Monday, June 30, 2008

11. Blueberry Almond Coffee Cake (p. 643)

Well, it was bound to happen, and it will happen again. I've had my first Project disaster. But, even so, it wasn't a total failure, as you can see from the picture to the left.

This recipe seems easy enough. It starts out with a basic cake batter (creaming butter and sugar, beating in eggs and dry ingredients, etc.), with a lot of blueberries folded in at the end.

The batter is spread into a shallow baking dish and topped with the almond-egg-white-sugar topping.

This is the "before" picture. Isn't it pretty? Then it is baked for "50 minutes to 1 hour." (Ah, those cooking times again! The Book, my oven, and I are all still getting to know each other.) At 50 minutes, I tested the cake with a toothpick. Not done yet. I put it in for another five minutes. The toothpick came out clean enough, and anyway, the almond topping was starting to get a little overcooked, so I called it.

Here's the "after" picture. Isn't it pretty? The Book says to let it cool in the pan on a rack for ten minutes, and then invert it to remove it from the pan, and then invert it again on the rack to cool completely. Well, that's when the trouble came.

Here's the "aftermath" picture. Oh, the humanity! Despite the outward appearance and the clean toothpick, there was a big blob of undercooked batter in the middle. The cake cracked and split in two just like an earthquake, except it happened in slow motion. The Book's blurb about this recipe suggest trying this coffee cake if you're thinking of muffins, but you want to "avoid the bother of muffin tins." I wonder if I had used muffin tins, if it would have cooked all the way through. Now, I'm willing to take at least part of the blame for this since I didn't monitor my oven temperature throughout the cooking.

Anyway, this "disaster" wasn't too bad after all. Most of the cake was edible, and the part that was edible was delicious! The cake is sweet and moist, and very blueberry-y. I don't think that you could get more blueberries in this cake if you tried. The almond topping gave the cake a nice toasty-ness and crunch.

Date Cooked: June 29, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: A- (points off for poor execution)

Thursday, June 26, 2008

10. Basic French Vinaigrette (p. 168)

There's not too much to say about this one, it's salad dressing after all.

I wanted to serve something with the Eggplant Pizza, and I figured that a salad would be just the thing. Not wanting to miss an opportunity to check off a recipe for The Project (after all, I've still got more than a thousand to go) I went to The Book to check out what it had for dressings.

This recipe is exactly what it says it is: Basic French Vinaigrette. Vinaigrette is one of those things that most cooks seem to just "know" how to make, and everyone's formula is a little bit different. The Book's acid to oil ratio is 2 tablespoons to 1/3 cup. My wife makes a similar vinaigrette all the time, but her formula is heavier on the vinegar and lighter on the oil.

The Book gives the option of using either white wine vinegar or lemon juice as the acid. I chose lemon, which gave it a nice kick. The Dijon mustard is also a key element.

All in all, this is a good basic recipe to have in the arsenal. The vinaigrette isn't very photogenic on its own (see photo to the left), so the photo above is of the salad dressed with the vinaigrette.

Date Cooked: June 22, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Very Easy
Rating: B

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

9. Eggplant Pizza (p. 197)

When I think of eggplant pizza, I think of little islands of deep-fried eggplant floating on a marinara sauce sea with frothy waves of melted cheese. This recipe has changed my thinking.

The Book says to save this pizza for the grown-ups, presumably because kids will balk at the absence of sauce, and the abundance of garlic. Well, the rugrats can keep their Chuck E. Cheese, this pizza's all mine.

The recipe starts with broiling eggplant slices (lightly brushed with olive oil) until they're tender and golden. The eggplant slices are then layered on the Basic Pizza Dough and topped with mozzarella and parmigiano-reggiano. Finally, garlic and red pepper flakes are quickly cooked in oil and spooned over the top. This last step gave me a little bit of trouble because The Book says to cook the garlic and red pepper "until just fragrant, 30 to 40 seconds." Well, wouldn't you know it, in just a matter of a couple of seconds, the garlic went from "fragrant" to "burnt." I know, I know, we've been through this before with the Pita Toasts, but if I learn anything through this project, I hope that it's a better sense of cooking times.

