Thursday, January 29, 2009

CEIMB: Sage Pork Chops with Warm Apple Slaw

This week's CEIMB recipe for Sage Rubbed Pork Chops with Warm Apple Slaw was chosen by my friend Jennifer of Jen B's Cooking Carveout, another one of my work buddies. Yup, we are pretty much just working our way around the 31st floor of the Wachovia (Wells Fargo?) Tower here at CEIMB. We promise we'll stop before we get to 32 -- you'll thank us, really (just kidding, 32! We love ya!).

So I was cooking up the pork chops one night earlier this week when I heard the garage -- David was home! Woo hoo!! It's the most exciting part of the day for all of us! Once again, I failed miserably with meeting the standards set forth in the famous 50s housewife guide for ensuring a pleasant homecoming for husbands: the clutter not cleared; I was not wearing makeup and there was no ribbon in my hair; I was neither gay nor interesting; the children's hair was not combed; I immediately started sharing my problems and complaints; noise was maximized rather than minimized; and I completely forgot to give David a cold drink and suggest that he lean back in a comfortable chair while I remove his shoes. But by gosh, I planned ahead, even the night before, to have a delicious meal on time!

David greeted us happily, even though he could not have possibly felt that he had reached a haven of rest and order. Then he peeled the kids off of himself, walked straight over to the vent fan over the stove, said "PHEW!," and turned the fan onto "high." Oh yeah, nothing says "mmmmm MMMMMMM, whatcha got cookin' for dinner, honey?" quite like making a beeline to the fan to ventilate the smell of dinner out of the kitchen, pronto, upon entering the house. I have a cold and can't really smell anything, but David said that the smell of cabbage and vinegar cooking was no joke. But we remained optimistic that we'd enjoy dinner.

The pork chops themselves had all kinds of potential, but I ruined them by (1) not browning them enough, and (2) overcooking them. Is there anything less appetizing than meat that is not well browned? It just looks so gray and pitiful. David did not think that the pork chops were overcooked, but David was wrong. They were most definitely overcooked. I didn't actually break out the meat thermometer or challenge him to a duel or anything to settle things, but there is NO doubt that those suckers hung out on the stove for a good five minutes too long (BTW, I used boneless, not bone-in, pork chops, and completely lost track of the cooking time when I was called on to break up a fight over who was touching whom. I am sure that the cooking times stated in the recipe are accurate if you actually adhere to the recipe). Other than that, the garlic/sage/salt/pepper rub provided the pork chops with a nice flavor.

But moving on to the elephant in the room: the slaw. The recipe says to make the slaw by coring and slicing a green cabbage, and shredding up three carrots. But if you look closely and read the fine print, it says that you can use a 16 ounce bag of cabbage/carrot "slaw mix" instead. Ding ding ding! "Slaw mix" went onto my grocery list. The slaw gets combined with shredded apples, apple cider vinegar, and salt -- then you turn on the stove, cover the pan, and commence the process of making your entire neighborhood smell like cooked cabbage. After 5 minutes, you add some chicken broth and return the pork chops to the pan to finish cooking (or overcooking, as the case may be).

I really couldn't get past the essential slawness of this dish. I didn't hate it, the flavors weren't bad, but what can I say -- I found myself avoiding the slaw in favor of my Near East couscous. David seemed to like this a little bit more than I did, but at one point, he provided me with some useful feedback that immediately earned a spot in the "damning with faint praise" Hall of Fame: "You know, if I were forced to eat warm, vaguely German-style slaw every day, this would definitely be the slaw I'd want. But I'm glad that I'm not forced to eat warm, vaguely German-style slaw every day." I couldn't have said it any better myself, honey.

So, I think at the end of the day your opinion about this recipe will depend on whether you are a slaw person or not. We are not slaw people and therefore did not care for the slaw part this recipe (loved the pork chop rub, though!). But I bet all you slaw people out there will LOVE this!

Thanks for picking this, Jen! You know how much I love it when I can kill both a blogging group assignment and a weeknight dinner obligation with one stone. I'm glad that we gave this one a try. Fun choice, my friend!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

TWD: Fresh Ginger and Chocolate Gingerbread

I made this week's TWD recipe, fresh ginger and chocolate gingerbread, while I was still reeling from my thorough beating at the hands of the diva eggs. So I was pretty much a nervous wreck the whole time I was making this -- walking on eggshells, talking to the eggs, asking them if they were comfortable, if the temperature was to their liking, if they'd prefer to get mixed to Norah Jones or Kenny G. But these were definitely "Enough about us! What can we do for YOU?" kind of eggs -- I think I could have taken them out back for an egg toss and they'd just giggle and say "you so crazy!"

Because the eggs were so agreeable, and the gingerbread was so relatively easy to throw together, I wish that I had more to give back. Like pictures. Or rave reviews. Unfortunately, I was rushing around while making this, because I had been counting on being able to bring the Berry Surprise Cake to David's grandmother's 90th birthday party, and when that flopped, I had to throw the gingerbread together at the eleventh hour while also packing up our family's belongings like an honest-to-goodness pack mule for our one night, 3.5 hour trip. Therefore, I barely took any pictures at all, and the ones I did get were pretty rushed. Now, after you see them you might think "Wait. I don't see how these are any different from the pictures you post when you actually take time to set up the shot." And to that, I would just say, "Hey! You're right! They're all bad!" But at least I have an excuse this week.

This was my first time making real gingerbread. I like gingerbread, and have made gingerbread cookies before, but not gingerbread gingerbread. This looked like an interesting version to start with. As the name would suggest, it actually contains a generous two tablespoons of fresh ginger (which gets mixed with sugar) in addition to a generous two teaspoons of ground ginger. And if you really want to add a ginger exclamation point, you have the option of adding "stem ginger in syrup" as well, which I did not even consider doing because I was pretty sure that the non-optional ingredients had us well-covered in the ginger department (and pretty sure that I would not be able to find stem ginger in my town anyway).

