Wednesday, August 29, 2012

When life hands you lemons:

a. Throw them at passing cars
b. Utilize in vodka soda
c. Make bread

What is option 'C,' make bread?

This recipe, called Bermuda Lemon bread (go figure) is one I rescued from my maternal grandmother's enormous recipe box where it was doomed to sit for the rest of eternity amid recipes for pimiento cheese logs and layered crab-bake dip. Ahh, the 1950s, kind neither to women nor waistlines. I pulled it out, read the ingredients and decided this was a must-make. Not only is lemon one of my favorite flavors but this recipe sounded beyond easy and ended with a lemon juice-sugar mixture being poured over the loaf while it was in the pan so as to soak up more tangy goodness. I am so there.

It was easy, it was delicious, and Tommy housed the entire loaf (with a little help from me) in a very short period of time. The recipe calls for crushed nuts but doesn't say what kind. I used walnuts and I liked the bitterness they added since the bread is super sweet. You could also probably do almonds or pecans but I don't love the lemon-pecan combo personally so make at your own risk. You could also leave the nuts out if you really hate them or are allergic but they add such a great counterpoint both in terms of flavor and texture so I don't recommend that either.

Zest and juice of 1 lemon
6 tbs. unsalted butter at room temperature
1 1/2 C. white sugar
2 eggs

1/2 C. milk
1 1/2 C. all purpose flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 C. chopped nuts


1. Whisk together flour, salt and baking powder.
2. Cream butter and one cup of the sugar on medium speed. Add eggs one at a time and beat until light and fluffy.
3. Add milk alternately with flour mixture in 2 to 3 parts and mix well. Stir in grated lemon rind and nuts.
4. Pour batter into a greased loaf pan and bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour at 350 degrees. Check after 45 minutes. The bread is done when a wooden skewer or cake tester comes out clean from the middle.
5. Let the bread cool in the pan for 5 minutes and then unmold onto a plate. Continue to let cool for another 10 minutes.
6. While the bread is cooling, mix together the juice from the lemon and the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar until just incorporated. Put the bread back into the pan and use a wooden skewer to poke holes throughout. Slowly pour the lemon juice and sugar mixture over the bread and let soak in. The bread will keep, wrapped in foil for about a week.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

You're a tart

TART -- Trig and Related Topics
Tart (n) -- any ex-boyfriend's new girlfriend (or a prostitute, according to Webster's)
Tart (n) -- fruity deliciousness wrapped in pastry for easy consumption

Guess which one we're talking about today? That's right, promiscuous women! No, totally kidding. The kind that comes ensconced in a mile-high layer of buttery pastry dough and glistens with apricot glaze when the light hits it is way more interesting. Not to mention STI free.

Making fruit tarts was a double dog dare proposed by me, myself and I. Basically I just wanted to see if I could do it without screwing it up horribly since the last time I made pastry cream it was so rubbery it bounced. Fortunately I made it on a night where I was in charge of dessert for 10 people so it really went over a storm...not.

Anyway, these fruit tarts actually turned out incredibly well and though there are a lot of steps involved, if you go slowly and take your time there's no reason even an inexperienced baker couldn't make these with moderate success. The key is to not overwork the pastry dough (which you already know) and when it comes to the pastry cream, when in doubt take it off the heat so it doesn't congeal into an inedible mess. Making pastry cream is pretty similar to making the custard base for ice cream so if you had success with that you'll probably be fine this time too.

These are super fancy looking once you're all done and a great way to use up those 9 random blackberries sitting in your fridge. The pastry dough recipe is my great-grandmothers and she was the queen of freakin' pies. Totally legendary in our family. You'll see a lot of different variations throughout the cooking world including those that call for butter and shortening or just plain old lard. And just so you know, shortening is truly awful for you, definitely worse than butter. But my great-grandma was baking when there were butter rations so Crisco it was. And I personally think you get a lighter and flakier texture with butter-flavored Crisco (now rumored to contain carcinogenic ingredients, just like the rest of my favorite things in life). This will make enough for one 10-inch tart or several 4-inch tarts. Be sure to use tart pans with a removable base.

