Tuesday, March 31, 2009

TWD: Coconut Butter Thins

Last week was a busy week, and this week's TWD recipe, Coconut Butter Thins, chosen by Jayne of The Barefoot Kitchen Witch (best blog name ever!), could not be a better "busy week" cookie. The dough comes together lightning fast; you don't mess up too many bowls; you don't even have to crack an egg. On the same night I made these cookies, however, I made the poor "busy week" decision of popping in one of my favorite movies ever, the BBC production of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice." That set off a chain of other time/sleep sucking activities, such as watching the five hour BBC P&P again, watching every other Colin Firth film ever made (okay, maybe not EVERY one), reading the book again, watching the Kiera Knightly/Matthew Macfadyen P&P, and chatting with my P&P-loving friends about how much we love P&P.

In one particularly great scene in the book (and the movie . . . and the other movie . . ), Elizabeth tells Mr. Darcy that he is apparently lacking any imperfections, and therefore there is nothing she could tease him about. Mr. Darcy protests, and lists among his faults that "My good opinion once lost is lost for ever." Well, when it comes to coconut, I THOUGHT that I shared Mr. Darcy's sentiments, because my good opinion about coconut was lost years ago, and I had assumed that it was lost forever. But the great Dorie Greenspan has created yet another winning recipe, and one that has caused me to confront my prejudices against coconut head on.

These cookies are simple to make. Mix together flour, cornstarch, coriander and salt in one bowl. Then zest up your sugar in the mixer bowl. Look at this beautiful lime-infused sugar!

Many of Dorie's recipes call for this ingenious technique of rubbing lemon or lime zest directly into the sugar. This apparently releases some of the citrusy goodness (actual scientific term) from the zest. I now do this every time I encounter a recipe that calls for zest and sugar. It really makes a huge difference in bringing out the citrus flavor in a recipe.

Add a couple of sticks of softened butter in with the zest and sugar, and beat for a few minutes. Add in some vanilla, and then the dry ingredients, coconut, and finely chopped macadamia nuts. Put the dough into a gallon size ziploc bag and roll the dough to a 1/4 inch thickness:

My rolled dough filled the entire storage bag, and I think that was actually a little too thin. It didn't affect our enjoyment of the cookies in the slightest, though, nor did it seem to cause any overbaking/browning, even when baked for the full time stated in the book.

The dough needs to chill in the fridge for two hours. I believe this is the point at which I popped in my movie and kissed my to-do list for the week goodbye. Then remove the bag and cut it into 1.5" x 1.5" squares. I used a carpenter's level to ensure both size uniformity and levelness.

Prick the squares twice with a fork. There wasn't any picture of these in the book, so I just kind of guessed.

We enjoyed these for several days, and they kept really well in a Rubbermaid container. Amazing how a metric ton of butter will keep things fresh! But I was distressed to realize that we were down to just two not-very-attractive cookies and I had yet to take a picture. How can I still be forgetting to take pictures of this stuff at this point? You'd think I was baking for my health or my family's enjoyment. Anyway, I scrambled and did my best with "11 p.m. in my kitchen" lighting and a couple of asymmetrical three day old cookies:

Sadly, my best is not very good.

I know that when it comes to these Tuesdays With Dorie desserts, my good opinion is frequently bestowed and therefore not worth the earning. But here we go again! These cookies were truly fabulous. My hubs loved the cookies, and I was happy that there were a lot of them for him to eat, because we TWDers are about to dive head-on into chocolate in a couple of weeks, so he'll be dessert-deprived for awhile. I knew that if I told my kids that these were coconut cookies, they would balk, so I just presented them as "butter cookies," and they gobbled them up. I found the presence of coconut to be subtle and pleasant. If there is a dominant flavor in the cookies, it is butter, or maybe lime. But really, the assorted flavors in these meld together beautifully and create a cookie that is far greater than the sum of its parts. Thank you for picking these truly great cookies, Jayne! I most ardently admire and love them.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Barefoot: Tomato Goat Cheese Tart and Ellie: Chicken with Mango Barbecue Sauce

When you have a library full of cookbooks, as many of us do, it can be really hard to decide what to make. Many recipes look good, but are they really good? Internet recipe sites can be helpful for answering that question; many recipes are online and have been reviewed by numerous cooks. Reading food blogs, of course, is my favorite ways to get the real scoop on recipes -- food that is tested in advance by people I virtually know and really trust? You can't go wrong there. But if ever have to make a really important dinner or dessert, and I need it to be good, I might just ask myself "What would Anne Strawberry pick?" Or better yet, I'll just ask Anne herself! Because since I've been blogging, Anne has chosen at least three recipes that I can think of: Ina's Apple Turnovers, Dorie's Tall & Creamy Cheesecake, and now this week's Barefoot recipe, Tomato and Goat Cheese Tarts, that have made me want to head straight to the highest mountain I can find and give her a loud, echoing shout-out of gratitude.

