"Perhaps the most impressive of all the cookbook blogs are the three devoted to the 2004 edition of Gourmet magazine's "The Gourmet Cookbook" -- all 5¼ pounds and 1,300-odd recipes of it. Befitting this culinary Everest, all three writers are overachievers in their professional lives."

--Lee Gomes, The Wall Street Journal, May 28, 2008
"I should have told you before how much I've been enjoying reading your thoughts. You seem like such a great cook."

--Ruth Reichl, Editor-in-Chief of Gourmet Magazine, June 8 2008, comment on "Chocolate Velvet Ice Cream".

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Buttermilk Cupcakes Redux, or Melissa Gets Competitive at the Bake Sale

Believe it or not, last night was the first time in my life as a mother that I've contributed something to a bake sale. The first time, even, that I was asked. In high school we seemed to have bake sales everywhere, all the time, so maybe bake sales aren't so popular anymore, or maybe I've just been able to fly under the radar for 13 years.

Anyway, I agreed with enthusiasm to contribute something to the bake sale at the concession benefiting the RMS Drama Club last night, thinking I would whip up another batch of those Buttermilk Cupcakes, but this time using the chocolate and lemon cream cheese frosting that went with them.

I changed only one thing--I used cake flour as they ask instead of all-purpose, and yes the texture was finer, less dense and chewy.

As far as the recipe goes, the chocolate frosting was more spreadable than the lemon, which was kind of runny even after letting it set in the fridge for a while. I should have added more confectioner's sugar but, well, I didn't have any more.

I ended up with a nice foil lined cardboard box full of cupcakes, half lemon frosted, half chocolate frosted.

OK, it's not that I'm competitive, or a perfectionist. Oh all right, I AM both of those things but I try to keep it under a civil veneer. My cupcakes were little Plain Janes next to some of the fancy things on that bake sale table! Fancy piped frosting, rainbow sprinkles, things in decorated plastic bags...and the hot seller to the elementary set was candy, which they gobbled down so fast they almost choked themselves.

Yes, they sold, mostly. But I did spend some time thinking about how they could have LOOKED better. Sprinkles, obviously. Fresh fruit, a sliced strawberry or blueberry in the center?

I did have the nicest foil-lined box.

Friday, March 30, 2007

another technical note

You may have noticed that some of my posts seem to be missing some words here and there.

We use CyberSitter, a rather aggressive filter that blocks certain websites and pop-ups from getting through--a pretty important feature if you have kids. One of the other things it does is selectively filters words, which can sometimes seem inexplicable. I couldn't understand why, when reading the newsletter from the Lean Plate Club, sometimes the text would read "Weigh chers". I finally realized that the filter was screening out the word "twat", never mind that it existed like this: "Weight Watchers".

Now I've discovered a new feature to Cybersitter, which is that it apparently screens my blog posts. So far, it doesn't like "girls", "breasts" (perhaps understandably, and why my post on Chicken Kiev was full of holes), and most curiously, "mushrooms".

If I remember to turn Cybersitter off before I post, this isn't a problem, and it's how I've gone back and fixed previous blog posts. But if I forget, and you see a sentence or too that doesn't make sense, just use your dirty imagination and see what you can come up with.

Avocado, Orange and Jicama Salad

What do you feed a 13 year old boy with a case of the jitters on Opening Night? Steak, I was thinking, or maybe something simple like roasted chicken.

I was mighty surprised when he glanced at the cookbook and picked out Avocado, Orange and Jicama Salad. Oh, I was thinking, he's getting so sophisticated! How many other people have a teenage boy that even knows what jicama is?

That little self-congratulatory fantasy only lasted until he took one bite, looked at me with horror and disgust, and asked what I "did to the salad".

What I did, of course, was dress it with the vinaigrette, which contains curry powder and cumin.

Oh well, baby steps. (and more avocado for me.)

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Roasted Beet Salad and Candied Grapefruit Peel

One of the things about working as a private chef is that you create what's known as "palate-specific" meals. This means that you fine-tune everything to appeal to your employers, working with their likes and dislikes. Dr. S., for example, hates beets.

So when I got to work on Sunday and saw a fresh bunch of beets in the bottom produce drawer, purchased by the new cook, I had to do some planning. When would Dr. S. be out of the house for a meal? Mrs. S. LOVES beets, so serving them wouldn't be a problem, just the timing. My answer came yesterday when Dr. S. went out for a Bridge Night, and their daughter, M., came for tea and dinner. M. loves vegetables of all kinds, and in fact is a vegetarian. Et voila, I had a plan. Roasted Beet Salad.

