Saturday, December 18, 2010

Cranberry-apple Pie

I had one (almost completely) good day this week, save one rather intense fit of tears and the fact that my alarm didn't go off and I was late for class. The good part of the day involved making pie, and it seemed to be enough to salvage the dreary winter weather and a friend who ended up being a no-show for a dinner I made because of a lovely wintry mix of precipitation.

Running my fingers through soft flour and greasy butter was a welcome relief from the chaos that is my life at the moment. I've had barely a moment to relax. My new schedule of winter quarter classes and working what amounted to 40 hours-plus at a new (part-time) job has me reeling. But Wednesday, Wednesday, Wednesday. It was cold and grey with a sludge of old snow tossed in haphazard mounds, but I found it dark solace. I cooked a braise of Trappist beer, beef and onions in my house slippers while the afternoon sun dipped below the dead fingers of the trees.
It started with the pie though. Cranberry and apple pie topped with whipped cream. It was a beautiful mess, just a slop of fruit and syrup covered over with a latice top, just like a nice but insecure college girl mistakenly wearing fishnet tights out to some parties. She looks so provocative that there won't be anything left of her when she needs it.
Apple-cranberry Pie: from On Baking
1 pound apples, sliced
4 ounces brown sugar
4 ounces granulated sugar
1 tablespoon orange zest
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons corn starch dissolved in 2 tablespoons cold water
1 pint cranberries

Combine apples, sugar, zest, cinnamon and salt. Stir to coat the apples with the dry ingredients. Saute in a saucepan. Pour in the cornstarch and water. Continue sauteing until apples are softened but still firm to the bite. Remove from heat. Add the cranberries and dump into a pie shell. Bake at 400 for 25 to 30 minutes.

Monday, December 6, 2010

A Few Bad Decisions

Mistakes were made in the construction of this tart. It was supposed to turn into a lemon-polenta cake so beautiful on Nigel Slater's Web site that I couldn't resist. Things came a little undone in my kitchen, unraveling slowly and then nearly landsliding into defeat.
Things started out well. I measured the ingredients to the gram using my new scale. I even pulverized the polenta, knowing it to be a little coarse. 
When the cake came out of the oven, I was still encouraged. The smell was so pleasant and the top of the cake a lovely golden brown that I thought surely victory was mine. Until I turned it out and realized the cake was less than half the height it should have been. Did I make an error in converting Slater's Celsius to American Fahrenheit and made the oven too cold? Or was it the egg whites? Perhaps they weren't fluffy enough. Slater called for a 20 cm cake tin, mine is 9 inches, is that the same? No matter how I messed things up, it only got worse once I took the parchment paper off and the cake completely fell apart.
I had crumbs and a load of delicious light, creamy whipped topping mixed with lemon curd to frost them with. I just couldn't throw anything away. I stared at my products for a moment. The lemon whipped cream and the crumbs. And I thought, why not stir them together? Both taste good. Brilliance struck and I ladeled the crumby-whipped topping into cupcake sleeves to be eaten individually with a spoon. Maybe like ice cream?
A horrible idea! Just horrible. The cupcake things didn't hold their shape at all. It was a mushy mess. I was a mushy mess. I started crying alone in my kitchen on a Friday afternoon. I cursed. I cried some more. I cursed a little louder at my life, the crap cake I had just made, my skill as a baker, Nigel Slater. And then I threw one of the cupcake liners filled with sugary goo at the faucet of my sink. It splattered on the window, which actually felt good. Then I scraped all the goo back into the bowl, put the bowl in the fridge and went rock climbing at the gym.

At some point Friday, I came up with a decent idea. The goo tasted good, and I hated the thought of just throwing it away, plus there was so much of it, it seemed like it might make a good topping to a pie.
So I made a crust. This is where things started looking up. Things usually start looking up when that much butter is involved.
The crust came along nicely, and I used the remainder of the lemon curd for the icing with some berry jame for a thin filling.
And this tart is what came of the lemon-polenta cake. Really, it was quite good.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Onion Soup

I was first introduced to French-onion soup back when Panera was the Saint Louis Bread Company and it was located only in Saint Louis. We were staying at a hotel that just happened to be within walking distance of this glorious cafe that served the hearty soup in a bread bowl. My sisters and mother and I would scrape the insides of the bowl clean with our spoons, sopping up the soggy bread. But I soon shied away from the aromatic concoction when I hit college, started eating badly and was plagued with painful and embarassing gastrointestinal issues (if you catch my drift--no pun intended). The simple onion soup was out for years and years and years. Until a couple weeks ago when my dad ordered it for lunch at Granite City.

Neither Emily nor I had heard him order, we were probably absorbed in something related to Harry Potter. But when the waitress brought out his soup, covered in a slice of melted cheese, we were immediately interested. We begged for one little sip. We wanted to know what kind of cheese that was. Did they use gouda, gruyere, Swiss, parmesan? Were there little chunks of crouton floating in it? We ordered a cup of our own, to share.

