Just add cheese sauce for a cauliflower gratin

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Cauliflower doesn’t have a ton of flavor on its own. When I’ve made it in the past, I’ve either roasted it on a baking sheet or steamed it because I rarely feel inspired to do much more with it.

Last week, Curtis Stone posted a recipe for cauliflower gratin, which only required five ingredients, so I thought I’d try it. It’s basically just cauliflower and cheese — the cheese sauce is a roux with grated Gruyère thrown in.

What I most liked about this recipe was that the cauliflower still had texture and flavor — it wasn’t overpowered by the sauce, though it made a lot of sauce for just one head of cauliflower. I could have easily added another half of a head of cauliflower and still had an abundance of sauce. But, this is another nice, simple way to do something more interesting with cauliflower.

Ingredients
1 head cauliflower
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/4 cup all purpose flour
1 quart whole milk
2 cups grated Gruyère cheese

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat.

While the water is heating up, break up the cauliflower into medium to small florets. Cook the cauliflower for 3 to 4 minutes, or until just barely tender but still has a bit of bite. Transfer the cauliflower to a bowl of ice water and cool completely. Remove the cauliflower from the ice water and allow to dry completely.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Heat a medium heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the butter and stir until melted. Whisk in the flour to blend well. Cook, whisking constantly, for about 5 minutes, making sure the mixture doesn’t take on any color. Slowly whisk in the milk and bring the mixture to a simmer. Simmer for about 10 minutes, or until the flour taste is gone, stirring often and making sure the sauce does not stick to the bottom of the pan.

Gradually add 1 1/2 cups of the cheese, whisking until melted and smooth. If the sauce thickens too much, thin it out with a little more milk. Season the sauce to taste with salt and pepper.

Place the cauliflower in an ovenproof dish and drizzle the sauce evenly over the cauliflower. Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top of the cauliflower and bake for about 10 minutes, or until the top is light golden brown.

Let stand at room temperature for about 5 minutes before serving.

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My birthday dinner at Maude

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My birthday was Tuesday, and this year I spoiled myself a bit. Those of you who have read my blog before know how much I adore Curtis Stone. When he opened a restaurant in February, I knew that was what I wanted to do for my birthday. And I made it happen.

I flew to Los Angeles to see one of my best friends from college, who was excited to celebrate with me. We had reservations for the late seating on May 31 — the last night for rhubarb. If you’re not familiar with Maude, they choose an ingredient each month, and give you a multiple-course dinner in which each plate contains the ingredient somehow. There are no menus, it’s all whatever the chefs want to serve you that night. I was happy to get rhubarb because June is morels, and I have never enjoyed mushrooms. Though, in all fairness, had May been booked, I’d have given Curtis Stone and his staff a chance to change my mind on that subject.

When you are looking forward to something, it’s easy to build high expectations that are usually never met by the actual experience. But Maude was better than I imagined. Every one of the nine courses they served was made with intention. Each dish had well-balanced flavors that made us want to lick the plate clean. From the knowledgeable, friendly staff who folded my napkin each time I left the table to the final sip of coffee after dessert, the experience was beyond anything I’ve ever had. It was, simply put, the best dinner of my life. While I didn’t get to meet Curtis Stone, I finally understood what Robert Irvine meant when he told me about amuse-bouche when I interviewed him last year.

The entire dinner was a wonderful treat, and the diners sitting on both sides of us were really friendly and made dinner all that much more enjoyable. I can’t wait to go back someday.

Having fun with a less common fall flavor

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Fall is here, and that means it’s time for baking comfort foods with apples and pumpkin. Last weekend, I went wine tasting in the Apple Hill area and stopped at a farm stand on my way home. The best deal at the farm stand was a box of about eight pears for $2. I bought two boxes because I knew I’d want to bake with them.

But, before I proceed, I want to let you know that Red Pen Recipes now has a Facebook page. Like it here.

Screen shot 2013-09-25 at 8.14.25 PMI also recently purchased a ticket to see Curtis Stone in Reno. Those of you who read regularly know that I love his style of cooking. According to his response to the question I posed to him on Facebook, we’ll be having cocktails, stir-frys and chocolate. The countdown to Oct. 12 has begun.

So, back to the pears. When I got home, I started looking for recipes and found this Pear and Almond Tart recipe from Bon Appétit. I had all of the ingredients, and it sounded like the perfect way to use a few of those pears.

