"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".

Friday, December 26, 2008

Another Food List, or Melissa Can't Keep Up with Her Own Bad Self

Gingerbread houses, figgy pudding, mincemeat pie! GOD, WHEN WILL IT END?!?!?!

Oh. It just did.

I'm kidding, people. I love this time of year, kind of. No, let me be more specific. I love the seasonal uniqueness of certain food items and rituals. I don't like the time compression. When I am Mistress of All Time and Space (I'll be getting my merit badge in that soon) I'll be stretching out this season so we all have a little more time to b r e a t h e.

So last week was my big hors d'oeurvres week (you know, after typing that word fifty times in the last week I can finally spell it without looking it up).

This week was Feed The Hungry Crowd with a Seasonally Appropriate Yet Dietarily Sensitive Menu Week.

In the Feed the Hungry Crowd Dept, I served up (among other things):

Garlic- and Soy-Marinated Pork Roast with Shiitake Mushroom Gravy and
Pineapple Upsidedown Cake.

In the Whee! It's Christmas!! Dept, I served:

Mincemeat Pie and reprised:

Savory Pureed Limas
Figgy Pudding with Rum Butter

I can see that I've been a bad Christmas Elf and have not even mentioned those last two here before EVER even though I've made the Limas about a million and one times and I made the Figgy Pudding for Christmas last year, slyly replacing the traditional Plum Pudding.

So I will discuss them all, complete with more brazenly stolen photos. Again, please please do not sue me. All I can give you if you sue me is a sink full of dirty dishes and you're welcome to those, buddy.

Garlic and Soy Marinated Pork Roast is one of those dishes that is kind to the harried cook, which is to say you throw a big hunk of meat into a bag or a bowl with a marinade, let it soak overnight, then roast it in the oven until it's done. I LOVE these kinds of recipes.

How was it? What do you think? If you like roasted flavorful meat, this should be right up your alley.

I deviated from the Pineapple Upside-down Cake a teeny little bit because I did not, as the recipe directs, make individual cakes in muffin tins. I doubled the recipe and made a big gigantic cake in the traditional format, which is to say rectangular. Maybe the traditional format is square, or maybe it's round, WHO CARES? Anyway my point is I don't get too fussy when there are drooling, slavering people clutching my ankles asking for food.

You know, it's harder than you would think to find a photo of a rectangular or even square pineapple upsidedown cake that doesn't have cherries (which mine didn't)--OK, here's one that has cornmeal which mine didn't but who cares at least it doesn't have those nasty cherries:

This cake was scarfed down in record time. I had to pull my hand back quick.

I've had my eye on the Mincemeat Pie recipe from the beginning. For some mysterious reason, I'm intrigued by beef suet, which this recipe insists adds an "earthy" flavor that one would miss were it not present. Now, every mincemeat pie I've ever tasted (maybe two) had a filling that was horrifyingly sweet and gloppy--some kind of raisin-y brown stuff. Like this:


Would this recipe produce something similar? Was beef suet all we were missing to transform this into something worth eating? Inquiring minds want to know, and nothing like Christmas dinner for a little culinary experiment.

Oh and by the way, are you noticing this? How I blithely just cook things I've never ever cooked before by way of experimentation, on the most important (and largest) family holiday dinner of the year?

That's because The Gourmet Cookbook kicks ass. Yay Gourmet Cookbook!

This is a lattice top pie (I love doing lattice top pies--it makes me feel like a competent baker) and the pie crust is straightforward from the back of the book (though I modify it when I'm making sweet pies by adding about 3 tbsp of sugar). The filling is apples diced fine, currants, golden and dark raisins, lemon and orange zest, spices, suet, and my favorite, brandy.

Oh, one thing I didn't do. I didn't let this stuff sit for three days like the recipe asks. I was like oh, I think I'll make the mincemeat pie today, and la la la, reading the recipe and WHAT? THREE DAYS TO SOAK THE FILLING???????

Well since the next day was Christmas, BLEEP THAT but I did let it soak for 24 hours as a concession to the fact that somebody may know something I don't know (imagine that) and contented myself with feeling productive about making the pie dough.


OK, and now I can't find a picture of a pie as beautiful as mine was but this one comes close:

And the filling looked liked this:

OK, see how the little pieces of apple and raisins are kind of loose, discreet units? That's what the filling is like in this recipe. Although it must be acknowledged that if I had waited two more days it might have stuck together better (ahem).

And does the beef suet give it an earthy flavor that I'll miss should I ever make it without it? Well, quite frankly I couldn't detect any beefiness, or suet-y-ness, so when it comes right down to it what the suet is adding is fat, and I'll take butter any day in the fat department.

So vegetarians, I think it's safe to say you can make this without the beef suet and you won't ruin it. And I'm sorry I didn't tell all the vegetarians at the dinner that there was beef suet in this pie--I forgot to mention it in all the excitement.

I can't believe I've never mentioned Savory Pureed Limas before because I've made them, like, fifty times. If you don't like limas beans I'll bet you ten dollars you'll like these.

Why? Because I think people who don't like lima beans (ok, I'm one of them) don't like them because of the texture. Who could argue with the taste? It's not really assertive, it's just kind of bland and bean-y. But limas have this gross kind of skin that just bugs me.

So here's what you do. Cook the limas in boiling salted water until they are super soft. Then put them in a food processor, add butter, milk, a little sauteed garlic, nutmeg and pepper, and turn it on. Then WALK AWAY.

The trick to this is letting the machine process away all that yucky skin. Easier when you use baby limas, but it takes a little longer if you use the big ones. Just go empty the dishwasher or something--you can't ruin them now.

What you get is a puree of the most beautiful green...this photo gets the color right but not quite the texture:

Feed this to your kids. Feed it to old people (they'll love it). Feed it to your nutritionally deprived self. I'm serious--it's a crowd pleaser. Limas--who'd a guessed?

As I mentioned way up yonder, I served the Figgy Pudding for two years in a row which is why I had the beef suet in the house. Our big triumph with the figgy pudding was not so much the pudding, frankly, but the fact that we got some seriously flammable rum to set it on fire.