It was hard for me to NOT make the roasted beet salad I knew from Yanks, which consists of roasted beets tossed with balsamic vinegar, goat cheese, and roasted walnuts. I could eat that every day of my life. But this recipe looked like a winner, and it involved a technique that was new to me--you saute the almonds in olive oil, and then use THAT oil in the vinaigrette. Very clever. I also substituted a Gala apple for the Asian pear--not exactly the same flavor but the texture is close enough.

A huge success--I think Mrs. S. was grateful to eat such a relatively light dinner (and she even tried some of the fried tofu I made for M. as a side dish.)

I'm no stranger to Candied Grapefruit Peel, although this is the first time I've used this particular recipe. A lot of my Christmas baking involves candied and dried fruit (pfeffernusse, fruitcake) and because I can't stand store-bought candied peel I make my own, using a Joy of Cooking recipe and utilizing oranges and lemons as well.

This recipe is kind of odd. The way it directs you to cut the fruit away from the peel means that the peel retains some of the grapefruit...in the past I have scraped the pith away from the rind after it has gone through its many blanchings. Although not instructed to do so, I did it anyway, thinking that the finished product would just be too "wet" if I didn't. It also has you roll the peel in superfine sugar after cooking it down in syrup and letting it dry...after tasting, I didn't think that it was sweet enough and ended up using granulated sugar--I think the crunch is especially nice and you get more sugar to balance out the natural bitterness of the peel.

But what a people attractor this recipe was. Keep in mind that I was processing a case of grapefruit, so I quadrupled this recipe and had two trays of peel on the kitchen counters. Mrs. S., who is not usually a grazer, couldn't keep her hands off it, and I sent M. home with a baggy full.

And this peel has a date with some melted bittersweet chocolate--that's going to be the final product, chocolate-dipped candied grapefruit peel. Time consuming (a three-day project total) but oh, so worth it!

Liptauer Cheese

Is there anything more dispiriting than accidentally over salting a dish?

There is nothing more vexing for me. The time spent assembling the ingredients, the cost incurred, the hope that the next taste will tell you that it's just your imagination...

I over salted the Liptauer Cheese, and I think the recipe and I should share the blame equally.

If you don't know what Liptauer Cheese is, it's a cheese spread that you make with either cream or goat cheese, which such tasty items as shallots, anchovies, capers and caraway seeds thrown in.

My fault: I substituted anchovy paste for minced anchovy fillets. I didn't measure either, I was sort of casual about it (not that I know how much paste=fillet, but I was assuming about a teaspoon.)

Their fault: the recipe reads, "add paprika, capers, anchovies, shallots, caraway, and salt and pepper to taste and beat until well combined." Now, you can't taste until after something is mixed together, and I know this but threw in a pinch of salt anyway (literalist that I am).

It's just too much. It hits you about mid-palate on the roof of the mouth, and it's going in the trash.


Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Chicken Kiev and Braised Radishes with Raspberry Vinegar

Chicken Kiev is a dish I remember well from my childhood--mostly I remember the anxiety around whether or not the butter would escape from the rolled up chicken breasts when they were being fried, and the care with which my mom sealed them with wooden toothpicks.

So it was with no small amount of trepidation that I followed this recipe to the letter, trusted to luck, the kitchen gods, and the greater wisdom of the folks at Gourmet, and dropped the rolled breasts into the oil WITHOUT the benefit of toothpicks to keep it all together.

I needn't have worried. They came out fine, butter intact.

My bigger problem was that I was using half chicken breasts that I had taken off a roaster myself, which is to say that it was not a perfect cut of meat--a few random slices here and there. What this meant when I was pounding the breasts was that they started to look like Pangea breaking up--little continents of chicken moving away from the motherland.

Don't worry, say the soothing narrative voices at Gourment, "chicken is easily patched." My trust only extends so far, and I ended up letting the little chicken continents go and sticking with the mainland and a smaller amount of butter.

How did they taste? I couldn't tell you, but Dr. and Mrs. S cleaned their plates and proclaimed it wonderful.

I was not so keen about the Braised Radishes with Raspberry Vinegar. (Neither of these are on Epicurious, sorry!)

I first discovered cooked radishes about five years ago in the home of a Swedish woman. They were simply steamed and served with salt and butter, and I was astonished that such a thing could exist--radishes to me had always been raw and in salads. If you've never had them, they taste like baby turnips--mildly peppery, and very pleasant.

This dish calls for braising liquid of sugar, water, raspberry vinegar, butter, and a small amount of salt. It cooks down and glazes the radishes at the end, and although the result is quite pretty, I just couldn't reconcile the taste of the sweet glaze with the peppery-ness of the radishes.

