Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Theory of Appetizers

A friend of a friend in Washington, DC, where some pret-ty fan-cy par-tays take place, sends along The Theory of Appetizers, which she very cleverly happens to have invented. The friend of a friend is Rebecca Scott, special events manager of the Folger Shakespeare Library on Capitol Hill. I’m indebted to Rebecca for this succinct and clever summary of all you need to dazzle the masses:

A thing on a stick. A thing on a thing. A thing in a ball.


A thing on a stick: Examples? Thai Chicken Skewers with Peanut Sauce or Chorizo-Bacon Bites or any thing that connects to any other thing with a skewer or a toothpick:

A thing on a thing: Examples? Cheese-Stuffed Apricot Bites or Cucumber Shrimp or Smoked Oysters in Tomato Cases:

A thing in a ball: Examples? Ball-shaped things such as the too, too delicious Basilica Torta or Brie en Croûte: 

And that, folks, is all you really need to take you through a summer of potlucks and barbecues and Washington, DC, par-tays. When a potluck, barbecue, or par-tay comes your way, you will be ready! The Theory of Appetizers will work just as well for my Aussie readers, now slogging through the start of winter. 

I’m about to enjoy a few lazy months: See you in Autumn! In which year, I’m not sure ... Happy Summer, Dollinks! xox  Nicole

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Lemon Loaf Challenge

I called it The Lemon Loaf Challenge, and wrote a few friends accordingly:

Would you like to be my guinea pigs Friday afternoon around 2? I’m going to be baking three lemon loaves - one, a complicated loaf from France; the others, simple loaves we’ve choked down for years. You won’t know which is which, but will be asked to rate both. I’d love you to partake in the joys of joining my Anonymous Taste-Testing Panel! 

I accompanied the invitation with photos of three taste-testers who were already on the panel: 

And so it was that Ann, Scott, Karin, and Dan joined the Anonymous Taste-Testing Panel and took The Lemon Loaf Challenge!

The panel had to rate each loaf. As you can see, they weren’t in the least bit shy:

It all began innocently enough, and all in the spirit of fun (Which loaf do you prefer?) But things soon spiraled out of control. I could never have guessed how complicated this simple Challenge would become, and where it would lead, and how it would happen that I would face the greatest Lemon Loaf Challenge of all!

*   *   *

There are times when mere curiosity isn’t enough, and when only  scientific investigation will do. This is the 
Let the investigation begin!
story of a recipe in shambles. It begins in a world-famous bakery in Paris, and ends in the Time Zone and at the Latitude Where I Live. I’ll try not be be melodramatic about this, Dollinks, but let me tell you, it won’t be easy to keep this short.

When I first read the French recipe, I felt nervous about its chance of success. It was jumbled and confusing, falling far, far short of my expectations for any recipe - let alone one from a fine French patisserie.

How can I put this delicately? The recipe from France was a disaster. 

Much of the recipe described the end result as a “cake” and much as a “loaf.” The method wasn’t the usual method for either a loaf or cake. The oven temperature called for was higher than the normal temperature for either. Many of the measurements were non-standard, possibly from their conversion from a system of weights to a metric volume measure and then to an Imperial measure. The recipe called for ingredients not normally found in North American cupboards. 

The recipe was yeast-raised and didn’t specify a pan size, noting only that the “cake” should be baked in a “moule” - literally, a “mold.” After Googling what bakers who had gone before me had done, I baked this “cake” or “loaf” in a standard-sized loaf pan. It would have been nice if the recipe had provided a clue. 

The recipe called for “lemon jelly, with no explanation of what that was. Lemon gelatin (as in Jell-O thinned with water)? Lemon curd? Something else? The recipe called for “rum.” White? Amber? Dark? Not a whisper. 

The French version of the recipe called for “half a sachet of yeast powder”; the English version called for “active dry yeast,” but made no mention of the instructions for using it, as recipes routinely do. I’m unfamiliar with the term “yeast powder,” and wasn’t sure how much “half a sachet” was, but when I did some later research, I learned that the pastry kitchens of Paris use a completely different type of yeast than generally used in North America. 

