Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmas recap and blogiversary

So, I've had a bit of a hiatus from the blog. Have you noticed? There's no good reason for the looooong break other than I was bored and uninspired. Since October.

But now that Thanksgiving and Christmas have come and gone, I figured that I couldn't ignore the wonderful food and cooking that has been going on around me. Food is a key player during the holidays. Almost as big as presents and the tree.

I will take you back to Thanksgiving. This holiday was spent aboard the Crystal Serenity, so I had to do zero cooking, zero cleaning up, and 100% eating. Lovely!

Meals on either of the Crystal ships is an event. The food is mostly prepared with a French influence and technique - sauces, meats, veggies - but there is always a wide variety of dishes from which to choose. In addition to the dining room, there are two restaurants on board. One, called Prego, is the Italian restaurant with menu choices created by Pierro Selvaggio, of the Valentino restaurants. The other is Asian called Silk Road and The Sushi Bar. The menu features dishes created by Nobu, and sushi chefs trained by him.

With all these choices, what in the world did I eat? Some of the dishes I had are:
-pumpkin ravioli
-iced Malossol Caviar
-Pate de Foie Gras
-Pan-Fried Fillet of Atlantic Halibut
-Whole-Roasted Tom Turkey with all the trimmings
-bisque of Fresh Sweet Corn
-Tortiglioni Pasta with fresh tomato sauce, cream, Fontina, and parsley
-a wide selection of sushi rolls, sashimi, and delectable Waygu beef sashimi style
-Nobu Udon

These are just some of the things I had for dinner. Breakfast was usually at the Lido to make selections from the large and diverse breakfast buffet. Lunch was a meal that I don't recall eating very much. I guess I did, but it seems like we were usually doing something or off the ship at lunch time. We did partake in tea on the days we were at sea. Tea consisted of finger sandwiches - cucumber, cheese, beef, ham, egg salad - and lots of mini-pastries. And scones with cream and berries, of course. Tea was a favorite activity.

Besides mealtime and tea, there are also seemingly unlimited supplies of fresh fruit, cookies, ice cream, breads, charcuterie, and drinks.

To work off all this food, the ships have a 360 degree promenade deck, a gym, paddle tennis courts, and swimming pools.

We also ate one meal while off the ship. That was lunch in Grand Turk. We were fed by a real local lady - although she was American - at a dive-y beach bar & restaurant. It was a strange mix of food she presented us with, but it tasted good. I had the grilled chicken, beans & rice, conch fritter, and key lime pie. We also ate just caught, maybe still alive conch on a boat in Grand Cayman. Our guide pulled this conch right out of the ocean, popped it from it's gigantic shell, and cut it up for us to taste right there. It didn't really taste like much except salt. But not overly salty. The texture was smooth, not slimy, and slightly firm. Later, the guide cut up the rest of it and made a ceviche on the boat using hot sauce, limes, cilantro, and who knows what else. We were all snorkeling while he made it.

Upon reaching Key West, we of course, also had to have key lime pie. We partook of some at the Blond Giraffe. Delish!

After Key West, we were home and the gravy train stopped. It was back to the real world which meant cooking and cleaning up. I was not thrilled about this as I loved my week off from kitchen duty.

Since we've been back, I don't feel like I've made very interesting food. Or at least, nothing interesting enough to tell you about. I've done the requisite holiday baking, but again, it's pretty standard fare.

I did make something new that I will tell you about. Steve's dad loves turtle candy but it's one of the items his mom does not make at Christmas or ever. So Steve thought it would be a nice gift idea to make turtles for his dad. I had concerns about making them and then having them set properly and also not have all the caramel ooze out the sides and basically result in a big mess. So I found a recipe for tipsy turtle bark. It was easy as pie to make and set beautifully. I let it set up overnight and then cut it. I did taste the melted caramels with the rum and it's divine. How can these not turn out delicious?

One other thing to mention, this blog is now over a year old. Whatever that means.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The mac and cheese testing continues

As you know, mac and cheese is one of my favorite foods. But it isn't something that can made and eaten everyday thanks to the butter, milk, and cheese usually required. And sometimes bacon.

I own exactly one "light" cookbook. It's from those good folks at America's Test Kitchen, so you know they are going to try to make the best possible light recipes they can possibly make and still call them light. Nothing will be tasteless or lacking. I've made a couple things from this cookbook, but for some reason, I hadn't tried the mac and cheese yet. Two nights ago, I did.

Everyday Macaroni and Cheese
from The Best Light Recipe
by America's Test Kitchen

Serves 5

1/2 pound elbow macaroni
1 (12-oz) can reduced-fat (2%) evaporated milk
3/4 cup 2% milk
1/4 tsp dry mustard
1/8 tsp garlic powder or celery salt (optional)
Pinch cayenne
2 tsp cornstarch
8 ounces 50% light cheddar cheese, grated (they like Cabot)

1. Bring 2 1/2 quarts water to a boil in a large saucepan. Stir in 2 teaspoons salt and the macaroni; cook until the pasta is completely cooked and tender, about 5 minutes. Drain the pasta and leave in the colander; set aside.

2. Add the evaporated milk, 1/2 cup of the 2% milk, mustard, garlic powder, cayenne, and 1/2 tsp salt to the now-empty saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Whisk the cornstarch and remaining 1/4 cup milk together, then whisk it into the simmering mixture. Continue to simmer, whisking constantly, until the sauce has thickened and is smooth, about 2 minutes.

3. Off the heat, gradually whisk in the cheddar until melted and smooth. Stir in the macaroni, and let the macaroni and cheese sit off the heat until the sauce has thickened slightly, 2 to 5 minutes before serving.

Notice anything about this recipe? No butter. The write up in the cookbook about their development of this recipe goes into detail about eliminating the traditional roux used to make the bechamel for the mac and cheese. They figured out that if they made a cornstarch slurry and instead of a butter based roux, that it worked just fine.

I was also wary of using the evaporated milk and reduced fat cheese. But I have great faith in ATK. The grocery store here had the Cabot 50% reduced fat cheddar, so I used that. Actually, according to ATK, they think that most of the time, using a 50% reduced fat cheese is okay. Just check the package to see if the fat content is about half of the regular product. I used this method to compare the reduced fat cheeses at the store. While hardly any are labeled as 50% less fat, most are in the right ball park. I was also surprised to see how the fat content varied between identically labeled reduced fat cheeses. As I grated the cheese, I tasted some straight up. It's really not too bad.

So how does this recipe really stack up according to the numbers? I'm glad you asked. The folks at ATK have a handy "makeover at a glance" box included for this recipe that pits the numbers of the traditional version against this light one. They based their original recipe on their own from Cook's Illustrated. (Incidentally, I've made another one of their mac & cheese recipes.)

Per serving
Classic: 650 calories
Light: 360 calories

Classic: 200 mg
Light: 40 mg

Classic: 40 g
Calories 10 g

Saturated Fat
Classic: 27 g
Light: 6 g

The end result is a very yummy, creamy, cheesy, and flavorful mac and cheese. The sauce is saucy, similar in consistency to a fake cheese like Velveeta - but tastes so much better. It also tastes way better than Kraft mac & cheese, but really, only takes a teensy bit more effort and time to make than the Kraft version. It's worth that little extra effort.

This mac and cheese isn't baked. I would like to have the crunch of bread crumbs on top of this, so maybe next time I'll put a smidge more milk in and then top with bread crumbs and pop it in the oven for a few minutes to get that crunchy top. All in all, very good and very easy to make. One pot, no knife. Excellent.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Have a little puddin'

The holidays are coming. Besides the Halloween and Christmas decorations at Target, and pumpkins in the grocery store, the other indicator that the seasons are changing is when Trader Joe's starts to stock their fall/holiday items, expensive meats/appetizers, and expands the baking section. Some of my favorite TJ products are only available this time of the year and that makes them extra special. Favorites include peppermint Jo-Jo's (cookies) and pumpkin butter. I didn't see the cookies yet, but the pumpkin butter was sitting prettily on the shelf so I picked one up. I also noticed in the cookie section maple leaf cookies. These are maple cookies sandwiched around a maple vanilla filling. Oh. Yum. Alas, the nutrition information is quite terrible, so I didn't buy a box, but I will at some point for a get-together or other "special" event when they can be shared.

I did, however, buy a new product that I hope will be a year-round product and not a seasonal one. Whenever I do my shopping, I make sure to peruse "new product" end cap by the dairy section. I'm familiar enough with TJ products that I can usually spot new ones as I stroll the aisle, but I always check this end cap just to make sure I didn't miss anything interesting. This week, I spotted retro-designed boxes of instant pudding. I couldn't help myself. The decision was not to buy a box or not, but whether to get vanilla or chocolate. I opted for chocolate.

