Oreo Cheesecake Cupcakes

No, you didn’t misread the title of this post: there really is a way to combine three of the most delicious things in the world into one dessert.  These yummy treats combine the chocolate flavor of Oreo cookies with the creamy, tangy flavor of cheesecake – all in a fun-to-eat cupcake form.  The best part of this recipe is that unlike regular cheesecakes you don’t have to worry about water baths or special cookware – they set up nicely in regular cupcake liners.  What makes them even more fun is that each miniature cake has a whole Oreo nestled in the bottom like a cream-filled crust.  You’ll have to excercise some serious willpower not to eat up several of these in one sitting.  This recipe comes originally from Martha Stewart’s Cupcakes, but we found a scaled down version the blog Cate’s World Kitchen.  We hope you’ll give them a try!

Oreo Cheesecake Cupcakes

  • 22 Oreos, 6 of them coarsely crushed
  • 2 – 8 oz. blocks of softened cream cheese
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • Pinch of salt

Preheat your oven to 250 and line a muffin tin with wrappers.  Place one whole Oreo into the bottom of each cup.  Beat your cream cheese on medium until creamed, then gradually add the sugar and vanilla.  Add the eggs a bit at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl after each addition.  Beat in the sour cream and the salt, then stir in the chopped cookies by hand.  Pour your batter into the prepared cups, filling almost to the top.  Bake for 22-25 minutes, rotating halfway through.  Cool in the pan for 15 minutes on a wire rack, then allow to set up in the fridge for at least four hours.  Enjoy!

Mango-Chili Salad

Since this has been one of the hottest summers ever, we’ve been trying to think of things to make that don’t require using the stove.  Green salads are great, but they get a bit boring after awhile, and most fruit salads are far too sweet for my taste.  The best cure for the summer-food blues we’ve come up with is this salad that starts off the sweetness of fresh mango and tartness of lime and ends with a kick of red pepper spice and salt.  It’s delicious as a light lunch on its own, but we’ve found that it goes wonderfully with grilled pork, chicken, or fish.  It’s very simple to put together, and the best part is that this salad really benefits from a few hours in the refrigerator, so it’s a perfect dish to make up a few hours in advance or have the next day as leftovers.  We like our mangoes to be very ripe and sweet, but you can use less-ripe fruit if you prefer more tartness.

Mango-Chili Salad

  • 2-3 fresh mangoes, diced
  • Juice of one lime
  • 2-3 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped
  • 2 large shallots, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper (use more or less depending on how spicy you like things)

In a large mixing bowl, combine the mangoes, cilantro, and shallots.  In a smaller bowl, whisk together the lime juice, olive oil, salt, and red pepper and pour over the mango mixture, tossing gently until everything is coated.  The salad is ready to serve then, but it holds well in the refrigerator – just press some plastic wrap down gently onto the surface of the salad to minimize contact with air.  Serve alone or with pork, chicken, or fish (such as the pan-seared swordfish below).  Enjoy!

Tracy’s Gumbo

Those of you who have been reading this blog for any length of time know how much we love comfort food, and gumbo is one of our favorites.  Jess’ mom makes a really tasty version of the Cajun classic, and on a recent visit she whipped up a batch – and of course we got pictures.  Packed with spicy andouille sausage, tender chicken, and succulent shrimp, Tracy’s gumbo is a rich and filling dish that’s good any time.  I learned a thing or two about making a dark, or “brick,” roux while helping with the preparation, and I think everybody had a couple of bowls of this delicious gumbo before all was said and done.  Like many soups and stews, this gumbo lends itself easily to improvisation, so you can always add any sort of seafood you like to it.  For me, it’s pretty perfect just as we have described it here, topped off with a scoop or two of white rice and a sprinkling of fresh green onion.