I’d already announced the Lemon Loaf Challenge. I could hardly back out now. I was in trouble. I baked the “cake”/“loaf” exactly as the recipe had said. It looked pretty, but it didn’t rise. It was also heavy and gummy. The testers weren’t so keen on it.

Lazarus may have risen; this gummy loaf did not.

The other two loaves in the Challenge? I’d made a sad-looking nut loaf drizzled with lemon frosting. It didn’t rise, either. The testers thought it was great, mostly because of its nutty flavor and crunch.

Nut loaf: Bleee-ach! Nonetheless, one tester loved it best.

I’d also made a lemon cake mix. I baked it in a loaf pan, adding a few poppy seeds to fool the testers into thinking it was homemade. For the same reason, I decorated it with a flurry of confectioner’s sugar. Believing I’d made it myself, the testers praised its “light texture.” 

Your basic lemon cake mix: The testers praised its “light texture.”

Not surprisingly, the nut loaf’s biggest fan didn’t think much of this light, lemony concoction. Instead, he had seconds of the nut loaf, as well as taking some home. 

The French loaf had taken hours, at a cost of about $7. The nut loaf was dry and over-baked (one of my testers called it “a real people pleaser”). As for the cake mix? It was $1.29 on sale. Everyone loved it.

I found this quite depressing. I couldn’t get the French Lemon Loaf out of my mind. I set out to make it again. And again, after that. One looked like it would be perfect - before I left it in the oven too long and burnt it. And so I made the loaf again and again and again.  

By then, I’d abandoned the French recipe, growing bolder with each improvisation. In all, I made the loaf six times. And finally got it right. I adopted a standard loaf method. I lowered the oven temperature. I changed the recipe’s measurements - sometimes drastically - rounding them up or down. I threw in some new ingredients, and threw out some of the originals. I scrapped the yeast and let the loaf rise with baking powder and baking soda. I drank the rum. I melted lemon marmalade in place of the mysterious lemon jelly.

What resulted from all my testing was one of the very best lemon loaves I’ve ever tasted - one you’ll be proud to present to your family and friends. I think I’ve earned the right to call this recipe what it now is: Nicole Parton’s Lemon Loaf Supreme. The recipe follows.

Nicole Parton’s Lemon Loaf Supreme

This is my simplified version of a jumbled French recipe that originated with a famous bakery in France. I’m going to do that bakery a favor. I’m not going to tell you its name.  havent the slightest doubt that the “cakes or loaves” (or whatever this bakery wants to call them) made and served by this establishment are superb. Truly, I mean it! 

But the recipe for this Lemon Loaf (and its translation into English) is not superb. It’s ... well, a lemon, confusing and hard to follow. It took six tries, but I’ve reworked it significantly enough that I can call it my own. Which is exactly what Ive done. I clicked the heels of my ruby slippers three times, and out of the oven came... 

Nicole Parton’s Lemon Loaf Supreme:

This recipe has four parts: Simmered Lemon Slices; Lemon Loaf Batter; Lemon Syrup; and Lemon Glaze. Give the instructions a quick but careful read before you start.
To Prepare the Simmered Lemon Slices:

1 large lemon or 1-1/2 medium
3/4 c. (180 mL) water
2/3 c. (160 mL) finely granulated sugar or “castor” or “berry” sugar (see Note)

Three hours before starting loaf recipe, rinse and wipe lemon skins with clean cloth. Discarding pips and ends, cut lemons into 1/8-inch (0.3 mm) slices. Don’t worry if some of these slices break or are not perfectly cut.


In a medium covered skillet, simmer water and sugar until sugar is fully dissolved. Add lemon slices, ensuring liquid covers all. Simmer, covered, 20 min. over very low heat; do not let liquid boil! That is very important. When you’re done, you should have about 7 tbsp. lemon liquid.


Remove saucepan from heat, continuing to keep covered. Cool to room temperature. 


Cover and refrigerate sliced lemons and liquid 3 hr. 