In addition to the ginger, this recipe contained many of the usual gingerbread suspects -- cinnamon, cloves, brown sugar, molasses -- as well as an unexpected twist: both melted bittersweet chocolate and chopped bittersweet chocolate get added to the batter.

I always melt chocolate in a glass bowl over a saucepan of water. I realize that the microwave would be quicker, but in my family we like to do things the hard way. Take my 4 year old, who puts her shirts on by stepping into the neck hole, pulling the shirt up over her legs and torso and then wriggling her arms into the arm holes via the neck hole. I tell her: "babe, you know, that would be way more efficient if you just pull the shirt over your head -- you'd have a lot less ground to cover that way." And she just looks at me like I have no idea what I am talking about (a look that I expect to become quite familiar with as the years go on) and says, "I do it the way I do it." Well, when it comes to melting chocolate, I do it the way I do it, which happens to be the hard way.

You finish the cake off with a wonderful icing made of bittersweet chocolate, confectioner's sugar, butter and a tablespoon of coffee. And voila! It looks just like chocolate cake! So if you happen to be a chronically overapologizing chocoholic like I am, you can bring this to a party and then spend the whole night apologizing to everyone for the fact that it is not chocolate cake!

Whenever we watch sports on TV, David and I always get a kick out of watching the post-game interviews. The questions and answers are always clichéd, but the enthusiasm of the asker and answerer are infectious:

Reporter (yelling over din of the crowd): This is a big win, Dan. How big is this? Where does it rank?
Dan (also yelling): Oh, it's huge, Bob, just huge.

Anyway, since there were so many family members/tasters at the birthday party, and David's relatives are so much fun, I originally planned to get my sideline reporter on and do some post-gingerbread interviews, along the lines of "Cousin John, you're no stranger to gingerbread. You've been here before. But put this into context for us. Where does this gingerbread rank among your many memorable gingerbread-eating experiences?" Unfortunately, just as I was gearing up to ask John my first question, my internal "Kiddie Destruction" alarm sounded, and in my head I heard one, possibly two, of my children thinking "I wonder what would happen if I hit this Lladró figurine with great-granddaddy's gavel?," so I had to cut off the conversation and say "I must go! A breakable object is in trouble!" As it turned out, I was so busy trying to keep my three little bulls from breaking anything in the china shop that is their great-grandmother's house that I didn't really have the chance to have a real adult conversation with anyone about gingerbread (or anything else). David's cousin's wife did say that she loved it and actually asked me for the recipe, but they just got married last summer, so that might just have been "new to the family" politeness. Give her a year and she'll be brutally honest about other people's desserts just like the rest of us.

I might be projecting my own feelings about this gingerbread onto the crowd, but the overall vibe I got was that people liked, but did not love, the gingerbread. I found it to be VERY gingery. I guess if anything can stand to be very gingery, it's gingerbread, but I would still go a little lighter on it next time. Also, while the chocolate is a nice touch (and I thought the chocolate icing was one of the the best parts of this), as a practical matter I probably won't make chocolate gingerbread again. My hubs doesn't eat chocolate, and obviously classic gingerbread does not call for chocolate, so gingerbread is an obvious non-chocolate dessert option for us. Still, this was fun and refreshingly easy to make, and it totally bailed me out after the Berry Surprise Cake Incident. Plus, baking gingerbread is one of those experiences that has the power to take you to another place, if only temporarily. It is sort of the Coppertone Suntan Lotion of the baking world in that respect. Even though I made this on January 16, the aroma of gingerbread filling my kitchen made me feel like I was way behind on shopping, Christmas cards and wrapping all over again! What's not to love about that? Heather of Sherry Trifle chose the gingerbread this week, and you can find the recipe over at her blog. Thanks, Heather!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Barefoot Bloggers: Easy Sticky Buns and CEIMB: Chicken Cacciatore

The Barefoot Bloggers recipe this week is Ina's Easy Sticky Buns, chosen by Melissa of Made By Melissa. I actually posted about these Easy Sticky Buns back in December, shortly after causing a family uproar by buying myself her new book, Back to Basics, ten days before Christmas. I do crazy things like that sometimes. So if you want to read an old, stale account of these buns, click here. For fresh new perspectives, go here.

The only thing I will add to my earlier post is that these are best eaten fresh out of the oven. Let them cool a little, of course -- those sticky buns suddenly won't seem so easy anymore if you end up having to ice the roof of your mouth -- but definitely plan to eat them within a couple of hours of making them. I found that they got kind of hard as the day went on. I made a full batch (12 buns) for my family of 5. Although we have 5 people in our family, only 3 of us actually eat food -- my husband, my one year old, and myself. The 6 year old and 4 year old subsist on air, ketchup and Flinstones (but somehow miraculously manage to grow anyway). Well, out of the three eating members of my family, I am the only one with a lumberjack-sized appetite capable of eating my share (four) of these twelve buns (I did not eat four buns. But I was capable of it). Therefore, we had a lot of uneaten buns that ended up in the trash once they hardened up. So that's my tip -- calculate the number of real-time bun eaters in your house and adjust the recipe accordingly. These are not good keepers (but oh my, are they ever good out of the oven!)

