Thursday, February 26, 2009

CEIMB: Baked Shrimp With Tomatoes & Feta

Blogger cut me off before I had the chance to finish my post title. Not tonight, Blogger. Here is the complete title of this post:

Baked Shrimp with Tomatoes & Feta, or "Someday, We'll Look Back at that Time that I Dumped the Entire Pan of Baked Shrimp With Tomatoes & Feta onto the Floor, and We'll Laugh and Laugh. But not this day."

Yeah, that's right. Here is what happened to my beautiful, delicious shrimp with tomatoes & feta:

I took the skillet out of the oven by grabbing the handle with one hand (I had an oven mitt on). The skillet was too heavy, or too awkward, or too in the hands of an easily distracted clumsy moron, or something, but I clearly needed to have my other hand on the other side of the skillet and did not. It started wobbling, I couldn't steady it, and it dumped.

To add insult to injury, some of it landed on the corner of the oven door and slid down into the nether regions of my oven, where no sponge, dishtowel, toothbrush or baby bottle scrubber will reach. You know that dinner hasn't gone well when you find yourself standing over the oven door with your hubby saying "I think an Allen wrench will take that door panel right off."

I am not a happy camper.

Funny, when I first started making this, my biggest worry was that David wasn't going to get home from the Cub Scouts meeting with the camera in time for me to take pictures of this. Yeah, a couple of successful efforts with meringue and I get all cocky and assume there will actually be a dinner to photograph. Well, consider me permanently humbled. From here on out, you won't catch me taking one thing for granted in the kitchen.

The good news is that shrimp was on sale at Publix, so I only paid $3 something for half a pound of it. All told, I am only in this about $5 something in ingredients, plus whatever it is going to cost for the appliance repair man to come out and disassemble my oven so that I can clean the tomato and feta off of the inside part of the glass window.

As I was cleaning it up, I tasted some. To paraphrase George "It wasn't IN the garbage, it was ON the garbage" Costanza, the shrimp, tomatoes & feta that I tried were not ON the floor, they were on OTHER shrimp, tomatoes & feta that were on the floor. And it was all un-freaking-believably delicious. After I cleaned it up, David asked me in an upbeat tone what I wanted for dinner, and I barked "NOTHING!!" and stormed downstairs. Because I have an unfortunate tendency to get into "lash out at those I love the most" mode in the minutes immediately following a kitchen disaster. I am now memorializing the incident, i.e. writing this post, which I hope will help me cool down a bit. Then I will go make a couple of nice bowls of cereal for us for dinner.

My great bloggy buddy Pamela of Cookies With Boys chose this dish. I KNOW that it is fabulous because I ate some of it off the floor, and it blew me away, even in my irate state. It's Wednesday night, so I don't have time for a do-over before this needs to get posted. I am definitely going to try this again in the next few nights, and if it tastes anything like my floor sample, it is destined to assume a regular spot in our weeknight dinner rotation.

Great pick, Pamela! I'll make you proud on my next go-round, I just know it!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

TWD: Caramel Crunch Bars

There is a guy in my office I've worked with on several occasions over the years. He is not in my practice group, but our areas overlap every once in a while. Let's call him W. W kind of has a quirky eccentric professor quality about him, and whenever I have a conversation with him, I walk away amused in a "what WAS that?" kind of way. I'll never forget the first time we worked together on a matter, and he started corresponding with me in haiku:

Will they assume lease?
Until we know the status
We will have no peace

Bonus points for working an actual rhyme into that haiku, W. Given that most of my colleagues communicate with me in prose, I wasn't quite sure what to do with this -- but I finally decided that if someone asks you a question in haiku, you should answer in haiku. And so I responded:

They have sixty days
We can't make them go faster
I'll find peace somehow

And so it went. But what started as a couple of nerds just having a good time turned out to be a surprisingly efficient way to communicate. When you have to express your thoughts in a mere 17 syllables, and in a 5/7/5 pattern at that, you really need to think about what you want to say and choose your words carefully. W and I ended up getting a good result in this matter while conducting at least 50% of our communications in haiku. So I know that it IS possible to get the job done without wasting lots of words.

But you'd never know that from my blog posts, which tend to go on and on (and on). That's consistent with most of my communications; it's pretty much the same thing if I leave you a voice mail message, send you an email, or run into you at the grocery store. Facebook routinely tells me that I've run out of characters when I try to update my status -- that's just plain embarassing. But I can't help it; I have a lot of not-interesting things to say in non-succinct ways. But I swore to myself that this week I WILL keep my TWD post short (er, minus this extra long intro), and the only way I can reliably do that is by forcing myself to stay within the rigid confines of the 5/7/5 haiku form. Plus, Sabrina has already shown us that haiku is an acceptable literary form to use in a food blog, so the ground has been broken. So without further delay . . .