I admit to bias, however--I'm not a fan of sweet food (as opposed to sweets)--many Thai and Chinese entrees are distasteful to me because of the sugar content. If you like that sort of thing, you may well love this radish recipe.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Chocolate Prune Pave with Armagnac Creme Anglaise and Candied Orange Zest (or, a Recipe for Clarissa)

OK, Clarissa, here it is. It's beyond fabulous, and of course, you don't have to put Armagnac in the creme Anglaise. (btw, this is not on the epicurious site. Good thing I like you so much.)

1/2 pound pitted prunes
1/4 cup Armagnac (I guess you could substitute vanilla?)
1 lb. good bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
2 cups creme anglaise (a different recipe)
candied orange zest (also a different recipe)

Oh wait!! I just found it. They call it something different. (a Marquise. ???)


Mexican Tea Cakes and Buttermilk Cupcakes

Mexican Tea Cakes are cookies, not cakes, and very agreeable little cookies at that. If you knew how little use I have for cookies that don't contain either chocolate or fruit in some fashion you'd be amazed to hear me utter such words.

These are essentially pecan shortbread balls, rolled once in confectioner's sugar when they're hot out of the oven, and then again when they've cooled. I picked up a handy little tip from one of the sidebars in the book from the fellow who runs Maison du Chocolat (the best chocolates in the world, and this comes from a girl who discovered Godiva in junior high) which is that if you want to coat truffles in cocoa powder the best way to do it is to place the truffles in a sieve full of powder and then lift out with a fork. This works perfectly for the Mexican Tea Cakes and their powdered sugar coating as well.

The Buttermilk Cupcakes were a revelation. Do you know I've simply never had a cupcake that wasn't from a box mix? These are flavorful and slightly chewy, and with frosting they easily become something that could get me into big big trouble. I didn't use the cream cheese frostings that are suggested , I borrowed one from another page--essentially a chocolate ganache, using 3/4 cup Ghiradelli bittersweet chocolate chips and 1/4 cup heavy cream.

a technical note

A few folks have written and asked where they can find these yummy recipes. You can, of course, find them in The Gourmet Cookbook, which is the whole point of this blog, but if you don't want to buy a five pound book (bigger than the Joy of Cooking!) Epicurious.com is the next place to look. And because I'm so nice I'm going to try to provide the link if it exists. You can scroll down and see that I already have one in place for the Grilled Lobster with Chipotle Sauce and the Creme Brulee French Toast.

Wouldn't that be fun if you could cook along with me?

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Santa Fe French Toast

For all of my friends who are watching their weight, turn away now. Just reading this will make you gain five pounds.

All right, brave of heart, here is how you make Santa Fe French Toast (so called because it was famously served on the Santa Fe line):

Soak your challah or thick white bread in a heavy cream/egg blend. Fry (that's in a good inch or two of oil, or heck, a fry-a-lator if you have one) until golden brown, about two minutes. Drain briefly on paper towels, then bake in a 400 oven until puffy, about four minutes. Dust with powdered sugar, and serve with warm honey or syrup.


Now do an extra fifteen minutes on the elliptical tomorrow. (me too.)

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Grilled Tropical Fruit with Rum Sauce and Prune Armagnac Ice Cream

Can we just talk about making caramel? Making caramel is a PAIN IN THE ASS.

Or at least, it depends on the recipe. The one where you stir dry sugar in a pan with a fork until it melts is the time-consuming way that requires you to have some reading material while you stand next to a pot, bored out of your skull, stirring the damn sugar. Good thing I just got a new copy of The Week.

There are other ways to make caramel, and I like those ways better. And no, I don't mean buying caramel sauce at the store either.

OK, now that I've got that out of the way, if you can stand to make the caramel, the Grilled Tropical Fruit with Rum Sauce is divine. I've never grilled fruit (another first for me, and if you try this at home with the aforementioned lobster recipe, don't forget to clean the grill really well or you'll have lobster flavored fruit.) Grilled pineapple--where have you been all my life? This recipe was supposed to be served with vanilla ice cream, but I forgot to buy that and all we had was the Prune Armagnac Ice Cream I made earlier in the day (you would think on my days off I would just eat Cheerios). Oh lord. This was one of those meals where you know you really should stop eating because your stomach hurts, but you just can't because it tastes so good.

And I have to confess, it was really Prune Brandy Ice Cream--my friend Ruth and I had a discussion about this during a walk--if one really needs Amagnac. She had just read an article in the NY Times about cooking wine and the conclusion was that it didn't matter if you used the good stuff...

So I had a long morning of indecision. I have a bottle of brandy, but should I buy Armagnac for veracity? And if I did, where would I put it and when would I drink the rest of it? I'm not a night-cap type of person. This is the sort of thing that paralyzes me.

