Sunday, June 29, 2008

Setting the Table

Tonight Kyle and I had a lovely meal. The food itself was nothing extraordinary- as I mentioned before, we're sort of in leftover/pantry mode, so dinner was just some leftover french onion soup with toasted 3-day old bread from the bakery I work at, some chicken from the freezer that I rubbed with herbs and garlic, and canned green beans with balsamic vinegar. (We don't eat many canned veggies, but the beans were leftover from a potluck dinner at Kyle's dad's work... long story...) The food was simple, and I tried to make it pretty and appealing. We had it with a glass of wine from the other night.

What made dinner tonight so nice was the atmosphere. I cleaned the papers and old mail off the dining room table, lit a candle and laid down placemats. We put on the "love song" music station on the TV for some ambient music, and ate dinner slowly, enjoying each other's company. I'll admit- for a long time, we didn't have a dining room table, so our only option was eating dinner at the coffee table, and the habit had carried on, even though we now have a very nice dining set. We also are guilty of the habit of catching up on our DVR'd episodes of Hell's Kitchen and Lost while eating dinner.

Tonight, feeling inspired both by Jenn's philosophy of wine with dinner as a way to slow down and enjoying your meal, and by the book French Women Don't Get Fat by Mireille Guiliano (which, actually, Jenn let me borrow...) I decided that tonight we were going to stop our other activities and enjoy our meal as an event, rather than something to do while we watch reruns of The Office. It makes sense, really. Think of how much fun dinner with friends is, even if the food is mediocre. Part of what makes dining fun and relaxing is the company. (And, delicious food is that much better with good company.) On top of that, Kyle and I rarely eat dinner together, as I go to school at night during the week. This gave us a chance to re-connect and focus on each other (and our food).

If you don't already, I'd recommend turning off the TV, putting on a soothing CD and eating at the table, rather than on the sofa. Even if you eat alone, it gives you time to unwind and savor your meal. It's amazing how much better even simple foods are this way.

Friday, June 27, 2008

A Wedding Cake for the Bride of Dracula

For the past three weeks, I've been in an advanced cakes class at culinary school. It's been quite an enjoyable class, except for this week, when I was freaking out about our final wedding cake. We had a short 4-day week, which means we lost a day of production time, not to mention it's summer in Florida, and therefore humid as a sauna in Hell. The humidity wreaked havoc on our (or at least my) gumpaste (which wouldn't dry) and fondant (which tended to get sticky), not to mention my royal icing, which started out a perfect consistency, but slowly absorbed moisture from the air and became gooey and runny. I suppose the end result is, if I can make a presentable wedding cake in 80% humidity, I can do it anywhere.

We were allowed to design our own cakes and themes, provided the cake met certain requirements- it had to have at least two tiers, a handmade topper, covered in fondant, and needed royal icing filigree, a pastillage* component and gumpaste** flowers or fruit.
Since I loooove Halloween and all that spooky stuff, I decided to create a Gothic wedding cake. It was two tiers, a six and a ten inch. The tiers were covered in purple fondant, which I airbrushed so the color faded from purple to black. I then piped the whole tiers in royal icing spiderwebs. The tiers are separated with pastillage, which was hidden with purple and black "dead" gumpaste roses. The whole cake was covered in a swag of lavender fondant, and was topped with a skull and spider that I moulded from fondant and airbrushed. The skull turned out super-adorable, kind of doofy and loveable, and we decided he needed a name. We named him Elliot. It seemed to fit. His spider friend's name was Lenore.

There was more I would have done had time permitted (I wanted to put edible glitter on the spiderwebs), but on the whole, I was really happy with it. I wanted to do something creepy, but elegant, and I think I achieved that. (The Chair of the Pastry Program said it was "elegant, but bizarre" and laughingly suggested that the school offered free counseling, if I felt like I needed to talk about anything.)
*Pastillage is a dough made from powdered sugar, glucose and gelatin that can be rolled out and cut into shapes and then dried. It dries very hard. It's good for cake toppers and also for making separators for the tiers. It's basically the same stuff that Necco wafers and candy cigarettes are made of, only unflavored.
**Gumpaste is a dough made from powdered sugar, glucose and gum tragacanth. It's used mostly for moulding flowers and fruit on cakes. It dries firm, but not hard. It's technically edible, but it doesn't taste too great, plus with the amount of touching required to make flowers, I wouldn't recommend eating it.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Thai Inspired Peanut Noodles

Summer break starts next week at school, so Kyle and I are going to be taking a trip to visit my family in Kansas. This means that food-wise, we're in pre-vacation mode, meaning no new groceries- everything has to come out of the fridge or the pantry. Even if we weren't going on a vacation, it'd be a good idea, as I have a tendency to be a little... ahem... over-enthusiastic at the grocery store. It's a very zen experience for me- the soft music, the smell of bread wafting from the bakery, row after row of glorious edibles... Some people go to yoga, I go to Publix. Couple that with my mother's waste-not-want-not influence on my formative years, and the end result is a full pantry in which I rarely make a dent.

This meal is one that uses several of my pantry staples- pasta, peanut butter and tofu. It has a nice, spicy Thai-inspired flavor, thanks to the cilantro, pepper flakes and peanuts. We had plenty for our dinner, plus some leftovers. Kyle liked it so much, he took the leftovers to lunch at work-- not so notable, except that there was also leftover mexican in the fridge. I can rarely compete with chimichangas.
The noodles are super filling, cheap and pretty quick to throw together once your tofu is drained and pressed. If you didn't want to use tofu, it would be equally yummy with shrimp. Of course, if you don't have fresh herbs, you can use dried. I just happened to have fresh leftover that needed to get used.

We enjoyed our noodles with a bottle of HRM Rex Goliath Pinot Grigio (2006). I usually get wine at a local wine shop, but I saw the bottle at the grocery store, and the label was so weird... it called to me. It was nicely priced (less than $10), and quite good. I thought it was crisp, with a bright tart apple flavor. (The website says "Bright, juicy flavors of citrus and apples that lead to a sweet mineral core"- So I was close on my tasting notes!) I also bought the merlot, but haven't tried it yet.

Thai Inspired Peanut Noodles

Serves 2-3

1 block extra-firm tofu, drained and pressed

Canola oil

3-4 cloves garlic, sliced thin

1/2 medium onion, cut in thin half-rings

6oz spaghetti or angel hair pasta, cooked according to directions (I used whole wheat)

1/2 tsp fresh grated ginger

Red pepper flakes (to taste)

1/3c creamy peanut butter

2T soy sauce

1T honey

1/3c peanuts

1/4c fresh chopped cilantro

1/4c chopped green onion

Salt (to taste)

Heat a few tablespoons of oil in a skillet on medium heat. Sautee onions and garlic until the onions just start to caramelize. Cut the tofu into strips and sprinkle lightly with salt. Add the tofu to the pan, and allow to cook undisturbed until it becomes golden on one side, then stir to allow other sides to cook.

While tofu cooks, heat the peanut butter in a microwave safe dish. Once the peanut butter is slightly melted, whisk in soy sauce, honey, a pinch or two pepper flakes (depending on how spicy you like your noodles) and ginger.

When the tofu is golden and hot, add the peanuts and toss with the pasta, sauce and cilantro and green onions. Garnish with extra cilantro, if like me, you can't get enough of the stuff!