"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".

Monday, January 26, 2009

Melissa Feeds the World, Starting with Her Parents

Usually, I sponge off my parents when it comes to dinner, one of the many advantages of living 15 minutes down the road from them. I'm only waiting for the day when they get demented enough that I can extract pocket money from them, but by that point I'll probably be helping them wipe the drool off their chin and they won't have any to give because it will all be sucked into some giant pool of nursing home fees. (sigh) So much for my big plans.

But every once in a while I can lure them out of their cozy home to our cozy (but second floor) home with the promise of a nice, gourmet dinner, and during this most recent dinner I made two stunningly delightful recipes from The Gourmet Cookbook.

It's possible that I was so thrilled with the first because I thought it would suck. And here's why:

I hate chicory.

So when Don came home with a head of chicory ("I was just craving it!" he said. Crazeeeee.) I grumpily looked it up and found a little note on it (strip the leaves, it says, the stems are the bitter part) and one lonely recipe for Chicory Salad with Oranges and Red Onions.

Even while I was making it, and tasting the stripped chicory leaves, I thought it would be way too bitter. Blech!!

But the combination of parboiled, vinegared red onions and sweet navel oranges did something magical to the chicory leaves, and this salad was the perfect counterpart to marinated steak tips and Creamy Parmesan Polenta.

Not bitter. Not at all. Refreshing and seriously yummy.


And I took advantage of this dinner party to make a rare dessert for me--souffles.

Because of the split-second nature of their debut, souffles just never work out for my cooking jobs. And nothing is sadder than saying, oh, this looked great about 20 minutes ago, when I THOUGHT you'd be done eating dinner, but now it's just a wrinkly, deflated chocolate balloon....

No sir, not for me. I live for external validation in case you haven't figured that out yet and so I need an audience under my control for souffles.

Enter Coffee Souffles with Chocolate Sauce.

It's hard to have an issue with a recipe like this, but have an issue I did, if you can call too much of a good thing an issue--this recipe serves far more than 4. Here I was, with my four little ramekins filled and a heck of a lot more souffle to go...

I finally settled for 6 small ramekins and one big one:

And did I ever mention I really like chocolate?


That's me eating the souffle.

Mm mmm good!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Rush Limbaugh, White Trash Cake, and Me

Friends, you know how dedicated I am to gourmet cooking, and The Gourmet Cookbook in particular.

So it was with some bemusement that I regarded my Sitemeter statistics last week, which were telling me that the most popular page on my blog was not my home page, but suddenly the post entitled "Cappuccino Brownies and White Trash Cake".


Not only that, but my daily hits went from oh, about 75/day to over 2500 on Monday, 1/12.

At first I thought I was getting a lot of action on my open letter to Ruth Reichl--perhaps Gourmet staffers were passing it around and clearing out some desk space for me?

And then...my cell phone rang. It was not Ms. Reichl, it was a lovely food columnist from the West Coast named Lisa Messinger who SOLVED THE MYSTERY.

And here it is:

You may have heard of a radio talk show host named Rush Limbaugh?

I thought you may have.

Anyway, apparently he celebrated his birthday last week, and his staff made him a "White Trash Cake". 2500 people googled that term and found my post, which describes a family birthday cake my mother made for us kids while we were growing up.

Anyway, Ms. Messinger and I had a nice long talk, and then she called my mom, and here's the column she wrote about it. And, today is Lisa's birthday! Happy Birthday Lisa!!! I want to know what flavors you picked. :-)

It is ironic that this blog, which is slavishly devoted to gourmet cooking, gets mucho attention for a cake that relies heavily on Jell-O products and Cool Whip, but allow me to make the point that I made in my original post, which is that this cake borrows classic French baking techniques to make a cake that is really moist and yummy. If you HATE the dry Betty Crocker-type cake layers with super sweet frosting, then either hit a French bakery for some nice tortes layered with custard and brushed with flavored syrup, or make your own from the Gourmet Cookbook, OR for a home-grown in the USA interpretation, try White Trash Cake.