But without further ado...fruit tarts:

For the flaky pastry crust:
9 tbs. Crisco, cold
1 1/2 c. all purpose flour
1/2 tsp. salt
6 tbs. ice water

For the pastry cream:
2 c. milk
1 tsp. vanilla extract (plus beans from 1/2 vanilla bean if you have one)
1/2 c. plus 1 tbs. sugar
1 egg
3 egg yolks
1/4 c. cornstarch

For the topping:
Assorted summer fruits (blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, kiwi, raspberries)
1/3 c. apricot jam

To make the pastry dough:
1. In a large mixing bowl, combine flour and salt and whisk to combine.
2. Cut the Crisco into 1-inch squares and scatter evenly over the flour mixture. Using a pastry cutter or two dinner knives, cut the shortening into the flour until the Crisco becomes about pea-sized and is incorporated into the flour. Every so often, sprinkle some of the ice water over the mixture. You don't need to use all of it, just enough to moisten so it comes together.
3. When the shortening is uniformly integrated into the flour mixture, gather it into a ball. Sprinkle with a little more ice water if it isn't sticking together. Wrap tightly in Saran and refrigerate for at least 45 minutes.

To make the pastry cream:
1. Bring the milk to simmer in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat and add the vanilla.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar, egg, egg yolks and cornstarch until smooth.
3. When the milk comes to a simmer (small bubbles around the edge of the pot), stir half of it into the egg mixture.
4. Pour the egg mixture back into the saucepan containing the rest of the milk, place over medium heat and stir the mixture with a whisk or wooden spoon. Reach into the corners of the saucepan so the pastry cream doesn't hang out there and scald.
5. When the pastry cream comes to a boil (large bubbles breaking the surface of the liquid) and thickens, transfer it to a bowl and cover with plastic wrap touching its surface so a crust doesn't form.
6. Refrigerate for up to 4 days. To loosen stiff pastry cream, whisk by hand or on low speed in a mixer.

To assemble:

1. Remove pastry dough from the refrigerator and unwrap from the saran. Place the ball of dough between two large pieces of waxed paper and roll to 1/8 inch thickness.
2. For the 10-inch tart pan, cut a large enough circle (about 13-14 inches) so that the pastry dough hangs over the sides of the pan. It will shrink down when you bake it. For the smaller tart pans, a 5-6 inch diameter should be fine.
3. Bake the dough at 350 degrees for about 8 minutes or until the dough has turned a golden brown and puffed up in the center.
4. Spoon about 1/4 cup of the pastry dough into each tart pan after they have cooled for 5 minutes and smooth with a wooden spoon or spatula. For a full size tart, you will probably use all of the pastry cream.
5. Let the pastry cream sit for about 10 minutes before you begin pressing the fruit into it so it doesn't sink. Arrange the fruit any way you want, it'll just get eaten in the very near future.

6. While the pastry cream is setting up, warm the apricot jam in a small saucepan over low to medium heat until it is liquid. Set a small strainer over a bowl and pour the liquid apricot through to ensure there are no chunks of fruit. Using a pastry brush or a silicone grilling brush, lightly glaze the top of the fruit and let sit for about 10 more minutes until dry. Serve immediately.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Chile out

All right kids, it's Blogapalooza this week since I leave for Spain in 10 days and I'm not sure when I'll be able to update next. Don't worry, I won't forget about all 7 of you faithful readers.

Today let's talk about chiles. Hot ones, mild ones, green ones, red ones, dried ones, small girls, tall girls, I'm calling all girls...uh, sorry. Anyway, usually I'm not a huge fan. I hate jalapenos and that happens to be the most common in the chile family. Luckily, I stumbled across a recipe for a savory fruit salad that involves new and incredible types of chiles--ones that offer heat and smokiness and are, shockingly, fantastic when combined with watermelon and feta.