The Ellie recipe this week is Chicken Cacciatore, chosen by my good friend Peggy over at Pantry Revisited. Peggy is another one of my co-workers -- I can't tell you how much fun it is to have foodie friends at work. We compare notes on the weekly recipes and share things like that pesky quarter cup of wheat germ or a tablespoon of Chambord, always being sure to say something lame like "here's that balsamic vinaigrette you asked for" when handing off hard alcohol. Since I work a part-time schedule, I had kind of gotten into a bad habit of locking myself in my office during my limited time at work, so it's been great to have foodie friends here to keep me from being completely anti-social! In my early TWD days, I emailed Peggy and my other work baking friends from Publix: "Subject: Self-rising flour and cake flour are the same thing, right?" Peggy, bless her, immediately sent me an email back, high-priority, in red and with all kinds of exclamation points that said "SELF-RISING FLOUR IS MOST DEFINITELY NOT THE SAME THING AS CAKE FLOUR, CATHY!!!!!!" Saving me from myself -- it's just part of the job description of being my friend.

Anyway, the worst part of this recipe was that Billy Joel's "Movin' Out" was stuck in my head for the better part of the week that I was thinking about making this/making this. And that just brought up other Billy Joel associations. Now, Movin' Out refers to MISTER Cacciatore, not Chicken Cacciatore, but that was close enough for me. So all week long, my inner dialogue went something like this: "I need to make that Chicken Cacciatore. Down on Sullivan Street, across from the Medical Center. Okay, grocery list, grocery list, grocery list. What do I need for that Chicken Cacciatore again? YEEEEEAAAAAHHHH and he's tradin' in his Chevy for a Cadillacacacacacac."

The Piano Man. Listen at your own risk.

And then my mind drifted to the year that Billy was a speaker at graduation for the class a couple of years ahead of me in college. One of the Jesuits protested vigorously because he didn't like the line "you Catholic girls start much too late" in Only the Good Die Young. Now that I am older, I can think of lots of even better reasons to protest Billy as a college graduation speaker, but at the time, we (the Catholic girls who start much too late) were all like "C'mon, lighten up, Father R!!!"

And THEN my brain shot over to the summer when I was 20 and cleaning out the ice cream case at the Ice Cream and Candy Bazaar on Edgartown Harbor, Martha's Vineyard, MA, and I looked up and THERE WAS BILLY. He and Christie Brinkley (now I'm dating myself) had docked their boat in the Harbor, and Billy came in for a frozen yogurt cone. He was very, very short. I handed Billy his cone, and he said "that's a small?" I tried desperately to come up with something clever, something interesting, something that would make Billy REMEMBER his stop at the Ice Cream and Candy Bazaar. Instead, I said "You should see our large! Love your music." Then he left without leaving a tip. There, now it's on the internet. Take that, Billy!

So anyway, this recipe definitely challenged my powers of focus, which had already been severely compromised since having children, but luckily I was able to pull it all together long enough to make this. Because this was a REALLY FABULOUS dish.

The prep time for this one is pretty quick, although the actual cooking time was longer than I anticipated. But it is that long cooking time that gives it such an intense flavor. Brown the chicken and remove from pan. Add onion and red pepper and cook covered until they begin to soften, then add the mushrooms and cook for 10 minutes. Add garlic and cook for 30 seconds, and then the wine and cook until it is reduced by half. This will deglaze the pan, and I think this is the point at which the flavors of this dish really start to come alive. Then add the tomatoes, oregano, and red pepper flakes and simmer covered for 10 minutes.

The recipe calls for no-salt added plain diced tomatoes. I had some in my basement, but I had these in my pantry:

Since I had heard that a few people were underwhelmed by this recipe, I figured that I'd go crazy and try to amp up the flavor using the seasoned tomatoes. Plus, that saved me the walk to the basement, which seemed fitting given that Billy's warning that workin' too hard can give you a heart attackackackackackack was at the forefront of my mind. I can't imagine that this was enough to make the difference between a "meh" and a "wow!" dish, but I'm mentioning it anyway in case it helps us get to the bottom of why David and I loved this when others did not. Of course, adding extra spices to the plain tomatoes is always an option!

Finally, add the chicken back and simmer covered for another 20 minutes. All told, you're tending to that skillet on and off for close to an hour from the time you start browning the chicken. I think the long cooking time helps the flavors really meld together and produces a beautiful, velvety, intensely flavored sauce. Anthony, Sargeant O'Leary, Mama Leone and the rest of the gang would approve.

We LOVED this. David called it "sneaky spicy" because the crushed red pepper kind of comes at you out of the blue. I halved the recipe because I am tired of throwing leftovers away, and I really wish that I hadn't, because David got up to get seconds and there were none. My sweet Italian grandmother would not have been pleased. When I first brought David home to Connecticut to meet my family years ago, she pulled me aside at one point and said "I like him," and then she got really serious, furrowed her eyebrows and said "You make sure you feed him!" It is like she decided that I finally brought home a boy worthy enough for her to let me in on the Italian Grandmother Secret of the Universe. She would definitely call me back for a refresher course in Feeding Boys if she were here today. Sorry, Grandma. And sorry about the lack of leftovers, David. I'll make more next time now that I know how awesome this dish is.

Many thanks to Melissa and Peggy for these great picks!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

TWD: Berry Surprise Cake, or "Naomi's Revenge"

I would not go so far as to call myself a "diva scholar," but I do feel that I have an above-average understanding of divas and diva behavior thanks to my inexplicable and long-held interest in celebrities. So when Dorie issued the following ominous warning in her recipe for Berry Surprise Cake: "The beautifully beaten eggs are fragile and must be treated like the divas they are," I proceeded with caution, but deep down I really felt like I was ready. Ready for Paris in the pink Parismobile eggs. J. Lo checking into a hotel on any random Tuesday eggs. Linda "I don't get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day" Evangelista eggs. Britney delaying a United Airlines flight because the seats were not leather eggs. Posh and Becks launching his-and-her fragrances in crazy heel-less boots eggs. Mariah hiring a team to towel-dry her eggs. Even George Clooney in a restaurant at the table next to Fabio's camera-toting friend eggs (sorry, Georgie).