This tart was simply delicious. Here is a large view of my tart, sideways:

Don't you feel like the sideways orientation really captures the essence of this savory tart? What's that you say? No, it just makes you kind of dizzy? Sorry about that. Last night Blogger started flipping my tart pictures, which had been oriented horizontally, and made them portrait. I tried to outsmart Blogger by going into my pictures and changing them to portrait, hoping that then Blogger would then flip them to landscape when I uploaded, but no, Blogger apparently likes them vertical. Here is the thing about me and technology: it is A MIRACLE that I figured out how to set up a blog by myself, and that I managed to figure out how to upload pictures, underline things, and other basic blogging tasks. My hubs still has to upload music onto my iPod for me. He tries to explain it to me, but I just hear "blah, blah, blah." NOT that he does not explain it in an interesting manner, but I just don't have the gene that makes things like that intuitive to me. So my point is, yes, I have mastered the technical basics of blogging, but it is still very precarious, because if Blogger doesn't want to work correctly for me, I'll never be able to figure out how to fix it. It will just have to fix itself, or I'll be posting sideways pictures forever. Sorry!

Well, back to the tart. It is fabulous. It is made on frozen puff pastry, and the pastry puffs up beautifully around the tomatoes, basil and goat cheese filling. This is super easy to make - saute onions, garlic, add white wine, thyme, salt and pepper. Roll out the puff pastry and trace two 6 inch circles on each sheet (I cut the recipe in half and just made one sheet). I just scrounged around until I found a plate that was about the right size -- no need to go out and buy a compass or anything. Score a half inch border, and fill inside of the border with the onion mixture, herbed goat cheese, and a slice of tomato. Brush the tomato lightly with olive oil and top with fresh basil, salt and pepper, and a few shards of fresh parmesan. Bake 20 to 25 minutes until the pastry is puffy and browned. I used a few plum tomato slices rather than one larger tomato slice because that's what I had, but the good thing about a recipe like this is that the tomato will get roasted, which brings out the flavor in even a sub par grocery store tomato. Of course, I can't wait for the farmer's market to open so that I can make this with really delicious tomatoes -- even better!

David and I really enjoyed this. I think I loved it more than he did, but his nature is more reserved in general than mine is, and he tends not to gush over things as effusively as I do when I love something. So maybe he did love it as much as I did, but just showed his love differently (i.e. D - "This is really good!" as opposed to C - "OH. MY. HOLY. LORD. (puts fork down dramatically) Can you even believe this tart? I can't even believe this tart. *sigh* I love Ina Garten. I love Anne Strawberry. This is the most amazing thing I've ever eaten. Ever! Do you hear me? Ever!"). In any event, this would be perfect for a special luncheon, or, in our case, a regular ol' dinner. Oh, and with the leftover pastry (there was a lot of it!) I sprinkled sugar and cinnamon, rolled up, sliced it into pinwheels, and baked. Great treat!

My great bloggy friend Aggie of Aggie's Kitchen chose the Ellie recipe this week, Chicken with Mango Barbecue Sauce. Blogger apparently thought that these worked just fine horizontally and kept them that way, even though I uploaded them at the same time as the tart pictures.

This is another really easy, gushworthy recipe. This barbecue sauce is FABULOUS!!! The roster of ingredients is long, but it comes together quickly: onion, garlic, red bell pepper, molasses, Worcestershire sauce, allspice, salt, pepper, red wine vinegar, lime juice, tomato sauce, jalapenos, and, of course, mango. Look at how colorful and pretty this is, pre-blending:

I just used my immersion blender (how did I ever live so long without one?) to mix it all up in the saucepan -- so much easier than transferring it to a separate blender! Mine had more of a salsa-like consistency, which I loved, but I could have pureed it longer to get more of a barbecue sauce consistency. What a combination of flavors!! It is sweet, tart, fruity and spicy all at the same time, and it totally WORKS. If I closed my eyes while eating this, I could almost imagine myself sitting on a balcony overlooking the beach -- it just tastes summery and delicious. I served the chicken with roasted vegetables and brown rice, and the next day turned the chicken, vegetables and a little mozzarella into quesadillas, with the sauce on the side. Equally delicious. This one will be a regular in our house. My whole family enjoyed this.

Thank you, Aggie and Anne. We thoroughly enjoyed both of these recipes, and I'll be making them again and again!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

TWD: Blueberry Crumb Cake

Sihan of Fundamentally Flawed chose this week's Tuesdays with Dorie recipe, Blueberry Crumb Cake. I wanted to make this one as soon as I saw that Sihan had picked it, because I love a good crumb cake, and I had a hunch that this one would be great. And Dorie promises that it is "easy to find an occasion to serve it -- breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner or snacktime will do." It doesn't get more versatile than that!

My problem is that I tend to dive into things without really thinking through the consequences of diving in at that particular moment. Do I have the time to complete the task? Do I have the necessary resources? Am I in a position to give the project my full attention? Will undertaking this project now cause me trouble down the road? Heck if I know! But there is usually only a minimal time lapse between me deciding, for example, that I should really clean out my garage, and my garage being completely emptied out. And only then do all of the reasons why now is not a good time to clean out the garage come to light.