Buy one get one free
Way too much milk chocolate
Used lots of it here

Cover KitchenAid
Don't say we didn't warn you
If you get powdered

Here is the batter
I think that it was yummy
But it's been awhile

Spread batter in pan
Will this be like a cookie?
Or more like brownie?

Bars skinny like Posh
Need a little fattening
Chocolate and heath

Now that's more like it
I just made my own Heath bar!
I think I'll dig in

Name says "caramel"
No caramel making, though
Breathed sigh of relief

Crunch bars delicious!
Must get them out of house quick
Too many baked goods

Tried to wrap pretty
To say "We love you, teachers!"
Picture really bad

Another great treat
Dorie has done it again!
I love TWD!

For recipe go
To What's Left on the table?
Big thank you, Whitney!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Cake-O-Rama II: Bill's Big Carrot Cake

David's birthday was coming up, and I wanted to make him a cake as wonderful as he is -- and he's really wonderful! But he makes it hard for me with the not eating chocolate thing. It is so much easier to guarantee wonderful if chocolate is involved. I knew that the Tuesdays With Dorie group had covered Bill's Big Carrot Cake before I joined the group, and I had read numerous rave reviews about it at various points. I asked David if carrot cake sounded good to him, got the thumbs up, and went to work.

The food processor is your friend when you are making carrot cake. Dorie says that you'll need approximately 9 carrots to get three cups shredded. I peeled 9 carrots, but my carrots were apparently hanging out with A-Rod and his trainer in Texas in 2003 or something, because I only needed about 4 to get three cups.

Bowl of flour & stuff sitting next to bowl of carrots & stuff:

Hey, how'd the pot pie filling pictures get in here? Oh wait, no, that's the carrot cake

Ever have a "if I need two pans of a particular size, I have one, and if I need three pans of a particular size, I have two" kind of month? This was one of those months for me. First I had to bake the Devil's Food White Out Cake one eight inch cake at a time, which just seemed inefficient and energy-wasting. Then I had to bake two of the 9" carrot cake layers, followed by the final 9" layer, since I only have two 9" pans. I feel like I am up to my eyeballs in pans here, yet I seem to suffer some form of pan angst every week. What's up with that?

Divide the batter between the three pans. I think that reading Nancy's blog is starting to rub off on me, because in the past I would have just tried to eyeball this. But this time, much as it hurt me to do it -- I actually had to ice my brain afterwards -- I did math and figured out how much batter needed to go in each pan. Two cups per pan. Write it down.

The finished cakes:

Ah, the icing. It will probably take a couple of months off of your life expectancy (stick of butter + block of cream cheese + pound of confectioner's sugar), but it is so worth it. I used light cream cheese, so it probably only took 6 weeks off mine. I was conflicted about adding the tablespoon of lemon juice, because I really liked it without the lemon, and I found Dorie's buttercream that accompanies the perfect party cake to be almost too lemony. But I went ahead and added the lemon, and I am so glad that I did -- it is ESSENTIAL to the fabulousness of this icing!! It was bordering on too sweet before the lemon juice, and the lemon just completely neutralized that sweetness and made this icing. It does not taste lemony, it just tastes perfect. Some of you may be able to improve on Dorie's recipe, but I most certainly cannot, and I will make the icing exactly as written every time.

One more thing about the icing -- Dorie says that "you'll have enough of the classic lemony cream cheese frosting to fill the three layers and cover the sides and tops" -- lies, all lies! I never intended to cover the sides; I was going to follow Dorie's lead and just "fill each layer so generously that the frosting ripples out around the edges when I put the next layer on" but there was hardly even enough for that. No way would I have had enough to frost the sides. I did not take the optional step of adding coconut to the icing though, so maybe that extra coconut volume would have made a difference.

Next time, I will probably make 1.5 of the frosting recipe to get really thick frosting layers. The cake tasted amazing, but I did not feel like I had enough frosting to get those really pretty, thick layers.

Whoa! Getting dizzy! Better leave the artsy photography to others.

The kids wanted to put thirty seven individual candles on the cake, but I did not want to have to get a special permit from the fire department, so I talked them into the numeral candles instead.

They helped him blow out the candles, and then wanted nothing further to do with this cake.