But it became obvious, as I assessed my deflated brick of a génoise, that I had woefully underestimated the magnitude of the diva eggs that I was dealing with. These were clearly no ordinary diva eggs. These were the Queen Mother of diva eggs; the diva eggs who teach other diva eggs how to be diva eggs; the diva eggs that would reach waaaaaay back and do this to you if you offend them; the diva eggs that beat up security guard eggs at Heathrow and maid eggs for losing their favorite pair of Stella McCartney jeans. Yes, as I looked at my flopped cake, I realized that my best Berry Surprise Cake-making plans had been thwarted by none other than:

Naomi Campbell eggs. They weren't just diva eggs, they were crazy-as-a-loon-and-mean-as-a-snake-diva eggs, and even as I write this I am still terrified of them.

The really sad thing is that I felt like it had all been going really well. I've got that dry ingredient sifting down like a champ these days. I managed to do the whole "bowl of eggs and sugar in a skillet full of water" thing without injuring myself, making a huge mess, or waterlogging my egg mixture:

I heeded Dorie's warning to Mary Ann and was very careful not to overheat the eggs.

I let the Kitchen Aid go to work on the divas. After a few minutes on medium, I felt like they weren't showing any signs of morphing from Beyoncé into Destiny's Child (i.e., tripling in volume), so I cranked it up a notch. Once they had tripled, I eeeeeeever so gently added half of the dry ingredients. No, strike that. I did not "add" the dry ingredients. I bowed at the altar of the divas and SIFTED half of the dry ingredients onto the egg mixture, so as to not needlessly disturb My Precious. I then proceeded to fold in the dry ingredients and the butter as gingerly as I could possibly manage while still accomplishing the assigned task of getting everything mixed together.

The divas were looking happier than a sunny afternoon on Jay-Z's yacht. I felt in my bones that it was going well.

And then I noticed a flour pocket:

Had to break that baby up. And found another one. Got it. Before I knew it, every time I ran the spatula through the batter, another pocket of flour would appear. What do I do? Do I bake the cake this way and risk having my tasters experience unpleasant bursts of flour with every other bite? Or do I go after the stray flour, thereby risking overmixing? Well, I opted for door number 2, and kept trying to knock out those flour pockets. And the next thing I knew, my previously happy, robust looking batter ACTUALLY HISSED AT ME and started to bubble like witch's brew:

And that's when I knew that I had offended Naomi. At that point, there was nothing to do but duck, and/or turn around and run like hell put the cake in the oven and hope for the best.

A miracle did not occur in the oven, and therefore I was left with what you see at the top of this post -- a thin, dense, sorry excuse for a génoise. I tasted it, and it was edible. I could get a slight hint of how wonderful it would have been had I not ruined it (there were hardened bits of flour in there, however, despite the fact that I flopped the cake in my efforts to eliminate them, which added insult to injury). I had some ambitions to try to salvage it by making the filling and syrup and throwing something together in a parfait glass. But since I had planned to bring this cake to David's grandmother's 90th birthday party over the weekend, I had to use my extra time to quickly reverse course and make something else, because I love David's grandmother and did not want to send her a confusing "flopped génoise" message.

I REALLY wanted this cake to work. I would have tried to make this again if I had the time, because (1) I hate failure, and (2) I have little doubt that it is fabulous when done correctly. On the other hand, the whole experience kind of reminded me of that moment back in my 20s when I had an epiphany that low-drama boyfriends are better than high-drama boyfriends, and I never went back to the high-drama ones again. So I'm kind of having a hard time imagining myself voluntarily standing before the egg divas again and saying "slap me. slap me again. slap me again" when I know that desserts like the truly fabulous (and relatively laid back) cheesecake and french pear tart are out there in the world. With most of my baking disasters, I can go back over the process in my head and identify what I might have done differently, but with this one, I really don't see what else I could have done. I was SO careful, but my eggs simply could not stand up to even the minimal mixing needed to incorporate the flour. But I really can't wait to read other blogs to see everyone else's stunning creations, and hopefully pick up some great tips to avoid a similar outcome JUST IN CASE I do decide to get into the ring with the divas again someday.

Mary Ann at Meet Me in the Kitchen, one of my favorite bloggy friends and a supremely talented cook and baker, chose the recipe this week, and I have a feeling that her cake is going to be a vision of beauty, because her food always is. You can find the recipe over at Mary Ann's blog (and while you are there, check out some of her other creations -- she always chooses really interesting recipes and executes them beautifully!). Thank you for picking this fun and challenging project, Mare! It certainly wasn't boring!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

CEIMB: Beef Tenderloin with Chocolate and Rosemary

This week's CEIMB selection, Beef Tenderloin with Chocolate and Rosemary, was chosen my one of my favorite people, Amanda of Beckett Bakes it. Amanda and I work at the same law firm -- she started as a junior associate in my practice group while I was on maternity leave with my third baby. I remember having the following conversation with my friend Heather shortly before returning to work:

C: So what's the deal with the new chick?
H: She's cool. She seems on the ball, too.
C: That's a relief.

Well, let me just tell you that Amanda has FAR surpassed her hype. She is one of the most all-around talented people I know. I might have to hire her to do my children's baby books for me, because she creates masterpiece scrapbooks, while my attempts at scrapbooking usually result in physical injury and a kindergarten-caliber cut & paste job. When we co-hosted a baby shower for Heather, who was expecting triplets, Amanda taught me how to make a diaper cake.

Three diaper cakes, actually. She was the creative force behind these; I was merely the grunt labor. I recruited my hubs, and together we rolled diapers every night for a week.

David: What are we doing again?
Me: Let's just keep rolling, honey.

My hubs is a completely modern man of the aughts, and a hands-on dad who has changed diapers from the beginning. But to fully understand the point of things like manipulating and assembling diapers so that they look like cakes and can serve as baby shower centerpieces, it helps not to have that Y chromosome.

