Thursday, September 11, 2008

New Address!

I have a new address and website! I'm having some issues at the moment getting my Blogger account to properly redirect you automatically, so for the moment, you'll have to click the link or enter the new address in your browser.
I'll be posting all new blog entries there from now on, so be sure to change the address on your favorites lists and/or blogrolls!
See you there!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Coming Soon...

Hi! I know it's been a few days since my last post, but please bear with me! I've got something new coming really soon! I pinky-swear!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Buttercream Low-Down

I looove frosting. I'm the one at the birthday party who wants the corner piece with all the roses piled on top and I'm not afraid to admit that when I'm done making frosting, I eat the scraps out of the bowl.
The world of frosting is big and beautiful- there are hard royal icings, cooked fudge frosting, marshmallowy meringue frostings, glazes, ganaches, and of course, buttercreams. Buttercream is probably the most popular frosting (in America, at least), but there are so many varieties...

My personal favorite is simple buttercream(sometimes referred to as "American" buttercream.) It's easy to make, is uncooked and pipes like a dream. It is, however, so sugary it makes your teeth burn. Most bakery "birthday" cakes- the kind with roses- are iced with simple buttercream. It's also what I used in my yo-yo cookies- you can find that recipe here.
Simple buttercream is made by creaming a fat with confectioner's sugar and flavorings. For the fat you can use butter, shortening or a 50/50 of the two. All butter tastes the best, but doesn't pipe as well because the butter gets soft at room temperature, also, the icing is a little ivory in color. All shortening tastes the most "fake", but pipes the best, is pure white and holds its shape best if it's a little warm. I like a half-and-half of butter and shortening, as you get the nice buttery flavor, but also the stability of the shortening. I also add an egg white to mine. It may sound gross, but the egg white really helps give the frosting a nice, smooth mouth feel. You can leave it out and use a tablespoon or two of cream, but the frosting is a little grittier. They sell pasteurized egg whites in a carton, as well as pasteurized in-the-shell eggs if you don't want to take your chances with food borne illness.

If you want something that's a little less dense and a little less sweet,but that still pipes well, Italian buttercream is a pretty good choice. It's a little more complex, as it has a cooked meringue base, but it is much less sugary tasting. It pipes quite well, and I like it better on very sweet cakes. (Sorry, this is a by-weight recipe...if you don't own a food scale, I highly recommend them. Not only does it make European recipes a cinch, but baking is so much less messy when you weigh it. They're only about $20. It's a good investment.)

Italian Buttercream

8oz sugar
2oz water
4oz egg whites
10oz butter, room temp.
1tsp vanilla extract

In a heavy bottomed saucepan heat sugar and water until they reach 240F. While the sugar is heating, put your egg whites in your mixing bowl. When the sugar is at about 200ish, start whipping the egg whites to med-stiff peaks. Once sugar reaches 240F, reduce the speed on the egg whites to low and slowly and carefully whip the hot sugar into the whites. Once all the sugar is in, add the vanilla and turn up the speed and whip the mixture until it is cool. (No warmer than body temperature!) Turn the speed down, and add the butter in chunks, waiting until one chunk is incorporated to add the next. Once the butter is all in, whip a little longer, until fluffy.
(Be sure your meringue is pretty cool before adding the butter, or it'll just melt and make buttery sugar soup.)

French buttercream is similar in preparation to Italian buttercream, but is made with yolks instead of whites. It's very rich, but just lightly sweet. It's pretty soft, and doesn't really pipe that well. You could get a border and some filigree out of it, but not roses. It's very delicious, though.

French Buttercream

8oz sugar
2oz water
3oz egg yolks
10oz butter, room temp.
1tsp vanilla

The preparation is basically the same as for Italian buttercream, so I'll give you abridged directions. Whip the yolks until they are light and thick. Cook the sugar and water to 240F. With the mixer on low, slowly drizzle the sugar into the yolks. Add the vanilla, and whip until cool. Add the butter in small chunks while still whipping. Whip until fluffy.

Last, and definitely least (in my opinion) is Swiss buttercream. It pipes really well, but tastes exactly like the "honey whipped margarine" that they put in little paper cups on breakfast buffets. Seriously, it tastes primarily of butter, and then, as a faint aftertaste, a tiny bit of sweetness. I love frosting, but Swiss buttercream is where I draw the line. I'm telling you about it, so you are aware of its existence, but I'm not going to post a recipe. I can't in good conscience inflict it on others. If you're really passionate about eating butter, you can scour the internet and find a recipe yourself.
Hopefully, these recipes are helpful, and will provide you with a bit of direction in the vast and varied land of frosting options. Don't be intimidated by the cooked frostings, because the flavor and textures are truly divine, and really, they aren't that hard to make. Happy frosting, my friends!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Yo, yo! Party Cookies!

Those of you who live in the south and prowl the bakery section of your local Publix like me are probably familiar with the decadant, super sugary, artery clogging death cookie known as the Yo-yo. It exists outside the walls of Publix, but aside from a few references to the cookies I found on-line, it seems to lie pretty low on the cookie radar.
Delicious and wonderful in that "I think I can feel my thighs getting bigger" sort of way, the yo-yo is two cookies (chocolate chip at Publix, though most non-Publix references I found were sugar cookies) sandwiched together with buttercream icing and (sometimes) dipped in chocolate. They sell them individually at Publix, probably realising that if they sold them in multi-packs they'd have to make people sign a waiver. I'm usually good and just glance wistfully at them, but every now and then I break down and buy one. I eat it, bounce around like Mike Myers in that hyper-hypo sketch on SNL, then collapse into a little sugar coma.

Kyle and I had some friends over for game night this weekend, so of course I had to make some sort of dessert. I decided to make a homemade version of my favorite guilty pleasure cookie.
It's very simple- I used my standard chocolate chip cookie recipe (which has been modified and tweaked over the years), a "simple" buttercream, and chocolate candy coating for dipping.
If you really wanted to, you could even use store bought cookie dough and jarred frosting, though the recipes aren't hard, and will taste better. I did cheat a little with the candy coating (sometimes called "almond bark", though I don't know why). The coating is easily melted in the microwave and sets up hard, without having to go through the process of tempering like you would have to with real chocolate.
Pumpkin's Chocolate Chip Cookies
Makes about 5 dozen 1/2oz cookies

2 sticks (8oz) butter, softened
1/2c sugar
1c packed brown sugar
2 eggs
2t vanilla
1t salt
2 1/4c flour
1t baking powder
1 bag semi-sweet chips
1c milk chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350F. Cream butter and sugars together until combined. Add eggs one at a time, along with the vanilla, mixing until just combined. (Do not over-cream or cookies will spread too much). In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, salt and baking powder. Add half to the butter and egg mixture. Mix until mostly combined, then add the rest of the flour. Mix until just combined. Fold the chips in by hand. Using a 1/2oz disher (or a spoon) drop cookies onto parchment lined cookie sheets and bake for 10-12min, turning halfway through. Cool on wire racks.

Simple Buttercream
Makes enough for 28-30 cookie sandwiches

1 stick (4oz) butter, softened
4oz vegetable shortening (yes, shortening.)
1 egg white (yes, an egg white. If you get grossed out by raw eggs, use the pasturized egg whites in a carton or the pasturized-in-the-shell kind.)
1lb confectioners sugar
1tsp vanilla extract
In a bowl, whip the butter and shortening until combined. Add the egg white and vanilla and whip. Add the confectioners sugar and whip (you may want to start on low and work your way up to avoid a mess.) Whip until fluffy.
Match cookies up in pairs to other similar cookies. Pipe or spread a generous layer of icing on half the cookies. Sandwich together with the remaining cookies. If desired, dip in melted chocolate candy coating and decorate with rainbow spinkles.