I was so happy with the way that the cake turned out, and the birthday boy loved it, so it was a big success all around. It is definitely the best carrot cake that I have ever had. We still have some left and will enjoy it all weekend.

I brought half of it into work, and encouraged people to provide me with feedback. I solicited negative feedback in particular, since that is usually more interesting, but there was not a negative word to be heard about this. My friends Peggy (whom you all know well) and June both said that they were carrot cake haters, but they tried a piece anyway and loved it -- June said that I made a convert out of her. Wow! I've never converted anyone to anything before, and don't think I haven't tried. My friend Heather said that it was awesome, and she was really glad that I brought it, because she had been worried when she woke up that morning that she might have to go one business day without cake. Don't worry Heather, we bake hard to make sure that won't happen. My friend Marc has been working way harder than should be legal since at least September, and I am afraid that it is starting to show. His review of the cake:

Damn...that's some good carrot cake!! Nutty, yet creamy. Kind of like a conundrum wrapped in an enigma.

Well there you have it! If you've been looking for carrot cake that is not just good, but "conundrum wrapped in an enigma" good, look no further. Dorie has hit another home run.

Bill's Big Carrot Cake
From Dorie Greenspan's Baking: From My Home to Yours

Yields 10 servings

For the cake:
2 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon salt
3 cups grated carrots (about 9 carrots, you can grate them in food processor fitted with a shredding a blade or use a box grater)
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts or pecans
1 cup shredded coconut (sweetened or unsweetened)*
1/2 cup moist, plump raisins (dark or golden) or dried cranberries
2 cups sugar
1 cup canola oil
4 large eggs

For the frosting:
8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 pound or 3 and 3/4 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice or 1/2 teaspoon pure lemon extract
1/2 cup shredded coconut (optional)

Finely chopped toasted nuts and/or toasted shredded coconut (optional)

To make the cake:
Position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter three 9-x-2-inch round cake pans, flour the insides, and tap out the excess. Put the two pans on one baking sheet and one on another.

Whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt. In another bowl, stir together the carrots, chopped nuts, coconut, and raisins.

Working with a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the sugar and oil together on a medium speed until smooth. Add the eggs one by one and continue to beat until the batter is even smoother. Reduce the speed to low and add the flour mixture, mixing only until the dry ingredients disappear. Gently mix the chunky ingredients. Divide the batter among the baking pans.

Bake for 40-50 minutes, rotating the pans from top to bottom and front to back at the midway point, until a thin knife inserted into the centers comes out clean. The cakes will have just started to come away from the sides of the pans. Transfer the cakes to cooling racks and cool for about 5 minutes, then run a knife around the sides of the cakes and unmold them. Invert and cool to room temperature right side up.

The cakes can be wrapped airtight and kept at room temperature overnight or frozen for up to 2 months.

To make the frosting:
Working with a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the cream cheese and butter together until smooth and creamy. Gradually add the sugar and continue to beat until the frosting is velvety smooth. Beat in the lemon juice or extract.

If you'd like coconut in the filling, scoop about half of the frosting and stir the coconut into this position.

To assemble the cake:
Put one layer top side up on a cardboard cake round or a cake plate protected by strips of wax or parchment paper. If you added the coconut to the frosting, use half of the coconut frosting to generously cover the first layer (or generously cover with plain frosting). Use an offset spatula or a spoon to smooth the frosting all the way to the edges of the layer. Top with the second layer, this time placing the cake stop side down, and frost with the remainder of the coconut frosting or plain frosting. Top with the last layer, right side up, and frost the top- and the sides- of the cake. Finish the top with swirls of frosting. If you want to top the cake with toasted nuts or coconut, sprinkle them on now while the frosting is soft.

Refrigerate the cake for 30 minutes, just to set the frosting before serving.

This cake can be served as soon as the frosting is set. It can also wait, at room temperature and covered with a cake keeper overnight. The cake is best served in thick slices at room temperature and while it's good plain, it's even better with vanilla ice cream or some lemon curd.

The cake will keep at room temperature for 2 to 3 days. It can also be frozen. Freeze it uncovered, then when it's firm, wrap airtight and freeze for up to 2 months. Defrost, still wrapped, overnight in the refrigerator.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

CEIMB: Nutty Granola, or "I didn't eat it all, you did."

The first recipe that I made when I joined Tuesdays with Dorie was Granola Grabbers, these really wonderful, spicy granola cluster cookies. Until Amanda told me that she was in an online baking club that required her to bake every week and then blog about it, I had never even heard of a food blog. I did read Amanda's blog, but I did not have a blogger or google identity, so I had to walk down the hallway to comment on it in person, just like in the olden days. So the first day that I ever really sat down and read a bunch of food blogs was on the Tuesday that I posted the Granola Grabbers.