Amanda is also a great lawyer, and really normal and fun to be around (what??? It can happen!), and therefore she is in hot demand at work. Sometimes I'll get worried about her because I'll know that she's done the assigned baking/cooking for one of the blogging groups she's in, but she won't post. And then I have to go looking for her to make sure that someone hasn't kidnapped her and locked her in a room with the Code of Federal Regulations. Usually it's not something quite that horrific, thankfully.

Well, you can add cooking and baking to the list of Amanda's talents, and she picked a great recipe, Beef Tenderloin with Chocolate and Rosemary, for CEIMB this week. Beef tenderloin, Amanda? I ate Ramen Noodles when I was an associate. Anyway, I ended up going with a sirloin because I could not find a small enough beef tenderloin, didn't have time to wait on the butcher, and didn't want to take out a second mortgage. And Ellie says that any old steak will do!

The sauce is made from a base of red wine, beef broth, tomato paste, shallots, carrots, celery, garlic, thyme, rosemary and unsweetened cocoa (the rosemary and cocoa get added at the end). I put the sauce on David's steak before I added the cocoa, since he doesn't eat chocolate, and he really liked it. I was worried that my cocoa-ed up version would actually taste like chocolate (because it did initially smell like chocolate), but as Ellie promised, it did not. It just had a nice, rich, bold flavor that really complemented the sirloin nicely. My only beef with the sauce (bad pun fully intended) is that it took FOREVER to reduce. Even though Ellie says to make the sauce while the beef is cooking, I would start this sauce LONG before I started cooking the beef (particularly if making steaks), unless I wanted cold or way overdone beef for some strange reason.

I served this with baked potatoes and the green beans, mushroom and shallots recipe from Ellie's book.

The green beans were super easy and really delicious - definitely a keeper green bean recipe. I used pre-trimmed "microwave in the bag" green beans, which made it all the easier.

Amanda, thank you for picking a great recipe for us! I will definitely make this again. It really jazzes up a sirloin, and I can't even imagine what it would do to a tenderloin!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

TWD: Savory Corn(less) and Pepper Muffins

This week's Tuesdays with Dorie recipe, Savory Corn & Pepper Muffins, was chosen by one of my favorite food bloggers, Rebecca of Ezra Pound Cake. I always know to buckle up and put down my beverage before reading one of Rebecca's posts, because it's sure to be a wild, frolicking ride. If I'm having a bad day, I can just re-read her story about her grandmother correcting her mother's pronunciation of 50 Cent's name ("Fiddy, Sherry. It's Fiddy.") and turn things right around. But unlike some other bloggers I know, ahem, who crack jokes because they have nothing else to bring to the table, Rebecca is an accomplished chef, baker, cake decorator, food stylist and photographer. Ezra Pound Cake is the holy trinity of food blogging -- amazing food, great writing and stunning photography. It's the complete package!

Therefore, I had no doubt that Rebecca would come up with the perfect pick for TWD this week. I was immensely relieved to see these Savory Corn and Pepper Muffins after having stopped just short of actually hooking myself up to an IV sugar drip in December. My plans for these muffins were greatly influenced by my New Year's resolutions. Someday, I will resolve to do something clever and interesting, but until then, every January 1st I will commit to shed a few pounds and get organized, like everyone else. And so I've kicked off Project Miniaturization, in which I will attempt to shrink things in my kitchen in 2009, starting with myself. Dr. Phil says (here is where I embarrass myself with my extensive knowledge of what Dr. Phil says) that in order to succeed with your weight loss goals, you need to create an environment that encourages success. What he probably means is that you should ditch things like the weekly online baking club, but I think that you can liberally interpret his advice to mean that you should make mini muffins instead of regular muffins. So that's what I did.

I've also unveiled Project Chaos-Be-Gone, which is a far more complex and daunting undertaking given the current level of chaos in my household. This project has numerous components, most of which are not relevant to the corn muffins, but dealing with the chaos that swirls around mealtimes in my house is at the very top of my list. I want to prepare healthy, delicious meals for my family, but I have finally accepted that I just can't be chopping vegetables at 5:00 p.m. Mostly because as I chop, the littlest love of my life stands at my feet and does this:

Or, if she is feeling independent, she'll go empty out a cabinet or two:

Or chew on one of the scores of teeny tiny Barbie shoes that infiltrated our house this Christmas:

So I have logged many, many hours in the kitchen with my littlest love on my hip, using my one remaining hand to gather things, measure things, pour things, and stir things. But I draw the line at knives. That's just the kind of mother I am. Also, it occurred to me at some point that restaurant chefs don't see an order for fajitas pop up on the screen and then commence with slicing a green pepper. No, the prep is done well ahead of time. Therefore, I decided that a central component of Project Chaos-Be-Gone would involve prepping ingredients for our dinner either the night before, or earlier in the day. And these corn muffins were my first test case.

Things were calm in the early afternoon the day I planned to make these. I mixed together the dry ingredients. Diced the jalapeno and red pepper. Measured out the liquid ingredients. Started the chili that would accompany these muffins. I was feeling quite self-satisfied as I surveyed my lineup of measured and prepped ingredients. How great would it be later on when all I had to do was mix it all together, throw it in the oven, and be treated to fresh, warm corn muffins in a mere 20 minutes? Well, dinner rolled around, and everything went right according to plan. I had the corn muffins in the oven in 5 minutes flat.

Minus the corn, which I forgot. That was the one ingredient I didn't measure ahead of time; I had just planned to get what I needed straight from the freezer at the last minute. But I failed to do one last "recipe check," and since it was depending entirely on my memory and focus, the corn never stood a chance. Apparently my new system results in cornless corn muffins. Back to the ol' drawing board.

