The Gleeful Gourmand: 2016

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Southern Living's Coconut-Citrus Pavlova

A couple of weeks ago I did a post on Southern Living's 2016 Christmas Cookbook. The Cookbook is still for sale exclusively at Dillard's for only $10, and all proceeds go to benefit the Ronald McDonald House Charities. What a great way to support an amazing cause! By helping children and their families when they are facing down their biggest challenges, Ronald McDonald Houses provide so much more than food and a roof: They provide amazing support and comfort as well. This Cookbook belongs in your kitchen, and in the kitchens of all your friends and families! Anyone who loves Southern Living and their tasty recipes and gorgeous entertaining ideas will love getting this book as a gift.

With tantalizing breakfast treats, scintillating Holiday meals, and scrumptious desserts, there's something for every part of your Holiday celebration. Their dessert section is particularly inspiring, with incredible cakes, cookies, and treats. But one recipe caught my attention and held it: their Coconut-Citrus Pavlova. Ever since I watched Ina Garten make one with stewed summer berries, I've not only wanted to taste one, but also make one. I knew this was one dessert that was right up my alley: something slightly challenging, and something new.

But first, a brief history.

Pavlova desserts (sometimes called Pavlova Cake or Pavlova Pie), were named for Russian prima ballerina and choreographer, Anna Pavlova (1881-1931). She was one of the most celebrated and influential dancers of her time, and recipes for Pavlova desserts started appearing shortly after she began touring across America, Europe, and the UK in 1910. That much we know for sure, but history is a funny thing. It turns out that a few countries claim they were the first to invent, or publish a recipe of the Pavlova, including Australia, New Zealand, and America.

The Russian prima ballerina, Anna Pavlova

 I'll break down the argument for you:

America: We don't really care all that much, but we show that this type of dessert replicates the type of Germanic torte already being made in the Midwest by the time the first "Strawberries Pavlova" recipe rolled out of here in 1911. No big deal.
New Zealand: It's our national dish, and the Oxford English Dictionary recently said the dessert was invented in New Zealand, with the first recipe appearing in NZ in 1927! And you don't question the Oxford English Dictionary, Australia!
Australia: Go home, New Zealand, you're drunk! We couldn't care less what the Oxford English Dictionary says because we know, unequivocally, that the Pavlova was invented here! Who cares if Anna Pavlova didn't come here until 1929, we win!

Anyway, all of that is to say, no one really knows where it first truly popped up, and I certainly don't have a dog in the fight of the "Pavlova Wars." What I know is that the dessert, now that I've made it and tasted it, certainly does justice to the brilliant ballerina, who was once described thusly: "She does not dance; she soars as though on wings." This light, airy, sinfully scrumptious dessert even looks like a tutu (if you squint), and I loved the winter flavors of the citrus curd, mix of citrus sections on top, and crunchy coconut. It is a winning combination, and a stunningly beautiful dessert, not only for your Holiday table, but any special winter meal.

Southern Living's Coconut-Citrus Pavlova.

The only thing you have to be mindful of is not to assemble the dessert until just before serving. The bottom portion is a glorious meringue, whose origins, I'm happy to report, can absolutely be traced back to France, in a cookbook by French chef Francois Massialot. His book, Nouveau Cuisine Royal Et Bourgeois, circa 1692, gives recipes for the first meringues and macrons. Meringues are so delightful, so beautiful, airy, crunchy, sweet, and heavenly in the middle, it's like eating a cloud. Well, okay, a cloud in Candy Land, maybe. But they're also notoriously finicky, so that cloud, if not handled correctly, can turn into a crumbling, yet wet, chewy sweet mess.

The recipe for this meringue requires baking for 2 hours, and cooling inside the turned off oven for a further 2 hours. At this point the meringue can be stored in an airtight container for up to 2 days, but I'm here to tell you that handling and moving the large, cooled meringue more than once is not for the faint of heart. Plan your dinnertime and dessert time accordingly, though, and you can present this showstopper in all its glory right from the cooled oven. With the delightful citrus curd and sections of blood oranges, tangerines, or grapefruit, all that juicy fruit can also wear down the integrity of the meringue in the course of an hour or so - which is why it is recommended that the dessert be eaten straight away.