You'll be happy to know that in spite of all the time spent thinking and talking about it, the recipe itself took less than 20 minutes to make, and I know this because I had to leave to pick Ruth up for the movies at 1 and I walked through the door with groceries at 12:42. OK, I did put the prunes in to soak in brandy the day before, but the rest of it--scalding the cream, grinding the prunes in the food processor, mixing the cream with the eggs and then bringing back up to temp...I had it in the fridge to cool by 1:01.

OK, so back to the ice cream with the grilled fruit...in my opinion the ice cream was overshadowed by the other, much bolder flavors of the tropical fruit and the rum sauce. It needs to be the star of the show, or perhaps just the only performer. The flavor is sweet, the brandy is subtle, and it's not unlike rum raisin ice cream.

(There you go, Clarissa--another worthy use for prunes.)

Grilled Lobster with Orange Chipotle Vinaigrette and Zucchini and Carrot Julienne

Oh. My. God.

That could suffice, right there, as my(our) reaction to the lobster dish.

Let me put it this way. Lobster on its own is mighty tasty--steamed and served up with lemon butter. This dish is beyond tasty. I actually wanted to drink the vinaigrette, and I'm only exaggerating slightly.

Assembling the ingredients was a little time-consuming...Shaw's doesn't have canned chipotle chilis in adobo sauce, so I stopped at Market Basket on the way to see a movie with my friend Ruth. (Shooter, in case you're wondering.) The lobster came from a seafood place in Gloucester. Juice oranges from Stop and Shop. Three different stores for one dish means it's a pain, but a pain I'd undergo again GLADLY.

And I've never grilled lobster before, so-- a new experience for me. And no, you don't just throw the poor babies on the hot grill (and you don't chop them in half alive like my Uncle Mike used to do, or may still for all I know--an event that horrified and fascinated us as children) you parboil them for three minutes, then take off the tails, cut them in half, take off the claws, etc.

The only adjustment I would make is to cook the tails slightly less--at six minutes I thought they were a little chewy, but I did just have 1 1/4 lbs bugs (that's kitchen lingo for you customers)--1 1/2 ones would probably be perfect at six minutes.

Alas, with all that dazzling excellence on the plate, the Zucchini and Carrot Julienne was overshadowed, a mere vehicle for more vinaigrette. What a way to get your vegetables.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Coq Au Vin and Sauteed Cabbage with Bacon and Cream

You know, I cooked these two together. My thinking was that the vin part of the Coq Au Vin would be nicely offset by the cream part of the Sauteed Cabbage with Bacon and Cream. (We had some cabbage hanging around in a post-Boiled Dinner kind of way.) Throw in a little rice, you've got a nice meal.

It was only deep into the chopping that I realized that I was going to be using an entire pound--that's right, a whole package--of bacon between the two. Oops!

Well, fear not. The Coq au Vin calls for parboiling of the bacon, which boils off some of the fat, and oddly, all of the saltiness. But then you sautee the bacon and use that fat to sear the chicken, and also you do the same thing with the cabbage without the boiling, and...well...never mind. OK, so it's not the most calorically minded dish in the world.

After the fussy steps of parboiling the bacon (oh and boiling onions too), the Coq au Vin is pretty easy to make--you just dump it all in a pot and let it do the work. A possible candidate for a slow cooker, if you've got one. Well, you also have to sautee mushrooms and then cook them down with Armagnac...OK, once you've got all the fussy ingredients actually IN the pot, you can forget about the darn thing and let it cook for a while. I do like things that give you a little space right before the meal--lasagna and other oven casseroles, stews, and so on.

This dish also features one of my favorite things--beurre manie. Another trick I learned at Yanks, beurre manie is equal parts soft butter and flour kneaded together. It's used as a last-minute thickener of sauces and is SO MUCH EASIER to use than making a roux. It tastes better than cornstarch, and it only requires one to be organized enough to actually make it in advance and keep it in the fridge. That's beyond some people (like me, usually), but on the occasions when I've actually had some on hand I've felt very professional.

However, this recipe doesn't make you feel like a loser by saying, oh, take some of that beurre manie out of your fridge--it just guides you through the steps of making a quick little bit. Easy peasy japoneasy.

The Cabbage? Super yum. I'm not a big fan of cabbage, so really any time it tastes great is a pleasant surprise to me, and, well, you can't go wrong with cream and bacon as flavor enhancers.

Crabmeat-Stuffed Sole and Maple Syrup Pie

What is it about stuffed anything that seems intimidating? Stuffed rolled pork, stuffed pork chops, stuffed turkey...(well, maybe not the last one). I think it's that extra step of making stuffing, which I don't ever really do. In anticipation, it seems so complex. Really it's just the unfamiliarity of it.

