Monday, December 27, 2010

219 through 222. Three Holiday Pies

Holidays are all about traditions and getting together with family and friends. This month, we had the chance to have a Hanukkah-themed dinner party with our good friends, Travis and Jodi, a pre-Christmas lunch with my family, and Christmas dinner with my wife's family. For each of these celebrations, I made a pie from The Book.

Cranberry Walnut Tart (p. 786). Ever since I made Potato Latkes for the first time two years ago, my wife and I resolved to celebrate Hanukka every year, we liked them that much. I thumbed through the Jewish cookbooks at Borders to come some menu ideas for building a meal around latkes. One of the Hanukka dinner menus I found suggested a cranberry walnut tart for dessert. I have no idea whether it's a traditional Hanukka dish, but I'm glad I made it anyway. This tart has a shortbread-like crust of Sweet Pastry Dough (p. 791).* The filling is a less-cloying cousin of pecan pie, with chopped fresh cranberries cutting through the sweetness and giving the tart a beautiful, jewel-studded appearance. This tart was delicious with a scoop of good vanilla ice cream (I like Brigham's). I'll make this one again, for sure.
Date Cooked: December 11, 2010
Rating: A

Mincemeat Pie (p. 766). When I was a kid, we always went to my Aunt Connie's house for Thanksgiving dinner. The turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes were good, of course, but I always looked forward to the pies. Aunt Connie always had the whole array: apple, pumpkin, and mincemeat. Mincemeat pie, with its assertive spices, slight sourness, and its off-putting name, is hardly appealing to most kids, but, for some reason, I loved it. I've been celebrating Thanksgiving with my wife's family for years, so it's been a long, long time since I've had a mincemeat pie. I decided to make one for my family's pre-Christmas lunch. The mincemeat is a rich and spicy combination of chopped Granny Smith apples, golden and dark raisins, dried currants, sweetened with dark brown sugar and punched up with a good glug of brandy, some lemon and orange zest, and nutmeg and allspice. The traditional recipe calls for beef suet in the mix, but, thankfully, The Book gives the option of substituting butter, which I did. (I don't know whether Aunt Connie used suet in her recipe...I'll have to ask her.) I made the filling a week ahead of time, since it needs at least three days in the refrigerator for the flavors to come together, and can keep for up to three months. The finished pie was just as good as I remember it being (even if I used a store-bought pie crust ... don't tell Ruth Reichl). I may have re-kindled an old tradition.
Date Cooked: December 5, 2010
Rating: B+

Maple Syrup Pie (p. 773). The Book says that this pie is a traditional French-Canadian recipe. My wife and I are both of French-Canadian descent, but none of our relatives had ever heard of this pie before. No matter, I decided to make this pie for the Christmas dessert buffet and discover part of my cultural identity. The best way to describe this pie is that it's pecan pie without the nuts and with a bold shot of maple flavor. The filling is light brown sugar, eggs, heavy cream, melted butter, and dark amber maple syrup (I used pure Canadian syrup for the full effect -- and because that's all they had at the grocery store). As the filling cooks, a thin, crisp maple-candy-like crust forms on the top, and underneath it's all gooey goodness. The word "sweet" can't even begin to describe this pie. The Book suggest serving it with a dollop of creme fraiche on top. This is not optional, since you need something to cut the intense sweetness, or else this pie would be overwhelming. I liked this pie, and I'm glad I made it, but I don't think that I'll make it again any time soon.
Date Cooked: December 24, 2010
Rating: C

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Has the cook-through blog jumped the shark?

Julie Powell started it all when she launched the Julie/Julia Project, in which she set out to cook all 500-plus recipes in MtAoFC over the course of the year and blog about it.

Julie's blog begat a book which begat a movie, which has now begat (begotten?) what has to be the most meta web phenomenon...The Lawrence/Julie & Julia Project.

For reasons unknown, a Northwestern University student named Lawrence Dai, has resolved to watch Julie & Julia every day for a year and to chronicle his quest on a blog.

