Wednesday, December 31, 2008

87. Baked French Toast (p. 650)

We usually spend Christmas day with my wife's family. This year, my sister came up with the great idea of doing Christmas a little early with my side of the family. So, a little more than a week before Christmas, I had my grandparents and my sister and her family over for a holiday brunch.

On the menu: this recipe for Baked French Toash served with Vanilla-Brown Sugar Syrup, Tomato, Garlic and Potato Frittata, Homemade Sausage Patties, and Cranberry Coffee Cake. These other dishes will be the subject of the next few posts, but first, the French Toast.

This recipe is tailor-made for brunch for a crowd. I assembled it the night before, stashed it in the refrigerator overnight so the bread could soak up the custard, and then I popped it in the oven a while before my guests arrived. I started by slicing a loaf of soft Italian bread from the supermarket bakery into twelve one-inch slices. (The Book didn't tell me to, but I cut the slices in half so that they'd fit better in the baking dish.) I buttered the bread and arranged them in the baking dish. I whisked together some eggs, milk and salt and poured it over the bread. The bread needs to soak for at least an hour, but overnight is fine, too. Just before baking, I sprinkled a generous amount of sugar over the bread.

The French toast got a bit toastier than I would have liked, but even though the picture above makes it look like it was burned, it wasn't. Everyone really liked this French Toast. It was crispy, buttery and not-too-eggy. I would absolutely make this again if I were making breakfast for a group.

On a personal note, I'm overjoyed to announce the birth of my son, Jack, born yesterday afternoon. He's a big guy - 9 pounds, 3 ounces - and he's sure to have a big appetite. I'm looking forward to cooking all sorts of tasty treats for him, but in the meantime, I'm going to savor every minute of babyhood. (For some reason, Blogger isn't cooperating with me, and not letting me post a picture. Take my word for it, he's just about the handsomest baby ever!)

Date Cooked: December 13 & 14, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: A-

Monday, December 29, 2008

86. Baked Potato Chips (p. 6)

I made these chips a while back to go along with the Turkey Wraps I made with Thanksgiving leftovers. Somehow, I'm just getting around to posting about them.

I was suspicious of this recipe.* I knew that they'd be good, but I didn't believe that they'd taste like real potato chips. Boy, was I wrong.

This recipe has three ingredients: potatoes, olive oil and salt. First, brush two baking sheets with olive oil. Next slice the potatoes as thinly as you can using a mandoline. Then arrange the potato slices on the baking sheets, brush with more oil and sprinkle with salt. Bake for 10 to 20 minutes until golden and crispy.

When Teena made these, she found that they took longer to cook than indicated in The Book. I agree. Many of the chips tasted like I thought that they would - like oven roasted potato slices. Good, but not potato chips. The chips that I thought looked a little overdone were, much to my surprise, perfect! They tasted just like my favorite potato chips. They were crispy and delicious. Amazing.

I'll keep playing around with this recipe to get the timing and amount of oil just right (I thought that some of these were a little greasy). I'm also looking forward to trying the variations in The Book for Salt and Pepper Potato Chips and Rosemary Potato Chips.

Date Cooked: November 29, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: B+

* I couldn't find this recipe on line.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

85. Potato Latkes (p. 567)

Let's stick with the Hanukkah theme from the last post about rugelach. I made this recipe the other night to kick off the Festival of Lights. I've never had latkes before, and I don't know how I've lived without them. These things are great! And they're so easy, there's no need to save them for the holidays.

First, I chopped up an onion. Then I grated one pound of potatoes (one great big Idaho did the trick) using a box grater. I soaked the grated potatoes in cold water for a bit (to get rid of some of the extra starch?). Then I drained them and put them (along with the chopped onions) in a dishtowel and wrung the heck out of them. I was really amazed at how much liquid I was able to squeeze out.

The cooking was very easy, too. I heated some oil in a 12-inch skillet and then I made little mounds of two tablespoons of the potato mixture in the skillet, flattened them out and cooked for a few minutes on each side until they were nice and crispy. Out of the pan and onto some paper towels to drain, and that's it!

The traditional accompaniments for latkes are sour cream and applesauce. Much to my surprise, the only applesauce recipe in The Book is for Calvados applesause that is a component of a dessert recipe. I thought about just buying some Mott's, but I came across this recipe for Rosy Applesauce on the Gourmet website. This applesause was super-easy to make, I just cooked four pounds of Golden Delicious apples with a handful of fresh cranberries, some sugar and a cinammon stick. Once the apples are all soft and broken down, I forced the applesauce through a sieve and let it cool. The cranberry and cinammon kick to this applesauce was excellent with the latkes, and we enjoyed the leftover applesauce swirled in our morning oatmeal. Yum!

Date Cooked: December 20, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: A-

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

84. Date Walnut Rugelach (p. 682)

I promised three cookie posts. But, I just couldn't resist the urge to make this recipe* for these delicious treats in honor of Hanukka. So, here's a bonus cookie post, at no extra charge.

Essentially, these cookies are tiny little tarts - little triangles of pie dough filled with dates and walnuts and all rolled up. I've always wondered if there was anything better than pie crust. Well, I've got my answer - pie crust made with crem cheese! First, I combined cut up pieces of cold butter and cream cheese, sugar, salt and flour. I pulsed these ingredients in the food processor until it came together as a dough.

I put the dough out onto my baking mat, broke it into six more or less evenly sized pieces. After a little firsage action, I patted each piece of dough into a small disk and put them in the refrigerator to get nice and firm.

Meanwhile, I made the filling. I took a pound of pitted dates and whizzed them in the food processor until they were nice and finely chopped. I did the same with some walnuts. I mixed the dates and walnuts together with some sugar, cinnamon and vanilla extract.

Next, working one at a time, I rolled out each dough disk into an eight-inch round (I used a dessert plate as a guide for the size). I sliced the round into eight wedges, keeping the wedges together for the time being. I brushed the wedges with some apricot preserves that I had warmed on the stovetop. The Book calls for apricot jam, but I could only find preserves. It worked out just fine, but I think that The Book had in mind something without chunks of apricot. Then I spread some of the filling around on the wedges, leaving some space around the inside and outside edges. Finally, I rolled each wedge up, and put them on a baking sheet, tucking the loose ends under to keep the filling in. Finally, I baked the rugelach until they were puffed and golden.

You often hear about food being so good that it's "dangerous." But, other then fugu, most food isn't really dangerous. Rugelach just might be an exception. Rugelach is served at Hanukkah to commemorate the bravery of Judith, the biblical heroine who ingratiated herself with an enemy general by feeding him cheesecakes and pancakes. Once he was lulled into a stupor by all that she had fed him, she cut his head off. So, you just might think twice when someone offers you rugelach. But just try and resist them.


Date Cooked: December 21, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: A-

*The recipe in The Book is very similar to the one on epicurious, but some of the proportions are a little different.

Monday, December 22, 2008

83. Pignoli Cookies (p. 683)

My favorite cookies in the whole world come from the little Italian bakery at the end of my street. They are crispy on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside, and they have an amazing almond flavor. I've always wanted to make them, but I could never find a recipe. In fact I don't even know what they're called, since I just ask for "those little almond cookies."