Well, clearly, before I started food blogging I was a troglodyte living deep in Plato's cave. I didn't know that I didn't know. Back then, I had no idea that granola was even something that you could make yourself. I remember reading several posts, many by people whom I now count among my favorite bloggers, in which people wrote about making their own granola to use in the cookies. I thought to myself: "these people MAKE their own granola? Man, they are hardcore."

And yet here I am, six months later, feeling absolutely certain that I will never buy granola again.

Ellie Krieger's recipe for Nutty Granola is super fast. I am positive that it would have taken me double the time to get into my car and drive to buy some granola at the Western three minutes from my house than it took me to whip this together. It is also super easy. I made it once and will remember the recipe forever. And this is coming from someone who sometimes forgets to put on shoes in the morning. And it is amazingly, and I mean A-MAZ-ING-LY, delicious.

Peggy told me that she and her hubs had this for breakfast every morning for days. David and I are not that civilized, apparently -- we just grabbed a handful of it every time we walked past the fridge for the approximately 15 hours that it existed, and then it was all gone. That's when the accusations started flying. David had been home with our one year old for a couple of hours on Tuesday morning. When I got home, I noticed that the container of granola was looking emptier than it had been when I left the house earlier, but that was okay; I was glad that David was enjoying it. Well, when he got home later in the day, most of the rest of it was gone, and we had the following conversation:

D: What happened to all the granola?
C: What? It was almost gone when I got home earlier.
D: I remember there being like half a container left. Were you all just snacking on it? That's okay. I just thought maybe you used it to make those cookies or something.
C: It was practically gone when I got home, there wasn't enough there for cookies.

Obviously neither of us is going to cop to having eaten most of those 9 servings in that 15 hour span. Really, the only bad thing that I can think to say about Ellie's granola is that it is almost impossible to stop eating it.

There is really not a whole lot to say about the process, and for once, I am going to seize on the fact that there is not a whole lot to say and actually not say a whole lot, instead of just jabbering on about something unrelated and irrelevant. You mix everything (i.e., oats, three kinds of nuts, raisins, salt, cinnamon, and maple syrup) in a big bowl, spread it on a baking sheet, and bake it. That's it! I am making my second batch tonight.

The great Leslie from Lethally Delicious chose the granola for CEIMB this week. Leslie, we kinda sorta liked your pick, can you tell?

P.S. There is something kind of funny about the fact that the word "bloggers" gets flagged as misspelled by the Blogger spellcheck.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

TWD: Devil's Food White Out Cake

My hubs and I agree that great beach reads are essential to any good beach vacation. But we could not share a bookbag, because on our annual family beach trip last summer, David brought along this book:

and this one, also by Mr. Life of the Party himself, John M. Barry:

I, on the other hand, I brought along this classic, which I had been meaning to get to for a few years:

and the latest by our law school friend Emily,who had the good sense to quit practicing law and become a New York Times bestselling author instead:

And it goes without saying that you'll never see these toes of mine setting foot on sand without a copy of this:

Yes, I do sometimes feel frivolous sitting on the beach chair next to David, and he does kick my butt in Trivial Pursuit. But particularly since having kids, I really can't handle overly heavy subjects in books or on film, which eliminates most of the world's great literature and the vast majority of nonfiction, at least for the time being. I fell asleep on the sofa in self-defense fifteen minutes into "No Country for Old Men" -- Mr. Creepy Assassin was just too much for me. I just can't read about or watch suffering of any kind without thinking "UGH! That is somebody's CHILD!!!" Really, the worst kind of pain I could handle these days is the pain of somebody who just got reamed out by Anna Wintour for taking too long to come back with the lattes. Especially when I'm recreating. David obviously does not have these hangups (but just for the record, he really is a fun and wickedly funny guy, even though he reads about public health pandemics at the beach.)

Well, just as we agree on "books" but have wildly divergent opinions on "which books" to bring to the beach, my hubs and I agree that "cake" is an essential part of any birthday celebration, but we part ways when it comes to choosing "which cake." Because for my perfect birthday cake, I now need to look no further that the famous Cover Cake itself,

this week's TWD selection, Devil's Food White Out Cake, chosen by Stephanie of Confessions of a City Eater. To me it is everything a birthday cake should be -- dramatic, decadent, delicious, and d'chocolate. But poor David will have to make do with some other, lesser cake, because he gave up chocolate of his own volition back when he was 16, just to see if he could do it. And boy, could he ever!! The man has not had a bite of chocolate in over twenty years, just 'cuz. I wish that this kind of willpower could be bottled and sold, that's for sure. I can't even seem to give up chocolate for a day. Well, we'll just have to find some other cake for David, but for the chocolate eaters among us, this is a veritable dream cake.

