Thursday, December 27, 2007

What are you doing New Year's Eve?

I love that song. It's just so wistful and hopeful at the same time. Our friend Thank Heaven For Little Girls is hosting this year and in a fit of creativity, I suggested doing a tasting menu. The centerpiece of the tasting menu is a set of soups served in cheesy shot glasses. I've collected a few from Dollywood, Disneyworld, and New York and I thought it would be hilarious to have an elegant soup in a shot glass that says "Maryland - We're not angry, just crabby."

My contributions to the tasting menu will be:

Tom Kha soup with shitake mushrooms and crab (in a shot glass)
Vietnamese spring rolls
Crab dumplings in a Chinese soup spoon with a sauce of black vinegar, soy sauce, and sesame oil
Fake log o' meat dumplings with the same sauce (served in a soup spoon as well)

By the way, J and I went to Central Market to get fixin's for my Hawaiian inspired meal I made for J's mother for Mother's day. For anyone outside of Texas, Central Market is like Whole Foods on steroids. It's got a whole sauce bar that has onion dip, a zillion kinds of salsa, and even mole. It's pretty incredible. It ranks right up there with Wegman's. So at Central Market we just had to get Meyer lemons because they have such a delicate fragrance and flavor. They are availabel like one month a year and even then aren't really at supermarkets. Any suggestions for using them? We were thinking a Meyer lemon panna cotta. What do you all think?

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Tales from Christmas 2007 - the Croquembouche

Sorry for the radio silence. We're out in the great state of Texas with J's family. I have been reading J's mother's scrapbooks like they were the rosetta stone. I love reading personal history (perhaps that's why I read so many blogs).

As with any other family, food is a big part of Christmas with te J family. Because J's sister had to have an early dinner with her in-laws, the J family Christmas celebration was an early brunch, complete with two spirited boys in football uniforms.

It always amazes me how organized J's mother is about making big meals. The night before, the table was set, all of the food was prepared and in the freezer The only thing to do was to reheat. One the menu was:

Sunday brunch egg casserole (complete with Jimmy Dean sausage)
Cheese grits
Citrus salad
Little smokies (made because J's nephew recently had pigs in blanket and only ate the pig)
Sausage balls (sausage mixed with bisquick)
Mini blueberry muffins
Cheese pennies
Cream puffs rolled in powdered sugar
Pumpkin brean with chocolate chips
Cranberry danishes (I made)
A HUUUUUUGE assortment of cookies and candy

And finally, a croquembouche. J's brother recently has gotten into cooking and is pretty ambitious about what he'd like to make. A croquembouche really intrigued J's brother and J is as adventurous a cook as he is an eater. So Christmas Eve, we made the vanilla pastry cream (quite delicious) and the cream puffs (or choux). The pastry cream went without a hitch but hell's bells the cream puffs bedeviled us. You see, choux paste is a very old recipe with very easy proportions. The basic recipe (which I got from Mastering the Art of French Cooking) goes like this:

1 stick of butter
1 cup of water
1 cup of flour
4 eggs
1 teaspoon of sugar
1/4 teaspoon of salt

You melt the butter in the water, bring to a vigorous simmer and dump the flour in all at once. Stir until the paste gathers together and is hard to stir. I like to stir in on low heat to make sure the flour incorporates. Many recipes say t take it off the heat once you add the flour. Once the paste is made, add the four eggs either big stirring even more vigorously (and building your forearms) or dumping the paste into a food processor and incorporating the eggs that way. Once done, quickly dump tablespoonfuls of the paste into an old ratty cookie sheet that is completely uninsulated. A pastry bag would be helpful here to pipe the dough and made sure the surface is smooth. Bake for around 20 minutes until the choux are puffed and golden.

That's how it SHOULD have worked but for some reason, the first batch of dough we ended up with turned into a batter. I grilled J over and over about our measurements and decided the dump the whole thing and start over. Luckily, the next batch was a sucuess. That night we filled the choux with the pastry cream and set them in the freezer.