Instant pudding is one of those simple-stupid things to make. Really. Can't screw it up even if you tried. I whisked the pudding with the called for cold milk (nonfat in my case even though the box wanted 2%) in my brand new 4-cup Pyrex measuring cup with the non-slide bottom. This is exactly the sort of thing I wanted this cup for. I only got it a couple weekends ago and this was my first recipe putting it to work. The sticky silicon ring on the bottom of the cup held like glue to the counter while I whisked. The size was perfect for whisking, and the spout allowed me to easily pour the pudding into the cups.

Here is the box and measuring cup at work:

After dinner Monday night, we had pudding for dessert. I'm no connoisseur of instant puddings as the only time I eat it is when it's in a berry trifle, but I thought this TJ instant pudding was very good. The chocolate was almost the exact same chocolate flavor as a brownie batter which means it's very chocolate-y. We both thought the pudding was just a teensy bit grainy. I'm not sure if that's because I didn't whisk it enough or if that's just how instant pudding is. The little bit of grain didn't bother us in the slightest. The second day we had the pudding, a little skin had formed on the top but nothing too disgusting. The box says this pudding makes excellent pie filling, so I think Steve will get a chocolate pudding pie sometime in the months ahead. But before that, I want to give the vanilla a try, too.

All in all, I would highly recommend this instant pudding for it's very satisfying chocolate taste, creamy consistency (even if using nonfat milk), completely idiot-proof instructions, and friendly price.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"Salad" for dinner. No really, there was something green in it.

Usually, I think salad recipes are silly. Really, does anyone need a recipe to tell them how to make a salad? It's lettuce, dressing, and whatever other veggies and toppings you want, right? And dressing is oil and and acid of some kind, whether it's a vinegar or lemon juice. Salads are idiot proof dishes. All that being said, a salad recipe from my Sept. issue of Bon Appetit caught my eye. Perhaps it was all that bacon, goat cheese, and egg. Not much of a salad after that but rather a "salad." (PHOTO above from bonappetit.com)

Warm Escarole Salad with Goat Cheese, Hard-Boiled Eggs, and Bacon
from Bon Appetit, September 2009

6 servings (Actually, we ate all of this in one sitting. I guess it's six servings if you have it with something else but we didn't. Think it would be good with some grilled chicken or grilled shrimp if you like that sort of thing.)

1 head of escarole, torn into large bite-size pieces (about 8 cups)
2 bacon slices
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup finely chopped shallots
2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
1 5.5 ounce log soft fresh goat cheese, coarsely crumbled

Divide escarole among six plates. (*I just dumped all of into a large mixing bowl as I later combined ingredients, dressed, and tossed in the bowl and served from there.) Cook bacon in medium nonstick skillet over medium heat until crisp. Transfer to paper towels to drain: reserve skillet with bacon drippings. Finely chop bacon; set aside.

Whisk olive oil and vinegar in small bowl to blend. Heat bacon drippings in skillet over medium heat. Add shallots; saute until slightly softened, about 3 minutes. Add olive oil mixture and whisk just until heated through, about 1 minute. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Drizzle vinaigrette over escarole. Sprinkle with eggs, goat cheese, and bacon.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Lobster cookies, the no guilt way to eat lobsters

In my weekend blog updates, I mentioned that we picked up a lobster shaped cookie cutter at Sur La Table.

With a little help from Steve on Sunday, the cookies got made. I have to say, rolled cookies are not my favorite things to make. I do like the novelty of them, decorating, and of course, eating them, but making them is sort of a pain. The dough for this kind of cookie usually has so much butter in it that it immediately starts to soften even after it's been in the fridge for a while. This dough has to be rolled to a certain thickness, which is usually so thin that it easily tears when you try to pick it up and move it to the baking sheet. I can't tell you how many lobster claws and tails we ripped off before I decided to just roll the dough directly on the baking sheet. Even though this only resulted in four or five lobsters in a batch, it was less stressful than trying to successfully move the cut lobsters to the sheet. (Michelle V. - if you read my blog, could you please leave a comment about your roll cookie method? I remember you told me your secret that involved cutting them out directly on the baking sheet but I can't remember if you did it after freezing the dough on the sheet or par baking? And anyone else who reads this, if you have tips for handling roll cookies, please let me know. I'm all ears!)

By the time I got to my last batch, I had morphed the roll-directly-on-the-sheet method with the roll-out-on-parchment-and-then-cut-the-paper-around-each-cookie-and-put-that-on-the-sheet method. This second method allowed me to get more cookies in each batch but it was a little tedious.

By the time these little buggers were all baked, I was done. They would have to wait until Monday to get their shells.

So this afternoon, I got out the required items for the frosting and went to work. I was trying to get a red color that is nothing like what I got. In person, the frosting is more of a dark salmon color rather than a deep red. Oh well.

I had read a hint about frosting cookies that said to use the back of a spoon rather than a spatula. Deciding to try it, I first used the tablespoon. Way too big. Switched down the the teaspoon. Better, but still a little sloppy. Finally, ding ding ding! Use my favorite spoon of all - the demitasse! The baby bear spoon was juuuuust right. I used the new one I got over the weekend and it worked like a charm. Before I had tested all the spoons, I also tried painting on the frosting. Eh, it was okay because there was no room for sloppiness, but I liked how the spoon coated cookies looked better. Here are my sad test cookies. These were casualties of broken claws and tails which resulted after baking. Delicate little things.

When I got them all frosted, I was not satisfied with the color. Salmon pink on lobster? No, that will not do. Sprinkles! Red sprinkles will help punch up that color a little bit. I was saved from having to make my own red sprinkles - which would probably turn out pink anyway - because I just happened to have a large container of them that I had bought on sale at Target from the post-Fourth of July discount bin. I believe that was Fourth of July 2008. I have no idea what compelled me to buy these at that time, but something in my subconscious must have been clairvoyant to know I would need them nearly fifteen months later.

Here are the finished cookies all jazzed up.

Those round ones are from the scraps and are cut using a ravioli cutter. I have yet to use it to make ravioli.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Nom nom nom

These videos have to be some of the strangest things I've ever seen a cat eat, or attempt to eat. What weird things to your cats eat? You should film it and put it on YouTube and then the world can see it and say, "what a weird cat."

Saturday around town

This morning, I used orange juice to wash down a cinnamon roll, some eggs, and bacon before heading to the big island of Manhattan today. We were hitting up Crate & Barrel and CB2 to look for lamps. Lamps aside, our trip today really revolved around food, or at least the things that go in a kitchen to make food.

We went into a few shops - Muji, CB2, and finally Sur La Table. It was at Sur La Table where I really oohed and ahhed over bake ware, Le Cruest dutch ovens, All-Clad saute pans, gadgets, knives, cutting boards, and dishtowels. I ended up buying these two Halloween yet food-related towels that I think are so cute.

Pretty cute, huh? I picked up a gift for someone, another small stocking stuffer (I bought my first present yesterday, so the shopping has begun. In fact, in Muji, I even heard Silent Night playing on some sort of Japanese new-agey CD over the store speakers. Weird. Sur La Table also had some ornaments out already. Has anyone been to Target lately? Two weeks ago, our Target had one side of an aisle hanging with Halloween costumes and the other side had over sized Christmas ornaments. Steve took a picture because it was so bizarre.) At Crate & Barrel, got myself a new corkscrew for $3, a tiny white and stainless demitasse spoon for $2 (they are the best spoons with which to eat ice cream), and a 4-cup Pyrex measuring cup with a non-slip bottom. At Sur La Table, we also got a $1 lobster cookie cutter (Steve's idea. I told him he would have to help make them), and I found 9-inch parchment paper rounds for my cake pans. No more tracing my pans and cutting out and wasting paper.

Rewind to last night. We tried out a new Thai restaurant in the neighborhood. Or at least what we thought was a new place. We first went to Clover Club for a drink and snack, and then over to Court to this Thai place. As we left CC, I noticed that the Thai restaurant next door had the same name as the place we were going to on Court Street. Now, you have to understand, Court Street is only one block over from where we were. And the new restaurant was one block north on Court, so we are only talking about two blocks from where we were standing outside this same-named Thai restaurant. We get to the new place and double check the name. Yup, same name. Same sort of interior look, too. Sit down and eat our standard green curry. Our waitress asked Steve if we had eaten at the "other one" so we're pretty sure they are sister restaurants only two blocks apart. How weird is that? It got pretty busy as we ate, so maybe both places can do enough business to stay open. The new place has a nice windowed back wall and ceiling as well as a private outdoor deck. The food was fine but service was very slow, so I think they still need to work some things out at the new location, which has only been open about a week.