You'll be happy to know that making Crabmeat-Stuffed Sole was about as difficult as mixing up a bowl of tuna salad, putting it on fish, rolling it up, and baking it.

OK, the ingredients are SLIGHTLY exotic--crabmeat, reduced-fat mayo (I brought some from home), yellow bell peppers, parsley--but the idea is the same. Actually, it was just sheer luck that I was able to find sole (but I would have subbed flounder)--sole is hard to come by. The fishmongers tell me that it's scarcer and therefore more expensive (and therefore less popular).

The dish also had a cooking step I've never come across before--covering the fish with wax or parchment paper (which I have now, ha ha sesame honey lace cookies) and then covering tightly with foil. The fish also went into a hotter oven than I expected (450) and for a longer time (20 minutes). The whole thing came out beautifully, so what do I know?

I couldn't resist the Maple Syrup Pie. Who makes pie out of maple syrup? How odd! When I think of pies, I think of fruit pies, or pecan pie, really I could rhapsodize for some time about great pie recipes I have known (Black Bottom Banana Cream Pie springs immediately to mind, and if you want that recipe, run right to Epicurious).

OK, making pie crusts is a bit of a pain, but I've learned to make friends with the rolling pin. (someday we'll have a long conversation about pie crust. But not now.) I've also started buying "white wheat" flour as a sneaky way to get some whole grains into the picture. (so far, so good.)

The ingredients are simple--not unlike the sweet part of pecan pie w/out the pecans, except instead of corn syrup you use brown sugar and maple syrup. I was actually somewhat indignant at the proportions of those two (1 2/3 cups brown sugar and 1/3 cup maple syrup) wouldn't you call that a Brown Sugar Pie? But the maple syrup flavor really shines through, even though I only had Grade A syrup instead of the more desirable (to me) Grade B, which is darker and more flavorful, and for some reason too strong for the general public to clamor for.

How was it? I'll let Dr. S. tell you. When I served it to them, he took one bite, turned to his wife, and said, "Dearest, we have a treat."

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Lemon Thins and Creamed Peas and Cucumbers with Dill

Not that you can really compare cookies and peas, but I'd have to say that if this were a contest, I think I'd go with the peas. Really!

I think it's mostly because I'm not a big fan of peas. Maybe it's that childhood rhyme about eating peas with honey (come on, you know that one, don't you? "I eat my peas with honey; I've done it all my life. It makes the peas taste funny, but it keeps them on the knife.") but they just never filled any void that I had in my culinary soul.

So this recipe was a pleasant surprise--first because I've never cooked cucumbers and they were good, second because the combination of just a little cream, then fresh dill and lemon juice lifted those peas right up out of the banal into the really good and tasty.

The Lemon Thins were delectable, of course--what would you expect? I haven't dusted them with confectioner's sugar yet, but they'll be tastier still after that. They did seem to have the slightest, faintest edge of bitterness, though. I had to eat two or three just to confirm that. I think it's on account of the lemon zest--my grater is a little on the coarse side for that sort of thing, and I long for a microplane at work, which I never remember I want except when I'm zesting lemons and then I'm too busy to find a catalog. Shaw's in Beverly, take notice! Stock microplanes and I will buy one.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Brandied Chicken Liver Pate and important recipe correction

Who knew that pate was so easy to make?

Two Christmases ago, when Dr. and Mrs. S.'s grandson J. (who has been to culinary school) asked me if I had made the pate that was on the hors d'oeurves board, I looked at him like he had three heads. That's because when I worked at Yanks, I witnessed the making of what I now know was a fois gras terrine--there was cleaning of lobes and pressing with weights and baking in funny shaped pans. (and if you're wondering, yes there is a recipe for Classic Fois Gras Terrine in the Gourmet Cookbook, so I'll be getting there sooner or later.)

Brandied Chicken Liver Pate was a snap to make. It's basically liver sauteed with finally chopped onions and garlic, with a little Cognac thrown it and reduced. Then you put it all in the food processor with some spices, whirl, and voila! This recipe also calls for plumped currants, which is a funny but tasty addition. Mrs. S. thought they were cute.

My only worry about this dish is that it made four little crocks of pate, and even two enthusiastic eaters (and one enthusiastic cook) can't go through that much pate in three days (the time they list for viability). I gave one to my parents (who fed us cassoulet after work last night--can you see where I get this?) but at work I think I'm going to try to top them with a chicken stock gelatin--another trick I learned at Yanks. This will protect the liver from the air.

Important Recipe Correction!!!!!