And now we come to the part of our program where I make a confession. I screwed up big-time. In my rush to get everything done on time, I forgot a crucial step. I forgot to make the whipped cream that folds into the citrus curd completely. Maybe it's because the ingredient is listed under the "Topping" section instead of the "Curd" section, but I missed it. That's why you don't see much of the Curd on the Pavlova. But you know what? It was completely and ridiculously delicious anyway! It just goes to show you that even a so-called "gourmand" goofs up now and then. Okay, a lot, really.

One final tip: The recipe calls for shaved fresh coconut, lightly toasted. I wasn't sure I wanted to bother, so I found a bag of pre-toasted coconut strips, and absolutely fell in love. Sweet and buttery, yet crunchy and slightly salty, if you're in a rush to get dessert on the table, rip open that bag and sprinkle away! (They also make a fantastic snack)

*Southern Living's Coconut-Citrus Pavlova

Citrus Curd
• 5 large egg yolks
• 1/2 cup sugar
• 1/8 tsp. table salt
• 1 tsp. firmly packed lemon zest
• 1 tsp. firmly packed orange zest
• 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
• 1/4 cup fresh orange juice
• 3 ounces (6 tbsp.) butter, cut into 6 pieces

Parchment Paper
• 1 1/4 cups sugar
• 1 1/2 tbsp. cornstarch
• 5 large egg whites
• 1/4 tsp. cream of tartar
• 1/8 tsp. table salt
• 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

• 3/4 cup heavy cream (whoops, don't leave this out!)
• 2 cups assorted citrus sections such as orange, blood orange, grapefruit, and tangerine
• 1/2 cup shaved fresh coconut, lightly toasted

1. Make the curd: Whisk together first 5 ingredients in a 2-quart saucepan. Whisk in the citrus juices. Cook, whisking, over medium 5 minutes (do not boil). Remove from heat; add butter, 1 tbsp. at a time, until melted and smooth. Pour curd through a wire-mesh strainer into a bowl. Place plastic wrap directly onto surface to prevent a film from forming. Chill 2 to 24 hours.
2. Make the meringue: Preheat the oven to 225˚F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and draw a 9-inch circle on paper. Whisk together the sugar and cornstarch in a bowl. Beat the egg whites at medium-high speed with a heavy-duty electric stand mixer 1 minute; add the cream of tartar and salt, beating until blended. Gradually add the sugar mixture, 1 tbsp at a time, beating at medium-high speed until mixture is glossy, stiff peaks form, and sugar dissolves (2 to 4 minutes). Beat in the vanilla. Gently spread the mixture into the circle on prepared baking sheet, making a large indentation in the center of meringue to hold filling.
3. Bake at 225˚F for 2 hours or until outside has formed a crust. Turn oven off; let the meringue stand in oven, with door closed, 2 hours or until completely cool and dry.
4. Make the pavlova. Carefully remove the meringue from parchment paper, and place on a serving platter. Beat the heavy cream at high speed with an electric mixer until stiff peaks form; gently fold the whipped cream into curd. Spoon the curd mixture onto the center of meringue; top with citrus sections and toasted coconut. Serve immediately.

* From Southern Livings 2016 Christmas Cookbook, now exclusively sold at Dillard's. All proceeds to the Ronald McDonald House Charities.


Thursday, December 1, 2016

Southern Living's Mini Sausage and Spinach Frittatas

I was approached about a month ago by Ronald McDonald House Charities of Richmond to promote a holiday special. Right now, Dillard's is offering Southern Living's 2016 Christmas Cookbook for just $10, with all proceeds benefiting Ronald McDonald House Charities. In addition to trying out some recipes from the cookbook, I also had the opportunity to visit Richmond's Ronald McDonald House a few weeks ago. Situated in a beautiful old home on Richmond's famed Monument Avenue, I was truly impressed.