Friday, September 25, 2009


Just couple more things to tell you about.

Last week, in addition to the cinnamon rolls, I believe I mentioned that I was going to test a recipe sent to me by Cook's Country.

I did make the recipe - cat head biscuits - and answered their survey. It was really kinda fun to be a guinea pig for one of their in development recipes. In the magazine, the recipes usually get a write up about the recipe's history, research, development, ingredients, etc. As a tester, I only got the recipe with a one-line explanation about the name: the biscuits are about the size of a cat's head. Well, okay, that's straightforward enough. While I can't share the recipe, I will tell you that I thought it was darn near perfect. I loved those biscuits. The night before I made the biscuits, I had made chicken schnitzel. We had plenty left over so we put those in the biscuits for a breaded chicken biscuit sandwich with honey. Yum!

And just for fun, I held the largest biscuit (all were about 4 ounces) next to the cats's heads to see if, in fact, it was the size of a cat's head. These aren't great pictures because it's hard to get a cat to stay still when you are holding something next to his head and all he wants to do is sniff it. But I think you can get an idea from these. The biscuit is smaller than Kitty's head but larger than Cleo's.

Last night, I made a white bean and sausage dish. It's in the October issue of Bon Appetit. This article used one base dish - white beans cooked with sage and garlic - to make four different dishes, some light and some heavier. The one I made was on the heavier ones. It called for tomatoes, sweet Italian sausage, the beans, more garlic & sage. That's it. Yes, there was some salt and pepper and water involved too, but the main ingredients and flavors are from that short list. It was delicious and well worth the wait. Since dried beans are used, they had to soak overnight. It is a bit of a time-consuming recipe as things have to simmer for quite a bit of time at various stages of preparation, but it's easy. Nothing is hard or complicated in the preparation of this dish. In fact, it's almost an knife-less recipe. I did use the knife to cut off the top of a garlic head and to crush cloves, but other than that, no knife required. Steve really liked it, too. This will certainly be a keeper recipe to make again this winter.

I actually have several more things to tell you about - a new book, a new taco place, a new Thai place (like we need another one of those in this neighborhood), a burger place - but I must go and get ready to leave when Steve gets home. We are doing dinner and movie tonight. Have a good weekend everyone!

Peaches, lovely peaches

I've wanted to make peach ice cream for a while and I finally did about a week ago. I bought some beautiful end-of-summer North Carolina peaches from the local produce stand and let them ripen. Letting them ripen was like torture. I wanted them to be ready NOW! About four agonizing days later, I determined they were ripe. (I even used that "trick" and put an apple in the paper bag with the peaches in order to ripen them faster.)


The most tedious step in this ice cream recipe was peeling all those peaches, and even that was easy as the skins just peeled right off in big, smooth, sheets.

Half of the peaches were heated with honey and then pureed. Here is the puree although I think it looks more like slightly chunky egg yolks in this picture.

After that, it was ice cream as usual - heat the dairy, add sugar, vanilla, eggs, etc, chill, then churn. At the end of the churning, I added the rest of the peaches which were finely diced.

This was very good and I highly recommend it if you have four peaches around. I think when I make this again, I will amp up the peach flavor and use more for the puree. But I'll have to be careful if I do that since the added puree would contain more water and that might give the ice cream an icier texture. Steve said it would also be good with a little cinnamon. I also played with the dairy this time. If you have read my other blog entries about ice cream, you'll recall I use mainly heavy cream and half and half. I tried using half and half and whole milk once but it didn't get creamy enough. This time, I used light cream and whole milk. Voila! A winning combination that gave me the creaminess and texture I wanted while cutting out a bit of the fat.

I followed Dorie Greenspan's recipe to the letter except for the dairy. She wanted me to use heavy cream. Here is the recipe and my adaptation is noted:

Honey Peach Ice Cream
from Baking: From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan

4 large ripe peaches (about 2 pounds), peeled and pitted
1/4 cup honey
1 cup whole milk (*adaptation: 3/4 cup)
1 cup heavy cream (*adaptation: 1 1/4 cup light cream)
3 large eggs
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Coarsely chop half the peaches into 1/2 chunks and toss them into a small saucepan. Add the honey and bring to a boil, then lower the heat, cover the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until the peaches are soft but not mushy, about 10 minutes. Scrape the mixture into a blender or food processor and whir to puree. (Alternatively, use a hand blender. *This is what I did as it's easier to clean up but be careful of spatter when hand blending the hot mixture.) Set the peach puree aside while you make the custard.

Bring the milk and cream to a boil in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan.

Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk the yolks and sugar together until very well blended and just slightly thickened. Still whisking, drizzle in about one third of the hot liquid. Whisking all the while, slowly pour in the remaining liquid. Pour the custard back into the pan and cook over medium heat, stirring without stopping, until the custard thickens slightly and coats the back of a spoon. The custard should reach at least 170 degrees F, but no more than 180 degrees F, on an instant-read thermometer. Immediately remove the pan from the heat and pour the custard into a 2-quart glass measuring cup or clean heatproof bowl. (*I poured it through a fine mesh strainer just in case there were milk or egg solids.) Stir in the vanilla and peach puree.

Refrigerate the custard until chilled.

Scrape the chilled custard into the bowl of an ice cream maker and churn according to manufacturer's instructions. While the ice cream is churning, finely dice the remaining 2 peaches, then, just before the ice cream is thickened and ready, add the peaches and churn to blend. Pack the ice cream into a container and freeze.

Baking also included recipes & suggestions for several more flavors I'd like to try: chocolate ganache, chocolate peppermint sorbet, burnt sugar, and blueberry-sour cream. Maybe you'll read about one of those some day.

Happy ice cream!

"Better than Cinnabon."

A week has gone by. It was Gleesday last week when I said I was going to make cinnamon rolls. Those rolls only got made yesterday, Gleesday a week later than promised.

As I assembled my mise en place, I realized that the recipe for the sweet dough called for instant/rapid rise yeast. I only had packets of active dry. I knew we were out of or very low on a few other things I like to have on hand, so off to the store.

I don't get how spices are priced. I'm sure the prices have something to do with profit margins, but to me, it just seems ridiculous. Who decides that two tablespoons of ground cloves cost $8.99? I don't get how that price can be fair or validated when there is also a gigantic bottle of ground cloves - enough to probably last me 20 years; not that it would have any flavor in 20 years - by a no-name supplier that only costs $3.99? I would gladly buy the giganto bottle of whatever spice I need if it's one that I know I'll use on a regular basis and maybe actually get through the whole bottle but cloves? Cloves are not something I use enough to justify me buying the huge container and therefor taking up valuable cabinet space for the next two decades. It's a crime to pay that much for a much smaller amount, but that's what it comes down to in New York City - do I want to give up cabinet space to save my wallet?

As I stood in the the baking aisle and contemplated the small, but pretty well selected spice section, I wondered if I even needed to include the cloves. Cloves are a strong flavor, would certainly add to the rolls, and those America's Test Kitchen people usually know what they are doing so it is in the recipe for a reason. On the other hand, if I left them out, would I or Steve even notice? Probably not.

I now have ground cloves. Sigh.

This process started around noon or so. The recipe was easy enough to follow for the sweet dough. I used my mixer rather than the food processor to make the dough but I could have used either. The cookbook included instructions for both appliances. This was the first time in the seven or so years I've owned my Kitchen Aid mixer that I have used the dough hook. Lemme tell you, it worked like a charm. The cookbook said to keep kneading it in the mixer for five minutes until it sticks to the bottom of the bowl but not the sides. My dough didn't need anywhere near five minutes. Thirty seconds after determining that my dough needed just a little bit more buttermilk, it instantly mixed and unstuck itself. It started to form a roll all on its own and the top reached the lip of the bowl threatening to fling itself off the dough hook at any time. I guess it was done.

I turned it out on the counter and kneaded it about for about five minutes then I set it aside to rise. That was easy.

Two and half hours later, the dough has risen and it's time to sculpt it into the classic cinnamon roll. Let me say one thing about America's Test Kitchen recipes: they are very precise for a reason. This precision can come off as prissy, too exact, or anal, but really it's best to just follow their directions because you will get a perfect result every time. Like I said, they know what they are doing.

Their instructions said to form the dough into a 12-inch by 16-inch rectangle. They were very exact on these dimensions and recommended using a ruler to measure it. Um, okay. I dutifully pulled, rolled, coaxed, and massaged that dough into a 12x16 rectangle. Now what?

The cloves. Did you forget about the cloves?

