Manhattan Beach Post’s Bacon Cheddar Biscuits (no recipe)

If you live near me, in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, I hope you have been to Manhattan Beach Post. Headed by Chef David LeFevre (notable a few years ago on food TV for falling one unfortunate battle short of being crowned the newest Iron Chef), it’s an upscale-but-casual spot near the beach, with inventive small plates designed to be shared. You and your dining partner order maybe 3 or 4 things, and they are served as they are ready, which means you might get your fish “main” before you get your pan fried spicy green beans, but that’s okay. It adds to the ability to play with flavor combinations as each new plate arrives at your table. Plus then you have more time to examine the cocktail list to see what to order next…

One of the highlights at MBP comes in the form of their bacon cheddar biscuits. Studded with chunks of cheese that ooze out into crisp, lacy patterns as they bake, they are served still steaming with a small pot of whipped, lightly salted maple butter. People order them by the dozens.

Since, given my penchant for wanting everything, MBP gets a little pricey for a weekly visit, the stretches in between those biscuits get to feeling long. I’m no amateur with biscuits myself, given that a quick word search on this very site turns up no less than eight successful variations and one small disaster, but MBP’s are achingly tender and flavorful and rich in ways mine fall slightly short of. They also have that inimitable quality of being made by someone else, which so often raises the deliciousness quotient a few notches.

I’d certainly be willing, though, given their place in my taste memories, to make them myself, so you can imagine my delight when a week or so ago I found this recipe for the very thing. Naturally this went immediately to the top of my “to make” list, only to be foiled by a series of “there’s no way we’re turning on the oven, nope, not a chance” days in a row.

But a week after the initial find, we had a cooler afternoon, and I collected myself, halved the recipe, and produced a tray of tender, lightly browned blobs oozing with cheese that we gobbled up alongside a salad to pretend we were being responsible. And then three days later we made them for breakfast, sans chives, cheddar, and bacon, splitting them gently and spreading them thickly with maple butter. And I have to say, both times they were just perfect: light, fluffy, tangy from buttermilk, just barely edging toward sweet and salty, and something I’d always be happy to have a half dozen of in the freezer, just for spur-of-the-moment biscuit cravings (what, you don’t have those?).

 

A few notes: I subbed out bacon for pancetta in my savory version because, for a weeknight, I couldn’t pass up the convenience factor of the pre-cubed packet I had only to shake into a frying pan. The dough itself, if you can call it that, just barely holds together, but try to resist the urge to add more liquid, which turns it into a sticky mess almost immediately. As with scones and other such beasties, the key is to mix and knead as little as possible to preserve tenderness; I didn’t even mess with my rolling pin, but just patted the mess into something like a rectangle with lightly floured hands, then sliced the whole thing into squares with a knife instead of bothering with a biscuit cutter. And don’t pass up the brush of butter and sea salt on the top (LeFevre calls for clarified butter; I just used my regular unsalted, melting a little in the warmth of the preheating oven). It promotes browning nicely and offers a little extra decadence, and the crunchy flakes of sea salt are a delight.

Project Cook: Seeded Pumpkin Biscotti

A few weeks ago, Irvin from Eat the Love posted on his instagram feed that he wasn’t seeing many pumpkin recipes from the bloggers he follows, and both politely and in fun, essentially told everyone to step it up! Instantly (although I’m definitely not one of his favorites – I doubt he knows I exist!) I knew I wanted to make pumpkin biscotti, using one of his tricks (more on that later). I would stud them generously with pumpkin seeds since I’d had that bag of pepitas in the pantry forever,* and maybe some other nuts, and top them with coarse, crunchy sugar or a criss-crossed shiny glaze, and I’d be right on trend.

And then, of course, I didn’t. Instead we had friends over, and I graded papers, and the kitchen was too warm, and I lost track of my biscotti for a while, but this past weekend, in between setting out Halloween decorations (and, of course, more grading), I finally got down to it. Supplies bought, I went looking for the rest of the ingredients, and after tearing through my pantry shelves, realized the wellspring inspiration for the whole recipes – the pumpkin seeds – were nowhere to be found.

Cut to me, grumbling and grouchy, on an emergency trip to the nearest grocery store, scouring what felt like every aisle until I finally found some, in measly little 2 ounce packages, next to the cocktail peanuts. Project back on track.