So, Rush--that birthday cake of yours was inspired by the French. What do you think of that? ;-)

Happy Birthday.

EDIT 3.11.12

Rush Limbaugh has been much in the news lately, so I just want to clarify where I stand on him. When I originally wrote this post I didn't know much about Rush Limbaugh, except that he was a particularly vitriolic radio host who seemed to hate almost everybody. I've never listened to him and probably never will. I dislike pundits of all stripes and as a progressive democrat would probably not be able to stand more than 5 seconds of his nonsense. Nevertheless:

1. Freedom of Speech means for everybody, not just people you agree with.
2. The more polarizing somebody is, the more people clarify what their values and beliefs are in reaction.

You can see that now with the backlash against the GOP's current war on women (and there really is no other way to describe this evangelically-driven legislative movement). Women all over America of all political persuasions are recoiling from this political platform. Who brought it to a head? Rush Limbaugh, with his on-air comments about Georgetown student Sandra Fluke. It's a weird kind of favor he's doing us, but there it is.

Also--I have to believe there's more to this guy than the on-air persona. Come on, he has staffers who thought it would be hysterically funny to make him a White Trash Cake for his birthday. Okay, he's paying them (good point) but he must at least have a sense of humor and that counts for something.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Six Cookies

Oh, you think I've been languishing, do you? Waiting by the phone for Ms. Reichl to call? Listlessly dusting my cookbook collection?

That's what cell phones are for. You don't have to sit by them. And I haven't been languishing, I've been cooking my butt off. Or baking, I should say, because people, I am almost done with the Cookies, Bars and Confections chapter.

Can you believe it? I can't.

It's not like I went crazy for some bake sale--we were so low on cookies at work post-Christmas that we were down to just one or two varieties (we try to keep about 10-12 different kinds in the freezer).

Chef hat on. Melissa gets down to it.

First up, Madeleines.

Now, here's the problem with madeleines: they require a special pan. The whole POINT of these things seems to be the shape, because the cookie is nothing more than a little tiny shell-shaped cake. Did I have this pan? No.

But about a month ago my husband and I were in a kitchen supply store in Concord and I spotted some--and not just the madeleine pans, but mini-madeleines. Perfect for work, where the ideal size for a brownie is about the size of an international stamp. My husband got me the pan, because he's awesome.

Here's the pan. It doesn't look mini cuz I took a close-up shot.

Now, here's the problem with this recipe. Or maybe it's the problem with me. OK, it's definitely the problem with me, and here it is: if you don't get the amount of cake batter EXACTLY right, the batter overflows the mold a little bit and then you get this kind of crusty fin that sticks out all around the cookie. For somebody with a sculpture degree (me) who is obsessive (me) that means HOURS practically sitting there cutting the little fins off to get the right little shell shape.

And see how I rolled the edges of those in powdered sugar? All the while I was thinking how stupid they were in the cookbook to direct us to "dust scalloped sides with confectioner's sugar". Obviously you can't dust just the SIDES--you're going to get some on the top too. Well, this is what they meant. Der.

Next up: Date and Oat Bars.

These are very agreeable, nice bars. They are like the pleasant boys in class that your mother wants you to date, who get good grades, and stay out of trouble. But oh, you're thinking, if only they were more like CHOCOLATE!

These were very tasty for cookies that don't have chocolate, though it must be said that if you hate Fig Newtons for texture reasons you will probably hate these. I happened to be baking in the company of a young lady who hates Fig Newtons, so I can confirm this.

Number Three on the list: New Orleans Praline.

This was actually the final Confections recipe for me--I've done them all now (not THAT hard a task since there were only six). And I must confess, in the take-it-or-leave-it dept, I think I could leave this one. It's not really fudge, it's not really candy, it's kind of a weird hybrid. Maybe you just can't make it correctly unless you're in New Orleans. Here's what mine looked like:

Cookie #4: Shortbread.