Refrigerate and store.

Proceed with Lemon Loaf Batter 3 hr. later.

When ready to use lemons, strain slices, reserving liquid. Do not rinse slices. Set aside with 3 tbsp. of the liquid to use in Lemon Loaf Batter. Cover and refrigerate remaining liquid for later use in Lemon Syrup.

Note: You can prepare your own finely granulated sugar by briefly blenderizing regular granulated sugar to reduce the size of its crystals. Do not wash blender. You’ll need it later!

To Prepare the Lemon Loaf Batter:

1 large lemon
1-1/4 c. (310 mL) finely granulated sugar or “castor” or “berry” sugar (see Note)
4 tbsp. (60 mL) butter or margarine, softened
1-1/2 tsp. (7 mL) lemon extract
1-2/3 c. (410 mL) all-purpose flour 
3/4 tsp. (3.5 mL) baking powder
3/4 tsp. (3.5 mL) baking soda
3 eggs, at room temperature
1/2 c. (125 mL) full-fat commercial sour cream or unflavored Greek yogurt
3 tbsp. liquid reserved from simmered lemons (reserve remaining liquid)
Simmered, drained, lemon slices to equal about 1/2 c. (125 mL)

This batter recipe moves along quickly. Array, prepare, and measure all ingredients in advance. Spray-grease and flour bottom and sides of a standard 9x5x3-in. (23x13x6 cm) loaf pan, knocking out extra flour before lining pan bottom with parchment rectangle. 

Preheat oven to 350 deg. F. with oven rack in middle position. 

Zest lemon finely. Add to granulated sugar, tossing well. Set aside 10-to-15 min. so sugar becomes infused with lemon flavor and scent.

Zest lemon.

Add zest to finely granulated sugar. Set aside 10 min.

Beat butter or margarine briefly. Slowly add zested sugar, beating well between additions. Repeat sugar additions, beating about 10 min. or until mixture appears pale and sugar is well incorporated (My friend Mia calls this “beating to fluffdom”). Stir in lemon extract. 

Combine flour, baking powder, and baking soda in a small bowl. In second small bowl, whisk together eggs, sour cream or yogurt, and 3 tbsp. of the liquid reserved from simmered lemons. With mixer on low, add flour mixture in alternate thirds with egg mixture, beginning with flour mixture and pausing to scrape down sides of bowl. Continue to beat until thoroughly combined. 

Cut simmered, drained lemon slices into quarters. With mixer on low, add to batter, mixing thoroughly. Spoon batter into prepared loaf pan, smoothing batter with back of spoon. 

Beat to fluffdom.

Remove from oven.

Test with a skewer.

Bake 60-to-65 min. or until loaf is golden and shrinks slightly away from pan edges. Thin skewer inserted at loaf’s center should emerge clean and dry when loaf is done. Cool loaf in pan 5 min. 

Note: Reminder: You can prepare your own finely granulated sugar by briefly blenderizing regular granulated sugar to reduce the size of its crystals. Do not wash blender. You’ll need it later! 

While loaf cools, prepare and simmer Lemon Syrup in saucepan over very low heat. 

To Prepare the Lemon Syrup:

1/2 c. (125 mL) water
3 tbsp. (45 mL) finely granulated sugar or “castor” or “berry” sugar (see Note)
4 tbsp. (60 mL) previously reserved liquid from simmered lemons 

Prepare Lemon Syrup as loaf cools in pan 5 min. Loosen loaf around edges with knife or metal spatula. Carefully remove and transfer hot loaf to wire cooling rack positioned over rimmed baking sheet. Peel away parchment, reversing loaf so that upper side is on top. Poke deep holes into hot loaf with skewer. Slowly pour hot Lemon Syrup over hot loaf, allowing to soak. Repeat once. Discard syrup that flows  onto baking sheet. Prepare Lemon Glaze to finish still-warm loaf.

Note: A final reminder: You can prepare your own finely granulated sugar by briefly blenderizing regular granulated sugar to reduce the size of its crystals. It’s time to wash the blender!