Well, I wanted to make this crumb cake in a major way, and a Saturday morning breakfast seemed like the perfect time. So on a whim I just dove in one Saturday and started measuring things and mixing things while the kids swarmed around me wanting/needing things (but in a good way!). Measure brown sugar, wipe a nose, wash hands, measure flour, change to different Max & Ruby because we just saw this one, add salt, or did I already add the salt?, pull toddler out of pantry, chop some walnuts, pull pony hair accessory out of toddler's mouth, zest a lemon, break up fight over who is blocking whose view of the TV (which, despite all of its hype and promise, is a really useless babysitter). Honestly, it's a wonder I don't screw things up more.

Well, somehow I got everything mixed up; I spread the batter in the pan; and I topped the batter with the crumb topping, which, incidentally, I overmixed. See?

No matter, I figured I'd just break it up while I put it on the cake. Anyway, so my cake was completely assembled and ready to go into the oven, when I suddenly realized that I forgot the vanilla. I panicked. I feel like vanilla is one of the more important teaspoons in many recipes. My mind raced back to my Christmas cookie baking, when I forgot vanilla in some chocolate cookies I was making, and they were horrible -- I had to trash them.


(a) baked the cake without the vanilla and hoped for the best
(b) scraped the topping off the batter, dug out the batter and put it into a bowl, and tried to mix in the vanilla back in without turning my cake purple
(c) I would not be in your shoes, you dumbass

Well, seeing as I am as cool under pressure as John Roberts administering an historic oath of office, you just KNOW that I opted to disassemble my cake and try to mix in the vanilla after the fact.

Oh yeah, not really the effect I was going for. That said, my four year old took one look at it and said "it's purple! I want to be a purple fairy when I grow up!", ran out of the room, and returned as a purple fairy:

I'm glad my cake inspired someone.

The problem here is that not only was my cake purple, but I am sure that the vanilla was not fully and evenly incorporated, because once it started changing colors, I chickened out. Anyway, nothing to be done at this point but to put it all back together again and bake it:

Well, I am pleased to report that this is a very forgiving cake. We thought it was delicious, and in fact, once it baked it was not even overly purple (as you can see from the picture at the top). The crumb topping absolutely made the cake. In fact, the topping was so good that David noted that there was a little bit of a Seinfeldian "top 'o the muffin to ya!" quality about it -- it was so amazingly good, that the cake was in some danger of being relegated to "stump" status. But it would really not be fair for us to judge the cake since I left out the vanilla. And we agreed that the cake was really, really good, topping or not. I will make this again -- I will just proceed in a more organized fashion next time. Thanks for the great pick, Sihan!!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Ellie: Greek Style Stuffed Peppers

This weeks recipe for Craving Ellie in my Belly is Greek Style Stuffed Peppers, chosen by The Healthy Hostess. I was excited to see this pick, because I just haven't stuffed nearly as many foods as I should have by this point in my life. There was the "turkey stuffing incident" in college, the year that my housemates and I stayed on campus over Thanksgiving, prepared Thanksgiving dinner together, and invited our parents to join us. There was a little controversy when our housemate K stuffed the turkey with (among other things) an orange. Lis -- I'm a little fuzzy; fill in the gaps for me here. I think that K woke up early that morning to stuff the turkey and get it in the oven. When the rest of us slackers rolled out of bed around noon, K started telling us about how she prepared the turkey, and mentioned that she stuck an orange in there. Someone (might have been Lisa -- Lis?) said "YOU PUT AN ORANGE IN THE TURKEY?" and the whole thing kind of escalated from there, with K saying "WHAT?!?! You can put a lemon in a chicken but you can't put an orange in a turkey?" Of course, now that I'm food blogging, I know that people stuff all kinds of crazy things in turkeys -- kumquats, Stonewall Kitchen jams, you name it -- but back in the days of Lucky Charms for dinner, an orange seemed pretty out there. I guess K was a visionary and we didn't even know it.

Then less than a month later we almost got into a brawl trying to pick out a Christmas tree at Bruno's Tree Farm -- we all had very different ideas about what a tree was supposed to look like. Bruno finally had to intervene, in his thick Hungarian accent, with "girls, girls, girls! It's not the tree . . . it's the idea!!"

I am pretty sure that David did not have these kinds of issues with his college roommates. There is a Mars/Venus division here, I'm sure of it. But my housemates and I all love each other and have stayed very close over the years, in the way that you tend to do with people you've done battle with over things like the proper citrus fruits to stuff in turkey orifices.

Anyway, peppers seemed like a great thing to stuff -- no sticking your hand up a turkey's butt required, right Katherine? As usual, Ellie's recipe was super easy. Cut the red peppers in half. In a big bowl, mix together lean ground beef, frozen chopped spinach (I used fresh), grated zucchini, onion, bulgur wheat, an egg, oregano, salt and pepper. Stuff the pepper halves with this mixture, and top with stewed tomatoes and feta cheese. Bake covered for 30 minutes and uncovered for 45.

Ellie discusses bulgur wheat in some detail in the narrative that accompanies this recipe, and I really wanted to use it, but I knew that locating it in this town would require a little more effort that I felt like expending on a Tuesday night. Nobody will ever go out of their way to tout the health benefits of Near East couscous, but it had "ready in 5 minutes!" and "in my pantry!" going for it, so that's what I used.