My mom made a batch later that week, the leftovers of which I enjoyed with aged gouda. Then when I finally retreated back to my own home, post-Thanksgiving, instead of delving into my fridge packed with leftovers, I made onion soup following Nigel Slater's recipe from Tender with a little help from Julia Child. That was the first recipe I had made from Slater's 500-some-page tome about his vegetable patch, complete with jelousy-inducing photos every few pages. I still haven't made it all the way through the volume that includes recipes on a couple dozen common garden vegetables.
The soup, it went too fast. After only two servings. It was splendid with parmesan cheese (which I was too lazy to bake to melting point) and soggy sourdough, but it stands well alone. Barely sweet yet dark and savory. It's a fine companion on a dark winter night.
Onion Soup:
3 large onions, sliced
3 tablespoons butter
bay leaf (I added rosemary and thyme only because I had them)
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup dry white wine
5 cups beef stock
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup red wine plus a teaspoon of sugar or cognac

Slice the onions julienne. A trick I learned in school is to cut the onion in half and then slice along the perforated ribs of the vegetable to get beautiful, sexy slivers. Saute the onions in melted butter on medium-low heat for 25 to 30 minutes until softened but not browned, stirring occasionally. Add the bay leaf and flour. Stir to coat the onions with the flour. Add the wine, let simmer for a minute. Add the stock. Bring to a boil then reduce heat to let it simmer for another 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the wine with sugar or cognac or madeira, let simmer another five minutes. Serve in bowls topped with a slice of mild and aged cheese. Pop the bowls in the oven at 350 for five minutes to let the cheese melt. Serve.

Monday, November 29, 2010


The only thing that makes this paella is the presence of saffron and seafood. I didn't bake it. I didn't use hardly any vegetables at all, just leftover mussels and shrimp from bouillabaisse night. But I think that's actually the point of rustic-dishes-turned-national treasures--they fill bellies by using up the leftovers or the produce and meat about to go bad. The working class perfected dishes like pasta, bouillabaisse or paella, and now those dishes are the dishes that visitors eat when they travel to those countries.

So on this dark evening in my lonesome apartment, I'm chomping down reheated paella that reminisces of the sea even though I live about as far from the ocean as one could possibly get. It's pretty good. It doesn't get this cold in Southern Spain where I lived for fourth months and where I first tried paella. My paella is not as good as real Spanish paella, but I'm tempted to think that's more a matter of geography and my serious lack of a pitcher of sangria rather than in the quality of the chef.

This time while eating paella I'm listening to "Where are you Christmas?" and tossing up lights willy-nilly around my apartment in attempt to infuse the space with a seasonal glow. In Portugal, a memorable time I feasted on paella, I was at a tiny restaurant, one with 10 tables or fewer, with my friend Myra. It was evening but still light and hot and humid. We shared a pitcher of sangria. I got fantastically drunk like you only can when you don't plan on it. I started talking about what if someone could cultivate gigantic peas, ones the size of, say, a tennis ball. The chef at the restaurant sent over an aperatif, like I needed another drink, before we walked out onto the cobbled streets of Lagos to find our friends en route from Lisbon. It all seems so exotic, that life I led. It was exotic, it was.
Easy Paella:
1/2 onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 bell pepper, diced
handful peas
1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes
generous pinch saffron
1 cup rice
2 cups chicken stock
assorted meats and seafood including but not limited to chicken, rabbit, chorizo, shrimp, lobster, mussels, scallops, cockles--just make sure this is all pre-cooked before using this recipe variation
salt and pepper to taste

Saute the onion and garlic in olive oil for five minutes. Add the bell pepper, peas and tomatoes and saffron and pan fry for 2 to 3 three minutes. Add the rice, stir to coat with oil. Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil then reduce heat to a simmer. Add the meat and seafood. If you're making authentic paella, you should put it in the oven at 375 right now. But otherwise, just let the rice cook as is. Serve hot.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

An Homage to Mussels

Bouillabaisse: The recipe and the name of this classic Provincial dish sound complicated. I read through Julia Childs' instructions multiple times and even read the version from my On Cooking textbook. It's actually quite simple. You make the stock, then you pour it over seafood. That's it. Brilliant. But the stock has to be really freaking good and so does the seafood. This stock was so-so. To be honest, I expected more out of the saffron. More of an Indian-spice quality. Spiciness that kicks you in the face with flavor. This was more about the mussels, which is something I'm more than happy to let take center stage.

I just love mussels. They're so salty, tasting of exactly where they came from just like wine. There's this excitement about cooking them, how you have to keep them alive until they're cooked and how they pop open with the steam from a little bit of white wine revealing their salty flesh. They stay stubbornly clamped shut even under the threat of certain death. They bathe in fresh water for a few hours, spitting out the sand you don't want to clamp down on mid bite. To their lack of mind, it may be jolly sitting in some water, getting a good cleaning under a brush. Maybe it's the wine that does the wooing. The kettle, it's just like a spa: The mussels go into the steam room with a bit of vino and don't ever come out. Really, I couldn't think of a better way to die than in a bath of Riesling.
I made the bouillabaisse and roasted vegetables for some friends on Monday night. I can think of no better way to usher in cool weather and dark evenings than a cozy dinner with friends followed by a food-induced coma on the couch. No, there could be nothing better. Maybe except taking a swim in a vat of wine.