Bon Appetit, dude.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

218. Spicy Cranberry Relish (p. 903)

Every year at Thanksgiving, I'm responsible for two things: pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce. If you've read my last post, you know that my attempt at mixing it up with the pumpkin pie was a bit of a bust. I wasn't taking any chances with the cranberry sauce, though. I decided to make this recipe as "something new," but I also made a batch of traditional whole-berry sauce using the recipe from the back of the Ocean Spray package.

This recipe is very easy. I pulsed some red onion, raw cranberries and a whole serrano chile together in the food processor with some lime zest and juice and a bit of sugar. The result is a tasty relish that is lively, fresh and spicy-but-not-too-spicy. It's not really the ideal match for a traditional thanksgiving meal, though. The lime flavor is pretty bold and a bit out of place with mashed potatoes and gravy. It's great spread on a sandwich of leftover turkey, though.

Date Cooked: November 24, 2010
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: B

Friday, November 26, 2010

217. Pecan Pumpkin Pie (p. 768)

Sometimes, when you try to do two things at once, you end up doing neither very well.

The Book calls this recipe "the ideal solution for people who can't decide whether to bake pecan pie or pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving." The result, however, was less than impressive, I'm sorry to say.

This pie is basically the turducken of pies. It starts out with a single-crust pie shell, which has been blind-baked. Then there is a thin layer of pumpkin pie filling, which is a bit thicker than the traditional filling recipe. Finally, it's topped off with a layer of pecan pie filling, spooned over the pumpkin. The finished pie was, as I said, a bit of a disappointment. The flavor of the pumpkin pie filling was a little bland. Maybe not enough salt, or not enough spices. The textures of the two fillings didn't work that well together, either.

Next year, I'm going to make a pumpkin pie and a pecan pie, and have a slice of each. It's Thanksgiving after all, a day when there's no such thing as too much dessert.

Date Cooked: November 24, 2010
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: C

Sunday, November 7, 2010

216. Pecan Pie Bars (p. 694)

Has it really been six months since my last post? Six months! Really?

Being a dad to an almost-two-year-old, and a young lawyer has been pretty hectic these past few months. I have been cooking, but not nearly as much as I used to. I have a backlog of lots and lots of recipes cooked, but not blogged. I'll probably have to do a list-type-post soon. But today, I've managed to find a few minutes to myself while both my wife and son are napping. So, while I watch the Pats lose to the Browns, I'll tell you about something that I made this week.

My office had its first annual dessert bake-off on Friday. Several people at work know about the project, so I have a bit of a reputation to protect when it comes to cooking. I picked this recipe as my entry because it looked like a winner: Crispy shortbread crust with a sticky, sweet nutty topping. How could I go wrong? Well, it went very, very wrong, and alas, I didn't even place in the contest.

There were two problems with the finished product. One was my fault -- I forgot to add the salt. The other problem -- they were a bit overcooked -- I'm blaming on the Book. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The crust is very easy. Just throw some flour, butter, and light brown sugar in the food processor and blend until it starts to clump a bit. If you're actually paying attention to what you're doing, following the directions, and want the bars to taste good, you'll also put in a 1/2 teaspoon of salt. I, of course absent-mindedly forgot this last ingredient, and wow, what a difference it made in the finished product. The crust had a very odd, flat taste. Salt makes all the difference in the flavor of baked goods.

The crust gets pressed into the bottom of a baking dish and baked until golden. While the crust is cooking, make the topping. Melt some butter in a saucepan and add some light brown sugar, honey and a little cream. Bring it to a simmer and add some chopped pecans. Spread the topping over the crust and bake some more.

The Book says to "bake until bubbling, about 20 minutes." Well, it was bubbling after about 2 minutes. I figured that it couldn't be done yet, so I left it in the over and kept watching and smelling to make sure that it didn't burn. It didn't burn, but it got a bit darker and harder than I think it was supposed to. In fact, after it cooled, the edges were so hard that I was only able to get the middle out. The edges were fused to the baking dish and I had to soak it overnight to get the pan clean.

