Monday, December 20, 2010

Maple-Pear Salad: A Confession

I don't consider myself a foodie.

My roommates find this utterly preposterous, but it's true, I don't. I definitely love to prepare food, and the more extravagant the experimentation, the more fun it is. But I have no insight on how to make flavours fit another in innovative ways. My expertise lies in finding interesting recipes and following their instructions. I could never assemble anything from scratch. Originality is not my forte.

What am I getting to? Neen said it once, and I will repeat it: salads intimidate me.

I don't know why, but I suspect it's because I can't fall back on a reliable recipe to tell me what to do. I guess I could always toss a bunch of rabbit food together with a vinaigrette. But that's not particularly fun.

That's why I was so excited when my father started talking about this salad that he discovered in a holiday cooking issue of Cook's Illustrated. Well, to be perfectly honest, he was complaining about it. The basic idea was that you toss the pears in maple syrup before you roast them to get a sweet, slightly burnt exterior. The problem with that is that you're liable to smoke yourself out of the house. Even if you don't, you'll probably have to chip the burnt syrup off the baking sheet with a hammer and chisel.

We debated the best way to join roasted pears and maple syrup; ultimately, we decided to roast the pears first, and then apply a light coat of syrup to each slice with a pastry brush. I can't compare it to the original recipe, but I can speak to the goodness of this approach. You don't get a crusty exterior on the pears (which is just as well, really), but you can definitely taste the maple syrup on the pear. The blend of such sweetness with blue cheese and walnuts -- ah! Délicieux!

I'm fully aware that this isn't actually going to make me better at creating new foods. But it's certainly going into my répetoire of dishes. And next time I make a big dinner, I can present this funky, funky salad.

Maple-Pear Salad
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup
  • 1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
  • 3 firm pears, preferably Anjou or Bartlett
  • Salt and ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons cider vinegar
  • 1 small shallot, minced
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 bunches watercress, thick stems removed (8 cups)
  • 1 head Bibb lettuce, torn into bite-sized pieces (6 cups)
  • 1 cup crumbled blue cheese
Line a baking sheet with aluminium foil and place it in the lower-middle of the oven. Heat the oven to 500 degrees.

Peel and quarter the pears lengthwise. Core the pears, then halve each quarter lengthwise. Whisk the syrup and ginger together in a bowl.

Original: Toss the pears with 3 Tbs of the syrup mixture and spread them on the baking sheet. Season with salt and pepper, and then roast until they are browned on the bottom (about 15min). Flip the slices and roast for an additional 5min, or until they are tender and deep golden brown.

-- OR --

Alternative: Arrange the slices on the baking sheet, season with salt and pepper, and roast for 15min. Remove from the oven, brush the syrup mixture over the slices, and return to the oven (having flipped the pear slices first). Roast for an addition 5min, and remove.

While the pears are cooling on a baking sheet, whisk together the vinegar, shallot, oil, salt, and pepper to taste into the remaining syrup mixture. Combine the watercress and lettuce in your serving bowl, tossing with the vinaigrette. Scatter the pears and blue cheese and serve.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Delicious Simplicity

Hi. I'm in Switzerland. Just putting that out there for you to chew on. And, perhaps, grind your teeth over.

Neen and I have a long history with this place. It has been one of the only geographical constants of our lives -- we moved to a new country every few years, but would always come here for vacation. Nowadays, it's not as easy to visit as much as we used to, but it's just as well: for one, we don't have to bemoan the changes to our once-tiny Alpine village; moreover, we don't have to worry about the tensions inherent in cramming our entire family in the still-tiny apartment.

That said, it still makes for a glorious escape. Nothing compares to leaving an American metropolis to find yourself in little Crans-Montana. A single step outside (because you would never drive) and you are greeted with icy-pure air and a magnificient view of the mountains all around you. Then come back inside to huddle in the warmth, read for hours, or assemble a nifty jigsaw puzzle. These are all well-loved family traditions.

It goes without saying that our cuisine changes as soon as we get here. That's partly due to the quality of certain products: you wouldn't come to this country and not have the chocolate, the cheese, the wine, or the pastries. That's heresy supreme. But likewise, we wouldn't indulge in quantity as much as we might in the States: groceries are extraordinarily expensive, especially with the exchange rate as it is. Our meals tend to lose a lot of their complexity while here: simple decadence is the result.

But I shouldn't forget: there is one more important factor to consider when baking: the elevation. At roughly 1500 meters, dough and batter behave differently. They will rise more, resulting in much lighter breads and desserts. That's the secret of this cake. The almond cream cake, dubbed "Crans cake" by baby Neen & Spuds, is our traditional fare for the Alps. With a batter composed greatly of whipped cream and almond extract, it offers the essence of light, just slightly sweetened dessert. Its richness is derived as much from its texture as from its taste: fluffy, with a nutty icing that has been ever so slightly toasted. Now, we've never been able to reproduce the texture exactly when closer to sea level. The cake will be more dense; nothing to be done about it. Consider yourselves warned.

Crans Cake (almond cream cake)
for the batter:
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 2 eggs
  • 3/4 tsp almond extract
  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/8 tsp salt
for the topping:
  • 2 Tbs butter
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup blanched slivered almonds
  • 1 Tbs heavy cream
  • 1 Tbs flour

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Whip the cream until it holds stiff peaks. Beat the eggs in one at a time, very well. Add the almond extract (don't be stingy).

Sift together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt, then stir in several additions into the batter.

Pour the batter into a greased & floured 8-inch spring form pan. Bake 35min or "until done" (I'm quoting the recipe; I assume that means when a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. Don't overcook it).

Meanwhile, combine the topping ingredients in a small pan and stir over low heat until blended. Pour over the cake, spreading it out, and bake 10min longer. Let the cake cool on a rack for 20min; it will shrink as it does so.

The recipe indicates that it can be served with sweetened whipped cream ("That's overkill" says my mother). It would probably also work nicely with a mélange of fruit. Ultimately, though, keep it simple: this cake works just fine by itself.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Cobble Cobble Cobble

Here's a quick one, since I just got out of 5 hour final. I ordinarily would wait until I could think of a bit more of a story to tell, but I was asked to post the recipe as soon as humanly possible. And since "as soon as humanly possible" was actually a few days ago, I don't want to dally around anymore.

This is a blueberry cobbler recipe I got from Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything." I've spoken before about how I find this man disarmingly charming, and the same, I guess, goes for this food. I don't restrict myself to just blueberries, though. Raspberries! Blackberries! Greenberries! Purpleberries! Cyanberries! Puceberries!

...wait, puceberries? Now I know finals are getting to me.

Blueberry Cobbler
  • 4-6 cups blueberries or other fruits, washed and well dried, peeled and sliced as necessary
  • 1 cup sugar, or to taste
  • 8 Tbs cold unsalted butter, cut into bits, plus some for the pan
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • pinch salt
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
Heat the over to 375 degrees. Toss the fruit with half the sugar and spread it in a lightly greased 8-inch square or 9-inch round baking pan.

Combine the flour, baking powder, salt, and remaining 1/2 cup sugar in a food processor and pulse once or twice. Add the butter and process for 10 seconds, until the mixture is well blended. By hand, beat in the egg and vanilla.

Drop this mixture onto the fruit by tablespoonfuls; do not spread it out. Bake until golden yellow and just starting to brown, 35-45 minutes. Serve immediately.

Naturally, this goes quite well with some vanilla ice cream -- except during a Chicago winter -- or whipped cream. When I made this, I whipped some cream with some sugar and just a touch of honey (y'know, for funsies). The ratio was roughly 1 1/4 cup cream : 1/8 to 1/4 cup sugar : 1-2 Tbs honey, depending on how sweet you want it. I'm told maple syrup is also an interesting addition.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Mmm... doughnuts...

I just reawakened from my Thanksgiving food coma. Have I missed anything?

We have a wonderful Thanksgiving tradition in Do's extended family (which naturally includes Neen and myself). Actually, we have several wonderful traditions. We spend the weekend on a tree farm 2-3 hours from the city, laugh watching his brother-in-law shove his entire arm into the turkey, indulge in Do's fine wines... I could go on and on.

The tradition I'm referring to now, though, is the day after T-day. One massive dinner simply isn't enough for our family. Oh no. After having all the usual foods, we then make a second dinner -- this one comprised of fancy non-standard dishes. Usually an effort between the three of us, it's an opportunity to let loose with our most extravagant hosting/cooking tendencies. Pairing drinks to dishes, sides to main plates, and decorating every bite artistically, we strive to make one continued culinary masterpiece.

The actual menu (as far as I gathered) is below. Maybe Do will enlighten me as to what wines we was serving at the time.