What? you're thinking--This is the First Time you've made shortbread?

Nojeezumgivemeabreak! I've made it about ten gazillion times but never This Particular Recipe. So many times that I forgot to take a picture of this one, even though I jazzed it up with hazelnuts on top, much to the dismay of the above-mentioned young lady who hates Fig Newtons and who used to live in Scotland. Or maybe it was England, but anyway someplace where they bake and eat a lot of shortbread and have STANDARDS, for chrissakes. And those standards don't include putting hazelnuts on top.

But for people who like pictures, here is a picture of somebody else's shortbread. Just envision hazelnuts on top:

The fifth cookie was Langues de Chat, or Cat's Tongues for those of you who like to name your cookies after body parts.

This was one of those recipes that required an Exotic Ingredient, in this case Orange Flower Water, which unbelievably is a beverage in some parts of the world where drinking perfume is yummy.

You think I'm being a jerk, but you've got to smell this stuff. I guess it would be great for chronic bad breath, though.

The idea of this cookie is that it's a long, thin, sugared wafer that is ideal as a complement for ice cream (for example). You shape it by piping lengths of batter on a silpat-lined baking sheet. You can see my idea of what a six-inch strip is changed just a little bit while I was piping:

Good thing I'm not a carpenter.

My problem with these cookies is that the difference between almost done and burnt was the blink of an eye. It was driving me nuts! Here's where about half of them ended up:

By the way, it was just sheer coincidence that I had thrown away some wilted flowers, lest you think I was decorating the trash can for this shot.

So batch after batch were just on the edge of burning, and I was so pissed, and I finished the batter and the last batch and went to turn off the effing oven, and what was it set to? Not 325, as the recipe directs--352.

Yes, good thing I'm not a carpenter and also good thing I'm not a....some other job that requires numbers. Like an air traffic controller.

I'm actually planning on remaking these at some point, just to prove I can program the oven correctly.

The LAST ONE (for today, not the chapter): Almond-Apricot Biscotti.

I love biscotti! They are so crunchy and yummy, and they're the perfect shape, somehow. We make tiny ones at work, not longer than three inches, and slice them very thinly--less than half an inch. This particular recipe hits MY buttons because it involves toasted almonds, one of my favorite flavors. I'm a fool for almonds, I tell ya. And even though I was working with freeze-dried apricots (???) instead of normal dried ones, they turned out to be those California apricots Gourmet writers go on and on about (as opposed to the Turkish ones, which are less tangy and interesting).

Here they are:

What could possibly be left, I hear you cry? I can practically list them on one hand:

Oat Lace Cookies
Coconut Tuile Cones (these are actually a vehicle for ice cream)
Cinnamon Chocolate Cigarettes (the surgeon general LIKES these)
Swedish Ginger Thins
Gingerbread Snowflakes (tree decoration)
Stained Glass Teardrops (more tree decorations)

Watch this space. When I'm done with the chapter, I'll announce My Favorites.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Melissa Needs a Job, or Oh Ruth Reichl, Don't You Need a Freelancer?

All good things in life must come to an end, and although my primary, wonderful job has not come to a COMPLETE stop, it's a shell of its former self and that, my friends, is why I'm letting you know that Melissa, Your Most Faithful Correspondent, needs a job. Sooner rather than later.

I know, join the crowd at the food pantry. But hear me out, folks-- I've got mad skilz in the cooking department, and I'm also a pretty snappy writer. DON'T YOU THINK that makes me perfect for working at someplace like, oh, Gourmet Magazine?

So here's an open letter to Ruth Reichl. Feel free to chime in with your support in the comments section and you too can tell Ruth how awesome I am.

Dear Ms. Reichl,

I know, it's a total long shot. And it's true that it might be perceived as a conflict of interest that I'm cooking through your massive, beautiful yellow cookbook, reviewing recipes in a contentedly unbiased fashion, unpaid by Gourmet, or Conde Nast, or whoever your corporate overlords are.