In the morning we made the caramel sauce and the melted sugar to bind the whole shebang together. The melt sugar consisted of sugar, water and corn syrup heated to 320 degrees. on there we dipped one side of the choux in the sugar and stuck it onto another cream puff. Once we had a nicering of choux, we pour the caramel sauce on top. We had enough pastry to make a very nice castle wall with cream puff turrets. A little less than the big tower of cream puffs, but I pointed out, we only had 11 people for brunch. The best part though was dipping a few forks in the melted sugar and making spun sugar that glistened around the castle wall. it was nice collaboration between J, j's brother and me. And while I won't kid anyone about it being a pain in the ass to make, we all had a good time making it.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

It's All Nigella All the Time

That's because I used a Barnes and Noble gift certificate to buy How to Be a Domestic Goddess, Nigella's baking book. Like every other Nigella book, it's an out and out great read. I've been salivating to make something from the book and I decided to go all out and making something really complicated - Danish. This would be a complicated recipe what with all of the butter and the rollng, but while there were many steps involving many hours of rising, no one step was all too complicated. It turned out wonderfully - buttery, flaky, and absolutely delicious. There isn't too much sugar in the dough itself so you could just as easily put in a savory filling like ham and cheese or spinach and feta. I used two types of fillings - cranberry jam (from the same book) and raspberries and blackberries. I found the berries were too wet and a bit too tart. The danish needed something more sugary.

Here's the recipe:

1/4 cup warm water
1/2 cup milk at room temperature
1 large egg at room temperature
2 1/4 cups of all purpose or bread flour
1 package of yeast
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup of butter cold, and cut into thin slices.

Pur the water and milk into a measuring cup and add the egg, beating with a fork to mix. Put to one side in a warm place. Put the flour yeast, salt, and sugar in the processor, and give one quick whizz to mix. Add the cold slices of butter and process briefly until the butter is cut up to visible chunks around 1/2 to 1/4 of an inch. Empty the contents of of the food processor into a large bowl and quickly add the contents of the cup of liquid. Use your hands or a rubber spatula to fold the ingredients together, but don't overdo it: expect to have a gooey mess with some butter lumps pebbling it. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and put in the refrigerator at least overnight or up to 4 days.

After having it sit overnight, take the dough out of the fridge and let it got to room temperature and roll out to a 20 inch square. Fold the dough into thirds like a business letter, turning it afterward so that the closed fold is on your left, like the spine of a book. Roll out again to a 20 inch square and releat the steps above 3 times. Cut the dough in half and fold up each half to a manageable size and wrap both pieces in plastic wrap. Let sit in the refrigerator at least 30 minutes and up to 4 days. To make the Danish, cut each dough into eight squares.

To make specialized danishes, Nigella offers two recipes, one with a homemade almond paste and a cheese one with ricotta. I decided to use the cranberry jam and the mixed fruit. Jam or a thick fruit compote is ideal. There are two ways to put together the danish. One is to put the filling in the middle diagonally and then fold two edges towards the middle. The other way is to plop a heaping spoonful of the filling directly into the middle of the square and fold all the corners towards the middle to keep the square shape. Either way, let the Danishes rise in a warm place for an hour and a half. Brush with an egg wash made from a beaten egg and 2 tablespoons of milk. Then bake in a 350 degree oven for 15 minutes until golden. Let cool and drizzle a glaze made with 1/2 cup powdered sugar and 1-2 tablespoons of warm water.

One final thing. Is anyone watching Battle of the Choirs? It's twelve kinds of awesome. And the superstar of the show is Nick Lachey and his choir. As someone who sang in a choir for eight years, I love that he actually wants the choir to sing as a choir and not just a singer with some backup singers. But boo Blake Shelton whose choir kind of blows.

Monday, December 17, 2007

In Defense of Milk Chocolate

Ok. It seems as if chocolate is the new cheese which was the new wine. It's all about the percentages of cocoa nibs and all artisinal and crap. even more so it's all about the dark. Good chocolate has to be dark, dark, dark or it's just some plebian slab of sugar. To that I say phooey. I have a deep and abiding love of milk chocolate and want to defend the milk chocolate and mellow flavors in general.

You know I do love bitterness (hee!). I love bitter greens. I love sharp flavors like lime, mustard, and vinegar. Anyone whose been with me to an Asian restaurant know I can bring the spicy like noone's business. But does that mean they should push out lovely soft mellow flavors? For all of the oohing and aahing about dark chocolate with high cocoa content, you've just got to love the balance of sweet, sharp and creamy in a bar of milk chocolate. Milk chocolate certainly adds a lot to bake goods, enhancing the sweetness instead of competing with it. While dark chocolate may be a better vehicle for flavors like coffee, flavors like hazelnut really sing in a matrix of milk chocolate. Finally, while everyone is all purist about their truffles, I've found milk chocolate makes a smoother and more stable truffle.