Well, thanks to this recipe, I can make "those little almond cookies" whenever I want. The key to these cookies is the almond paste, which, The Book emphasizes, is not marzipan. I'd never seen almond paste before, so when I found it in the store, I was at first surprised by how light the can was for its size. Then when I opened it, I was further surprised that it had the look and texture of those gum erasers that artists use.

I crumbled up two cans of the almond past into my food processor, and combined it with some confectioners sugar, and pulsed it until it was ground into a fine meal. Then I transfered the mixture into a bowl and beat in some egg whites and honey. (Much to my surprise, there is no flour in these cookies.) This is one of those recipes that I really wish I had a stand mixer for. The Book says to beat for five minutes. The dough was pretty thick, and after about the third minute, my handheld mixer was struggling. I called it quits at about four minutes when my mixer started to smell like smoke. In the end, it was all right, although, I think a little more beating at a higer speed (which a stand mixer could have done) would have made the cookies a little airy-er.

I spooned the dough into a pastry bag and piped little rounds onto parchment-lined cookie sheets. I pressed pine nuts into the top of each cookie. (At first I started making a pretty starburst design with the pine nuts, but after the second dozen, I moved on to a more abstract "sprinkle them and press them wherever they land" design.) I cooked them for the full fifteen minutes called for in The Book (some trays took a couple more minutes to turn golden). Then I slid the parchment onto racks to cool, and when the cookies were cool enough to handle, I peeled them off the parchment paper.

I made these cookies as a gift for my grandmother, who also loves "those little almond cookies." She was thrilled. They are exactly the same as the ones from the bakery down the street. The only difference is that the bakery puts slivered almonds on top instead of pine nuts. I like pine nuts, but I prefer the almonds on these cookies, and that's how I'll make them next time. That, and I'll wait until I have a stand mixer to make them again, because I don't think that my electric hand mixer could survive another batch of these. (Are you listening, Santa?)

Date Cooked: December 13, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: A-

Friday, December 19, 2008

82. Spice Sugar Cookies (p. 669)

My dad is one of ten children, and every year, his brothers and sisters and their families have a huge Christmas party. About 100 people come to the party. We rent a hall, and my cousin, who has a catering business, cooks a meal for everyone. But dessert is a pot-luck affair. All of the nieces and nephews bring something for the dessert table.

This year, I made these cookies as my contribution to the array of sweets and treats. I picked this recipe* because it looked easy and tasty. It was both.

To make the dough, I started by sifting together some flour, baking soda, and spices (a hefty amount of cinnamon and ginger, plus some cloves) and a little bit of salt. Then I beat together some vegetable shortening and brown sugar. Then I added an egg and some molasses. Finally, I added the flour mixture, bit by bit, until it was all blended together. Finally, I put the dough in the refrigerator for an hour to firm up.

I made the cookies by rolling tablespoons of dough into little balls and dipping the top half of each ball in sugar. The dough was very dense, but easy to work with. As the dough balls baked, they melted into perfectly rounded cookies with cracked, sparkling tops. They smelled great as the cooked and cooled on racks on the counter.

The Book says that the yield of this recipe is three dozen cookies. But I was pleasantly surprised when I was able to get almost four dozen cookies from one batch of batter. This was great, because after filling up a respectably-sized cookie tray for the party, I was able to save more than a few cookies for myself.

These cookies were great. They are nice little ginger snaps. Sweet and spicy, crisp without being hard or dry. They are exactly what you want to eat with a glass of eggnog.

Date Cooked: December 6, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: B+


*This recipe, under the name "Ginger Sugar Cookies," is the cookie of the year for 1965 in Gourmet's Favorite Cookies: 1941-2008 web feature.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

81. Gingerbread Snowflakes (p. 680)

This is the first of three cookie posts. And with Christmas right around the corner, it seems like just about everyone is in a cookie-making mood.

The current issue of Gourmet features an array of stunningly beautiful cookies including some glittering lemon sandwich cookies that I can't wait to make. But the fine folks at Gourmet didn't stop there, the editors and test kitchen cooks went through the archives to compile a web feature of the best cookie recipe from the magazine for each year since 1941. I can't think of a more mouth-watering way to spend a half hour than to scroll through these sixty-plus recipes. Well, it didn't take long for a few intrepid food bloggers to see Gourmet's cookie-of-the-year feature as a challenge. And thus, The 12 Cookies of Christmas: A Gourmet Cookie Extravaganza was born. I'm looking forward to catching up on the efforts of Sandy from At the Baker's Bench and her friends who decided to pick and make their 12 favorite recipes from Gourmet's "best of" collection. (Hat tip to Michelle of What Does Your Body Good? for pointing me to the Extravaganza.)

OK, enough about other people's cookies. I want to talk about my cookies. I volunteered to make some cookies for my church's bake sale. I picked this recipe because I could make the cookies ahead of time, since, according to the Cook's Note, the cookies keep up to three weeks. In theory, this is a pretty easy recipe. The Book says that the start-to-finish time is 2 1/4 hours. But because I tend to make my own problems, and bite off more that I can chew, it took me about eight hours, over the course of three days to make these cookies. My downfall was reading The Book's suggestion of turning the cookies into ornaments and thinking, "That sounds like a good idea!" They came out great, but it took forever to make them.

The cookie dough is pretty easy to make. First, I combined some molasses, brown sugar and spices (ginger, cinnamon, allspice and cloves) in a saucepan and brought it to a boil. Right from the first step, this recipe fills the house with an instant Christmas aroma. Off to a great start! Next I added the baking soda, and like an elementary school science project, the mixture foamed up furiously. (Good thing The Book warned me that was going to happen.) Then I added butter, an egg and the flour and mixed it right in the pan until I had a big ball of cookie dough.

I turned the dough out onto my baking mat and kneaded it for a little while. Then I put half of the dough into the refrigerator while I worked on the other half of the dough. I rolled the dough out nice and thin, and cut out as many snowflakes as I could. I rerolled the leftover dough to cut out more cookies, and then I rerolled it a few more times until I made all of the cookies I could. The Book says to reroll the dough once, presumably because it could get tough if it's rolled too many times. But I took my chances since I didn't want to waste any dough. All of the cookies I tasted were great, so I don't think that the multiple rollings did any harm.

To make the cookies into ornaments, I poked a hole in each cookie with a drinking straw before I put them in the oven. After the cookies cooled, I threaded a thin red or green ribbon through the hole and tied it in a bow. This was very tedious, and about halfway through the four dozen cookies the recipe yielded, I was rethinking the wisdom of making cookie ornaments.

Next came the decoration. This recipe for decorating icing is a sub-recipe to the cookie recipe. It's pretty easy. Just combine a box of confectioner's sugar, powdered egg whites, water, lemon juice and vanilla extract. I didn't know that powdered egg whites existed, but I'm glad that they do, because the egg whites are necessary to give the icing its structure and stiffness, but I'd be nervous about using uncooked egg whites in cookies destined for a church bake sale. I can see it now: "Parishioner sickens dozens of churchgoers with salmonella-laced snowflake cookies. Film at eleven."