By now, the cloves have been mixed with brown sugar, cinnamon, and a pinch of salt. After brushing a little melted butter on the dough, I covered all but the edges with the sugar-cinnamon mix and lightly pressed on it so it would stick. Then, I carefully rolled the dough length-wise making sure to roll evenly. Pinched it closed at the seam and flipped it over. Now, ATK says to gently stretch the roll out so it is 18 inches long and of "even diameter." Again with the measurements! For this measurement they even went out of their way to say "exactly the right length." Why are they being so picky? Because they want you to cut the roll into twelve 1.5-inch thick slices. Duh. Didn't you see that coming?

Okay, all that is done. My 18-inch roll has become twelve somewhat evenly sized buns. I lined them up in a baking dish, covered, and let them rise again for another two hours. Here they are doing their thing:

Pay no attention to that deformed, very puffy one in the bottom left. He was an end piece and I'm not too sure what happened to him.

After they baked for 20 minutes, and got even puffier and golden, I let them cool just a little bit before drizzling on the topping. Mmmmm, the dough was baked perfectly, tasted great, and the cinnamon-sugar filling had melted into that familiar cinnamon bun sticky ooze. I asked Steve how he liked it, and he said, "are there cloves in here?" HA! No, he didn't ask that. He said, "better than Cinnabon." I should think so.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

It's a bakeday (and Gleesday, but that's not food related)

Will update this post later with results.

On the plan today is to bake two things. The first is a recipe I received from Cook's Country (of America's Test Kitchen) about a week ago. A while back, I noticed a small notice on one of ATK's e-newsletters. This notice was soliciting readers to sign up to become part of the expanded ATK and try new, unpublished recipes at home. Readers were being invited to become part of the testing process. How fun! Of course, I signed up.

I had just been wondering if I was ever going to get a recipe to try from ATK when one showed up in my inbox! They must have ESP. Worried that the recipe would be one using ingredients I don't like, or expensive ingredients, I clicked the link to see what they wanted me to make. Biscuits! Excellent! I love biscuits and they don't cost much to make.

During this week's grocery shopping, I bought the required buttermilk. That's the only thing I needed as everything else was in stock in my fridge and/or pantry. I can't share the recipe here as ATK asks that recipes in the testing process not be published or shared. I can tell you that the official name of the recipe is "cat head biscuits." Weird, huh? Apparently, the name is because when baked, these biscuits are about the size of a cat's head. Which has me wondering, what size cat? Cleo's head is tiny - about the size of a peach - whereas Kitty's head is large - about the size of a small grapefruit. I'll have to hold one of the finished biscuits up to their heads to see which one it resembles.

Will write up results when I actually make the things.

The second thing I'm baking up today is cinnamon rolls. Steve loves 'em, and I've never made them from scratch before, so it will be fun. I always like trying new recipes. After looking through several of my baking cookbooks, I decided to make the cinnamon rolls from the ATK's Family Baking Book. I chose this one because it seems like the best for a beginner cinnamon roll baker. It's very exact and the least time consuming. Cinnamon rolls take a while to make.

In other news, we have been having a pretty ho-hum couple of weeks. I haven't been cooking up anything terribly exciting, which is why you've had so few posts to read. My folks were here a week or so ago. I made chicken piccata, grilled flank (that we only sorta got to eat), grilled sausages w/peppers & onions, cookies n' cream ice cream, choc-choc chip muffins, and orange-blueberry muffins. We ate out at Grimaldi's. We were on the go most of the time, so we had picnic lunches/dinners in order to not break the bank.

Tonight, we shall dine on two-nights worth of leftovers - chicken cutlets, tortellini salad - but tomorrow we will finally try the Schnitzel & Things food truck. Food trucks are all the rage here in NY and in other cities across the country. These trucks are turning out excellent, high-end food from their mobile kitchens. Schnitzel Truck, as I call it, often makes the rounds to our neighborhood and parks on Smith Street at the end of our block. About a month ago, I attempted to purchase food from them but all their cookers (the equipment, not the people) had stopped working. They were here again while the parents were here, and schnitzel wasn't part of our dining plan, so I missed them again. They announced their weekly schedule and they will be back on Smith Street tomorrow night. Can't wait!

Then on Friday, Steve and I are heading out to the city for NY Craft Beer Week celebrations. Our San Diego friend, Matt, works at Green Flash Brewery, and a NY bar (Jimmy No. 43) is hosting the GF brewmaster, Chuck, Friday night. They will be featuring a selection of bottles & drafts of GF brews as well as food. (To see the GF staff, click here for pics.)

The other part of the title of this post is about Glee. The tv show. Not about food. In the first two episodes, the only food has been several slurpees/milkshakes/smoothies/protein shakes, carrot/celery sticks, pb&j, a chocolate chip cookie, virgin cosmos, and a close up of some very clean grapes. I just really like the show. Yes, it's full of over-the-top stereotypes, camp, and satire but the writing and use of music is great. Steve doesn't care for the signing, but he does like the non-PC, vindictive, bull dog of a cheer leading coach played played perfectly by Jane Lynch. "You think this is hard? You should try being waterboarded. That's hard." She steals the show. If you haven't experienced the Glee, go to Hulu to watch the episodes.

Friday, September 11, 2009

9/11 - 1984, 2001, and 2009

A break from the food today.

It's the 8th anniversary of 9/11. It is also my first one back in NY since I left in 2003.

My 9/11 story starts twenty five years ago in 1984. We moved to Governors Island that year. Our historic apartment building faced lower Manhattan. Our playground was in a courtyard that faced the gleaming Twin Towers, which my family affectionately called The Trades. We could also see up the East River and to the west out of our bedroom windows, the Statue of Liberty. I know we visited the Trades while we lived here, but about all I remember from those visits is that the carpet in the high-speed, ear-popping elevators was a reddish-orange color. Being short and a kid, I noticed things at ground level. For the two and a half years we lived there, the towers were always there, looking over our shoulders.

Fast forward to 2000. I moved back to the city at the tail end of August and found a apartment in Brooklyn to share with a roommate. Our building was owned by a local guy, John, who was born and raised in the neighborhood and who still lived there with his wife and daughters, who were around our age. He was retired but had worked stints both in the NYPD and NYFD. We had a small, railroad place (meaning that all the rooms are connected, there is no hallway) that faced north. If we stood up in the windowsills in my roommate's room we could glimpse lower Manhattan. My commute to work was about 35-45 minutes on the F line. Often during my morning commute, the train would be crowded and I would be standing. When I stood, I oriented myself so I could see the Statue of Liberty and the towers as the train pulled around the curve after the Smith and 9th Street station. The view didn't last very long as the train next went underground but it was usually enough of a sight that I would often think that I couldn't believe I was living in NYC.

In 2001, Mom and Dad came to visit me and go to the US Open. We went all over the city. On August 30, we were in the lobby of 2 World Trade Center - the South Tower - to get discount tickets to Cabaret from the Tkts Tkts outlet there. I used an ATM to get cash.

On 9/11/01, I was running early or for once. Not being a morning person, I was frequently a slow mover getting to work. I was standing on the train that morning and it was a gorgeous morning. I took in the view of Manhattan and once again thought I can't believe I'm here and how beautiful the day was. That would be the last time I saw the towers whole.

I had a habit of checking the digital clock on the station attendant's booth when I would get off at my stop in Manhattan. That morning, it said it was 8:46. I hustled up the stairs that exited on the northeast corner of 6th Ave and 16th Street. I saw that I had a walk signal to cross 6th. I started across. I remember there was no traffic coming down 6th. I was about half way across the street when I realized that no one was crossing the street towards me. In fact, everyone on the west side of 6th was standing stock still. No one was moving. They were looking south and up. I glanced that direction straight down 6th Ave. I saw a huge gaping maw in the side up near the top of the north tower. I finished crossing the street. I said out loud to anyone who could hear me on the sidewalk, "what happened?" Someone answered that a small plane had hit the building. I thought, that's not a small plane that did that. There was very little smoke or flame at that point.

Instead of standing there gaping, I turned my back on the scene and practically ran the two blocks north to the office. At 8:46 in the morning, most people haven't arrived to work yet, so I knew it would still be pretty quiet in the office. I met our art director in the elevator. She had also seen the hole but didn't know what had happened. We immediately went into the 6th floor conference room which had a television and a south-facing view of the towers. The smoke was starting to thicken.

The news anchors didn't know what happened either. We kept looking out the south facing window and back to the television. We were still the only people in the conference room. Then, very quickly, we saw a flash of silver as an airplane nose and wing turned and then disappeared on the other side of the south tower. Then there was an explosion that we could see as it blew past the edges of the tower. I was on her left and she on my right and we grabbed each other and said things at the same time like "did that just happen?" and "was that another one?" We didn't know what was happening. Just after that, more people in our company arrived. We crammed up to those conference room windows.

