Saturday, April 30, 2011

Long Dark Roasting Time of the Soul

Chocolate cheesecake - not a bad way to begin the weekend. Not a bad way to end the weekend, and middle it, while we're at it, for the matter of that. This was an easy prep with one major hiccup: I got partway through and realized I didn't have sour cream. I had forgotten to write it on my grocery list. This is the second time in as many weeks that my list has been wrong. In the future, I'm going to have to make sure I check it twice (see who's been naughty or nice?).

Recipe says to add lime juice to taste ... apparently, my tastes are fairly extreme. Rather than the half to one teaspoons it recommended, I ended up with about two teaspoons.

However, by now my roasting pan has to be having an identity crisis. It's been used as an ice bath for ice cream, a water bath for pudding cake, and now once more as a water bath for cheesecake ... but never as a roasting pan.

Unmolding the cheesecake destroyed two thirds to three quarters of the outer rim. I'm not sure how to fix that; may have been overbaked slightly. But this only affected the look. If the whole rim had stuck to the springform, it would have been uniform. I did ponder trimming off the excess and eating it on the spot, but I'm the only one who has to look at the cheesecake.

Final verdict (cheesecake): A simple, tasty cheesecake, infused with chocolate but not overwhelmed by it. So glad I used some semi-sweet chocolate - even at that, it was a tiny bit too bitter for me.

I regressed a bit, culinarily speaking, in my dinner prep: I missed two parts of my mise en place, meaning I had to scramble to do it while cooking. However, I was very relaxed, so it was a leisurely scramble, all things considered.

(Insert standard disclaimer about onion usage reduction here.) I couldn't find plain rice when shopping for the chimichangas, so I used Spanish rice, which seemed appropriate for the flavor profile. I had the common sense to use a proper sized skillet this time. Added some red pepper flakes to kick up the heat another smidge. Reached the cilantro and hadn't cut it ... and cilantro takes a long time to cut per square inch, so I possibly shorted the half cup just a smidge.

At this point, I want to comment on my fine chopping technique, or utter lack thereof: I tend to just put whatever on the board, cut it into manageable pieces, and then hack away with the knife at rapid random until it looks good. It's worked so far. I'm not dextrous enough to precise without taking far too long, and I'm usually hungry by now, darnit.

I started the actual creation of the chimichangas and froze in terror. Oh, great, thought I: I'm stuffing something. This never ends well. But the mixture was perfect for the number of tortillas: they sealed up without any leakage in the oven.

Then I got on the hoecakes, yet another nemesis of mine: frying. By now, I'm similarly unimpressed with funnel cakes, because I always seem to get their artistic equivalent when I fry things. I was learning what the right timing for these was as I went, so it's very possible only two or three cakes out of this batch are cooked the same, but it all tastes good.

Final verdict (chimis): I thought this might be bland, but it's flavorful and fun, crispy in imitation of a fried chimichangas without being heavy. I may have kicked it up slightly with my substitution and addition, but I think the base recipe has enough flavor to satisfy. For myself, I'd be reaching for more chili powder in the future, and/or more adobos. There's nothing wrong with the recipe as-is, but I enjoy the higher spice level.

Final verdict (Hoecakes): These are heavy, but they're a delightful, almost creamy heavy that tastes wonderful with maple syrup. It's hard to eat too many, but the texture is great until they fill you up.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Menu Plan: Weekend of 4/30

I eschew ice cream this weekend, since it's been making my cooking marathon a bit lengthy ... probably back next week as its siren call lures me in (and it's hopefully warm enough I'll want more).

The roster for this weekend:

Oven-Baked Chicken Chimichangas - Cook's Country (Unknown 2009 - 2010 issue)
Sweet 'n' Corny Hoecakes
Chocolate Cheesecake - How To Be A Domestic Goddess (Nigella Lawson)

Looking at the hoecakes ... oops, I'm frying again, albiet a non-hard-core, shallow fry. No, I really don't learn.

One substitution note: rather than using all bittersweet chocolate, I'm using part bittersweet, part semi-sweet. My experience using Ghiradelli (which is what I have) in the past is that it's perhaps a bit too bitter ... and that's coming from someone who likes their chocolate dark. If it's too cloying, I'll know better for next time.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Too Easy?

I admit: I didn't disclose my substitutions yesterday. I shall humbly note them now. First, the sorbet said "fresh" orange juice, but didn't specify store-bought or straight from the orange; I wanted to eat the oranges I zested, so I used regular juice. For the fettucine, I used black pepper rather than white pepper ... and seeing the price on a block of fresh parmesan cheese, I opted for pre-shredded.

After a rocky start - I wrote down the wrong number of oranges on my grocery list and had to jog back out, paying a grand total of a quarter for a second one; felt moronic - I settled into making the sorbet. Warning: it doesn't tell you how to determine whether or not you have a syrup. I may not have let mine go long enough and / or stirred it too much, but that didn't affect the final product. There were heartstopping moments, however, when I looked into the ice cream maker after three or four minutes and the mixture was still completely liquid ... then it started to harden, and the consistency was perfect.

Final verdict (sorbet): This is an enjoyable sorbet with a strong flavor, but doesn't make very much. Consider doubling.