Here they are before going in the oven -- one side stuffed, the other side stuffed with tomatoes on top:

These stuffed peppers made for a hearty dinner. David seemed to really like them. I was sort of "meh." I felt like the stuffing needed a little more flavor. I think next time I'll add some feta right into the beef mixture. I liked the bites in which I got a little feta the best. I told David that I was a little surprised that he liked them so much, and he said "well, it's all about your expectations. I would never order stuffed peppers in a restaurant, for example, so I am pleasantly surprised by how much I like them." I think that was a nice way of saying "your peppers have managed to exceed the very, very low expecations that I set for them." But regardless, I am glad that he liked them!

Even though I didn't love them, I would make them again with some additions or modifications. These were fun to make -- I love expanding my food-stuffing horizons! So thanks for the great pick, Healthy Hostess!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

TWD: French Yogurt Cake

I think that if you have small kids in the house, chances are you are going spend a lot of time pretending. On any given day, I might be a jedi knight, a Disney princess of some persuasion (I try to be one of the less helpless ones), a scurvy pirate, an evil queen, a nice queen, grand duke, prince, fire breathing dragon, ballerina, all of your major zoo animals, and a house pet or two. I feed cheerios to pink and purple stuffed animals:

And get breakfast for three children and the occasional baby doll:

Sometimes my four year old will assign me my favorite role of all, "sleeping big sister." I can pull off Sleeping Big Sister like Meryl Streep herself. The role has lost some of its appeal to me, though, now that the game usually involves said four year old getting into Sleeping Big Sister's ear and yelling "TIME TO WAKE UP BIG SISTER!!!!"

Given that I am in pretend mode a lot these days, I guess it is only natural that sometimes when I bake, I get lost in the process and find myself daydreaming; pretending that I am a French pastry chef, effortlessly whipping together brilliant creations that wow everyone who has the pleasure and good fortune of tasting one. Unfortunately, my little daydream is often cruelly interrupted right around the time I find myself cutting the burned edges off of my dessert:

Or serving my cake with a perky, "now, you might want to stick with the ends, because it could be a tad raw in the center."

Yes, once again I had some issues with a dessert that is supposed to be so easy that even the non-baking French (non-baking, according to Dorie, only because there are fabulous pâtisseries on every street corner) bake this regularly. However, I think my troubles (burnt edges and undercooked in the upper center portion of the cake) can be traced to the fact that I used a pyrex pan and did not make any adjustments to cook time or oven temperature. Next time I'll use a different pan and see if I can eliminate these problems. But I think that it's a testament to the fabulousness of this cake that we adored it even despite these minor issues. In fact, I'm usually downright cranky for at least thirty minutes after I experience any kind of burning/overcooking/undercooking/not rising/cratering/dry texture/physical injury/fire alarm/broken equipment issues with my baking. But this time around, I snuck a piece of my crust while trimming off the burnt edges, and knew immediately that this was a special cake. No need to get into a funk -- we'll just eat around the bad parts and savor the rest!

The cake was wonderfully easy to make. Flour, ground almonds, baking powder and salt get whisked together in one bowl; sugar and lemon zest, plain yogurt (I used 2% Greek yogurt), eggs, and vanilla get whisked in another. Add the dry ingredients to the sugar mixture, and then fold in some canola oil. That's it! The oil and the yogurt combine to make this a fantastically moist cake. The zest of an entire lemon infuses the cake with a dreamy lemon flavor -- I felt like one bite of this cake was far more reliable indicator than Punxsutawney Phil that spring is right around the corner.

The cake was supposed to get topped off with a glaze made of lemon marmalade. Lemon marmalade? Not in this town. I ended up making a simple glaze out of lemon juice and confectioner's sugar, and it worked great on the cake. It added a little extra lemon zing right where you needed it the most (in my case, on that somewhat burned top portion).

We all LOVED this cake. My one year old in particular could not get enough of it. Since crossing the 1.5 year old mark, she has gone from your average, run of the mill one year old menace, who did things like become one with my oregano

into a bona fide Super Menace. Her favorite games are (1) run down the concrete driveway laughing while my mother chases me and visualizes my wipeout; (2) reach up on the counter for knives or scalding hot pans; (3) climb up on the sofa that floats in the middle of the family room and try to flip over the back. Anyway, Super Menace managed to make her way outside when my yogurt cake photo session was in progress.

Here she is, going in for the steal:

And running off with my cake:

{David, while I'm thinking of it, we should see about getting that deck a good pressure washing}

This cake is perfect for so many occasions. As I was savoring every last bite, I was thinking "I'm making this to bring along if we travel for Easter." "I'm making this if we stay home for Easter." "I am totally making this for my sister's baby shower." "I'm making this because it's Thursday and I want it." I think it is the perfect spring cake. It has a definite lightness to it, even though it is not particularly light (although it's not bad, as far as this cake-baking thing goes). It's a happy cake. I was happy making it. We were all happy eating it. I'll be happy to serve it, again and again.