Southern Living's 2016 Christmas Cookbook, and the Ronald McDonald House of Richmond

Ronald McDonald Houses are places of healing and comfort to sick children and their parents across America. They provide a haven for families with children being seen in any local medical facility. Far beyond just providing a place to sleep, they provide whatever the families need to ease their stay there, from food to an onsite laundry facility. Ronald McDonald Houses truly serve as a home-away-from-home where families can rest and refresh, and count on support while their children are in need. RMHC of Richmond hosts up to nine families a night (and they are almost always at full occupancy), and give them a private bedroom, hot showers, lunch at the hospital, dinner, transportation, and even a playroom. But beyond the physical aspects of the house, the support they give is priceless.

I love that Southern Living and Dillard's are using this cookbook in such a beneficial way, and I was very excited to dive into the book! I can't even recall one recipe from a Southern Living cookbook that hasn't been amazing. The very first real cookbook I received, in fact, was their Ultimate Cookbook, and it played a huge role in teaching me how to cook on my own.

I decided to tackle something I'd never done before from this cookbook: Mini Frittatas. As we were furiously planning our Thanksgiving dinner, I realized that in my haste I hadn't planned on breakfast. Since we spend the night at my parents' house on Thanksgiving, I thought it might be nice to make breakfast for them Friday morning. I loved the idea of these Mini Sausage and Spinach Frittatas - cute and super easy to make, they looked like a nice change of pace for a relaxed Black Friday breakfast, along with cinnamon rolls.

Mini Sausage and Spinach Frittatas (with Swiss)
The only thing was, these Frittatas call for Feta and roasted red bell peppers. I know my players (i.e. my three little ones), and I knew the kids wouldn't even touch them with those flavors. Plus, the more I thought about it, I realized that while I love those flavors myself, I really have to be in the mood for Feta, and I didn't really want it for breakfast. So I switched a couple of ingredients: Shredded Swiss for the Feta, and omitted the red peppers altogether, along with the ground red pepper.

The Mini Sausage Frittatas puff up gloriously in the muffin tins, all golden, pretty, and festive with the baby spinach flecked throughout. One of the things that surprised us besides how tasty they were, was how light they were, even with the sausage. The recipe was easy, fast, and made quite a lot (1 dozen Mini Frittatas). They were perfect for our breakfast, and would be wonderful if you were holding an open house, were having company, or just needed something easy and quick for company to take on their way to their next destination!

My only notes on my personal take on them would be that instead of sprinkling Swiss on the top (I took them out with 5 minutes remaining and sprinkled a little on the top, then popped them back in), I would have removed them like the recipe suggests, and sprinkled instead with freshly grated Parmesan for a sharp, salty bite.

For other recipes like this, please consider taking a trip to a Dillard's nearest you, and purchasing the book. Not only will be getting a superb cookbook, but you can flip it upside-down to reveal year-round entertaining ideas! It would make a wonderful Christmas gift, or even a hostess gift, and you'd be giving to a charity that is truly wonderful. Stay tuned next week, because I'm going to tackle another recipe from the cookbook that I'm SUPER excited about! Enjoy, friends!

Mini Sausage and Spinach Frittatas

• Vegetable cooking spray
• 1/2 pound ground pork sausage
• 10 large eggs
• 1/4 cup half-and-half
• 1/2 tsp. table salt
• 1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
• 1/8 tsp. ground red pepper
• 1 cup chopped baby spinach
• 1/2 cup chopped drained bottled roasted bell pepper
• 1 1/2 cups crumbled feta cheese
• 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

1. Preheat the oven to 375˚F. Lightly grease a 12-cup muffin pan with cooking spray. Brown the sausage in a large skillet over medium-high heat, stirring often, 6 to 8 minutes or until meat crumbles and is no longer pink. Drain.
2. Whisk together the eggs and next 4 ingredients in a large bowl. Layer the cooked sausage, spinach, bell pepper, and 1 cup of the feta cheese evenly in the prepared muffin cups. Pour the egg mixture over the layers.
3. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes or until set but not dry. Let stand 5 minutes. Remove frittatas from pan. Sprinkle with the chopped parsley and remaining 1/2 cup feta cheese before serving.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Casual Kentucky Derby Party

The most exciting two minutes in sports is only a few days away (Saturday, May 7th)! Every year we look forward to hosting a Kentucky Derby Party - it's kind of our once-a-year "big hurrah" for good friends and family. It's fun to look back over the years and see how it all started: My husband and I watching the race. My husband and I watching the race and drinking Mint Juleps. My husband and I watching the race, drinking Mint Juleps, and eating yummy snacks. My husband and I inviting a couple of people to eat and drink with us. The entire neighborhood coming...the entire neighborhood plus our family and dearest friends.