This recipe has three major components, all of which can be done separately and saved until you’re ready to assemble the whole thing. If you don’t want to spend hours at a time in the kitchen, do one piece at a time.

I know my crust looks burned in the photo, but it didn’t taste like it at all. I was pleasantly surprised.

The recipe didn’t say to save the liquid from poaching the pears, but I knew from experience that I could boil it into a syrup. A beautiful simple syrup is a terrible thing to waste so I decided to use it to make ice cream.

For the ice cream, I used this recipe. If you plan on using the syrup for ice cream, you have to do things just a bit differently. I’d recommend adding a fourth pear to the poaching process. Set it aside and, when you’re ready to make the ice cream, core it, then dice it and add it to the ice cream when it’s in the ice cream mixer. After the pears have cooled in the liquid, remove them. Then bring the liquid back to a boil and keep it on the heat until there’s about 3/4 cup of thick syrup. Take it off the heat and set it aside. Use it in place of the 1/2 cup sugar in the recipe by using 1/2 in the milk mixture and adding the remaining 1/4 cup to the egg yolks. I know it seems like a lot, but trust me. It works. The bits of pear in the ice cream provided a nice contrast to the texture, too.

If you’re not into that, bottle the syrup and use it on pancakes or find another way to use it. But I encourage you not to waste it, because it’s too delicious to throw away.

Pears
4 cups water
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 medium-size firm but ripe pears (Bosc or Bartlett), peeled (each about 7 ounces)

Bring 4 cups water, sugar, and lemon juice to boil in large saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Add pears. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until pears are very tender, turning occasionally, about 20 minutes. Cool pears in syrup. Can be made two days ahead. Cover and refrigerate.

Crust
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1/4 cup almonds
1/4 teaspoon salt
9 tablespoons (1 stick plus 1 tablespoon) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 large egg yolk
1 1/4 cups all purpose flour

Blend powdered sugar, almonds, and salt in processor until nuts are finely ground. Add butter and blend until smooth, scraping down sides of bowl occasionally. Mix in egg yolk. Add flour. Using on/off turns, blend until dough comes together in clumps. Gather dough into ball; flatten into disk. Wrap in plastic and chill at least 3 hours. Can be made two days ahead. Keep refrigerated.

Almond filling
2/3 cup blanched slivered almonds
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
7 tablespoons sugar
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 large egg
Powdered sugar (optional)

Finely grind almonds and flour in processor. Mix in 7 tablespoons sugar, then butter, blending until smooth. Mix in egg. Transfer filling to medium bowl. Cover and chill at least 3 hours. Can be made two days ahead. Keep chilled.

Once you’re ready to assemble all three components, position rack in center of oven and preheat to 375 degrees F. Roll out chilled dough on floured sheet of parchment paper to 12-inch round, lifting and turning dough occasionally to free from paper. Using paper as aid, turn dough into 9-inch-diameter tart pan with removable bottom; peel off paper. Seal any cracks in dough. Trim overhang to 1/2 inch. Fold overhang in, making double-thick sides. Pierce crust all over with fork. Freeze crust 10 minutes.

Line crust with buttered foil, buttered side down, then fill with dried beans or pie weights. Bake crust until sides are set, about 20 minutes. Remove foil and beans. Bake crust until sides are golden and bottom is set, pressing with back of fork if crust bubbles, about 10 minutes longer. Cool crust in pan on rack. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees F.

Spread almond filling evenly in crust. Stem pears and cut each in half lengthwise; scoop out cores. Cut each half crosswise into thin slices. Gently press each pear half to fan slices but keep slices tightly overlapped. Slide spatula under pears and arrange atop filling like spokes of wheel with narrow ends in center.

Bake tart until golden and tester inserted into center of filling comes out clean, about 55 minutes. Cool tart in pan on rack. Push pan bottom up, releasing tart from pan. Let stand at room temperature. Cut tart into wedges; sprinkle with powdered sugar, if desired, and serve.

Beautiful broccoli shines in simple pasta dish

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The farmers market continues to have a variety of impossible-to-resist produce — and I keep buying it. A few weeks ago, I picked up some beautiful broccoli from one of the booths. I wanted to make those most of it, so I started looking through my cookbooks for a suitable recipe.