Enjoy with a glass of milk or mug of coffee and an insulin shot.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Velveeta Trilogy: Part 3

My final installment of culinary experimentation comes courtesy the "Quick Fixin' Dinners" chapter of "Velveeta: Recipes for People Who Eat Food". I think the chapter intro says more than I ever could:
"These recipes are designed for quick and easy preparation. And to reflect that, we decided to name these recipes 'Quick Fixin' Dinners'. Notice how we dropped the 'g' on the word 'fixing' to show how quickly these dinners can be made. By dropping the letter 'g', we have created a visual cue, so the reader will be convinced that these really are quick recipes and that they should try them for that reason alone."
Well, I'm convinced. Shall we?

Cheeseburger Mac
From "Velveeta: Recipes for People Who Eat Food"
Serves 4-6

1lb ground beef (I used one bag Morningstar Farms Grillers Recipe Crumbles instead)
2 3/4cups water
1/3 cups ketchup
1-2t onion powder (I used 2)
2c (8oz) uncooked elbow macaroni
3/4lb (12oz) Velveeta, cut into cubes.

In a large skillet, brown ground beef and drain. (Since I was using veggie "meat", I skipped this step.) Stir in water, ketchup and onion powder. Bring to a boil. Stir in macaroni. Reduce heat to simmer and cover. Cook for 8-10 minutes, or until pasta is desired doneness. Add Velveeta, and stir until melted.
This was truly fast! (I suppose I should have known that, given the visual cues at the beginning of the chapter and all...) Since I didn't have meat to brown, mine took less than 15min, and I'd guess even with ground beef to brown you'd come in under 25min.

It was good- I mean, everyone loves Velveeta Shells and Cheese, right? This was that with meat. Hard to go wrong. Kyle was a little iffy on the ketchup- it's not super noticeable, but it gives the dish a slight sweetness that he wasn't sure he liked. He thought he'd prefer it sans ketchup. Me, I'm a gross freak and mix ketchup in my mac 'n' cheese anyway, so of course I liked it.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Iron Cupcake Voting

The ballot for Iron Cupcake is up! Pop on over and check out the lovely and creative entries, and, of course, vote!
Voting is open until noon (central time) on September 4, so don't hesitate!
Allez Cupcake!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Aida's Eggs

Have any of you seen Food Network's new show, "Ask Aida"? In case you haven't, it features a pretty (and really skinny) young woman named Aida who cooks while her friend (?) Noah checks her e-mail for her and reads questions from viewers. (Sarah Molton used to have a show with a similar concept- viewers called in and asked her questions, but without the tech-geek...)
I watched it this weekend, and I'll be honest- didn't really care for it. I sometimes felt like Aida was just making stuff up as she went. (At one point she was poaching eggs, and was cracking eggs into individual bowls. Noah asked her what the bowls were for, and her response was something along the lines of "I think they're so beautiful!"... Uh, what? I think you're doing it because that way you can slip the eggs into the poaching water without breaking the egg apart.)
She also never ate anything she made, which bothered me. I might not have noticed, except that Noah ate, and she just stood there watching him weirdly as he ate. It was strange.

Kyle did suggest, however, that we try her baked eggs with Canadian bacon and spinach from the episode. We were at the grocery store when he suggested it, so I bought what I remembered her using, and kind of made it up from there. To see how close I was, I looked up her version on Food Network's website. I was almost dead on. I did use different baking temps and times- I've included mine. Hers are available here.

Baked Eggs with Canadian Bacon and Spinach
From Aida Mollenkamp
Serves 4

2T minced onion (I omitted this)
6oz fresh spinach (I used 10oz, and would probably use more in the future)
4slices Canadian bacon
4 eggs
1/4c heavy cream (I used 4T Silk soy creamer)
1oz grated sharp cheddar (I forgot what cheese she used, and used grated Parmesan)

Preheat oven to 375F. Butter four ramekins and lay one slice of Canadian bacon in each. In a saute pan, cook onions until soft, but not brown (if using.) Add spinach to the pan and cook until wilted. Top each slice of bacon with 1/4 of the spinach. Crack one egg into each cup, drizzle with 1T cream. Sprinkle each cup with cheese.
Bake for 10min. Turn on broiler and broil for 2min.

We ate ours with whole wheat toast. (You'll want toast- the spinach is very...juicy, and the toast is excellent for sopping it up.) These cooking times yielded "over medium" eggs- the yolks just barely runny, which is how I like mine. You can adjust times based on your preference. The egg cups were very good, and made for an excellent (and fast) weeknight supper- including prep time, it took about 15min. The leftover cups microwaved well for breakfast the next day, too.

As much as I didn't care for the show, I really did like the egg idea. I may play around with the veggies in it for variety (maybe mushrooms or sauteed peppers) as it makes for a perfect "I don't feel like cooking and I'm hungry NOW" dinner.

I may have to watch a few more episodes to develop a final opinion... maybe she'll find her groove. And maybe I'll get a few more dinner ideas!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Iron Cupcake: Chili

Well, it's time for me to unveil my submission for Iron Cupcake: Earth. This month is the inaugural challenge, and the "secret" ingredient really put my creative cogs into motion. Chili peppers were the ingredient, and with so many types of chillies, and so many different cuisines that utilize them, there was a wealth of places to draw inspiration.
My original idea was sort of a Southwest/Tex-Mex inspired cupcake- a jalapeno-peach cupcake. I even went so far as to actually make them. Sadly, the whole thing really lacked flavor... the cake, the frosting, everything. I had imagined something with the bright, grassy flavor of fresh jalapenos and the sweetness of peaches, but it was very bland and disappointing. So, I went back to the drawing board...
I really love Thai food, and how so many Thai dished combine nutty flavors with spiciness and a hint of sweetness. This is what gave me the inspiration for my second cupcake- a spicy sesame cupcake with chocolate cayenne buttercream.
The cake is a chiffon cake made with toasted sesame oil and studded with red chili flakes. The icing is a chocolate French-style buttercream spiked with just a hint of Cayenne. The cake is light and spongy with a toasty nuttiness that segways into a pretty decent burn in the back of the throat. The buttercream was freaking awesome! French buttercream is made with egg yolks whipped with a hot sugar syrup, combined with butter- It's sweet and rich, but very light in texture. I added cocoa powder and melted dark chocolate, as well as a tiny pinch of Cayenne. (The icing got many compliments!) The nuttiness of the cake was nicely complimented by the sweet chocolate.
The cupcakes were enjoyable, but not omigod!igottahaveone! I think, while I appreciate the spicy/sweet flavor combo, I like it better applied to savory foods rather than desserts. However, for the spice-junkie (especially ones that appreciate Asian cuisine) these would be the perfect cupcakes!

Toasted Sesame Cupcakes
Makes about 14 cupcakes

1 1/4 cups cake flour
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 T baking powder
1/2 T red chili flakes
1/4 cup toasted sesame oil
1 t vanilla extract
2 egg yolks
4 egg whites
pinch salt
Preheat oven to 300F. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder and chili flakes. In a different bowl, mix oil, vanilla and yolks. Add the wet mixture to the dry mixture a little at a time, mixing to make a smooth batter. In a clean bowl, whip the egg whites and salt until they form med-firm peaks. Fold half the whites into the batter. Once mostly incorporated, fold in the other half. Be careful to not deflate the whites too much, but be sure there are no streaks of white.
Line a muffin tin with cupcake wrappers. Fill each cup about 2/3 full. Bake for 10min, then turn and bake about 10min more, or until a toothpick inserted into the middle cupcake comes out clean. Cool before icing.

Chocolate Cayenne Buttercream
Makes enough for 14 cupcakes (at least)

5 egg yolks
2 T cocoa
pinch Cayenne pepper
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
10 oz room temperature butter, cut into chunks
2oz melted dark chocolate (I like Green and Black)
Whip yolks, Cayenne and cocoa powder until light and foamy. In a heavy bottomed saucepan, heat sugar and water to 240F. Once at temperature, carefully drizzle hot sugar into yolks, whipping constantly. Continue to whip the yolk/sugar mixture until the sides of the bowl no longer feel warm. The mixture should be body temperature or just below. While whipping, add the butter chunks one at a time. As one incorporates, add the next. Once the butter is all in, add the melted chocolate. If the icing is too loose, set the mixing bowl in an ice bath and continue whipping until it thickens. Pipe onto cupcakes, and sprinkle with chili flakes, if desired.
You can view the contenders and vote for your favorites (*cough*mine*cough*) starting tomorrow. I'll post the links once the voting begins.