To Prepare the Lemon Glaze:

1/3 c. (80 mL) silver thread lemon marmalade (see Glaze Note)
1 tbsp. (15 mL) water

In microwave-safe container or saucepan, warm lemon marmalade and water over low heat about 1-1/2 min., stirring until marmalade melts and mixture thickens enough to coat back of spoon. Do not boil. 

Warm lemon marmalade and water over very low heat.

Using pastry brush, lightly dab glaze over top and sides of still-warm loaf. Don’t over-do it, or glaze will be too thick. 

The famous bakery places extra simmered lemons atop loaf.  
I left the top of my final loaf plain, to avoid duplicating theirs. 

Here’s the texture of my version. I’m a happy camper!

Cool loaf to room temperature, allowing glaze to firm up at least 15 min. before serving. Yields 1 Lemon Loaf Supreme.

Glaze Note: Silver thread lemon marmalade is sold worldwide under the Robertson’s label. Do not use orange marmalade, apricot jelly, or lemon curd to glaze this loaf. And ... should anything go wrong, make the Lemon Crisps below!

Lemon Crisps

The idea for these excellent Lemon Crisps emerged from all testing I did to create my Lemon Loaf Supreme. When a loaf didn’t rise or lacked the tartness I wanted, I turned it into a number of thin, sweet cookies that I call Crisps. You can use this trick to make crispy cookies from any cake or loaf you might otherwise consider a failure. Here’s how!

Lemon Crisps:   

Preheat oven to 250 deg. F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Cut one Lemon Loaf Supreme into approximately 3/8-in. (9.5  mm) slices, carefully placing each slice onto a baking sheet without overlapping or stacking slices. The thinner your slices, the crispier your Crisps will be. 

From failure to triumph: Delicious Lemon Crisps!

Bake, uncovered, 30 min., rotating baking sheets once to prevent hot spots for even browning. Keep  close eye on these to ensure they don't burn! Turn oven off, leaving in oven about 2 hr. to crisp up. No peeking!

Drying the simmered lemon slices gives 
these Crisps intense bursts of flavor!

Monday, June 20, 2016

Peony’s No-Roll Pie Crust

This quickie comes your way and mine via my pal Peony - an excellent cook and a gardener nonpareil.

This is the crust Peony uses to make Canned Salmon Quiche. I normally use a whole wheat crust, but look forward to trying Peony’s crust. 

Peony’s No-Roll Pie Crust: Totally simple, totally delicious!

Peony says the large amount of oil makes this crust crispy and easy to pat into the pan. Using a metal pan, as Peony does, further contributes to the crispiness of the crust. I added a whisper of freshly ground salt to this; Peony does not. Your choice! You’ll find my Canned Salmon Quiche recipe here:

Peony’s No-Roll Pie Crust:

1-1/2 c. (375 mL) all-purpose flour
1/2 c. (125 mL) olive oil
3 tbsp. (45 mL) cold milk
Dash freshly ground sea salt (optional)

Preheat oven to 400 deg. F. Place flour directly into pie pan or quiche dish. Combine oil and milk in bowl, whisking with fork. Pour over flour, continuing to mix with fork and finally, with hands. Form into a ball, pressing evenly into pan. Take care with this step. A slap-dash job going into the oven means a slap-dash job coming out.

Combine oil and milk with flour, directly in the pan.

Freeze 10 min. Before baking, place a circle of parchment paper measured to fit just inside of the pan. Place a handful of pie weights on top of the parchment to keep the crust from bubbling. 

Unbaked shell with parchment and pie weights.

Bake 20 min. on middle rack of oven. While empty shell bakes, prepare savory filling of your choice (Peony and I each like to use this crust to make Canned Salmon Quiche: See link above for my recipe). Take partially baked crust from oven. Remove weights and peel away parchment. Cool to room temperature. 

Partially baked shell: Cool and add filling.