While I really did miss the corn in these, I thought these were great savory muffins. They definitely had a kick to them, which I loved. If you need something to neutralize your spicy chili, this might not be your corn muffin, but I was perfectly fine with the heat-on-heat situation that we had going on there. David said that he really liked these muffins as well, but I think that he is a little bit afraid of me after the banana pancake post, so I'm not sure if he is telling the truth. Believe me, I do not want to be surrounded by a bunch of yes-men in my kitchen. I've carefully attempted to assemble a "Team of Rivals" who will critically evaluate my cooking and provide me with candid, constructive feedback. And I've been spectacularly successful with that up until this point; some days people in my house actually line up to offer me constructive criticism, in fact. Which is great, because this is how I'll become a better cook -- so I'd hate to think that I undermined that by going off and being a loose cannon. That said, I really do think that David liked these muffins as much as I did!

On a topic unrelated to corn muffins (but related to TWD), my older daughter just turned 4. I thought that with all of the baking that I do, SURELY I could make my own kid's birthday cake. But for the past 8 months, every time we've entered the Publix bakery section, Elizabeth has begged for this bedazzling spectacle of Disney marketing brilliance:

Yes, that's a cake. And we did get it for her for her birthday party with her friends at the Hall 'o Giant Inflatables. But I still wanted to make her a cake, so I decided to make one for our family dinner on her actual birthday. I found a Wilton castle cake pan that looked like it could be decorated to suit her divalicious tastes, and decided to make Dorie's Perfect Party Cake with Buttercream Frosting. Back in August, right after I first joined TWD, I attempted to make the Perfect Party Cake for my parents' birthdays, and it was a royal flop. The cake did not rise and was not even remotely edible. But this time, the cake did exactly what it was supposed to do:

which I view as a testament to the fabulousness of TWD and all that I have learned from my fellow bakers over the past six months. We loved this cake. And it would be even better as a layer cake with raspberry filling (as is shown in the book). As my son (and helper) pointed out several times as I was decorating this, the cake is not nearly as good as the one in the picture that came with the cake pan (nope, you never need to worry about my ego getting too big), but it tasted great, and my birthday girl liked it, so I'm calling it a success!

Thanks for the picking these fabulous corn muffins, Rebecca! I know that I will be reaching for this recipe whenever I need a little extra heat with my fire.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Barefoot: Banana Sour Cream Pancakes and CEIMB: Fried Rice with Edamame, Scallions, and Tofu Chicken

Thursdays are busy these days, with both the Barefoot Bloggers and the Craving Ellie In My Belly-ers (ites?) posting on Thursdays (which is either the third or fourth best day of the week, depending on who you ask). The Barefoot recipe this week is Banana Sour Cream Pancakes, chosen by Karen of Something Sweet By Karen. I made these for breakfast last Sunday morning. I was really excited about them, because Ina said that Jeffrey crowned these the winner after a day-long pancake competition -- and if they are good enough for the former Undersecretary of Commerce for International Trade, they are good enough for me. Also, there is a restaurant in Charlottesville, VA called the Tavern (slogan: "Where Students, Tourists and Townspeople Meet"):

that serves some incredible banana pecan pancakes -- I always ordered them when I was a student in C'Ville. I loved the idea of being able to recreate banana pecan pancake nirvana in my own home.

The secret ingredients in these are sour cream, vanilla and lemon zest. And bananas, but those aren't really a secret. I added pecans to a few of them because I have a bunch left over from all that Christmas baking, and because I thought that bananas and pecans would help me more closely replicate the authentic Tavern experience (minus the hangover)(just kidding, Mom!) I thought these were wonderful. Light and fluffy, banana-y, nutty. A subtle lemon flavor that adds interest. Perfect! I savored a bite, threw out a casual "well, what do you think?," and then sat back and waited to be showered with praise and adoration:

David: They are good. I like them. But you know me, I'm kind of a "less is more" guy when it comes to pancakes. And cooked bananas -- eh, not so much.

Jacob: Bananas? These have bananas in them? No wonder they don't taste normal!!

Elizabeth: They are gross! (Followed by a stern talking-to about how we are grateful for the food on our table and we do NOT under any circumstances call food gross).

Okay, for those of you keeping score at home: if you like normal food, these are not the pancakes for you; if you are a pancake minimalist, these are not the pancakes for you; if you have not voluntarily eaten anything but chicken nuggets, Betty Crocker fruit treats or Honey Nut Cheerios since late 2006, these are not the pancakes for you.

[Be sure to tune in for next week's episode of "Sunday Morning Breakfast" as Cathy sits on the sofa with her coffee and the Style section and directs everyone else to the boxes of cereal in the pantry].

I will make these pancakes again, because I think they are really great pancakes. I will simply hold the bananas for everyone except Caroline (who gobbled these up, of course) and me. Problem solved! Great recipe!

The CEIMB recipe this week is Fried Rice with Edamame, Scallions and Tofu, chosen by Jennifer of Running With Food. I decided to make this with chicken instead of tofu, because we've never really gotten into tofu. But boy, are we ever into chicken!!

This one is quick and easy. Saute the garlic, ginger and scallions until aromatic. Add the rice, edamame, red bell pepper, corn and tofu chicken and cook for a few minutes. Then the fun part -- make a well in the middle of the pan, drop in a couple of eggs, and scramble.

Well, it was fun for me, anyway. I don't get out much though. Mix it all together and add soy sauce. The only thing I will do differently next time is to play around with the soy sauce. I thought that the straight soy sauce was a bit harsh in the fried rice. Ellie has a great recipe for teriyaki sauce that she uses as a marinade for pork tenderloin. I'll probably try that the next time I make this (possibly making the pork for dinner one night, and using the leftover pork and some reserved teriyaki sauce in the fried rice the next). We really enjoyed this fried rice, though. I've never made fried rice before, but it is so easy; it's tailor made for playing around with the meats/vegetables/soy protein you put in it; and it is very healthy when prepared Ellie's way. This one's a keeper!