We Iron Cupcake Bakers are competing to win bragging rights, as well as fabulous prizes from Jessie Steele Aprons, Cupcake Courier, Taste of Home, Fiesta Head Chefs as well as Etsy artist Cakespy (check out her artwork- it's soooo cute!)

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Sips and Nibbles

As minor as we all thought Tropical Storm Fay would be, she certainly proved to be a pain in the butt. It started raining Monday night, and then continued to rain until Friday. Daily rain isn't that unusual here in the summer, but it generally comes at about 4pm and lasts about half an hour, and then it's all sunshine again. This was all day, all night relentless rain. To illustrate, here's a picture of our parking lot from this week. You'll note that the water is high enough that you can't see the curb in some areas. (That little yellow car in the background is mine!)

As a result of the rain and flooding, we've been a little stir crazy. Frankly both Kyle and I were happy when the flooded roads cleared and we were able to go back to work. So, Friday night, we decided we'd celebrate that the rain had (mostly) stopped. We went to our favorite wine shop, WineStyles with a friend for the wine tasting. It's a great little shop- it's a franchise, and is owned by a nice couple that are passionate about good wine. If you're intimidated by wines and wine shopping, this is a perfect shop- all the wines are organized by "style" (ie. bold, mellow, fruity, &c) and every single wine has a card next to it that tells you what flavors it has, if its dry or sweet, what kind of food it's best with. And if that isn't enough help, the owners and employees are very friendly and knowledgeable, and don't mind helping you find the right wine. (Oh, and most of the wines are priced under $25, which is a bonus!) I'd highly recommend taking a look at the website to see if there's a franchise in your area.

We tasted some wines, and picked up our wines of the month, then headed over to the World Beat Cafe, a local tapas restaurant. Recently, they've been offering an all-you-can-eat tapas menu for only $25 per person. They have a special menu for the offer, with about 20 selections, plus the offer includes a bottle of wine, pitcher of sangria or three cocktails per person. (I had a chardonnay, but didn't finish it- we corked it and brought it home.)

It was especially fun with the three of us, because we shared all the little plates of food. I can't remember exactly everything we had, but I took pictures of the tandoori chicken with peanut sauce, the Mediterranean calamari and the five cheese flat bread.
I love tapas, because I like not having to commit to one entree. You get the chance to try small amounts of several things, plus they really encourage a very fun, social dining experience.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Rainy Day Picnic

Kyle and I had planned a picnic this weekend. We have a cute picnic basket with plastic wine glasses, and matching plates and everything. We were going to go to the beach in the evening, and have a romantic movie-style beach picnic...
But it rained. And rained. And rained.

So we moved our picnic indoors to our living room. We did lay out a plaid blanket and ate our food on the floor. We went for simple, cold foods- it was very continental.
This was our spread-

The pictures were going to be beautiful and scenic and jealousy-inspiring: us lounging on a beach at sunset, sipping wine and relaxing... but, since we were just in our boring living room, you just get the food.
We had a loaf of soft french bread, apples and grapes, prosciutto, chorizo, some Irish cheddar, pesto and olive oil to dip the bread in. We also had a bottle of L'Orval Merlot. It was very casual and rustic- we just tore off bits of bread and ate it with our meats and cheeses. The wine was nice- round and fruity, but nothing too fancy (I happened to see it at Publix the other day for $6.99- I can't remember if I bought it at the grocery store or the wine shop or if it was a gift...)

The whole thing was delish, and an easy, stress-free weekend dinner. Even without the beach, it was a pleasant (and gave us a chance to watch some DVR'd episodes of Mad Men.) Maybe next time the weather will be more co-operative.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Velveeta Trilogy- Part II

My second foray into the world of "Velveeta: Recipes for People who Eat Food" come from the chapter entitled "Mexican Madness". The chapter info:
"Your self control slowly diminishes, your eyes widen and your taste buds begin to pulsate... you have been diagnosed with Mexican Madness. This condition may sound a little scary and intimidating, but once you expose yourself and others to these recipes you will discover that being absolutely mad is a blessing and should be cherished and spread to others." Uhhh... what?

One plus side to the Velveeta recipes is that they've been turning out well. They're easy and so far, have been consistently good. Certainly not five star gourmet cuisine, but it is nice to have a recipe that you know you'd have to do something really awful to screw up.

This go-'round I made Tex Mex Chicken and Rice. It says it serves four, but you wind up with a huge quantity of the rice. I made five chicken breasts, and we still had extra rice. I would go so far as to say you could get six to seven servings of rice, so buy extra chicken. I also seasoned my chicken, because the recipe left them plain (no salt, even). My changes are marked with an asterisk.

Tex Mex Chicken and Rice
From Velveeta: Recipes for People Who Eat Food
Original serves 4; Modified serves 6

4 small boneless, skinless chicken breasts (*I'd recommend at least 6)
*kosher salt, black pepper, garlic powder, to taste
1 can pinto beans, drained and rinsed
1 can chicken broth
1 cup salsa
2 cups instant rice (*I used instant brown, which increased my cooking time)
8oz Velveeta, cut into cubes

Spray a large skillet with non-stick cooking spray. *Season chicken breasts on both sides with salt, pepper and garlic powder. Add chicken to skillet, cover. Cook on med-high heat for about 4min on each side or until cooked through. Set cooked chicken aside on a clean plate.
Add broth, beans and salsa to skillet. Bring to a boil.
Stir in rice and Velveeta chunks. Lay chicken on top, cover. Cook on low heat for 5 minutes, or until rice absorbs liquid. (*Mine took closer to 15min.)

I topped mine with a little bit of shredded Velveeta (you have no idea how hard it is to shred Velveeta!) and some extra salsa. Because you don't stir the rice while cooking, you get little melty pockets of cheese, which is pretty yummy. Kyle was enthusiastic about it. I liked the rice, but thought the chicken was a little boring. I wound up cutting mine up and mixing it into the rice. Next time I might marinate the chicken in something simple, like salsa. All in all, it was good and very easy, plus it uses stuff that's easy to keep in the pantry or freezer, which would make it great for a mid-week meal when you're too tired for anything that requires extensive prep work.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Hunker Down

Everyone gets jealous of us Floridians. I think people imagine that we spend our whole days surfing, lounging on the beach, drinking frou-frou drinks out of a pineapple and listening to Jimmy Buffet. The reality is that we have jobs and school and bills just like everyone else, and that it's super-crazy-miserable humid/hot about 70% of the year. Not to say that beaches, Disney World and sunny, balmy Decembers aren't nice, but I think people forget that it's not a tropical paradise all of the time. Case in point, Hurricane Fay, who blew through the Keys and is heading towards central Florida.

Floridians are pretty good at "hunkering down" during hurricanes. Obviously, we evacuate if necessary, but if it's safe to stay home, it's important to get the supplies you need. It's a good idea to get to the store as early as possible, because as soon as the storm starts getting close, the shelves empty of the vital supplies- bottled water, batteries, and of course, canned food. I got to the store just in time to grab all the canned food we'd need for the storm...