I'm such a chicken about fire that I make one of the grandsons (age 15) carry out the flaming platter. Is that child abuse? He does like to live dangerously.

Anyway, this is the big finale of the meal--the cake gets heated, put on a metal platter with little valleys to hold the flaming rum, and it gets a little sprig of holly on top. Then the whole family sings "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" with special emphasis on "now bring us some figgy pudding" while somebody (not me) carries the fireball through the darkened dining room.

This is the idea:

Just add fire.

This cake, I can take it or leave it, mostly because steaming pudding is a big, fat pain in the ass. Why? Because if you don't have the lid on really tight, water gets inside, which is what happened to me last year--it was a miracle the cake actually tasted good. This year I tied up the mold with kitchen string--it looked like I was ready to fed-ex it somewhere.

And then, to re-heat it, you know what you're supposed to do? Re-steam it for another couple of hours! Forget that, sister. I use the microwave.

You may ask why I even make it in advance--because you can. And because being the crazy little control freak I am, I want to make sure it actually comes out of the mold in one piece so I can rest easy and not be up in the middle of night before Christmas worrying about the figgy pudding.

So PHEW!!! Another big Christmas dinner come and gone.

Oh and by the way, here's why I lovelovelove the home health aides who work in the house. They do the dishes.

Happy Holidays, everyone!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

My Week of Hors D'Oeurves, or Melissa Makes Up For Lost Time

Regular readers of this blog know that there are some chapters I cook out of with regularity (like Cakes, Cookies Bars and Confections; Vegetables) and some that I don't (like Frozen Desserts and Sauces; Pasta Noodles and Dumplings). Hors D'oeurves and First Courses definitely falls into the latter category.

Why? They are fiddly, people! Don't ask me why I can spend a million years on a cookie but stuffing a cherry tomato makes me crazy--it just does. Also, I think that in the arc of my work day, the afternoon (when I bake) is relatively leisurely compared to the crash and rush of pre-dinner, and the LAST thing I want to do when I'm trying to get food out for a crowd is fuss over a decorated carrot stick.

I'm just kidding about the decorated carrot stick. Not that I'd want to fuss over one. There are no recipes for decorated carrot sticks in this book.

But here it is, the holiday season, and I was presented with not one, but TWO opportunities to spend some time making hors d'oeurves. Bring me your carrot sticks, your cherry tomatoes, your walnuts yearning to breath free! Or at least, to be candied and eaten!

The first was our employee Christmas party. This party has evolved over the years from a very small, brief gift exchange to a full-fledged party, albeit without the booze. It was my privilege to plan and cook for this group of hard-working, amiable folks and it came at the perfect time--before the descent of the family, my last remaining days of peace before the holiday craziness. This was my menu:

Mulled Cider
French Hot Chocolate
Candied Walnuts
Deviled Eggs
Baked Cheddar Olives
Spicy Lemon-Marinated Shrimp
Exotic Mushroom Pate
French Pea Soup

There are certain among you who will be scratching their head that there is no dessert listed here. Well, I did plan to make Grapefruit and Coconut Angel Pie, because I love that pie and have been looking for an excuse to make it again. But I just ran out of time, and besides--two of the employees planned to bring some sort of dessert so I left the sweets to them.

I made the Candied Walnuts last year but see that I didn't blog about them (tsk, tsk!). They were a HUGE hit so I reprised them. One of the things that I love about this cookbook is that even before I've gotten anywhere near finishing with it, some of the recipes have become old standbys for me.

So, the Candied Walnuts--they're a pain, but worth it. Boil them first, for five minutes, then set them out on paper towels to dry for an hour or so. Then toss them with powdered sugar, and drop them in hot oil until they're brown and crispy. Set them on a baking sheet to cool, sprinkle them with cayenne salt, and then put them on paper bags to soak up some of the grease.

The Deviled Eggs were pretty straightforward, and I've made them before (and blogged about them, see link in my list above). What is it about deviled eggs? Everybody loves them. And you can't really screw around with the filling too much or people get upset. And for pete's sake--don't forget the paprika!!

Baked Cheddar Olives...mmmmmmmmm. I had made these before out of The Joy of Cooking and I knew they were winners. This is pretty much the same recipe--it apparently was a 50's stand-by so I guess it's canon now. The idea is a cheese pastry wrapped around small olives, and baked in a 400 oven. What cracks me up is the instructions, which goes something like: toss flour with shredded cheese and softened butter, and rub with your fingers until a dough forms. Obviously this was in the days before food processors. I followed the directions just for the heck of it, but next time I'll use the machinery--it's quicker. The home health aid who helped me roll these was so excited by the concept that she vowed to be exactly on time so she could get her hands on the finished product. Kevin, I'm stealing your photo--thanks.

I was a little worried about the Spicy Lemon-Marinated Shrimp because it involves red chili peppers. Also, it has the word "spicy" in the title. When you're working with old folks, you pretty much want to avoid "spicy". But since this crowd was mostly middle-aged I figured I'd risk it, and so proceeded.

The nice thing about this recipe is that you can make it in advance, and the day of your party you just drain the marinade and serve in a pretty bowl. I love recipes like this. And the recipe isn't hard either--boil the shrimp in pickling spices, then put them in a lemon-based marinade for a long soak--in my case three days. And I worried for nothing about the chili--it wasn't prominent. If you're expected to bring something to a dinner party this week, try this recipe out--it's low stress/high-satisfaction-yield.

Exotic Mushroom Pate was definitely the time-suck in the food preparation department, but I wanted to make something sort of showy and vegetarian-friendly. Basically the idea is this--you use the mushrooms in three ways: as a pureed base; as a chunky filling, and then sauteed with almonds on top. You do this all with two kinds of mushrooms, shitake and oyster. Almonds are prominent in the recipe, so don't serve this to your allergic friends.

I screwed this recipe up by over-cooking it (you use a water-bath) by about half an hour. I was so mad at myself, since I had labored over it in a major way, but knew that it would only be a texture issue, and in fact the texture was just fine--not as moist and pudding-y perhaps as it might have been, but seriously tasty.