  1. Harissa soup (Do) // Meatballs stuffed with goat cheese (Me)
  2. Korean fish medley (Do's invention) // Bacon-wrapped dates (Me)
  3. Lemon-olive chicken on couscous (Do)
  4. Lime-yogurt mousse (Do) // Tuscan doughnuts (Me)

As you can see, the meal had a bit of Mediterranean citrus framework matched against heartier meat and butter dishes. I'd say it worked well, but it's all a blur right now; I just remember lots of delicious food.

I've already blogged about most of the dishes I contributed, with the exception of the doughnuts. This wasn't the first time I've made doughnuts, but the last batch were a bit of a letdown: the jelly filling made the dough messy and hard to handle and the dough itself didn't rise as much as I'd hoped. I'm told they were good, but eh, I wasn't satisfied.

That's when I picked up this recipe. It's another one from the Urban Italian cookbook. Success! The resulting product had the right density: the dough was light & fluffy from its multiple risings, and the cream filling didn't weigh it down too much. The choice of toppings is nice too: rolling the fried doughnuts around in a bowl of sugar gives them a light coating, and then you can offer your guests a bowl of chocolate dipping sauce on the side.

Don't be fooled, though: this is a serious endeavor. To give you an idea, the cookbook lists it as: "Timing: Major project." The dough needs to proof to a combined three and a half hours. During this time, you'll be jumping back and forth between the filling, the dipping sauce, and the main course[s] (because no, you can't eat doughnuts alone). And let us not even talk about the actual frying! The dangers/fun should be self-evident when standing next to a half-gallon of boiling oil, dipping things in and out of it, and then handling them while they're still sizzling.

And so, without further ado, I give you:

Tuscan Doughnuts

For the dough:
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 2 Tbs plus 2 tsp active dry yeast
  • 1 vanilla bean
  • 4, 3/4 cups bread flour // all purpose is fine
  • 1/2 cup plus 3 Tbs sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 9 egg yolks
  • juice of 1 melon, strained through a sieve to remove all the pulp
  • 1/3 cup brandy or rum
  • 1 Tbs orange-blossom water (or zest of 2 oranges mixed with 1 Tbs brandy)
  • 1 stick butter, cubed and kept cold
  1. Bring 1/2 cup of the milk to room temperature in a medium-sized bowl. Add all the yeast to the milk and stir until it dissolves. Allow it to activate until the yeast begins to foam, about 5min.
  2. Cut the ends off the vanilla bean, split it lengthwise, and scrape out the meat. Combine the vanilla-bean meat, flour, sugar, and salt in the large bowl of a mixer or KitchenAid.
  3. Add the activated yeast (in its milk), the remaining 1/2 cup of milk, and the egg yolks, lemon juice, brandy or rum, orange-blossom water, and butter to the bowl.
  4. Mix all the ingredients at low speed (speed 1 on a KitchenAid) with the hook attachment. When everything begins to combine (just a few seconds), increase the speed to medium-low (speed 2 on a KitchenAid) and continue mixing until all the ingredients are well combined and there are no chunks of butter. The dough should have some play to it: it will be a little bit sticky and stretchy, and will not tear easily.
  5. Remove the dough to a large bowl or container (at least twice as large as the dough), coated with an unflavored nonstick spray or a thin coating of canola oil (or some other neutral oil that won't flavor the dough -- do not use butter). If the container is square or rectangular, be sure to spread the dough out a bit to fit. Cover the container with plastic wrap, being sure to keep the wrap from touching the dough, place it in a warm area (about 70 degrees), and allow the dough to proof until it has doubled in size and become very soft and almost silky to the touch, about 2 to 3 hours.
  6. Turn the dough out on a lightly floured work surface. Beat some of the air out with flat palms, pushing down on all areas of the dough with the heel of you hand. Then form the dough into a large, tight ball, folding and rolling it to make it smooth.
  7. Reflour the work surface and lightly flour the dough. Rool out the dough with a rolling pin, rolling in every direction, until the dough is a more or less circular shale, 1.5 feet or so across and about 1/2 inch thick. There will be air bubbles in the dough; they're important for the consistency of the doughnuts. Continue to flour the dough and the surface as you work to prevent sticking.
  8. Place a piece of parchment paper over a backing sheet and transfer the dough to the sheet by placing the rolling pin (like rolling a skein of wool). Cover the sheet with plastic wrap and place it in the freezer until the dough has cooled and firmed, about 30min. (If you have a really small, Manhattan-apartment-style freezer, and a sheet tray won't fit, cut the dough in half and place it in the freezer on 2 smaller trays.)
  9. Flour the dough on both sides and place it on a lightly floured work surface. roll the rolling pun across the dough to make sure that it's even in thickness (sometimes the dough continues proofing in the freezer). Then, using a round 2-inch cutter, cut out rounds: place the cutter over the dough, press down evenly with the heels of both hands, and then twist the cutter back and forth quickly to release the edges. Remove each round as it is cut. (The rounds will look exactly like dough-colored macaroons.) Save a little bit of the cutout leftover dough for testing the oil later -- and remember you'll need to proof these leftover bits along the rounds.
  10. Place a sheet of parchment paper on a baking sheet and lightly spray with an unflavored nonstick spray or brush with canola or another neutral oil. Place the rounds (and you bits of leftover dough) on the baking sheet, leaving enough room between each on (about 1/2 inch all around) to allow them to proof without touching on another. Spray or brush the tops very lightly with more oil, so that the rounds glisten; this will stop them from drying out, and from sticking if they touch. Place the baking sheet in a warm area and allow the rounds to proof until they have doubled in size, about 1 1/2 hours. When you poke the top of a proofed doughnut, the dough will indent and then spring back; the rounds will be light but firm, Be sure the doughnuts are fully proofed: otherwise, they'll stay raw on the inside when you finish them.

For the pastry cream:
  • 2 cups milk
  • meat of 1/2 vanilla bean (or 1 tsp of vanilla extract)
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 Tbs all-purpose flour
  • 1 Tbs cornstarch
  • 3 egg yolks
  1. Combine the milk and the vanilla-bean meat (or vanilla extract) in a medium-sized saucepan, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.
  2. Combine the sugar, flour, and cornstarch in a small bowl.
  3. Place the egg yolks in a medium-sized bowl and slowly whisk the dry ingredients into the yolks, so that you have a thick mixture.
  4. Pour about 1/3 of the hot milk into the egg-yolk mixture and whisk unil all the ingredients are combined. Whisk in the rest of the hot milk and pour the combined liquid back into the saucepan.
  5. Cook the liquid over medium heat until the mixture starts to thicken and coats the back of a spoon, about 3min. Remove the cream mixture from the heat and strain it through a chinois or fine strainer into another bowl, so that any lumps are removed.
  6. Immediately cover the cream with plastic wrap, placing the plastic directly on the surface of the cream so that a skin does not form. Refrigerate the pastry cream for at least 2 hours, until it's completely cold. The cream will hold in the fridge for up to 1 day.

For the chocolate sauce:
  • 1/2 cup corn syrup
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3/4 cup cocoa powder
  • 2 Tbs butter
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1/3 cup roughly chopped 64% dark chocolate
  1. Combine 3/4 cup of water and the corn syrup in a small pot and bring the mixture to a boil over high heat.
  2. Combine the sugar with the cocoa powder in a small bowl.
  3. Add the sugar-cocoa mixture to the corn-syrup-and-water mixture and bring it back up to a boil, then reduce the heat to low.
  4. Add the butter, heavy cream, and dark chocolate, whisking well until everything dissolves. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring the mixture back up to a simmer, whisking continuously until the mixture becomes a shiny sauce, about 2-3 minutes.
  5. Strain the sauce through a chinois or fine strainer and reserve. The sauce will hold in the fridge for up to 5 days.

For frying the doughnuts and finishing the dish:
  • 1/2 gallon canola oil
  • 3 cups granulated sugar
  1. If the chocolate sauce is in the fridge, set it out so that it comes to room temperature by the time you're ready to serve the doughnuts.
  2. Pour the canola oil into a large stockpot (about 1 foot deep) and over medium heat until the temperature reaches 350 degrees. (If you don't have a thermometer, you can test the oil by throwing a little bit of the leftover dough into the pot. If the oil bubbles when the dough hits it and the dough fries up, you're good to go.)
  3. Remove the chilled pastry cream from the refrigerator and place it in a pastry bag with a pastry tip, being sure to tie the end of the bag.
  4. Fry 4 or 5 of the doughnuts at a time, turning them when they are brown on the bottoms (about 30 seconds), and pressing them down to submerge them in the oil. Lift the doughnuts out with a slotted spoon or spider and transfer them to a paper towel. The finished doughnuts will be very light and yeasty inside and well browned outside, and should pull apart easily.
  5. While they're still warm, fill each doughnut with pastry cream until it starts to feel a little heavy (about 2 Tbs' worth).
  6. Pour the sugar into a large bowl. Roll each doughnut in the sugar so it's lightly coated.
  7. Serve the doughnuts immediately, piled on a serving platter with a bowl of the chocolate sauce on the side for dipping.
Aah... another excellent Thanksgiving under our now-loosened belts...

ps. thanks to Neen & DR for the gorgeous photos.