Tracy’s Gumbo

  • 3/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 3/4 cup flour
  • 2 cups chopped onions
  • 1 cup chopped bell peppers
  • 1 cup chopped celery
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne
  • 5 bay leaves
  • 8 cups chicken stock
  • 1 pound chicken
  • 1 pound andouille sausage
  • 2 pounds shrimp
  • 1/4 cup green onions
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped parsley
  • file powder
  • 2 cups cooked white rice
  • 2 tablespoon chopped green onions

Heat the oil in a heavy pot.  When the oil is hot, whisk in the flour.  Stir the mixture constantly for 15-20 minutes to make a dark brown roux.  Add the onions, bell peppers, celery, salt, cayenne, and bay leaves.  Cook for 12-13 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add the stock and mix to blend with the roux.  Simmer for about one hour, stirring occasionally.  Add the chicken and sausage.  Add the shrimp, green onions, and parsley.  Add the file powder to thicken at the end.  Serve in shallow bowls with steamed white rice and top with chopped green onion. Enjoy!

Charcuterie at The Pantry

For a state that is enamored of all things pork related, you don’t see the word “charcuterie” appearing on many menus. Originally a way to cure and preserve meats, the art of charcuterie is practiced now mostly because cured meat is delicious.  A meal experience with classic charcuterie is not out of the question in Little Rock, though, because Tomas Bohm at The Pantry has a variety of prepared meats on his menu, and the man knows his business.  I saw “The Pantry Board” listed on the menu back when we first reviewed The Pantry, but it’s taken until now for me to get back and give it a try.  This sampler board of bratwurst, smoked pork, prosciutto, pork terrine, and cheese is true delight, and it’s clear that Chef Bohm takes a lot of care in the preparation of his meat dishes.

It’s hard to know where to begin in describing the items that make up this sampler.  Even though everything on this board is made from pork, the variety of textures and flavors is astounding.  The prosciutto was thinly sliced, and the unctuous texture was matched by an excellent light flavor that was just salty enough without being overpowering.  In contrast, the smoked pork shoulder had a deep, round flavor that worked in perfect contrast to the ham.  The bratwurst was juicy with a slightly spicy flavor that worked well with the Dijon mustard served to the side, and I loved the creamy chevre and tangy feta with olives as well.

For me, though, the star of the plate was Chef Bohm’s terrine, a wonderful dish of bacon-wrapped forcemeat layered with asparagus and almonds.  As far as I’m aware, The Pantry’s is the only menu in Little Rock that features a terrine, and I urge all of you to put aside your ideas about pate and give this dish a try.  In older times, such dishes were made from the trimmings and end pieces of the pig, but Chef Bohm uses only good-quality pork shoulder wrapped with bacon in his terrine, and the texture and taste of the dish is sumptuous – a definite guilty pleasure food, especially when eaten with the grilled French bread and cornichons provided.  After our meal, Chef Bohm stopped by our table and when I complimented the terrine he told us that he sometimes breads a slice and pan fries it, making a sandwich of it with cornichon relish.  I’d like to go on the record and say to the Chef: if you put that on your menu as an occasional special, I will eat it every time.

The Pantry is located at 11401 N. Rodney Parham Road in Little Rock.  They’ve got an excellent bar with happy hour specials between 2pm and 6pm.  If you’re a lover of all things pork, rest assured that Chef Bohm and crew are doing things right.  Enjoy!

German Chocolate Cake

When I was a kid, my mom used to make me German chocolate cake with coconut-pecan icing almost every year for my birthday, and now that I’m an adult…I still really love it.  This version comes from our new favorite baking book, Baked: New Frontiers in Baking, the excellent book that gave us the recipe for our recent (and delicious) attempt at brewer’s blondies.  I can’t decide what I like most about this cake, because there are a lot of great things going on with it. From a moist, dense crumb packed with chocolate flavor to an icing that is sweet and sticky and loaded with coconut and pecans, it’s just decadent through and through.  I know I tend to wax hyperbolic and tell you that something is the best I’ve ever tasted – but this cake really is one of the best things I’ve ever tasted.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think that this cake paired with a cup of strong black coffee might be one of the things they give you in Heaven if you’ve been good enough in your life.  The original recipe called for three 8-inch cakes, but since all we had were 9-inch pans, we made a two-layer cake and a few cupcakes.  The guys in the Baked book also kept their sides exposed, but we liked the icing so much that we ended up coating the sides, too.  The recipe also makes a tasty cupcake.