I hope someone out there starts making some artisinal milk chocolates so it doesn't get relegated to the Halloween candy aisle for good. While dark chocolate may be about sophistication, milk is about comfort.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Nigella's Christmas Kitchen - Salzburg!

Oh MY GOD! We're in Salzburg, land of Mozart and the Von Trapps. The Salzburg Christmas market looks like a postcard and winter really agrees with Nigella as she's in a comfy white trenchcoat and is happily declaring her love of Christmas and its twinkling lights. OH! The Nigella Christmas Kitchen lights! Oh how I love them! Cut to yet another market shot, this time with candied apples. And then linzer cookies! Next Nigella's on a balcony overlooking the market talking about the aroma of mulled wine. This episode she will make Christmas cake (fruitcake), ham, and spiced hard cider.

Dear god I want to hop a plane right now to do to Salzburg. It's so quaint and pretty. (And it really is that way). Nigella comes home with her suitcase and waxes on about the aromas of Christmas at home. Her first dish is mulled hard cider. To show I'm a lightweight, I spent my year in England drinking pints and pints of hard cider as I still couldn't appreciate a good lager (I still can't). Nigella points out she's doing cider instead of wine because wine can get a cough syrup thing going on. I completely agree. One time J and I bought this bottle of organic cherry juice form Trader Joe's and it was like drinking cough syrup. BLECH! Anyway, into the pot goes cinnamon sticks, cardamom (Scandinavian and Middle Eastern at the same time), brown sugar, clementines with cloves stuck into them, bay leaves (?), and ginger and apple tea and finally a splosh of rum. She lets the mixture simmer for 10 minutes and ladles a cup for herself. I love that she admits she cracks cardamom with her teeth. Oooh! Bumper with the Christmas lights!

Bumper back to the show, we get Nigella slicing a ham and then a happy scene of people eating around a Christmas tree. At the kitchen, Nigella says that until recently she's cooked her hams the way her mother does, which is to say immersing them in simmering water to leech out the saltiness. Nigella says that the new hams aren't as salty so that method isn't relevant. In the bottom of her couscous steamer, Nigella puts the ham (snugly!) and red wine. Nigella wins me over even more by expressing her disdain fr highfalutin wine writers that talk about blackberry scents and new car smells (hee!). She does, however, appreciate the aromatic flavor of wine. Into the pot goes fennel, an onion, garlic, fennel seeds, peppercorns, and star anise. She then adds enough water to over the ham. The ham will cook for three hours to infuse with the winy juices. Oh more Salzburg!

After Salzburg, Nigella makes a glaze with red currant jelly, smoked paprika, cinnamon, and red wine vinegar. While the jelly melts, Nigella takes the rind and a little of the fat off the ham and cuts a diamond pattern into the remaining fat and inserts cloves into the diamond pattern. She puts the glazed ham in a hot oven to cook the outside for 15 minutes. A typical entertaining Nigella meal scene. Lots of conversation around the giant Dr. Seussian ham.

I feel a kinship to Nigella because she's telling us how she prefers winter holidays in the snow to tropical vacations. As someone who honeymooned in Toronto in January, I heartily agree. She does this in front of a gorgeous ski slope. At home, Nigella makes cookies with her kids. This time they actually cook with her, measuring the flour, butter, sugar, baking powder and cinnamon and black pepper (to keep the children from eating them all). To the mixture she adds an egg, beaten with honey. What I love is that the ids are doing the cooking. I can't wait to see her daughter Cosima all grown up because right now she has those interesting, slightly awkward features that say "supermodel in five years." The kids roll out the cookies and bake (making sure to cut out a hole to turn them into ornaments). To decorate they use white icing and silver dragees.

Nigela then narrates the cookie decorating from the ski slopes. Her kids genuinely look like they are having fun decorating. Nigella's last dish is a fruitcake! Yay! I love fruitcake. It was something my grandmother loved and it just brings back Proustian memories. If only they would leave out those bizarre green things. Anyway into a pot, Nigella throws raisins, currants, and chopped prunes (which she describes as wrinkled up teddy bear noses). As she chops, she talks about the horror of bad fruitcake but says fruitcake is necessary. Her version is to put everything into a saucepan. Into the fruit she throws in Tia Maria coffee liquer, butter, pumpkin spices, dark brown sugar, and honey. To the thick mond of liquid she puts in the zest and juice of an orange. Finally she adds a few tablespoons to chocolate to give a ghost of chocolate flavor. She lines the cake time with a crown of reusable baking parchment. Into the fruit and stuff, she adds the cake ingredients of eggs, flour, and baking soda. The cake goes into a low oven for two hours.