Bouillabaisse: from Mastering the Art of French Cooking
1 medium onion, diced
1 leek, sliced
1/2 cup olive oil
4 cloves garlic, smashed
1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes, drained
1 tablespoon parsley
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1/8 teasponn fennel
2 pinches saffron
1/2 teaspoon dried orange peel
1 quart clam juice
1 1/2 quarts water

1/2 cup spaghetti pasta, broken into 2-inch pieces
2 pounds mussels, already cooked
1 pound shrimp or assorted fish, already cooked

Saute the onion and leeks in the olive oil until tender. Add the garlic and tomatoes. Saute another five minutes. Add the clam juice and water and the rest of the ingredients except the pasta and seafood. Bring to a boil and let simmer for 30 to 40 minutes. Strain off the stock and save it. Taste and adjust seasonings.

Bring the stock to a boil and cook the pasta. Place the seafood in bowls and ladle the stock over the top of them. Season with parmesan cheese and the awesome rouille, recipe follows.

Rouille: from Mastering the Art of French Cooking
1 small can green chili peppers, diced
3 drops Tabasco sauce
1 potato, cooked in the stock of the previous recipe
3 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon thyme
4 tablespoons olive oil

Place chile peppers, Tabasco, potato, garlic and thyme in food processor and pulse until smooth. Add the olive oil slowly until it becomes the consistency of a mayonnaise. Season with salt or pepper if needed. Spoon into soup to season broth. Also tastes great on bread.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Chocolate Scones

The saga continues. This has got to be what attempt number 5,283 in my apparently lifelong goal to make the perfect scone. This time I busted out the professional equipment. I had the pastry blender churning away. I used one of my full collection of 10 biscuits cutters, available in various sizes. The bench scrapper came out when I cleaned off the table. I used my pastry brush to paint on the egg wash--that brush works like a dream. And the silicon baking mat led to even baking and easy cleaning. Yet still I fall short. To be fair, my standard is perfection.

I love scones for their balence between flaky and chewy. They aren't moist or rich like a muffin can be, but they shouldn't be too hard like a biscotti. They should be just barely sweet, just barely. The perfect scone, I know I've written about it before, would be one like the blueberry version I ate at the Boston Public Library. Flaky and crisp on the outside, dense but crumbly on the inside and bursting with blueberries. I'd hate to hear that the scone they had came from a mix. The fruit and nut scones at Delice are quite good. A close second.

I'm being a little too hard on these chocolate scones, like a parent who's ashamed their B+ student didn't land an A. The chocolate chips lend a great bite, and they aren't too sweet. I just want some more flake. That's my fault. I should have blended in the butter a touch more. I shouldn't have been so afraid of turning out dry dough onto my table. Maybe that's been my mistake all along. Scones can be quite the mess. Instead of fearing the mess or trying to minimize it, perhaps I should embrace the mess because it's that crumbly, floury, buttery mess that is the scone.

Chocolate Scones: from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook
2 1/4 cups flour
3 tablespoons cocoa powder
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 teapsoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt, cold and cut into small pieces
10 tablespoons butter
5 ounces semisweet chocolate morsels
1 egg plus one egg yolk
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons cream

Whisk together flour, sugar, cocoa, baking powder and baking soda and salt. Mix the butter into the dry mixture with a pastry blender until it forms large crumbs with a few bigger chunks (but not too many). In a smaller bowl, whisk together 1/2 cup plus one tablespoon cream and egg. Using a spatula, incorporate the egg into the crumbs, stirring until it just comes together.

Turn dough out on a floured surface and press into a one-inch thick square. Cut into three-inch squares with a knife or pastry wheel or into rounds with a biscuit cutter. Arrange on baking sheet one inch apart. Makes 20. Freeze for an hour or up to a week. Bake at 375 for 25 to 30 minutes.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Perfect Roasted Vegetables

I love vegetables. Love them. I've come a long way from hiding broccoli under my plate or trying to feed it to the dog. My mom and I used to go tit for tat over finishing a serving of steamed vegetables (she would always win, but it was painful for all parties). My sister or I or both would be sitting in solitude on our booster seat at the kitchen table long after the dishes had been put away, sulking over soggy carrots. We would plug our nose, gulp down the last bite and chase it with a chug of milk.

As Chef O'Donnell said in class on the first day of class, "Animals don't want to be eaten--they run away, but vegetables were made to be consumed." And they can put on quite a show, even with the simplest of accoutrements. For example, these roasted root vegetables. To me, they might as well be candy. When we made them in class on roasting/baking day, I couldn't stop eating them, diving in with my fingers. Divinely crunchy but densely chewy. A faint sweetness from the beets and carrots. Earthy substance straight from the ground. These bite-size morsels go down oh so easily.