I opted for a pretty simple, less-is-more approach to decorating the cookies. There was more than enough icing to completely cover the cookies. But, I decided that because of my limited time, and my limited skills with a pastry bag, I'd keep it basic. Some might disagree, but I actually thought that the cookies were better for it. The cookies, as cookies, were delicious in their own right. Nice and crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside with a really nice mix of holiday spices. Exactly what you'd want in a gingerbread cookie. The icing, on the other hand, while sweet, was pretty blah, even with the lemon juice and vanilla. So, by keeping the decoration to a minimum, the cookies were able to shine whithout being overwhelmed by too much icing.

After the icing hardened, I put each of the cookies in an individual plastic bag fastened with a silver twist-tie. Again, about an hour into this part of the process, I was asking myself exactly why I though that it would be a good idea to do this way. In the end, the cookies were beautiful and delicious, if I do say so myself. I'd make this recipe again, but without all of the unnecessary fuss of making them into ornaments.

Date Cooked: November 30 - December 3, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Medium (but VERY time consuming)
Rating: B

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

80. Old-Fashioned Chocolate Pudding (p. 824)

Pudding always makes me smile. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I can't help associating pudding with Bill Cosby and those commercials he used to do for Jello. Or maybe it's because cool, creamy chocolate-y pudding just makes you feel good.

Up until now, pudding always came from a box for me. But after making this recipe*, I don't think I'll make boxed pudding again. The recipe is pretty easy. I started by whisking together some sugar, cocoa, cornstarch and a pinch of salt in a saucepan. Then I whisked in some whole milk and brought it to a boil for a few minutes. Next, I poured the hot milk mixture in a slow stream into a bowl with a beaten egg, whisking the whole time. Finally I whisked in some chopped semisweet chocolate until it was melted and smooth.

I poured the pudding into four ramekins and put it in the refrigerator to chill. I followed The Book's instruction about covering the surface of the pudding with wax paper to prevent a skin from forming. But, who ever said that pudding skin is a bad thing?

I served the pudding with some fresh whipped cream. How did it taste? Like childhood in a bowl. And like Bill Cosby said, "you can't be a kid without it."



Date Cooked: November 23, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: A

* This recipe is not on epicurious.com.

Friday, December 12, 2008

79. Moussaka (p. 514)


When my wife and I were in college, one of our favorite places to eat was Grendel's Den in Harvard Square. Two romantic dinners at this cozy student-friendly restaurant stand out in my memory. The first was when we shared their "Cheese Fondue for Two." The other was the dinner where I was first introduced to moussaka. I'm sure that it was winter, because I remember how comforting the warm layers of spiced lamb, eggplant, tomatoes and bechamel sauce were. Ever since then, this has been one of my favorite dishes.

According to my Oxford Companion to Food there are many variations of moussaka, which gets its name from the Arabic word for "moistened," a reference to the tomato juices that permeate this dish. This recipe* is a version of the Greek interpretation of moussaka.

The recipe starts with sautéing onions, garlic and ground lamb. I used ground turkey because, despite all of my efforts, my wife won't eat lamb. Next I added cinnamon, allspice, dried mint and chopped canned plum tomatoes with some juice reserved from the canned tomatoes. For this step, I strained the canned tomatoes in a colander suspended over a bowl to catch the juices. I discarded the pulp leftover in the colander and used just the tomato juice for the recipe. In retrospect, I should have put the pulp back in with the juice because that would have given the filling some more substance. My filling, which was just a bit more watery that I would have liked.

While the turkey and tomato mixture was simmering, I broiled some eggplant slices that I had brushed with some olive oil. Once the eggplant slices were browned and tender, I assembled the moussaka by layering half of the eggplant slices, spreading the turkey and tomato mixture, and topping it with the rest of the eggplant.

Then I made the topping, which is a bechamel sauce with a twist. First, I made a roux of butter and flour, and then I whisked in some milk and brought it to a boil. Then I melted some crumbled feta cheese into the sauce which gave it a nice, and unexpected salty, tangy richness. Finally, I whisked in an egg and a yolk beaten together. I poured this over the casserole and topped it with some grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

I baked the moussaka until it was golden and bubbling. After it rested for a few minutes, it was ready to eat. I really enjoyed this dish. It tasted and smelled great. The cinnamon, allspice and mint gave this moussaka a great, traditional Greek flavor. The eggplant was tender and delicious, and the feta-spiked bechamel was awesome! The turkey was fine, but lamb would have been better.
And the leftovers were just as good out of the microwave.

Date Cooked: November 23, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: B+

*This recipe is not on epicurious.com.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

78. Maple Pumpkin Pots de Creme (p. 832)


The Book calls this recipe "an elegant alternative to pumpkin pie." That's an understatement. This dessert elevates that steady workhorse of the Thanksgiving dessert spread to a fitting finish to the fanciest fall feast (how's that for some clever alliteration?).

This recipe is easy to make, and it can be prepared well in advance. First, I simmered some cream, milk, canned pumpkin and pure Vermont maple syrup. Then I whisked together egg yolks, nutmeg, cinnamon and salt in a bowl. Next, I whisked the hot pumpkin mixture into the yolk mixture in a very slow stream to prevent the yolks from scrambling. Then I poured the custard mixture through a fine mesh sieve. I think that this step is key to the silky, smooth and airy texture of the finished dessert because it removes any little lumps that might have formed. I poured the custard mixture into ramekins, placed them into a roasting pan, added hot water about half-way to the top of the ramekins, covered the whole thing in foil, and put it in the oven for the time listed in the recipe.

When Teena made these, she was less than satisfied with the results. She suspected that it was because the cooking time in the recipe was too long. I think that my experience with this recipe confirms her theory. The Book calls for making ten individual pots de creme in two- to three-ounce ramekins. My ramekins are pretty big (eight ounce capacity if filled to the brim), so I divided the custard among four ramekins. Even though they were more than twice the size they were supposed to be, my pots de creme were completely done in the cooking time called for in the recipe. I had expected to check them at the end of the time listed in the recipe and see how close to done they were. I was surprised to see that they were completely done.

I made these the morning that my friends were coming over for dinner and I put them in the refrigerator to chill all day. I served them with fresh, sweetend whipped cream. We all really liked this dessert. It was rich and light at the same time. The pumpkin, cinnamon and nutmeg recalled the classic Thanksgiving pumpkin pie, but the maple syrup, which provides all of the sweetness for this dessert, is a great change and gave the dessert a wonderful and somewhat unexpected flavor. In the end, I was glad that I made this dessert in the larger-sized ramekins. If I had made them in two- or three- ounce ramekins as called for in The Book, I would have been dissapointed to get only a couple of spoonfuls of dessert. I'd be forced to eat a second one, and then feel guilty about having eaten two (or maybe even three!) desserts. This way, no shame. As much as I liked this dessert, and I would make it again, I'm still not trading in my traditional Thanksgiving pumpkin pie made from the recipe on the back of the can. (Nor am I giving up my tradition of eating pumpkin pie for breakfast on the day after Thanksgiving. Don't judge me.)

Because I was having such a great time catching up with my dinner guests, I somehow forgot to take a picture of the finished product. The photo at the top of this post comes from Teena's blog.