I'm kicking myself that I didn't get a photo of this because it's very showy--but I still have some in the fridge and it's going to make an appearance at lunch today so I'll have my camera ready.

The French Pea Soup I've made before (see above link) but I will say that if you're tripling the recipe give yourself some extra time. Oh, and take the time to make the croutons. They're worth it.

Merry Christmas, fellow employees! Let's do it again next year.


More? There could possibly be more?

Oh yes. I told you I had TWO events that called for hors d'oeurves, and the second one was my family Christmas gathering this past Saturday. My family decided that instead of eating hors d'oeurves all day and following it up with a big dinner, that we should just, well, eat hors d'oeurves all day.

Melissa is on board with that.

I decided to bring BL Tomatoes and Parmesan Walnut Salad in Endive Leaves.

OK. Remember how I was complaining above about fiddly, annoying recipes that have you stuffing cherry tomatoes? This is what I was talking about, but here's the thing.

These cherry tomatoes are effing awesome.

It's SUCH A PAIN to scoop out the innards with a teensy tinesy melon baller, and to ever-so-delicately put in the bacon/mayo/scallion/iceburg filling with the tip of a knife.

But it's SO worth it.

It's like, you know how some irritating food people talk about "complete proteins"? Something like, you should only eat bread with corn or beans with nuts--it has something to do with the order in which you digest things to get the maximum benefit from them (so where do I fit in the chocolate chip cookies? but I digress)

Anyway, eating these little stuffed tomatoes somehow feels complete. You seriously don't need anything else with them. And I'm so mad that I left the leftovers at my parent's house because I wanted to eat more of them. Make these when you have an army of slaves in your kitchen to do the fiddly work.

OK, the Parmesan Walnut Salad in Endive Leaves. I discovered, much to my irritation just about a second ago that I've actually already made these but didn't mark it in the book (I put a dot next to the recipe title) AND I've blogged about it. Here.

So it WAS a year and a half ago, and I didn't really write about it because our computer apparently had been on the fritz, but still. I wondered why it seemed so familiar!

Toasted walnuts and parmesan is a great combination, and endive is an elegant, cool and crunchy vehicle to get these goodies into your mouth. I have to confess that I waited too long at my parents to make these and everybody was full on everything else, so these never got trotted out. And I forgot them too. Oh well, hopefully they're being enjoyed in some form or another, but SINCE I've already made them I can tell you that they're great. Use the good parm--it's worth it.

By the way, none of the above photos are mine. I am an unrepentant photo thief. Please don't sue me, I don't have any money.

Thanks, and Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Cranberry Coffee Cake

One of the chapters in the book that I don't often utilize is the Breakfast and Brunch chapter. And out of all the recipes in that chapter, the ones I despaired of never getting to were the coffee cakes. At work, they just don't like sweet things for breakfast, and at home, well, it's more like Bran Buds for us.

So you can only imagine my delight when the house manager told me that the family had requested a couple of coffee cakes for Christmas morning. Not only could I bake something from the book, I could do it in advance and freeze it. Hooray!

I got right down to business. Cranberry Coffee Cake was make-able without even going to the store, since I had a bag of cranberries in the freezer. And people, it's super-easy--you don't even need any fancy bundt pans because it's baked in a loaf pan.

Here's the basic idea. Chop your thawed cranberries in a food processor with sugar and let them sit in a sieve to drain. I didn't see the "thawed" part and when I realized they couldn't drain while they were frozen, I sat down and read the paper for a while. Bonus.

Then make a cake batter. Now, in my last post I said that Lady Baltimore Cake was a straightforward cake batter, but it was the straightforward: pain-in-the-ass version. This is really, truly straightforward: cream butter and sugar, add eggs, then add flour mix and milk in alternating batches. Voila--cake batter.

Layer the batter and the cranberries in a loaf pan, and bake. So easy! My major regret is that since it's to be served on Christmas I couldn't slice it open and taste it--I'm sure it's beautiful inside and tastes fabulous, because cranberries just do.

(thanks to Lisa Hubbard, who took the above photo for Epicurious)

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Lady Baltimore Cake, or Melissa Overcomes Her Apprehensions About Life Imitating Art

Lady Baltimore Cake, the helpful note on this recipe states, was created by a fictional character in the 1906 Owen Wister novel entitled "Lady Baltimore". Somehow it made the leap from fiction to kitchen and was all the rage with American housewives of the day.

I have been avoiding this cake ever since I got The Gourmet Cookbook as a Christmas gift two years ago. You might wonder why, since I am not only a chef who loves baking (especially cakes) but a writer as well. What a perfect combination of sensibilities, you might think.

This is true. This is all true, and here is why I had my reservations. I give you, below, an excerpt from my novel-in-progress:

"...all of a sudden I had this idea for a dessert. A napoleon made with poached mulberries and sugared baby rosebuds, drizzled with honeysuckle nectar.”
“Yeah. And also, have you ever had yak cream?”
“Yak cream? Are you crazy?”
“I know, me neither, but somehow I can taste it on my tongue! It’s so weird! Dusted with...oak pollen. And cinnamon.”
“Oak pollen?”
“Yeah. I think it would go great with chicken.”

Now. Do I want some crazed fan to go out and make a yak cream sauce dusted with oak pollen and cinnamon? No, I do not. In fact, I'm pretty sure such a dish would be a major histamine punch, if not completely inedible. And I'm saying that writers come up with nutty stuff, stuff that we should not imitate in real life but should leave safely on the pages.

So this Lady Baltimore Cake, how do I know, I mean REALLY know that it's safe to eat? The Gourmet Cookbook has a few stupid recipes in it (not many, but a few), and perhaps all those housewives were under the effect of some sort of mass hysterical delusion akin to the swooning, screaming Twilight fans of today. Not that these teens are baking cakes, but I bet if Bella made Edward a cake and the recipe was in one of those books we'd have a big home-ec boom on our hands. Even if that cake had bear blood in it.

But here it was, my father's birthday coming up, and when I asked him what sort of dessert he wanted he told me he loved pecans. Pecan pie could have been the easy answer (and there is a pecan-pumpkin pie recipe I have my eye on) but I didn't think that would serve our large family.