At some point after the second plane hit, I decided to call my parents. They were out in Los Angeles and probably not aware of what was going on yet. Even though it was early out there, I figured they would be up as Dad was probably getting ready for work and Mom has always been a morning person. I called and said, "I'm okay, but you have to get up and turn on the tv to see what is happening in New York." I called them from a spare phone in the adult publicity department as it was closer to the conference room and the other television in the publicity director's office than my office was. I also seemed to have claimed the only phone line out of the office as all others were not going through. While I was on the phone with them, the Pentagon was hit. The towers fell. The other plane in Pennsylvania went down. One of the publicists was crying because she couldn't get through to her husband who worked in the financial district. My parents got calls on their cell phones from other family members checking up on me. I had to hang up to see what we were supposed to do.

Communication in New York that day came to a standstill. Land line phones and cell phones weren't connecting. The Internet was spotty. Not everyone had texting like they do now. Our company's CEO went around to everyone to make sure they didn't have anyone down there or had a place to stay that night if public transportation didn't start running. I think about how close I was to being caught underground in the subway system that day.

A group of co-workers who lived in my neighborhood in Brooklyn were making plans to walk home across via the Brooklyn Bridge before it got dark. It's strange the things that go through one's head during a emotional, scary, and confusing event such as this, but I remember looking down at my feet and being relieved I hadn't put on heels that morning. Right before we were going to leave, news got around that the subways were running again. I decided to take the train home.

The train was full but not packed. I was standing again. The car was silent. No one was talking. No one was reading. Everyone was just sitting or standing there thinking or numb. Near me, some men starting squabbling over a seat. A Jewish Orthodox man intervened and said, "not today guys." They quickly quieted down,and nodded apologies to each other. I don't think the squabble really had anything to do with the seat. The rest of the ride home was quiet.

I got home before my roommate. I hadn't been able to reach her so I didn't know if she was even going to come home or stay with someone in the city. She eventually made it home that night. We never lost power or cable so we were able to continually flip between the news stations - NY1, FoxNews, MSNBC, CNN (gasp!), and all the networks and local channels. The images were incredible. Unbelievable. Beyond comprehension.

We didn't go to work the next day.

After getting back to work, our office collected donations for supplies to deliver to the firehouse on the next block. We also made them sandwiches and took books for their kids. I gave blood. Later I heard that the blood banks received more donations than they could use and some spoiled. We found out that no one in our office lost anyone that day but almost everyone knew someone who had lost someone. A friend of a friend.

Erin and I didn't see John for a long time after 9/11. We had heard from his wife that he was spending all his time working down at the site. He had lost friends. When I moved to NY, I didn't have a place to live, so my parents didn't send out my things until after I was there. By mistake, one of their boxes ended up in my Brooklyn apartment. This box contained miscellaneous items from their garage - flower pots, an old camping tent, an Army blanket, and an American flag. The flag was still in it's box with the pole. I decided to put it downstairs with a note to John and told him he could use and keep the flag. I never saw him or his wife put up the flag, but the next time I left the apartment, it was on the front of the building in the flag holder. Later, when I did eventually see John, he thanked me for it. I asked him if there was anything we could do and he said the flag was enough. We lived in that apartment another year and that flag never came down except for inclement weather. John had lit it with a spotlight so it was even there at night.

For a while after 9/11, everyone wanted to talk about it. The "where were you" story was shared in bars, on subway cars, with cab drivers, and in print. My friend (an boss at the time) Lori and I were in a bar sometime after 9/11. It wasn't a bar we usually went to so we didn't know anyone there. A woman started talking to us. She and her husband were artists. He had taken pictures of lower Manhattan before 9/11 from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. The three of us talked about the events that day. Before we left, she gave each of us magnets. The magnets were of her husband's black and white photograph. In it, a hand is reaching out towards Manhattan. The Twin Towers are there but they are faint, ghostly almost, as they blend in with the sky behind them. It's an eerie image and it's still on my refrigerator.

In October 2001, I went to two concerts at Madison Square Garden - U2 and Neil Diamond. The concerts and music couldn't have been more different but the emotion was the same at each. I flew for the first time in November. I was going to a conference for work. That was the first time traveling with the new security measures. They were checking every carry on by hand at the gate.

I moved from NY in July 2003. After five years in San Diego, I came back October 2008. The city doesn't change. Everything is just how I remember it from when we lived here in the '80s, when I lived here in the early 2000's, except those towers are gone. It took a while for New York to get back to normal. Even today, people still think of terror when something unexpected happens. When the president's 747 buzzed NY harbor, that unnerved and angered the city. People here are still sensitive to the events eight years ago. People think New Yorkers are hard people, and I would agree that they do have hard outer shells. But there are still reminders everywhere of 2001. The subways and buses still have American flag decals on them. Images of the towers are still in restaurants and bodegas. The impromptu memorials that lined the subway station walls at Union Square and fence around St. Paul's Chapel are gone but remain in our memories.

Just like they did in 2001, Mom and Dad were here last week visiting me and attending the US Open. During their trip, we visited Liberty and Ellis Islands. We also visited Ground Zero. In eight years, I had not been to Ground Zero. We started at St. Paul's Chapel. Despite the tour bus crowds, the chapel was quiet. The display they have is moving, difficult, and personal. After we left there, we walked the entire perimeter of the 16-acre Ground Zero. We walked across the amputated pedestrian bridge to the other financial buildings. We looked out onto the site from the Winter Garden. I felt very little looking at the site. It just looks like a construction site now. The Pit is gone, the ramp is gone, and we couldn't get high enough to see the reflecting pool. There were about a dozen cranes working. Mom said that it was a big empty sky now. I told her Bruce Springsteen wrote song called "Empty Sky" about 9/11.

My brother was also here recently. We visited Governors Island for the first time since we moved from there in 1986. We stood in our apartment courtyard and looked across the water to Manhattan. He said he will never get used to seeing the towers gone. That it looks weird. Dad said something similar as we walked along the Promenade going for pizza at Grimaldi's.

I have kept newspaper clippings people have sent me, issues of New York Magazine, the NYT Magazine, The New Yorker, and even an issue of Time. I have a subway and city map that are pre-9/11. I kept a transcript of an on-air statement by Tony Snow. I even have my bank statement that shows when and where I used that ATM. It's all in a large envelope that is in with my important papers.

I'm glad I was here in 2001. To see the city work together, be tolerant of each other, grieve together, and live history together was an unforgettable experience. Recently, I saw that same spirit back in action although on a much smaller scale, when a passenger in my car of the A train started having seizures. The riders reacted to this with urgency, concern, and humanity. There was the real desire to help this person. I also saw strangers - two Jewish grandmothers and one young African-American man - on another train start talking about their kids and grandkids. While no one in this situation needed help, it was interesting and refreshing to see three people talk about people they cared about. When we were riding the 7 trains to and from the Open this year, we talked to people from Queens, New Jersey, Atlanta, and Canada. When Mom and Dad left for the airport, they noticed a young couple at their station clearly going out to the the airport as well. The later saw them at the airport and it turns out they were on the same flight. The world is small and everyone seems to be connected somehow.

When you visit New York, remember that it has taken longer for New York to heal from 9/11 than it has taken the rest of the country. Even though New Yorkers look tough, cool, indifferent, rude, annoyed, in a rush, snobby, or whatever, they still remember the feeling of that day and the days, weeks, months, and years that have followed.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Twood - when Twitter meets food

Welcome back folks. In case a blog isn't ego-centric enough, I just added a sidebar widget that will display my five most recent tweets on Twitter. After signing up for Twitter months ago, I am just starting to get comfortable with it and can appreciate it's good and not-so-good points. I have actually bored of Facebook and use FB just to play WordScraper and the asinine time-waster known as Farm Town. FB is also my virtual Rolodex as so many of my friends there are publishing people and authors. While I'm tempted to close my FB account, I just don't want to lose those connections.

But Twitter is a whole different ball of wax. Most of the people I follow don't know me and I don't know them. There are a good number of people I do know, or at least know about, but most I've never met and probably won't. It's the epitome of anonymity and it's a socially acceptable way to stalk someone. If you're into stalking.

Twitter is a fun and easy way to get tidbits of information quickly and from a wide range of people. Granted, I usually follow people with one of two of my main interests: food and books. But even within those two simple categories there is much variation. I follow authors/illustrators, editors, agents, publishing companies, marketing departments, celebrities, a couple Mythbusters, tennis players, publications, associations, chefs, food people, book people, libraries & librarians, a few friends & family, Brooklyn/NY info, food trucks, trend watchers, a shoe designer, and one teleprompter. Yes, a teleprompter (@BOTeleprompter).