The bars that I was able to salvage were fine. Like I said, the crust was definitely missing "something," and the topping wasn't great.

I'm thinking about the Pecan Pumpkin Pie for Thanksgiving dessert. Maybe that will go better?

Date Cooked: November 4, 2010
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: C-

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

215. White Butter Sauce with Cream (Beurre Nantais) (p. 882)

While rummaging through our freezer a while ago, I came across a stash of lobster and shrimp ravioli. How could we possibly have left these little frozen gems in cold storage for months and months without eating them? Well, we just couldn't figure out what kind of sauce to serve with them. A tomato-based sauce didn't seem like a good match. That's where this recipe came in.

The Book says that this sauce is traditionally served with fish, so it seemed like it would be a good match for the seafood ravioli.

To make this sauce, I brought some white wine, white wine vinegar and finely chopped shallot to a simmer and reduced it quite a bit. Then I added some cream and simmered it some more to thicken it. Then I added a stick of cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces, a bit at time. Once the butter was all melted, I poured the sauce through a fine mesh sieve to remove the shallot solids. Finally, I finished the sauce with a little bit of lemon juice, salt and pepper.

The Book describes this sauce as "velvetized," and the term is apt (even if it isn't really a word). It doesn't get much smoother, richer or more sumptuous than this sauce, all without being heavy like an alfredo sauce. And this was the perfect match for the seafood ravioli. A little bit went a long way, but it did leave us wanting more. When the ravioli was all gone, we couldn't keep ourselves from sopping up whatever sauce was left with some bread.

I'll definitely make this sauce again. The Book says that, in addition to fish, it also works well with vegetables or a steak.

Date Cooked: April 2, 2010
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: A-

Friday, April 2, 2010

213. Crispy Oven-Fried Cod (p. 301) and 214. Tartar Sauce (p. 885)

For a lot of folks, Fridays in Lent means fish for dinner. In fact, the seafood place in my neighborhood does so much business on Fridays in Lent that they need to hire a police detail to direct traffic. I'm not kidding. And it's with good reason ... they make the best fish and chips this side of the beach. Or, at least I used to think that they did. Thanks to this recipe, though, I think that honor goes to me now.

The secret to this dish is that the fish is double-coated, and you start it on the stove top and finish it in the oven. It gets just the right amount of crispiness, but it's not as greasy as deep fried.

First, I combined some plain store-bought bread crumbs and some yellow cornmeal in a zip-top bag with a little bit of salt and a tiny bit of cayenne pepper. I lightly beat a couple of eggs in a shallow dish. Then working one piece at a time, I put good-sized pieces of fresh cod into the bag, shaking gently to coat. Then I dipped the fish in the egg, and shook it to coat a second time.

To cook, I heated a few tablespoons of vegetable oil in my big cast iron skillet. Once it was good and hot, I arranged the fish in the pan. After just a couple of minutes on each side, the fillets were nicely browned. (I got to use my fancy new fish spatula! Having the right tools makes all the difference.) To finish the cooking, I added a bit more oil, and put the skillet in a very hot oven (500 degrees) for a few minutes more.

This fish was excellent. Crispy and flaky, without being greasy. The breading was just right, too. Sometimes, batter-dipped fried fish can be just too much.

I served this with some Roasted French Fries and Creamy Slaw (both repeat recipes) and this recipe* for Tartar Sauce to create the complete fish and chips experience.