But I have a beautiful capacity to take money and be unbiased. In fact, I would make a great politician. And don't you want a column featuring things like my upcoming adventure tenderizing octopus in my washing machine? I think you do. I am sending amazing psychic brain waves to your apartment to that effect.

(Ruth....you need a columnist...a funny one...octupi + washing machines = increased readership...you'll probably get a raise...)

Are my amazing psychic brain waves working? Not yet? OK, well, how about this: when you invite me to NY for an interview, you don't even have to put me up in a hotel room because my in-laws live on Long Island. See? I know how to save money.

(Hire Melissa...but not to dust, she's a terrible duster...)

Hey, Amazing Psychic Brain Waves, whose side are you on? It's not that I'm a terrible duster, it's that I don't SEE dust. My mascara has these dust-filter thingies. In fact, dusting is the next thing on my list to do. Here's my list:

1. Beg for job
2. Dust

(Ruth...you also shouldn't hire her to clean out the cat litter box...)

OK, look. If the job is Columnist + Office Duster, I'm probably not your gal. And I doubt you have a litter box in your test kitchen (although, have you seen those joke cakes? In a litter box, with bran cereal and Tootsie Rolls mooshed up to look like...you know? I'm sure the Gourmet Test Kitchen has never turned out anything like that, and Readers, I'd like to assure you that The Gourmet Cookbook does NOT feature anything that even remotely resembles Tootsie Rolls mooshed up to look like cat doody.)

Here are ten other good reasons to hire me:

1. I don't snore, except when I've had too much to drink, which is only when I get laid off from jobs.

2. I am brilliant at giving tours. When you come to Gloucester to meet me I'll take you to the Crow's Nest and explain how it fits into the fishing industry while we drink beer and play pool.

3. I suck at pool, which means you'll probably win.

4. I'm good at poker, though, so consider yourself forewarned.

5. I also don't really drink beer, I'm more of a Bombay Girl. Well, Gordon's when I've had my hours cut.

6. Even though I'm a cat person I also like dogs, when they're Good Dogs. In fact, I'm in love with the Cocker Spaniel who lives next door. His name is Leo. The fact that I'm in love with him has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that his owner is a cute musician. I'm already married to a cute musician. One is enough.

7. I can do a headstand.

8. And a backbend. Well, kind of.

9. I am learning karate so if you ever get attacked by a mugger while we're walking down the street I will kick his ass. But you have to wait a few years for this side-benefit of hiring me. Right now I can only stomp on feet. I might be able to break a nose.

10. I can speak enough French and Spanish to be able to get into trouble in foreign countries with my non-comprehension of what they say back. Think of how much fun it would be to travel with me.

There, ten excellent reasons. I can come up with more. Don't make me do it.

Ruth. Call me.

978 879-9120

Yours sincerely,

P.S. Crazy people, DO NOT call me. Unless you are offering me a job with health insurance, retirement benefits, and vacation pay. Because as we all know, being crazy and being able to offer a job are not mutually exclusive.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Ringing in the New Year with Yet Another Food List, or Melissa is Going to Take a Nap Now

It must be said that the New Year's Eve dinner parties I put on at work are my favorites.

Why? The numbers are manageable, the food is--or can be--elegant, and I have complete creative control. No time-honored family traditions to contend with (yes, I'm thinking of that flaming figgy pudding)--just culinary playtime for Melissa.

And you all know how I feel about this cookbook--I would make anything from it for the first time for any event. Last New Year's I made Individual Beef Wellingtons. Mmmmmm.

