Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Killing You With Kindness

I received a nice surprise in the mail yesterday: a package from Columbus, Ohio, that included a pen and pretty decent notepad, a magnet (woo!), some postcards of the city skyline (double woo!), and a box of macarons. I had never tried proper macarons. I've made them myself once--to disastrous results. Instead I've settled for admiring their beauty--these cookies are so pretty. They're like flowers, only edible (so better). But let me give you an anology for what I now know about macarons: Macarons are that girl. She's nice, petit, with straight blond hair who wears modest, floral printed clothes. You want to be friends with her because she seems so nice. But then you get to know her and you realize she is nice. Incredibly nice. So nice, you want to punch her in the face for always being nice. When bad things happen, the nice girl always looks on the bright side, she never loses her cool, never says something she shouldn't. There is nothing, and I mean nothing, worse than a nice girl. They only serve to make everyone else look bad, but really they're just boring and pretty and sweet. Gag me!

Well macarons are the nice girl of desserts. They look so pretty you want to eat them. The first bite is good. The frosting is all fluff and cream and squirts out the side, the outside crunches under your bite. Then you notice the soft inside is pure sugar. You swallow and take another bite, and then you want to throw up because this cookie, this beautiful, creamy-crunchy French cookie is so sweet it's awful. It's killing you with kindness.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Score One for Lainey

Reading through Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I couldn't help but see her declaration of the superiority French method of cooking asparagus as a personal challenge. I question whether sauteed asparagus could be improved upon. It's crunchy, not at all limp, salty, comes with a delicious charred/grilled bite, yet maintains the green integrity of the vegetable. Julia Child suggests boiling asparagus. And peeling it. Why expend extra energy peeling something I was more than happy to eat anyway? Friends, I am here to report that Julia Child is wrong. The French method of peeling and boiling asparagus is not in fact superior in flavor or texture to pan sauteing it, nor is it easier. 

Things go wrong right away with the peeling instructions. Julia recommends using a knife because an actual peeler isn't sharp enough. This seems a little dangerous to me--especially to me, someone who is more likely than most to gouge herself with a knife. She argues that you can eat more of the asparagus this way because you don't have to cut off the starchy ends. Well, in the my mangled peeling process, the ends became so thin that they broke off anyway. Not to mention, it takes approximately .02 seconds to chop 1 to 2 inches off the end of pile of stalks, whereas it takes no less than 10 minutes to properly peel a bunch of asparagus. I am not so destitute or hungry that I need to conserve the last bit of every piece of food. Yes, here's where you could argue for the character building and growth in love for the vegetable by spending more frustrating moments slicing it to perfection. Not worth it, particularly considering that boiling the vegetables left them more soggy than I prefer. Tasty, yes. Superior, no.

Not this time Julia Child, not this time.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Why I Love Coffee

When I paint a picture of happiness in my head, the image involves a cup of coffee. It's as if holding a steaming mug slows times for the sipper while the rest of the world whirls around her. I've had so many lovely mornings cup in hand, sometimes with friends nearby, sometimes with just a pen and paper, sometimes just staring out the window watching the sun slide from hazy morning to brilliant day. If I could have my way, every morning people would come into my kitchen to drink coffee or tea, my only job would be to make sure the coffee was always hot. I could do that.

Life with coffee is slow and peaceful; I've always been such a romantic, idealizing the simple. There are people who slam espresso like they would a shot of whiskey; people who screech through Starbucks driveups and are always later to things than they mean to be.

In Spain, the cafes buzz softly with noise: the clanking of spoons against dishes, the whizzing of a steam wand in a canister of milk, and the smooth repetition of Castillian Spanish, which is so easy to tune out when you don't quite understand it. And the smell, oh the smell; inhaling the aroma of finely roasted beans is just as good as imbibing it.