Add filling when ready to bake, pouring into partially baked crust. Bake a further 30 min. or until filling is set and crust is golden. Serve hot.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Seafood Chowder with Pasta Shells

You’ll definitely want to make this easy, quick recipe again and again! It’s flexible: Seafood, pasta, vegetables, broth … If you don’t have this ingredient, add a little of that one. A splash of Thai fish sauce would make a great addition, as well.

Seafood Chowder with Pasta Shells:

1-1/2 c. (375 mL) small pasta shells
1 tbsp. (15 mL) olive oil
1 red bell pepper (capsicum), sliced into 2-in. (5 cm) strips
3 celery stalks, diced
1/2 c. (125 mL) sliced green onions 
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp. dried marjoram 
4 c. (1 L) chicken broth
Broth from small can baby clams with clams reserved
4 oz. (125 g) cooked shrimp (see Note)
8 oz. (250 g) cooked crab meat (see Note)
1 or 2 pieces fish fillets of your choice
1 c. (250 mL) dry white wine
1 tbsp. (15 mL) lemon juice
Chopped fresh parsley, as required

Cook pasta in large amount of boiling water until tender. Drain; rinse in cold water; set aside. As pasta cooks, heat oil in large saucepan over medium heat.  Combine red pepper, celery, green onions, garlic, and marjoram. Sauté 5 min. 

To chicken broth, add juice from canned clams. Add water to make 5 c. (1.25 L) liquid. Combine with vegetables, simmering 10 min. Add clams, shrimp, crab, wine, and cooked pasta. Heat through. Stir in lemon juice and sprinkle with parsley just before serving. Serves 6.

Note: If using canned shrimp or crab, add the juices to the broth. I use a mixture of artificial crab combined with a small amount of real crab.

Sauté vegetables in olive oil.

Add canned or fresh clams ...

Artificial crab ...

Sliced fish of your choice ... Whatever you have on hand.

Ensure your broth has plenty of seafood!

Add dry white wine for a subtle, complex flavor.

Add cooked pasta shells.

Et voilà! Delicious and ready to serve!

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Shrimp-Stuffed Sole

This microwave recipe is lightning-quick! I used to make it with nice large pieces of sole. This time, all I had were Asian-imported pieces of Cryovac-wrapped flash-frozen sole that came in a giant plastic bag with a fancy label. When they thawed, each little piece split down the center, which didn’t look so pretty. I urge you to make this excellent dish with fresh fish you’ve selected yourself, piece by piece. That’s how I’ve prepared it in the past and will do in the future. 

Shrimp-Stuffed Sole:

4 oz. (113 g) fresh, hand-peeled shrimp (see Note)
1/2 c. (125 g) finely chopped mushrooms, lightly sautéed in 1 tsp. (5 mL) olive oil
1 green onion (“spring” onion), finely chopped
2 tbsp. (15 mL) finely minced fresh parsley, divided
2 tbsp. (30 mL) Greek yogurt or commercial sour cream
2 tsp. (10 mL) lemon juice, divided
1/2 tsp. (2.5 mL) prepared mustard
6 small sole fillets (or other thin white fish) (about 1-1/2 lb. or 750 g)
Salt and coarsely ground pepper, to taste
1/2 c. (125 mL) dry white wine

To prepare filling, stir together shrimp, mushrooms, onion, 1 tbsp. of the parsley, yogurt or sour cream, 1 tsp. of the lemon juice, and mustard. Set aside. Season fillets, dividing shrimp mixture among the pieces. Roll up and secure with toothpicks.

Array rolls in a microwave-safe casserole. Pour wine and remaining lemon juice over fish, sprinkling with remaining parsley. Cover with cello wrap, turning back a small corner to let steam escape. Cook 4-to-6 min. on high power or until fish flakes easily with a fork. Let stand, covered, 5 min. before serving.

Note: If fresh shrimp is unavailable, use a small can of drained, rinsed, and finely chopped shrimp. I’ve also used a mixture of chopped artificial crab combined with just enough mayonnaise and cream cheese to hold it together. 

Fill ... 

Roll ... 

Secure with a toothpick.

And into the microwave oven this goes!

Ready for the table!