Now don't roll your eyes at me; I know everyone and their brother has had some crappy version of a feta and watermelon salad at a picnic or potluck where the watermelon is flavorless and the feta is overly salty and everything just tastes like too much cilantro. Make me puke. This salad is a highly updated version with all the right elements of salty, sweet, spicy and crunchy. I could eat this salad until I had a mad watermelon-feta bloat and no one wanted to look at me anymore.

The key to this salad is to use high-quality ingredients. Don't use crappy feta or the salt will overpower the dish. Same goes for the fleur de sel that you sprinkle on top: a light hand is key here. Bright and grassy olive oil works miracles when drizzled on top; if you only have EVOO just skip it. Not sure what to buy? Ask around in a higher-end grocery store. And don't skimp on the pepitas (roasted pumpkin seeds)! Their crunch is unbelievably satisfying.

As an added bonus, this salad is really freakin pretty. Instagram that shit before it's all gone.

This salad will keep in the fridge tightly covered for about 3 days.

4-pound piece seedless watermelon
5 ounces (1 cup) feta cheese, crumbled
1/2 cup loosely packed parsley leaves
1/3 cup loosely packed mint leaves
1 fresh hot chile, like scotch bonnet, seeded and thinly sliced
Aleppo pepper (can substitute fresh cracked black pepper or chopped red pepper flakes)
Fleur de sel
1/3 cup roasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
1/4 cup very good extra-virgin olive oil plus more for drizzling
1 lime

1.Cut and discard the rind from the watermelon, then cut the fruit into small pieces about 1/4 inch wide.
2. In a large shallow serving bowl, layer half of the watermelon, sprinkle over half the feta, and scatter half the cilantro, mint and fresh chile. Season with a generous sprinkle of pepper and crush several generous pinches of salt over the top. Sprinkle with half the pepitas, drizzle with half of the oil, then squeeze half of the lime juice over the top.
3. Repeat with the remaining ingredients. Drizzle with a little extra oil, if desired.

This recipe is from the slightly snobbish cookbook "Salads: Beyond the Bowl" by Mindy Fox ($19.95)

Monday, August 20, 2012

I scream

You scream, I scream, we all scream for technical support!, totally kidding I hate tech support and whoever invented it deserves a special section in the lowest level of Hell. As I write this, I'm listening to the musical sound of the phone it has been doing for the past 52 minutes and 23 seconds. Microsoft, I just want my product key so I can re-install Office 2010.

Tech support makes me question my faith in humanity.

In any case, I've already updated myself on Jenna Marbles videos  so I thought I'd blog instead about ice cream. I'm so funny, I know. If you don't get the blatant pun, you can't sit with us.

This recipe comes from a brilliant little cookbook by the owners of Humphrey Slocombe Ice Cream in San Francisco, CA. If you are in the Bay Area at any point in time, specifically the Mission District, haul ass to HS and prepare to experience heaven. These dudes go so far and beyond the typical realm of ice cream they make Hagen Daaz look lame. I mean, come on. They have a hibiscus-beet sorbet on the menu. And their most popular ice cream has whiskey and corn flake cookies in it. Talk about thinking outside the freezer.

Anyway, I chose a recipe near and dear to my caffeine-addicted heart: coffee ice cream with chicory. Coffee and chicory (an additive that makes coffee stretch further) is a drink native to New Orleans, Louisiana and well known to those who can't afford to be generous with the coffee scoop. Coffee and chicory is slightly more bitter than regular coffee but for those who have strong stomachs and no fear of ulcers, it's fantastic. Turn that stuff into ice cream and you have a serious hit on your hands. If you're really a glutton for punishment, or maybe just a glutton, add some bittersweet chocolate sauce. It's impossible to eat just one bowl of this stuff; it is literally the best coffee ice cream I've ever tasted. The trick is using coffee you'd actually want to drink. That's because that Folger's was disgusting!