Date Cooked: November 16, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: A

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

77. Ratatouille (p. 586)

I made this recipe as a vegetarian alternative to the beef bourguignon that I made when some friends came over for dinner a few weeks ago.



Cute, cartoon rodents notwithstanding, ratatouille, or ratatouille niçoise, as it is more properly called, is a traditional Provençal dish that, like beef bourguignon and coq au vin, has made the transition from peasant comfort food to haute cuisine.

There are numerous variations of the recipe for ratatouille. Some recipes omit the eggplant. Some recipes, like Julia Child's, calls for layering and and baking the vegetables. Other recipes call for cooking the vegetables all together. The Book's recipe is pretty fussy in that it calls for cooking each of the vegetable elements separately.

First, I peeled four large tomatoes. I actually don't mind peeling tomatoes as long as I'm not too pressed for time. I think it's pretty cool that you can plop a tomato into boiling water for a minute or two, then plunge it into ice water, and just slip the skins right off. Then I coarsley chopped the tomatoes and simmered them in a pot with some garlic, parsley, basil, and olive oil to make a basic tomato sauce.

While the sauce was simmering, I cut a large eggplant into one-inch cubes. The Book says to toss the cubes with salt and let them sit in a colander for 30 minutes. I don't know if this step is really necessary. I didn't have any room in my sink to set down the colander, so I put it on a tray on my kitchen table. When the half-hour had passed, only a very small amount of liquid had drained from the eggplant. So, I didn't really see the benefit to this step.

Here's where the recipe gets really fussy, and for no clear reason. First The Book says to cook the onions in three tablespoons of olive oil for ten minutes, remove from the pan and set aside. This step is repeated with the peppers, zucchini, and eggplant. Cook with three tablespoons of olive oil for about ten minutes. I'm not quite sure why the vegetables need to be cooked separatly, other than the fact that there are a whole lot of them, and it would be difficult to cook such a big quantity of vegetables all at once. I can't see any other reason for doing it that way, especially since once they've all been given their 10 minutes in the saute pan, all of the vegetables are combined with the tomato sauce and stewed together for an hour. And it's not just me, Teena thought that this recipe was curiously fussy, too.



Even if it was fussy, there is no denying that this dish was delicious. It was hearty, comforting and flavorful. The tomato, garlic and basil in the sauce was a great base for the slowly stewed vegetables. The Book says that it can be served warm or at room temperature. I actually preferred it hot, but to each his own.The recipe calls for a lot of olive oil, and while I didn't find the dish to be overly oily, the amount of oil could have been cut significantly without harming the dish too much. The Book says that this recipe serves 8 to 10. That must mean 8 to 10 very hungry people. This recipe filled my big stock pot, and we enjoyed this for lunch for the entire week after I made it.

Date Cooked: November 16, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Not hard, but a lot of steps
Rating: A-

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

76. Coconut and Macadamia Nut Banana Bread (p. 599)


Like a lot of home cooks, when I find myself with a bunch of overripe bananas, I automatically think of one thing ... banana bread. But after a while, the old standby banana bread recipe gets a little tired, and you're ready for something new. This recipe* takes banana bread back to its tropical roots by including macadamia nuts and toasted coconut.

The first thing I did was to toast some sweetened, flaked coconut. OK, that was the second thing I did. The first thing I did was to scorch some sweetend, flaked coconut. Note to self, coconut cooks very fast. I scraped the burned coconut off the pan, fanned the acrid smoke out of the kitchen, and started over again. It worked out much better the second time.

The rest of the recipe is pretty straightforward. I sifted together the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt). I creamed the butter and sugar until fluffy, and then added the eggs, vanilla extract, lemon zest, mashed bananas and sour cream until well combined. Then I added the flour mixture. Finally, I folded in the chopped macadamia nuts and toasted coconut.

Like a lot of the other quick bread recipes in The Book, this recipe makes two loaves. Because I only have one loaf pan, when I made the Pumpkin Apple Bread, I cut the recipe in half and made one loaf. This time, I got a bit smarter, and even though I still only have one loaf pan, I poured half of the batter into my loaf pan, and put the rest in the refrigerator while the first loaf cooked. Once it was baked and cooled enough to remove from the pan, I took it out, washed the pan, and cooked the second loaf.

I liked this bread a lot. The addition of the coconut and macadamia nuts gives the bread a nice tropical flair ... this is the banana bread that Jimmy Buffet would make. The lemon zest and sour cream gave the bread a brightness and zip that your usual banana bread lacks. I'd make this again if I didn't already have a loaf stashed in the freezer.

Date Cooked: October 26, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: B+

*The recipe on epicurious.com is the same as the one in The Book, except it makes five mini-loaves, The Book's recipe makes two regular-sized loaves.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Tips for freezing?


With a new baby on the way in a few weeks, I'm thinking about putting up some food now in order to make mealtime a little easier during the first couple of weeks with the new baby.

I thought that I might be able to make a few of the soups and casseroles from The Book and freeze them. Since The Book doesn't offer any guidance about freezing, I was hoping that some of you (especially my fellow Gourmet cook-through-ers) might have some suggestions about recipes from The Book that are good candidates for freezing, and how to go about it. For instance, should I cook a casserole completely before freezing it, or should I just assemble it, freeze it and then cook it before eating? Tips on reheating would be appreciated, too.

Put any suggestions in the Comments, and thanks!

75. Beef Bourguignon (p. 440)

There are two dishes that changed Julia Child's life, and by extension, American cooking, forever.

The first, sole meunière, was Julia's first meal upon arriving in France with her husband, Paul. Julia described this elegantly simple dish as a revelation, and as "an opening up of the soul and spirit for me."


This introduction sparked Julia's interest in la cuisine Française, inspired her to take classes at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and led her to write a manuscript, with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, for a cookbook aimed at making French food approachable for the American home cook.

That's where the second dish, beef bourguignon, comes in. Julia's manuscript found its way into the hands of Judith Jones, a general book editor at Alfred A. Knopf, who was on the lookout for a new French cookbook for the American market. And as she described in a 2004 New York Times piece, Judith took the manuscript home with her one night and made Julia's recipe for beef bourguignon. The result was "a masterpiece," and Judith determined to get Mastering the Art of French Cooking published. The book launched Julia's television career and inspired thousands of Americans to start cooking. None of that would have been possible without these two dishes.

This story even touches on cook-through blogging in a "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" sort of way. When Julie Powell was working on her Julie/Julia Project, the original cook-through blog, in which she set out to cook and blog about every recipe in MtAoFC, Judith Jones accepted an invitation to have Julie Powell cook for her, and Julie planned to cook (what else?) beef bourguignon. But, in a very "Big Night" turn, Judith never showed up, and Julie and her husband Eric, ended up eating alone.

So, it was against this backdrop that I cooked this recipe* a few Sundays ago when a couple of my good friends from grad school came over for dinner. I have been looking forward to making this dish for some time now, and I wasn't disappointed.

My friends were coming over for dinner at 6 (it was a "school night," so we planned on eating early), and so, at about 3, I was in the midst of congratulating myself on getting an early start on cooking, when I re-read the part of the recipe that says "simmer gently ... 3 1/2 to 4 hours." Not an auspicious start, but I didn't let it rattle me. We'd just have more time to catch up over glasses of wine while we waited for dinner to be done. I did kick myself a little bit for not making this on Saturday since the Cook's Note says that the dish can be made a day in advance "and in fact it tastes even better made ahead, because this gives the flavors time to develop."