These vegetables need little help to coax them into deliciousness, just some heat, olive oil, salt and pepper, and a few sprigs of rosemary and thyme. After peeling and chopping, I sat down to play spider solitaire (a dangerous addiction I'm now fessing up to) for 45 minutes until they were fork tender and golden brown. I took them to a Sunday-night potluck with friends where we shared South African fare from Robyn, squash and red-bean salad from Sarah and Matthew, lamb kabobs with apricot sauce, cheesey potatoes, and cranberry-crumble pie in a dimly-lit home whilst listening to records. There could be no better way to usher in the shorter days of winter.

Roasted Root Vegetables:
1/4 pound parsnips
1/4 pound carrots
1/4 pound beets
1/4 pound turnips
1/4 pound red potatoes
1/4 pound celery root
olive oil
salt and pepper
2 sprigs rosemary
2 sprigs thyme

Preheat oven to 400. Peel and coarsely chop the root vegetables. Arrange on baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Add rosemary and thyme sprigs. Bake until fork tender, about 40 minutes.

Monday, November 15, 2010

What I Should Have Done

I should have just stuck with what I knew for yesterday's Culinary Foundations final. My Salade Nicoise turned out, well, I think OK would be generous. It was fine, totally edible. Except the potato--that was raw.

It's weird that my first cooking class in school is already over. I'm going to miss going on Tuesday, if only for a couple weeks until the next quarter begins. I really enjoyed cooking with all the nine others who made it through Chef Tim O'Donnell's course in intimidation. It's possible he might be a little disappointed to know that by the end of things, his tough critiques didn't phase anyone. "The sanitation was unacceptable." He was right, not enough gloves or hand washing. The plating, not up to standard. Yep. The salmon, either overdone or underdone.

When it came time to do the final yesterday, tension was pretty high with most the class. My friend Jess probably didn't crack a smile the entire four hours until her plate was turned in and she had her stellar grade. Chef O'Donnell said he would pay to eat her salad. That is not what he said about mine.

After chopping and dicing away at the most ginormous carrots I have ever seen (we're talking 1-foot long and a four- or five-inch diameter--they tasted awful), we got to the cooking part of the final. Hard-boiling an egg, boiling and then searing a potato, blanching and the sauteing green beans, searing a salmon, making dressing, etc. I got stalled out on the egg. I had to make five eggs before one came out right. Five. Five eggs. The first one cracked in the water immediately. The second, third and fourth weren't cooked all the way through. I had spent an entire hour trying to get a perfect egg before I finally peeled and sliced open the fifth egg to reveal a perfectly done hard-cooked egg. I did end up charring some of my green beans, but Chef had mercy on me there, and I ended up with an 81 percent. He asked if I was happy with my grade. I said yes because I can't imagine not agreeing with something Chef said. I think a low B is what I deserved, I do wish I had done better.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Coping with Cupcakes

Some people eat to feel better, I cook. It usually works even when things barely come together in batter in the same way they barely come together in life.

Saturday Amanda and I hosted a potluck. I get so excited to cook food for people that I'm usually planning out my entree weeks ahead of time. This time for whatever reason I wasn't inspired by anything except the week-old frosting taking up half the top shelf in the fridge. So I started on almond cupcakes but a few hours before the party. And let me tell you, things were touch and go for a while there. Instead of using room-temperature butter, I used three blocks of rock-hard butter straight from the fridge. The butter and sugar don't "cream" well that way. The nine-horsepower KitchenAid mixer worked that butter so hard that the bowl got lodged pretty firmly in the mixer. Amanda's boyfriend had to remove it. And the batter was so thick that incorporating the frothy egg whites into it without breaking them was nigh impossible, yet somehow, the batter came together creamy and rich. While the cupcakes baked, I worked some magic on the frosting, which had seemed like enough to cover 24 cupcakes when I glanced in the bowl when grabbing the orange juice every morning. Either way, I conquered the cupcakes, all frosted and topped with almonds by 6:55 p.m. I even had time to vacuum the spider webs out of the back porch.

Somehow, just like I always do, I pulled it together enough to sit down for a moment and enough a moist almond-flavored cupcake before the fun started. And I think: I can't possibly be the only one out there who barely pulls it together enough to appear presentable. No, I'm not. I use cake to cope. I use cake and friends and Friends (the TV show) and family and faith. Sometimes, though usually not all at the same time, they fail me. And sometimes they come together at 6:55.

(this photo accurately represents how great the party was and how messy, another great analogy for life.)
Almond Cupcakes: adapted from Martha Stewart (serves 24)
3 cups flour
2 teapsoons baking powder
1 teapsoon salt
3 sticks butter, room temperature
2 1/4 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon almond
1 cup milk
8 large egg whites,

Preheat oven to 350. In a medium bowl, mix flour, baking powder and salt.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter and 2 cups of sugar until fluffy. Mix in the vanilla and almond extracts. Add the flour in three batches, alternating with adding part of the milk each time and mixing til just combined. Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites until foamy. Add a scant 1/4 cup of sugar and beat until glossy. Fold into the batter, being careful not to deflate egg whites. Fill cupcake liners three-quarters of the way full with batter. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes. Frost and serve.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Salade Nicoise

Our Culinary Foundations practical final is next week and includes a testing of knife cuts (julienne, macedoine, brunoise, batonet and other pretentious French words) and mastery of the Salade Nicoise. Our class did a warm-up for the final on Tuesday. I thought it went fairly well (my salad was way over-dressed and the potatoes were over-cooked), Chef O'Donnell thought a little differently. We botched the sanitation part to a certain degree, and pretty much everything needed work. Nevertheless, I'll miss our "little" critiques at the end of class when Chef tells us how we can improve (mixed in with a few anecdotes). I've had near mealtdowns in that little room next to the kitchen, but holy crap, I've tasted some awesome food.