With the pizza assembled, then came the moment of truth: getting the pizza from the peel onto the blazing hot pizza stone without spilling it onto the oven floor. Kind of like that old tablecloth trick, the idea is to jerk the peel out from under the pizza without jerking the pizza along with it. (I took this "before" picture so that I'd still have something to show in case of disaster.) The Book helpfully instructs dusting the peel with cornmeal (to act like little edible ball bearings), and to do a few test jerks before assembling the pizza, just to make sure that the dough won't stick to the peel. Even after all of these precautions, I still held my breath as I gave the peel the fateful jerk. It worked!

This pizza couldn't have tasted better. The eggplant was tender and flavorful (even though the garlic was overcooked, it still had a nice garlicy taste, but not too much). The cheese was bubbly and nicely browned. The crust was crispy and chewy in all the right places.

Even microwaved for lunch the next day, this was still great. I'm looking forward to try the other pizza recipes in The Book.

Date Cooked: June 22, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: A

8. Basic Pizza Dough (p. 199)

The Book says that pizza dough should not just a vehicle for cheese, but rather, it should be really, really good bread. And making this dough by hand reminded me of that fact.

I've always been fascinated by yeast. I love the way it smells. I love that it's alive. I love the anticipation of waiting to see if the dough will rise or not. Harold McGee says that the active-dry yeast in those cute little packages is a fungus(!) known as Saccharomyces cerevisiae or "brewer's sugar fungus." Yum!

I haven't cooked a home-made pizza in a long, long time, so I appreciated The Book's instructions for shaping the dough. Forget about spinning. Instead, you hold the dough ball by one end and you turn it gently, like a steering wheel, as its own weight stretches it out.

The Book says that the dough can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a day or frozen for a month. You just need to bring the dough back to room temperature before you shape it. I made the dough on Sunday morning and used it that night. I think that the dough was still a little too cool when I shaped it, because it was a little hard to work with. Next time, I'll give it more time to get back to room temperature.

And how did it taste? It was great! Chewy with a nice flavor. The Book describes it as very airy with a blistered crust. It wasn't as airy as I was expecting it, but I'll be making this recipe again (I've got five more pizza recipes to make), so I'll see if more or less kneading or rising time makes a difference.

Date Cooked: June 22, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: B+ (Maybe it'll be better next time)

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

7. Pineapple Upside-Down Cakes (p. 716)

My wife and I went out to dinner on Saturday with our friends, Travis and Jodi, and so we invited them back to our house for dessert.

But what to make? The last time I cooked for Travis and Jodi, I made these Profiteroles from the March 2008 issue of Gourmet. I needed something equally impressive.

Inspiration came in the form of an Edible Arrangement that my in-laws sent us for our anniversary. The too-cute flower-shaped
pineapple slices (see photo below) whispered to me, "Pineapple Upside-Down Cake."

This recipe, which according to The Book, is based on Hali'imaile General Store's cake, "tweaks" the traditional recipe by making the cakes single-serving. It's a nice touch that makes this kitschy dessert a bit more fancy. I love recipes like this that produce something really showy and impressive, but that aren't at all difficult to make. (It makes it much easier to be falsely modest, "No, it was no trouble at all!")

The Book says to cook the cakes in a muffin tin with extra-large (1-cup) cups. I have such a muffin tin, but the cups are tapered, and the bases of the cups were too narrow for the pineapple slices. So, I used my ceramic ramekins instead, and it worked just fine.

The upside-down topping is simply brown sugar, melted butter and a pineapple slice. The cake is a basic buttery pound cake-style recipe. The cherry on top isn't called for in the recipe, but I think that pineapple upside-down cake without a cherry on top isn't really pineapple upside-down cake.