My mother informs me that when making the White Trash Cake, it is vital to use only HALF the amount of water for the jello component, otherwise you will have a soupy cake. I know this is only partly true because I made this cake two years ago at Fourth of July for work and it doesn't come out soupy, but all the jello collects at the bottom of the cake pan under the cake and the whole thing is very MOIST. Not a bad thing in the eyes of dry cake haters, but still her counsel is good so take heed all ye White Trash Cake Makers.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Birthday Brunch II--Pumpkin Apple Bread and Warm Chocolate-Raspberry Pudding Cake

You don't think the food stopped there, do you? Foolish child.

In addition to the afore-mentioned delicacies, in addition to the fruit/yogurt/granola my sister brought, the bagels/lox/cream cheese my brother brought, and the bacon my parents brought, in addition to the mimosas and coffee and tea, we had Pumpkin Apple Bread.

This was Don's contribution, although I actually made it because he was out shoveling snow--a worthy trade, I thought. This is everything you'd want in a quick bread--moist, flavorful and aromatic. Wow, did the house smell good. Although the recipe calls for two loaves, I made one loaf and a bunch of muffins, having only one bread pan. I'd go with the loaves in the future--the moist bread to crunchy streusel topping ratio is greater, although if you're a crunchy streusel topping fan, please ignore my counsel.

After that, can you imagine that we'd have room for dessert? Well we didn't, but we are nothing if not determined.

The Warm Chocolate-Raspberry Pudding Cake was spectacular--rich, goopy, intense. I actually baked it yesterday as the recipe suggested I might, and reheated it in a 350 oven for 15 minutes. My only disappointment was that it was not, as the recipe said, "bathed with a rich, creamy, oozy frosting." I think that's because it sat overnight, and the liquid from that lovely raspberry jam ganache was absorbed into the body of the cake. So the ganache sat in a well-behaved way on top of the cake (turned upside-down from the baking pan) and we ate it with chocolate caramel ice cream.

If I make this cake in the future (and I probably will), I think I will garnish it with creme fraiche and fresh raspberries, or Cream Cheese Ice Cream (from the Gourmet Cookbook), or maybe whipped cream with Chambourd (Armagnac? Grand Marnier?) and sliced strawberries.

And now...should I work out? Or take a nap? Or just lie on the couch groaning?

Birthday Brunch I--Baked Eggs and Mushrooms in Ham Crisps; Creme Brulee French Toast; Grits and Cheddar Casserole

Oh, my stomach!

What is it about parties, and buffets in particular, that make you load up that plate and stretch your poor stomach lining to the limit? Well, maybe it's the good food. And we had plenty of it.

For my money, the best all-around was the Baked Eggs and Mushrooms in Ham Crisps. Talk about easy, and it really was a show-stopper. Even my sister, who has done some catering, has never seen it. It could easily be modified--I can imagine the mushroom tarragon mix replaced with sauteed red bells and onions, or spinach/shallots and goat or feta cheese. Or for super simple, just the ham and the egg. But the mushrooms put it over the top for me, so I'd only make it simple for a fussy audience (like four-year olds).

But if you asked the crowd, I'd say their favorite was the Creme Brulee French Toast. That really was a hit --the kids went back for seconds and so did some of the adults (I'm not naming names). High marks for this one for ease of preparation--put it together the night before and let it soak, then bring it to room temp in the morning, and throw in the oven an hour before show time. You don't even need syrup--the butter/brown sugar/corn syrup layer on the bottom becomes the oozy top syrup when you flip it onto your plate (if you're agile).

The most problematic dish was the Grits and Cheddar Casserole. I bought the wrong grits (stone-ground instead of regular), didn't let them cook long enough stovetop (so they were soft but still loose), cooked them too long in the oven in an effort to brown the top, which overcooked the eggs enough to make them release their water. All of these were my fault, but the one direction from the recipe that led me astray was "sprinkle with remaining cheese, cover with foil, and bake for 30 minutes." Now, anybody who has ever made lasagna knows that cheese sticks to foil, and yes, the cheese stuck to the foil and got thrown away with said foil once I took it off to brown the top.

In spite of all these troubles, the flavor was great and a good counterpoint to the French toast, which was quite sweet.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Yuca Fries

I was intrigued by this recipe because I've never had yuca, being a New Englander and all. Our Market Basket down the road, however, sells to a diverse immigrant group, so many exotic tubers are available, not to mention the entire GOYA line.

Note to anybody shopping for yuca--it really does spoil quickly (as the helpful sidebar in Gourmet Cookbook points out) so buy it the day you want to use it. I sort of thought they might be like potatoes and keep forever. Not so.

The recipe asks you to boil it first, then deep fry, sprinkle with salt and serve with lemon wedges and BBQ sauce on the side. Huh? Now pommes frites with mayo I'm used to, but this was a new concept.