This is a pretty time-consuming recipe with lots of steps. First I cut a couple of slices of thick-sliced bacon into one-inch pieces. I boiled the bacon pieces in water for a few minutes. I assume that the purpose of this step is to get rid of some of the salt and to mellow out the strong bacon flavor. I drained the bacon and set it a side.

Next, the beef. Since my wife is "semi-veg," I rarely cook beef, and I'm not very knowledgeable about my cuts of meat. The Book calls for three pounds of boneless beef chuck cut into two-inch chunks. I went to my local butcher, and as usual, I stared blankly at the array of meats on display. I told the butcher what I wanted and what I was going to do with it. He reached into the case and selected a nice, big chuck roast, and he even offered to cut it up for me. I thought that was great. The butcher went down a bit in my estimation, however, when I saw him drop a chunk of the beef on the floor and actually shoot a look in my direction to see whether I saw what happened. I wonder if I hadn't been watching, if the five-second rule would have been invoked. Anyway, I divided my not-dropped-on-the-floor beef (which I had patted dry and seasoned with salt and pepper) into two zip top bags with a bit of flour, and shook to coat the meat. (I'm not sure why The Book insists on having you use two bags? Couldn't you just do it in two batches in the same bag? Then, I browned the flour-coated beef in my Dutch oven in a few batches, and set it aside while I deglazed the pan (which had developed a nice fond) with some brandy.

The next step is a little bit odd. The Book says to make a bouquet garni from a celery stalk studded with a couple of whole cloves, parsley, thyme, and bay leaves. I've got no problem with that. The weird part is that this instruction is smack dab in the middle of the recipe, and then The Book doesn't tell you what to do with the bouquet garni until about five steps later.

Once the pan was deglazed, I melted some butter and cooked the chopped onion, garlic and carrots with the blanched bacon. Once the onions began to turn golden, I added some tomato paste, and then the beef and a bottle of wine. The Book calls for Burgundy or Cotes du Rhone. They didn't have any Bugundy at the wine shop I went to, so I used Cotes du Rhone, and it worked well. I brought this to a simmer and let it cook, partially covered for about three hours.

While the stew simmered, I blanched some boiling onions for about a minute and ran them under cold water. This step does make peeling them a lot easier, but they're still a pain in the neck. I browned the oinons in some butter, and then added some water to the pan and simmered them until they were tender. I raised the heat and boiled them until the liquid had thickened.

After that, I browned some mushrooms in some butter and cooked them until all of the liquid evaporated.

After the stew was done simmering, I stirred in the onions and mushroom, seasoned with salt and pepper, and tasted it to make sure that it was just right.

I served the stew with buttered egg noodles. The Book suggests serving it with parsleyed boiled potatoes, but I decided at the last minute that noodles would be easier, and anyway, noodles are mentioned as an acceptable accompaniment in MtAoFC, so I had the Julia Child seal of approval.

The finished dish was great. The beef was tender and delicious. The sauce was thick and rich with an excellent layered flavor. Beef bourguignon is the perfect example of home-style comfort food being elevated to haute cuisine status. It's a classic.

Date Cooked: November 16, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: B+

*This recipe from epicurious.com is almost identical to the one in The Book, and both are very similar to Julia Child's recipe in MtAoFC.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Could I be a Top Chef?

On last night's episode of Top Chef, Ariane won the elimination challenge by making a watermelon, tomato and feta salad. I made the same salad this past summer. If that's all it takes, I'm so auditioning next year. But, then again, I don't think that I'm ready to cook a turkey in a toaster oven, so maybe I'll just leave it to the pros.

74. Baked Sliced Apples (p. 802)

I wanted to make this recipe* when Macintosh apples were fresh and in season.

This was a quick and easy fall dessert. First I peeled and cored four apples and sliced them into 1/4 inch horizontal slices, being careful to keep the slices together. Next I brushed the stacked slices with lemon juice (presumably to keep them from discoloring) and placed them in a baking dish. Then I put some brown sugar, butter and rum into the baking dish and each of the apple cavities. I baked the apples for a time, and then inserted cinnamon sticks into the cavities and cooked the apples for a bit longer, basting them with the pan juices.

I served the apples with some fresh sweetened whipped cream. I didn't have any Calvados, so I passed on the optional Calvados-flavored whipped cream, although I'm sure that it would be great. Since this was a quick and easy dessert to end a casual dinner at home, I also skipped the optional garnish of organic apple or mint leaves.

The Book's blurb says that slicing the apples prior to cooking them helps them maintain their textural integrity better than a whole apple, which would become soft as it bakes. Maybe I cooked this a bit too long, because some of the slices were a bit apple-sauce-like. But, at any rate, I really liked this dessert. The apples were sweet and tender. The butter, sugar and rum combined to make a sweet and caramel-y syrup. The cinnamon stick gave the apples a nice flavor and aroma.

Date Cooked: November 2, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: B

* The recipe on epicurious is the same as the one in The Book, except that, instead of "Baked Sliced Apples" it's called "Sliced Baked Apples." Go figure.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Congratulations, Carol!

Congratulations to Carol Blymire, the queen of cook-through blogging! Carol's new blog, Alinea At Home (the follow up to her amazing French Laundry At Home), has been featured in a very complimentary Washington Post article. This is great publicity for the cook-through blog genre, and Carol is very deserving to WaPo's praise.

Kudos to Carol as well for her efforts to raise money for Share Our Strength, an organization working to end childhood hunger. According to SOS, one in six kids in America doesn't have enough to eat. As "foodies," we have an obligation to do something, anything, for those who don't have enough to eat. As an incentive to get people to donate, Carol's teamed up with the publishers of the Alinea cookbook to enter anyone who makes a donation through Carol's Alinea At Home Share Our Strength Campaign website in a drawing to win a copy of the Alinea Cookbook.

73. Panfried Tofu on Sesame Watercress with Soy Orange Dressing (p. 279)

A few weeks ago, I was looking for something quick to make for dinner, when I came across this recipe in the Grains and Beans chapter. (Oh yeah, tofu is made from beans, isn't it?)

This is one of the few recipes that I have come across in The Book that serves two. With an active time of 15 minutes and a total time of 25 minutes, this is a perfect weeknight meal for a busy couple.

The first step is to toast some sesame seeds in a dry skillet. Toasting sesame seeds is always pretty dicey since they can take a little while to get going, but once they start to turn, they can go from toasted to scorched in no time at all. The last few times I've toasted sesame seeds, I've relied more on smell than appearance to tell when they're done. After the sesame seeds were toasted, I put them aside for a while.

Next, I cut a block of extra-firm tofu into four slices and cooked them in some oil on a hot skillet. The Book says to cook for 6 to 8 minutes. It took me a bit longer to get the slices nicely browned and crispy. When the tofu was ready, I removed it from the pan and set it aside.

Next, I cooked the watercress in the same skillet with a bit more oil. Once it wilted a bit, I added the toasted sesame seeds, and then put it on the same plate with the tofu.