For the base dough, I turned to the gurus at King Arthur Flour. While their recipe looks delicious, I knew I wanted to raise the stakes a bit with various sources of crunch, and – here’s where Irvin becomes important for this recipe again – I wanted to use his pumpkin trick of drying the puree out on the stove before integrating it into the recipe. The problem with pumpkin, as I’ve noted previously, is its massive moisture content. The KAF recipe contains only ½ cup pumpkin puree, likely because it’s so wet that adding much more would not allow for crunchy cookies. I figured since I was going to reduce the moisture so much I could increase that quantity by half. This would give me a dryer ingredient with a more intense pumpkin flavor.

But making my mixture less wet entailed potential recipe problems. Biscotti should be crunchy, but reducing moisture content too much could lead to stale-tasting cookies, or a mix that didn’t hold together properly. Time to do some research. My favorite biscotti recipe, from the very first issue of Bon Appétit I ever bought, is flavored with lemon and walnut and has become a family Christmas standard. It differs considerably from the KAF recipe for pumpkin biscotti, with more egg, a good bit more butter, and of course a staggering 3 cups of chopped walnuts I was not planning to come even close to. The recipe creation then became guesswork, which involved a series of texts between me and my sister to try and figure out how to proceed.

I settled on increasing the amount of egg and butter, but not quite as much as my old reliable standby. Since I’d be adding nuts and seeds, I also opted to change up KAF’s procedure a bit to match the one I was used to: rather than putting the shaped, sticky batter straight into the oven, I wrapped mine in plastic wrap (which also helps shape it – more below…), chucked it into the fridge for a few hours, and then unwrapped and baked it once it had firmed up.

My go-to lemon and walnut biscotti recipe advocates cooling the flattened dough logs completely after their first bake, then slicing, lying the cookies down on their cut sides, and baking again at low heat. The KAF recipe I was half-following suggests cutting while still hot, then baking again with the cookies standing up on their flat bottom edges. I was intrigued and tried this new way, and I might never go back. Yes, the slicing requires delicacy, especially because the pumpkin seeds and pistachio pieces are harder than the surrounding dough, but cooking them standing up means first: the coarse sugar you press into the top stays put, and second: they brown evenly on both sides. Even browning, sugar-crunch layer, and you can even fit more on the baking tray at once. Say no more. I’m sold.

But I guess really there is one more thing to say, and that’s our assessment. These are outstandingly delicious. They are spicy and crunchy and not too sweet, and though the pumpkin flavor is mild it’s definitely there. The sparkling coarse sugar on top is perfect against the earthiness of the nuts and pumpkin seeds inside. It’s a good thing I’m taking a batch in to work tomorrow, because by the time I remembered I should count how many cookies this recipe made to report here, we had already eaten… enough of them… that guesswork was required, and when I realized I was eating what might have been my fourth in an hour or so, I sentenced them all to wait in a hard-to-open Tupperware on top of the fridge with the Halloween candy so they would be harder to access. We will certainly make these again, as should you. And I’ve already plotted out a version with amped up ginger and chopped dried apples for Christmas. Move over, lemon and walnut standard. Or at least be ready to share the plate.

* for a clear explanation of the difference between pepitas and plain old pumpkin seeds, see here.

Seeded Pumpkin Biscotti
Adapted from King Arthur Flour
Makes approximately 3 dozen
About 4 hours (including resting time) or overnight
1 cup pumpkin puree
½ cup pepitas
½ cup roughly chopped pistachios
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
⅔ cups granulated sugar
1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
scant ¼ teaspoon ground ginger
1½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
2 eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon flax seeds
2-3 tablespoons coarse sugar, such as turbinado or demerara, for sprinkling

 