Many thanks to Jennifer and Karen for picking a couple of outstanding recipes to kick off the New Year!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

TWD: French Pear Tart

This is a very special week for Tuesdays with Dorie, as the great Dorie Greenspan herself has chosen this week's recipe for a French Pear Tart from her amazing cookbook, Baking: From My Home To Yours:

I've gotten endless pleasure baking from this fabulous book, but even with baking from it weekly over the past five months, I haven't even begun to make a dent in it. There are seemingly endless decadent desserts in here, so to have the chance to make THE ONE picked by Dorie is truly exciting.

I had some important preliminary decisions to make. The crust calls for a 9" tart pan with a removable bottom. I did not have, and could not get in time, a 9" tart pan with a removable bottom, so I had to choose from the following: (1) an 11" tart pan with a removable bottom; (2) a 4 inch mini tart pan with a removable bottom; or (3) a 9" pie dish with straight sides but no removable bottom. I knew that I wanted to make a mini for sure. But I felt that for my first go-round I should go with the pan that was closest in size to the one called for in the recipe, and decided to go with the 9 inch pie dish and serve it from the dish. This way, I'd have an idea about what this thing was supposed to look like before I started winging it with a mini. And seeing as only my hubs and I would be eating it, there wasn't really anyone to impress with my tart de-panning prowess (not that I don't care about impressing you, David). But if all worked out according to plan, I'd still get the full out-of-pan tart experience with my mini.

Next, I had to pick pears -- fresh or canned? Dorie's narrative introducing the recipe suggests that canned pears are not only acceptable for this tart, but the most common choice among Parisian pastry chefs. When one of the world's most renowned bakers tells me it's okay to use canned fruit, I'm going to use canned fruit. That, plus the fresh pears at Publix weren't looking so hot.

Who knew?

I then made a double recipe of the sweet tart dough(without nuts), with the intention of using half of the dough for my 9" tart/pie/thing, and the rest of it for the mini tarts. This is the second Dorie pastry dough I've made -- the first was the Good For Anything Pie Dough. Dorie has the most wonderful and foolproof pastry crust recipes around, hands down. Her instructions explain not only what the dough should look like at various stages, but also note things like how the food processor will start to make funny sounds when the dough is almost ready. As usual, I talked out loud to myself the entire time I was making this. I always assumed that David learned to tune me out years ago. Well, I got to the part where you process until the dough "forms clumps and curds," assessed my dough, and said "hmmmm. I guess I think those look like cumps and clurds." At which point David looked up from whatever game he was watching and said "Whoa, careful now! If you have cumps and clurds, you might end up with a torte instead of a tart." Yup, no doubt about it -- you're definitely the one for me, honey.

Sweet Tart Dough, full of cumps and clurds:

And pressed into the mini-tart pans:

I had lunch with Amanda on Monday, and she said that you know that someone really loves you if they make you a tart, because pressing the dough all the way up the sides and into all those nooks and crannies in the pan is no joke. We agreed that we might have devoted more time than we usually would to these particular tarts, however, trying to make them look pretty for Dorie. Just in case.

I made the almond cream two ways. For my 9" tart, I used Meyer's dark rum instead of vanilla, and unblanched almonds instead of blanched almonds, because blanching them was way more tedious than ehow led me to believe it would be. For my mini tart, I cut the recipe in half and used vanilla and blanched almonds (I found them already blanched at the store -- score one for the lazy chick!)

I made my 9" tart first. Assembling this thing kind of stumped me. There is not a picture of this tart accompanying the recipe in the cookbook, and the P&Q wasn't up yet, so I had a hard time understanding what I was supposed to do with the pears. The instruction reads: "Thinly slice each pear half crosswise. Lift each half on a spatula, press down on the pear to fan it slightly and place it over the almond cream, wide end towards the end of the crust. The 6 halves will form spokes." Now that I know what the tart is supposed to look like, those instructions are as clear as day, but at the time, I just couldn't quite visualize it. It was the same experience I have when I read about the current financial crisis being rooted in "credit default swaps on mortgage backed securities." Even though I read the words over and over again, I just don't quite get it.

And therefore, I did this with my pears:

I suspected that wasn't right because I only used up 3 pear halves rather than the 6 the recipe called for. When I checked the P&Q later, I followed a link to a picture of what the pears were supposed to look like, and I was able to do it the proper way the next day with my mini tart:

I've mentioned before that I've been warned by standardized testers that I should never, ever trust my own instincts regarding spatial relations. Here's why:

I initially eyeballed my mini tart and thought I could fit two pear halves side by side next to each other. No. Not by a long shot. I had to dig out that off-centered pear (which had been intended to be part of a pair of pears) and move it over a couple of inches to become the lone, centered pear.

When I waited tables after college, André, the head chef at the restaurant where I worked, would often stop me in the kitchen on a busy Saturday night and say: "I should have been a pastry chef, Cat. That's where all the glory is." I didn't understand what he meant at the time, because the blackened chicken sandwiches we were churning out seemed plenty glorious to me compared to what I had been getting in the school cafeteria. But now I get it. Glory will come to those who can make a French Pear Tart (I'm still waiting, but any day now, I just know it!) Needless to say, I was completely blown away by these tarts. I've made some amazing desserts with Tuesdays With Dorie, but this tart has now set the new standard against which all other TWD recipes will be measured.