The Book says that "if you've never had homemade tartar sauce, this will be a revelation." I'm not so sure about that. I used to think that tartar sauce was nothing more than a little bit of pickle relish mixed into mayonnaise, and for all I know, the tartar sauce at the seafood place down the street is just that. This tartar sauce was a bit more involved, and not as good. It starts out all right....mayonnaise mixed with finely chopped sweet and dill pickles. The finely chopped onion and capers are unnecessary, but unobjectionable. The chopped hard-boiled egg yolk gives the sauce a bit more richness and substance, which I did like. Where The Book lost me was with the addition of the herbs. Parsley, dill, and tarragon. The last of these, the tarragon, was so strong that it overpowered all of the other flavors in the sauce, and turned me off a bit. I'm not saying that this tartar sauce was bad ... it wasn't. It just wasn't the "revelation" that it was sold as.

Overall, though, this was one of my favorite meals of the project so far. And, who would have guessed ... my little foodie baby gobbled it right up!

Date Cooked: March 27, 2010
Degree of Difficulty: Pretty Easy
Rating: Fish: A; Tartar Sauce: B-

* The recipe for Tartar Sauce is not on ... no big loss, as far as I'm concerned.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

212. Pasta Primavera (p. 211)

The first day of Spring was last Saturday, and it was an amazingly beautiful day here in New England. We're talking sunny and in the 70s. To celebrate the return of the nice weather, my wife and I took our son for his first trip to the zoo, and for dinner, I made Pasta Primavera. (In true New England fashion, however, this Saturday, the temperatures had dropped back into the 30s. Oh, well, the warm weather was nice while it lasted.)

According to The Book, this recipe comes from Le Cirque, a paragon of the NYC dining scene. (If you've never seen the HBO documentary about the restaurant, Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven, it's worth checking out for an interesting insight into the high-end restaurant industry.) I've had several different versions of Pasta Primavera, and some of them have been pretty awful. If this recipe is really the original, as suggested by The Book, it proves that a copy is never quite the same as the masterpiece.

The first ingredient in this list is one ounce of dried morel mushrooms. Not surprisingly, dried morels is not a regular inventory item at your basic suburban supermarket. So, I used dried porcinis. I know that they're not even remotely the same as morels, but according to my research on the Cook's Thesaurus, they were close enough.

To get started, I began soaking the mushrooms in some boiling water to reconstitute. Next I prepped all of my vegetables: I cut some fresh asparagus and green beans into one-inch pieces, I chopped some fresh basil and parsley, I grated some lemon zest, and I halved and quartered some grape tomatoes. Last, I set out some frozen peas to thaw. (I'm totally with The Book on this one. I don't know why, but frozen peas are 100% better than either fresh or canned peas. I use them all the time.)

Then, I got to cooking. I boiled the asparagus, beans and peas in a large pot of salted, boiling water for just a few minutes. Then I scooped the vegetables out with a slotted spoon and transferred them to a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. (The Book says to save the vegetable cooking liquid to use to boil the pasta -- a nice unexpected bit of conservation.) Once the vegetables were cooled, I drained them, and sauteed them for just a couple of minutes with some olive oil, garlic and red pepper flakes.

Wile the pasta boiled (The Book calls for spaghettini), I made the tomato sauce. I cooked some garlic and red pepper flakes in oil, and added the quartered grape tomatoes, cooking them down into a sauce. Then I added some salt and pepper, balsamic vinegar, a bit of water and the halved grape tomatoes and cooked it a bit more.

When the pasta was al dente, I drained it into a colander. Then I added some butter, cream, lemon zest and the reconstituted mushrooms (which I had roughly chopped) to the pasta pot. I simmered it for a little bit and added a ton of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. I added the drained pasta back to the pot and tossed it with the sauce. I thinned out the sauce with a bit of the mushroom soaking liquid ... just enough so that the sauce would lightly coat the pasta without being too wet. Finally, I added the vegetables, the herbs and some toasted pine nuts. I served the pasta topped with some of the tomato sauce.

This dish was pretty labor-intensive, but it did come together pretty quickly once I got started. The effort was worth it, though. The flavors were excellent. The cream sauce was rich without being overwhelming. The mushrooms (even though I didn't use the prescribed morels) gave the dish a certain earthiness. The vegetables and herbs contributed freshness and gave the dish it's namesake "spring-ness." The real star, though, was the tomato sauce. It was rich and deeply flavorful. Very, very good.