Canned frosting counts as canned food, right?
In all seriousness, it looks like it shouldn't be too bad a storm, and it looks like here on the east coast, we'll just get some nasty thunderstorms. Oooh, plus school is cancelled tomorrow! It's like a Florida snow day!
Edit (08-19)- It's pretty rainy out, but no thunder or lightning. It's a little windy, but nothing too bad. In fact, it's not a hurricane anymore- Fay's been downgraded to Tropical Storm.
I grew up in the Midwest, and was scared for my first hurricane several years ago, but having been through several, I can say that tornadoes are WAY scarier. They're less predictable, and while the affected swath is narrower than a hurricane's, with a hurricane you know they're coming days in advance and can prepare/evacuate as necessary.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Showing Off a Little

I just finished my very last kitchen class of pastry school! I'm obviously excited, as it means I'm almost done with school, but it's a little bittersweet because the kitchen classes are the best part of school. All I have left are some classroom classes- cost control, computers, a wine class amongst others. I do have a three week break from classes in September, as some of my credits from my BFA transferred and I don't have to take English.
I thought in honor of my final kitchen class I'd post a little retrospective of some of my favorite pictures and projects that haven't yet appeared on the blog.
This was a project from a cake class. We had to make a cake with our choice of cake flavor, filling and icing. Mine was based on an Arnold Palmer- a beverage named after the golfer consisting of half iced tea and half lemonade. This is an iced tea chiffon cake with lemon curd filling, sweet tea syrup and lemon-tea italian butter cream. The lemon/mint garnish is supposed to recall a glass of iced tea. It was delish, and very summery.
This was a project from custard class. We had to make a bavarian or mousse in some sort of sponge-type cake. Mine was called a Mocha Char-latte Russe. (A Charlotte Russe is a bavarian custard lined with ladyfingers.) It was a layer of chocolate bavarian, a layer of coffee bavarian, ladyfingers (yes, I made the ladyfingers), topped with whipped cream and cocoa powder. (Like a mocha!) I clearly find a lot of inspiration in beverages...
This is a Dobos torte. It's a traditional fancy-pants Hungarian cake made with seven layers of almond sponge brushed with rum syrup, filled with chocolate buttercream and topped with hard caramel glazed sponge cake.
This was a final project from petit fours class. It's an assortment of petit fours, including mini fruit tarts, French macaroons, cream puffs, eclairs, mini strawberry mousse and hazelnut truffles.
There are obviously dozens of things we've made, and I have pictures galore, but these are a few of my favorites.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Velveeta Trilogy- Part One

One year in my Christmas stocking I got a small, paperback cookbook (2000, according to the publishing info inside). It's one of those "brand name food item" cookbooks that you find at the grocery store checkout with the National Enquirer and People magazine. It's called "Velveeta: Recipes for People Who Eat Food."
I think Santa gave it as a joke, because while everyone needs more Velveeta recipes, this is one strange little cookbook. The recipes are exactly what you'd expect, but the actual copy in the book is a little... quirky. I don't know who wrote it (no author is credited), but the chapter intros are so weird that I have to assume they locked the guy in a windowless room and told him he couldn't see his wife or kids until he wrote about "Quick Fixin' Dinners". I'll provide an example in a moment.

Recently, the little book resurfaced, and I realized I never really gave it a chance as a cookbook. I try to avoid overly processed foods, but I decided, in the spirit of fairness, to give this book a shot. Over the next couple weeks, I'll feature three recipes, along with reviews from three different chapters (to give a taste of diversity!) For all my recipes, I bought Velveeta made with 2% milk (I guess they no longer call it Velveeta Light). I was going to be super-faithful to the book and buy Minute rice, Taco Bell salsa (odd that they sell Taco Bell salsa, given that they don't have salsa at Taco Bell...), Breakstone sour cream, but bottom line, those brands all ran about 50-75 cents more expensive than my beloved Publix-brand equivalents. (I did shell out for real Velveeta, though.)

Our first recipe comes from the "Super Duper Soups and Sandwiches" chapter. From the book:
"Since achieving the title 'Super Duper', our soups and sandwiches have not been acting quite the same way as they once did. Unfortunately, the title of 'Super Duper' has gone to their heads. They have alienated all other soups and sandwiches, refusing to associate with lesser forms of nourishment. We do, however, feel somewhat responsible since we were the ones who made these recipes so good."
I can't make this stuff up, people.

Cheesy Baked Potato Soup
from Velveeta: Recipes for People Who Like Food
Makes 4 servings

3/4cup chopped onion
2 Tbsp butter (I used canola oil)
2cups water
1can chicken broth (I used vegetable broth)
2-3 large baked potatoes, cut into cubes
3/4lb (12 oz) Velveeta, cubed
*I also added one box frozen chopped broccoli, thawed

In a large saucepan, cook onion in butter (or oil) until soft. Stir in broth and water potatoes and broccoli, if using, heat thoroughly. Add Velveeta, stir on low heat until melted. Serve with sour cream and bacon bits.

It was really a pretty good soup. As I said, I added broccoli to boost the nutrition. If I made it again, I might replace one cup of water with milk for added richness, and I would probably use red potatoes. The baked potatoes are a good way to use leftovers (which I had), but baked potatoes are kind of grainy, which made the soup less smooth. This would be easily remedied with a waxy potato (such as reds.)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Is it Fall Yet?

I love pumpkins. I mean really love pumpkins. I like the way they look, I like eating them (in pie, ravioli, soup, baked goods, ice cream... ) and I like everything about them (okay, except maybe the stringy stuff inside- that makes my skin crawl.) Of course, since they're a pretty seasonal food, I really only get to enjoy them in autumn. Autumn also happens to be my favorite season, and I honestly spend most of the summer wishing September would hurry up and get here already. (Not that autumn in Florida means anything- leaves don't change, and it doesn't cool down until late October... But I can finally stop feeling like a weirdo for having a pumpkin cookie jar on my counter year-round.)

So, needless to say, when I saw Harvest Moon Pumpkin Ale at the grocery store, I almost wept for joy! It was like seeing the first golden orange leaf of the season, or having to put on a jacket on the first crisp, cool day... It was beautiful- the closest thing I'll get here in the tropics to a harbinger of the season to come.
Harvest Moon is brewed by Blue Moon Brewing Company in Canada and is imported by Coors. (If you've never had Blue Moon, I highly recommend it- it's quite good.) The website lists the "season" for Harvest Moon as early September-late November, so we must be getting a sneak peak? I'm not complainin'.

I've never had Harvest Moon before, so I was excited to try it. I was also a little leary, as I have had some very... squash-y pumpkin beers in the past. There is definately an art to balancing the perfect amount of pumpkin sweetness and earthiness without making it taste like a fermented can of Libby's pumpkin puree.

The label is very pretty- it's in the same folksy woodcut-style as regular Blue Moon, but with a pumpkin patch and a more autumnal color palate. The label says the ale is infused with pumpkin, cloves, nutmeg and allspice and brewed using traditional crystal malt. When poured, the beer has a rich coppery color, but really no smell of pumpkin or spice- it just smells like an ale. The flavor at first was very like a nice, malty ale, with just a slight sweetness... it wasn't until I'd swallowed that I really got the faintest aftertaste of the spices and pumpkin. It was good- not overpowering, very refreshing and quite enjoyable. I liked it, but I could have dealt with a slightly more pronounced pumpkin spice flavor, however, I'm glad they erred on the side of restraint. I'd rather have a subtle, pleasantly drinkable pumpkin ale than something overwhelming and vile.
I'd definately buy it again, especially as it's a reasonably priced, easy-to-find brand. I'm sure Harvest Moon will find its way into regular rotation in our fridge this fall.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Surfers, Omelets and Stickies

There are a lot of restaurants that Kyle and I drive by and remark, "We should go there sometime." There are a lot of reasons we don't go- it's out of the way, we forget... I'm sure everyone experiences this.
For Kyle and I, The Omelet Station is one of these places. Located in the middle of touristy Cocoa Beach on Highway A1A, it's not in an area we really frequent. It always seemed when we were driving by we were on our way to meet friends for dinner, or we'd just eaten. This weekend, however, we came across an ad, and decided we'd put off trying it for far too long. We headed to charmingly touristy Cocoa Beach to have ourselves a late weekend breakfast.
A1A runs along the ocean, and the Cocoa Beach area is home to hotels, souvenir shops and the world famous surfer mecca, Ron John's Surf Shop. The Omelet Station is tucked between hotels, and is maybe 50 yards from the ocean. There's a hotel behind the restaurant, so you can't see the water from inside, but the windows look out to the street, and passing clusters of beach-bound surfers reminds you of its proximity.
And to prove this point, while I was taking a picture of the sign, a passing surfer (who probably thought I was a weird tourist) stopped and posed next to the sign for me. Thanks, friendly surfer!