As I looked over our completely and pitifully empty jam-packed social calendar for February, it was really hard to figure out how to pull a triple chocolate layer cake occasion out of thin air decide which of the multitude of events was Cover Cake-worthy. David's birthday actually IS in February, but . . . okay, we won't beat that dead horse anymore. Then there is Valentine's Day, but my Valentine doesn't eat . . . nevermind. Of course, there's always President's Day, but as David pointed out, that is already well-celebrated with deep discounts on sofas and mattresses, just as Grover Cleveland would have wanted it. Cake hardly seems necessary. Finally, I remembered that Elizabeth's preschool BFF was coming over for a playdate -- we were out of town for this little girl's birthday party, so I had told Elizabeth that we'd have her over to celebrate. Perfect! Move over, Teddy Grahams and apple juice -- we won't need you at this playdate!

The cake itself came together easily.

Requisite batter shot:

And the cakes:

I was a lot afraid to slice these in half horizontally -- they weren't particularly thick, after all -- but I didn't have any trouble. I was relieved to know going in that one of the four half cakes was going to get crumbled up anyway. That somehow removed approximately 1/4th of the pressure of this undertaking.

Time to make the filling & frosting! This requires heating up some sugar, water and cream of tartar in a saucepan, and then mixing it with some beaten egg whites once it reaches the magic temperature of 242 degrees. I dug into the depths of my spice rack and finally found cream of tartar:

August 2003: my first baby had just turned one, Lil' Kim and Matchbox Twenty were jockeying for the top spot in the Billboard Top 40 countdown, and my cream of tartar expired. Funny how you just don't burn through this stuff until you start baking every week. I sprung for new cream of tartar -- just didn't want to take any chances with the cover cake.

Requisite shot of my candy thermometer sitting in boiling liquid and not budging:

I was worried about this part from the beginning, because boiling sugar is just never easy around here. Personal injury, property damage and/or emotional distress are just part and parcel of the sugar boiling process for me. Dorie does not provide an estimate of how long it should take the boiling liquid to reach 242 degrees, so while I didn't know what to expect, I started to feel like this was not working about 30 minutes into the process when my thermometer was still stuck on 180 degrees. My mind started drifting (close your eyes if you are easily offended) to the store-bought white frosting that I would have to use to put this cake together. But there wasn't really any harm being done in standing there watching the pan boil, so I waited a little longer. And I was shocked when all of a sudden the little thermometer started to creep up! I started beating the egg whites, and when the sugar mixture reached 242 degrees, I added it to them. It worked perfectly! The frosting was delicate, but sturdy enough to hold up to layering, and it tasted great. I can't believe I made it (and can't help but feel like it's a total crapshoot as to whether I'd be able to do it again).

Here is the cake, layered up, before getting doused with crumbles:

Here is the cake after getting doused with the crumbles:

Oops, missed a full quarter of the cake a spot! Funny, I didn't notice that giant bare swath until I uploaded the pictures. I will fess up to having eaten some crumbles, but c'mon. There is just no excuse for this kind of sloppy work.

Here is our little birthday friend checking out her cake.

See those cookies she's reaching for? I had taken some of Dorie's Grandma's All-Occasion Sugar Cookie dough out of the freezer so the girls would have a cookie-decorating activity. Unfortunately, they were definitely more into the cookies than the cake. That's just how things tend to go around here.

Here is the cake cut in half. Not the cleanest cut in the world, sorry:

I sent half of the cake over to David's brother's house. My SIL called me later to tell me that the cake was delicious, and couldn't have come at a better time -- my 11 year old niece had broken her toe just weeks before a big dance event, and my 7 year old niece was feeling sad because the hamster that Santa Claus brought her for Christmas had just lost a brave battle with an upper respiratory infection. I am glad that my cake was able to spread some cheer. (UPDATE: toe is much better and replacement hamster has been acquired.)