Finally, I made the soy orange dressing by simmering some ginger, garlic, orange juice, soy sauce and sesame oil for just a little while until it thickened a bit. I drizzled the dressing on the tofu and watercress, and served it with The Book's Foolproof Long-Grain Rice.

This was a quick, easy and delicious dinner. I've always liked fried tofu, and this preparation was excellent. The tofu was crispy on the outside and light and tender on the inside. The sauce had a very nice combination of ginger, orange and toasty sesame flavors. The watercress was crisp and peppery, and the sesame seeds was a nice touch.

Date Cooked: November 2, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: B+

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

72. Turkey Wraps with Chipotle Mayonnaise (p. 189)

This is the last of my Thanksgiving-related posts before we return to our regularly-scheduled programming.

The Book doesn't have a whole lot of recipies that are suitable for leftover turkey. This recipe* seemed quick and easy, so I decided to give it a try on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. I think this is the first sandwich that I've made from The Book. Not a bad introduction.

This recipe is a twist on the traditional turkey and mayonnaise sandwich. First, the bread is replaced by a wrap. The Book suggests whole wheat wraps, but I had some flour tortillas on hand, so that's what I used. Next, the mayonnaise is spiked with a few teaspoons of chopped chipotle peppers and adobo sauce. The mayonnaise was good. It was creamy and had a nice, smoky flavor. The spiciness was a little overwhelming for this sandwich, and it kind of took over. If I were to make this mayonnaise again, I might just use the adobo sauce and leave out the chipotles.

The real revelation of this recipe is the pickled red onions. Take a red onion and slice it thinly. Blanch it in boiling water for a minute. Then boil it for another minute or so in some more water, cider vinegar and a little salt. Let it cool and put it in the refrigerator for about two hours. The result are slightly sweet, slightly sour pickled onions that add a nice crunch and beautiful rosy color to the sandwich. This was a super-easy addition that I'll definetly re-purpose for other uses (I think that they'd be great on burgers).

I finished the wraps off with some shredded green-leaf lettuce. The Book calls for pea shoots, but says that lettuce is an acceptable alternative. I don't know where I'd find pea shoots in the spring time, never mind in November. I'm sure that pea shoots would have added another something special to the sandwich, but the lettuce was a nice contrast to the strong flavors of the mayonnaise and the pickled onions.

Date Cooked: November 29, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: B+

* This recipe isn't on epicurious.com.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

71. Jellied Cranberry Sauce (p. 903)

I love cranberry sauce. It's one of my favorite parts of the Thanksgiving meal. I love the interplay of the intense tartness and sweetness, and the gorgeous jewel-like color stands out in the otherwise brown and white Thanksgiving plate.

For years, my contribution to the Thanksgiving meal has been pumpkin pie and whole-berry cranberry sauce. For both of these dishes, I usually go no further than the package for the recipe. This year, I decided to give this recipe* from The Book a try. Next year, I'll go back to the recipe on the Ocean Spray package. (Sorry, they can't all be winners.)

Before I go any further, I want to comment on an odd quirk that I've discovered as I cook my way through The Book. I don't know what kind of funky pots and pans they have in the Gourmet test kitchens, but more than a couple of times, The Book calls for an impossibly small pot or pan in the preparation of some of its recipes. For example, in this recipe, The Book says to cook 12 cups of cranberries, 3 cups of sugar and 3 1/4 cups of water (18 1/4 cups of ingredients in all) in a 3 quart pan. Now, I know I was an English major, but I even I know that the laws of physics won't allow 18 1/4 cups of ingredients to fit into a 12 cup pot. The photo to the left shows the cranberries alone overflowing from my 3 1/2 quart pot. So, I used a stockpot to make this recipe, and the cranberries had plenty of elbow room.

I made the sauce by simmering the berries, water and sugar for about fifteen minutes until all of the berries burst. Then I strained the mixture through a cheesecloth-lined colander into a large glass bowl. After about fifteen minutes, I had a little bit more than three cups of beautiful, syrupy garnet colored cranberry juice, and a colander full of chunky cranberry solids. The Book says to discard this, but my wife (who I think lived through the Great Depression in a past life) wouldn't let me throw away all of that cranberry goodness. I took the solids, and the extra juice and mixed it all up an put it in the 'fridge, and I'm glad that I did. This made a delicious, chunky cranberry relish that was just a little bit thicker than the whole berry sauce that I usually make, and as I'll explain in a minute, it was better than the jellied cranberry sauce that is the object of this recipe.

To make the jellied sauce, mix together one cup of the cranberry juice, heated, with some plain gelatin that's been softened in some water. Once the gelatin is fully dissolved, the mixture is combined with the remaining two cups of juice and the whole thing is poured into a mold. I used a Christmas pudding mold that I have. I chilled it in the 'fridge overnight.

On Thanksgiving day, just before we ate, I ran hot water around the sides of the mold to loosen the jellied sauce. It took a little bit of patience, but eventually, the sauce slid out of the mold and onto the serving plate. The picture at the top of this post doesn't do the sauce justice. It was actually a much brighter, jewel-like red color, and it had a beautiful, glittering sheen. The taste, however, wasn't as great. The texture was a lot firmer than the canned stuff that we're all used to. It was a lot like cranberry Jell-O. The flavor wasn't as intense as I would have liked it either.

I was really more impressed with the chunky cranberry relish that I made from the by-products of the recipe that I was supposed to throw away. It's like that old saying, waste not, want not.

UPDATE: We had a lot of the whole berry cranberry sauce leftover, and so I made this recipe from the Ocean Spray website for Quick Cranberry Nut Bread. It was great! Next year, I'm going to make extra cranberry sauce to be sure that I have enough leftover to make this quick bread again.

Date Cooked: November 26, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: Jellied Cranberry Sauce C; Whole Berry Sauce made from leftovers B+

* The recipe on epicurious is almost identical to the one in The Book, but it uses a bit more water and gelatin.

70. Herbed Bread Stuffing (p. 378)

The Book calls for this recipe to stuff the turkey I made for Thanksgiving. I chose not to stuff the turkey, but I made this stuffing anyway, because it sounded good. I'm glad I did.

The recipe starts with a one-pound loaf of crusty, country-style bread. I used a loaf of ciabatta from my local mega-mart bakery. I cut the bread into one-inch cubes and toasted in the oven.

While the bread cubes cooled, I sauteed some chopped onions and thinly-sliced celery in some butter with some thyme, sage and rosemary.

The sauteed vegetables are mixed with the bread and some chicken stock and water. I transferred the stuffing to a 13-by-9-inch baking dish, dotted it with butter and put it in the oven for about 40 minutes. The Book says that if you like moist stuffing, cook covered for the full time, but if you prefer "less moist" stuffing with a crispy top, uncover it after the first 10 minutes. I like my stuffing moist and crispy at the same time, so I split the difference and took the foil cover off after 20 minutes. The result was great. moist with a little bit of a golden crust on top. I really liked the big pieces of bread, and the great flavor of the celery and onions with the butter and herbs. This was like Stove Top Stuffing on steroids.

Date Cooked: November 27, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: A-

69. Roast Turkey with Herbed Bread Stuffing and Giblet Gravy (p. 376)

Happy Thanksgiving!