Seems like it escalated quickly, but it was last year that we decided it was time to really turn up the volume and name this what it really was: A Casual Kentucky Derby Party. I love that it has turned into an annual event, and I've learned a lot over the years about what works and what doesn't. You still have time to cobble together your own party, with these tips:

• First of all, a Kentucky Derby Party is nothing without a good Mint Julep. I started out by mixing each drink individually, but eventually with a party this big, it was too much and too time consuming. Last year I went with a Mint Julep Punch, and it was awesome. Guests serve themselves, and it's so easy to make. For the record, Buffalo Trace is my favorite bourbon. You know, just in case you wanted to send me some.

Mint Julep Punch, and the drink station. We also provide wine, beer, water, and juice for the kiddos.

• We keep it "Dressy Casual" because...Kentucky Derby! Hats and bowties are always optional, but it's more fun when people wear them. I'll wear a nice dress, but my commitment to the theme ends (or begins?) at my $6 fascinator from Party City (I look absolutely awful in hats).

• For food we ask everyone to bring a dish to share. I have on hand lots of little snacks, plenty of chicken nuggets for the kids, and I also make Bourbon Balls to go with the theme. It takes a lot of pressure off as the hostess when people contribute, and it's fun to see what everyone brings!

A little friendly wagering, and the food spread. 

• Kids are invited, but we pray for good weather so they don't have to stay inside. We set up lawn games to keep them engaged as well.

• Décor: I buy Kentucky Derby inspired tablecloths, cups and napkins, and I also have red roses on hand as well since this is a "race for the roses."

• Wagering: You can open up a pool for bets on the horses, or there's even sites connected to PayPal that lets you truly bet as if you were there and Churchill Downs, but we do it a little more low key: Right before the party I check all the names of the horses, and depending on the number of adult guests, put the names of the horses either once or twice into a jar. Adults can pay $5 to draw one name. Whoever is holding the winning name at the end of the race wins the pot! Last year only one of our friends won, and she walked away with close to $150!

• Make it yours! It's all about friends and bourbon and good times. You can make it as classy or casual as you want it to be. has great ideas for parties and recipes, and keeps you up-to-date on the horses in the race. This year's post time (start time) is 6:34 p.m. EST.

Good food, good bourbon, and great friends is what it's all about!

Enjoy, and have fun this Derby Day!

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Chicken Étouffée, Take Two

Readers! Friends! Countrymen! It's so good to be "back in the saddle" here at The GG after taking a few months off. Lest you think that my time off meant that I had rolled over and wasn't cooking anything interesting, well, you're right. Mostly.

In winter, after the holidays have come and gone I usually find myself in a culinary slump. Dinners most nights of the week for my family are not gorgeous, ambitious affairs in the slightest (unless you think that tacos made with a taco kit counts as ambitious. Or gorgeous). In the past I've been able to get out of the slump by taking on culinary challenges for myself that I set as New Years Resolutions, dishes that I've typically thought of as too intimidating to tackle; but this year, even after putting the shout out to my Facebook friends, I didn't have one suggestion and I couldn't come up with anything that even remotely interested me. Hence, taking some time off. And yet, I did get around to making a couple of fun dishes, Wild Mushroom Risotto for one, and even taught my very first cooking class (which was super fun!). But still, I was definitely in a culinary rut.

Then Mardi Gras rolled around. If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you know we take Mardi Gras very seriously. As the last hurrah before a long Lenten season, we typically blow it out like they would in New Orleans, but you know, with kids, and without bead throwing. This year, my first priority was to make a Sazerac, that most traditional cocktail of New Orleans. I'd never had one before, so what better time to try it out? I followed this great recipe, and really enjoyed crafting the cocktail, which was absolutely delicious. We turned up The Preservation Hall Society and got our Mardi Gras on.