Thank you, Liliana of My Cookbook Addiction for this great pick! Be sure to check out Liliana's blog for this recipe. And go ahead and buy Dorie's book

for this and a couple hundred other mindblowing recipes. You know you want to.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Ina Garten's Chicken Piccata and Ellie Krieger's Fish Tacos with Chipotle Cream

It's another Thursday double header today, with the Barefoot Bloggers taking on Ina Garten's Chicken Piccata, and the Craving Ellie in my Belly group cooking up Ellie Kreiger's Fish Tacos with Chipotle Cream. I was a bad, bad Barefoot Blogger in February and failed to post either of the February recipes. I actually made the Real Spaghetti and Meatballs (late) but never got around to posting it (I'll cut out all of the extraneous content that would have been in my post and just say that it was great!). The other February Barefoot recipe was Meringues Chantilly, which really sounded wonderful, but ever since January I started to feel like my days were looking like this: wake up, brush teeth, get kids breakfast, run around all day, make dinner, whip egg whites, go to bed. I felt like I had to take some steps to return egg white whipping to its proper place on my schedule; i.e., an event that takes place no more than quarterly. So I hated to miss that one, but I will be sure to try it sometime down the road!

But I vowed to do better this month, and I've started the Barefoot month off right by making Ina's Chicken Piccata, which was chosen by Lindsey of Noodle Nights and Muffin Mornings. This is a simple dish. It does involve breading chicken, which I rank right up there with making meatballs and squeezing frozen spinach as my most dreaded kitchen tasks. While I am an omnivore, I really hate manhandling raw meat. Touching uncooked meat makes me momentarily reconsider my omnivorous habits, but I just try to keep my eyes on the prize and get those babies in the skillet as quickly as possible. The breading assembly line, which included one dish for the flour/salt/pepper mixture, one for the egg/water mixture, and one for the seasoned bread crumbs:

After browning the chicken in the skillet, move them to a baking sheet and finish them off in the oven. I really like this technique. I often have problems with burning the outside of the chicken when I try to cook it through in the skillet, and this method helped me avoid those problems.

The chicken was delicious on its own, and even my kids liked it. But it's the lemon butter sauce that transforms your dinner from "chicken" into "chicken piccata!"

Ina says to use 1/3 cup of lemon juice, or the juice of two lemons. Well, two of my lemons yielded a little more than 1/2 cup of juice. I decided to give greater weight to the "juice of two lemons" part of Ina's instructions than the "1/3 cup lemon juice" part, probably because I am coming off of a recipe (for lemon cup custards) in which the general consensus was that you could stick a whole lemon tree in there and it still wouldn't taste lemony. As it turns out, that was a mistake -- I should have stuck with 1/3 cup, unless I was also going to increase the amount of butter and white wine proportionally. My sauce was a little bit TOO lemony. I think the goal is to achieve a nice balance between the lemon, wine and butter, but the lemon definitely overpowered in my sauce.

I served the chicken piccata over angel hair, and we really enjoyed it, although again, it was a little too lemony. But this is an easy and flavorful dish that I will make again. I'll just keep in mind next time that this is not a lemon cup custard, in which eggs lie in ambush waiting to suck the life out of any other flavors that dare step onto their turf; it's chicken piccata, and with this chicken piccata, anyway, more is not more when it comes to lemon juice.


I was really excited to see that that Sara from imafoodblog chose Ellie's Fish Tacos with Chipotle Cream for CEIMB this week. One of my new year's resolutions is to cook more fish, and this looked like a simple, non-scary recipe to start with. I think that fish tacos are readily available in many regions (Ellie mentions California), but I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I have never had a fish taco. Also, something about saying "fish tacos" makes me laugh. They remind me of "fish sandwiches," which also makes me laugh, probably because David can do a dead-on impression of the classic line from the old SNL sketch, the Ladies' Man: "Hey sweet thang, can I buy you a fish sandwich?" and every time he does it, it's as funny to me as the first time I heard it.

I really don't need lots of different jokes. The same three or four over and over again work for me. That doesn't bode well for the future of my blog, but it does keep me eminently entertainable with minimal effort on the part of my family and friends, which I view as a plus. So while David does have lots of very funny stuff up his sleeves, he knows that if he is feeling lazy one day, he can just break out the fish sandwich line without ever having to look up from the paper, and I'll be good to go.

Back to the fish tacos. I am happily married, but back in my single days, I could have totally gotten picked up if someone offered to buy me one of these fish tacos. As with many of Ellie's recipes, they offer big flavor with minimal effort. You marinate the fish (I used tilapia fillets from the Publix fish counter) in a simple marinade of olive oil, lime juice, salt and pepper, and then grill them for a few minutes, until they are cooked through. Flake the fish before filling the corn tortillas, and serve them with corn, lime wedges, sliced lettuce or cabbage, and a seriously delicious chipotle cream, which is a very simple mix of plain nonfat yogurt (I used nonfat Greek yogurt), a couple tablespoons of mayonnaise (I think lowfat would be fine), and a couple of teaspoons of minced up chipotle chile in adobo sauce. The finished product is good enough to hold its own with fresh salsa and guacamole in any chip dip contest. It is fabulous on the fish tacos, and we finished it off tonight with some chicken, black bean and veggie quesadillas. It was great with those, too!

I can't think of too many dinners that are faster to throw together than this one, but these tacos are delicious and satisfying enough to serve guests as well. I feel like I am saying this a lot about Ellie's recipes lately, but this one will most definitely be assuming a prime spot in our regular weeknight dinner rotation.