Lady Baltimore Cake had all the right ingredients, including no chocolate which my dad thinks is OK but not swoon-a-licious like some people I know (me). So I plucked up my courage, got the ingredients, and went to work.

Upon further investigation, this is a pretty straightforward three-layer white cake with what the old-timers (my parents) call a boiled frosting--1/3 of which is mixed with chopped toasted pecans, figs, and raisins to make the filling. The Kitchen Aide gets its exercise with three different uses--the first to make the cake base, the second to beat 7 egg whites which are then folded into the cake base, and the third to whip yet more egg whites (what shall I do with 13 yolks??) into which boiled sugar syrup is poured, and then beaten and beaten and beaten until it's a cooled meringue. Do I hate cleaning out that mixer bowl and the beaters? Yes I do. In my fantasy world, I have three Kitchen Aides so I can avoid that step.

And was it a straightforward cake-baking process? No, it was not.

When I took the three cake pans out of the oven, I set them on top of the stove for their five-minute cooling period. One of them seem slightly less baked than the others. I poked a wooden skewer into it and it came out clean, but O'Malley and I watched in amazement as the hole emitted a steady stream of steam--sort of like a cakey volcano. I figured it was still cooking somehow, in its slightly underbaked state.

This happened at the same time that I was beating egg whites for the frosting, and by the time I got back to them to pour in the syrup, they were overbeaten--a first for me since I usually err on the side of underbeating.

How could I tell they were over-beaten? They were chunky, and sticking to the whisk. Undaunted, I poured the hot syrup into the bowl in a not-quite-so-thin stream, and hoped for the best, all of this while I was trying to answer O'Malley's question about passive voice and why the Microsoft Word grammar editor would flag it in his English paper on "The Gift of the Magi".

While I was leaning over the computer screen, I distinctly smelled something burning. I knew nothing was in the oven. While I was investigating, I noticed that the skewer hole in the underbaked cake layer looked sort of brown...

Yes, I had put a cake pan on top of a glass burner that had recently heated syrup up to 248 degrees. And that burner was now ever so gradually burning the crap out of the bottom of my dad's birthday cake.

And to make matters worse, the meringue frosting just wasn't looking the way I thought it should, all smooth and shiny-like:

See the little bumps? I hate little bumps.

But I am UNDAUNTED in the face of these challenges! Once I commit, baby, I commit.

So I trimmed the burned stuff off the cake layer once it had cooled,

and mixed the toasted pecans, raisins and figs into some of the frosting.

Then I assembled, frosted and (most fun of all) decorated:

How was it? Well, keep in mind that this is my family, and they love me no matter what, but even considering that wonderful unconditional love thing they LOVED this cake. Thought it was spectacular. Kept saying the frosting tasted like marshmallows. I finally said, yes, it's marshmallows even though I have no idea how to make marshmallows.

I personally can tell you that the toasted pecans are what made it so incredible...something about that flavor with the marshmallow-y flavor of the frosting just put it in realms far beyond Betty Crocker and her ilk. It was light (thank you, egg whites folded into the cake base), lured some of my non-sweet eating relatives into the dessert conga line, and was the perfect way to celebrate the 70th year of my dad's life.

Yay Dad! Happy Birthday to you from Owen Wister, Lady Baltimore, and me.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Pan-Seared Ancho Skirt Steak

Friends, a few posts ago I talked about substitutions in a recipe. Being the obsessive little creature I am, it makes me nuts when I can't find EXACTLY what the recipe calls for. And then, what to do? Continue anyway, with an approximation? Bag it and hope for a more successful shopping expedition elsewhere, another day? Can I really honestly evaluate a recipe if I can't cook it as it's written?

Such was my dilemma when shopping for Pan-Seared Ancho Skirt Steak. People, it only has 8 ingredients, and that's including olive oil and salt. But Stop N Shop has inexplicably stopped carrying dried peppers (so no dried ancho or New Mexico chiles) and the butcher not only didn't have skirt steak, he had never eaten it himself.

The moment of decision. Do I go to a spur-of-the-moment Plan B, or make some intelligent substitutions?

There are many types of recipes in The Gourmet Cookbook. Fussy, labor-intensive ones, building blocks, easy-but-impressive, and the category this recipe falls into (or is supposed to): quick, mid-week dinner recipes for hectic days or no-fuss situations. I figured I'd follow the spirit of the recipe if not the letter and substitute as I could.

A quick conference with the butcher led me to flank steak as a substitution for skirt steak. As for the chiles, I decided on jarred, diced hot chiles from the Exotic Foods aisle, even though they seemed to be sort of pickled in some liquid.

And then--onward.

I can testify that this recipe is indeed as advertised--quick and easy. I did not sear the flank steak, I cooked it as suggested in the recipe that comes right before it in the book, Flank Steak with Chimichurri--broiled for 12 minutes, turning halfway through.

But basically you're just making a chili/OJ vinaigrette to flavor the meat--it gets cooked with half, and the other half goes over the meat as a sauce. Then the whole shebang gets topped with sliced avocado.

My husband and son were impressed and appreciative--O'Malley had three helpings, in fact. It's good stuff, folks. Give it a try. And I WILL be sourcing skirt steak--there's at least one more recipe in the book that calls for it, and I'd like to try this mysterious cut of beef.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Best Rice Pudding

There are some desserts you swoon over because of their artistry, or complex layering of taste. Fancy tarts. Layered mousse cakes.

And then there are the desserts that take you right back to childhood, and Best Rice Pudding is one of them.

I made it for my book group last night, and David said his mother used to make this for him when he was a child. Elizabeth said, my husband's grandmother used to make reesgylbrkh (well, that's what it sounded like, and translation: rice gruel).

This particular recipe is not on Epicurious, though you can find a million variations, even one that features black rice.

But it's easy enough: cook one cup of long grain white rice with butter and a little lemon zest, then cook the cooked rice with a quart of whole milk, half a vanilla bean, and a cup of raisins. Dust with cinnamon and serve warm. I kept mine in a 175 oven until we were ready, and people, there's nothing quite as comforting as warm rice pudding on a chilly December evening.