Hey, these are awesome. Just by themselves with salt. Really light, flaky and crispy all at once, and helpful hint--don't forget to cut out the woody core, otherwise some of your fries will be dense and chewy. Not bad, just not light, flaky and crisp.

The lemon and BBQ sauce...eh....they didn't need them in my opinion, but I can see how they could become an indispensable part of the flavor profile, like ketchup is with fries.

Since I have one more yuca left...tonight I'll be trying the Cuban-style yuca with Garlic Lemon Oil.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Cappuccino Brownies and White Trash Cake

First, let me say that the Cappuccino Brownies are worth the effort. They are a bit of a pain in the ass to make, requiring a two hour long cooling time for the brownies, an hour stint in the fridge with the cream cheese layer on top, and then another hour in the fridge for the ganache to set.

But boy are they good.

I cooked them over two days, which made it easy to bear the cooling times (the brownies cooled overnight, and the cream cheese and butter sat out on the counter overnight too, which made the cream cheese frosting part a snap). I even made the ganache the day I made the brownies (multi-tasking me) and just reheated the following day.

Luscious, rich, and complex in flavor, as promised.

OK, for anybody who wants to know, here's the recipe for White Trash Cake, which was known in my family simply as The Birthday Cake until my first husband lovingly (I think) dubbed it. Please note that this recipe does NOT appear in the Gourmet Cookbook!

First, ask the recipient what flavors they want. They get to choose:

1. cake mix flavor
2. jello flavor
3. pudding flavor

Being the chocolate fiend I always was, I usually went for chocolate cake, cherry jello, and chocolate pudding. If they had made chocolate jello you can be sure I would have chosen that.

Next, bake the cake in a sheet pan. When it comes out of the oven, poke many holes in it with a skewer. Then pour hot liquid jello of choice over cake, and put in the fridge until cold (and set).

During this time you will have mixed up the pudding of choice, and when the cake is ready, spread pudding over the top and cool until somewhat set. Then slather with Cool Whip (the final layer) and decorate with your choice of sprinkles, fresh fruit, candles, what-have-you.

Et voila! White Trash Cake (although to be perfectly honest, for this cake to REALLY earn that moniker I think Coca-Cola needs to be involved somehow--perhaps as the jello flavor).

A thought on this cake--now that I know more about cakes and baking, I can see that this was inspired by French cookery. Their cakes ALWAYS get a syrup brushed on or poured over, and there is almost always a creme layer between the cake layers. Leave it to the USA to make it quick, cheap and easy.

And a comment on this cake--it is wonderfully moist (even goopy), and if you like the components, you'll love the cake. Dry cake haters will be in paradise.

(EDIT 1/16/09: I notice this page has been getting an unusual number of hits lately, and I suspect it's all about the White Trash Cake. I fear that my later correction has gone unnoticed, which is that my mother corrected me about the jello. If you're trying this at home please use HALF the amount of water called for to make regular jello. You know, as if you were making those jiggler things. It's still good with the regular amount of water, just that much more moist. If you got this link from a friend prior to 1/16, be nice and send it back with the correction. Thanks!!)

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Sesame Honey Lace Smackdown

With apologies to the Beatles, All you Need is Sil-Pat.

Those puppies lifted right up, no resistance thanks to the silicone pan liner my husband Don bought a little while back. Parchment paper, still nowhere to be found, not even at the overpriced little market in Manchester. Next time I swing through Shaw's I'll pick some up.

Best of all, the finished product was wonderfully pliable when it came out of the oven and was still hot. It reminded me of a dessert that Alec Maxon used to make at Yanks--we would drape a larger, sesame-less version of these over upside-down ramekins to create an edible ice cream bowl. Alec loved making homemade ice cream and there were always at least six flavors in the freezers. We also had an oval ice cream scoop, and so when the order came for an ice cream trio, the plated dessert looked like pastel eggs in a golden bird's nest. For somebody with a degree in sculpture (me) it was the most satisfying dessert in the world to put together.

I've been thinking a lot about what to make for my mother's birthday brunch this weekend. As you can imagine, this has put me in a state of bliss because I get to cook out of a section of the cookbook I don't dip into much--the breakfast and brunch section. So here's what's on the docket:

Baked Eggs and Mushrooms in Ham Crisps
Creme Brulee French Toast
Grits and Cheddar Casserole

I'm also not sure if I can get away with making a cake--I've been eying the Warm Chocolate Raspberry Pudding Cake (as an alternative to the family favorite, White Trash Cake--more on that later).

The nice thing about two of the above is that the prep can be done the day before--in fact, with the French Toast, you really have to make it the night before and let it soak. I love things that you can just throw in the oven.