These little cakes were delicious. The topping was sweet and tangy as the caramel and pineapple flavors blended in each bite. The cake is more than just a vehicle for the topping. It was moist and buttery, with just the right amount of sweetness and density.

We had two cakes left over, so we put them in the fridge and had them for dessert the next night. The cake seemed to dry out a bit overnight. It was still good, but much more crumbly than the night before. My recommendation is to eat them all in one sitting. (Don't worry, I won't judge.)

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

Cooking the Books

Cheers to Liz C for creating Cooking the Books, a blog "dedicated to cook-through bloggers and those who follow them." Liz has put together a clearinghouse of information and links about cook-through blogs, or CTBs as she calls them.

I think that this is a sign that the CTB phenomenon is really taking off as more people discover the fun and excitement of learning, sharing and eating that a cook-through project brings.

Click on the "Cooking the Books" icon to the left to check out Liz's blog! I know that I'll be checking in every day to see what all of the other CTB-ers are up to.

Monday, June 23, 2008

6. Brown Sugar-Ginger Crisps (p. 665)

A few weeks ago, I made these Lemon-Glazed Candied-Ginger Cookies from the June issue of Martha Stewart Living. Since then, I've been looking for something to do with the rest of the huge tub of candied ginger that I bought to make Martha's cookies.

I scoured The Book's index for recipes that called for candied ginger, and I came across these cookies. This recipe is pretty similar to Martha's in terms of ingredients and flavor, but in terms of labor, The Book's recipe is much easier. Martha, being Martha, calls for chilling the cookie dough, rolling it out to a 1/4 inch thickness, and cutting it into perfect little rounds. The Book simply asks you to drop teaspoons of dough (more about that later) onto a cookie sheet. The lemon icing drizzled on top of Martha's cookies, however, is a nice touch that makes her the winner of this battle in the cookie wars, though. Sorry, Gourmet.

Don't get me wrong, these cookies are very tasty. They're crisp and buttery. The sweet, spicy, and chewy bits of candied ginger add interest to the cookies, but, there wasn't enough ginger flavor - even after following Kevin's advice and adding a teaspoon of ginger in place of the 1/4 teaspoon called for in the recipe.

Now, let me rant for a moment about cookie recipes in general. Ever since I made my first batch of Nestle's Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies as a child, I have never been able to produce the number of cookies promised by any cookie recipe. This recipe was no exception, but I don't think that it's my fault. The Book says that this recipe yields "about 7 dozen cookies." For those of you who, like me, never memorized your multiplication tables, that's 84 cookies. How's that possible? It's because The Book instructs you to drop teaspoons of the dough onto the cookie sheet. After my first batch, I thought, this has to be a mistake. I never realized just how small a teaspoon is. So, after the first batch of mini-cookies (see the top cookie in the photo to the left), I tossed the teaspoon aside, and I plopped heaping dessert spoons of dough on the cookie sheets. To paraphrase Crocodile Dundee, "That's not a cookie, THAT'S a cookie." Needless to say, my yield was nowhere near seven dozen, but that's OK by me.

Date Cooked: June 19, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: B

Saturday, June 21, 2008

5. Roasted Cherry Tomatoes with Mint (p. 585)

I was looking for a quick vegetable side to go with the Pork Chops with Mustard Crumbs, and this recipe couldn't have been easier.

All you need to do is roll the cherry tomatoes around in some olive oil, salt and pepper, and then pop them in a hot oven just until the skins split. Sprinkle with chopped mint, and that's that.

They had the tang of sun-dried tomatoes with a nice sweetness (perhaps brought out by the roasting). The fresh mint gave the tomatoes a nice lightness that was a pleasant change from tomatoes' usual companions, basil and oregano.

This recipe would also be really good tossed with some angel hair pasta and drizzled with some good olive oil.