We thought we might have a group of 14-16 for this dinner, and I figured this would be a fun time to try out crown roast. Here was the menu I came up with:

Chilled Lobster Cocktail with Tarragon Vermouth Sauce
Crown Roast with Baked Apple Stuffing and Glazed Apples
Maple Mashed Sweet Potatoes
Beets with Lime Butter
Creamed Spinach
Salad with Candied Walnuts
a Dacquoise of my own invention

In the event that you, too, would like to put on a fancy dinner party like this, I'll tell you just for your own planning purposes that I cooked for two days straight--the first day was an 8 hour day, the second a ten--although that second day did include the actual dinner. And should you be in a celebratory mood, I recommend Prosecco to go with the meal--an Italian sparkling wine. We had three bottles on ice for this evening.

I certainly wasn't the first person to come up with the idea of a lobster cocktail (though I've never seen one on a menu or had one myself) but it's possible that most of my diners had never had one with what is essentially chilled Bearnaise sauce.

Here's a photo of somebody else's so you can get the idea. Mine were similar except the small cordial stemware were filled with Bearnaise and had two long, elegant chives sticking out (like lobster antennae!)

Crown roast. I've never had one, and I've never even seen one cooked. But no time like the present for new experiences, so I called Henry's and asked for a Frenched, tied crown roast for 16. And throw in some of those little paper hat thingeys. By the way, Frenched means the bones are cleaned, not that the butcher has been French kissing it back in the meat room.

Before I picked it up, I had a long conversation with Nick at the Cork N Cask about crown roast while I was picking up the Prosecco. Nick used to be a butcher, and he prides himself on his tying technique for crown roasts (lamb or pork--apparently you get lamb for a smaller crowd, or I guess if you like lamb instead of pork). So Nick was full of opinions about lazy-ass butchers who don't tie them right and had an even lower opinion of somebody on tv who criss-crossed the string through the bones, making it impossible to stuff, which is sort of the point of these meat dishes.

Anyway, I digress. My point, the one I'm trying to get to (if Nick would stop talking) is that when I picked up my crown roast it looked like this:

instead of this:

Now, perhaps only the most obsessive person would be bothered by something tied in an oval shape rather than a round shape, but COME ON PEOPLE, crowns are ROUND not oval, and if you're going to have an oval-y shaped roast, then why not call it a football roast? Or a, a, a....(trying to think of something oval-y shaped and not succeeding) anyway you get my point. I was bothered by it way too much for my own mental health and state of mind and no amount of prodding could get it round instead of oval.

You might be asking, why not cut it here and there? You have a degree in sculpture, for christ's sake!

OK, true, but since I've never cooked a crown roast I didn't want to mess with something I knew nothing about. Fine time to be thinking about these things, I know, but come on, cut me some slack. The stuffing is a pretty straightforward apple/onion/celery stuffing, and the stuffing did help push the sides of the roast out.

The instructions say to count on 2 1/2 to 3 1/4 hrs with 20 minutes resting time--with a probe measuring 150 degrees inserted 2 inches into the meat. And here is where I ran into my first problem with the crown roast.

Problem #1--it cooked way too fast. I was counting on a serving time of 7pm, so I put it in just before 4pm. Well, by 5:15 it was clear that I was going to hit 150 within twenty minutes or so. Was I near the bone? No. Was the probe too far out? No. What to do? What I did was first turn the oven way down, then I just turned it off--and a little after 6 I turned it back on to 350.

Problem #2--remember that issue I had with the oval that wasn't round? Turns out I had good reason to be worried.

The oval shape (and the resulting variation of thickness here and there) meant that some of the pork was cooked perfectly, and some of it was pretty rare. Now, this fun fact was discovered while all the guests were seated and some of the guests were carving the roast. What to do? I turned on the broiler, lay the rare-ish chops on a cookie sheet, and broiled them six inches from the heat for a minute or two. Perfect. If you do this, don't forget to take the little paper hats off.

Next time, that roast will be round if I have to re-tie it myself.

The Glazed Apples that went with the roast were fine, but they didn't ever really get glazed per se. I think if the recipe had the sugar syrup boiled down a bit it might have worked but as it was it was too watery and didn't have much of an impact. They were popular, however. Like I said, I had quite a few elders at the table, and soft food = good.