For instance, here are some Top Chef people I follow:
GaelGreene @GaelGreene
Toby Young @toadmeister
Fabio Viviani @fabioviviani
Padma Lakshmi @ThePadmaLakshmi
Gail Simmons @gailsimmons
Top Chef @BravoTopChef
Richard Blais @RichardBlais
Rick Bayless @Rick_Bayless
Stephanie Izard @StephanieIzard

There are more from Top Chef out there but I am choosing not to follow them. That's the beauty of Twitter. You can follow anyone you want. In FB, you have to ask someone to be friends which can lead to awkward situations if one party doesn't really want to be friends, even virtual friends, with the other person. Of course, the flip side of Twitter is that anyone can follow you. You can block people who follow you but that's a little hostile in my opinion. I only block the spambots peddling prescription meds, porn, "outstanding" business opportunities, etc.

Other well-known food people/blogs/publications I follow:
Cookstr @cookstr
Cake Wrecks @cakewrecks
Molly Wizenberg (Orangette) @mollyorangette
Grub Street @grubstreetny
Rocco Dispirito @roccodispirito
Jennifer Heigl @dailyblender
Anthony Bourdain @NoReservations
Mark Bittman @bittman
Michael Rhulman @ruhlman
Bobby Flay @bflay
Ruth Reichl @ruthreichl
Karen Page & Andrew Dornenburg @KarenAndAndrew
New York Times Food @nytimesfood
Epicurious @epicurious
Smitten Kitchen @thesmitten
Dorie Greenspan @doriegreenspan
Bon Appetit Magazine @bonappetitmag
Foodimentary @Foodimentary
New York Times Dining @nytimesdining
Clotilde Dusoulier (Chocolate & Zucchini) @clotildenet
Adam Richman (Man Vs. Food) @AdamRichman

I think that's enough to get you started. There are oodles of food and book people out there and there is no way to follow everyone.

So why do I follow anyone anyway? Because they offer ideas, opinions, tips, chuckles, knowledge, and inspiration in 140 characters or less. And it's entertaining. Usually.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Yo, Jersey. Whatup?

I was in the land of guidos, Sopranos, Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi, Newark, weird smells, and target of SNL's Governor Paterson's wrath. (In this clip he also does a good job at insulting most of NY state, too.) Aren't those things that most people associate with Jersey? I learned that the beach in New Jersey is pretty great. I know the Jersey shore if famous and a popular get-away destination for New Yorkers, but I had never been there until last week.

I went with friends who also happen to be members of the TNTE club. We had the good fortune of staying at a condo owned by the sister of one of my friends. The condo is smack dab on the boardwalk/beach at Point Pleasant. I only stayed four days but would have loved to stay the full week as my friends did. For one reason or another, I needed to come home early.

We cooked, we lounged, we lived in the pool, we walked the boardwalk, we ate out, we played cards, we watched episodes of The French Chef on DVD, we talked, we drank, and we watched the gigantic waves produced by Hurricane Bill. I also got sunburned. It was great fun. I know this isn't all food related, but here is the trip in a few pictures.

On NJ Transit playing Scrabble.

I made lemon poppy seed muffins filled with raspberry jam to take on the train and to have around at the beach house. This is a picture of them. These were quite good and cake-like. I used jam that Steve's mom had made. I'll make more muffins to take to New Hampshire in a couple weeks.

We also played Scrabble on the patio watching the waves.

We got custard from this place Monday night. I had an orange-vanilla twist. Yum.

Here are other sights from the boardwalk. I love that the sign with the hermit crabs is dramatic, over-the-top and edited.

We also played quite a bit of skee ball and redeemed our tickets. We left our redemption coupon at the condo for the nephews to redeem for a prize next time they are there. Believe me, there was plenty of good stuff to tempt us, but in the end we decided we could live without a cheesy pineapple candle or Jersey shore espresso cup.

Walking back on the boardwalk with fried clam and crab cake leftovers.

Gnocci seems like a good place to start

I have so much to tell you about but I'll start with things that I promised updates on last week before I went to New Jersey.

The first and most headline worthy food-related thing I did was make ricotta gnocci using homemade ricotta.

I have made ricotta gnocci only once before. I have made potato gnocci several times. The first ricotta gnocci attempt was okay. The recipe I used called for toasted bread crumbs to be mixed in with the ricotta. This ingredient is supposed to be a binder to help keep the individual gnocci together. But I thought it overpowered the delicate flavor of the ricotta and the gnocci just tasted like toast. Of course, I may have over toasted the breadcrumbs, but whatever. I don't want toast flavored gnocci.

Mario Batali, Mr. Italian himself, has a pretty good and easy enough recipe in his Molto Italiano cookbook. I decided to give it a try. Now, Mario's recipe does not call for homemade ricotta. In fact it calls for "1 1/2 pounds fresh goat's milk ricotta, preferably Coach Farm, or regular ricotta." Hmm. I had never seen goat's milk ricotta the the grocery store. Maybe a place like Whole Foods would have it, but I rarely go to WF anymore as I have Trader Joe's and a basic grocery store very close to home. (But I do LOVE the WF at 2nd Ave and Bowery. It's huge and splendid. It's only 4 subway stops away, so if I do have the yen to go, it's actually pretty easy to get to.) Since I don't have goat's milk ricotta and Mario said that "regular ricotta" - read boring ricotta - would be okay, I decided to use the freshest ricotta I could get - homemade. I knew making ricotta was simple but I had never actually looked up how to do it.

Duh. It's crazy simple.

Here's what you need to do:
1) Warm one gallon whole milk to 185 degrees.
2) Off the heat, add lemon juice (or vinegar) until milk curdles. (At least 1/3 cup of the acid but use more if curdling doesn't start immediately. I started out with fresh lemon juice, but then squeezed in a bit more.) Add salt. Gently stir and then let sit for a few hours.
3) Drain by straining through cheesecloth set in a colander.
4) Set colander in a larger bowl, allowing ricotta to drain further in the refrigerator, at least overnight.

Ta dah. That's it. From my one gallon of whole milk, I got 10 ounces of ricotta. I have no idea if that's the yield I was supposed to get or not, but I think that's a decent amount. It did feel like I was trowing out a bunch of whole milk when I drained it, though. However, it was way short of what Mario's ricotta gnocci recipe needed, so I did have to supplement with store bought. I picked a store bought ricotta that only listed three ingredients: milk, salt, and lemon juice. I avoided the ricotta with other ingredients such as stabilizers.

Now it was time to follow Mario's instructions, which were very easy. The only thing I would change is the size of the gnocci. He instructs to use two tablespoons of dough per gnocci. That seemed a little large to me and took longer to cook, so I'd do smaller ones next time. Overall, this was pretty good but I had difficulty nailing down the cooking time. Gnocci is tricky to cook - if you overcook it, it just turns to mush but if you under cook it, it's doughy. After I took the gnocci out of the boiling water (this had to be done in batches because you don't want to crowd the pot), I put them in a frying pan that had the sauce. We opted to go simple and have an olive oil and garlic sauce. I finished the sauce off the heat with fresh basil and grated parm-reg. The pan frying helped finish cooking the gnocci and gave them a delicious little crust. Mario's recipe didn't include this step but we really liked the flavor and texture the gnocci gained by a short pan fry over high heat. We also reheated the leftovers this way.

And now the pictures! Yes, I documented the ricotta and gnocci making process with Steve's help.

1. Milk warming
2. After lemon juice was added, milk curdling.
3. Draining the ricotta.
4. Gnocci dough before I mixed it.
5. Rolled gnocci.
6. Gnocci hands.
7. Finished.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Much to catch up on

But I don't have time to write right now. It's already 10PM and I haven't packed for a three-day minimum trip to the Jersey shore. Yikes.

When I get back, here is what will be covered:

-making ricotta & ricotta gnocci
-pizza success again
-new recipe: lemon poppy seed muffins from Dorie Greenspan's Baking
-Top Chef: the new season has started and Masters concluded
-Twitter: food related people/places/things I follow

I even have photos!

See you Tuesday or Wednesday. Have a great weekend.


Sunday, August 16, 2009

Celluloid Julia Love

Julia Child has just been introduced to an entirely new generation of cooks thanks to the yummy film, Julie & Julia. I finally got to see it yesterday, and not since Big Night has a movie made me so hungry. With Big Night I wanted that perfect risotto into which Primo pours his heart and soul. With J&J, I want the boeuf bourguignon or that duck en croute thing she made at the end. Bird stuffed with something delicious, butter, and wrapped in pastry? Yes please.