  • In a small skillet, cook the pumpkin puree over high or medium-high heat for about 15 minutes, stirring frequently, until the color has deepened and the puree has dried and has a texture something like a thick, crusted frosting. It will be reduced by about half. Set aside to cool.
  • While the pumpkin puree is reducing, if desired, toast the pepitas and chopped pistachios in a 300F oven for about 10 minutes. Set these aside to cool as well.
  • In a large bowl, or the bowl of your stand mixer, cream together the butter and granulated sugar. Add the cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, salt, and baking powder, and beat with the paddle attachment until smooth and creamy.
  • Beat in the eggs and the cooled pumpkin puree until well combined. The pumpkin will take a minute or two to fully integrate.
  • With the mixer on low speed, add the flour a ½ cup at a time, then the flax seeds and the cooled pepitas and pistachios. Be sure to scrape the bottom of the bowl once or twice to ensure everything is mixed in. The resulting mixture will be very sticky.
  • Cut two pieces of cling wrap and spread them out on a clean counter. With a determined spatula, scrape half the dough mixture onto each. Using the plastic wrap, push and mold the dough into two long rectangles of about 10 x 2½ inches. Wrap them up in the plastic wrap, put them on a cookie sheet or other flat tray, and stow in the fridge for at least two hours, or overnight.
  • When you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350F. Retrieve the dough logs from the refrigerator, unwrap them from the plastic wrap, and position them an inch or two apart from one another on a parchment lined baking sheet. Sprinkle the tops with the 2-3 tablespoons coarse sugar, then use your hand to spread the sugar evenly and gently press it in to the top of the dough a bit so it adheres.
  • Bake the dough logs for 25 minutes; they will be just firm. Remove from the oven and let cool 10-15 minutes. Meanwhile, reduce the oven temperature to 325F.
  • After 10-15 minutes, use a sharp serrated knife to cut the logs crosswise into ½ inch slices. Use a gentle sawing motion to avoid breaking up the slices, which will still be very delicate at this point. Some of the nuts and seeds will be harder to cut through. Be sure to cut as straight up and down as possible; if the biscotti are thicker on the top than the bottom, they won’t stand up correctly for their second baking.
  • Stand the biscotti on their bottom edges on the same parchment lined baking sheet you used to bake the flattened logs. They can be fairly close together but should not be touching. Carefully return the pan to the 325F oven and bake for 40-45 minutes, until they are getting golden brown around the edges. They will still be soft in the middle.
  • KAF recommends turning off the oven, cracking the door, and allowing the biscotti to cool completely while inside, likely to ensure the finished cookies are crunchy. I did not do this because I had something else I needed to bake; I cooled them in the oven only 5 or 10 minutes, then removed the pan to a counter top and let them cool completely. Mine were still perfectly crisp all the way through.
  • Serve when completely cooled. Perfect with coffee, chai or other tea, or straight off the pan.

Squash soup (no recipe)

I had such intentions of hopping back on the horse and being seasonal and bringing you something appropriately pumpkin-ed, and then an impromptu afternoon outing turned into dinner with friends, (involving, it’s worth noting, easily the best Caesar dressing I’ve ever made, slightly over-salted croutons, and the complete destruction of my microplane grater. My first reaction was, “what a cheap thing! Who gave us this for our wedding anyway…. Oh. Twelve years ago. I guess that’s fair) and suddenly mixing, baking, slicing, baking again (three guesses about what I intended?!) seemed much less important.

So instead I want to talk about soup. But to get there, first I have to talk about A. Two weekends ago, N. and I went to the wedding of one of our grad school friends, an amazing woman we’ve remained quite close to despite only sharing two academic years with her. She came back to Oregon for our graduation, she roomed with us at a wedding only now taking a cautious, slight backseat to hers, she sees N. almost every year at a conference I know has become his favorite in part because he gets to see her (among other amazing friends and scholars). There aren’t many people I would fly to Texas for and party like a college student in the middle of the semester, but she’s one of them. And her new husband is pretty great too.

The wedding dinner was entirely vegetarian, which is a hard sell in the middle of Texas. But her caterers pulled it off well, and the easy star of the whole shebang was the squash soup. I’ve had – and made – plenty of squash-based soups, and I am (almost) always slightly disappointed by them. They are so often either a barely thinned puree, one-note and overwhelmed by butternut, or so diluted by broth or cream they don’t taste of much at all. Even my own most recent take, which was tasty, left something to be desired.

This one, though, was outrageously delicious. I don’t know what sort of squash they used – whether it was summer, winter, or both – but it was creamy without being overwhelming, and bright and interesting enough to hold my interest for the entire bowl. It didn’t need any garnishes, it didn’t split or get greasy as it cooled, and had I been less invested in getting on with the dancing, I could easily have gone back for seconds. I’ve already put in a request to the catering company to share, if not the recipe, perhaps an ingredient secret or two.

So to close, since I’ve got soup on the brain, what’s the best squash-based soup you’ve ever had? Did you make it, or did someone else? What made it amazing? Tell me everything…

Zucchini Spice Bread with Cherries (now with post and recipe!)

This past summer, we did not grow zucchini. Still traumatized by the various baseball bats we had to consume the previous year, N. flatly refused it. He couldn’t find the humor even in my joke that we would only grow a small one… Needless to say, no zucchini graced our table this summer.

But I missed it. In particular, I missed my favorite zucchini bread recipe, a cinnamon-spiced affair with an appealingly-crusty top but still-moist center from The Bon Appétit Cookbook that I’ve made probably at least a dozen times. It’s lightly sweet, it’s not overwhelmingly, well, zucchini flavored, and you don’t even have to squeeze out the grated squash before adding it to the mixture. In fact, you shouldn’t; the recipe relies on some of that wetness to attain the correct consistency. Buying zucchini from the grocery store to put toward this purpose just didn’t seem right – this was, as the book itself declares, a recipe designed for a zucchini harvest.