Since it was a weeknight after work, I wanted something I could make in 30 minutes or less. I decided to try another recipe from the “Five-ingredient Fridays” chapter of Curtis Stone’s “What’s for Dinner?” The recipe, Orecchiette with Brown Butter, Broccoli, Pine Nuts, and Basil, called for ingredients I had on hand and didn’t require a lot of cleanup. After about 20 minutes, I ended up with a hearty, delicious vegetarian dish that was great comfort food after a long day at work. The broccoli flavor really came through when paired with a simple brown butter sauce, and the pine nuts added a nice crunch that provided great contrast to the the pasta.

Though I’m not a vegetarian, sometimes it’s just nice to make something that allows vegetables to be the star of the meal. I’m looking forward to making more dinners with more finds from the farmers market.

Ingredients
13 ounces broccoli florets with 1-inch stems (about 6 cups)
1 pound orecchiette
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 cup lightly packed fresh basil leaves, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil, for serving

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the broccoli and cook for about 2 minutes, or just until bright green. Using a mesh spoon or sieve, scoop the broccoli out of the water, draining it well, and transfer to a rimmed baking sheet. Set aside.

Return the water to a boil. Add the orecchiette and cook, stirring often to ensure it doesn’t stick together, for about 8 minutes, or until tender but still firm to the bite. Scoop out and reserve 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water. Drain the orecchiette.

Meanwhile, heat a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add the butter and stir for about 2 minutes, or until it has turned hazelnut brown. Add the broccoli and cook, stirring often, for about 1 minute, or until hot.

Add the pasta to the broccoli mixture and stir gently to combine. Stir in the basil, pine nuts, and lemon juice. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir in enough of the reserved cooking water to moisten the pasta as necessary.

Divide the pasta among four pasta bowls, drizzle with olive oil, and serve.

Scrumptious cupcakes for a special occasion

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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: brownies are my favorite dessert. When I’m craving chocolate, I usually whip up a batch of brownies. When I’m feeling creative, I start with a base brownie recipe and improvise with the flavor. But brownies never seemed quite right for a special occasion — until I discovered Curtis Stone’s Brownie Cupcakes.

From the chocolate-loaded brownie cupcake to the decadent, creamy cream cheese frosting, these are perfection. The cupcake has a bit of give to it when you bite in and the frosting is wonderfully smooth. It’s the most delightfully messy cupcake I have ever made and eaten. It really doesn’t get much better than this.

My birthday is tomorrow. Each year, when I think about what to make, these cross my mind. I have only made these twice, but each time they left me wanting more — which is why I make them strictly for special occasions. Whether the festivities are for a birthday or other type of event, these cupcakes definitely merit being part of the celebration.

Ingredients
6 ounces good-quality dark chocolate (60 percent to 70 percent cacao), chopped

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoon light corn syrup

Pinch of salt

3/4 cup sugar

2 large eggs

1/2 cup all purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

2/3 cup coarsely chopped walnuts

Frosting
4 ounces cream cheese, room temperature

1/3 cup light corn syrup

4 ounces good-quality dark chocolate (60 percent cacao), chopped

8 small, fresh strawberries

To make the cupcakes: Position the rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Line 8 standard cupcake molds with cupcake liners.

Stir the chocolate and butter in a small heavy saucepan over low heat until the chocolate and butter melt and the mixture is smooth. Stir in the syrup and salt. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Using an electric mixer, beat the sugar and eggs in a large bowl for 2 minutes or until the mixture is thick and light. Stir in the chocolate mixture. Add the flour and baking powder and stir just until blended, then stir in the walnuts.

Divide the batter equally among the prepared cupcake molds filling the paper liners completely. (Filling the liners completely is key — otherwise the cupcakes will collapse and will be less fudgy.)

Bake for about 25 minutes, or until the cupcakes puff and crack on top and a skewer inserted into the center of the cupcakes comes out with fudgy crumbs attached.

Remove the cupcakes from the oven and cool completely on a cooling rack.

To frost the cupcakes: Using an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese in a large bowl until light and smooth. Beat in the syrup. Place the chocolate in another bowl and place the bowl over a small pot of boiling water. Stir constantly until the chocolate melts. Add the melted chocolate to the cream cheese mixture and beat until blended and fluffy, stopping the machine and scraping the bottom of the bowl to ensure that the mixture is well-blended. Spread the frosting generously over the cooled cupcakes. Garnish each one with a fresh strawberry and serve.