I'll note that David is Irish, and Elizabeth's husband's grandmother was Norwegian, so perhaps this is more a European thing since rice pudding was never really a part of my childhood (it was more of a Jell-O and Cool-Whip life for me). But I'm glad to have it be a part of my adulthood.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Halibut with Spicy Asian Vinaigrette and Wasabi Cream

There's a certain point when I'm trying to follow a recipe when I pull the plug on writing about it, and it has to do with the compromises I make while shopping for the dish. So I was on the fence about Halibut with Spicy Asian Vinaigrette and Wasabi Cream right up until the moment I put the first bite into my mouth.

Why the vacillation?

1. no halibut--I got haddock instead
2. I couldn't find sambal oelek and bought Spicy Thai Sauce instead, hoping it was the same thing
3. I couldn't find pickled ginger and bought preserved ginger instead.
4. 2 lbs of haddock in even my biggest pan does not sear, it steams due to the close proximity of all that fish. I could have done half at a time but it was 8:45pm and I was STARVING. No fussiness when I'm starving.

So my fish did not look anything like this pretty picture:

But folks, let me tell you--when I took my first bite all doubts ran away because the magic in this dish is the combination of the fish, the chili vinaigrette, and the wasabi cream. Seriously yummy. The sear, the ginger, the parsley--that's all window dressing. Well, the ginger is a taste factor and I'm going to try to find some just for the full experience--but I'm glad I stuck with it in spite of the ingredient challenges, and even MORE glad that I've got leftovers. This dish was discovered at Highland's Garden Cafe in Denver, Colorado, so lucky Colorado readers, go eat there and tell me if the food is still this good and I need to buy a plane ticket.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Pumpkin Chiffon Pie with Gingersnap Crust; & Sweet Potato and Parsnip Puree

When my sister-in-law asked me to make dessert for Thanksgiving, she noted that we were going to be a small group. Eight adults.

"One dessert should be more than enough, don't you think?" she asked.

Readers, you can imagine how difficult it is to contemplate just ONE dessert for Thanksgiving. With the variety of traditional pies out there--apple, pecan, pumpkin, sweet potato--how does one choose? And what if the one dessert you make turns out to be not so popular? There are strong opinions out there about pies, in case you haven't noticed.

The Gourmet Cookbook offers a plethora of desserts that would be appropriate for the season. I narrowed it down by shutting my eyes and pointing. Pumpkin Chiffon Pie it is! And if some of our eaters didn't like pumpkin...well, c'est la turkey.

I must confess to a certain apprehension about plain old pumpkin pie. It always feels a little...slimy to me. I mean, I can polish off a piece without any problem (it would take more than a texture issue to deter me) but it's not my go-to ingredient when I'm thinking about pies.

So this recipe was a leap of faith for me but I was encouraged by the head notes, which state that the texture of THIS pie was lighter than air thanks to the chiffon-y nature of it. And if you're wondering what chiffon involves, it means getting out that Kitchen Aide mixer and using it a LOT, because you fold sweetened whipped egg whites and THEN stiff heavy cream into your pumpkin/sugar/egg/brandy/gelatin base.

It all looked pretty promising when I poured this filling on top of the gingersnap crust. I was expecting people to like it well enough.

What I wasn't expecting was that my family LOVED this dessert. I mean, the sort of love where they would just stop eating to say Oh. My. God.

I was bowled over, and very pleased.

If you make this, be sure to use the suggested garnish of chopped crystallized ginger. I think that's what put it over the top. That and the homemade whipped cream that I made everybody at the table take a turn at beating.


My other meal assignment was "potatoes". I was going to make mashed potatoes, but then I got to thinking about color on the plate and decided orange was prettier than white.

Gourmet to the rescue again, with Sweet Potato and Parsnip Puree.

I doubled the recipe, and then decided to put all of those nice cooked veggies in my trusty Kitchen Aide since the bowl was bigger than my food processor.

Don't bother.

The Kitchen Aide will mash them, but you really want a silky texture here and you just can't get that in anything but a food processor. I transferred the vegetables in two batches and pureed the heck out of them with the butter, milk etc.

It's simple, but man is it good. The perfect complement to Thanksgiving food.

Hope your day was as yummy as ours!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Barley Risotto and Creamed Spinach--Take Two

Pre-Thanksgiving seems the perfect time to focus on potential side dishes, don't you think? Well here are two, and I'll give you a rundown on them.

I had high hopes for Barley Risotto. One of the chefs I used to work with at the Emerson loved the fall season--he would brine pork chops in cider and herbs, slow roast lamb shanks, and make a heavenly barley risotto.

This version? Not so heavenly. Don't get me wrong--it's ok, and it's a great alternative to rice. I just thought it could go further in the flavor department, and with any risotto that seems to involve using wine at some point. I served it with roasted chicken, and then I took the leftovers and made a barley soup.

On the other hand, Creamed Spinach was a revelation. It's the simplest of recipes but it's the kitchen magic that makes it fun (and useful).

Because here's the thing. Spinach has all this water, right? So you either have to squeeze the dickens out of it or just live with a puddle of green water at the bottom of your serving dish.

THIS recipe makes good use of a flour-based roux to solve that little problem. It's easy-peasy...one tablespoon of butter, one tablespoon of flour, and let that fry for a little while in your pan. Add 2/3 c. heavy cream and let that simmer up into a nice thick sauce. Add your cooked chopped spinach, and you've got creamed spinach. The water from the spinach just thins the cream sauce out a bit. No weeping! (You or the spinach.)

This is a plain Jane recipe and can be dolled up however you like with onions etc. It's the technique that's so totally useful.

So if you're in charge of a green side for Thanksgiving and your family likes food on the basic side, give this one a whirl.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Barley Risotto and Creamed Spinach

Dear readers, I offer you profound apologies. It's not that I haven't been cooking, it's that I haven't been blogging about it. Oh for Teena's discipline! I'd like a large helping of that with my turkey, please.