For the meal itself I wanted to make something that was delicious, yet not too time-consuming or difficult, that still showcased all the delicious Creole flavors we associate with the Crescent City. If you'll remember, a couple of years ago I tried my hand at this Chicken Étouffée. It turned out to be incredibly lackluster and bland, but something was telling me that if I dug a little deeper, I could hit on the right Chicken Étouffée recipe, the one that I was looking for.  The word "Étouffée" means "smothered" in French, and anything smothered has to be both savory and sumptuous.

I definitely found what I was looking for over at Saveur. I could tell right away that this recipe had all the depth of flavor I was looking for thanks to the inclusion of the herbs thyme and dried basil, plus all the classic Creole and Cajun kick-in-the-seat-of-your-pants spiciness we crave on a cold winter's night. Check out this great recipe by clicking here.

Chicken and Andouille Sausage Étouffée

The only problem was it was way, way too spicy. It kicked the seat of our pants with a little too much gusto. With a generous full teaspoon of cayenne, plus Andouille Sausage, it wasn't long before we were feeling the heat. We all dove into the bowls of Étouffée, and at first everyone seemed to enjoy it. The kids were the first ones to fold, complaining that it was too spicy (though in fairness, they also think the tacos with pre-packaged taco seasoning is too spicy), and filled up on French bread instead.

I started to notice that I was glugging down my crisp white wine a little too fervently. I turned to my Mom, who was sitting next to me.

"Do you think this is too spicy?" I asked her. She was dabbing at her face delicately with her napkin. "It is, but it's delicious," she replied. "Your face is beet red, dear," she also informed me.

That's when I noticed that I, too, happened to be sweating, and that my mouth was on fire. Like, 7th circle of hell on fire. Cayenne pepper is a heat that creeps. It moves along slowly at first, as though it's out for a Sunday stroll - a nice flavor. Then it quickens its pace just a bit, things are heating up now. Finally it breaks into a sprint, causing one to try and drench their tastebuds in any liquid that's closest to quell the fire. In my case, it was wine, but that's beside the point. Pair that creeping heat (all 1 teaspoon of it, which doesn't seem like much, but is actually a tremendous amount) with the Andouille Sausage, one of the spicier sausages on the market, and the heat was most definitely on.

My husband, on the other hand, who finds ghost peppers to be a bit bland, was of course chowing down and saying things like, "I can't believe you think this is spicy. It's terrific! Are you actually sweating? Wait, are you crying?"

The tears were indeed filling my eyes, and snot was perilously close to breaking free from my nostrils, but I held it together and powered on, eating nearly the whole bowl. Underneath all that heat was the lusty sumptuousness and aromatic wallop of flavor I had been looking for.

As the Lenten season came to a close during Holy Week, I found myself bound and determined to make the Étouffée again, keeping all the original players that make this recipe so great, but also tweaking a few things to bring the spiciness under control. The first thing I did was swap out the Andouille Sausage. I thought this would be the biggest culprit in the heat factor, so I swapped it out for a Kielbasa instead, a nice, mild sausage, still with plenty of flavor. Paired with the chicken thighs, I felt this would work nicely. I also took the full teaspoon of cayenne down to about 3/4 of a teaspoon. As the pot bubbled and simmered (their take on the perfect roux is absolutely foolproof and on point, by the way), the kids traipsed through the kitchen and remarked on how great it smelled. I served it up, once again on a bed of fluffy white rice and we dove in.

It was at this point that I realized that it wasn't the Andouille Sausage that had been the problem, it was the cayenne; and taking it down to 3/4 of a teaspoon wasn't enough for my delicate, tender tastebuds. The kids got about halfway through their bowls this time, and were completely dismayed that I had forgotten the French bread. While it was still beyond delicious, I think I might take the cayenne down even further next time to a half teaspoon, or maybe even a fourth. I know. I know. What an absolute wimp I am.

Try this recipe out for yourself and please let me know what you think. If you really love spicy stuff, go for the original recipe, but if you want to tone it down, try the tweaks I made, and get ready to laissez les bon temps rouler - even though Mardi Gras is long since past.