All the cafes in Seville were al fresco for most of the year. In deep, rainy winter, they pull closed the windows. We're indoors too much here, choked by air conditioning and lulled quiet with florescent lighting. We also put too much whipped cream and French vanilla flavoring in our cheap coffee, but that's neither hear nor there. Wouldn't you rather be lulled to peace with a frothy cappuccino while staring at people walking by on the sidewalk?

Friday, March 19, 2010

BK Bakery

Sigh. Last weekend I went home with Megan to Jefferson City, Mo., to celebrate her bachelorette party in nearby Columbia. Before the party, we drove around doing miscellaneous wedding errands (including buying a pair of shoes for myself) the highlight of which was definitely this bakery where Megan and Eric are probably getting their wedding cake. How cute are those pastries? And Meg and I couldn't believe how cheap they were; those brownies are 75 cents.

I got a flaky almond croissant just barely filled with custard and topped with crunchy almonds. We sampled cupcake versions of the bakery's cakes, which were the usual moist cake with not-too-sweet frosting that you can expect from a hand-baked concoction. I loved the bakery. It's just the sort of place I would love to own, except not in a strip mall, though I give the owner credit for sprucing it up. Strip mall or no, the bakery has character.

I don't know why, but I've been feeling so tense this week. There's stress every week and this is no different. I'm usually pretty good at tranquilarme, but not today. I'm need of a big bear hug, one so tight my back cracks. Instead what I'll probably do is go get some more coffee, which only stands to make me more tense.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


I did it. I made a meal on a regular weeknight for no other purpose other than in honor of Gossip Girl Monday. And my friend Liz came over so I didn't have to feel either sad and pathetic eating alone or completely indulgent for going through the trouble to cook fancy for no one. Even though the photos suggest the chicken fricassee was cold with chunky sauce (don't hold my shoddy photography skills against the poultry), it was quite good--creamy, tender, high in cholesterol. Just like meeting a boy with an accent makes him that much cuter, making a dish involving the word "fricassee," which I still don't know the meaning of, makes said entree that much better. I (almost) followed all the detailed directions to Julia Child's chicken stewed in onions and cream (believe it or not, that was one of the least gluttonous recipes as it involved only cream and not cream and egg yolks and bacon).

Liz and I finished an entire bottle of wine on a Monday night (Julia Child would have been proud I think) and totally forgot about Gossip Girl. We chit-chatted about boys, jobs, babies (just kidding, we did not talk about babies)--just the way to start out the week. Maybe next time I'll be up for trying coq au vin, which involves lighting something on fire. Exciting.

You know how you have those relationships in which one is the giver and the other is the taker? One person does most of the talking and the other does most of the listening? Well, I think with Liz, I'm the taker-talker. I hope I'm not too bad, and at least I bribe her with food, but she's such a great listener and totally lets me go off on my storytelling tangents including lots of hand motions and vocal outbursts. I'm glad I've got people around to humor me.

Chicken Stewed in Onions and Cream: from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, serves 4
2 chicken breasts, bone in
2 chicken legs, bone in
3 tablespoons butter
1 cup onions, chopped
salt, pepper
1/2 teaspoon curry powder
3/4 cup dry white wine
2 cups whipping cream
1 tablespoon lemon juice

Dry the chicken, apparently this is absolutely necessary. I don't know--I had never tried it before tonight. Melt the butter in a fire proof pot. Saute the chicken for about 5 minutes just so the outside stiffens. I think this is to trap in the juices a bit, so turn it as she goes. Remove the chicken and set aside. Saute the onions, covered, for 5 minutes until their softened but not browned. Spread salt, pepper and curry powder on the chicken to season. Place chicken back in the pot, cover and cook for 10 minutes, turning once. In a separate pot, bring the cream to a soft simmer.