The quarter flew by. I never thought my collapsed lung would heal (though it does still bother me on occasion). I'll really miss my classmates. All but one of them are in the chef's apprentice program, while I'm in the bakery/pastry option. I suppose it's likely I'll bond with all my future classmates. That's what happens when people cook and eat together, but still, this was nice. There is still one more anxiety-inducing day of cooking the famous Salade Nicoise. I'm a little nervous, so I thought it best to follow Chef's instructions and practice. Except now I'm a little more freaked out, but only just a little.

Everything did turn out fine in the end. The egg, potatoes and blanched green beans were a little underdone, but that was nothing compared the incredible haze of smoke that poured out when I tried searing the salmon. The saute pan needs to be hot. Nearly smoking hot. Well, some debris had fall at some unknown time under the right-front burner, which, under intense heat, starting smoking like crazy. We're talking fire alarms and a thick haze. I opened the back door to little relief. It got so bad my eyes started watering. But thank god, the salmon did not scorch. We'll probably have a permanent smoke smell in the house, but at least the meal was saved.

Nicoise Salad: serves four

2 eggs, hard boiled
4 tomatoes, sliced into wedges
4 potatoes
large handful green beans
canola oil
4 salmon filets
2 or 3 large handful mixed greens
1 tablespoon basil, finely chopped
1 tablespoon chives, chopped
2 scallions, sliced
2 cloves garlic, sliced
salt and pepper
12 Nicoise olives

for dressing:
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoon red-wine vinegar
6 tablespoons olive oil

For dressing, whisk mustard and vinegar together. Slowly pour in the oil while whisking until it has thickened.

Place potatoes in a pot of cold, salted water and bring to a boil. Remove when cooked al dente, shock to stop from continuing to cook and slice in half. Blanche and shock the green beans in salted water. Dry and season the salmon with salt and pepper. Sear in a hot skillet with a little canola oil service-side down for 1 to 2 minutes, flip and sear for another minute. Remove from pan. Turn down the heat to medium and place potatoes in saute pan to brown for a few minutes. Add the green beans, olives, shallot and garlice. Toss to coat with oil. Remove from heat quickly. Toss vegetables with salad greens and dressing. Assemble salads and serve.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Lavender Cupcakes

Last week Brian Ferry's photography blog led me once again to inspiration in the form of a London cupcake shop and bakery called Violet. The Interwebs once again brought me something beautiful I never would have come across without it. Violet's owner makes cupcakes with delectable-sounding names like English raspberry, English strawberry and French apricot. I perused every single page of the bakery's site, and even the next day couldn't stop thinking about cupcakes. In my nutrition class on Friday morning, I spent my break looking up tips on adding lavender to baked goods so I could come up with something of my own.

The aromatic lavender has been holding its own in the garden, despite the efforts of nearby too-large tomato plants. Whenever I'm out in the yard, I take a moment to fondle the lavender. Just brushing it with my fingers leaves a clean, sweet scent behind. It reminds me of the New Mexican dessert where wild sage and lavender thrive alongside tumbleweed.

Of course I've heard of lavender in perfume, but lavender as an herb is something relatively new to me. I think it started with some shortbread cookies. Flaky, buttery and suddenly fresh with flowers. These lavender-lemon cupcakes are my first effort. A valient try, I'd say. I didn't have much blooming in the garden, but enough to make due. I added the lavender as I would an herb, and its flavor was isolated to bites of cupcake that actually had bits of flower in them. But those bites just burst with flavor once the flower's fragence opened up. I think I would try making a lavender-infused simple syrup next time to coax the herb to take over the entire cupcake.

Lavender Cupcakes: makes 18
1 cup butter plus more to grease pans
1 1/2 cups flour (sifted)
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar
6 large eggs, separated
2/3 cup lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon fresh lavender flowers
pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 350.
In a medium or large bowl, beat together the sugar and egg yolks until light and fluffy with the whisk attachment (because I have that now!). Add the lemon juice and zest if you have it and want to use it and the vanilla and mix well. Using the paddle attachment, gradually mix the almonds and then the flour into the batter until combined. Set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk egg whites until soft peaks form. Add the salt and the last 3 tablespoons of sugar. Beat until stiff but not dry. Set aside.

Melt the butter. Fold the butter into the batter using a spatula. Then gently fold in the egg whites, being careful not to deflate the whites. Pour batter cupcake sleeves. Bake 20 minutes or until golden brown.