Lindsey and Sara, thanks for the great picks! We ate well this week thanks to you!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

TWD: Vanilla Bean Cup Custards, or Mildly Sweetened Hard Boiled Eggs with Black Pepper? You Be the Judge.

Sometimes things just aren't as easy as we think they will be. Take the story that our good friend Bill tells of his attempt to grab some lunch on New Year's Day, 2000. He had been up late ringing in the new millennium, and was feeling the need for some old fashioned greasy food. "Easy" was of paramount importance at that moment, so Bill did the easiest thing he could think of: he got into his car, drove up to the drive-thru of that mecca of quick and easy greasy food, Burger King, and attempted to order lunch for himself and his wife, Suzanne:

Bill: Hi there. I'd like two regular cheeseburgers and two small fries, please.

Burger King Guy: Ain't got no buns.

Bill: Excuse me? There's some static out here. It sounded like you said that that you don't have any buns.

Burger King Guy: Ain't got no buns.

Bill: Okay. I'm going to pull around and come inside.

{Bill goes into Burger King, where he has the following conversation with Burger King Guy}

Bill: Hey there, sorry, it was a late night. Did you really tell me that you don't have any buns?

Burger King Guy: Yeah.

Bill: This is Burger King. What do you have that I can eat if you don't have any buns?

Burger King Guy: Whopper.

Bill: I thought you said that you don't have any buns!

Burger King Guy: Ain't got no cheeseburger buns. Got Whopper buns.

I don't remember how Bill and Burger King Guy ended up solving the no cheeseburger buns problem that day -- Cheeseburger on Whopper Bun? Whopper on Whopper Bun? Bunless Cheeseburger? All I know is that Bill got into his car that day assuming that lunch would be easy, and it was not. easy. at. all.

Well, just as Bill thought getting a burger would be simple that day, I began this week's TWD recipe for Lemon Cup Custards thinking that they were going to be pretty easy to throw together, because (1) they call for a mere four ingredients, and (2) Dorie says in the intro to the recipe that "custards don't come simpler than this one." Sure, there was that little voice in my head that said "Floating Islands! Floating Islands! Remember how the French think that they are simple, but they were very much not simple for you?" But honestly, if I listened to all of the naysaying voices in my head, I'd never do anything. So I dove right into the custards, believing in my heart of hearts that they would, indeed, be easy.

I first asked David to read the recipe and the various playing around options and tell me which one sounded good to him. He chose the vanilla. Since I was only making a half recipe, and therefore only burning through a little over a cup of milk, two eggs, and a quarter cup of sugar, I decided that rather than using vanilla extract, I would splurge and buy some real vanilla beans to use in the custard. I visualized my silky smooth custard dotted throughout with beautiful vanilla beans from Papau New Guinea. Something not even a little bit like this:

Yes, it does look a little bit like someone sneezed while shaking the pepper shaker. The last time I saw something that looked like that, I was in freshman year bio looking through a microscope at the contents of a petri dish. How did I end up here? Let's review.

I scraped my vanilla beans into the milk, threw the pods in there as well (which Dorie suggest that you do when infusing milk with vanilla) and brought the milk just to a boil. Then I took it off the heat, covered it, and waited 30 minutes for the vanilla beans to work their magic.

I whisked together the eggs and sugar until well blended, just like I was supposed to. Then I slowly added a little hot milk to temper the eggs. So far, so good. No curdling in my bowl. I strained the remaining milk into the eggs while continuing to whisk. There appeared to be vanilla beans throughout the bowl -- hooray! I poured the custards into three teacups, set the teacups in a roasting pan, and filled the pan halfway with water.

I worried about spilling the water and thereby further destroying my oven, which is still reeling from Shrimp Incident '09 and its aftermath (which involved mindboggling amounts of broken glass when the handyman tried to take it apart so I could clean it), but that part all went fine, thankfully.

Dorie says to bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until they jiggle only in the center. I set the timer for 40 minutes and went off to get the kids into bed. I did not even think about the custards again until the timer went off after 40 minutes. Well, apparently my oven is running hot these days, because by the time I got there, it was evident that I had missed the "jiggly only in the center" stage by a long shot. My custards were not only not "jiggly in the center," they were, I kid you not, the Jessica Biel of spoon desserts, i.e., not jiggly anywhere. Which is great for you if you are Jessica Biel, but very, very bad if you are a custard. Because this is what happens when you stir up a not-jiggly-anywhere custard:

Several times I've made a dessert and thought "Now, this is one fugly dessert. But I bet that Kim, if given the chance, could make this look pretty." Well, between the pepper, er, vanilla bean clusters, on the top, and the shiny chunks of overcooked dairy products, I finally think I churned out a dessert that even Kim couldn't save. Kim?