In the weeks since I last wrote, here's a sample of what's been gracing our tables:

Chinese Beef Noodle Soup (the broth: heaven, and finally a cut of beef (short ribs) that doesn't shrink and toughen up like stew beef)

Kale and White Bean Soup (my biggest gripe with this was using dry beans, which sometimes just never fully soften up. Grrr.)

Shrimp, Crab, and Oyster Gumbo (Amazing, and expensive. Make this only if you are wealthy, or somebody wealthy is footing the bill, or you live in shrimp/crab/oyster country. Measurement note: Gourmet says 24 oysters = half a cup, but not in this part of the world. More like two cups, and have fun shucking those oysters.)

Beef and Sausage Lasagne (Meat lover's lasagne--mmmmm. My major complaint is that 13X9 baking dishes just aren't deep enough to really hold lasagne.)

Slow Roasted Salmon with Mustard and Parsley Glaze (pretty good and would have been better if I hadn't started with salmon that was still ever-so-slightly frozen in the middle)

Old-Fashioned Gingerbread (words cannot adequately describe how much I loved this cake. And please note that in spite of the instructions, I DID use blackstrap molasses, and thought it was better for it.)

Hungarian Chocolate Mousse Cake Bars (technically challenging, this recipe gave my Kitchen Aide a workout. The cake: swoony.)

Russian Tea Room Cheesecake (a cross between a lemon souffle and a cheesecake, another Kitchen Aide exerciser, and a perfect complement to the above-mentioned Hungarian Chocolate Mousse Cake Bars)

Coffee Bourbon Barbeque Sauce (the flavor is fine, but it's so thin!! Perhaps it would be better as a marinade?)

Well! Now that I've told you all about the food I was too busy to tell you about, I don't have time to write about Barley Risotto and Creamed Spinach. So until next time....

Friday, November 7, 2008

Carmelized Upside-Down Pear Tart

Every once in a while, when I get to work I'll encounter something like this:

In the cold room,

In the fridge,

What to do? Make Caramelized Upside-Down Pear Tart, that's what.

This recipe is a spin on the classic apple tart-tatin, and is pretty easy to make. But if you're the type of person who can screw up a recipe no matter what, here's a list of how you can screw up this one. I'm not saying I did these things, but I might have in the past. They say a sign of intelligence is being able to learn from your mistakes.

1. If you have a cheap pan with hot spots, you will burn the sugar in some areas before it can carmelize in others.

2. If you put the heat on too high, you will just burn all of the sugar, period.

3. If you suck at making pie crust, you're in trouble because that's a major component of this recipe.

4. I can almost guarantee you that you won't be able to get the tart out of the pan in one piece, so get used to the idea of a broken tart that isn't presentation perfect.

5. If you have an extremely heavy cast iron skillet and you're working alone and you've got a nice dessert plate, you must be very, very delicate with your flipping unless you want to shovel the whole thing in the trash. I've never done this personally but I have nightmares about it.

My issues around this tart as I made it were that I didn't make the pie crust and as you might have discerned by now, I'm sort of fussy in that area. This one that Miranda left me was OK but a little tough.

Also, there's not much to it. It's pie crust, and glazed pears. You'll definitely want ice cream or something to add a little juice. And eat it right away--it doesn't hold all that well. I wasn't nuts about it, but I'd be willing to try it again if the circumstances were right.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Parisian Passover Coconut Macaroons and a Shameless Plug for Another Cookbook

Are you even slightly compulsive? Got a sweet tooth? Like coconut?

Then whatever you do, don't make these cookies.

They are utterly irresistible. And they're simple enough--syrup-sweetened meringue folded with unsweetened coconut and baked until just firm, which yields you a cookie that is both crispy and chewy. God, are they good.

OK, this is not the perfect recipe. The seriously un-perfect part of it is the silly direction to shape the meringues into pyramids with wet fingertips. A waste of time, and for the perfectionists in the crowd (that would be me) trying to create a pyramid out of something that refuses straight lines or angles is a maddening venture best abandoned. I settled for pulling the tops up into kind of a twisted pointy top. A far easier solution would be to put the stuff in a pastry bag--quicker too.

You might also be thrown off by the direction to dust the baking pans with matzo cake meal. I just sprayed my sheets with Baking Pam (I have a growing affection for that stuff) but you could also use sil-pat liners or parchment paper if you'd like to dispense with fat/flour altogether.


Shameless Plug for Another Cookbook:

I've been hearing about this book for years and finally bought it.

If you're a baker and you're trying to get whole grains into the picture, run don't walk to the nearest bookstore and get this book.

OK, I've only made three cookie recipes so far, but fans on the Gourmet staff of Katherine Hepburn's Brownies, I'm sorry, the Double Fudge Brownies made with 100% whole wheat has you beaten hands down.

Seriously, they are the best brownies I've ever made or eaten, and that's saying something.

Now, please note that I'm not suggesting that this book could ever replace my one and only true love, The Gourmet Cookbook. I am suggesting cookbook polyamory. And if I had no day job, family or life I would start a second cook-through blog with this book as my subject.

One of the things I am most gratified about is that baking with whole grains has been mysterious territory for me. Baked goods made with whole wheat flour have been, in my experience, dense, sort of metallic tasting, and kind of grainy. (please don't get me started on whole wheat pasta, either)

Here are some of the things I've learned in three recipes:

1. Letting cookie dough made with WW flour rest overnight in the fridge makes that metallic taste disappear somehow.

2. Letting brownies made with WW flour rest overnight before cutting allows the bran? germ? whatever that gritty stuff is absorb moisture, which makes for a smoooooooth texture.

3. You can grind oats in a food processor for 30 seconds to make oat flour for cookies.

4. New experience!!! I sprinkled oat-cashew cookies with SALT before baking. Mmmmm.

This is not whole-grain baking from the 70's, folks. Grab it and bake along with me.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Chocolate Orange Dobostorte

There are cake recipes, and then there are cake recipes. Chocolate Orange Dobostorte is a project for a serious baker (or somebody in a serious baking mood) and for somebody branching out with their baking skills it requires faith and boldness.

Gosh, Melissa--you sound so serious! I hear you say.