As the name suggests, The Omelet Station is mostly a breakfast place, and it's nothing fancy- just a casual local breakfast joint. They do have a lunch menu, but I'm a sucker for breakfast at places like this, and honestly, mostly ignored the non-breakfast menu. They have lots of omelets, including build-your-own and specialities (currently one of the specials is the Barack "Obama-let"- an egg white omelet with spinach and feta.)

I was torn between several options, including the gingerbread waffles, the sweet potato pancakes, the beach-style eggs benedict (crab, sauteed with spinach and garlic, on top of a toasted english muffin with poached eggs and topped with hollandaise sauce.) There was also an intriguing side item called "grilled stickies", which we assume was grilled cinnamon buns. I wanted to get some based on the name alone. (I didn't wind up getting one, but there's always next time!)

I ultimately settled on the Southern Risin', a cornmeal dusted tilapia fillet, served with grits, eggs and toast. I chose rye toast and eggs over easy. I'll admit, it wasn't very photogenic, but it was sure good! I like to cut up my eggs and mix them with the grits, then sprinkle the whole thing with a fair amount of hot sauce. An ideal bite was a bit of fish, a bit of egg and a bit of grits all together.The fish was nicely seasoned and not over-cooked or dry, and the grits were soft, but not mushy and gluey, and still had individual grains. The toast was nice and crisp at the edges, and was very buttery. (I don't often butter my toast at home, but it sure is hard to beat toast with crispy edges and a soft, buttery middle... yum.)
I also got a cup of coffee, which was nice and strong- just like I like it, and tasted freshly brewed. (I worked at a coffee-shop, and have become a bit of a coffee snob, I'll admit.) i was very pleased that it was served with a small carafe of half and half, not a little dish of plastic containers of non-dairy creamer.

Kyle ordered banana and peanut butter stuffed french toast, which took a much prettier picture than my fish 'n' grits. It was a huge serving! He let me taste it, and it was rich- almost like dessert. It looked like they made a peanut butter and banana sandwich on thick Texas toast, dipped the whole thing in french toast custard, then cooked it. Kyle only got part-way through it, but was happy to take home the extra toast and my leftover grits to have for lunch this week.

As for the restaurant itself, it's housed in an old Perkins, and still retains that sort of bland atmosphere. There were paintings on the wall by local artists, as well as some beautiful surfboards, but the interior really just looked like a re-decorated Perkins. The Omelet Station is still young, though (just over a year old), so it may gather character as it ages. It was very clean, and the staff was pleasant.
Kyle and I agreed that the Omelet Station was worth the short drive to Cocoa Beach, and will definitely be back.

If you happen to take a beach vacation, and find yourself needing a post-surf nosh, be sure to hit The Omelet Station. Let me know how you like the grilled stickies!
You can find the Omelet Station at 5590 N Atlantic Ave, Cocoa Beach, FL 32931.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Poseidon Adventure

Since Kyle and I don't see each other much Monday through Friday, given that he works during the day and I work and go to school and don't get home until midnight or so, Saturdays are usually our "date night". We generally go out to dinner, but this weekend, I was in the mood for seafood and we couldn't decide on a local seafood place, so I decided I'd cook. We couldn't really decide on anything in particular, but decided to go to our favorite seafood market to see what they had.
As we looked around the market, Kyle caught sight of some pretty soft shell crabs in the case, and suggested them for dinner. I commented that yeah, they looked good, but I had no idea what to do with them once I got them home. One of the guys working overheard me and asked to what I was referring. I pointed to the crabs, and he responded, "Oh, you just clean 'em, bread 'em and fry 'em." He then pulled one out of the case and gave me a quick tutorial on cleaning a soft shell crab. He offered to clean our for us, but added that it was best to clean them right before cooking. I decided that it looked easy enough for me to handle, and we bought two, packed them in our cooler and took them home.

Soft shell crabs are blue crabs that have molted their hard exterior shell. They must be harvested immediately after molting, as they begin to grow a new, hard shell. Molting season is generally May- late July, which means we caught probably some of the last soft shells of the season. Since the shells are so soft, after a quick cleaning the crabs can be eaten whole, shell and all. Soft shell crabs generally arrive to market "fresh", meaning they are no longer alive. They should smell clean and "ocean-y", not like ammonia or stinky rotting fish.

Cleaning them is very simple. I was intimidated at first, but it's not hard at all. (And really not very messy- cutting up a chicken is a messier ordeal.) First, with the crab "right side up", lift the shell up (kind of like the crab's shoulder... if crabs had shoulders...) There are grey gills there (my fishmonger called them "dead man's fingers"). With a small knife, cut them out. Repeat on the other side.

Flip the crab onto its back. There is a small flap on the crab's belly. Use the tip of the knife to pull it down and trim it off.

Flip the crab back over. Using kitchen shears trim off the eyes and mouth about 1/2" back.

You're done cleaning! Since I'd never cooked soft shell crabs before, I decided to keep my preparation simple. I sprinkled the cleaned crabs with Old Bay Seasoning and dredged them in flour, then dipped them in beaten eggs. I let the excess egg drip off, then coated them in cornmeal. I set them on a rack to allow the crust to set while I heated some canola oil in a heavy bottomed skillet. I filled it about 3/4" and using a fry thermometer, brought the temperature to 350F. Once it was hot, I fried the crab for about 3-4min on each side. I removed them to a clean rack with paper towels under it to drain, and sprinkled them with some more Old Bay while they were hot.

Many seafood joints will serve a whole fried soft shell crab on a bun as a sandwich, often with a remoulade or tartar sauce. Since, in addition to never cooking one, I'd also never eaten one, I decided to skip the bun and sauce and just eat it plain. I also kept the sides simple, just a nice fluffy baked potato and some corn on the cob.
They were quite good, and surprisingly easy to prepare. The meat was juicy and sweet, and the cornmeal crust (and shell) gave it a pleasant crunch.

It was a fun experience, stepping a bit out of my comfort zone to try cooking something new. It has definitely made me a bit more confident to venture deeper into the weird world of seafood cookery... although I don't think I'll ever cook a live lobster. I just don't like lobster meat enough for all that work... and guilt.

Friday, August 8, 2008

A Florida Classic

I love citrusy desserts, especially when they retain a bit of that tart citrus bite. Lemon meringue pie, lemon curd, lemon-poppyseed muffins, and of course, Key lime pie.
Key lime pie is everywhere here in Florida, and (as of 2006) is actually our official state pie. (I guess it was a slow week in Tallahassee.)
Key limes differ slightly from regular limes. They are significantly smaller (a little smaller than a walnut), have a thinner skin, and are slightly more sour. They grow on bushy, thorny trees, which means they aren't widely farmed, and outside of Florida, are hard to find. (Heck, they're hard to find even in Florida- here your best bet is to befriend someone with a tree in their yard.)
If you don't have access to Key limes, regular limes are perfectly acceptable. However, that juice that comes from those little plastic limes is not! Juice your own limes- it builds character!

A good Key lime pie has a silky, creamy texture that is perfectly complimented by its bright tartness. It tastes like summertime- you can take a bite, close your eyes and imagine you've just gotten back from the beach. As delicious and decedant as it is, Key lime pie is remarkably easy to make- there's no baking (except the crust, and honestly, graham cracker crust is just about the easiest thing in the world to make) and only a few simple ingredients- egg yolks, condensed milk and lime juice. (Some recipes use lime zest, too, but I like my pie filling to be silky smooth.) The pie is rested overnight, and during that time, the egg yolks are actually cooked by the acid from the lime juice. I like mine topped with whipped cream, but meringue is equally authentic, though somewhat less common.
Key lime pie is naturally yellow- Key limes have yellow juice and the egg yolks boost the color. Traditionally, the pie is left yellow. Sometimes, depending on my mood, I'll add a few drops food color (as the purists cringe).

Being that there are only three ingredients, Key lime pie recipes don't really vary much. Oh, and one more note- the acid in citrus juice will eat away at aluminum pans, bowls and utensils, making your pie taste like metal. Be sure to use stainless steel, glass or plastic.

Key Lime Pie
Makes one 9" pie

4oz crushed graham crackers (about 16-17 crackers)
2oz melted butter

4 egg yolks
1 can (14oz) sweetened condensed milk
2/3c fresh squeezed lime juice
Few drops green food color (optional)

Preheat oven to 350F.