Pour in the wine, bring to a rapid boil to reduce the volume of the liquid. Once the liquid is almost gone pour in the cream. Stir to combine and reduce heat so the liquid simmers lightly. Baste the chicken by spooning the sauce over it. Cover and cook for 30 minutes. Remove the chicken to a serving platter. Bring the sauce to a boil to thicken it. Add the lemon juice and more salt and pepper to taste. Sauce is done when is coats a spoon. Add more cream if the sauce is still chunky. Pour sauce over chicken and serve.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Chard Not Charred

My Monday night routine is back (minus Gossip Girl, which has been moved to Wednesday nights), and it feels so good. After what seems like ages, it's nice enough to run outside. I didn't even need a hat or gloves. Once tired (which took no time at all), I came home and started chopping, boiling and sizzling in the kitchen. Feeling so bold and a bit desperate, I cooked some horrible, out-of-season tomatoes into edibility with garlic, salt, pepper and olive oil, and sauteed some greens.
Previous bad experiences (i.e. canned spinach that made me gag--an infamous story among my family), kept me away from cooked greens of any sort for far too long. Spinach, kale, Swiss chard, bok choy; they're all glorious. They lend themselves so well to butter and garlic. They're crunchy, yet the wilted ends are so creamy (but not mushy).
After however many years it's been of me cooking for myself, I think I've got the one-plate meal down. Pasta, check. Soup, check. Stew, got it. I've been ready to take on meat and poultry for some time now but keep putting it off. Meat is more expensive; it takes longer to cook (usually); I don't eat that much; I cook for myself most of the time and it feels a little sad to be making a big ordeal of dinner when it's just me. I think that last one is probably the clincher. How pathetic to be sitting watching "Friends" at home alone instead of eating with them.
Get over it, Lainey. My new goal is to make a real meal, one with sides of potatoes and vegetables, once a week. Starting ... next wek. In the meantime, here's another one-plater.
Macaroni with tomatoes, chard and goat cheese: serves 2
2 cups macaroni
1 cup diced tomatoes
1 pound Swiss chard, stems discarded and coarsely chopped
1 clove garlic
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/4 cup dry white wine
salt and pepper to taste
goat cheese to garnish
Bring a medium pot of salted water to a boil. Cook macaroni or other small-to-medium-size pasta until soft but firm to the bite. Drain and set aside.
In a saute pan, heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil on medium. Add the tomatoes, season with salt and pepper and saute for several minutes. Add the garlic, continue sauteing until the garlic has turned a golden brown (1 or 2 minutes, tops). Add the chicken stock and wine. Bring the liquid to a boil, reduce the heat and allow some of the liquid to boil off so the volume is cut in half by the end of it. After it has reduced (5-7 minutes), add the chopped chard. Stir while it cooks. Add the pasta to the saute pan once the chard has cooked through and turned a brilliant green color (about 4 minutes). Stir to combine. Season with salt and pepper. Serve. Add a couple dollops of goat cheese to each bowl of pasta. Stir to incorporate.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Double For Nothing

I found a double yolk!

With all the eggs I've consumed, the odds finally caught me. I was making dinner with some friends and showed off what a huge egg I had found in a carton of already obese eggs. It was a monster. And voila, once cracked, its largesse was explained with quite a surprise. Two yolks! Twins! Of course, I selfishly requested to eat that egg, which I think was fine because nobody likes poached eggs except me. Runny yolks freak people out, but that's the best part: It's smooth like buttah.

I could never open a restaurant because I'd always be serving things I think are fabulous but which most of the world loathes: asparagus and other strange vegetables, runny eggs, assorted beans and legumes, things dowsed in an escessive amount of vinegar. I have this obnoxious interest in things just for the weird factor (except for things related to the Coen Bros). Joanna Newsom (weirdest voice ever), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of my favorite movies (and it is trippy), this video to go with a Grizzly Bear song. When my sister Allison and I were little, we would sit on our dad's lap while he read us Berenstein Bears or Dr. Seuss books. He would read, most commonly, in a French accent, and we would whine, "daaaaddddd, read it normal and boring." His response was (obviously) to read it in a robot voice, which isn't actually boring at all. We would scream, "No, dad. Regular. Read it regular." Turns out regular is boring. I like my friends how I like my steak, medium-rare. What if people only ever liked Nickelback and Lenny Kravitz, films starring Will Smith, and carrots and peas?