The custard was edible. It definitely tasted eggy to me, which is not necessarily a problem, but it really needed a stronger vanilla flavor. I wish that I added some vanilla extract, or used the whole vanilla bean (I only used half), or both. But the texture was the dealbreaker for me. I guess it most closely resembles a flan, which will never be among my favorite desserts. David thought the custard was pretty good. He agreed that the flavor was pretty weak, and said that "it really seems like more of a palate cleanser than a dessert." And seeing as we don't really do palate cleansing courses in our house, I am not seeing this custard filling a gaping need for us. But I love trying new techniques, and this is definitely not a recipe I would have chosen to make myself. So I'm really glad that I tried it! And who knows, if I added a little more vanilla and didn't cook it as long, it might have been a completely different dessert.

Bridget of The Way the Cookie Crumbles chose this week's recipe. Thanks for a fun pick, Bridget!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Festa Italiana: Risotto with Wild Mushrooms and Peas

Two fabulous, fun and talented bloggers, Marie of Proud Italian Cook, and Maryann of Finding La Dolce Vita, are hosting the blog party to end all blog parties, Festa Italiana:

I am so there! I come from half Italian stock, so I know that any party hosted by Italians will be a raucous good time, and the food will be the star. My mother's parents were both from Italy. My grandmother was born in Nola, outside of Naples, and came to the U.S. when she was five weeks old. Apparently she was a premature infant, and I heard this story about her trip over on the boat many times:

"I was so small, they had to put me in a shoebox in front of the oven. My head was the size of a grapefruit."

As she got older, she embellished a little bit, which only made me love the story even more:

"I was so small, they had to put me in a shoebox in the oven. My head was the size of an orange."

I have to admit that the part about them putting her IN the oven concerned me a little bit, but seeing as she grew up healthy as an ox and lived on her own until she was 93, I guess the makeshift neonatal care worked out okay in the end.

My grandmother was an amazing cook, and she loved us by feeding us. She took great pride in her cooking, and nothing made her happier than watching the people she loved enjoy her food. When I think of her, I can still see her beaming whenever I told her that her cookies were the best ever, or that the meatballs were even more incredible than I remembered. She never got to meet my two youngest children, which makes me really sad, but whenever my mother and I watch my one year old chow down, we always tell her "Great Grandma would LOVE to watch you eat." I think of her all the time when I cook. She would not like the mess I make in the kitchen, and she would tell me so. And I don't remember her ever hurting herself or breaking anything when she cooked, whereas this is at least a weekly event for me. But we are forever bonded by our love of cooking, and I think of her almost every time I'm in the kitchen.

My contribution to Festa Italiana is Tyler Florence's Risotto with Wild Mushrooms and Peas. When I asked my hubs what he wanted for dinner on his birthday, he said "risotto." I don't know what I was expecting, but it wasn't risotto. But hey! I couldn't have been happier, since I love risotto and am always game for trying a new version. Tyler says that this particular version "is a great dish to serve on a Sunday night when The Sopranos come on. It's classy and understated." We found that it was also great on a Wednesday night when Wow Wow Wubzy came on. Just in case you were wondering.

Tyler suggests using assorted mushrooms in this, such as portobellos, crimini, and chanterelle. I used a mix of mushrooms and went heavy on the baby bellas:

They are not particularly wild, but I love them anyway.

Like most risottos, this one was easy to make. Risotto gets a bad rap for requiring constant stirring, but I've never found that to be necessary. Yes, it needs to be stirred frequently, but you can leave it for a minute here and there to go do something else, which is imperative in my house (and the reason why it should be against the law for me to make caramel).

We loved this! It was creamy, earthy, and delicious. I think that it was a worthy birthday meal. I might make it again on my birthday, in fact.

It's not to late to join the party! Marie and Maryann are receiving party guests through tomorrow, March 9. Go here for more info.

Marie and Maryann, thank you for hosting this fun event. It's been a blast!!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

TWD: Chocolate Armagnac Cake

I have to admit that I was more than a little bit dubious when I first read the recipe for this week's TWD pick, Chocolate Armagnac Cake. I loved the fun story behind the cake, of course -- Dorie was fired from her first real professional kitchen job for swapping out the whisky and raisins in the restaurant's wildly popular chocolate cake with armagnac and prunes, which Dorie calls "the world's most misunderstood fruit." Well, I'm not proud of it, but I will stand up and be counted among the world's prune misunderstanders. It seems like any fruit that is most commonly mentioned in the context of ". . . it comes in a blue bottle, and if that doesn't work, try some prunes" is just begging to be misunderstood.

So I wasn't really fired up about the prunes, but given the great story behind this cake, I wanted to stay as close to Dorie's subversive version as I could. Therefore, I reluctantly settled on prunes pretty early in the process. Unfortunately, I could not get Armagnac; in fact, my liquor store guy had never even heard of it, which is sort of like the hardware store guy not knowing what needle nose pliers are. In spite of this, I will continue to patronize this store for all of my bizarre cooking liquor needs, because the proprietor is friendly, eager to sell me the airline-sized bottles rather than going for the up-sell, and willing to not recognize me no matter how many times I go in there, which helps alleviate my Catholic guilt over being in the packy in the first place. With Armagnac being a no go, I settled on an orange-infused cognac:

which I figured could also be used to make a killer margarita sometime.