German Chocolate Cake
(adapted from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito)

For the cake:

  • 2 1/4 cups cake flour.  Cake flour is a specialized flour with a lower gluten (protein) content than all-purpose flour.  Because of this, cake flour makes for a finer, more tender crumb.  We use the Swans Down brand.
  • 3/4 cup dark, unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup hot coffee
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 2 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
  • 5 large eggs
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 4 ounces dark chocolate, melted and cooled

Preheat the oven to 350.  Butter your cake pans, line the bottoms with parchment paper, and butter the paper.  Dust with flour, knocking the side of the pan with your hand to discard excess.

Sift the cake flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt into a medium mixing bowl.  In a small bowl, whisk together the coffee and buttermilk.  The coffee here is present to accentuate the flavor of the chocolate.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter and sugar until fluffy with the paddle attachment.  Scrape down the bowl and add the eggs one at a time, beating each egg until incorporated.  Add the vanilla and beat until it is incorporated and the mixture is light and fluffy.

Add the flour mixture and coffee/buttermilk mixture in three alternating additions, starting and ending with the flour mixture.  Remove the bowl from the mixer and fold in the melted chocolate.  Divide the batter among the prepared pans and smooth the tops.  Bake for 30-35 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through the baking time until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.  Cool on a wire rack for 20 minutes, then remove the cakes from the pans and allow to cool completely.

Coconut Pecan Icing

  • 1 1/3 cups shredded sweetened coconut.
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 stick unsalted butter
  • 1 cup evaporated milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 3 large egg yolks
  • 1 1/3 cup toasted pecans, coarsely chopped

Preheat the oven to 300.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.  Spread half of the coconut across the pan and place in the oven until the coconut begins to brown; about 5 minutes.  Remove from the oven and cool on a wire rack.

In a large saucepan, stir together the sugar, butter, evaporated milk, vanilla, and egg yolks.  Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring constantly.  After the mixture begins to boil and thicken, remove from the heat and stir in the toasted coconut, the regular coconut, and pecans. Place the pan over an ice bath and stir the mixture until cool.

Assembly of the cake is up to you.  We started by leaving our sides exposed like the book said, but it looked a little messy for our tastes – of course, the guys in the book are professionals and have been doing this a lot longer than us, so it makes sense that theirs would look neater.  After tasting the icing, we liked it so much that we decided that we would make a little more and coat the sides of the cake as well.  I was a little worried that so much icing might overwhelm the flavor of the cake, but that was unfounded; the rich chocolate flavor of the cake was very assertive and complemented well by the icing.  Unlike some cakes that are very sugary all the way through, this cake has a very sweet icing on top of a less-sweet cake, and that works very well.  If covered, the cake holds up extremely well – we ate the last piece of this one three days after it was first baked and it was as moist as the first day we cut into it.  It’s a pretty labor-intensive cake, but it’s sure to please most anybody you serve it to, and you won’t ever find a cake mix that can replicate the flavor or texture.  Enjoy!

Review: P & C Diner

Update: As of March 2012, P & C Diner has closed.  There’s a “Now Renting” sign up on the front, so we’ll keep you posted.

If there’s one thing we love about living in Saline County, it’s that there’s a lot of great places to choose from for good Southern cooking.  A lot of these places are easy to miss when you’re passing through, but if you talk to the folks that have spent any time here, they’ll tell you where to find the good stuff.  That’s how we first tried P & C Diner in Bryant – a coworker of mine had nothing but good things to say about the food, especially the barbecue.  It had been awhile since we had eaten good barbecue, so we decided to head down to P & C and see what the fuss was about.

On our first trip to the diner, we were met with a something that I took as both a disappointment and a good sign: they were all sold out of barbecue.  I figured it must be pretty good if they were sold out, and contented myself with one of my all-time favorites, a patty melt.  The P & C patty melt was as basic as it gets: a thick, juicy patty of flavorful ground beef between two pieces of buttered Texas toast with grilled onions and American cheese.  Basic, but perfectly made and utterly delicious.  It’s the onions that make or break a patty melt for me, and these were diced medium-small and cooked soft and lightly carmelized on the grill.  It might not have been what I came in wanting, but I was very happy with it.

Jess’ order was just as basic as it comes, too: a hamburger with fresh lettuce, tomato, and onion with an order of Cajun fries; and again, simple meant perfect.  The burger was cooked very well in that way that only a big, industrial strength diner griddle can seem to make them: charred just a touch on the outside and screamingly hot and juicy on the inside.  Her Cajun fries (and my regular flavor fries) were cooked crisp with a good, mealy texture inside.  And since both of our sandwiches, fries, and drinks came to just under $15.00, we really felt like we got a deal.

But what about the barbecue?  We decided that the best way to go about it was for Jess to grab some one afternoon before they had a chance to sell out and bring it home for supper.  We got the “Family Pack” pulled pork, a monstrous helping of smoky shredded pork with two sides (in our case, barbecue beans and cole slaw), plus two types of barbecue sauce (a tangy mild sauce and a red-pepper-spiked hot variety).  The pork was just as good as we had been told, moist and tender with a rich smoked flavor.  I love pulled pork with sauce on the side because it lets you pick how wet or how dry you want your sandwich.  The pork didn’t have one bit of fat or gristle to it, which to me shows that a good bit of care went into its preparation.  The beans and slaw were decent, but not spectacular – but honestly, with pork this good, they really didn’t need to be.  You could easily feed a family of four off of this, and all for about $18.00.  For us, that means two excellent meals, and I don’t think I could even cook myself something this tasty for that cheap.

My best tip for you is to get to P & C Diner early – because this barbecue is seriously good and it’s no surprise they regularly sell out.  Even if they do, though, the burgers and sandwiches are all made fresh to order and so you won’t lack for something tasty to eat.  It’s one of the most reasonably priced places I’ve eaten at in the area, and they serve food just the way we like: hot and fresh, cooked to order and served up humbly but with an obvious pride of ownership.  This is one of those places that I passed by for a couple of years before I ever thought to try it: if you’re doing the same, take my word for it and give the place a try.  P & C Diner is located at 302 South Reynolds Road in Bryant (just after you go over the train tracks overpass), and they’re open seven days a week from 11:00am – 7:00pm.  They’ve got a small dining area inside, or you can pick your order up through the drive through.  Enjoy!

P & C Diner on Urbanspoon

A Different Kind of Brownie: Brewer’s Blondies

Ok, so when is a brownie not a brownie? When it’s one of these malted milk enriched blondies!  If you’ve ever liked the flavor of a malted milkshake (or malted milk balls) then this recipe was custom-made for you.  And don’t fret, chocolate lovers – there’s enough chocolate flavor in these to suit your tastes, too.  This excellent recipe comes from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking, a wonderful book by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito who run a Brooklyn bakery also called “Baked.”  These are called Brewer’s Blondies because they were originally made with brewer’s malt, but this recipe is adapted to use malted milk powder such as Carnation or Ovaltine.  We’ve made a lot of tasty desserts lately, but I think that this one might be my favorite.  Fresh from the oven, the blondies are soft and chewy (the book recommends them with ice cream), and after they’ve cooled, they firm up into a delightful cross between a chewy cookie and a moist brownie.

Brewer’s Blondies
(from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito)

  • 2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons malted milk powder
  • 14 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1 3/4 cups firmly packed dark brown sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 3/4 cup malted milk balls, coarsely chopped in a food processor
  • 3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips
  • 3/4 cup toasted walnuts, chopped

Preheat the oven to 350. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9×13 baking pan.

In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, salt, and malted milk powder together.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and brown sugar on medium speed until completely combined.  Scrape down the bowl, add the eggs and vanilla, and beat until combined.

Add the flour mixture in two batches and beat until just combined.  Add the malted milk balls, chocolate chips, and walnuts and beat until just combined, about 10 seconds.  The mixture will be thick.  Turn the mixture out into the prepared pan and use an offset spatula to spread it evenly. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.  Let them cool on a wire rack for 20 minutes (if you can) and enjoy!