Monday, October 25, 2010

I Love Bacon

In my quest to re-embrace pasta and Italian cuisine, I made Amatriciana sauce today (sounds fancy, eh?). My class actually had to do make pasta for a Culinary Foundations assignment: We are bringing frozen spaghetti to class tomorrow morning to defrost and taste in class. Of course, I've already critiqued my pasta and sauce up and down as I ate it for lunch today. First, I used the tomatoes I canned myself. I'm still alive and feeling well at the moment, so I must not have poisoned myself with botulism. That was the first time I had ever canned tomatoes and I'm neither here nor there on the taste. I didn't de-seed the fruit, which doesn't bother me much but may bother others. The tomatoes are on the sweet side, another thing I can't decide about. But the juice was very thick and made a really great sauce once reduced in volume. I'm thinking ahead to what Chef Tim will say when he tastes it, and I think I overcooked the bacon. But it's bacon, how bad can it ever be?

My roommate just decided last week to commit to eating vegetarian, a life decision I find very admirable. I'm also against the mistreatment of animals. But as I was pulling thick slabs of bacon out of its vacuum-sealed bag, a greasy film developing on my fingers, I told myself again that I could never give up meat completely. I go probably go without steak or burgers, and I definitely could go without dry chicken and tough pork. But it's the fat I can't do without. That bacon has a flavor you just can't get in the vegetable world, and it's the strips of fat lining the red strands of meat that melted into my sauce today or that crisps up in the skillet on a Saturday morning. I could live without it, but I wouldn't want to. I'm so glad Amanda and so many of my friends are committed to not eating meat or only eating meat that has been sustainable and humanely treated, but I think I'll just be your cheerleader if that's alright.

Amatriciana Sauce:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 medium onion, diced
3 thick slices bacon or pancetta, cubed
1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes, chopped juices reserved
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Parmesan-Reggiano or Pecorino-Romano

In a saute pan, heat the oil and butter on medium. Saute the onion until translucent. Add the bacon and cook until fat has rendered and the meat has crisped a bit (five minutes). Add the tomatoes, red pepper flakes and salt (to taste), bring to a boil then reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Meanwhile cook pasta (spaghetti or fettucini) until al dente. Drain pasta and add to the sauce, stirring to coat. Serve sprinkled with grated cheese.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Pasta Revelations

At some point in the past two years of blogging, I moved away from pasta. It was easy, I had done it before, it was kind of boring to eat and to make. I was wrong. It is simple; I was right about that. When we made four pasta sauces in class on Tuesday, all the recipes involved minimal ingredients and the simplest of techniques (simmer, stir, repeat), but ended up so delectable. Chef Tim mixed together an al fredo in five minutes with like five ingredients that was oh-so creamy yet still light and which clung to the pasta like dust to a TV screen. He boasted that people would pay a lot of money for that simple pasta with sauce, and they wouldn't be disappointed.

I took care of the puttanesca and making the pasta. Our pasta ended up a bit on the dry side (first time), which made it incredibly difficult to roll out. Chef rolled his perfect ball of dough into a nearly paper-thin sheet in minutes. I stood over mine sweating some flavoring into the tagliatelle that was anything but smooth and even. But I actually turned out to love my pasta with all its flaws. Chef advised making homemade pasta that looks like homemade pasta--makes perfect sense. But because my sauce had so many flaws, the sauce clung to the ridges and bumps perfectly. Usually, I douse my pasta with chunky sauce. I had never realized this was because the pasta itself was lacking. The puttanesca turned out fine (not as good as the boys' sauce, but still good), but I didn't need or want the chunks of cubed tomato. The briny-tomato juice had all the flavor of the nicoise olives and capers and stuck sublty and kindly to the outside of the wide noodles. The homemade pasta was so good, I don't know that I'd buy dry noodles ever again.

1 pound flour
4 eggs
a tablespoonn or so of olive oil

Make a mountain of flour in a large bowl, leaving some of the pasta to the side to be mixed in as needed. Make a well in the mountain with a fork. Crack the eggs into the well. Sprinkle with salt. Incorporate the eggs into the flour by stirring with a fork. Add olive oil once about three-fourths of the flour is wet. Turn sticky dough out on a floured surface. Work and knead the dough with your palm, incorporating more flour as needed until the doughs stays in a ball and has a smooth surface. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for one hour.

Remove dough from fridge. Turn out on floured work surface. Roll dough until it is thin enough to read a newspaper through. Cut thin strips of pasta with a pizza cutter. Cook pasta in boiling, salted water for two minutes or until cooked through.

1/3 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon garlic
4 cups canned tomatoes and their juice
12 nicoise olives, halved
2 tablespoons capers, drained
1 tablespoon fresh oregano, finely chopped
1 anchovy filet
1 tablespoon fresh basil, finely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, finely chopped

In a saute pan, heat the oil. Add the garlic and saute until fragrant. Add the tomatoes, olives, capers and oregano, bring to a boil, reduce heat so it simmers and cover for 10 minutes while simmering. Add the anchovy filet, stir to incorporate. Season to taste. Let simmer another 10 minutes. Add the cooked pasta to the sauce, season with parsley and basil. Serves four.

Thanks to Jessica who took the photos.