Well, it's true. It also requires a serious chunk of your time, because this cake took me 4+ active hours to make.

This is why it requires fortitude:

1. cake is baked in thin layers on the bottom sides of pans. Not your usual MO in cake-baking land.

2. buttercream, although worth every second of effort you put into it, is time-consuming and has a few scary moments for the easily intimidated.

3. ditto for caramel.

If you don't have a standing mixer, this would be a good time to invest in one! For the buttercream alone it was on for about 20 minutes.

OK, but let me begin at the beginning, with the cake layers. Dobostorte is composed of (in this recipe) 9 crepe-thin layers of cake. The batter is like sponge cake batter--a yolk/sugar/orange zest base with stiff egg whites folded in. Then you flip 8 inch cake pans over, and put the batter on the bottoms, spread to the edge, and bake for 6 or 7 minutes.

Part of the fun of this procedure is figuring out how much the batter will spread. I overshot my first few...

Luckily, this batter produces a tender yet flexible cake layer that was easy to trim with scissors. Here's the stack:

So now what?

Now you make the buttercream. I've actually made buttercream frosting three times in the past couple of weeks and by now it feels familiar. If you've never made meringue-based buttercream (and please don't be fooled by "buttercream" recipes that call for things like cream cheese or crisco. It ain't the same.) this is how it works. First of all you have to have absolutely room-temp butter. MY butter happened to be frozen (zoinks!) so I put it into a very low oven for a while. It did melt a tiny little bit but the whole of it got heated enough so that by the time I was ready for it the texture was just right.

You whip egg whites (in this case two, which worried me because I didn't think the KitchenAid beaters were low enough to really get them)...

and at the same time you make a simple syrup (remote thermometer, I love you). When it hits the right temp, you pour it slowly into the bowl while the beaters run, and then let it go until it cools down. This batch took about 10 minutes (this is not a recipe to make while you're listening to a book on tape) but I've made batches that took 20.

Once it's cool, you chuck in the butter, tablespoon by tablespoon. This is where it gets dicey for the faint of heart, because at one point it looks seriously ruined in a yucky curdled way. But it all comes together in the end, at which point you pour in melted chocolate (which you have already melted and cooled).

There's your buttercream. But you ALSO need a boozy syrupy glaze for the cake layers. Enter orange marmalade, a little water, and Grand Marnier, which you combine and push through a fine mesh sieve.

Are you still with me?

OK, here comes the layering part! You get a cake stand, put a little dab of buttercream down to anchor your first layer, and off you go. Like this:

cake layer
brush with syrup
put in the fridge for 3 minutes

take it out
spread 2 heaping tablespoons choco buttercream frosting
put a layer on top
brush with syrup
put in the fridge for 3 minutes


And now? Now you frost it and it's done?

Not so fast, Sparky.

Now comes the top layer, which is coated with the caramel you're about to make.

Faithful readers and other Gourmet bloggers know that caramel is a big theme in this book. Well, not so much a theme as a favorite flavor. I would guess that in the past few years of cooking with and blogging about this book I've made caramel about...15 times. Easily.

So here's some more caramel, which you pour over one of your cake layers (which is on a baking rack over tin foil). Here I had some trouble--the caramel at first poured too quickly so it ran off the sides and onto the foil (and not evenly over the cake). So I got it off the foil and remelted it in the pan, and tried again, but this time it was a little too viscous and wouldn't spread out the way I wanted.

Oh, and also you're supposed to score the top lightly with a buttered knife to make cutting easier, because basically this is now a caramel flavored candy disc with a little cake underneath it. Which will be the top of your cake.

And now...we're really in the home stretch. The caramel layer goes on top. Your 1/3 cup reserved chocolate buttercream frosting goes around the sides. And your toasted hazelnuts (forgot to mention those, but by this time you've toasted, cooled and chopped them) get pressed around the sides into the chocolate buttercream.

Alas, dear readers, I can't tell you how this cake tasted (though I tried all the components) or even if it was easy or hard to cut, because I made it to be served at a luncheon on my day off. My counterpart Miranda will report in and I will tell ALL.

UPDATE: Miranda reports...

"Your cake was great!! It was not only easy to cut through but looked beautiful when sliced. The layers were perfectly spaced with the right amount of frosting or was it ganache? The orange flavor was strong and the overall cake was very moist. It was worth the time for sure."

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Quince, Apple and Almond Jalousie

First pomegranates and now quinces--I know, I'm the queen of seasonal cooking this week. The difference is that I got the pomegranates at the supermarket but these quinces were foraged from the yard at work.

Say what?

Well, if you're anything like me first of all you have never used a quince in cooking, or perhaps you don't even know what the heck they are. They certainly aren't clogging up the produce aisle.

But quinces have a long and venerable history, according to my research. This from Wikipedia:

Cultivation of quince may have preceded apple culture, and many references translated to "apple", such as the fruit in Song of Solomon, may have been to a quince. Among the ancient Greeks, the quince was a ritual offering at weddings, for it had come from the Levant with Aphrodite and remained sacred to her. Plutarch reports that a Greek bride would nibble a quince to perfume her kiss before entering the bridal chamber, "in order that the first greeting may not be disagreeable nor unpleasant" (Roman Questions 3.65). It was a quince that Paris awarded Aphrodite. It was for a golden quince that Atalanta paused in her race. The Romans also used quinces; the Roman cookbook of Apicius gives recipes for stewing quince with honey, and even combining them, unexpectedly, with leeks. Pliny the Elder mentioned the one variety, Mulvian quince, that could be eaten raw. Columella mentioned three, one of which, the "golden apple" that may have been the paradisal fruit in the Garden of the Hesperides, has donated its name in Italian to the tomato, pomodoro.

Feel smarter? I know I do.

So the other day when I was out cutting flowers at work, I walked by a big old bush and noticed that it was heavy with this lumpy looking yellow fruit.


We only pay attention to that big old bush in the spring, when it's full of pretty pink flowers, and we note that it's a Japanese Flowering Quince.