I'm going to take the next couple of recipes out of order so that I can tell you all about what I made for Thanksgiving. I still have a little backlog of recipes that I've cooked, but not blogged about yet. I'll get to those next week. But, now, I want to talk about this recipe.

We spend Thanksgiving with my wife's family, which has now grown so big that we're a two-turkey family. The big dinner is at my sister-in-law's house. She was making the "big bird." I offered to make the smaller back-up bird at my house and bring it over. I've never cooked a turkey before, so I was pretty anxious and excited for the challenge.


The first step was to get the bird. The Book calls for a 12- to 14-pound kosher turkey. The blurb in The Book says that Gourmet recommends kosher turkey because "it tends to surpass both supermarket brands and free-range birds in flavor as well as moistness." I don't have a ready source of kosher turkey, but there is a turkey farm in my town, so I have a source of locally-produced fresh turkey. This is where the family has been getting our turkeys for years, so I wasn't going to break with tradition. On my sister-in-law's advice, I called about a month before Thanksgiving to reserve my turkey. I ordered a 16- to 19-pound fresh turkey, and the nice folks at Raymond's Turkey Farm told me that I could pick it up anytime the Monday to Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

So I decided to pick up my turkey on the Tuesday before thanksgiving, first thing in the morning before work, right when they opened at 8am. Easy-peasy, in and out, get the turkey throw it in the 'fridge at my house and back out the door and to work on time. Now, I've been to Raymond's many times, after all the place is an institution in my town. I've gone there to pick up a turkey pie, a roasted chicken, ground turkey, and other tasty things. But I'd never been there the week before Thanksgiving. Had I read this article from the local newspaper, I wouldn't have been surprised when I got to the farm at 8:10 to find the parking lot full, two police officers directing traffic and a line out the door. Oh, and did I mention that it was raining? When I finally got out of the rain and into the farm shop, I was greeted by a woman presiding over a counter lined by about dozen card file boxes. "Name?" she asked. I told her, and she flipped through her card file, pulled out a card with my name and the size turkey I ordered written on it. I was taken aback a bit by the sudden realization that each card in the boxes represented a turkey. Later, I learned that the farm raises 20,000 turkeys each year, 9,000 of which are sold at Thanksgiving. Despite the long line, the farm runs a pretty efficient operation, and I was out the door, with my 17-pound turkey in hand, in about 15 minutes.

The day before Thanksgiving, I made the Turkey Giblet Stock, which is a sub-recipe to the main roast turkey recipe, and is a component of the Giblet Gravy that accompanies the turkey. All of the turkey's innards were neatly wrapped in a tidy wax-paper package in the turkey's cavity. I identified the turkey's neck, kidneys, heart and liver, and browned them (except the liver) in a tablespoon of canola oil. Then, I added chopped celery, carrot, onion, a bay leaf and some peppercorns and thyme, along with some water and store-bought chicken broth (I'm all out of my own home-made stock, again!). Simmer for a bit less than an hour, cool completely and then refrigerate.

Then I made my pumpkin pie (I used The Book's Basic Pastry Dough for the crust, but for the filling, I stuck with tradition and used the recipe from the back of the pumpkin can) and my cranberry sauce (check back tomorrow for that post), and went to bed to rest up for "the big show."

I woke up bright and early on Thanksgiving day. My goal was to get the turkey into the oven by 8am so that it would be done and we could be out the door and on the way to my sister-in-law's by noon.

First, I rinsed the turkey inside and out, and patted it dry with paper towels. Then I seasoned it with pepper and kosher salt (hey, even if my turkey wasn't kosher, at least my salt was). Then I tied the legs together and pinned the wings to the body with wooden skewers. Into the oven it went, first at a pretty high temperature, presumably to start to crisp up the skin and get the juices flowing. During this first half hour, there was an awful lot of crackling, sizzling and sputtering. After that, I reduced the oven temperature and began the roasting in earnest. I basted the turkey every twenty minutes, as directed by The Book.

Since this was my first attempt at roasting a turkey, and since I still don't have a decent instant-read thermometer, I opted to roast the turkey without stuffing it. I've heard so many horror stories about well-meaning amateur cooks poising their loved-ones with a stuffed turkey gone wrong. Also, the fact that I was going to be transporting my cooked turkey across town before serving it, made food safety a priority. I made the Herbed Bread Stuffing separately, and I'll blog about it tomorrow.

After about three hours, the turkey's thigh meat registered about 180 degrees. The Cook's Note in The Book says that an un-stuffed turkey would be done at 170 degrees. I was satisfied that I had enough of a margin of safety, even though I was a little bit worried that I might have overdone it a bit.

I took the turkey out of the oven and put the roasting rack on a tray so that the bird could rest for a bit. Meanwhile, I brought my turkey stock to a simmer on the stovetop. The Book says to "skim fat from pan juices and reserve 1/4 cup of fat." Well, there was about two cups of "pan juices" in the roasting pan, but no discernable "fat" to skim off ... it looked pretty homogeneous. I determined that it was pretty much all fat, so I reserved 1/4 cup of it, and drained out almost all the rest, and hoped for the best. Then I put a cup of the stock in the roasting pan, put it over a burner and deglazed it, scraping up all those great browned bits on the bottom of the pan. All of that goes back into the rest of the simmering stock. Then I made a roux of the reserved 1/4 cup of fat and some flour. After a few minutes of whisking the roux over low heat, I added the broth and deglazing juices. After simmering and whisking for about ten minutes, I had a silky, rich and flavorful gravy.

After I made the gravy, the turkey was rested and ready. I put the turkey (on its rack) back into the deglazed roasting pan, wrapped the whole thing in foil, and put it into a large, newspaper lined cardboard box for the trip across town to my sister-in-law's house. After a short, but nerve-wracking ten minute drive, we arrived, and the turkey wasn't any worse for wear.

I was really happy with my first attempt at roasted turkey. It was pretty moist and flavorful with a beautiful, crispy, golden skin. I probably cooked it a little longer then I needed to, but I wasn't going to risk undercooking it, and I was still satisfied with the results. The aroma of the roasting turkey was great, and we have plenty of leftovers for sandwiches and some sort of turkey recipe or other.

Date Cooked: November 27, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Easier than I thought it would be
Rating: A-

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

68. Kale and White Bean Soup (p. 108)

I've often heard TV chefs say that I should save the rinds of hard cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano to add to soup, but I've never seen a recipe that calls for a cheese rind. That was until I came across this recipe. Of course, I didn't have a left-over Parmigiano-Reggiano rind just sitting around when I decided to make this soup, so I had to cut the rind off a new piece of cheese.

A couple of things attracted me to this soup. First, there was the prospect of using a cheese rind (all right, I done talking about the cheese rind). Then, there's kale, which I love, and kielbasa, which is just delicious.

I almost passed this recipe by, however, when I saw that it called for dried beans. I wanted to make the soup that day, and I didn't have enough time to soak the beans overnight (who plans that far ahead?). So, I was searching on the internets to find a formula for converting canned beans for dried when I came across instructions for quick-soaking dried beans on page 267 of The Book. Problem solved!