So when one of my coworkers advertised her bounty, I suggested that I’d be willing to take one of her prolific squashes off of her hands, and as a result I received a delivery at least as long as my forearm. Yes. This meant zucchini bread. To keep myself interested, in this incarnation I not only included the deeply toasted chopped walnuts the recipe calls for, but subbed in some almond flour for part of the all-purpose flour to add extra nuttiness and – not that this recipe needs it – assured moisture. I also added my most recent baking obsession: a generous few handfuls of tart dried cherries. And then, since just a loaf will never do, I made four. And I still had a chunk of zucchini left that’s probably still at least 6-7 inches long.

This recipe calls for two cups of grated zucchini. And that seems like a lot, until you realize it really only takes one reasonably sized squash to make that amount. So here I’m offering a recipe for two loaves, since if you’re facing down a bed-full of zucchini, that’s the least you’ll want to make. They freeze beautifully too, so you can sock away a loaf or two until you, or your family, or your neighbors, are feeling zucchini-receptive again. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that, just in case the end pieces feel a little dry, toasting and adding a generous smear of cream cheese is revelatory.

 

Zucchini Spice Bread with Cherries
Adapted (barely) from The Bon Appétit Cookbook
Makes 2 loaves 9x5x3 inch loaves
2 cups chopped walnuts
6 large eggs
4 cups granulated sugar
2 cups vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup almond meal or almond flour
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
4 cups coarsely grated zucchini, not squeezed
2½ cups dried tart cherries, such as Montmorency

 

  • Preheat the oven to 350F. While it heats, scatter the walnuts on a cookie sheet and put it in the oven to toast. The nuts should go about two shades darker brown and look slightly oily when you take them out. Once nicely toasted, remove from the oven and set aside to cool.
  • Prepare two metal loaf pans by spraying with non-stick cooking spray or rubbing with butter or oil.
  • Using an electric mixer or a stand mixer, beat the eggs in a large bowl until they are foamy. With the mixer running, gradually add the sugar, then beat until the mixture is very thick and pale. This takes a good 3-4 minutes. Slowly beat in the oil, then the vanilla.
  • In another bowl, whisk together the flour, the almond meal, the salt, cinnamon, baking soda, and baking powder. With the mixer on low speed, beat in this dry mixture in three additions, scraping down the sides of the bowl in between.
  • Gently fold in the walnuts and cherries to ensure even distribution. The batter will be extremely thick. Don’t despair! Fold in the zucchini (it will be almost too much for a standard stand mixer, but it will fit. Mostly). The batter will loosen up considerably as the grated pieces release moisture.
  • Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared pans and bake at 350F until the top is dry and crusty, and a toothpick or cake tester inserted comes out clean. This pretty dependably takes about 1 hour and 30 minutes. Cool the loaf for at least 5 minutes in the pan before turning it out onto a rack to cool completely.

Banh mi salad (no recipe)

I don’t have a recipe for you today, but I do have a suggestion that, like my almost-too-late discovery of the aperol spritz in Venice, has probably already occurred to you. But just in case. It turns out that banh mi, that beloved Vietnamese sandwich that, along with pho, is probably the nation’s most well-known dish in the United States, translates amazingly well into a salad. You chop or stack all the ingredients from the sandwich – well seasoned and seared tofu, or pork, or chicken, fresh cucumbers, wafer-thin jalapeno slices, assorted vegetable pickles, soapy-fresh cilantro sprigs – atop crisp, juicy romaine or crunchy shredded cabbage (or a combination of both). You toss it gently with a dressing made from mayonnaise, sriracha, fish sauce, and lime juice or rice vinegar. Finally, since banh means “bread” in Vietnamese, so it couldn’t be banh- anything without a bread component, you fry the torn innards of a baguette in a generous quantity of oil, sprinkle them with a little salt, and pile them to precarious heights on top.

And if you already have some of these items lying around – like, say, you had banh mi sandwiches a few day before – it comes together in the time it takes you to fry the croutons.

Boom. Lunch is served.