I preferred my mini tart (with the vanilla in the almond cream) to the larger tart (with the rum in the almond cream), but that could have been because there was a much higher pear-per-bite ratio in my mini-tart because I assembled that one the right way, whereas I accidentally skimped on the pears in the big one. Therefore, I thought the dominant flavor in the 9" tart was rum, and if I've learned anything through TWD, it's that I don't like a strong liquor taste in my desserts. David loved them both. Oh, and I thought the sweet tart crust was absolutely phenomenal. If I couldn't have the pear tart, I'd be happy with a dessert of crust crusted crust. I'm thrilled that I still have three mini crusts in my freezer. Now that I have my first tart under my belt, I can't wait to fill the rest of them up! Thank you, Dorie, for your amazing cookbook, for your support of this group, and for choosing this fabulous French Pear Tart for us this week!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Ringing in the New Year with Ina's Pappa Al Pomodoro and Ellie's Cherry Chocolate Almond Biscotti

I hope that everyone had a Happy New Year! We had a great New Year's Eve -- we actually got to go out to dinner with friends thanks to some great grandparent babysitters! We went just late enough to miss the Early Bird Special, but early enough to be able to clear out of the restaurant before the hipsters started showing up, much to their great relief. You know, I have pretty much completely assimilated into my new home state, but the one thing that I have never been able to accept is Central Standard Time. For me, Eastern Standard Time will always be The Real Time. But living in CST totally works to my advantage on New Years' Eve, because I can go to bed at 11:01 p.m., right after the ball drops in Times Square. I once stayed up until midnight to watch some kind of bizarre Central Standard Time ball dropping ceremony, but truly, nobody makes that mistake twice. In fact, I don't even think they do it anymore -- they just replay Dick Clark and Ryan Seacrest (sorry David, but Ryan was definitely there, so I can't just ignore him) at midnight CST. But I have yet to come up with a compelling reason to stay up the extra hour to watch it twice, especially when I feel like we already rung in the new year an hour ago.

But moving on to food! In the "formal" food blogging groups that I participate in, there were all kinds of extensions, exemptions, exonerations, substitions, pardons, and absolutions granted in December, in recognition of the fact that it is an insane month for all of us. Therefore, I am posting one Barefoot Bloggers and one CEIMB recipe today, even though I am not exactly sure if I am early, late, posting the wrong recipes altogether, or still a member of these groups. In any event, I made 'em, so I'm going to take advantage of this unprecedented loosey-gooseyness in the food blogosphere to tell you all about them!

The Barefoot recipe, chosen by Natalie of Burned Bits, is Pappa al Pomodoro, from Ina's fantastic new cookbook "Back to Basics." I posted a few weeks ago that in a moment of weakness I bought this cookbook for myself on or around December 12th, which was an egregious violation of all standards of Christmas etiquette. Well, as it turns out, David's parents had indeed already bought the cookbook for me -- doh! David's mom was very sweet and told me that I could just regift it, but being the greedmeister that I am, I decided to check with Barnes & Noble to see if I could swap it for another Barefoot Contessa book -- and sure enough, I left with a brand new copy of Barefoot Contessa Family Style! Jane, I'm thinking that I swapped out the copy that I bought for myself, and kept the one that you all gave me. I love it -- thank you!

Well, one look at this Pappa al Pomodoro and I knew that it was exactly what we needed after a solid six weeks of extreme gluttony. It is a simple tomato soup, filled with vegetables, flavored with red wine, rich stock, and basil, and thickened by ciabatta bread. Best of all, it is topped with a crispy, savory topping of ciabatta, pancetta, and fresh basil. I loved the soup, but really I could have sat there all night and popped this topping like potato chips. That's okay -- I know that deprogramming will be a slow process.

I had a hard time finding ciabatta, which is a central ingredient in this soup. I never cease to be amazed at the things that I cannot find at grocery stores in this town. As I hunted for ciabatta, I found that I was powerless to stop myself from morphing into that most dreaded of grocery store inhabitants, The Aimless Grocery Meanderer. And while I was aimlessly meandering around the bakery section, I was almost taken out at least twice by that other almost equally dreaded grocery store dweller, the Crazed Bat Out of Hell Race Walker. The risks we take for our art! I finally found ciabatta at a Walmart Supercenter 30 miles away from home (I didn't go that far just searching for ciabatta, I promise).

Well, once I FINALLY had all of the ingredients I needed for the Pappa al Pomodoro, I iced my knees, adjusted my Ace bandage, took a nap, and then got to work on the soup. You start out by sauteing the onion, garlic, carrots and fennel in a pot:

Then you add the ciabatta, cook that for about 5 minutes, and add the tomatoes, stock, wine, salt and pepper. Simmer it for about 45 minutes and make the topping, which just involves mixing up cut up ciabatta, pancetta, and basil on a baking sheet, drizzling with olive oil, and baking for 20 or 25 minutes:

Serve with fresh parmesan. We really enjoyed this soup. It's a light soup, but the bread keeps it from being totally wimpy. Serve it with a green salad and it's a light meal, serve it with grilled cheese and you've got a hearty and comforting dinner. I'll make this one again for sure.

The Craving Ellie in My Belly recipe is Chocolate Cherry-Almond Biscotti, chosen by Leanne of Enjoying My Favorite Things. You can get the recipe on Leanne's blog. The recipe provided me with my first chance to test drive the new toy that Santa brought me:

I love this scale! It's still a total novelty to me, and if you set an item down in my kitchen, I will weigh it. You've been warned.

The dough for this biscotti was pretty dry. I was really afraid that it would fall apart when I went to cut it, but it didn't.

These biscotti are made with olive oil and half whole wheat flour, and kind of have a "rustic" taste to them. I was a little skeptical about the olive oil at first, but I thought these were great! Compared to the way I've been eating lately, these biscotti seemed like an actual health food! It's all relative. I'll make these again -- I think they make a great, reasonably healthy afternoon snack.

Best wishes for a happy & healthy New Year, everyone, and I am looking forward to cooking & baking with you in 2009!
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