"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, 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.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Bulgur Pilaf with Pine Nuts, Raisins, and Orange Zest

I am in a grainy mood.

Usually my association with whole grains is limited to my morning intake of bran cereal and the occasional slice of whole wheat bread. And in the winter, oatmeal. I can take or leave rice (especially brown rice, thank you), I don't like the taste of kasha, and there's something that's just too dry about grain-based salads or sides.

But the Creamy Parmesan Polenta that I made a few weeks ago rocked my world, and I looked upon the Grains and Beans chapter with a much more optimistic attitude after that.

So it was that I made Baked Polenta with Parmesan and Bulgur Pilaf with Pine Nuts, Raisins, and Orange Zest last week. More on the Baked Polenta soon, but for now let me tell you that the Bulgur Pilaf (recipe not online) was superb.

The more I cook, the more I worship citrus. I will guarantee you right now--lay down money--that anything that you aspire to make--anything-- will be enhanced by including either the juice or the zest of lemon, lime, orange, or grapefruit.

OK, to be truthful I've never used grapefruit zest in anything but candied grapefruit peel...wait, that's not true. I made some amazing pot de cremes once using the combined peels of grapefruit, orange and lemon. Boy, were those good.

Yay, citrus!

This pilaf is delicious, and it's a nice change of pace from the usual bulgur manifestation, tabouli. It's also seasonal, with the nuts and dried fruit so roast a chicken and serve this on the side. You'll thank me later.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Individual B'stillas

Remember that Moroccan Spice Mix I made a few weeks ago?

Well, I used it to make one of the few remaining recipes in the Poultry chapter for my book group the other night--Individual B'Stillas.

This is one of those recipes that seemed too complicated to bother with (not least because it requires making your own spice blend), and what the heck are b'stillas anyway? The head notes tell us that traditionally it's an enormous pigeon or chicken pie. How many pigeons = one chicken? That's an equivalency you don't ever see in the back of cookbooks.

But here are some of the other reasons I was put off:

1. Phyllo is a pain in the ass.
2. It has sugar in it, and I dislike sweet/savory foods.
3. It makes a lot, and usually I'm cooking for not a lot of people.
4. It involves cooking, cooling and picking a chicken, and that's kind of a pain in the ass too.
5. It has saffron in it, and to me anything with saffron smells like dirty dish water.

But since I already had the spice mix done, and since I had picked the book All The Names by Jose Saramago, I wanted to cook something that would be sort of evocative either of the book or the author's home country (which is not Morocco, by the way, but who's paying attention?)

Individual B'stillas it was.

For anybody with experience with sauteing onions and cooking chicken, most of this was pretty straightforward. But there was one part of the recipe that had me reading very closely, and that's where you make something along the lines of straciatelli--you pour a thin stream of beaten eggs into boiling broth and stir til they're cooked. Then you drain the set eggs in a sieve, discarding the stock. These stock-cooked sort of scrambled eggs become part of the filling, mixed with shredded chicken, onions, and other good things (including almonds ground with sugar).

I have to confess here that I tossed this whole fun ball of cooking into my friend Moira's lap while I went to work. Well, not the whole thing--I did it up to the mix-the-filling part and stuff the phyllo part. Moira had never worked with phyllo but thought she could figure it out.

And here, I have to scold the recipe authors a little bit. My poor friend Moira could not work out at all how these were supposed to be rolled up. Like egg rolls? Letters? Triangles? She tried a variety of them (while making small talk with an unexpectedly early guest) and was at an utter and frustrated loss by the time I dashed in the door. A little diagram would have helped her out a lot--have some pity on the spatial learners of the world!

I needed to work fast, and so I didn't bother trying to make individual ones--I just took three sheets, layered and buttered them and rolled the thing up like a giant Cuban cigar. A little butter wash and a sprinkle of almond sugar and into the oven they went.

A virtue of this recipe is that they cook up fast--the filling is cooked already so really you're just baking the phyllo--a quick proposition.

How were they? OH MY GOD. They were so good, and I was possibly even twice as delighted because I wasn't expecting them to be good for all of the reasons I mentioned above. I LOVED the almond sugar inside and on the top. My book group loved them. Moira will never ever cook them again, but she loved them too. Everybody should give three cheers to Moira for being such a good sport.

Here's to us!
Who's like us?
Damn few!

Here's a photo that's not mine and by the way if you're looking for images or recipes online you won't find diddly under "b'stillas" except for this post and epicurious...you have to search for "bisteeya".

So here's a bisteeya from Gastroteca Online:

Ours were not quite as beautiful but I bet they tasted better.

P.S. I could not detect any saffron flavor(a plus for me) so if you don't have it and can't afford it, just leave it out--it's mostly a color thing anyway, I think.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Gourmet-inspired Seafood Smackdown, or Melissa Gets Competitive

Friends, when you're in the cooking world, every once in a while somebody throws you a curveball.