P.S. - One final note. You'll see that they want you to brown the chicken thighs in a separate skillet to get them to a nice golden color. It recommends a lot of butter so that you can put the leftover melted butter into the finished Étouffée. Both times I attempted this, I ended up with sautéed chicken instead. It's my opinion that they call for WAY too much butter. If you want that gorgeous brown sear, take the butter down to maybe 2 tbsp. and see how that does.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Behind the scenes of food photography

I've been working on my food photography now for close to three years. I went in to it absolutely kicking and screaming, though I knew in order to have a good blog, and more importantly, a good looking blog, I should have some pictures to break up the text.

"But I'm a writer!" I'd say to anyone I'd talk to about it. "I'm not a photographer! I'm definitely not a food photographer! I'm all about the words!"

"Suck it up. Do it anyway," a very kind, wise, and beautiful friend told me. Only your best friend can be that blunt with you and get away with it.

What she showed me is that with the right camera, and minimal equipment, I could get better at food photography. So after my old point-and-click camera died, I invested in a DSLR, my beloved Canon Rebel T3i. I thought, all my photo woes are over, because now I have the perfect camera!

Not quite. Turns out there's a lot more to food photography than just a great camera. This isn't going to be a blog post tutorial, so don't worry, you're not in for a lesson. Believe me when I say, I am NO expert. But I have improved greatly over the years (if you don't believe me, I challenge you to check out the archives where you can laugh and laugh and laugh at my terrible food photos). But what I am going to do is give you a few tips, and what I've learned.

But before I give you my tips, I thought it would be fun to show you what it looks like "Behind the Scenes." I get some compliments on my photos from time to time, and I always laugh and say, "If only you knew what it looked like outside of that close-up!" To prove my point, here are some photos I recently did for Trolley House, a RVA-based break room vending and catering company.

What the set-up shot looks like - I did this one in our guest bedroom because the light was perfect in there, and I had a side table I could use. The backdrop is a black foam board, propped up by a framed picture. Yes. I'm all sorts of equipment fancy up in here. The light reflector is a white foam board I cut in half and taped with duct tape, which allows me to angle it any way I want:

And here you have a peek into what my kitchen looked like after I was done prepping their food (about 6 items total), because food photography is half about the technical stuff like equipment and light, and half about how you prepped the food to make it look its very best.

Here are a couple of the photos, after they've been edited:

You'd never know I was crouching beside the guest bedroom bed to get these shots, or that I had knocked over the framed picture holding up the backdrop and it shattered. These were freelance work I was doing, but I wish you could see the utter madness that I deal with when I'm shooting normally for this blog. Because I need the light, I often have to shoot the food when my kids are around, and boy-oh-boy, is that fun. Someday soon I'm going to have my husband snap a picture so you can see the complete chaos of 3 kids trying to "help" me with props and photography.

So here are some lessons learned, a few tips if you're just getting started:

1) Invest in a good camera, like a DSLR. Learn how to use the manual settings like ISO and shutter speed, and turn off that flash! Camera flash is the enemy of food.

2) You don't need to invest in a lot of extra equipment - as I mentioned, I use things I found at my local craft stores: foam core board, poster board, etc. For the "wood surfaces" I went on Etsy where I found a pack of vinyl mats with that design. Bonus? They're easy to clean if they get messy.

3) Natural light is food's best friend. You may think that since you have a fancy camera you can take great pictures at dusk or at night. But unless you have a  specific natural light box like this one, you're not going to get the shot. Plan to photograph your food in either mid-morning sun, or late afternoon sun. Plus, the sun is much cheaper.

4) Play with your food! Yes, really! I play around with all the food I photograph, and shoot it from multiple angles, sometimes with props, sometimes not.

5) Practice, practice, practice. I probably take 50 shots of a single dish or food that I'm photographing. It's because I've taken literally thousands of pictures of food that I'm finally able to get the shots I want today.

6) Read up about it! I found two excellent books that really helped me understand technical things like blocking, lighting, the rule of 3s, etc: "Food Photography for Bloggers" by Matt Armendariz (my fave!) and "Food Photography: From Snapshots to Great Shots" by Nicole S. Young. These also helped me gain a better understanding of editing as well. Plus they're gorgeous to look at.

I hope this helps! Most of all, have fun with it. It has truly become a hobby (and now a job!) that I really love and have fun with. When the food you worked so very hard to create comes out looking stunning in the photos, it's so worth it!