Monday, October 18, 2010

A Subtle Taste

I'm suddenly longing for long steamy summer evenings and popsicles that drip and run down your legs, as if that were a simpler time. But there was never a simpler time, was there? There is unknowing and knowing. Now I know a few things, and I'm trapped in this insecurity not knowing what to do next. This is a rare place for me. I'm decisive. I think about things and then I choose something. Sometimes (often) I choose wrongly. But then you get the knowing place, and it feels worth it there even if it's more painful and humbling. The paralyzing unknowing is where I stand now. There's no decision to make me feel safe; there is only               . I can't control a             .

Summer is that simple season. Same with winter. It's just hot, or it's just cold. You wear either as little or as much clothing as possible. You eat either salads or plain roasted vegetables and meats. Grilled or baked. But fall and spring, they are times of change and complexity. We go back to school (or finish out the year). There's a new bounty of produce to be made into stews or soups or braised for hours.
I'm scattered all over here today when what I should be doing is remembering and recounting a great meal I had last week. Most of the meal involved poaching, a form of cooking known for its subtlety. Subtlety, that is an art form I am decidedly not well-practiced in. Decisive, direct, to the point in my cooking and elsewhere. I lack the patience I think. My dad would tell me that the best things are the ones you wait for. He's so wise you sometimes want to punch his arm really hard.

So that brings us to the salmon poached in water infused with lemon and peppercorns. I say infused because it smelled like tea just before the salmon went in. And the salmon was just ever so lightly flavored with lemon that you couldn't much taste it once it was covered in the horseradish dressing. If I draw a silly metaphor, which I now will, my dad is the subtle quiet salmon who says the most important things at just the right moment. And the horseradish dressing, all zing and creamy spice, is my mom (and me), she keeps things interesting.

The poached apples were a bit of a showstopper, at least for me. A knife sliced through the apples cleanly, but they were cooked through--maybe you could call it al dente because it still had some bite. Incredibly, after an hour of soaking in hot apple cider, the fruit I had plucked from some trees last weekend actually tasted more like apples than when I had munched on some in the orchard. The candied almonds and amaretto whipped cream didn't hurt. And neither did the company. I called up a bit of a random group of friends to help me with my homework (eating the food, that is). I love to surround myself with people. And I always think the louder the more rambunctous the better. But maybe I'm wrong about that.
Poached Salmon Salad: from What Katy Ate
2 8-ounce filets of salmon
3 cups water
juice from one lemon
1 teaspoon black peppercorns

2 or 3 large handfuls of mixed salad greens
1 15-ounce can garbanzo beans (rinsed and drained)
1 teaspoon capers, sauteed to cripsy in olive oil
salt and pepper
feta cheese

1 tablespoon minced horseradish
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/4 cup cream
1/4 cup milk

Pour the water, lemon juice and peppercorns into a saute pan, turn on medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Let boil for five minutes so the flavors meld together. Remove from heat, add the salmon and cover, cooking for 15 minutes. Or until salmon is firm to the touch and light pink and flaky. Set aside to let cool and flake apart.

Arrange the lettuce on a serving platter. Toss on the garbanzo beans, capers, salmon and feta. I left the dressing on the side because I know not everyone is fond of horseradish.

Poached Apples with whipped cream and almonds: from Gourmet
6 apples
1/2 lemon
1/2 gallon apple cider
1/2 cup brown sugar

For whipped cream:
1/2 cup chilled whipping cream
1 1/2 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 tablespoon amaretto liqueur
1/4 teaspoon vanilla

Candied almonds:
1 cup slivered almonds
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon butter
1 egg white

Apples: Peel top two-thirds of apples and rub outside with lemon to prevent discoloration. Bring the cider to a boil. Once it's boiling, add the apples and brown sugar. Remove from heat and let sit for one hour. Remove apples and let cool or chill. This can be done several days ahead of time.

For the whipping cream, combine all the ingredients in the bowl of an electric mixer. Mix on high speed until it forms soft peaks.

Preheat the oven to 450 for the almonds. In a small bowl, combine all ingredient and stir together. Lay out on a piece of parchment paper and bake for five minutes. Let cool and break apart to garnish the dessert. Combine all the parts for one apple drizzled with leftover cider served with almonds and a dollop of whipped cream.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Chicken Salad

Pulverizing vegetables will always be gratifying.

Chicken Salad:
1 carrot
1 stalk celery
1/4 medium onion
1/2 pound cooked chicken
Landry's seasoned salt

Put the carrot, celery, chicken and onion in a food processor. Pulverize. Stir in mayo with a spoon until it comes to the desired consistency and season to taste.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Apple Church

Amy called it "apple church." On Sunday morning, two cars of friends headed to Nebraska City to appreciate the glorious outdoors for what has become an annual quest for apples by the peck. We rounded up pinova, golden delicious, gala, fuji, braeburn and cameos whilst avoiding the bees also feasting on the fruit. It's quiet work, at least if you get there right as the orchard opens.
Nebraska City is famous for the inception of Arbor Day. Once, long long ago, the state of Nebraska was completely devoid of trees, but this Morton guy (of Morton salt) moved here and planted saplings to make it a happier place for everyone.

