Traverse City Record-Eagle

January 12, 2012

Foodie With Family: Birthday meals (x5)

Local columnist

---- — If you are still doing juice cleanses and nibbling raw carrots, you may wish to tuck this column away for mid-February.

While everyone else in January is behaving like they're at a fitness spa, our household is finishing off our three-month, five-child birthday season with a serious exercise in indulgence and excess.

The way I see it, the last birthday of the bunch (Jan. 4) has to be celebrated with as much flair and enthusiasm as the first four (from early October on). Even if the kids' yardstick eyeballs weren't enough to keep me fair, my deep-seated determination never to show favoritism toward any of them would keep me on the straight and narrow.

Mind you, in the New Year's perpetual health frenzy, my idea of the straight and narrow stands in stark contrast to most folks because the birthday boy calls the feast.

If he wants fried chicken, French fries, milkshakes, and a Tardis cake, that's what he'll get with no questions asked. The rules are simple: one main dish, up to three side dishes (and on this day alone, milkshakes count as side dishes) and whichever dessert they desire.

Knowing this is the only meal of the year over which they have complete autonomy makes them take the process very seriously. They contemplate their choices for weeks in advance. Throughout the year it isn't unusual to hear, "I'm choosing this for my birthday meal!" after an especially well-liked dinner.

The choice usually ends up being something the kids love dearly but don't get to eat often due to the time or cost involved in preparing them. Fried chicken is an ever-popular pick but empanadas are moving up in the ranks. Everyone loves hand-held food, and empanadas are among the best in class in that category. Think jazzy mini pasties and you have a bead on what makes empanadas so thrilling while being so comforting; flaky, golden-brown dough wrapped around a fragrant meat filling.

Doubling this recipe is never a bad idea as leftovers pack beautifully into lunches and store well for up to a week in the refrigerator. If you'd like to store them longer than that, simply wrap tightly and freeze them for up to a month. Having a bag of microwave- or toaster-oven-reheatable empanadas in the freezer is like having money in the bank. It just feels nice.

Even nicer, though, is the look on the faces of the kids as their birthday feasts are laid out on the table and they're given the first serving. All their planning and dreaming is made real right in front of them. I'll pass up the carrot stick and beet root juice diet for those faces every year for the rest of my life with zero guilt. Well, at least until swimsuit season ...

These fast and always fun meat pies give new life to leftover chili. If your chili is soupy or very saucy, you'll need to put it in a saucepan over a low flame to simmer and reduce until you have very thick chili, otherwise they'll be impossible to seal and will burst as they cook. I love these filled with already thick Cincinnati Chili and served with a side of cheese-topped chili beans.

To make these a last-minute friendly dish, keep a stash of frozen empanada dough discs and pre-portioned chili in your freezer.

Chili-filled Empanadas

3 c. leftover very thick chili

24 empanada wrappers (either thawed or fresh)


Beaten egg (if baking)

Oil for frying (if frying)

Sour cream and salsa for serving

Lay out one dough circle and spoon about 2 tablespoons of the filling mixture into the center. Fold the dough in half over the filling to form a half circle. Use the tines of a fork to crimp the dough all the way around the edge. If you desire a more decorative edge, you can then fold it up over the crimping and pinch it into place.

To bake the empanadas: Preheat the oven to 400°. Place prepared empanadas about 2 inches apart on baking sheets that are greased or lined with parchment or silicone sheets. Brush lightly with the beaten egg.

Bake for about 25 minutes, rotating pans about halfway through, or until the meat pies are golden brown and puffy. Remove the pans from the oven and allow to cool for 5-10 minutes before serving.

To fry the empanadas: Heat about 1 inch of canola, peanut or vegetable oil in a deep frying pan over medium heat until the oil is 360°-375°. (If you do not have a frying thermometer, this is the stage where the oil is shimmery, looks like it has a current running through it and bubbles quickly when food is dropped into it.)

Carefully drop only as many meat pies into the oil as can comfortably fit in without touching. Fry about 4-6 minutes, turning halfway through, until golden and crispy. Transfer to a plate or pan lined with paper towels to drain. Cool about 5-10 minutes before serving. Serve with sour cream and salsa, if desired.

While the meal itself takes weeks to decide, the dessert takes months. The boys pore over my cookbooks and discuss ideas and designs with me.

The request this year for the final birthday bash dessert was, mercifully, much easier than last year's fondant-covered sculpture number. I made a proper Boston Cream Pie at the last birthday boy's request, but doubled the cake and pastry cream recipes in order to play around with it a bit. The result of the experimentation was a Boston Cream Pie Trifle that has already been claimed for two of next year's birthdays.

I opted for a homemade buttery cake, but you can substitute a yellow cake from a box mix or a purchased yellow cake as a shortcut if time is of the essence. The vanilla pastry cream really makes the whole dessert, so go all out on it!

Turning a traditional Boston Cream Pie into a trifle adds an exciting twist to an already thrilling dessert; layers of tender, buttery cake and rich, custardy pastry cream and a bittersweet chocolate ganache are irresistible for any occasion. This is well worth the little bit of effort required to produce it.

Boston Cream Pie Trifle

For the Cake:

1 c. granulated sugar

4 T. softened butter

¼ t. salt

2 t. vanilla extract

3 T. canola or vegetable oil

3 large eggs

1¼ c. all purpose flour

¼ c. cornstarch

2 t. baking powder

½ c. milk

For the Vanilla Pastry Cream:

3 c. whole milk

½ c. sugar

¼ t. salt

1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and scraped, or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 T. all-purpose flour

4 large egg yolks

4 T. cold butter, plus 1 T.

1 c. heavy cream, whipped to soft peaks

For the Bittersweet Chocolate Ganache:

1 c. heavy cream

8 ozs. bittersweet chocolate, chopped

Pinch of salt

To make the pastry cream: In a heavy-bottomed medium or large saucepan, stir together 2½ cups of the milk, the sugar, salt and split vanilla bean with its scrapings. Place the pan over medium heat and bring to a boil.

While the mixture is coming to a boil, whisk together the cornstarch, flour and egg yolks with the remaining ½ cup of milk in a separate bowl.

Carefully ladle some of the boiling milk mixture into the egg yolk mixture, whisking constantly. Pour the egg yolk mixture back into the boiling milk, again, whisking constantly. Return to a boil for 30 seconds, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat immediately and pour through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl. Add 4 tablespoons of butter to the custard (and the vanilla extract if using) and stir until completely melted and combined. Smooth the top of the custard, rub the remaining piece of butter over the surface of the custard and place a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the custard. Refrigerate until completely chilled.

To make the cake: While the custard is chilling, prepare the cake:

Preheat oven to 350°.

Beat together the sugar, butter, salt and vanilla extract in a stand mixer or in a large bowl with a hand mixer until the mixture is fluffy. Beat in the oil, scrape down the sides, and then add the eggs, one at a time, beating until the mixture is even fluffier.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, cornstarch and baking powder.

Alternate adding about 1/3 of the dry mixture and 1/3 of the milk, scraping down the sides of the bowl after each addition, until the batter is even and smooth.

Grease and flour an 8-inch-by-8-inch square baking pan or a 9-inch round baking pan and spoon the batter into the pan. Bake for 38-45 minutes, or until the cake tests clean with a skewer or tooth pick and the edges pull away from the pan. Let the cake cool in the pan for 10 minutes before turning onto a rack to cool completely.

To make the ganache: While the cake is chilling, prepare the chocolate ganache:

Pour the heavy cream into a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium high heat and bring it to a boil. Pour over the chopped chocolate and let rest for 5 minutes, undisturbed. When the 5 minutes have elapsed, stir slowly in one direction until the mixture becomes smooth and glossy. Add the pinch of salt and stir in gently. Set aside for 10 minutes at room temperature.

To finish: Fold the whipped cream into the chilled pastry custard and set aside.

Divide the cooled cake into 4 equal portions. Crumble 1 portion of the cake over the bottom of the trifle dish, top with 1„3 of the pastry cream and drizzle with about ¼ cup of the ganache. Repeat the layers, ending with a top layer of cake and all of the remaining ganache. Let stand for 30 minutes before serving.

-- Adapted with thanks from King Arthur Flour's Boston Cream Pie recipe.

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