Now, I had to pick a few of those lumpy yellow fruits, smell them, let them hang out in the kitchen, think some more, wonder if I was going to poison anybody, pick a few more, think some more, etc. before I fully committed to using these to make the Quince, Apple and Almond Jalousie.

This was my first surprise. There's a lot of hollow space in the middle of these things.

But I sliced them and got them into a pan with some water and sugar for their 2 hour cookdown.

Here was my second surprise:

They turn red!! How cool is that?

Even just stopping right there would have made my day, because that was like a magic trick right there at the stove.

The rest of the filling was pretty straightforward--adding apples and sliced, toasted almonds.

The crust recipe had a new technique--amazing after all the ways I've produced pie crusts that there could be a technique I haven't come across. This technique calls for coarsely grating frozen butter into the flour, and people I am here to tell you that this is an unpleasant way to make pie crust because you are gripping frozen butter with one hand which is COLD!!!

But after the rest of the standard pie crust-making hooha, this is what I had:


Oh, by the way, see those slits? That's the image for which this tart is named--the French word for "Venetian blind" is "jalousie". I guess it would sound a little odd to call it a Quince, Apple and Almond Venetian Blind, although I suppose that's the way it translates in French.

Here it is, baked:

Now, I have two things to say about this tart.

1. The pie crust was heavy, and considering the awkward and unpleasant technique used to make it, I am jettisoning that idea forever more and would urge you to do likewise. If you ever make this tart, use your favorite crust-making technique, not this one.

2. Quinces are sour. Even with sugar. And it's a kind of sour that hits you at the back of the throat, which may or may not have unpleasant connotations for you. I did for me, but it didn't seem to bother anybody else who tried it, or maybe they were being polite.

A sub-note to #2 is that the quinces I used were not the quinces that are sold in stores (whatever mysterious stores sell them). According to my research, the fruit of the Japanese Flowering Quince is a cousin--still edible but only when cooked and used primarily to make liquors, marmalades and preserves, which I think tart filling pretty much counts as. So it's possible that the other quinces might have had a slightly different flavor profile. I might try it again someday if I see them around, on a tree or otherwise!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Persian-Style Chicken with Walnut, Onion and Pomegranate Sauce

Readers, a few posts ago (could have been the b'stilla post) I said that I was close to the end of the Poultry chapter. Ha ha. What I meant was I was close to the end of the chicken recipes. There are scads more that involve ducks, turkeys, game hens, pheasants and (?) rabbits. I don't know why rabbit is in the poultry chapter, but there it is.

Anyway, Persian-Style Chicken with Walnut, Onion and Pomegranate Sauce is one of those recipes that involves a seasonal ingredient, so I had to bide my time. Pomegranates are in the markets now, we had family visiting at work, so voila!! Perfect alignment for the recipe.

Cooks who are comfortable making a pan sauce for roasted or pan-fried chicken will find this to be just one or two steps beyond that in the addition of ground toasted walnuts, pomegranate juice, and pomegranate seeds. Using nuts as a thickener (especially toasted nuts) is a luscious way to bulk up a sauce, and I loved the taste and texture of the walnuts.

Working with the pomegranate was the most cumbersome aspect of this recipe, and I imagine it will be for you too. After years of fiddling around with these things I've found the best way to get the seeds out is to do it underwater in a bowl--the membrane floats to the top and the seeds fall to the bottom. Easy to separate after that!

The next conundrum was how to get 2/3 of a cup of pomegranate juice. I could use a fine mesh sieve, but had the brainstorm of using a ricer instead.

This was a brilliant idea, until I realized that only half of the little seeds were getting juiced--then they got pushed down into the unjuiced seeds to form an unjuicable mass in the ricer. So I spent the next ten minutes or so mooshing the intact seeds with my fingers until all the juice was out, which amazingly gave me exactly 2/3 of a cup of pomegranate juice. This juice, along with 1/3 cup of intact seeds, goes into the sauce along with the ground walnuts, onions, cinnamon, tomato sauce, chicken stock, lemon juice, and molasses.

I know, it sounds like a toddler got loose in the pantry, but really all together it's good in a pleasingly exotic way.

The one thing I wasn't totally crazy about was the seeds in the sauce. That little kernel in the middle made chewing interesting--you just kind of have to go with it, like when you're eating grapes with seeds and decide to swallow them instead of spitting them out.

Here's a photo I lifted from Kevin's site (thanks, Kevin!!):

My plate did not look anywhere near this pretty (though it wasn't bad) and I didn't think to save some seeds for garnish. My diners enjoyed this dish enough to ask for it the following night as leftovers, and I liked it too. If you don't mind fooling around with exotic ingredients and flavors and are looking for something unusual to do with chicken, I'd say give this one a try.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Baked Polenta with Parmesan

Another adventure in the Grains and Beans chapter!

Baked Polenta with Parmesan allowed me to address one of the difficulties I had when I made Creamy Polenta Parmesan, which is that I couldn't get the polenta to move in a "thin stream" into the water. After giving it a lot of thought, I decided to put the polenta into a funnel and stream it in that way. Perfecto!!

But before I could use this brilliant idea of mine, I was confronted with this fact--that I didn't have the correct corn ingredient.

This is what the recipe says: I cup polenta (not quick-cooking) or yellow cornmeal (not stone-ground).

Folks, this is what I had in the pantry:

I don't know if you can read the fine print, but it says, "stone-ground"

Now. Am I going to make a special trip to the store to buy some not-stone-ground yellow cornmeal? Heck no. I am going to throw caution to the winds and find out what happens when you make polenta with stone-ground cornmeal.

So after using my brilliant funnel-streaming idea, the polenta cooked for 15 minutes (without clumping-ha!) Stone-ground cornmeal retains the germ of the corn kernel--it's a rougher texture than the more finely-milled stuff. But it still cooked up just fine--I poured it into an 8X8 baking pan and baked it for 25 minutes, then sprinkled it with parm and broiled it for another 3.

How did it taste? Corn + butter and parmesan = yummy in any combination, but I'll come down on the side of using not-stone-ground for the polenta dishes. It's not that it was bad, it was simply a texture issue, and I like the finer texture better.

It got eaten up though, trust me.