When the cake comes out she decorates it with chocolate covered espresso beans and edible glitter (to choirs of angels singing) along with edible gold stars and another round of silver dragees. What is up with her thing with dragees? Is she trying to break a tooth? Ah another Nigella entertaining scene with kids decorating the tree and people eating fruitcake. We end with Nigella diving into a huge piece of fruitcake as a late night snack and having a nip of Tia Maria.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Late night inspiration

Ok. It sounds like the Nigella Christmas specials are happening all December! Wheee! I loved the last one (which I will be recapping) mainly because it has scenes set in Salzburg, land of Mozart and the Von Trapps. And if anyone doubts that I didn't hit the Sound of Music Tour while I was in Salzburg and I didn't force my friend to do the Sixteen Going on Seventeen Dance at the the gazebo, you obviously don't know me at all.

Anywhoo, I was in bed reading Feasts when I got to the chapter on cranberries where the easiest jam recipe ever appears. As most of who've made cranberry sauce know, cranberries have a LOT of pectin. That's why the cranberry sauce sets up so well. Therefore, the only ingredients you really need for cranberry jam are cranberries and sugar. So at 11:15pm, I raced out of bed, got the bags of cranberries that were lingering in our freezer form Thanksgiving and made the jam. It's 2 minutes of prep, 7 minutes of cooking, and 15 minutes of cooling. That's it.

Here's the recipe as I did it.

4 cups of fresh cranberries
1 3/4 cups of sugar
I added the zest and the juice of one orange and the juice of one lime (they were hanging around!)

Put a little dessert plate in the freezer. In a large saucepan, toss all the ingredients together and simmer until the sugar dissolves. Once the sugar dissolves, turn the heat up to a boil and let the jam heat vigorously for 7 minutes. Test the jam by putting a half a teaspoon of jam onto the frozen dessert plate. if you run your finger trough the drop of jam and the track your finger made is still there (because hopefully the liquid is thick enough not to ooze back), then the jam is ready. As you all know I can't be bothered sterilize jars so I put enough jam for a week in a jar that goes in the fridge and the rest of the jam goes in tupperware in the freezer.

I highly recommend this recipe. It is very forgiving and open to add-ins (ginger!). I just had some this morning on a brioche roll and it was heaven on a bun!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Nigella's Christmas Kitchen

My deep and abiding love for Nigella Lawson knows no bounds. However, I really wish the Food Network would just run her shows without doing a hatchet job on them. With the Nigella Bites series they would cut whole scenes out to the point of leaving out the preparation of whole dishes. If anyone could run the Style Network's airing of Nigella Bites versus the Food Network, you'll see what a horrible job the Food Network does airing Nigella's shows. Sadly it's the same story with her second Christmas special. But happily Nigella is Nigella and the show (apart from Food Network's cutting and pasting) is wonderfully produced.

Open with Nigella's Christmas party in full swing. A turkey is laid out and Christmas lights are everywhere. Already I am wondering if the music from the special is on an iTunes playlist because its funny jazzy Christmas music. Nigella slips away to talk to the tv audience and say that while Christmas dinners can be sources of great joy but they can also be fear inducing and fraught. She embraces the meal that includes a panaloply of dishes by making a careful plan of action. She is evangelical about it. We then go to the bumper to commercials with a string of lights that spells out Nigella's Christmas Kitchen. Do they sell that on ebay?

The cooking actually starts in Nigella's new kitchen (the one that is in the house she shares with husband Charles Saatchi) where she fills a big red tub with water to start a brine for the turkey. She extols the virtues of brining the tueky to ensure moistness. Having had scotte's brined turkey I heartily concur. Her's has cloves, caraway, star anise, mustard seeds, allspice berries and cinnamon. She revels in throwing everything in with abandon. To help the flavors infuse, she throws in both massive amounts of salt, sugar, and maple syrup. She then cuts up an onion and plops it in as well saying that onions are always the basis of savory flavor (how true!)She assures people that the turkey will not somehow taste like all of the spices but just has a fuller depth of flavor. Wow, and then goes in ginger, an orange and parsley. Making a baby with bathwater analogy, she throws the turkey into the brine. With more confidence in the weather staying cold than I, she shoves the whole bucket o'brine in her backyard. Good luck on that one. Cut to a scene of all of the post-it notes with her to-dos.