This soup isn't too hard to make. Start by cooking some onions and garlic in a little oil. Then add the beans, chicken stock (my own!), water, cheese rind and herbs. Bring to a boil and simmer for just under an hour. Meanwhile, brown the kielbasa (I used turkey kielbasa). The Book says that it's optional ... I say it's required to give the soup some nice substance and a smoky, salty flavor. Add the kielbasa, carrots and kale to the soup and simmer a bit longer. That's it.

The Cook's Note in The Book, which says that the soup is best if made one to two days ahead, is right on the money. The soup was pretty good right after I made it, but it got better and better as I had the leftovers for lunch over the next couple of days. The flavors came together nicely as the soup rested in the refrigerator.

File this soup recipe away for a snowy day in February. It'll warm you right up.

Date Cooked: October 26, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: (immediately after cooking) B; (leftovers) A

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

67. All-Occasion Yellow Cake (with Chocolate Ganache Frosting) (p, 724)

Just to be clear, my wife did offer to make a birthday cake for me. But, in the interest of checking another recipe off for The Project, I insisted on making my own birthday cake.

In retrospect, I should have let my wife make a cake for me, because she would have made this cake from a Hershey's ad -- an excellent cake that I dream about between birthdays. This recipe, on the other hand, made a pretty disappointing birthday cake.

There's nothing unusual about this recipe. Like many other cake recipes, it starts with creaming butter and sugar, and then beating in some eggs and vanilla. Finally, the milk, flour, baking powder and salt are added gradually. I found the finished product to be dry and cotton-y. And I'm not the only one. Teena thought it was dry, too. (Melissa used the batter as a base for a peach cake. The addition of fruit probably helped with the dryness.) The Book says that this recipe takes only ten minutes more than a boxed cake mix and is "spectacularly better," and it promises that this cake will be "the cornerstone of every cake baker's repertoire." Sorry, but I respectfully disagree.

I haven't written this cake recipe off just yet, however. I'll try it again someday when I make the Seven-Minute Frosting. This time, though, I made the Chocolate Ganache Frosting, and it was a disappointment, too. The recipe is very simple. It's just three-quarters of a pound of chopped bittersweet chocolate (I used a big block of fancy chocolate from Whole Foods) and one cup of heavy cream. Bring the cream to a simmer, pour it over the chopped chocolate and whisk it until smooth. The frosting tastes great (how can you go wrong with chocolate and cream?), but it was very thick, which made spreading a challenge. And then it hardened to a solid shell. The cake wasn't as much frosted as it was encased in chocolate.

Next year, I'll let my wife make my birthday cake. But if my birthday cake was a disappointment, my birthday presents were all that I could have hoped and dreamed for. My wife bought me a selection of items from my Kitchen Wishlist, including an OXO digital kitchen scale and the Oxford Companion to Food. The best present, however, is my new Clear Solutions Jumbo Cookbook Holder. This cookbook holder is highly rated by America's Test Kitchen, and it's going to make my life a lot easier as I continue to work on The Project. The Book is so large that it won't fit in my old cookbook holder, and laying the book down on the counter takes up too much space in my too-tiny kitchen. The Clear Solutions Cookbook Holder is adjustable, so that it can accommodate The Book or a single issue of Gourmet with ease. The large, clear page shield gives an unobstructed view of two pages at a time, and it folds down to allow you to turn the page easily. This thing gets the Gourmet All The Way seal of approval!

Date Cooked: October 19, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: D

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

66. Butternut Squash, Sage, and Goat Cheese Ravioli with Hazelnut-Brown Butter Sauce (p. 236)

I've been wanting to make pasta for a long time, but I must admit that I'm a little intimidated by the whole process. This recipe, however, is an excellent baby step into the world of homemade pasta.

The trick here is that these raviolis are made with packaged wonton wrappers instead of homemade pasta dough. And while this is a bit of a cheat, it's got the Gourmet seal of approval (it's in The Book, after all), and when they were cooked, I couldn't tell the difference.

This recipe begins from the inside out ... you start by making the filling. First, cut a two-pound butternut squash in half lengthwise and seed it. Roast it, flesh-side down on a roasting pan until softened. While that's cooking, saute a finely chopped onion with some butter and sage (breathing deeply to enjoy that great sage-and-butter aroma). After the squash has cooled a bit, scoop out the flesh, and combine it with the onion mixture and some grated aged goat cheese.

Then you're ready to assemble the ravioli. Start by putting a single wonton wrapper on a lightly floured work surface. Put a teaspoon of the filling in the center of the wrapper. Then brush the edges of the wrapper with water, place another wonton wrapper on top of the filing and seal the edges with your fingers. I took the optional step of cutting away the excess dough with a cookie cutter. This resulted in perfectly shaped ravioli, and I think that it also helped to seal them. Place the finished ravioli on a kitchen towel to dry slightly. Repeat 29 times. Yeah, this is pretty time-consuming assembly-line stuff. After about an hour, I only had 15 ravioli to show for my efforts and a seemingly endless supply of filing and wonton wrappers remaining. With time running short and a hungry, pregnant wife grumbling in the next room, I decided to cook what I had and stash the rest of the filling and wrappers in the fridge for later assembly.

The ravioli get cooked in boiling water for a few minutes until the float. I'm not sure how or why that works, but that's how you know when ravioli are cooked, they float. Anyway, I was really impressed with how well these ravioli held up in the boiling water. I was careful to keep the water at a very gentle boil so that the ravioli wouldn't get jostled too much. And only one of the ravioli's seams split during cooking, emptying its contents into the cooking liquid.

While the ravioli cooked, I made the Hazlenut Brown Butter Sauce. I put an insane amount of butter into a pan with some hazlenuts that I had toasted in the oven and chopped. (The Book's tip about rubbing the toasted hazlenuts in a kitchen towel to get the skins off really works!). In just a few minutes, the butter was nicely browned and it gave off a very nice nutty, caramel scent. Keep a close eye on this, because once the butter starts to brown, it happens very quickly, and your brown butter can turn to burnt butter in no time. I took it off the heat and set it aside until the ravioli was ready.

When the ravioli were done, I gently removed them from the boiling water with a large slotted spoon. I divided them into two bowls and poured a little bit of the brown butter sauce (this sauce is pure butter, folks, so a little goes a long way). The result? Absolutely delicious. The ravioli were tender and light. The filling sliky and creamy with the sweetness of the squash, the tang of the goat cheese and the earthiness of the sage. The hazlenut brown butter was rich, and had an excellent nutty flavor. A very sophisticated meal. This was a pretty labor intensive dish, but it was fun to make, and totally worth it.

So, a couple of days later, I took the rest of the filling and wonton wrappers out of the fridge and assembled the rest of the ravioli. After I let them dry out on a kitchen towel for a bit, I put them in a single layer on a baking sheet and then slipped it in the freezer. After a while, when they had frozen pretty well, I transferred them into a ziploc bag and stashed them back into the freezer. The next weekend, we didn't have any dinner plans, and we pulled a couple of handfuls of the frozen ravioli out of the freezer. Popped them into some boiling water until they floated, meanwhile cooking up some more brown butter. How did it taste? Just as good as the first time!

Date Cooked: October 19, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Not difficult, but time consuming
Rating: A-