Date Cooked: June 19, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: A-

Thursday, June 19, 2008

4. Pork Chops (and Chicken Breasts) with Mustard Crumbs (p. 482)

I'm not sure how she did it. There are more than 1,000 recipes in The Book, but when I asked my wife what she wanted for dinner last night, she managed to come up with the two dishes that The Book has no recipe for.

"I'm in the mood for mustardy chicken and minty potatoes." (Give her a break, she's pregnant. Specific and peculiar food cravings come with the territory.)

I couldn't believe it. Not a single recipe with chicken and mustard. Nothing with potatoes and mint either. So we settled on chicken breasts cooked using the recipe for Pork Chops with Mustard Crumbs, and this recipe for Herbed Potato Salad from Cooking Light (I substituted mint for the dill and parsley in the CL recipe).

Now's as good a time as any to mention a special challenge facing me as I work on this project. My wife doesn't eat beef, pork or lamb. Not ever. With the exception of a cheesesteak at Pat's King of Steaks in Philly, occasional inadvertent bacon consumption in restaurants, and possible pork consumption during a dim sum outing in Boston's Chinatown, my wife hasn't eaten animal flesh other than poultry and fish since she was a teenager.

So, as I go through the project, I'll sometimes make substitutions in the meat dishes where appropriate. In other cases, I'll have to find carnivorous friends to share some of the dishes with. (You can't exactly make Chicken Wellington, can you?).

For this recipe, I decided to try it with both chicken and pork. Of course, the chicken and pork had to be segregated during cooking (note the aluminum foil DMZ in the photo to the left).

This was a great recipe. It was not too difficult. The Book calls for the chops to be seared on the stovetop, with the cooking finished in the oven. It is an extra step, and extra pans, but it's worth the extra effort.

The mustardy, crumby crust was excellent. I had some misgivings at the outset, however, because my local supermarket bakery department didn't have any fresh-baked rye bread, and so I had to use mass-produced, packaged sliced rye bread. I used Beefsteak brand rye, and I was pleasantly surprised that it produced nice flavorful, chunchy breadcrumbs once they were toasted on the stovetop with the oil, garlic and sage.

The pork was excellent. It was cooked perfectly (it tasted more like veal than pork, it was so good). And the mustard crust was a really nice flavor to accompany it. The chicken breasts worked well with this recipe too. They were very moist, even though I cooked the heck out of them. My wife and I are paranoid about undercooked chicken, and because I don't have a good instant-read thermometer, I usually err on the side of overcooking. This dish satisfied my wife's "mustardy chicken" craving (she even said that it was better than one of our favorite "everyday" restaurant dishes, Not Your Average Joe's Mustard Crusted Chicken), so, I'd say that it was a great success.

Date Cooked: June 19, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: A

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

3. Strawberry Salsa (p. 896)

What with the salmonella scare affecting the nation's tomato supply, I figured that it would be good to try a tomato-less sals-alternative.

The list of ingredients in this recipe (strawberries, onion, jalapeƱo pepper, cilantro and lime) make this dip a little bit scary. But, like everyone at my family's Father's Day celebration who was brave enough to try it, I really liked this salsa. The flavors (sweet, hot, tangy) melded well, and it didn't come off as a fruity salsa.

The blurb in The Book suggests it as a substitute for pepper jelly, and recommends serving it with roast chicken or pork. I doubled the recipe and served it with tortilla chips as a salsa substitute, and it was great.

Date Cooked: June 14, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: A

Monday, June 16, 2008

2. Eggplant "Caviar" (p.11)

If I stumbled with the Pita Toasts, I jumped right back up with this great dip. This dish is simple enough, even though it does dirty more than its fair share of dishes: you have to broil the eggplant and tomatoes, and then you need to saute the onion and green pepper, and then you need to whiz the whole thing in the food processor.

The real reason I burned the Pita Toasts was because, instead of watching them closely, I was washing all the dishes I dirtied making this dip.

All that aside, this dip was excellent, the roasted flavors of the eggplant and tomatoes blended well with the carmelized flavors of the onions and peppers.