Beside her tree, Nigella writes her plan of attack. First up is making a gravy and then making roast potatoes, maple roast parsnips, and brussel sprouts cooked with chestnuts and pancetta. Actually she first makes her redder than red cranberry sauce that's fairly standard with the addition of cherry brandy. It's a simple matter of simmering the cranberries until they pop and throwing them into a bowl. Oh the happy bumper of Nigella lights and an awesome jazzy Christmas song!

After commercial Nigella a red robe as if she's just woke up (in full makeup!). She releases they turkey from its briny bath with a pair of leopardskin gloves. She leaves the turkey to sit at room temperature and makes the beginnings of an allspice gravy. It looks like she's making stock (carrots, celery, bay leaves) with the addition of allspice and cinnamon. In a bit of evil Food Network editing, Nigella also puts in a clementine that she says she used the zest to make gingerbread stuffing. However, nowhere in the episode do we get to see the gingerbread stuffing being made. To make it taste like turkey she puts in the turkey neck and then simmers the whole mess covered. I think Ella Fitzgerald is singing Winter Wonderland in the background as Nigella's kids are playing. I will have to say that Winter Wonderland is my favorite holiday song. My brother and I would sing it as a duet in on long winter car rides. He would sing "sleigh bells ring..." and I would respond "are you listening?" And thus I evaproate any bit of street cred my brother my made. Sorry B.

Nigella then peels potatoes and parsnips as her kids play connect four. She waxes on and on about the joys of repetitive activity like peel vegetables and Brussels sprout. I call bullshit because I firmly believe she would have conscripted her kids to do that work. In a time saving bit, she extols the virtues of roasting things in foil pans to alleviate the cleanup.

Cutting the sprouts, Nigella cuts Xes in her Brussels sprouts and then parboils them as well as parboiling her potatoes, cutting them into big chunks. To help the turkey skin crisp, Nigella makes a "bronzing liquid" with butter and maple syrup to brush over the turkey. And more fun jazzy music!

Back from commercial Nigella takes out the potatoes and dredges them in semolina (a family tradition) and then plops them in a foil roasting pan with hot goosefat. The potatoes sizzle as they are dropped into the goosefat which she mentions is high in omega fatty acids (which makes them health food). She salivates over the sizzling potatoes. Okay her dining room is gorgeous and full of candles and strings of lights. She then goes over the virtues of buying a Christmas pudding and making her own rum butter (which we never see! - BOOO!) She put the pudding into the steamer and then pours maple syrup over the parsnips in a roasting pan (foil of course).

One unique thing about Nigella's shows are the completely believable party scenes. She's filling everyone's glasses with champagne and people are talking. And not the fake talk where everyone is complimenting her cooking. More jazzy bluesy Christmas music. Nigella is serious about her Brussels sprouts. She dumps the boiled sprouts into a colander and then sautees pancetta and chestnuts in butter. She adds a splosh of marsala and then the sprouts. A sprout that is lousy and waterlogged is vile so she only cooks hers for five minutes and then sautees. She covers the pan with a lid and let it steam with the heat off.

When return from commercial (and those disturbing CGI-claymation versions of Food Network stars - let Giada-bot close her mouth!), Nigella's daughter is pour her friends sparkling cranberry juice. Nigella takes out of the turkey and then makes the gravy with the pan juices and the allspice stock. She then puts in a vast platter with roast potatoes and parsnips. The turkey and sides come out and along with the phantom stuffing is also phantom mashed potatoes. At dinner people are pulling apart Christmas crackers (as in firecrackers) as Nigella carves. More believable conversation.

The final scene is the spectacular steam Christmas pudding with the flaming alcohol poured on top. Now this is the rightful moment where people should be oohing and aahing over the food. Nigella recommends using vodka for Christmas pudding because it will burn with a blue flame all night long. It looks like a fun party. But you know what was a fun party? Thanksgiiving at Scotte's where Stef, Jason, Joyous and I were wondering if Giada's boobs could possibly get any bigger now that she's pregnant. They might need their own walker at that point. Good times people. If only Food Network would keep their grubby hands off of Nigella's shows and show them in their entirety.