This is a really fabulous chocolate cake. This would become my go-to chocolate cake recipe in a heartbeat, but I have to admit that the filling part was pretty stressful. I kind of feel like it was just dumb luck that it actually worked for me the first time around -- between getting the sugar/water to the right temperature, and trying to time the eggs so that they are whipped enough, but not too much, when the liquid reaches temperature, it seemed like this was just fraught with danger at every turn. I wouldn't want to be making this an hour before anyone's party, that's for sure. That said, I enjoyed this cake enough that I will most definitely attempt it again, but not without having an easier frosting in mind as Plan B in case this crazy marshmallow stuff doesn't work.

Stephanie, thank you for finally choosing the cover cake for us! It was so much fun to make, and completely lived up to its hype!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

CEIMB: Sesame-Teriyaki Chicken Thighs

This week's CEIMB recipe for Sesame-Teriyaki Chicken Thighs was chosen by Jessica of Johnstone's Vin Blanc. I was excited to see this recipe picked; I love Chinese food, but don't cook it nearly enough. I just never think to cook it for some reason. When I mentally travel around the world on those nights when I can't figure out what to make for dinner, I usually don't get any further than Mexico or Italy. But the stars definitely aligned for Chinese food this week. It was already on my brain -- I went out for Chinese with some friends on Saturday night. It's funny, when I worked in a restaurant in my early 20s, everyone once in a while a group of women would come in -- they looked old to me at the time, but they were probably just in their 30s -- and you could just tell by the crazed look in their eyes that they didn't get out much and that this dinner was a BIG DEAL for them. We would groan if they ended up in our section, because it was obvious from the outset that they'd be settling in for the night and laughing too loud at their own dumb jokes.

Well, I am now one of Those Women. It used to be that when we went out for one of these twice-annual GNOs, we'd choose the restaurant based on the quality of the food. Then when we got kicked out of the restaurant we'd move to Starbucks, and when Starbucks closed we'd move to either the parking lot or the Whattaburger (with all of the local high school kids) to continue our Very Important Conversation. At that point, the husbands would start calling to make sure that nobody was in a ditch (I am proud to say that my husband has NEVER rung my phone during a GNO -- he knows me well enough to know that I am not in a ditch, but in a parking lot somewhere turbo-talking, and that I will show up eventually). Anyway, all of that transitioning between talking venues was really disruptive to our conversation flow, so we were thrilled when we stumbled upon this Chinese place, which will let us sit there and gab long enough to cut out the need for the intermediate Starbucks stop. Now it's dinner, and then straight to the parking lot or Whattaburger.

So we had a great time at the Chinese restaurant the other night, and dinner was capped off by the best fortune EVER:

"You will do better in real estate than in stocks."

That is like saying "You will do better in third circle of hell than in the fourth circle" -- but hey, thanks for the heads up, fortune.

So I was looking forward to cooking some Chinese this week. These sesame chicken thighs start with THE BEST TERIYAKI SAUCE EVER!!! I am not kidding -- I could drink this stuff through a straw. It is THAT good. It's made with soy sauce, brown sugar, sherry, rice vinegar, garlic, ginger, and red pepper. SO easy, and amazingly good. I've actually made this once before, and since I knew how good it was I doubled the recipe so that I can use it later this week -- maybe in some fried rice, maybe as a pork tenderloin marinade. It keeps in the fridge for a week, so it makes sense to double it.

Marinate the chicken thighs in a half cup of the sauce, for at least 30 minutes and up to 4 hours. I would say "the longer the better" with the marinating. Mine only marinated for an hour or so, and I didn't think they were quite flavorful enough (which was easily rectified by spooning some of the extra sauce onto the chicken before eating it, but still). So I'd change that instruction to say "marinate for at least four hours, or overnight." After they marinate, broil them for 8 minutes per side, and then add some sesame seeds to the top and broil for another couple of minutes. That's it!

David and I really liked these. The teriyaki sauce will most definitely show up regularly in my rotation, even if I use it on chicken breasts, pork and vegetables more than chicken thighs. Thank you for picking this, Jessica -- we loved it!


Also, some of my favorite bloggers have recently passed on some very cool awards to me. And very interesting awards, too! I think there should be separate "blog award designer" awards for the behind-the-scenes inventors of Bloggys. Step up and be recognized, people!

In any event, I never thought that anyone would read my blog when I started blogging. In fact, I remember my poor hubs kind of cringing when I first told him that I set up a blog, presumably because he is well aware of my loose cannon tendencies, but I told him that he didn't need to worry, because nobody was going to read it anyway (note that I could not tell him that he didn't need to worry because I would not be a loose cannon). So to know that people actually read my blog, and like it, is really exciting and flattering. These awards come from some of my very favorite bloggers, which makes them all the more thrilling. Thank you!