Date Cooked: June 14, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: A

Sunday, June 15, 2008

1. Pita Toasts (p. 7)

There's an old saying that every journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. If that's the case, I tripped and fell on my face on the first step.

I volunteered for appetizer duty for my family's Father's Day celebration, and I decided to make Eggplant "Caviar" and Strawberry Salsa. I thought that these Pita Toasts would go well with the Caviar, and the recipe couldn't be easier. It's one of those recipes where the name is the recipe. The ingredients and the cooking instructions are in the name: to make Pita Toasts, you basically toast pitas. That's about all there is to it.

I even said to my wife before I got started cooking, "This one is so easy that I can't even believe that I get to count it as a recipe." But I spoke too soon. The Book says to cook the toasts for "about 12 minutes total." Apparently, "about 12 minutes" is not the same thing as "12 minutes," because in a matter of seconds somewhere in between 11 and 12 minutes, the Pita Toasts became Pita Cinders. It might have had something to do with the fact that I used whole wheat pitas, or maybe it was the non-stick cookie sheets (which make food brown faster), or maybe the oven got too hot.

But, no one complained, and they gobbled them up. (Maybe it was just because the Eggplant "Caviar" was so good, no one noticed that the Pita Toasts were charred.) Anyway, I'm not going to let this initial setback break my spirit. The only way is up!

Date Cooked: June 14, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Easy (or at least it should have been)
Rating: C (but it's all my fault)

The Rules

The rules are: there are no rules, only goals. And the goals are:

1) to cook every recipe in The Gourmet Cookbook;
2) to learn new things and to try new foods;
3) to share good food with my friends and family;
4) to post a description and photo of everything I cook;
5) to (hopefully) get some support and encouragement along the way; and
6) most important, to have some fun.

It all started with a chocolate souffle

When I brought "The Book" home with me one night after work, my wife said to me,
"You're not planning on doing anything crazy, are you?"
"Yes, I am," I said.
She didn't say anything. She just gave me that look that wives give their husbands when they're about to do something really dumb.

So, I guess I should start by explaining how I got here. It all started with a chocolate souffle. My wife and I decided that, rather than going out for an expensive dinner at a restaurant for Valentine's Day, we'd cook each other a special dinner instead. She'd be in charge of the main course, and I'd make dessert.

I decided that I was going to make a chocolate souffle. What's more romantic and dramatic than that? For the recipe, I decided to go straight to the source: Julia Child herself. So, I went to the bookstore and picked up a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. But, then something strange happened. When I brought MtAoFC home, I read the book all the way through. Cover to cover. I couldn't put it down. As I paged through, I imagined cooking (and eating) quiches, fricassees, tarts, gratins....

I thought, I wonder if it was possible to make everything in this book. It is possible ... and it's been done. In 2002, Julie Powell, a government employee living and working in NYC embarked on the ambitious Julie/Julia Project: she would cook every recipe in MtAoFC in one year. She made it, documenting her successes and failures on her blog. The blog begat a book, which begat a movie (coming soon to a theater near you).

While I enjoyed living vicariously through Julie's adventures in cooking, I was a little disappointed. Someone had already swam the proverbial English Channel of cooking. But then something wonderful happened. The Wall Street Journal ran this story by Lee Gomes about so-called, "cook-through" blogs: by people who pick a cookbook, commit to cooking every recipe in the book, and blog about the results. Lee's story introduced me to Carol, who's cooking her way through Thomas Keller and Michael Ruhlman's French Laundry Cookbook and blogging about it at The French Laundry at Home. I also met Ryan, who's taking on Fergus Henderson's The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating and giving all of the gory details at Nose to Tail at Home.

But what inspired me most was that there's a small community of foodies climbing together up the culinary Mount Everest that is The Gourmet Cookbook. With Teena, Melissa, and Kevin blazing a trail before me, I figued that I, too, could cook the 1000-plus recipes in The Book.

So, without further ado, here I go....