Monday, November 22, 2010

So not Kosher: Goat Cheese-stuffed Meatballs

Ok, so when I started thinking about this entry, I wanted to open by quoting Shakespeare. In case my previous post didn't suggest this enough, just take for granted that I'm permanently hard-wired into the Bard's collected works. I kept trying to find something that was said by Shylock, from the Merchant of Venice. He's Jewish, he's Italian. There ended my justification.

I couldn't find anything.

But then! It occurred to me that I was being too classical. Instead, I should be looking to open with a pop-culture reference. And I found the perfect one, too: this dish is very much like Inception. Bear with me: you know about the dream within a dream within a dream? This is goat cheese. Within meatballs. Within the pasta. Within my belly. Now I just need to work in some trains, explosions, and an all-star cast.

I may be trying too hard, but in all seriousness, this is an impressive dish that surprises you with sudden twist of flavour while you're eating it. It would well deserve an epic soundtrack. The idea is pretty simple, and accordingly relatively straightforward to implement: you mash all your meatball ingredients in a bowl first. Then you roll out small spheres of slightly chilled goat cheese, and work the meatball around it. While cooking, the cheese seeps through the meat, keeping it tender. The taste of the cheese spreads delicately in such a way that there's only a whiff of it along the outside of the meat. Of course, when you bite into one, you'll be digging right into the center, where the fresh cheesy goodness is waiting. It's an unexpected, delicious contrast.

This recipe is from another of my graduation cookbooks: "Urban Italian Cooking" by Andrew Carmellini and Gwen Hyman. Much of the food in it is just like this: the chefs take a traditional Italian dish and give it an innovative twist. Moreover, they do so without gimickery. The process is deft, never relying on a cheap "gotcha!" sensation. Instead, one wonders why food hasn't always been made like this. If you're looking to escape cheesy "American-Italian" and don't feel like reverting back to the Traditional ways, give Urban Italian a go. It's well worth it.

Lamb Meatballs Stuffed with Goat Cheese
For the meatballs:
  • 3 Tbs extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 small onion, chopped (about 1/2 cup)
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • 1/2 tsp ground coriander seed
  • 1 tsp ground fennel seed
  • 1 Tbs rosemary, finely chopped
  • 1/4 cup fresh goat cheese
  • 1/2 lb merguez sausage, about 8 links (or 2 links hot Italian sausage, if you prefer) with casings cut away
  • 1 lb ground lamb /* if you don't want to be overly decadent, beef works well, too */
  • 1/2 cup dried breadcrumbs
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 tsp salt
For the sauce:
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, diced (about 1 cup)
  • 1 28oz can Italian tomatoes (San Marzano, if possible) plus their juice
  • 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 1/2 tsp dried oregano, preferably on the branch
To finish the dish:
  • 1/4 cup Crumbs Yo! /* this is his special bread crumbs recipe -- toasted with salt, pepper, and spices of your choice. Nice, but not necessary */
  • 1/4 cup grated Pecorino cheese

To make the meatballs:
  1. Heat olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onion and sweat for 3min. Add the garlic and cook for 1min, stirring occasionally.
  2. Add the coriander, fennel, and rosemary. Cook together 1min, so that the aromas of the spices and herbs are released. Remove to a bowl and place in the fridge to cool (about 5min), so that you're not combining hot onions with cold meat.
  3. Meanwhile, roll the goat cheese between your palms to form 1/2-inch balls (the size of a pebble). Place them on a plate and reserve.
  4. When the onion-herb mixture has cooled, combine it in a large bowl with the sausage, lamb, breadcrumbs, eggs, and salt. Mix well with your hands.
  5. Form the meatballs: for each meatball, scoop up about 2 Tbs of lamb mixture and roll and press it into an oval, about the size of a distended Ping-Pong ball. Use your thumb to create a goat-cheese-ball-size dent in the middle, and drop a goat-cheese ball inside. Pinch the lamb mixture up around the goat cheese to close the hole, and roll the meatball between your hands till it's round and smooth. Repeat until you've used up all the goat cheese and the lamb mixture.

To make the sauce:
  1. Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook until it starts to soften, about 1min.
  2. Crush the tomatoes in a bowl with the heel of your hand. Add them to the pot, then add the tomato juice, red pepper flakes, salt, sugar, and oregano. Mix to combine. Cook over medium-high heat for 10min, until the flavours combine and the sauce is reduced.
  3. Add the meatballs, being careful not to break them. Reduce the heat to low, so the sauce is at a very low simmer, and cover. It's very important that the liquid never come to a boil. You want as slow a simmer as possible, so the flavors really come together, the cheese melts, and the meat becomes rich and tender. Cook for 5min, turn the meatballs with a spoon, and simmer another 5min, until the meat is cooked and the sauce takes on the flavour of the meatballs. (Some goat cheese may find it's way out during the cooking process -- it depends on how tightly you've made your meatballs -- but don't worry about this: the meatballs will still taste good.)

To finish the dish:
Ladle the meatballs and sauce into 6 bowls. Sprinkle with the Crumbs Yo! and the grated cheese. Serve immediately.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Drunken Shakespeare

Yes, you read that correctly. Drunken Shakespeare. In a university setting, what better way could you possibly spend a Saturday night than with a large group of inhibitionless friends hacking our way through the Bard's works? Answer: you can't. It was glorious.

I have always been a Shakespeare buff -- my father was proudly taking me to the theatre as soon as I was old enough to stay up that late. High school English classes were dull, because I was more familiar with the plays than the others students (and sometimes the teacher, too). I wrote my extended essay on Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, the dubious 'friends' of Hamlet. And without provocation, I will happily pick up one of the big tragedies to read through some monologue or other.

And now, my madness is being bolstered by the encouraging warbles of everyone else.

Eminently Shakespearian characters do not like your Pyramus & Thisbe

The booze may not be necessary, but it has been known work wonders. Everyone is more likely to jump in and claim a character for their own, and hilarity always ensues. The centuries-old text comes alive, and sometimes the characters even get a bizarre makeover. Imagine, if you will, Macbeth as played by Marlon Brando. Or Midsummer Night's peanut gallery composed of Statler and Waldorf (OOOHOHOHOHO!).

Since the weather is turning Turk-- uh, cold, on this occasion, I thought some late-Autumn drinks would be appropriate. Something warm and fuzzy. Ultimately, I settled on Mulled Wine and Hot Buttered Rum. Both feel like grown-up versions of tea or hot chocolate, and the alcohol blends well with the other tastes well enough that you almost don't notice it. This calls for caution, of course: Othello is much less eloquent when he's passed out on the floor. But if you serve it warm-to-hot, folks are less likely to drink too fast.

"Is this a dagger I see before me?"

Unfortunately, I have yet to find an exact recipe for mulled wine that works 100% of time. If anyone has one, please let me know! I'm tired of having to wing it, not knowing if it will taste good or not. In essence, I tossed these ingredients in approximated amounts together. Heat -- but don't boil -- them in a pot before ladling them out into mugs.
  • 3 bottles Beaujolais // I'd try a Merlot next time
  • zest of 3 lemons
  • zest of 3 oranges
  • juice of 1 orange
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 3 sticks cinnamon
  • cloves
  • nutmeg
  • allspice
  • pinch cardamom // don't overdo it. Really
I didn't even have to worry about the Hot Buttered Rum, as one of the night's actresses was adept at throwing it together at moment's notice. I learned later that she got the recipe from the Food Network website, which surprised me; I'm usually suspicious of the kind of recipes one might find there. But thumbs-up on this one -- warm, fuzzy, and delicious. I want to drink this every night of the upcoming Chicago winter. So Cheers to you, Witch #1 / Horatio / whomever-the-hell-else-you-were!

Hot Buttered Rum
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 cups light brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
  • Pinch ground cloves
  • Pinch salt
  • Bottle dark rum
  • Boiling water
In a bowl, cream together the butter, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and salt. Refrigerate until almost firm. Spoon about 2 tablespoons of the butter mixture into 12 small mugs. Pour about 3 ounces of rum into each mug (filling about halfway). Top with boiling water (to fill the remaining half), stir well, and serve immediately.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


I wish I had a camera to show you how beautiful my dinner is. Because who eats liver any more, anyway? Even at my somewhat elitist neighborhood grocery store, the chummy check out clerks who know me by name expressed their skepticism and dismay when I presented myself with a pound of beef liver, an onion, parsley, egg noodles (which I only later realized are "no cholesterol," a rather self-defeating perk given that they're being served with a POUND of liver), and 4oz of chocolate (for brownies!, I protest). Last week, in Paris of all places, where you'd think they'd refrain from turning up their noses to classic, simple preparations, Do and my best friend from high school bonded over their mutual disgust that I ordered seared veal liver with mushrooms at a restaurant. Of course, the only person who was actual French at the table is notoriously finicky (but lovable! very, very lovable!), so I probably shouldn't judge the whole country on that basis.