Some of these awards might come with rules, but despite carrying on on Tuesday about how I am a rule follower, I am just going to pass these out all willy-nilly like, without any regard for the rules. Yes, it does make me kind of uncomfortable.

Barbara at Barbara Bakes passed on the Kreative Blogger Award:

I am going to pass this on to the wonderful Vibi at La Casserole Carree. My day is always a little bit better for having visited Vibi's blog.

And also to pinkstripes, an all-around talented baker, cook and blogger, and one of my favorite stops.

Melissa at Love at First Bite and Barbara at Barbara at Barbara Bakes shared the uber-cool Uber Amazing Blog Award:

I am going to pass this one on to Pam at For the Love of Cooking. Pam, you have a knack for posting what I am craving for dinner before I even know I am craving it!

And also to Jess at cookbookhabit. I love following Jess's adventures as she works her way through her cookbook collection!

Aggie at Aggie's Kitchen and Michelle at Alwayz Bakin' shared the Butterfly Award.

I'm going to pass this one on to Heather at Diary of a Fanatic Foodie. Heather is a lawyer who is generous with sharing her war stories, both in the kitchen and in the courtroom. Entertains me AND gives me good things to eat = Butterfly Award material.

And to Jessica at A Singleton in the Kitchen for a great blog, and for doing a fantastic job of feeding Dudley while he's visiting. My grandmother would be proud!

Shari at Whisk: A Food Blog shared the Lemonade Award. Award motto: When Life Gives you Lemons, Make Lemonade. Love that philosophy! It is intended for blogs that show "great gratitude and/or attitude."

This one goes to Steph at Obsessed with Baking. I have great gratitude for Steph's blog, because the girl knows how to bake -- I can always go there and know that I will come away with the perfect muffin/cookie/biscuit recipe.

And Katrina of Baking and Boys -- a fun mom with a really fun, really tasty blog!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

TWD: Floating Islands

There is no denying that food associations can be very powerful. Unfortunately, I will always associate crème anglaise, a central feature of this week's TWD recipe, Floating Islands, with getting yelled at. It was the summer after I graduated from college. Life was good. I was living with some friends in a house on Fairfield Beach called the Smoking Bishop. I was working at Onion Alley, a restaurant in Westport, CT, and hanging out with my 29 year old professional snowboarder boyfriend, whom I met at work, and who was just a little bit too cool for me to tell my parents about. Onion Alley had an outdoor "roof deck" where bands would play in the summer, and sometimes I'd work behind the bar up there, serving up drinks in plastic cups. Loud music and beer in plastic cups didn't really "go with the neighborhood" -- Nancy and Audrey know what I mean -- and the nearby neighbors would occasionally call the police when things got too loud. Needless to say, this wasn't a fine dining establishment. Therefore, I always thought it was funny that we (the waitstaff) were supposed to prepare desserts by spreading a thin layer of crème anglaise on the dessert plate, adding some raspberry coulis, and then using a toothpick to draw a little raspberry design into the crème anglaise before plating the dessert. Even back then, I thought "Really? These people just had a tuna melt and fries. I don't think they'll notice if their Mississippi Mud Pie is not bedazzled with raspberry coulis dotted crème anglaise."

Anyway, most of the time I dutifully obliged and would decorate the dessert plates as directed. But there is just no rushing my art, so on busy Saturday nights when I did not have enough time to devote to the design, I would sometimes take it upon myself to skip the crème anglaise, slap the pie on a bare plate, and deliver it in all of its unadorned glory to the customers, who (shock!) never seemed to notice that anything was awry. Well, one night, Anne, the manager on duty that night, caught me walking out into the dining room with some naked desserts. She said "Oh no, Cathy, is the crème anglaise goopy again?" (it had a tendency to get kind of funky). I was completely honest and said "no, I'm just totally in the weeds right now and I don't want to keep these people waiting on their dessert."

Well, Anne threw a little hissy fit right there in the kitchen, grabbed my desserts from me, said "Cathy! If you are going to do something, do it right!" (little did I know at the time that it would be the first of many instances of me not doing things right in the dessert department), and generally made me feel like a complete slacker. Which of course I was. This incident has stuck with me all these years, because as a Seriously Boring Rule Follower, I can remember each and every time that I've gotten scolded in my life. (1) By the lunch lady when I popped a plastic sandwich bag in the lunchroom in first grade and had to stand on the yellow line at recess as my punishment; (2) By my arch nemesis, the Homewood, AL motorcycle cop, who does not count it as a "stop" unless you count to five-Mississippi; and (3) By Anne during The Crème Anglaise Incident. I think that's about it, if you don't count getting flipped off in traffic every once in a while.