Date Cooked: March 20, 2010
Degree of Difficulty: Medium, with a bit of prep work and a fast-paced cooking
Rating: A-

Monday, March 15, 2010

211. Orecchiette with Cauliflower and Lacinato Kale (p. 213)

I learned something surprising from making this recipe*: My fourteen-month-old son will eat cauliflower ... and kale ... and ANCHOVIES!

To cook this dish, I first made some fresh breadcrumbs by tearing up an Italian loaf and pulsing the pieces in the food processor until they were coarse crumbs. I toasted the crumbs in the oven for a few minutes, stirring occasionally, until they were nice and golden.

Then I cut up a head of cauliflower and cooked it in boiling water until it was very tender. I removed the cauliflower from the water with a slotted spoon, and scooped out about a cup of the cooking liquid and set it aside. Next I coarsely chopped a bunch of kale and boiled it in the remaining cauliflower cooking liquid. The Book says to use Lacinato kale. The sign at the mega mart just said "Kale," so I don't know whether what I bought was Lacinato kale or not, but The Book's Glossary says "Regular kale can be substituted," so I guess it doesn't really matter what kind of kale I ended up with. Once the kale was tender, I drained it and set it aside with the cooked cauliflower.

Then, I put the pasta in to boil. I couldn't find any orecchiette, so I used medium shells since they're the closest I could find in terms of size and shape. While the pasta cooked, I made the sauce. I heated a whole bunch of olive oil over medium-low heat in my largest skillet. I cooked some thinly sliced garlic and some anchovy fillets for just a couple of minutes until the anchovies broke apart. Then I added the cooked cauliflower and mashed it lightly, but leaving some chunks still intact. I stirred in the cooked kale, some chopped fresh parsley and some of reserved cooking liquid. After it just came to a boil, I seasoned the sauce with salt and pepper, and took it off the heat.

To finish off the dish, I stirred the drained pasta into the sauce and I added some more fresh parsley and some grated Parmigano-Reggiano. I scooped the pasta into bowls and topped each serving with a generous sprinkling of the toasted breadcrumbs.

This was the perfect Sunday night supper. It's an easy enough recipe that making it is not a big production, but it's still unusual enough that it's "something special." The mashed cauliflower gave the dish an almost creamy texture. The kale was just slightly, but pleasantly bitter. The breadcrumbs were an excellent, crunchy touch. And the anchovies were barely detectable in that there was no fishy flavor, but I'm sure that the dish's briny savoriness was all due to the little fishes. Like I said at the beginning of this post, my son loved this meal ... at it by the fistful! The Book calls for the addition of a Serrano chile, but I left it out since I was going to be serving this to my son, I didn't want it to be too spicy. The Book notes that cooks in Italy use red pepper flakes in this dish instead of the Serrano, so I sprinkled a little over my serving, and it gave it a nice spicy bite.

Date Cooked: March 7, 2010
Degree of Difficulty: Pretty Easy
Rating: A-

* This recipe isn't online.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

210. Buttered Baby Spinach (p. 578)

It doesn't get much easier than this recipe. Melt some butter, add some baby spinach and toss for a couple of minutes until slightly wilted, bright green, and coated with the melted butter. Add a little salt and pepper to taste, and that's it.

This is exactly what you want from a vegetable side dish. I served this with some Chicken Piccata that I'll blog about soon. It was tender and tasty, not at all soggy or bitter. And the amount of butter was just right. A nice coating without overpowering the spinach.

I forgot to take a photo of this dish, so please enjoy this picture of Popeye instead. "I fights to the finish, 'cause I eats me spinach!"

Date Cooked: January 31, 2010
Degree of Difficulty: Very easy
Rating: A-

Friday, January 22, 2010

209. Golden Cake with Chocolate-Sour Cream Frosting (p. 725)

My son's first birthday was on December 30th (Wow, that was fast!), and we celebrated with a party on New Year's Day. I was determined to have a homemade cake for my son's very first birthday ... no store-bought cake would do. But, we had invited about sixty relatives and friends, so I was in a bit of a quandary about how I was going to handle cake for a crowd.