Liver is heritage. It's a cut that our great grandparents had absolutely no problem with, in the days before all American butchery was reduced to a mere dozen cuts of any given animal, unceremoniously bundled in styrofoam and plastic and discounted for 2.99 per pound. It is unctuous, like a rare steak or top grade salmon sashimi. It smells like earth mixed with blood -- life, really, in all its depth and raw-ness.

Here's how Julie Powell, of Julie and Julia fame, describes it in the first chapter of her new book, Cleaving (in which she becomes a artisanal butcher's apprentice, an ideal perch from which to wax poetical about under-appreciated cuts of carcass):

"I now slice off eight pretty burgundy flaps of liver. The cut organ releases a metallic tang into the air, and yet more blood onto the table. Changing knives now, I delicately excise the tight pale ducts that weave through the slices. Perfectly cooked liver should be crisp on the outside with a custardy-smooth center. Nothing tough or chewy should get in the way of that sensual quintessence. Six of these slices are for the gleaming glass and steel case at the front of the shop; the last two I set aside, to wrap up and take home after work for a Valentine's Day dinner tomorrow. Once, I thought the holiday merited boxes of chocolate and glittery cards, but in these last couple of eye-opening years, amid the butchery and wrenches of the heart, I've realized life has gotten too complicated for such sweet and meaningless nothings; I've even learned I'm okay with that." Julie Powell, Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsesssion, p.3.

Poetry. What a way to start a book! She then inserts a recipe for Valentine's Day Liver for Two, where she coats the beef liver with flour, and sears it on the rare side in butter, oil, salt, and pepper. That prose inspired my dinner tonight, but instead I used a recipe from Elizabeth Ehrlich's autobiography about acquiring a sense of self by learning to cook with her Holocaust-survivor mother in law. She devotes a whole chapter to learning how to cook liver, of which the sentences below are extracts:

"'Then we can start with the leybern.' Leybern - livers. Lukshn mit leybern: chicken livers with noodles. I am here to learn this, and next Friday, something else. For my husband, and for our children.
I remember my first taste of this dish. Just home from the hospital with Miriam's first grandchild, I found her in my kitchen, warming her pot on my stove and insisting I come to the table. The richness, the oil, the iron, the cholesterol, the onion, the salt overtook my body like an intravenous drug. Miriam beamed. "It's good," she stated. There had never been a dish like this one.
Many women of Miriam's generation and background have moved toward broiled fish or chicken. But Miriam stays with her chopping bowl, soup pot, and frying pan, with the old labor-intensive recipes, the rich and salty ways.
Can I use less oil, I wonder?"
Elizabeth Ehrich, Miriam's Kitchen, p.41-47

Miriam's recipe, which is the one that I made for dinner, is below. My comments are in italics.

Lukshn Mit Leybern. Serves 4.
1 lb chicken livers (I used top quality beef livers, because my butcher didn't have chicken)
1 large onion, diced (I'm tempted to use two next time)
Black pepper
1/4 cup vegetable oil
3/4 Tbs flour
3/4 Tbs sugar (I eliminated this, as unlike Polish Jews I don't fancy sugar in my mains)
1/4 tsp salt
Egg noodles, medium width (I used 1/2lb, could go with less).
Hot Water
Parsley, chopped, for color.
Clean livers. Slice into generous bite-size pieces. Broil gently until done, then drain on toweling to remove all blood (remember, this is a Kosher recipe).
Place onion in medium saucepan and sprinkle [generously] with black pepper. Cook on low heat until onion pieces sweat. [Or until you're so hungry you can't stand it any more.]
Add the oil to cover bottom of pan and onion. Mix. Saute until just golden. Stor in livers. Cook for a few minutes over low heat. Add the flour and sugar and mix together. Cover with hot water and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes over low flame. Add salt to taste. Simmer for a few more minutes. Serve hot on cooked noodles, sprinkle with parsely.

The broth tastes like that from a 6 hour long beef stew - the kind where you make your own beef broth from scratch with bones in order to enrich the broth with marrow. The richness of it all makes it kind of taste like Stroganoff... even though there's clearly no cream in it. I'm half tempted to add just a half teaspoon of mustard to emphasize the similarity. This isn't necessarily Liver at its most shocking - that would be seared, minimalist. But it's simple, honest. Rooted in another era.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to settle down with my bowl full of days gone by and my glass of wine, and enjoy.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

This meal brought to you by Forward Momentum

I guess I was remiss when last when writing about the Great Tapas Dinner. I didn't even mention the amount of prep work that went into it. Don't worry, I won't wax poetical about the last minute stress of hosting a dinner party. I'm sure we've all been there before. The fact that this gathering involved me planning to single-handedly put together 21 different dishes, well... that just illustrates how I have way too much fun for my own good.

To quote a militaristic literary idol of mine, no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy. Just so in this case. I plotted out the menu way in advance (which just means I didn't say: "Oh, this looks interesting; let's make this tonight!"). Having no real idea where to start, I simply paged through the The Book of Tapas, noting which recipes looked tasty or interesting (or just bizarre and intriguing). Unfortunately, this gave me a list with roughly 50 items on it. After several cuts, and one dessert addition from Rick Bayless' website, I had the expected 21.

You would think that would be sufficient planning. But no! Then I had to figure out if it was even possible to make those dishes: many called for seasonal ingredients that aren't always easy to find in a Midwestern Autumn. Which brings me to the first great obstacle: grocery shopping. (Here I must apologize, because I said I wouldn't wax poetical. The shopping deserves an exception.) My memory is hazy (stress-induced delirium?), but I believe I had to make four distinct trips to the store. The first was to determine if all the ingredients could be had, and if not, what I could use instead. That was a success.

The second and third trips, as the actual 'buy stuff' excursions, were not. You see, I don't have a vehicle -- which is usually fine, because I live within walking distance of two grocery stores. However there is a limit to how much a person can carry in one trip. This was made even more difficult because two of my roommates promise to help carry bags... and then both flaked out on me. I must have been quite a comical sight, carrying all that stuff back by myself. Ok, rant over. Those were trips 2 and 3. Trip 4 was the last minute shoot-where-is-the-x-oh-damn-quick-go-get-it-now trip.

And that was all before the day of the event. During the week preceding the dinner, I pretty much spent every night reviewing the recipes (to ensure I'd be able to construct them with a minimum of difficulty), sometimes almost falling asleep on the cookbook. It was actually pretty funny. By the end of the week, I was virtually dreaming of tapas. I was definitely reverting to Spanish whenever I started talking to anyone. Aaawkward.

And by the end of it, I didn't even get to serve everything! While actually in the kitchen, I had to spontaneously remove 4-5 courses from the meal. The cuts were bourne of a realisation that there was no way my guests were going to be able to eat so much. Hey! In my defense, tapas are supposed to be small!

Anyway, that's enough blabber and ranting from me. Let's get to the interesting stuff: the food! These two dishes fall under the 'curiosities' category. Definitely not something you would serve every day, but an intriguing combination regardless. On the whole, this is the type of food on whose taste you might reflect, but it won't cause any cravings. They fit in well in a large complicated meal, and might work better as a small Amuse-Bouche.

Orange, Fennel, and Onion Salad (Ensalada con Naranja, Hinojo y Cebolla)
  • 1lb 5oz fennel, peeled and cut in half lengthwise
  • 3 large oranges
  • 5 Tbs olive oil
  • 2 Tbs lemon juice
  • 1 small onion, thinly sliced
  • handful of black olives, pitted and sliced
  • mint leaves, to garnish (optional)
  • salt and pepper
Bring a pan of salted water to a boil. Add the fennel, being back to a boil and cook for 2 minutes, then drain. Peel the oranges, removing any traces of white pith, and thinly slice crosswise, reserving any juices. when the fennel is cool enough to handle, thickly slice it and set aside. To make the dressing, beat the olive oil, lemmon juice and reserved orange juice together in a large bowl with a fork. Season with salt and pepper.

Combine the fennel, oranges, onion and olives in the bowl, gently tossing together. Pour the dressing over the salad and toss gently just before serving. The salad can be garnished with mint leaves, if desired

Hard-boiled Eggs with Smoked Salmon (Huevos duros al Salmón)
  • 4 eggs
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 generous slice smoked salmon
  • salt
  • 3,1/2 Tbs bottled salmon row, drained, to garnish
To hard boil the eggs, pour enough water to cover them into a large pan, add 1 tablespoon salt and bring to a boil. Add the eggs carefully and stir gently with a wooden spoon to that then they set the yolks will be in the center. Cook medium-size eggs for 12 minutes. (Add 1 minute for bigger eggs and subtrract 1 minute for smaller eggs.) Drain off the hot water, fill the pan with cold water and leave the eggs until required. When the eggs are cool enough to handle, shell and halve the eggs lengthwise. Cut a thin slice off the base of each egg white half so it stays upright.