In a bowl, combine the graham cracker crumbs and melted butter. Press into a 9" pie pan, bringing crust up the sides (I like to use glass for citrus pies). Bake for about 10-15 minutes, until just lightly golden.
In a separate bowl, whisk egg yolks to break. Add the condensed milk and whisk to combine. Add the lime juice a little at a time (if you dump it in all at once, it's hard to mix in, since the milk and egg mixture is so thick). Add food color, if using. Pour filling into the pie crust. Refrigerate overnight.
To serve, top with whipped cream and decorate with lime slices.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Whose Cupcake Will Reign Supreme?

The Milwaukee Cupcake Queen organizes an Iron Cupcake: Milwaukee competition in which Wisconsinite (is that what someone from Wisconsin is called?) bakers compete to create the ultimate cupcake using a unique challenge ingredient. Each contest is documented and recorded in her blog, complete with beautiful photos. It's been such a popular feature that she is starting Iron Cupcake: Earth, a monthly challenge allowing bakers across the Internet to compete for cupcake supremacy.
August marks the inaugural month of the challenge. At the end of the month, bloggers across the Internet will post their photos and recipes for their cupcake submission. Cupcake fans will be able to vote for their favorites at the Iron Cupcake site. The winner will get fame, glory, bragging rights and fabulous prizes from talented Etsy artists.
I love baking, cupcakes and a little healthy competition, so of course I signed up. Keep your eyes peeled in a couple weeks for my cupcake submission (and go vote for me, too!)
If you're not content to just be a spectator, and wanna join the Iron Cupcakers it's not too late!
All you have to do is pop an e-mail to with the following info:
Your Name
City, State, Country
Blog Address
Flickr Name
Referral: Pumpkin and Spice

I'll see you guys in Bakeshop Stadium!

Friday, August 1, 2008

Hey, You Got Peanut Butter in My Chocolate Cookies!

I'm going to get a bit mushy for a second. My "little" brother (he's 24 years old- not so little anymore) is in the Army and is stationed in Iraq. He's a good guy, and I'm super-proud of him. We're only two years apart, and have always been close and I feel like the older we've gotten, the better friends we've become. (He was my "maid of honor" at my wedding- way before that turd of a Patrick Dempsey movie, I might add.)

Here we are, waiting in line at the Haunted Mansion and at my wedding. He cleans up pretty well.

The real point of bringing up my brother is that last week was his birthday, and I wanted to bake him a birthday treat. However, my oven was broken, and I wasn't able to bake him anything. These cookies are his belated birthday gift. (So on the off chance he's reading this, I guess I spoiled the surprise.)
Two of his favorite foods are chocolate and peanut butter, so it only made sense to engineer a cookie to fit his favorite flavor profile. These are very chocolate-y, with a slight peanut butter nuance. If you wanted a stronger peanut butter flavor, you could go half and half with chocolate chips and peanut butter chips, or you could totally replace the chocolate chips with peanut butter chips.
Peanut Butter Double Chocolate Cookies
Makes about 2 1/2 dozen 1.5oz cookies
1 stick (4oz) butter, softened
3/4c creamy peanut butter
1oz dark baking chocolate, melted (I like Green & Black)
1/3c sugar
1c brown sugar, lightly packed
1tsp vanilla
2 eggs
3Tbsp milk
3/4tsp salt
1tsp baking powder
1/4c cocoa powder
2c flour
1 bag (11-12oz) chocolate chips (or half chocolate chip. half peanut butter chip)
Preheat oven to 350F.
Cream together the butter, peanut butter and melted chocolate. Add the sugars and vanilla and mix to combine. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing just until combined. Mix in the milk.
Sift together the salt, baking powder, cocoa and flour. Add to the wet ingredients and blend until just combined. Fold in chocolate chips.
Using a 1.5oz scoop (or a spoon) plop dough onto a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. The cookies won't spread much, so if you prefer your cookies flatter, press down with a fork. Bake for about 12-15minutes. Enjoy with a big glass of milk!

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Pour Some Sugar on Me

Well, last week while the site was down, I had my final week of chocolate and sugar class. We were on the sugar module, which was a very different experience. I've made edible sugar- candies, caramel, spun sugar, but this was structural sugar. This was statues and objects modeled out of hot sugar...

Sugar sculpture isn't really home baker territory. It's pastry chef territory. Not trying to be snooty, but given that it's labor intensive, requires a good deal of specialized equipment and that the final product is only edible in the very most technical sense of the word, it's not really something one would bother with at home. It's also really hot. Really, really hot.

Most pastry chefs use isomalt sugar, a special sugar treated with enzymes that resists humidity better than cane sugar. (It's edible, and is used sometimes in food products, but it has some... unpleasant... gastro-intestinal side effects if eaten in too large a quantity...yuck!) The isomalt is cooked with a quantity of water until it reaches 320F. It is then poured out onto silicone mats to cool enough that it can be pulled. Pulling incorporates air and makes the sugar glossy and easier to work with. Once pulled, the sugar is placed in a Plexiglas box under a heat lamp to keep it hot enough to work with. At this point, it can be modeled, blown and pulled into desired shapes.

One day, we were supposed to practice our blown sugar by making fruits. I was bound and determined to make a pumpkin... It only took three tries! (hahaha... bleh.) I accented it with leaves and shaded it with an airbrush. I think it turned out well.

Most of the week was spent practicing for our final project. My team planned a sculpture of a Chinese dragon on a mountain with a cherry tree and a Chinese lantern. We ran into a small kink when on our practical exam day, the chef ran out of isomalt, which meant our sculpture had to be smaller and required us to be very creative in our sugar usage. All in all, though, we were happy with our final result. Enjoy...

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Bad Robot!

As you probably noticed, my blog has been down for the past week. Turns out Blogger's spam detecting robots thought my blog was spam and locked my blog until a human could review it. It's good they have precautions in place, but frustrating that I was unable to access my blog.
Thanks for still checkin' in.

Oh, and on a side note- my oven's also been fixed. Double hooray!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall...

Variety is the spice of life, right? That's why ice cream comes in a mind-boggling assortment of flavors, it's why Madonna changes her look every five years or so, and it's why Coaster's Pub in Melbourne, FL offers over 120 varieties of beer. Yeah, you read that number right. According to their website, they offer at least 127 different kinds of beer. Sure, you can get a Bud Light or a Michelob Ultra, but why would you when you could sample something unique like a Holy Mackerel (brewed right here in Melbourne, FL)?

Kyle and I (and our friends) visit Coaster's at least once a month, sometimes more, and the most difficult part of the visit is always selecting your first beer. Do I want a stout? An IPA? A Hefe Weisse? It's a daunting decision, which is why we were so excited when we went for lunch last weekend and our server told us that they'd be hosting a beer tasting! Of course, we were there yesterday (the day of the event), with bells on for the tasting, which did not disappoint.

For $20, you could buy 12 tickets (baseball cards, actually, which we found entertaining). Each card could be redeemed for a 4oz sample pour of your choice of 70 beers. Kyle and I split a 12-pack of tickets, as did the two friends that joined us. However, we all made sure to order different beers, and we'd pass ours around to table, meaning that in actuality, we sampled about 24 different kinds! (We also instituted a scoring system, which sparked some very lively debate!)
The six beers I sampled were- Rogue Chocolate Stout (a stout, obviously), Lukaya Two Tail Ale (a pale ale, brewed in Vero, FL), Chimay Premier (a Belgian dubble), Dogfish Head Raison D'Etre (a Belgian experimental), Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA (an Imperial IPA) and Cooper's Sparkling Ale (an English pale ale). I really liked all my choices, but my favorites were the Rogue Chocolate Stout, which was dark and "chewy" with a wonderful bitter chocolate and cocoa aftertaste, and the Dogfish Head Raison D'Etre. Raison d'etre is a French phrase that roughly translates to "a reason for existing"- which I thought seemed like a pretty steep claim for a beer. However, this one came close- it had a beautiful golden brown color and a rich, slightly caramel-y flavor. Both were very good.