Anyway, you know how sometimes you'll wake up with a kind of sick/nervous feeling, but can't immediately remember what is bothering you? This is exactly what it was like for me with these Floating Islands -- I had this vague unsettled feeling from the time I read the recipe, but it took a while for me to identify the root of my uneasiness: OH YEAH!!! ANNE SMITH YELLED AT ME ABOUT CRÈME ANGLAISE IN 1994!!!!!!!!! I think it was that, plus the fact that Dorie expressly says that these are easy, but somehow the "easy" aspect of this recipe was lost on me, what with the precise temperature requirements for the custard, the meringue making, the meringue POACHING, and the fact that caramel was involved.

First, the crème anglaise. I wish I could tell you that making this enabled me to finally break free from the shackles of negative crème anglaise associations, but unfortunately, the entire process gave me fits. I simply could NOT get this stuff to reach the 180 degree temperature. I kept stirring, and it kept getting thicker, but the temperature would not budge above 150 degrees on either my candy thermometer or my instant read thermometer. I turned the temperature up to medium (from medium low). I gave it a good 30 minutes (maybe more). Then I finally bailed. I was pretty sure that it was already too thick as it was, and could not even imagine what it would look like in thirty degrees.

The end result was fine, albeit probably too thick (straining it was quite a job and involved defying some laws of physics) and the wrong color. I did not achieve the beautiful, silken ivory cream that Dorie shows in the picture -- my crème anglaise looked more like "putty" (if it were J. Crew pants) or "bar harbor beige" (if it were a Benjamin Moore paint color). It certainly tasted good, though!

Moving on to the meringues. I read Dorie's very helpful and detailed piece on meringue-making before I began, and was feeling pretty good about the state of my whipped egg whites:

Yup, I was pretty sure that they were just right. But then I had to shape them into "islands." Dorie lists two options for shaping the meringues: the refined "manicured islands" or the more rustic "rocky volcanic islands." After assessing these options against the backdrop of my own skill level, I decided to take the dessert and make it my own by creating "rocky volcanic islands that have been pillaged and plundered by an imperial sovereign:"

Really, nothing about this poaching process was pretty. I'm really glad that there were no witnesses.

On to the caramel. I learned early on in TWD that:

Caramel = not my friend.

In fact, Amanda, who is my friend but who bears 100% of the blame for getting me into this baking/blogging thing in the first place, sent me this message upon learning about the caramel:

Uh oh, Cathy. I just read the P&Q for Floating Islands.... Shari of Whisk was talking about making caramel... :-( Please be careful.

Thank you for looking out for me, Amanda. Any other week I probably would have experienced a bunch of "to caramel or not to caramel?" inner turmoil, but last week was long and tiring, and deep down I knew that I just wasn't up for caramel-related drama in my kitchen. So I cheated and used Smucker's. Please don't vote me off the (floating?) island.

I served the first island to my go-to girl for guaranteed positive feedback:

Her vocabulary right now is pretty much limited to farm animal noises, but she really seemed to love this. She quacked in approval.

I then served one up to my hubs, even though I was still somewhat perturbed at him for nicknaming these "Islands in the Stream," thereby getting Dolly Parton stuck in my head for the next 24 hours. I was REALLY REALLY surprised at how much David and I enjoyed these, given all the trouble I had making them. David took one bite and said, "wow, these meringues really meringued up nicely. It's like biting into a bottle of alka seltzer." At first, those two sentences may seem a bit, um, incongruous, but I was pretty sure that (1) he definitely meant the alka seltzer comparison to be a compliment; and (2) I knew exactly what he meant. All the air that had been whipped into the meringues slowly compresses out when you bite into one of these things, resulting in a not-unpleasant "fizzy" feeling in your mouth. Okay, so maybe it wasn't supposed to do that, but mine did, and we liked it, dammit! The airy meringues and the richer creme anglaise complemented each other perfectly. The Smucker's caramel topped it off nicely (and I can only imagine how wonderful real caramel must have been!) This was a really delicious dessert!

The Floating Islands were chosen by the fabulous Shari over at the really wonderful Whisk: A Food Blog. Stop by Shari's blog for this recipe, and be sure to check out her gorgeous photography and incredible food while you are there (she is cooking her way through the Le Cordon Bleu curriculum at home -- her blog is fantastic!). Shari, thank you for the fun pick!
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