So I procured the key ingredients for this cake, but I was really worried that the prunes in particular were going to distract from the chocolatey goodness of the cake. I tend to get easily distracted when something/someone has a really distinctive characteristic that you wouldn't expect that thing/person to have. For example, I have an old school friend who bears an uncanny resemblance to Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He was a really cool guy (still is, I'm sure) -- fun, interesting, witty -- but whenever I found myself in a conversation with him, he would be talking away and I would just stand there thinking "you look exactly like Flea." Which would cause me to miss most of what he said. So I was worried that the prunes would be to this chocolate cake what T's resemblance to Flea was to T.

The new chocolate and peanut butter?

And, of course, nothing is ever easy around here, so I had a couple of speed bumps on the path to making the cake. I made a shrimp dish for dinner the night I made the cake -- the same shrimp dish that I dropped earlier in the week -- and this time I did not drop it, but I did burn really inconvenient parts of my hand when I grabbed the skillet handle (which had been in the 400 degree oven) with my bare hand after setting it down on the counter. That made things like holding a knife or stirring anything rather painful. Then I realized that our long lighter was out of fluid, so I couldn't set the prunes on fire. So I made a grocery list and asked David to run to the store for me. I love that this man doesn't even bat an eyelash anymore when I tell him I need a few more things in order to make my cake, and hand him a list that reads:


In fact, he will usually be proactive and say "okay, are you sure that's it? You're all set on vanilla? Gauze?"

Time to make the cake! Not many dry ingredients in this one - just 2/3 cup of ground pecans, 1/4 cup of flour and a little salt. But Dorie wastes no time getting the ol' adrenaline pumping, because once that stuff is all mixed together, it's time for the pyrotechnics! The prunes get cooked in a little water to soften them up, and then add the liquor to the pan and ignite. I was nervous -- for years I operated under a no-flambé rule in my kitchen. While my hubs is very supportive of my passion for cooking, I think he has witnessed one too many "incidents" over the years to be able to feel really good about the idea of me taking a match to highly flammable substances around high heat sources. But I ended up setting some brandy on fire in conjunction with coq a vin a few months ago, and while it did produce spectacular flames that scared the hell out of me, no harm was done, so the flambé moratorium was lifted.

This time, I experienced an odd combination of disappointment and relief when my prunes burned in a decidedly non-spectacular manner:

It clearly did what it was supposed to do -- it burned a low, blue, contained flame in the pan for several minutes. It was kind of like watching Britney when she's on the wagon -- I'm GLAD she's on the wagon; that's where she needs to be; I hope she stays there forever. But admit it -- it's not as interesting to watch.

After firing up your prunes, you proceed to dirty up more bowls than you even knew you had in your kitchen. There's the bowl for melting the chocolate and butter. The bowl (or two) for separating your eggs. The bowl for whisking together the egg yolks and sugar. The bowl for whisking together some egg whites. It is kind of hard not to think "Holy bowls! This better be one darn good cake!" (Don't worry -- it is.)

After mixing together the chocolate/butter mixture with the egg yolk/sugar mixture, the prune/booze mixture, and the ground nut/flour mixture (which had all been in different bowls up until this point), you add in some egg whites that you've been whipping up in another bowl until they hold "firm, glossy peaks." I went through my usual egg white whipping thought progression: "that looks glossy but not firm. Is that firm? It is not holding a peak. Wait, yes it is. But it's not glossy. Did I just blow right past glossy? %^@$!."

Folding in the egg whites:

Ready to bake:

The glaze is a combination of bittersweet chocolate, butter and confectioner's sugar. Mine seemed more like a frosting than a glaze (I followed the recipe exactly), and the consistency was more "spreadable" than "pourable." But I thought it was perfect -- I would not change a thing.

Wow. What can I say about this cake? It is amazing. I have enjoyed almost all of the Dorie recipes I've made since I've been in TWD, but every once in a while we make one that leaves me in a complete state of disbelief that I produced something so wonderful in my own kitchen. The French Pear Tart. The Tall & Creamy Cheesecake. And now this cake. If I ordered this in a restaurant, I'd have to drop out of the conversation when this cake arrived, because I would be able to speak of nothing other than the awesomeness of the cake, which would annoy my dinner companions (especially since I would not be inclined to share). My first instinct is to want to compare this to the the Devil's Food White Out Cake that we made a couple of weeks ago because they are both chocolate cakes. That is not really a fair comparison, though -- while they both have chocolate in them, they are completely different cakes. The Devil's Food cake is a traditional party cake with a crumbly texture. This armagnac cake is an extremely dense, rich, decadent, fudgy cake. It is really most reminiscent of a flourless chocolate cake.

I worried about the prunes for nothing. While I knew they were there, they just added a nice textural element and some subtle flavor interest to the cake. I could not taste the alcohol at all, which for me is a good thing -- I've come to realize that I generally do not enjoy a strong alcohol flavor in my desserts. I think the various flavors all came together beautifully to produce a truly fabulous, special dessert. Dorie was obviously far too good for the restaurant that canned her, and this cake proves it beyond a shadow of a doubt.

The wonderful Lyb of And Then I Do the Dishes chose this cake. Lyb, you certainly picked a cake worthy of your blog name! But believe me, this cake is worth every bowl you'll have to wash, and then some. If you are looking for a really amazing dessert for the chocolate lover in your life, look no further. Thank you for this awesome pick, Lyb!
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