Chicken Pie with Biscuit Crust and Sesame Honey Lace Cookies

Location: Work

Mission: make cookies and come up with a plan for dinner

We're coming off a big weekend at work--Mrs. S. celebrated her birthday and so the whole family (minus grandkids and greatgrands) were in the house. Only one son was still around yesterday, so I had a bit of a breather to do one of my favorite things (bake) and use up some stuff that was kicking around in the fridge. I had a big pot of homemade chicken stock that I needed to skim, and the chicken bones/meat that I used to make it, so I suggested to the family a Chicken Pie with a Biscuit crust. Green light.

But before I got to that, I spent the afternoon wrestling with the Sesame Honey Lace Cookies.

Now usually when I bake I have a pretty good feel for what I can get away with, and in this case when I read the directions (line two baking sheets with parchment paper) I figured I could get away with wax paper. The dough is pretty simple--boil conf. sugar with honey and water and butter, mix in flour and sesame seeds, cool. Roll into little tiny balls, bake.

The problem: the cookies wouldn't peel off the wax paper. Vexing, especially since I did two sheets, one third the dough.

So I buttered the wax paper (one pan only this time), congratulated myself for being clever, and tried again. Still sticky!! This didn't stop me from eating them, by the way. Isn't wax paper technically fiber? And they're really good, even with wax paper backing. REALLY good, a nice toasty flavor that's completely addictive.

So I spent the better part of the afternoon trying to salvage some, any of these, and ended up throwing it all away (except the remaining dough)--nothing to show for the work. At home I have a silicon baking sheet, which I'll bring to work today--I know that will work. And I might have parchment paper too. What a pain.

Because I was fiddling around with the cookies, I left myself the minimum amount of time to cook the chicken pie. Now, I really love to cook, and although I can hustle I prefer to work at a more appreciative pace.

Hustle time.

Fast chopping, focused work. This is where I'm thankful for my experience--I know how to multi-task and where I can take a short cut or two. (for example, you certainly will not find me rubbing butter and shortening into the flour with my fingertips, you will find me dumping it all in the food processor).

I was pleased with the presentation (pretty little oval biscuits browned on top of a bubbling pie) and if I were to go back and do it again, I would have used some wine in place of some of the stock (we certainly had many open bottles tucked away after the party), and I would have used that nice hunk of cheddar in the biscuits instead of the remnants of the deli cheddar I used at lunch. But it certainly was a homey, comforting dish, and the portions I plated got eaten up. I think my husband and son would like it too, so I might try this one again at home sometime.

One question I had with the recipe itself--we're directed to "arrange rounds on top of filling, then brush tops of rounds with egg wash and prick all over with a fork." Now usually if you're pricking something with a fork its a pie crust if you're blind baking it, to keep it from bubbling up. But these are biscuits, and there's space between them. I didn't see the point, but I pricked anyway, just for the heck of it. It didn't make any difference.


It isn't easy being obsessive.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not like Monk, OCD detective (although I do like a certain order to my glasses and coffee cups. And silverware. And bowls.)

It's this cookbook. It haunts me. I haven't been this taken with a cookbook since I lived in Maine in a seasonal rental, a pregnant vegetarian and nascent pre-chef trying to find the exotic things (oil-cured sun-dried tomatoes) I'd need to cook out of Fields of Greens.

I'm a fan too, of Ruth Reichl's. Anybody who's read Tender at the Bone can't help that. I was thrilled when she got her post at Gourmet.

So when I received this bulky yellow cookbook at Christmas, Gourmet's 60-years-in-the-making compilation of every recipe you'd ever need, I opened it with interest, and EVERY recipe I read looked like a winner, like something I'd want to make and eat, and more--I was reading recipes that would teach me something. It was thrilling, and I resolved on the spot to cook every single one.

Fortunately, I have a job that facilitates this sort of thing. I work as a private chef on an estate, cooking for anywhere from 2 to 30 people. And fortunately, I have a great deal of latitude when it comes to menu planning and execution. I also have a writing group and a book group, both of which involve (not surprisingly) a meal, and they are thrilled to be on the receiving end when I tote stuff along. And of course my family, both immediate and extended, are always an appreciative audience.

If I had started this blog when I started my quest, we could have gone through the ENTIRE process together (which would have been deeply satisfying to my sense of order), but as it stands I'll only be able to refer to the ones I've cooked already.

Hey, a question. I don't know if I'll be able to give you the recipe without violating some kind of copyright. I'll try to figure that out and I'll let you know. If I can link to the recipe on Epicurious, I will. I also just may not have the time to type out the recipe, since I sometimes cook two or three a day.

You might have to get your own copy and cook along.