Put the mayonnaise and smoked salmon in a blender and blend until well mixed. Season with salt, if necessary, as the salmon might be already salted. To improve the presentation of the eggs, use a pastry bag to pipe the salmon and mayonnaise mixture onto the halved eggs. Garnish with the salmon roe and serve. If no serving immediately, store in the refrigerator until required.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Election Day

Midterm elections are today.

If one more person asks me if I've voted, starts talking about their party affiliation, or generally brings up politics at all, I'm going to shove carrots in my ears, stick out my tongue, and go PBBBBTTTTLLLL.

Originally, this post was going to be much longer than it is now. But I found myself going on an ideological rant against American politics in general. It actually felt good to refine my thoughts to the point of committing them to writing, but the results serve me better in the writing than it would you in the reading. So I'll spare you the extended edition in favour of the sound bites edition:
  • U.S. citizens get loud and stupid about politics.
  • The Tea Party movement discomforts me.
  • I have high hopes for the G.O.P. My main hope is that when they retake the House and Senate, they will focus on governing more than merely crushing the democrats.
  • President Obama may not be the great leader for whom everyone was hoping. But he has a good head on his shoulders, and that counts for a lot in my book.
  • I need more carrots.
And with that out of the way, I leave you with a discovered treasure that I am sure to make many many times in the near future. Though as of yet untested, this looks like a chocolate & peanut butter treat to appease the gods of angry voters: Buckeyes, from the Smitten Kitchen. With something like this, nothing can frustrate me. Not the fact that I have carrots in my ears, nor that I need to stick more of them in. Not even that I should really be studying for tomorrow's 5 hour midterm instead of blogging.

So, in closing, I leave one political thought that doesn't bother me about our democracy. This is from Aaron Sorkin, via the West Wing's Josh Lyman. He was talking about radical extremists at the time, but I find it the best solution to deal with short-sightedness and pride.
"You want to get these people? You really want to reach in and kill 'em where they live? Then keep accepting more than one idea. Makes them absolutely crazy."

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.

I don't know if this happens to anyone else, but my cooking habits are bizarrely similar to a steam engine. Everything runs smoothly if I'm making things regularly. But if I make too much at once, I run out of steam and can't bear to enter my kitchen for days at a time. Or even worse, if I don't cook anything, the pressure builds up until I'm forced to let it all loose in a massive culinary explosion.

This was the case a few weeks ago. I had been so distracted with the many bureaucratic distractions of day-to-day life that (I'm ashamed to admit) I hadn't used my kitchen for much other than cereal and pasta. This lasted a good long time, and by the end of it, the emergency release valve was going off like there's no tomorrow. The only way to cope was to do something about it that was equally ridiculous.

I made a tapas dinner. It was a dinner for a dozen people that lasted better of 5 hours.

I know. I'm a nutter.

But it was a marvelous experiment, and it finally gave me the opportunity to break in one of my graduation cookbooks (I was given 3 -- my family knows me well): "The Book of Tapas," by Simon and Ines Ortega. I recommend it. The book offers a great variety of hot/cold veggie/meat/fish platters in proportions that will content a small group (giving you the opportunities to make several, if you want them to leave stuffed). The glossy pictures offer some illustration to what you're trying for (which is useful for some of the more creatively-named recipes).

Unfortunately, I can't offer any images of my own. The roommate I tasked with taking a pictures was far more interested in the sangria. It's just as well -- there's no way I could blog about all of it. But since I have been asked to say something about the evening, I suppose I can post some of the better dishes. This will have to come in separate installments, though. I'm not sitting here for all of them.

I guess I'll start with the two dishes that most epitomize tapas in my mind: bacon-wrapped dates and Roquefort-stuffed prunes. They are small -- bite-sized, in this case -- tasty combinations of flavours that you really wouldn't be exposed to otherwise. The feeling you end up with is a rich decadence, though it's unclear as to whether that's due to a cuisine with foreign influence or just because it's a fancy course.

Fried Date and Bacon Pinchos (Pinchos de dátiles y bacon fritos)
  • 20 dates
  • 20 slices thin rindless bacon
  • 2-3 Tbs peanut or groundnut oil // I'm not convinced this is necessary
Slit the dates along the longest sides and carefully remove and discard the puts. Wrap each date in a strip of bacon and secure with a wooden toothpick. Heat the oil in a skillet or frying pan, add the bacon rolls and cook, turning occasionally, for about 10min, until the bacon is cooked through and lightly browned. Drain well and serve immediately.

Prunes with Roquefort, Raisins and Pine Nuts (Ciruelas rellenas de Roquefort, pasas y piñones)
  • 3,1/2 oz (100g) Roquefort cheese
  • 1 oz pine nuts
  • 1/4 cup raisins
  • 1 Tbs Malaga wine or sweet sherry
  • 4 Tbs light cream
  • 12 ready-to-eat prunes ("To use standard prunes, soak them in warm water to rehydrate them")
Crumble the Roquefort into a bowl and mash lightly with a fork. Add the pine nuts, raisins, wine or sherry and cream and mix to a paste. Remove the pits from the prunes and fill the cavities with the Roquefort paste. Close the prunes and secure with a wooden toothpick. Put the prunes on a plate, cover and chill in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours before serving.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Parents and Children and Zombies. (Oh my.)

No matter how many times I've been over it, I always get confused when professors try to introduce process handling in a Systems class. At least the terminology is entertaining. Parents beget children using forks. For the sake of cleanliness, children should die before the parents, at which point, the parent in question should reap its children promptly, lest it leave zombies behind. If you're not clean, the Initial Process will have to adopt the orphans (and deal with the aforementioned zombies, which you cannot kill). And these conversations invariably lead to a discussion of pipes, and how you have to flush them frequently to avoid corruption. This knowledge, of course, is just to enable me to make a shell.

Um, yes. This is all true.

OH LOOK A CONVENIENTLY PLACED PHOTO TO DISTRACT YOU. DOESN'T THAT LOOK DELICIOUS? Maybe you should stop thinking about the inner workings of your computer and go make Rick Bayless' Chocolate Truffles with Anejo Tequilla and Chipotle instead. And then you should make a second batch so I can have some too.


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Caramel Sauce Snobbery

Am I a snob?

I mean, I don't think of myself as a snob. I don't consciously look down on folks who don't cook as assiduously as I do (read: don't undertake lunatic baking projects at 3am). But several friends have poked fun at my tendency to refuse any culinary shortcuts. They do it mostly to get a rise out of me, but it is true: I stubbornly attempt to make (almost) everything from scratch.

I can think of many reasons why I do this. First and foremost is my desire to be good at everything. I don't count that as one of my neuroses. Rather, I have a mindset from bygone era: in a more civilized age, a Gentleman was supposed to demonstrate a mastery of many skills: riding, dancing, fencing, hunting, the niceties of high society, etc. While some of those abilities are regrettably defunct, I still think a sign of class when someone has interests and [dare-I-say] proficiency in a variety of fields.

There you go: I'm in my twenties and am already coming out as a nostalgic fossil. Go figure.

Anyway, back to the issue at hand. I recently rediscovered the blog of an old friend of mine, The Moody Foody. Michelle and I went to high school in the Caribbean together, spending most of our extra-curricular time on the theatre dept's tiny tiny stage. I still have vivid memories of her bringing the house down as a fiery Italian matron. After so many years, it was a lot of fun to find that she'd become a foody and going over her culinary adventures through New York and the Old Continent.

That is, until I came to her recent post about Caramel Apples. Not having been able to make the caramel sauce from scratch, she reverted to (gasp!) Kraft Caramel! Michelle, Michelle, how could you? Capital treason!

Thus went the first few reactions from my stunned and horrified brain. But then I saw the pictures she left behind (nice dramatic touch, leaving those at the end, btw). And you know what? Those apples look damn good. I like them apples. And that was enough to give me pause and reflect. Why is the idea of purchasing pre-made portions of recipe such a repulsive idea?

I can think of arguments for both sides of the question, but since I don't want to take on a global theoretical debate, I pondered a simpler question: what does it mean for me? The answer is: I'm not sure. There's nothing strictly wrong about the ideology of it. By that, I mean to say that I can't find reason to condemn someone for buying something they could have made themselves. If that were so, were would we draw the line? Should we bake our own bread whenever we want a PB&J? Or take it to an extreme: let's all move out of the city and become farmers. We'll make everything ourselves. Because a national agrarian society is definitely the way to go. Right. (rolls eyes)

I simply believe that everyone should know how to cook. To quote a literary character: "He who cooks well, eats well." It doesn't mean that you have to be in utter control all the time, but it does imply a certain level of awareness about what you consume. Not only is that a damn good idea from a dietary point of view, but it also means you can prepare your meals to your own taste (instead of fitting into the generic consumer model). And that, of course, brings in the capitalist industry take on it. I simply don't want some big company telling me what to eat. Especially not when the ingredient list usually contains sugar, sugar, corn syrup, and some flavouring. My uncle is an industrial chef, and he doesn't eat his products, for crying out loud.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter. I'm still going to make everything from scratch. Why? Because I can. Because doing so makes me happy. That's enough for me, and I'm not out to change anyone's mind on the matter. If that makes me a culinary snob, then so be it. It doesn't bother me if other people approach it from a different angle (so Michelle, you're still ok in my books). After all, diversity makes life all the more interesting, and that goes for the kitchen, too.

SO! To conclude this long, drawn-out reflection (who knew a post about caramel apples could do such a thing?), I going to respond to Michelle's challenge. She asked to be given a single good, interesting recipe for caramel sauce this Halloween. I'm going to do one better, since there's only so much creativity you can put into butter, sugar, and cream. This is the dish that I'll be bringing to a party this weekend. It's clipped from the November edition of the Food & Wine magazine.

Caramel-Croissant Pudding
  • 2 stale all-butter croissants, coarsely torn
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 Tbs water
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 2 Tbs bourbon
  • 2 large eggs, beaten
1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Lightly bitter a 1-quart shallow baking dish and arrange the croissant pieces in the dish. In a small saucepan, stir the sugar and water over moderately high heat until the sugar dissolves; wash down any crystals on the sides with a wet pastry brush. Cook without stirring until a medium amber caramel forms, about 5min. Remove from the heat and stir in the cream, milk, and bourbon. Cook over low heat just until any hardened caramel dissolves.

2. In a bowl, whisk the eggs. Gradually whisk in the hot caramel. Pour over the croissants and let stand for 10min, pressing the croissants to keep them submerged.

3. Bake the pudding in the center of the oven for 20min, until puffed and golden. Let cool for 10min, then serve.

  • I realise the irony in using a recipe from Food & Wine after discussing snobbery. Believe me, I don't read it for the articles.

  • If you start talking about this dish out loud, do me a favour: pretend you're French when saying "croissant" (the r is guttural and the t is silent). This is not me being a snob; this is me having a pet peeve. Do your part to stop the mispronunciation of foreign words!
Victory! I made the pudding successfully last night. I will confess I was pretty nervous when the caramel first turned out completely liquid, as opposed to the the viscous, gooey deliciousness I was expecting -- but 20min in the oven fixed that. Surprisingly, even though the croissants are submerged in this sugary liquid for several minutes before cooking, they loose none of their buttery flaky texture. This is definitely not a mushy bread pudding. It's not crisp, per se, but you could almost cut it into squares and eat with your hands. Definitely recommended for your sweet tooth!

Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Wrong Season, but whatever!

Hey! Look what I found when rooting through the recesses of my camera's memory card. I have no idea about when I actually made this -- I can assure you, it was many weeks ago -- but I do recall that it was excellent! The crust was sweet and buttery (much as its name would suggest), the filling had just the right consistency - delicately balanced between runny and gelatinous - and really, how could you refuse a mountainous pile of fruit like that?

I like to follow the various recipes to make it all from scratch. It's more rewarding, and you have more control over the taste and texture. But, if you're pressed for time, or simply intimidated by any single part (hey, crusts scare me, too!), I sure you could substitute store-bought stuff.

Ladies and Gentlemen, from the Silver Palate, I give you:
Pinwheel Fruit Tart

This is actually a combination of 3 smaller recipes, which you can do simultaneously, or apart. Let's start with the filling:

Pastry Cream
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 4 Tbs unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1 Tbs sweet butter
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
1. Scald the milk in a heavy pan (bring it almost to a boil over high heat, stirring to keep the sugars from burning onto the pan)

2. While milk is heating, whisk sugar and flour together in a stainless-steel mixing bowl.

3. When milk is scalded, remove skin and slowly pour milk into flour and sugar, whisking constantly. Place bowl over a saucepan of simmering water and cook, stirring, until mixture lightly coasts the back of a spoon, about 10min.

4. Add egg yolks and cook, stirring constantly, until mixture heavily coats the back of a spoon, about 10min more. Remove from heat.

5. Add butter and vanilla and mix well. Chill; before chilling cover top with a lighty coating of butter, or cover surface directly with plastic wrap, to prevent formation of a skin.

Then go on to the crust:

Sweet Buttery Tart Crust
  • 1,2/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup ver fine granulated sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 10 Tbs (1,1/4 sticks) sweet butter, chilled
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 tsp cold water
1. Sift flour, sugar and salt into a mixing bowl. Cut chilled butter into pieces into the bowl. Using your fingertips, rapidly rub the butter and dry ingredients together until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Be careful to use only your fingertips as your palms will warm the dough.

2. Stir egg yolks, vanilla and water together and add to the flour-butter mixture and blend in, using a fork. Shape dough into a ball. This should not take more than 30-45 seconds.

3. Place the ball of dough on a pastry board. With the heel of your hand, smear about 1/4 cup of dough away from you into a 6- to 8-inch smear; repeat until all dough has been dealt with. Scrape dough together; re-form into a ball, wrap in wax paper, and chill for 2 to 3 hours.

4. Roll out dough between 2 sheets of wax paper, or use a floured pastry cloth and floured stockinette on your rolling pin, into a round large enough to line your pan. Work quickly, as the dough can become sticky.

5. Line either an 8- or 9-inch false-bottom tart pan with the dough, fitting it loosely into the pan and pressing to fit sides. Trim edges 3/4 inch outside top of pan, and fold this edge over to inside and press into place with fingers. Chill.

6. Preheat over to 425F.

7. Line dough in the tart pan with a piece of aluminum foil or wax paper and weight with rice or beans. Bake for 8 minutes. Remove foil and weights. Prick the bottom of the dough with a fork in several places. For a fully baked shell, return to the oven for 8 to 10 minutes longer, or until edges are a light brown.

Put them together:

Pinwheel Fruit Tart
  • 4 kiwis, 1 pint raspberries, 1 pint strawberries // I look at these as suggestions. Add whatever fruit you want!
1. Peel the kiwis and slice thin. Rinse, stem, and halve the strawberries.

2. Spread the pastry cream in cooled tart shell.

3. Arrange the fruit on the cream. Silver Palate says: Make a pinwheel design over cream, arranging each fruit in a whorl pattern, first using raspberries, then strawberries (cut sides down), then layered slices of kiwis. Repeat with remaining fruit.

4. Brush the fruit with:

Red Currant Glaze
  • 3 Tbs red currant jelly
  • 1 Tbs Kirsch
Whisk jelly and Kirsch together over medium heat until smooth. Use glaze while warm.

Try to serve the tart within 2 to 3 hours.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Death by Chocolate

This is something I wrote and put aside many weeks ago. I think I lost the pictures somewhere along the way. More updates to come...

A lot has happened since I last posted here. That applies to all three of us, really, but mostly to me. As of a few months ago, I am officially an alumnus of the University of Chicago (yaaaaaay!). Granted, with that comes all the "fun" of post-graduation: job-hunting, grad school-applying, student loan-paying, etc. (booooo!). Another piece of that unfortunate collection is saying good-bye to everyone who I've been suffering alongside through the past few years. As all graduates know, it's hard to do. You become attached to people fighting through the cerebral chaos of college. But you rarely realise that when you go on to the real world, you probably won't be able to share that camaderie as before.

But anyway, I'm not here to wax poetic and maudlin. I'm manly that way.

One such fellow whose company I no longer enjoy is my former roommate. God knows why, but the man has decided to leave Chicago to go to graduate school in Arizona. Frozen tundra to arid desert. What? I'm sure he'll have plenty of fun with his new pet scorpions (they hide in the shoes!) -- they will probably be more cooperative listeners to his advanced math lectures. More so than his former smartass roommates, at least.

The greatest loss here, of course, is that I have one fewer guinea pig on whom to test my baked concoctions. Evidently, being exposed to these hazardous materials, the boy has developed a mild addiction to them. Our most recent report from the Southwest informs us that he is "wasting away" without them. So, without further ado, I hereby provide the recipe to one of my most-favouritest cakes ever: the Silver Palate's Decadent Chocolate Cake. And when they say "decadent," they aren't kidding around. This is Death by Chocolate. I don't know if baking is quite as enjoyable down there, but the products of this recipe are always worth it.

So, Fluffles, this is for you.

Decadent Chocolate Cake
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • 3 ounces unsweetened chocolate
  • 8 Tbs (1 stick) sweet butter
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 2 eggs, separated
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 cup dairy sour cream
  • 2 cups less 2 Tbs unbleached, all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • Chocolate Frosting (below)

1. Preheat your oven to 350F. Grease and flour a 10-inch tube pan. Knock out excess.

2. Pour boiling water over chocolate and butter; let stand until melted. (you don't really have to do that. Really. Just ensure that the butter is in liquid form.) Stir in vanilla and sugar, then whisk in egg yolks, one at a time, blending well after each addition.

3. Mix baking soda and sour cream and whisk into chocolate mixture.

4. Sift flour and baking powder together and add to batter mixing thoroughly.

5. Beat egg whites until stiff but not dry. Stir a quarter of the egg whites thoroughly into the batter. Scoop remaining egg whites on top of the batter and gently fold together.

6. Pour batter into the prepared pan. Set on the middle rack of the over and bake for 40-50min, or until the edges have pulled away from the sides of the pan and a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool in pan for 10min; unmold and cool completely before frosting.

Chocolate Frosting
  • 2 Tbs sweet butter
  • 3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips
  • 6 Tbs heavy cream
  • 1 1/4 cups sifted confectioners' sugar, or as needed
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

Place all the ingredients in a heavy saucepan over low heat and whisk until smooth. Cool slightly; add more sugar if necessary to achieve a spreding consistency. Spread on cake while frosting is still warm.

If you are so fortunate as to have a pint of berries on hand (raspberries are best, I think), I recommend tossing half in the batter, mixing some in with the frosting, and placing any remaining pieces on top as decoration.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Pecan Squares: the Vanishing Food of Choice

Some things just aren't made to last.

This is the thought that passes through my head as I watch the product of my baking labors disappear. It's Wednesday night; I'm sitting in my living room with three other people, sprawled about on the couch and the floor. It's getting late, and the warm air is making us drowsy, but we're diligently working or (in my case) pretending to work. Laptops are out, mugs of tea are within reach, and some buttered toast is on the way. Also out are my recently-baked pecan squares. These are the subjects of my observation.

I can't help but sigh. This is the second batch I've made. The first one didn't last as long as I would have liked, so I was hoping that this would survive the first day. Looks like that's just not in the cards.

Which is peculiar, really. You would think that these were too rich to be eaten in such a short amount of time. The base is a simple combination of flour, sugar, and butter, but the topping -- the glue that keeps the pecan chunks on -- is a decadent combination of melted butter, heavy cream, honey, and brown sugar. It makes for a succulent treat to accompany ice cream or somesuch, but not a snack that you would want to eat continuously. And yet as I sit here, I can see their number gradually diminishing.

This leads me to my next observation: man, these kids are going to get a sugar-crash soon!

2/3 cup confectioners' sugar
2 cups flour
2 sticks (1/2 pound) sweet butter, softened

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9*12 inch baking pan.
Sift the sugar and flour together. Cut in the butter, using two knives or a pastry blender (or your fingers), until fine crumbs form. Pat crust into the prepared baking pan. Bake for 20min and remove from the oven.

2/3 (approx. 11 Tbs) melted sweet butter
1/2 cup honey
3 Tbs heavy cream
1/2 cup brown sugar
3, 1/2 cups shelled pecans, coarsely chopped

Mix the first 4 ingredients together, then stir in the pecans, coating them thoroughly. Spread the syrupy heaven-sauce over the crust. Return the whole thing to the oven and bake for 25min more. Let it cool completely before cutting into squares.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Brownies. They make life better.

There's something about Chicago weather. It has meteorological attitude problems. It misbehaves.

For those of you who have never been here, this is not simply because it gets really cold and really windy. No, it's because it conspires to trick you like no other place I have ever been. Only in Chicago could you be caught unawares in a heavy snow in no more than a sweatshirt, or be more layered than an Inuit for what turns out to be a sweltering day. Only in Chicago could you expect to experience a 30 degree temperature jump from one day to the next. Only here, on the banks of Lake Michigan, would you find yourself in a place that has been colder than Alaska, Moscow, or even the North Pole. Or hotter than... well, we haven't conducted that experiment yet. We only researched other temperatures around the world this winter. (So no, I'm wasn't kidding.)

Take this week as an example. After several days of clear skies and brilliant sunshine, I couldn't help but feel that, at long last, we were inexorably crawling towards spring. The Chicago Weather demons must have sensed the joy in my thoughts, and decided it was a fit time to anoint us with that delightful precipitation that is somewhere between rain, freezing rain, hail, snow, and sleet. I think the NOAA has taken to calling it a Wintry Mix. Five days of it.

In Chicago, one does not walk. One trudges.

[Insert rant about how Neen & Do are living the Bay Area, the Land of Neverending Spring. Grr.]

How in the world, you might ask, does any of this relate to food? Very simple: the "comfort" variety. And what can possibly be more comfortable than chocolate? Long and short of it: brownies. Brownies make life better.

HISTORICAL ASIDE: My obsession is geographically appropriate, because brownies were invented in Chicago. Seriously. In the Palmer House Hilton, in the Loop (downtown). Mrs. Palmer assigned her chef to create a new dessert for the ladies at the 1893 World Fair -- something with chocolate, preferably that could be handheld, but similar to a cake. Et voila: brownie.

Now, like Neen, I usually rely on the New York Times' old Supernatural Brownie recipe. As a matter of fact, I think it was this recipe that convinced my roommates that I was a chocolate fiend. There is unanimous agreement in my apartment that when I am in the kitchen, I provoking the slow and delicious deaths of all around me. Mwahaha!

Recently, however, I've uncovered a new way of making them. It lightens up ever so slightly on the butter and chocolate, allowing you to have more control over whether you end up with more cakey or more fudgy brownies depending on your cooking time. Furthermore, with the different proportions, they lose nothing of their luxuriousness while nevertheless not making you feel like you'll die if you have more than one or two. Or three. Or-- yeah, actually, I recommend you make multiple batches. In my experience, they disappear in about as many days.

These are "Classic Brownies," I believe originally clipped from the Joy of Cooking.

-1,1/4 cups cake flour (regular flour is fine)
-1/2 tsp salt
-3/4 tsp baking powder
-6 oz unsweetened chocolate (chopped fine)
-12 Tbs (1.5 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 6 pieces
-2,1/4 cups sugar
-4 large eggs
-1 Tbs vanilla

Adjust your oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line a 13*9 baking pan with aluminum foil or parchment paper.

Combine flour, salt, and baking powder by whisking them together in a medium-sized bowl.

Melt together the chocolate and butter, stirring until it's smooth. Once smooth, whisk in the sugar. Add the eggs one at a time until they are thoroughly combined. Whisk in the vanilla.

Add the dry ingredients in three additions, folding in with a rubber spatula until the batter is completely smooth. Transfer to the prepared pan and bake 30-35min, or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out with a few moist crumbs attached. I recommend sprinkling the top with some powdered sugar, just for decoration.

Supposedly, you should to let it cool on a wire rack for 2 hours before cutting and serving. Yeah, right. As if I could wait that long.

Suddenly, facing the outdoors isn't so bad anymore.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Homemade Parmesan Polenta with Shrimp, Pancetta, and Chard topping

So to celebrate Do passing his PhD exams (yes! He passed!), we spent this past weekend in Santa Cruz. Four blocks from the beach, in a 1929 Victorian house that had 5 bedrooms, 30 stained glass windows, and a giant box of Playboys hidden in the attic. I mean, there was stained glass in the stairway, stained glass in the bathrooms, stained glass on the kitchen ceiling. Not kidding. And if all that weren't deliciously random enough, we were there with a college friend we hadn't seen since 2005, my cousin, his wife, his wife's sister + beau, and five other people whom Do & I had never even heard of before we all arrived Friday night. We drove up, made introductions, and promptly began exploring all the nooks and crannies of the crazy house and giggling over the epic quantity of board games we had all brought down. It was that kind of weekend.

By the way, if you're ever in Santa Cruz, the best coffeeshop in the entire Western Hemisphere is called The Abbey. It's this renovated space behind a brick church with huge, comfy, retro couches, funky art, and some of the best coffee drinks I've had anywhere. Do & I happily spent Saturday afternoon there reading and discussing the late 20th century bureaucratization of science research. Very us.

So we read books on the beach. We ate seafood at every possible opportunity. We visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium (just as awesome as everybody claims -- Do remembered almost nothing from when he visited about 15 years ago, until we got to the ray touch pool. You get to pet Rays! Apparently that made a big impression on him back in the day. They feel like velvet, BTW.). It was a very ocean-themed weekend.

We didn't do much cooking during the weekend, partly because we were so busy running around having a good time and partly because cooking for 12 people whom you don't really know is complicated. However, at our last supper club get-together, we had a massive success with a new seafood-themed recipe: an Italian take on southern Shrimp & Grits. Massive Success.

I don't really cook with polenta or shrimp. The former is too often just a swanky cardboard-tasting filler, and the latter is a bitch to clean and/or tastes like rubber when pre-frozen. But this recipe... oh, man. Like most top-quality homemade Italian food, this recipe takes my preconceived notions of "shrimp" and "polenta" and throws them back at me with "You keep using that word. I do not think if means what you think it means."

(This weekend also involved ample quotations from Princess Bride. What better way to bond instantaneously with perfect strangers on Valentine's Day than by talking about "Twue Wuv"?)

Cook's Illustrated has an amazingly simple and delicious recipe for homemade Parmesan Polenta: creamy like grits, but much lighter (think fluffy clouds of goodness), and chock-a-bloc full of a Parmesan/olive oil/black pepper flavor. Not delicate, this one. Which goes well with the rough and ready take on the shrimp: lots of garlic, tomatoes, meaty pancetta flavor, hearty greens, and then these really delicately cooked shrimp. Think Italian. Think Addictive. Vampire deterrent served on pillows of Parmesan.

For those of you who find the thought of homemade polenta intimidating: it is so worth it. And it only takes 5 minutes total of hand time (25min cook time). Please, please, please try it.

For the vegetarians out there, I'm tagging this as "vegetarian" because the meat products are in no way critical to the dish: top the polenta with whatever you want and it'll still be awesome.

And by the way, a great use for the leftover Parmesan Polenta is to have it for breakfast, topped with fried eggs. Almost exactly three years ago, the Nytimes published a recipe for that very dish. Yes, we've had the clipping squirreled away that long and only ever fantasized about it. And I can finally assure the world that the dish is as good as it sounds.

Homemade Parmesan Polenta, from Cook's Illustrated (serves 6-8)
1.5 tsp salt
Pinch baking soda
1.5 coarse-ground cornmeal (also called "corn grits")
2 Tbs butter
4oz good quality Parmesan cheese, grated (~2 cups)

Bring 7.5 cups water to boil in heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Stir in salt and baking soda. Slowly pour cornmeal into water in steady stream, while stirring back and forth with wooden spoon or rubber spatula. Bring mxture to boil, stirring constantly, about 1 min. Reduce heat to lowest possible setting and cover.

After 5 min, whisk polenta to smooth out any lumps that may have formed, about 15seconds. (Make sure to scrape down sides and bottom of pan). Cover and continue to cook, without stirring, until grains of polenta are tender but slightly al dente, about 25min longer. (Polenta should be loose and barely hold its shape but will continue to continue to thicken as it cools.)

Meanwhile, cook a polenta topping (see recipe below)

Once 25min are up, turn off heat, stir in butter and Parmesan, and season to taste with black pepper. Let stand, covered, 5min. Serve.

Shrimp, Pancetta, and Greens over Polenta, inspired by Gourmet Nov 2009 issue (serves 4)
Homemade Parmesan Polenta (recipe below)
1/3lb pancetta, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 - 1/2 tsp hot red pepper flakes
1 bunch winter greens, sliced into thick strips (chard, kale, whatever floats your boat)
2 Tbs extra-virgin olive oil
1 14oz can diced tomatoes in juice
1-1.5lb cleaned large shrimp
1 Tbs chopped flat leaf parsley

While polenta is cooking, heat 2Tbs oil in a heavy 12-inch heavy skillet over medium heat. Cook pancetta, garlic, greens, and red pepper until garlic is golden (~2-3min). Add tomatoes in their juice and simmer until liquid is reduced to ~1/4cup (~6-8min). Add shrimp and cook, stirring occasionally, until shrimp are just cooked through (~3min). Season with salt.

Spoon Polenta into bowls and top with shrimp mixture. Season with pepper and sprinkle with parsley.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Surviving PhD Exams with Indonesian Chicken Soup

Do's PhD Qualifying Exams are this Wednesday. He has been studying every day, evenings and weekends, for 11 months. For those of you outside academia, this event carries all of the anxiety of an Indiana Jones "Are you worthy to pass through, if not you'll die a painful death" ancient booby trap, but without the 3rd Reich and the Steven Spielberg dramatic soundtrack playing in the background. Like in the ancient Roman Coliseum, it'll come down to a thumbs up or a thumbs down from the Committee: thumbs up and Do magically transforms into a PhD candidate, thumbs down and we have to go through this 11 month hell again. If you get thumbs down twice, you get fed to the Lions: you're kicked out of the PhD program and pretty much have to give up on a career in the sciences.

Yeah, and he goes to the Coliseum this Wednesday. In 3 days. After 11 months of preparation.

All things considered, he's handling it pretty well.

So we've been eating a lot of "whatever will make Do happy." Turns out these days that's a lot of chicken soup. Friday night was our Matzo ball soup, and the week before was this crazy Indonesian Chicken Noodle Soup.

The soup was beautiful. The flavors and textures were complex. The ****ing recipe had so many moving parts that you should not make it without a sous chef (unless it's a dire emergency, like the week before Quals). I knew what I was getting into: this is a recipe out of the Williams & Sonoma Asian cookbook, a source known to gratuitously throw in esoteric ingredients and insert as many unnecessarily cumbersome steps as possible. Don't believe me? This recipe calls for you to grind a bunch of ingredients into a paste, which you then cook until fragrant (pretty standard for a south Asian recipe). I used a cuisineart. This cookbook wants you to do it by hand using a mortar and pestle! I mean, even freakin' Madhur Jaffrey (the Julia Child of Indian cooking in the 1970s) wanted you to use a blender!! Gah!

Anyways. So the soup is complicated and hand-intensive. But Do was so happy. The noodles expanded so that they sucked up almost all the liquid (the proportions are more Udon-style than a western chicken noodle soup). The dish was bright yellow and green, very cheerful for a winter day. It's delicious hot or cold (so good for leftover lunches). The flavors are authentically complex and nuanced. The fried shallots and hard boiled eggs and mung beans and all the other goodies add a ton of varying texture in every bite. He'd like it a little hotter, but didn't think it really necessary. Seriously, he took this dish into work every day for lunch and was so happy.

It's easy to buy chocolates and roses. In this household, we tend to display love by undertaking a very personal, labor-intense project, preferably resulting in something edible. One of our very first blog posts was about one such endeavor. In the spirit of V-day, if you want to really pamper somebody special (including yourself, because you're special too right?), I offer you this recipe. It takes so much effort, it must mean love.

Indonesian Spicy Chicken Noodle Soup, from Williams-Sonoma Asian cookbook (serves 6-8)
8 cups Chicken stock
1/2 lb bone-in chicken breast, skin removed
1/2lb bone-in chicken thighs, skin removed
1/2lb vermicelli
3 jalapenos, chopped (or more)
7 shallots
2 fresh ginger slices, peeled
3 cloves garlic
5 blanched almonds
2 Tbs lemongrass, chopped.
2 tsp tumeric
1/4 tsp ground coriander
2 Tbs fish sauce
2 Tbs lemon juice (Neen: don't add more, or lemon flavor will be more dominant than you want it)
3 eggs
1 cup bean sprouts (~ 1oz)
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
3 green onions, sliced on the diagonal.

In a heavy bottomed pot or large saucepan, bring the chicken stock to boil. Add 1 Tbs salt and the chicken, and return to a boil. Reduce heat to meduim and cook, uncovered, until the chicken is opaque throughout (~30min).

Meanwhile, soak vermicelli in water to cover for 15min. Drain and set aside.

Meanwhile, hard boil your eggs. (Suggestion: put eggs in saucepan and add cold water to cover by 2 inches. Bring just to a boil over medium heat, remove from heat, cover, and let eggs stand in water 20min. Rinse under cold water until cool, peel).

Meanwhile, roughly chop 4 shallots. In a cuisineart, combine 2 jalapenos, chopped shallots, ginger, garlic, almonds, lemongrass, tumeric, coriander, and 1-2 Tbs of water. Grind together until a paste forms. Set aside (Neen: if you have leftover lemongrass, which I did, just toss it in the simmering chicken broth).

Meanwhile, slice remaining 3 shallots and fry in 3 tsp canola or peanut oil until crisp and golden brown (7-10min). Drain on paper towels.

Once the chicken is cooked, use tongs to transfer chicken to a plate to cool. Pour broth into a heat resistant bowl. In the pot or large saucepan over medium, heat 2 Tbs oil. Add chile paste and saute until fragrant (~2min). Pour reserved broth back into the pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for 15min. Stir in fish sauce and lemon juice and season to taste with salt and pepper, and simmer for another 5min.

Meanwhile, shred the chicken into thin pieces, discarding bones. (Neen: again, throw them back into the simmering broth to add flavor).

Meanwhile, quarter the boiled eggs.

When broth is ready, discard all the solids (all that lemongrass and bones you added in). Add the drained noodles to broth and cook until just tender (~2min). Add chicken, bean sprouts, cilantro, green onions to pot. Ladle soup intro individual bowls and garnish with eggs, fried shallots, and the remaining jalapeno. Serve.