In my opinion, Hollywood isn't very nice to food. In movies or tv - food shows aside - there is often food, preparation of food, sitting down to eat, or whatnot, but very little eating of food. The food is usually more of a prop in the scene or simply a mechanism for that particular scene. Doesn't Hollywood know how much people love food?

Food is handled a little better in books. My favorite non-food books that describe food are the ones in Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy (All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain). The food is in those stories not because it is essential to the story - they are certainly NOT stories about food - but because it's essential for the characters to survive. It's always simple, hearty, sometimes meager, food of cowboys - beans, coffee, tortillas, or eggs if they happen to be in town. But it makes me hungry and I can smell the beans on the campfire.

In Julie & Julia - both the book and the film - food is a co-starring with Meryl Streep and Amy Adams. I read the book a couple months ago, and thought it was just okay. I liked certain things about it, but I really couldn't stand the author, Julie. After seeing the movie, I still don't like Julie at all. Whiny, depressed, self-centered, not very nice, and fame-seeking Julie is. Julia, however, is impossible not to love. She's warm, smart, focused, fearless, and jolly. Maryl Streep is one of my favorite actresses and I thought she did a very good job portraying another legend. How does she do it so well? I did think she got dangerously close to becoming a caricature of Julia, but managed to reel it in just enough to prevent that from happening. I found myself forgetting it was an actress playing Julia and not Julia herself up on that screen. I loved the all-too-short scenes when Julia's sister (played by the always funny Jane Lynch) and Julie's friend, Sarah (played by 24 favorite and comedienne Mary Lynn Rajskub). I also really liked the Simone Beck role and the actress who played it.

I would have loved to have 2 hours of a Julia biopic rather than the spliced story, but overall I enjoyed it very much. In addition to the appetite I got as a result of watching the movie, I also learned that Paris makes everything more delicious, and copper is obviously the only thing to use for pots & pans. I would love all that copper, but I wouldn't want to clean it.

Tonight, alas, I am not making anything French. Italian actually. After a glut of left overs last week, I did not need to make the ricotta gnocci, so it is on the menu tonight. I made my ricotta a couple days ago (will be covered in another post) and tonight I will actually make the gnocci and cook it. Shouldn't take too long. The lemon vinaigrette for salad is already finished. And the Dutch baby, well, that might be dessert.

The Dutch baby kills me

I just finished up my second attempt at a Dutch baby (aka German pancake). I don't get it. It's a very simple recipe and ingredient list. I used the correctly sized cast iron skillet this time. I used pretty strawberries and free-from-mold raspberries, and nada.

Unlike the first try, in which the sides puffed up correctly, this one hardly puffed around the sides at all. But the entire thing puffed up. Not dramatically, but enough to be noticeable. It browned on top nicely and I determined it was done even though it did not have that trademark puff.

I was also curious to see if the texture, consistency, and density of this was the same as the first. Yes. It is. I cut myself a wedge while the thing is still piping hot and sure to burn my mouth but I didn't want to wait thinking that if it cooled, it might change the texture.

Still dense. Not as greasy as the last one. I liked the berry combination better this time. But still not fantastic. I'm wondering if there is a misprint in the recipe because it seems like there is far too much butter and that's what's causing the problem.

Needless to say, I don't think I'll make another one. Dutch Baby 2 - me 0.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Mid-week report

I last told you about the dinner menu for the week. Thought I'd give you a progress report on all of it so far.

Sunday night was chicken piccata, one of Steve's favorites. I couldn't remember where I found the recipe when I made it last time, so I used the one from the Bon Appetit Easy, Fast, Fresh cookbook. If my memory accurately remembers the first recipe, then I would say I preferred the one I made Sunday night. I thought it was very simple and the sauce was excellent. It included fresh shallots, which I love, and just the right amount of lemon and capers. I did make a note to double the sauce for next time, though, because Steve "likes it saucy." The chicken was slightly overcooked but not too bad. No picture.

Monday night was more chicken but in a completely format. I have made this panko crusted chicken schnitzel before and we both really liked it. The last time I made it, I also included a lemon, caper, butter sauce and we ate it over pasta. This time, Steve wanted just the chicken part so we made sandwiches out of it. Think Chick Fil-A only better. The chicken was cooked perfectly - nice and crispy on the outside, juicy & tender on the inside - and we paired it with freshly baked brioche buns from one of the several local Italian bakeries in the area. Topped with some may and dill pickle slices. Yum. No picture.

On Monday afternoon, I made a fresh vinaigrette for the green salad we had on the side. Cook's Illustrated Sept/Oct issue has a "foolproof" vinaigrette recipe and variations. Well, foolproof obviously doesn't apply to me. I'm making up the dressing and just plopped in the oil. As soon as I did it, I knew how dumb that was. The whole point of the dressing is to make a nice emulsion, which requires that the oil be whisked in slowly. Duh. Poured this made-wrong-but-still-perfectly-edible batch of dressing into a container and put in fridge. Attempt number two went perfectly and even hours later when we used the dressing, it hadn't separated at all. The dressing I made incorrectly had separated into obvious layers. No picture.

Also on Monday afternoon, I made the Dutch Baby that I saw in the July issue of Food & Wine. (I don't normally buy or read F&W, but I bought it at the airport on my way to ALA. I used to buy Bon Appetit for airplane reading, but as I now have a subscription, I had to get a different food mag.) Dutch Baby was new to me and it sounded tasty and easy to make. The recipe said that Dutch Baby is also known as a German Pancake, which still didn't make it any more familiar to me. Here is the link to the recipe I used. The picture accompanying the recipe led me to believe that this would be a puffy, light breakfast/dessert food. Hmmm. I must have done something wrong because mine looked nothing like the picture. Here is what is should have looked like:

Mine turned out to be sort of right looking. The sides of my Dutch Baby stood up and were nice and puffy. The middle however, was another story. The middle never rose or puffed, and looked like I had offended it somehow. The middle had a dense custard-pudding consistency that sat in the tummy like lead. I also only used blueberries, so mine didn't have the cheery, colorful mix of berries that was recommended. I bought raspberries to use but when I opened them - only ONE DAY after I bought them - they already had a nice growth of black fuzzy mold. (I think they must have been purchased that way and I just didn't check them carefully enough.) Don't get me wrong, the whole thing tasted just fine, but it just wasn't pretty to look at and since I've never had a Dutch Baby, I wasn't sure if the consistency was right. I have poked around online to look at other recipes and photos and actually mine might have been right. Several sites describe it as being fluffy, but others say it has a more of a Yorkshire pudding consistency. Who knows. I'd like to try it again because I may have also made a crucial mistake. The recipe said to use a 10-inch CAST IRON skillet. Of course, I had read that, but when I went to prep a pan, I for some reason grabbed the All-Clad 10-inch skillet. I have no idea why. Between the pan mistake and the vinaigrette emulsion mistake, my head was clearly not in the kitchen on Monday afternoon. The cast iron shape and material might really make a difference, so I'd try this again using the correct pan. When I served this to Steve, he wasn't terribly enthused, but I dolloped on a huge amount of fresh whipped cream and he ate it. It isn't one of our favorite desserts, but it will do until I make something else. No picture of this possible mistake.

Tuesday night was pork tenderloin with pineapple, lime, and chile glaze. This took a little longer than I anticipated to make, but it was pretty good. The recipe asks for TWO pork tenderloins to make FOUR servings. I didn't think this was necessary so we only used one, fairly large, tenderloin. The recipe also calls for red jalapenos. Well, I forgot to look at the produce stand on Sunday for these, and our corner grocery store only sells green jalapenos in pre-weighed sealed packages. I would have happily substituted green ones for red if I could have bought just a couple loose. I didn't need a dozen jalapenos for the two tablespoons required. So we improvised with green Tabasco sauce, chili powder, and a can of green chiles. I don't think the end result was as spicy as it should have been, but it was wonderfully sweet with all that pineapple juice. The pork cooked up p-e-r-f-e-c-t-l-y. We ate slices of pork over white rice drizzled with more of the glaze. Green salad on the side with the dressing I didn't make correctly the day before. I didn't want to buy a six-pack of pineapple juice, or a large 32 ounce container, so I bought two cans of pineapple chunks in juice and used the juice from those to get my cup for the glaze. We ate pineapple for dessert and probably tonight and tomorrow. There is a lot of pineapple in two cans. No picture, do you get the pattern yet?

Tonight, I'm going to make the sweet corn soup. I was supposed to make the gnocci, but I have to first make the ricotta, which I will do today. The ricotta has to drain out in the fridge overnight.