No ice cream maker? No problem. You can do it the ghetto way by pouring the cream base into a large pan and, after putting it into the freezer, scraping it around every hour or so until it starts to solidify. I have the basic ice cream maker that Cuisinart makes and I really like it -- super easy to use. Be sure to freeze the barrel well ahead of time if you plan to make ice cream though. It won't thicken if the barrel isn't completely frozen through. Give it at least 8 hours or overnight to be on the safe side.

a. Read through the recipe a few times before you attempt. There are a lot of steps that need to be followed exactly or your custard will suck. Don't get freaked out though, they're not hard, just nitpicky.
b. This recipe is time consuming: you need to chill the custard so that the flavors strengthen and you have to strain all the coffee grounds and chicory out before you put it in your ice cream maker. Make this a day or two ahead if you intend to serve it to a crowd.
c. I have now been listening to the phone ring for 1 hour, 24 minutes and 9 seconds.

To buy the ice cream maker I have:

To buy the Humphrey Slocombe Cookbook:


2 C heavy cream
1 C whole milk
1 tsp. salt
3 egg yolks
1 C. sugar
3 tbs. strong ground coffee
1 tbs. ground chicory
1/2 C sweetened condensed milk

1. Fill a large bowl or pan with ice and water. Place a large, clean bowl in the ice bath and fill the bowl with a fine mesh strainer.
2. In a large, heavy bottomed, non-reactive saucepan over medium heat, combine the cream, milk and salt and cook, stirring occasionally until hot but not boiling.
3. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and sugar until well blended.
4. Remove the cream mixture from the heat. Slowly pour about half of the hot cream mixture into the yolk mixture, whisking constantly. Transfer the yolk mixture back to the remaining cream mixture and return it to medium heat.
5. Cook, stirring constantly with a rubber spatula and being sure to scrape the bottom of the saucepan so it doesn't scorch, until liquid begins to steam and you can feel the spatula scrape against the bottom of the pan, 2 to 3 minutes.
6. Remove the custard from the heat and immediately pour it through the strainer into the clean bowl you set up in the ice bath. Stir in the coffee, chicory and condensed milk while it's hot (you can't cook condensed milk because it'll burn). Let cool, stirring occasionally.
7. When the custard is totally cool, cover and let steep and chill in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour or preferably overnight. When you are ready to freeze the custard, pour it through a fine-mesh strainer into an ice cream maker and spin according to manufacturer's instructions.
Eat immediately or transfer to an airtight container and freeze for up to 1 week.
Makes about 1 quart.

For the bittersweet chocolate sauce:

1 C water
2 C sugar
1/2 C corn syrup
1 C butter
1/2 C bittersweet chocolate, chopped (preferably at least 80% cacao)
3/4 C unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tsp. salt
1 tbsp. vanilla extract

1. In a large, heavy bottomed, non-reactive saucepan, combine the water, sugar, corn syrup and butter and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring often. Simmer until the sugar is dissolved, about 10 minutes.
2. In a large heatproof bowl, combine the cocoa powder, chocolate, salt and vanilla. Pour in the hot liquid and stir until smooth. Store covered in the fridge; it will keep forever (but you'll probably eat it within a week).
Makes about 1 quart

Friday, August 10, 2012

Ouch, Charlie

This is not technically a restaurant review. This is more of an ode to one of the greatest restaurants that Chicago has ever seen, one that will be closing in just a few weeks. Needless to say, that really hurts. Charlie Trotter's has been a mainstay of Chicago cuisine and the culinary world since it opened almost 25 years ago. I was lucky enough to go there with a friend of mine who worked in the kitchen at the start of his career; a weekend that he says allowed him entrance to some of the other great kitchens in Chicago. The best part of this meal was that Chef Trotter typically doesn't use butter or heavy cream in his dishes and instead allows the flavors of the produce to shine. Not a menu for the picky eater, Trotter's requires an open mind and a discerning palate. Not to go all food snob on you, but there is food, there is cuisine and then there is Charlie Trotter's.

The Vegetable Menu:

Globe Artichoke with Cauliflower, Pine Nuts & Mint
Never in my life would I have expected cauliflower and mint to go together, much less artichoke and mint. Roasting the vegetables helped to bring out the naturally sweet and earthy flavors of each and a quieter mint flavor eased the transition.