This tomato-sauce casserole was pretty hearty, plus incredibly easy. I just used this easy tomato sauce recipe, added some sauteed arugula, vodka and buttermilk while simmering the sauce. Cracked the eggs and broiled the whole thing at 400 degrees for 12 minutes, just until the egg whites were cooked through.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Boozy Cake for the Kids

I've been meaning to make this cake for months now, but whenever I make sweets they end up sticking around the apartment until they're rock solid, moldy or attract flies (that happened with the apple pie, it's gross, I know). Sunday afternoon, I had a feeling of emerging from winter, ragged and weather-beaten but still alive. Plus, I felt a little celebratory: After more than 10 years of attending my church, I finally completed the membership class to officially join. Can we say committment problem? Actually, I don't think I have committment issues; I just take it seriously. I don't want to commit, even to something small like going to a movie with friends on a Friday night, if I don't think I'll be able to follow through. So yesterday, I became the last member of my family to join West Hills, and it felt like a big deal. Like something that should be commemorated with a cake.

Yesterday was actually the 50th anniversary of the church, making it that much more special to me. The charter members (so the first people to join the church 50 years ago) came up with the new members, and I (almost teary) just thought of how thankful I am that all those people stuck with the church for 50 years--I can't even conceive of that amount of time. I am so blessed because of their faithfulness. I just love my church; it's filled with people who are so honest about their faith, which is such a rare gem these days. These people are not looking for easy answers to life's questions, and I love that. And they wouldn't care that I poured a whole cup of amaretto liqueur into this cake and served it to the high school students--not that that's at all edgy considering the alcohol was completely cooked out, but I'm sure someone out there would have scoffed.

The cake is supposed to go in a bundt pan, which I do not own. Two cake rounds worked out fine, plus I got to use the two cake stands I got for my birthday. Oh it was so good. Almost like a brownie with a crunchy crust. The almond flavoring from the amaretto really came out, and it is chocolatey in the best sense--as in not milk-chocolate sweet, but dark, bitter and complex. While I was mixing it, I kept wanting to stop after each step because the batter already tasted so good. I'm glad I went all the way.
Chocolate-Amaretto Cake: aka Boozy Cake from Orangette
5 ounces unsweetened chocolate
1/4 cup instant espresso powder
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup amaretto liqueur (alternatively whiskey, bourbon or kirsch brandy)
2 sticks butter, softened
2 cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups flour
powdered sugar and almond slivers for garnishing

Preheat oven to 325. Melt chocolate using a double boiler or fill a pot of water a little bit, place a glass or heat-resistant bowl in the pot, bring the water to a soft boil and melt the chocolate in the glass bowl.

In a medium-size bowl, combine the espresso and cocoa powders. Pour about a 1/2 cup of boiling water into the bowl, blend the powders until they've completely dissolved. Pour in the liqueur. Orangette recommends whiskey or bourbon, but I didn't have either (not a big whiskey fan). I love the flavor of amaretto though.

In a large bowl, mix the butter with an electric beater until creamy. Add the sugar and blend until smooth. Add each of the eggs, one at a time. Add the vanilla and baking soda and blend again. Pour in the melted chocolate and mixture until smooth. Pour in one-third of the boozy mixture, blend. Dump in one cup of flour, blend. Pour in half of the remaining boozy mixture, blend. Add the last cup of flour, blend. Add the last of the amaretto, blend. Transfer batter to two 8- or 9-inch cake rounds or one bundt pan--well greased all around. Bake for 55 minutes in the cake rounds or for 1 hour and 10 minutes in the bundt. Garnish with powdered sugar and almonds to fancy it up.