Huevos Rancheros con Frico

The first iteration of this meal was a lunch I threw together when I wasn’t satisfied by any of the leftovers already in my fridge. And it was easy: egg, cheese, tortilla, a scoop of salsa. Done. But instead of melting the cheese on top, I flopped the toasted tortilla over and held it down with my spatula so the cheese sputtered and hissed directly against the pan. A minute or two later, a quick but determined scrape, and the tortilla emerged with a frico of pepperjack welded on, crispy and seared and ready. And as soon as that happened, I was no longer alone at the stove. Suddenly instead of the sandwich he’d been intending, N. wanted my lunch. He was entranced by that crunchy layer of cheese, so a few days later we had it for dinner, this time bulking things up with the addition of a bed of black beans for the tortilla to rest on.

Three days later, we already wanted it again. A week after that, we had it a third time. That tells you something. And unlike so many of my recipes here, this is quick – no more than 20 minutes and it’s ready to go – and takes a few shortcuts along the way: canned black beans, jarred salsa. Of course you could go the extra mile and start from scratch, but for what is essentially the quickest weeknight dinner I’ve made in months, I’m not going to bother.

Huevos rancheros is a simple dish, usually eggs and salsa atop tortillas, with beans, cheese, and other accompaniments optional. Basically it’s a fried egg taco. Frico, on the other hand, is an Italian creation probably originally invented to use up cheese rinds. Though there is a version that incorporates potatoes and other vegetables fried into something like a rosti or latke (which N. has informed me he now wants), the sort Americans are probably most familiar with – and certainly my version here – is a thin round of plain old cheese, fried until it holds together.

Most fricos are made with hard cheeses – think “parmesan crisps” or similar – and can be fried just until they are malleable, then draped over a jar or muffin tin or rolling pin to shape them into baskets or bowls or other decorative shapes. But they can also be baked or fried until they are crisp and shattering discs you could stack in a savory napoleon or crumble onto a salad or, in my favorite application, crust the outsides of a grilled cheese sandwich.

But this frico is made with softer cheese: I tried both cheddar and pepperjack, and found I preferred the latter. When you first turn it into the pan, a distressing quantity of grease appears and the cheese bubbles worryingly around the outer edges of the tortilla, and you are sure this isn’t going to work at all. Give it a minute or two, though, and then cautiously but firmly apply your spatula, and the tortilla should have a crunchy, orange, lacquered coating. You then have only to set the egg on top, pile with accouterments, and gobble up the whole thing.

You can, of course, use multiple skillets here, and make more than one at the same time. I opted to cook the eggs first and set them aside to stay warm while I did the tortillas, because my dishwasher (I have one of those human models, not the mechanized kind) appreciates when my cooking projects don’t result in a whole sinkful. I’ve also opted in the ingredients to list quantities for each egg-cheese-tortilla stack, which of course can be easily doubled, tripled – or, should you have a large griddle and some brunch-loving friends – multiplied to serve what will no doubt be a happy crowd.

Huevos Rancheros con Frico
15-20 minutes
quantities and instructions for one, but oh-so-easily multiplied
½-1 cup canned black beans
1-2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 egg
1 corn tortilla
1-2 ounces pepperjack cheese, thinly sliced
¼ cup salsa, or more as desired
3-4 avocado slices
optional: torn cilantro and/or a lime wedge

 

  • In a small pot, heat the black beans along with their liquid over medium heat; let them simmer until most but not all of the liquid has been absorbed and the beans are hot.
  • While the beans simmer, heat 1 tablespoon of the vegetable oil in a skillet over medium heat. Crack in the egg sunny-side up, sprinkle a little salt on the yolk, and cook until the white is just set and the edges are starting to brown slightly. Carefully flip over to finish either over easy or over medium, depending on your preferences. Remove and cover to keep warm (I like to place mine in the shallow bowl I use to serve and cover with another shallow bowl).
  • If the pan looks dry, add the other 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, let it heat for a minute, then add the tortilla. Fry the tortilla until well toasted with deeply browned spots on both sides.
  • Remove the fried tortilla from the pan and use a paper towel to wipe most of the oil out of the pan. Top the toasted tortilla with the pepperjack, arranging the slices so most of the tortilla surface is covered. Add back to the skillet, still on medium heat, with the pepperjack side down, directly against the surface of the pan. Cook undisturbed for 2-3 minutes. Fat from the cheese will be released and the cheese will look like it’s all going to ooze out the sides. Don’t worry.
  • After 2-3 minutes undisturbed, use a wide spatula to carefully but firmly loosen the cheese from the pan surface. Flip the whole tortilla back over so the cheese is on top.
  • To serve, pile the hot black beans in a shallow bowl. Place the tortilla, cheese side up, on top of the beans. Carefully put the egg on top of the cheese-crusted tortilla. Top with salsa, avocado, cilantro and lime if desired, and eat immediately.