More tales to tell.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Going to be a homemade week

This morning, Steve and I put together our dinner menu for the week. With the exception of breads, I'm going to make everything from scratch. For instance, one night we are going to have ricotta gnocci. I'm going to make the ricotta with which to make the gnocci. Ricotta appears to be extremely simple to make, so why not try it at least once? Other first attempts will be made, including a Dutch Baby (aka German pancake) with berries. Cook's Illustrated also has a recipe in their Sept/Oct issue for a skillet lemon souffle, which I would really like to try, but I've had my eye on this Dutch Baby recipe longer so it will be made first.

We will grill at least one night this week - flank steak with egg salad and Romaine salad with vinaigrette. Homemade vinaigrette. I'm going to try several vinaigrette variations this week for our salads.

Pineapple and lime glazed pork loin, panko crusted chicken schnitzel, sweet corn soup, and chicken piccata round out the week. Actually, the piccata is tonight. Everything is going to be with green salads or other veggies. Pears, berries, and pineapple will also be on hand.

I'll keep you posted on how everything turns out and will try to have pictures, but you know how I am with pictures.

Friday, August 7, 2009

August 6

August 6th is the anniversary of Hiroshima, the day after Marilyn Monroe's death day (8/5/62), and the day before Philippe Petit walked on a tightrope between the Twin Towers in 1974. I also happens to be the birthday of three people I know: My dad's (a milestone age was reached), Amy's husband's Gareth's, and Steve's birthday (also a milestone age). While I was not able to celebrate with Dad or Amy & Gareth, I did celebrate with Steve here in Brooklyn. I invited a few friends to join up at Clover Club for cocktails after work and then we went out to dinner to Chestnut. After that, we came back to the apartment for dessert - Boston Cream Pie.

A couple weeks ago, I asked Steve what sweet he wanted for his birthday and he immediately selected BCP. I've never made a BCP, but good ol' America's Test Kitchen has a recipe for it in their Family Baking Book. While none of the individual components were difficult to make, the total prep time for this cake is long - try 6 hours. Make the cake. Let cool at least 2 hours. Make the pastry cream. Chill in refrigerator 2 hours. Make the glaze. Let that sit 20 minutes before using. Assemble cake. Chill for 2 hours before serving.

Needless to say, I started this creation around 9:30 yesterday morning. Made the cakes first. Beautiful "foolproof" sponge cakes. I weighed the cake pans as I filled them to get evenly distributed batter. When Steve made my birthday cake back in April, I sorta teased him about getting too precise when he weighed the batter between the pans. But as I stood in the kitchen yesterday trying to eyeball the evenness of the batter, I realized he was smart to weigh it. So I got the scale out. The recipe said the cakes should brown a little bit but to remove them from the oven if they pass the toothpick test. My cakes didn't brown at all but passed the test so I pulled them. After I removed them from the pans, I then worried they weren't baked enough.

Since the cakes only have to bake for about 12 minutes, I wasn't able to really start on the pastry cream while they baked. After separating eggs, and prepping the ingredients, the cream came together perfectly. EXCEPT when I broke a cardinal rule of baking - I turned my back on the stove. My two cups of milk were in the saucier coming to a simmer. As any cook knows, milk will look like it's not doing anything for quite a while and then very quickly reach that simmering point. Well, when I turned back to the stove, my milk was just about ready to boil over the edge of the pot. So I ended up with scalded milk. Since I didn't have more milk, I had to use it. I could definitely taste the scalded milk in the cream but hoped that once the cake was put together, the other flavors would cover that taste up.

After the cream was chilling, I cleaned up the gargantuan pile of dishes I had created during these two steps. Then I spot cleaned the apartment because there was a chance that guests would be over in the evening. Got the recycling and dirty cat litter ready to take downstairs later. I also kept one eye on the clock, because I had to leave the house at 3 for an Egmont event which involved librarians & other book people and mint juleps. More on that later. I was going to be cutting it close because I wanted to get the cake assembled and chilling before I left.

Finally got as much done as I could and hopped in the shower around 2. Put on my nice clothes for the Egmont event. Donned an apron over my black dress and proceeded to VERY CAREFULLY whip up the chocolate ganache glaze. After that sat for the required 20 minutes, I assembled the cake. By now it is most definitely 3 o'clock and I'm late leaving the house. But I got the cake together, glazed it, and got it in the fridge. Took off apron, grabbed bag and was out the door. I arrived at the Egmont event just as they were arriving, so my timing couldn't have been better.

The Egmont event was actually the last event on a day-long itinerary. Egmont has a new book coming out this fall by a well-known young adult author. It is historical fiction set in NYC during the Civil War. A key plot point is the draft riots that took place at this time. So, Egmont put together a very unique and special bus tour for librarians and book people that visited historical sites in NY that tied into the plot and story of the book. They also involved a NY Historical Society historian and the author. As my status with Egmont is a bit nebulous, I did not go on the bus tour, but did meet up with the group at their last stop for refreshments. Feedback about the bus tour was glowing and enthusiastic, and it was nice to have mint julep with the group. I left this event close to 5:30.

Scooted home, changed clothes, and Steve got home about 20 minutes after I did. We then went out to Clover Club where friends met us for those great cocktails CC serves up. It was another nice time there. CC is running summer specials 5-7pm on select drinks and bar eats. We ordered deviled eggs, pigs-in-a-blanket, and olives. I think we each had about two very-easy-to-drink cocktails before we decided more food was needed. I had another Moscow Mule, which was served in a freezing cold, old-fashioned, copper and enamel mug. The ice didn't even melt.

Departed the bar for Chestnut. The last time we ate here was during the winter. Chestnut has a very seasonal menu, so there were plenty of new options. There were one or two things that must be popular no matter what time of year it is because those items were still on the menu. There were five of us. We split the entree special - baby back ribs - between all of us. These were very good. Steve had eaten Chestnut's ribs during the Smith Street Festival earlier this summer and really liked them. These were just as good and were rubbed with a somewhat atypical spice blend. We definitely tasted coffee in the rub and tamarind. The ribs were also served with a tamarind sauce and really excellent cole slaw. The overall flavor of the ribs was spicy, a little bitter, a little sweet, and a little smoky.

I also had squash blossoms stuffed with curried chick peas. These were cooked very well, and the filling pleasantly flavored, but the batter could have used some more salt or other seasoning. Overall, these were bland. The second dish I ordered was the chicory, aoli, pancetta, and egg salad. I thought there was a bit too much dressing, but I loved the flavor of it. Chicory is a bitter green but the salty pancetta in the dressing played really well with this bitterness. The egg was a perfectly soft boiled egg, lightly breaded and fried, and then the yolk was injected with truffle oil. D-e-c-a-d-e-n-t to say the least. Reka also ordered this salad. We all marveled at the perfectness of the eggs.

Chestnut is a nice restaurant. We enjoyed the food again. We were able to walk in and get a table without any wait. They have what appears to be a lovely garden lit with hanging lanterns, but they didn't have any tables available out there so we were inside. The temperature last night was very pleasant and sitting outside would have been nice. Chestnut has floor-to-ceiling glass doors at the front of the dining room which were open letting in the nice night air. Service was pleasant but we did encounter quite a noticeable lull between two of our courses. The bill was extremely reasonable. However, three of us did not order entrees but two appetizers instead. Between the five of us, our alcohol order included a bottle of wine, a single glass of wine, a beer, and a cocktail. We did not have dessert.

Dessert was the Boston Cream Pie back at our apartment. Ah, you forgot about the BCP, didn't you? By now it's just about 11 o'clock. Everyone is a little tired, but the siren's cry of cake is too much to resist. After cutting it, all the layers looked right. And we gobbled our pieces up. Delish! Couldn't really tell I had scalded the milk (I could tell). The cake I worried about being undercooked was just perfect. The glaze was rich and tied everything together.

The bottom line is that Steve had a nice time and really enjoyed his cake.

Here are some not-so-pretty pictures of the cake since I forgot to take pictures BEFORE it was cut and devoured.

The unmarred side:

The hacked into side:

I think we'll have an egg white omelet with goat cheese and olives for lunch today. I have six egg whites as a result of the cream only needing the yolks yesterday. Even though the completed, assembled cake was chock full of eggs - 9 yolks, 2 whole eggs, 3 whites - it was surprising low on butter and sugar. Of course, while light on butter, it was heavy on milk fat as whole milk and cream were ingredients. Oh well.

August 6 also happened to be the day that the film crew for Eat, Pray, Love was in the neighborhood. While I didn't spot any celebrities - Julia Robers, Javier Bardem, Viola Davis, Billy Crudup, and James Franco are all listed as being in the film - it was fun to see all the trailers and crew. They appeared to be filming inside the restaurant Robin Des Bois, which Steve and I ate at not long after we moved here. It's very close to the apartment and the movie crew had parking blocked off all down our block, the block parallel to Baltic (Warren), and the block on Smith where the restaurant is.