You can't drink all that beer without something to munch on, and the menu at Coaster's offers plenty of options. For the most part, it's good old fashioned pub grub, but, damn is it good pub grub! On days when I'm feeling virtuous, I order the broiled Mahi salad, on more indulgent days I get buffalo wings (Kyle loooooves wings and we've eaten our fair share around town, but in my opinion, these are some of the best in Melbourne). Today, though, the "Turben" caught my eye- a Ruben, made with turkey instead of beef. Kyle agreed that it looked good, so we decided to order the "humongous" size (all the sandwiches come in regular or humongous) and split it. It arrived, and more than lived up to it's name- it was huge!!! (The picture over there is half of the humongous sandwich! Half!) It was also super yummy- the rye bread was toasty but not greasy (a common pitfall of toasted/grilled sandwiches), there was just enough sauerkraut and dressing... so good. It might just be my new favorite there.

I want to especially thank the owners, Dave and Wendy Swartz and Joe and Shannon Baun, who were so nice letting me take their pictures (and pictures in the pub). They were so warm and friendly, and you can tell just talking to them that they are really passionate about beer and what they do.

All the beers we sampled (plus more) were available on the regular menu (though the beer menu changes based on seasonal availability).
If you find yourself on Florida's Space Coast, be sure to visit Coaster's Pub, located at 971A E. Eau Gallie Blvd., Melbourne, FL 32937. (The corner of A1A and Eau Gallie.)

Friday, July 18, 2008

Oven Exorcism

I really thought today would be a nice, mellow Friday. I didn't have to work, so I woke up and had a light breakfast (Greek yogurt with berries and a cup of Earl Grey), poked around on-line a bit, then went to the library, where I paid my late fines and picked up a few books, including Heat by Bill Buford, which I have been wanting to read for sometime now. I considered several good-looking cookbooks, but decided to wait until I had a working oven. I was gone for maybe an hour, tops.

I am home for maybe ten minutes, and my oven starts beeping. "Hmm?" I say to myself as I head into the kitchen. The "pre-heated" light is blinking on my oven, and it continues to beep, which is normal for when it is preheated, but is not normal now, as the oven is off. I notice a note on the counter- "Replaced timer. Have to order baking element. Tuesday at the latest. -Maintenance Guy." I think that oh, maybe since Guy replaced the timer, it accidentally got turned on, and it's the timer going off. Upon closer inspection, this is not the case, as the timer light is not on, and the display screen mysteriously says "F2". I press the off button anyway. Of course, nothing happens, but I notice the oven (which is set to "Off") is really hot. I open the door, and the broiler is blazing away. This is not good.

I call the office (with the beeping continuing in the background) and explain the situation. Office Lady tells me as soon as Guy is back, she'll send him over. Fifteen minutes pass. The beeping hasn't stopped, and the apartment is starting to smell like a cross between an overheated computer and a hot-melt glue gun. I call again. Lady is polite but unconcerned, and firmly tells me Guy isn't back yet. I ask her to page him, she says she will.

Half an hour passes. The apartment is about 90 degrees, the air conditioning is running furiously, the beeping continues, and I move anything even remotely meltable/flammable away from the oven, which is so hot I can barely touch it. I am a raw bundle of nerves- freaked out, worried and totally pissed. I call the office again. Lady is a little annoyed and tells me Guy went home (?!*@!) but that she just sent Other Maintenance Guy out with some tickets, including mine. She says he probably went to the others first (of course, she probably didn't mention that mine might be kind of important.)

I call Kyle, angry and almost in tears (probably not helped by the fact that I have been to scared to go anywhere near the kitchen to make myself lunch and I am starving), and whine about the situation to him.

Half an hour later and still nothing. My head hurts, and I'm not sure if it's hunger, the beeping (which continues, uninterrupted), stress or the fumes. I call Kyle again. His co-worker suggests flipping the circuit to the oven, and I feel stupid for not thinking of that over an hour ago. I flip the circuit off, and the beeping stops, finally. I put our oscillating fan in front of the oven, grab a banana, and collapse on the sofa.

Finally, three hours and fifteen minutes after the whole ordeal began, Other Guy shows up. "Your oven doesn't work?" he asks. (Clearly, Lady didn't explain the situation to him. Grrr.) I explain the situation to him, and he seems concerned. He fiddles around with the now-cool oven and replaces the new timer with the old timer. When he flips the circuit, everything is back to the way it was before. Not normal, just the way it was before. He tries the oven out. "It still doesn't heat up," he says. "I guess Guy's ordering that part." I tell him I don't care right now, as long as the beeping stops and the oven won't burn down the apartment.

I finally eat something when he leaves- some cherries, some soy crisps and two microwaved s'mores. I'm so frazzled now... It was a long day. So, the devil is still in my oven, but at least its quieted... For now...

To the Moon!

Recently at pastry school, I've been in a chocolate and sugar class. It was divided into two sections, chocolate and sugar. (You probably could have guessed that...) We just finished the chocolate section Wednesday, which ended with a final project- a chocolate centerpiece. I'll be honest, I liked making bon bons and truffles and chocolate candies, but the centerpiece was a stressful affair.

In case you've never worked extensively with chocolate before (which I hadn't prior to this class- though I had eaten chocolate extensively) there are several steps required to ensure that your chocolate will dry smooth and shiny, will be hard and will release properly from molds. Every kind of chocolate you will ever buy, from a plain ol' Hershey's bar to a box of Godiva truffles (yum!) has gone through this process, called tempering.

Tempering is basically a process in which you melt your chocolate to a specific temperature (it varies by the type of chocolate), then you pour it out and paddle it on a marble or stainless steel table until it cools to a specific temperature, then you warm it back up to another specific temperature. If you don't temper chocolate, it won't harden properly, it will have a grainy texture and it will have a sticky feel.

After tempering the chocolates (we had to use white, milk and dark in our sculptures) I poured them out, let them cool slightly and cut out my pattern pieces (which I had made from paper the day prior). Once all the pieces were cut out and cooled, I carefully assembled them using more melted chocolate and a special cooling spray that cools the chocolate so it sets faster. Some were assembled flat, others were assembled once the piece was upright on the base. The final touch was some bon-bons and chocolate garnishes on the base, some edible luster dusts and filigree work.

Mine, as you can see, was space themed, with a comet, stars and the aurora borealis. (The aurora borealis was done with colored cocoa butter and luster dusts.) From the base to the tip of the comet's tail was probably about 15in. Chef liked it, and I got an excellent grade, which was gratifying, as my goal for the project was to make something that at least wouldn't collapse under its own weight.
We just started working with sugar last night, which is a very different process. Much hotter. I should probably stock up on burn cream.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Red Beans and Rice Didn't Miss Her

As previously mentioned, the oven is out of commission. Still. And no one has come by to look at it. Still. I may need to make another phone call.

With the oven broken, my plans for Boston-style baked beans were out, but in addition to the bag of white beans I had in the pantry for that, I had a bag of small red beans. I also always have brown rice on hand, so I decided to take a culinary trip a little south of Boston and make a Louisiana favorite- red beans and rice.

Red beans and rice is a staple of Louisiana Creole cooking (which is different from the more rustic Cajun cuisine). It was traditionally served on Mondays, which were laundry day, as a housewife could put the pot of beans on the stove and let it simmer while she focused her attention on the wash. Soaking your beans overnight cuts down on the cooking time a bit, but it'll still take at least two hours to cook. I didn't do the laundry while mine was cooking, but I did go to the gym and got some paperwork done...
Contrary to popular belief, Creole and Cajun cuisine isn't traditionally melt-your-face spicy. (We can thank the 90s "blackened-everything" fad for that- not saying I don't occasionally like a bit of blackened fish or tofu, but it's not really representative of the cuisine as a whole). There is a bit of spice, but its more about the depth of flavor, rather than making it so hot it doesn't taste like anything. These beans have just a hint of spicy bite, a slight smokiness and a unique creaminess. Just thinking about them makes me want to eat! You serve them over white or brown rice- I prefer the nuttiness and slightly chewy texture of the brown rice, personally.
I started my dish with a small amount of andouille sausage, a smoked, coarse Cajun sausage that is lightly spiced. Since the sausage is really just for flavor, rather than the focus of the dish, I only used about 4oz for the whole pot. To spread it out, I cut it lengthwise, and then into thin half-circle coins. This made big enough pieces that every now and then, you got a pleasant bite of sausage. I sauteed the sausage a bit in the pot to melt out some of the fat (andouille is already cooked.) Since I used chicken andouille (by Aidell's), I knew there wouldn't be much fat, so I added about a tablespoon of canola oil to the sausage. If you were using a regular pork andouille, you wouldn't need the additional fat. If you can't find andouille, you could use kielbasa or even hot Italian sausage. Of course, the dish is easily made vegetarian with the omission of sausage.