The Book came to my rescue. As I flipped through the cakes chapter, I noticed that the Cook's Note at the end of this recipe says that instead of a layer cake, you can use the same batter to make cupcakes. A-ha! That's it ... I decided to make one cake and enough cupcakes to go with it so that there would be plenty for everyone.

Because I knew that things would be pretty hectic leading up to the party, I decided to make the cake and cupcakes ahead of time so that I'd only need to make the frosting on party day. So, a week before the party, I sifted together some cake flour, a ton of baking powder, some baking soda, and salt. Then I creamed some softened butter and granulated sugar in my KitchenAid. I added some eggs and vanilla extract. (Speaking of vanilla extract, because I haven't posted in about six weeks, I haven't had the chance to mention that I got a 32-ounce bottle of Madagascar vanilla extract for Christmas...thirty-two ounces! That's a whole quart!) Then I added the half of the flour mixture followed by a container of sour cream ... yeah, I know, I wasn't expecting that either ... and then the rest of the flour mixture. I divided the batter into two nine-inch round cake pans that I had buttered, floured and lined with wax paper. I baked the cake layers for about forty minutes. I repeated the whole process to make the cupcakes. I scooped the batter into a muffin tin (using an ice-cream scoop ... thanks for the tip, Ina Garten!), cooking the cupcakes for about 25 minutes per batch. (One recipe makes about three dozen cupcakes.) Once the cake layers and cupcakes were cooled, I put them in the freezer. I wrapped the cake layers in plastic wrap and then foil, and I put the cupcakes in zip-top bags. The day before the party, I transferred the cakes and cupcakes from the freezer to the refrigerator to thaw slowly.

The morning of the party, I made the frosting. First, I melted some milk chocolate and semisweet chocolate together in a metal bowl over simmering water. I took the chocolate off the heat and whisked in some more sour cream. Again, I would have never expected that.

While the frosting cooled to room temperature, I unwrapped the cake layers and, very carefully, using my biggest serrated knife, cut the layers in half to make four layers. I frosted the cake and put it on a platter. The Book suggests decorating the cake with Brown Sugar Buttercream. I had made this frosting before, and it is delicious. Also, I knew that the dark chocolate frosting and the light brown buttercream would be the perfect color combination to decorate the cake with the monkey design that we'd chosen as the theme for my son's party. But for some reason, the buttercream was a total failure. It turned into a gloppy curdled mess. Plan B was to decorate with some giant pastel-colored sprinkles that I found in my mother-in-law's kitchen cupboard. I think that it looked pretty good just the same. I made another batch of frosting and slathered it on the cupcakes.

This cake was really very good. It was light and sweet and moist. I think that the sour cream has a lot to do with the cake's moist tenderness. The frosting was excellent, too. It was fudgey, creamy and tangy and not too sweet. I know that The Book calls the All-Occasion Yellow Cake "the cornerstone of every cake baker's repertoire," but, as you'll recall, I thought that it was awful. This cake, on the other hand, could easily be my go-to classic birthday cake.

My son's birthday party was a lot of fun, except for the fact that my poor little guy was as sick as a dog that day. When I got him out of bed that morning, he was burning up. When we found out that he had a temperature of 102.6, we called the on-call pediatrician for help. He calmed our fears a bit by telling us to give our boy some Tylenol and let him take it easy. We were all set to call the party off, but the doctor said that we should go ahead anyway. While my son wasn't his happy-go-lucky, fun-loving self, (as you can tell from the less-than-enthusiastic expression on his face), I think that he still had a pretty good time. At least I know that he enjoyed the cake...the frosting he smeared all over his face was evidence of that.

Date Cooked: December 27, 2009 and January 1, 2010
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: A