistency that I thought was right. And then I ended up with very thin, very flat pancakes.

Besides the malted milk powder, the dry ingredients for these pancakes include all-purpose flour, cake flour, nonfat dry milk powder, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. The wet ingredients are butter, eggs and buttermilk. To make the mix, you put all the dry ingredients and the butter in a food processor and process until it looks like wet sand. This mixture gets stored in the fridge (or freezer), and when you are ready to make pancakes, you measure out a couple of cups of the mix, add your eggs and buttermilk and make pancakes!

So, I’m not sure where I went wrong: Did I make an error in my math (more than likely) or was the batter is supposed to be extremely thick and I shouldn’t have thinned it out? Whatever the problem was, despite the pancakes being very thin, they were quite good. I can’t tell you that I could taste the malted milk powder, but the pancakes did have a slightly nutty taste.

So I guess the moral of this story is that if you are one of those people who make pancakes every weekend, this recipe will probably work really well for you. And if you aren’t one of those people, there might be pancake recipes out there that are easier to scale down.

Garlic Mashed Potatoes

Currently cooking from The Complete Cook’s Country TV Show Cookbook from America’s Test Kitchen.

I made these mashed potatoes to go along with our Salisbury steak. They were perfect with the gravy.

You start off by sauteing minced garlic (12 cloves!) and a bit of sugar in butter just until the garlic starts to turn golden. Then you stir in cubed potatoes, half and half and water. You boil the potatoes until the liquid has been absorbed and the potatoes are tender. Finally, once the potatoes are tender, you add in more butter, more half and half and mash everything together.

These are not diet potatoes by any means, but they are garlicky and good. They are a nice change of pace from regular mashed potatoes, and they are good enough to eat on their own without gravy.

In Which I Actually Decorate Something Well

Yeah, I made those cookies up there. Me. I’m pretty damn proud of them because decorating things is not something I am very good at. Actually, I suck at decorating, if I’m being honest.

For the past couple of months, I’ve been haunting this blog. The first time I saw her cookies, I was in awe. Then I was intrigued. Then I decided that this was something I could do. My first attempt was okay. I tried some cookies decorated like pumpkins. They looked okay, but I could see all the flaws and the things I wanted to do better and all the mistakes I made. Also, I couldn’t color the icing right. It was more pink than orange.

Color. I gotta work on that.

That’s why I went with something white; I knew I could nail white icing. Then I needed to work on the consistency of the icing. The pumpkin attempt used approximately 379 bowls, spoons and piping bags. And I still couldn’t get the icing right. I did much better this time, only using about 15 bowls and a couple of spoons.

In addition to looking good (if I do say so myself) these cookies taste pretty good too. And they keep really well. This is fun.