Now his palacial home is a historical site, and a half dozen orchards and wineries are clustered in the town. My family used to visit when I was younger, and I just loved that old house. My imagination would go wild with picturing what my life would have been like if I had lived in that old house. Even at home when I played American Girl dolls with my sister, that house came to life. This year we had enough time to visit the site, which was the center of a meager reenactment. All the reenactment amounted to was a costumed guide through the house, a blacksmith and some ladies who were cooking cakes over coals in a Dutch oven--obviously this was the highlight and definitely something I need to bring to a high-maintenance camping trip (one involving a camper or at least a van). They had combined a cherry pie filling with a box of cake mix (because that was available for the pioneers in the 1860s) and sodas such as Dr Pepper or 7UP. I even scored a "Dutch Oven Cooking" cookbook from the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission's Becoming an Outdoors-woman Workshop. How could I have missed that workshop?! The cookbook includes recipes for cowboy potatoes, meat loaf, Dutch oven steak dinner and Dismal River Cow Camp coffee cake (among others).

We made it home by mid-afternoon, which gave me enough time to make another gallette with homemade whipped cream before watching Juno. Nothing like a movie about teenage pregnancy to remind you how insignificant your problems are.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Emerging Terrain

My friend Sarah and I got the chance to cover this event called Stored Potential for The Reader, she as the art critic and I as the food person. The event brought together some of Nebraska's best chefs to serve 500 people family-style at the opening of a larger-than-life art installation. Thirteen of 300 submission were chosen to be printed on a large scale and hung from the side of some grain elevators in Omaha. The murals were chosen for how they addressed issues of feeding people and land use. The organization Emerging Terrain put on the installation and you can find better information about the art on their Web site or by reading the part of the article that Sarah wrote when it comes out next week. I was only there for the food.

When we got there, I was immediatley filled with energy. I think everyone was. There was a table that stretched nearly the entire length of the silos (which are owned by some friends who are converting it in a rock climbing area called SILO extreme outdoor adventure). I got to meet everyone I've written about and interviewed on the phone--all in one place. I even got to meet Jeanne of Jeanne Eats World, who was there as a volunteer server.

The story Sarah and I wrote covers a lot of the ins and outs of the installation including what messages they're trying to send to morning commuters who see the silos as they drive downtown on Interstate 80. But, as always happens with something worthy of a great story, the story doesn't quite capture the enormousness of what it was. Even now I'm having a difficult time translating the events that transpired into something more than two dimensional.

The dinner brought the meat, poultry and produce of local farmers into the skills hands of local chefs who made this spectacular meal out of a bison, two whole pigs, 50 chickens and countless vegetables. The story describes the meal in a little more depth but doesn't go into the energy of the event. Everyone there was so excited about what was going on. The silos, which have been something of a horizon eyesore in the past, now have this art meant to emphasize the importance of knowing about our food. The area where the tables were arranged is on the city's plan for an extension of the Field Club bicycle trail. And the chef's and students were so excited to be sharing this phenomenal local food to 500 eager eaters.

I had so much fun running around interviewing attendees, chefs, farmers and organizers, getting everyone's story on why they were there and why they cared. I interviewed Chef Brian O'Malley who is the chef in charge of the culinary program at Metro, where I'm attended. He is such a magnetic force. He's got this great booming voice and when he talks to you no one else is there but you and him. I got to interupt Chefs Matthew Taylor and Paul Kulik who were in this heated post-dinner discussion of the process and how amazed they were with the quality of food they were given to work with. They were going on and on about how great each course was. Chef Taylor was raving about this vinegar. The entire day just made me so excited to be around such outstanding lovers of food and especially to get the chance to hear their stories. This blog post seems more scattered than what came out splitting the story. It's like I couldn't even wrap my mind around what was going on.

The site was so poetic in its past of feeding people mass quantities of food juxtaposed against a 500-something foot long table of people eating organic and ethically grown and raise cuisine. For a moment, I could even faintly smell the sweet odor let off by a nearby rendering plant. I wanted to put it in the story because I thought it was a little ironic to be celebrating local food while the remains of sick and abused animals were being made into commercial products nearby, but Sarah hadn't smelled it and thought it was a little dramatic--it's true, for a reporter, I definitely err way too much on the meladramatic side. The truth should be strong enough.

Daily Grub's Chef Elle Lien's vegetable plate of roasted vegetables. (That sage just melted in my mouth.)
Roasted apples from Chef Kevin Shinn's (bread&cup) and Paul Kulik's (The Boiler Room) pork seven ways.
Chef Tim Shew of La Buvette and culinary students from Metro serving up the pork with fruit and vegetables. (I was dying over those pickled radishes, dying.)
From left, Clayton Chapman of Grey Plume, Mattew Taylor and Paul Kulik with culinary students.
I love this picture because you can tell the woman in the middle is a little nonplussed to be eating an entire pig but the lady on the left is loving it.
Tim Shew plating the bison with green cabbage choucroute.
Chef Brian O'Malley showing a server how to get the champagne glaze all over the bison.
Apple crisp, honey ice cream and carrot cake for dessert.