Such was the case when my work counterpart, Miranda, called me on the phone and said, "I have exciting news!"

Her exciting news was that a local blogger had corralled her into competing in the Gloucester Seafood Smackdown--a weekly competition held at the Thursday Farmer's Market. This competition is meant to highlight two things--Gloucester's proud fishing industry, and our local farmers via the Farmer's Market.

The hook? Think Iron Chef and mystery ingredients.

That's right. You and your partner get to bring three favorite ingredients from home, and once you're on site you get 4 lbs. of mystery seafood and $25 (and 15 minutes) to shop in the Farmer's Market. They provide you with garlic, lemons, limes, olive oil, salt, pepper, a grill, and a two-burner stove top. You can also bring presentation set-ups for three judges, and you're expected to have enough to feed hungry and curious market-goers.

This was Miranda's idea (oh, by the way, her exciting news ended with would you like to be my partner? And of course I did. :-) so I let her take the lead on planning. She at first had a lettuce wrap in mind, with a carrot/cabbage slaw, then a nori wrap, and finally she settled on a swiss chard wrap--something that could be poached in sake and broth. She went back and forth on the three ingredients, but ultimately settled on: sake, black sesame seeds, and basmati rice. We figured whatever the seafood was, it could be wrapped and poached.

How did it go?

(I tried to download and upload the video so it would be embedded, but I'm not smart enough yet for that...but if you click here, you can see it for yourself!)

How was this inspired by Gourmet? Well, as you can see from the video, we lost out on the Swiss chard. But...right next door was some handsome romaine lettuce, and I remembered the Romaine-Wrapped Halibut from the Fish and Shellfish chapter. A quick poach in simmering water, and we had wrappers. The chives were a last-minute inspiration (actually, I was looking for scallions) to secure the bundles. The chives were a little fragile, but they sure did look good.

Who won? Tune in soon--they'll post the results next week.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Golden Cake with Chocolate Sour Cream Frosting

Got a hankering for a classic layer cake with chocolate frosting? This is the cake for you.

There are two cake recipes in the cake chapter that could qualify as the cake part--the second one being All-Occasion Yellow Cake. Golden Cake with Chocolate Sour Cream Frosting has half again the amount of batter though (3 1/2 cups of flour vs. 2, 2 sticks of butter vs. 1) so if you're using nine-inch pans I'd go with this one.

I think the reason why some people don't like cake is because they find it dry. Bakers, this is where YOU have full control. Dry cake comes from overbaking, so set your oven timers for five minutes under the suggested time in the oven.

Now, this brings me to a side-topic in the world of baking, which is the effect that different color pans have on your baked goods. As you know, you can bake in glass, light metal, or dark metal pans. I still have a hard time understanding why dark metal would absorb more heat than light metal. I mean, I get it when it's the sun heating up your car upholstery, but that's heat and light combined. Is it just heat that's the issue? Light doesn't have anything to do with it? Because it's DARK in an oven. So why does a dark metal pan bake your food faster and brown it better?

And here's another question to ponder: will your food be colder in a white container in your refrigerator than if it were in a black container?

All of which is to say that my dark metal nine-inch baking pans really browned my cake layers. I didn't think they were dry, but I might have baked them one minute less for perfection. Not that I'm a perfectionist.

OK, let's leave the cake for a moment and talk about the frosting.

Readers, I had several heartbeats of hesitation in the store while I was buying the chocolate for the frosting part of the recipe. Why? Because it calls for two-thirds milk chocolate and one-third semi-sweet chocolate.

I'm not so much of a milk-chocolate girl. In fact, if a box of chocolates were waved under my nose and the only ones left were covered with milk chocolate, I would pass them up unless I were starving or really bored (oh, the curse of idle eating!)

But in the interests of making the recipe as directed, at least for the first time, I dutifully picked up two bags of Ghiradelli milk chocolate chips and one bag of semi-sweet. I didn't even buy the bittersweet instead! Admire my heroic restraint!

And here's another rhetorical question, which is why on earth would anybody buy frosting in a can, when it's so freakin' easy to make awesome frosting? This is the easiest frosting on earth and it's amazingly good. Here's all you have to do to make awesome frosting yourself:

1. melt chocolate
2. add sour cream and vanilla

That's it! For people who dislike super-sweet frosting, or frosting made with Crisco, this is the frosting for you.

Now, would this frosting be better with semi- or bittersweet chocolate instead of milk? You know how I'm going to answer that question, but the beauty of it is that it's all up to you. And actually this frosting kicked ass, even with the milk chocolate.

I made this cake for my friend Elizabeth's dinner party--lots of émigrés from Pennsylvania and Michigan. I figured they would like cake, and they did.