I bet you're thinking that the Crown Roast was my biggest headache of the night, right? Well, you're wrong.

The prize for that goes to the Maple Mashed Sweet Potatoes, and you can blame it all on this little gadget right here:

That, my friends, is a potato ricer. And the idea is that you cook the sweet potatoes in the oven until soft, then de-skin, rice, and mix with cream/maple syrup/butter etc. It seems simple in concept but this is how it really went.

1. Peel hot skin off hot potato
2. Wave fingers around in air to cool off
3. Slice potato in three parts
4. Put one or two parts in ricer
6. Get hot sweet potato water spattered on forearms
7. Regard with irritation the sweet potato that has extruded from the holes but not fallen off because of the fibers
8. Scrape sweet potato off with sharp knife
9. Regard with irritation the fibrous mass left behind in bowl of ricer and pull out with fingers.
10. Repeat about ten times
11. With each time getting stickier

And let's not even talk about the fact that the handles of the ricer look a lot like that friend of all women everywhere, the speculum. Ack!!

It is my solemn conclusion that this dish would be better served by using a FOOD PROCESSOR instead.

I've made Beets with Lime Butter before and talked about it here. They proved to be one of the most popular items on the buffet--it's the first time I've made them at work, and this family of beet admirers had never had beets like this before. High marks.

Likewise with the Creamed Spinach, which although it's not the most interesting dish in the world is becoming a standby for me in my two jobs.

Out of everything on the buffet, the dish that I put the most time, thought and care into was the Dacquoise.

Now, I've made the dacquoise before. And I realized while I was making it that the structure (layers of meringue and buttercream) had the possibility of infinite flavor variations. Meringue can contain ground nuts of any type, or coconut, or it can be chocolate. Buttercream can be coffee, chocolate, white, or citrus flavored. Daughter K. speculated on the possibility of whipped cream, which can also hold all kinds of flavors.

So this is what I came up with--almond meringue, chocolate buttercream, stabilized raspberry whipped cream, and chocolate ganache for the top.

I basically followed the directions for the dacquoise to get the meringue, but with both the chocolate buttercream and the whipped cream I was flying by the seat of my pants. I used the recipe for coffee buttercream but substituted cocoa powder for the espresso powder, and then I folded in melted bittersweet chocolate, hoping that the fat in the chocolate wouldn't somehow screw up the fat ratio as I was throwing in the softened butter.

One interesting thing that didn't happen (this is probably only interesting to people who make a lot of buttercream) is that you know how at a certain point in buttercreams the frosting breaks down and looks curdled...but then it comes back together?

This never did that. It just stayed smooth, firm and creamy the whole time. I don't know if it was because of the body of the chocolate or what but anyway I was breathing a sigh of relief that it turned out fine. And yummy.

I used the recipe for stabilized whipped cream from the Hungarian Chocolate Mousse Bars, which has you use unflavored gelatin to keep it...flated? Is that the opposite of deflated? Anyway, to keep it perky. I folded in raspberry puree and crossed my fingers.

The only problem I had with either of these was the day I put them together I let them come to room temp and re-whipped the buttercream to loosen it up. When I did the same to the whipped cream, it did deflate, a little bit.

I didn't need the chocolate ganache--really, it was gilding the lily but visually the dacquoise seemed unfinished and the ganache was really spectacular on top--glossy and dark.

Here's my sea of plates ready for the dessert/coffee service:

The best thing about dacquoise is that nobody in the US knows what the heck they are. I'm sure in other countries (France, for sure) they're a commonplace dessert item but here I can be virtually certain that my diners have never heard of them, let alone tasted one. So they seem exotic--they ARE exotic--and that adds to the fun.

Happy New Year, folks! I hope 2009 is a great one for us all. Oh, and if you want to try a crown roast but don't have the bucks and/or the fortitude to try the above recipe, here's a variation--sure to be the same temp all around no matter what you do to it: