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.