Poached French White Asparagus with Broccolini, Manchego Cheese & Fire-Roasted Red Peppers
Though white asparagus are typically flavorless, the char on the broccolini and the heat of the peppers helped round out the subtlety of the asparagus. The creaminess Manchego paired perfectly with the grilled flavors and the peppery flavor of the nasturtium leaves.

Crispy, Silken Tofu with Georgia Peaches,
Red Curry & Pea Blossoms 
Curry and tofu? Yes. Curry and peaches? Well, also yes apparently.I didn't love this dish because the crispy tofu didn't soak up the flavor of the red curry very well but the sweetness of the curry spices was the perfect match for the nectarine. 

One-Hour Poached Hen’s Egg with Morel Mushrooms, Swiss Chard & Liquorice
This was one of my favorite dishes. I love mushrooms and morel mushrooms are among the world's best. They're smoky and salty. Eating them with the egg and chard was like sprinkling a better version of Lawry's Seasoned Salt over the whole plate. The egg must have been poached at a very low temperature because the yolk was still very runny and made a sort of dressing for the chard which was, obviously, perfectly cooked: soft enough to chew but not so cooked that it gave no resistance. The chewiness of the mushrooms backed up the softness of the egg and the ruffled texture of the head was the perfect juxtaposition to the smoothness of the chard.

Miso Tortellini with Red Cabbage, Turnip Confit & Ponzu
This was my favorite dish, bar none. The tortellini were filled with a liquid miso that was perfectly salty and savory. The tortellini wrapper was particularly dense so when you took the first bite, the miso exploded out of it, whereas with a softer pasta it might have leaked. The wine-braised red cabbage added acidity and brightness and the turnips were used two ways: cooked whole and as a puree of the leaves. Spring turnips are softer and smaller and sweeter than their grocery store counterparts and it is this natural earthy sweetness that brought the dish full circle.

Cantaloupe Sorbet with Anise Shortbread & Rosemary Consommé
This dish was meant as a palate cleanser; not overly sweet or savory, the transition from dinner courses to dessert. The cantaloupe sorbet was so intensely flavored it was like putting a piece of frozen melon in your mouth. The anise shortbread crumbs stuck to the outside of each bite, like a sorbet sandwich. The pieces of honeydew floating in the consomme or broth were good but the tiny, crunchy watermelon cucumbers were better. They offered a refreshing bitterness not unlike the skin of a garden cucumber and a satisfying crunch to play against the soft texture of the rest of the dish.

Zucchini Cake & Blossom with Whipped Basil & Saffron Reduction
This was perhaps the busiest plate of all. Incredibly rich pieces of zucchini cake, crispy fried squash blossoms, sweet basil foam, dragonfruit sorbet and saffron reduction all played a part in this dish. The basil foam was one of my favorite things I tasted all night: it was sweet and herbal and the texture was disarming--like cappuccino foam almost. It was hard for me to believe that this is the same basil that gets used in savory Italian dishes when it had such a light and unobtrusive presence on this plate. The zucchini cake was unquestionably the best I've ever had--rich with cinnamon and other warm spices. The fried squash blossoms didn't do much for me but the combination of the hot blossom with the cold dragonfruit sorbet was certainly appealing though I'm not sure how different dragonfruit tastes from Tazo Passion tea. The saffron gel I found unpalatable and overpowering but who the hell am I to tell that to Charlie Trotter?

Strawberry Sorbet with Wine-Poached Strawberries & Chocolate Espresso Cake
The final course was prepared by a friend of my dining companion who was apparently quite new to the restaurant scene. If I didn't know that before sitting down to the meal, I would have assumed a trained pastry chef with at least a decade of experience constructed the dish. The wine soaked strawberries melted in your mouth and the plate was sprinkled with bitter coffee powder and intensely flavored cacao nibs. It was the best coffee-chocolate cake I have ever tasted and I can never hope to recreate something so good. The flavor packed a one-two punch, first hitting you with the bitter coffee and then the darkness of the chocolate. That chocolate sauce on the plate was so incredible it took everything I had not to lick it off the plate.