Between the andouille and the "holy trinity" (what Cajun and Creole cooks call the mixture of onion, celery and green peppers), the beans make the whole house smell delicious! If you can smell that smoky, oniony, garlicky goodness all day and not get hungry, you have a will of iron, my friend!

Red Beans and Rice

Serves 4 hungry people

  • 1 1/2cups dry small red beans or kidney beans, soaked overnight and drained
  • 4oz andouille sausage, cut into half-circle coins (optional)
  • 1Tbsp Canola oil, if needed
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 green pepper, chopped
  • 3 ribs celery, chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 2tsp Cajun seasoning or 1/4tsp cayanne, 1/4 tsp dried oregano, 1/2 tsp ground pepper and 1tsp salt
  • A few dashes hot sauce (I like Tabasco's Chipotle Sauce)
  • Water (as needed)

In a large pot, cook andouille and oil (if using a lower-fat andouille) until andouille is fragrant and some of the fat has cooked out. Add the onion, celery, green peppers and garlic and cook until onion just starts to soften. Add the beans and enough water to cover (about 4 or 5 cups). Add the bay leaves, spices and hot sauce. Bring to a rapid boil and cook for about 5 minutes. Reduce heat to med-low and cover pot. Check on the beans every 20-30 minutes- give them a stir to prevent sticking and add a cup or two of water if needed to keep beans covered. After about 2 hours taste a bean to check doneness. If bean is still crunchy, cover pot and cook another 30-60min. If bean is done, adjust seasoning, adding more salt and spices if desired. If the beans are "soupier" than you prefer, remove the lid and bring the beans to a boil for a few minutes to cook off some of the liquid.

Serve beans over cooked white or brown rice, with a bottle of hot sauce on the side.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Oven Drama

Monday, I boiled some pasta and made a lovely goat cheese and Parmesan cheese sauce. I put it in a casserole dish and artfully arranged tomato slices, chopped kalmata olives and a panko/olive oil crust on top. I put it in the oven for half an hour and... Nothing happened. My oven is broken.
The range still works, but the actual oven itself barely heats up. This is frustrating, as, ironically, all my meal plans this week needed to be baked. Of course.
I called the apartment office yesterday, but no one has stopped by to look at it yet. They're re-finishing the breezeways at the apartment, so I think maintenance is a little tied up with that activity... So it may be a while before I have an oven again, which makes me a little sad, as I had some baking I wanted to do. Guess it'll have to wait.
I also re-worked my meals for this week to use the stove only- luckily, the ingredients for the other meals will keep. Right now I have some red beans boiling on the stove top, and they smell heavenly! Yum!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Marshmallow 101

It was a busy weekend, but my Sunday evening was nice and open, so Kyle and I planned to make marshmallows. As luck had it, while I was getting my ingredients ready to go, my sister-in-law called and asked if she could stop by. Of course we said yes, and she helped the marshmallowing by being our official session photographer.

There are several advantages to homemade marshmallows- the taste of a fresh homemade marshmallow blows store-bought marshmallows out of the water (or the hot cocoa), they melt nicer, you can make them any flavor you want (mint? vanilla bean? Yum!), plus you know and control the quality of the ingredients. Homemade marshmallows don't contain high-fructose corn syrups, preservatives, artificial flavoring (unless you choose to use them) or food dye (even plain white marshmallows contain blue food dye. Weird, right?) Also, everyone is super-impressed by your mad culinary skills when you serve them a homemade marshmallow!
As I mentioned, making marshmallows is really pretty simple, and the prep only takes about 30-45min, but once the process is started, you can't really stop. You'll want to have everything you need- equipment, tools and weighed ingredients ready-to-go. (The fancy-pants culinary term for this is mise en place, which translates roughly to "put in place".)

  • Be mindful- You will be cooking a hot sugar syrup. This is probably not the safest activity for young children. I am not responsible for burns or injuries.

Also, to give proper credit, I did not create this marshmallow recipe- it was given to me by my tres French chef instructor at school. I do not know where he got it, as it was handwritten on a slip of paper.

As far as tools and equipment goes, you will need-

  • A candy or digital thermometer
  • A saucepan
  • A heat resistant spatula or wooden spoon
  • A stand mixer or hand mixer, large stainless steel bowl, and a buddy
  • A well buttered glass 9x13 pan
  • A small bowl
  • A scale
  • A sifter or fine meshed sieve
  • Pizza cutter
  • A timer

Collect your tools and then weigh your ingredients (sorry, this is a by-weight recipe. Digital scales are about $20 at Target or Bed Bath and Beyond. It's a good investment.)


Makes 60+ marshmallows

  • 6oz water
  • 16oz sugar
  • 1.25oz honey
  • flavoring of your choice (I used 1/2tsp vanilla bean paste)
  • 1oz unflavored powdered gelatin
  • 6oz ice-cold water (in addition to above quantity)
  • 5 egg whites
  • 1.25oz sugar (in addition to above quantity)
  • About 1c confectioners sugar and 1c cornstarch sifted together
Once you have everything weighed out-

In your small bowl, dissolve the powdered gelatin in the ice water. Stir to ensure there is no dry gelatin. It will be very thick.

Attach your candy thermometer to your saucepan. Put water, honey and your flavor in the saucepan and heat on med-low until honey dissolves. Once honey dissolves, add the 16oz of sugar. Stir gently to dissolve the sugar, then allow to cook undisturbed until it reaches 275F. (This is sometimes called the "soft ball" stage.) Use extreme care with hot sugar!

Once sugar reaches 275F, carefully remove thermometer, and stir in gelatin paste. The sugar will bubble when the gelatin dissolves- this is because the water in the gelatin is boiling off in the hot sugar. Again, be careful. (You can see it bubbling a little in my picture.)

Set sugar aside for a moment and whip egg whites in the mixer (or with hand mixer) until they are frothy and start turning white. Sprinkle on the 1.25oz sugar and continue whipping (as if making meringue) until you reach medium-stiff peaks. (When you pull the beater out and turn it upside down, the egg fluff should just barely droop at the peaks.)

If using a stand mixer, set it on low and slowly and carefully drizzle the hot sugar syrup onto the egg whites. If using a hand mixer, have your buddy hold the hand mixer and with it on low-med while you slowly and carefully pour sugar syrup over the egg whites. Pause periodically to let your buddy ensure the whites and syrup are well mixed. Once all the syrup is Incorporated, set your timer to 8 minutes, crank your mixer to its highest speed and whip it like you're in Devo.

When your timer goes off, quickly pour your marshmallow goo into your greased 9x13 pan. Smooth the top. Using your sifter or mesh sieve, dust the top generously with your confectioner's sugar/cornstarch mix. Let marshmallows set for 1-2 hours. This would be a good time to tidy up.

Once marshmallows have firmed up, gently pull them out of the pan. If you greased the pan well, this will be pretty easy. Lay the slab o' marshmallow powdered side down on a sheet of aluminum foil. Dust the unpowdered side.

Using a pizza cutter, cut your marshmallows into small cubes. Toss the cubes in your remaining sugar/cornstarch.

Voila! You're the proud owner of a big ol' pile of homemade marshmallows!Toast them, make s'mores, plop 'em in hot cocoa, eat 'em plain... the possibilities are endless!