The muffins were intended to be dessert, so I started on them next. Have you ever chopped a Snickers bar with a kitchen knife? However hard you think it might be, double that. I thought mixing chunky peanut butter into flour etc would take a long time, but it blended very readily. Of course ... then I forgot the salt and ended up adding it at the last minute, sprinkling it on top and poking it into the individual muffins. Wish I were kidding! At this juncture, each individual muffin cup was full to the brim.

Smooth sailing other than that ... until I went to get them out of the muffin tin. The filling had bubbled over a bit, crusting on the tin. The tops were very light and fluffy, which meant that trying to remove the muffin paper with a fork often just popped the top off aforesaid muffin. I think of a dozen, I got only three out of the tin without damaging them in some way. I'm not sure whether this is a recipe ratio issue: I did use the full four Snickers bars, rather than the 3 1/2 proscribed.

Final verdict (muffins): These are very good, but their balance of sweetness puts them in an odd category. Are they dessert (maybe not quite sweet enough) or breakfast (a little too chocolatey)? Maybe the answer is where Nigella Lawson filed them - under the kid's recipes. Kids are too sensible to worry about these kinds of distinctions. I think if I made these again, I might either adjust the ratios or just not use all the batter. Tin overflow will kill these, as mentioned above.

Next, on to dinner, which I knew had to be timed precisely, but which went swimmingly, suspiciously free of hassle with the exception of the necessity of burner-juggling: I had two large pots and a skillet which had to all be on the front two burners at some point. Both pots were large enough that, while I could slide them temporarily onto the smaller back burners, it was difficult to do anything with them while there.

The space management went well, with a couple burner-juggles on the fly. Small hitch in testing whether the soup was ready to be pureed: it's supposed to be decided by when the garlic is soft, but finding the garlic in the pot was a bit like hunting for the white whale.

Used my pasta ... doo-hickey (the wooden thing that looks like a spoon but has tiny wooden pegs on one side of the round - yes, I am too lazy to look up what this is called) to toss the fettucine, then a few minutes later, thought, "Hmm, how did a cinnamon stick get in here?" Not a cinnamon stick: one (possibly two) of the pegs had come off. I am still waiting to bite down on the second one.

Final verdict (soup): This is the second Giada soup I've made, and like the first, it was creamy and delicious. It's quite simple, but very satisfying. The sage leaves don't completely puree, leaving pretty green flecks here and there for color.

Final verdict (fettucine): Either Giada has my taste for lemons, or my mutant lemons strike again - the lemon is pronounced here. For me, it was perfect, creamy and zesty. Pasta came out a bit underdone; not sure whether it was the recipe or because I used a medium skillet rather than a large one, so less surface space of the pasta was exposed to the heat. To be honest, I suspect both: I don't see how four minutes, then one minutes is enough time for the prescribed amount of pasta. Maybe it's dog-years time, but no, that would be a half hour or so.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Menu Plan: Weekend of 4/23

This week's menu has one theme: where's the meat?

I have abandoned my carnivorous ways, though not my general lack of interest in vegetables, for this weekend and a creamy Italian menu followed by complete and utter randomness for dessert. Here's the lineup:

Tuscan White Bean and Garlic Soup - Giada's Kitchen (Giada de Laurentiis)
Fettucine Alfredo - Everyday Italian (Giada de Laurentiis)
Snickers and Peanut Butter Muffins - How To Be A Domestic Goddess (Nigella Lawson)
Orange Sorbet

This will be my first time attempting to make a sorbet. It's a different prep process: this time, the liquid is boiled, whereas with ice cream, boiling = curdling = death. I've had mixed results with the proportions on recipes from this site, so if this sorbet is too fruity, then the next time, I'll cut back on the flavoring ingredient, whateverso it may be.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Save the Planet: Deep-Fry Dinner

I realized as I started working on my food today that a lot of it was green. Should have saved this menu for Earth Day.

Started with the ice cream, raita and the batter for the candy bars. By now, I'm used to the heat-and-stir method for the ice cream, but ran into a snag here: bits of pistachio stuck to the back of the spoon, making it hard to tell whether the ice cream was ready to hit the water-bath or whether it was just nuttier than a fruitcake. (Fruitcake ice cream: one flavor I will *not* be trying.) I finally went for a time estimate.

Not much to talk about with the raita - a quick and easy preparation - except that I used my spice grinder to get freshly ground cumin seed and it is still spitting out almond paste. So there was probably the faintest trace of almond in my raita.

Final verdict (ice cream):
Taste is spot on; texture was ... off. I'm not sure whether it's the recipe (it calls for somewhere between 1 - 2 cups of pistachio, which is a lot of variance), I didn't blend it long enough, or I didn't cook it long enough. Good enough I'll try it again, but if it fails me a second time, I will banish it to the Wastebasket of No Return.

Final verdict (raita):
This is a very pleasant variant on a typical raita - the green grapes work very well against the sweetness of the banana - but the chunks are large enough as written that it doesn't really function *as* a raita. It's more of a hip Indian version of an ambrosia salad.

Started the mise en place for the two dinner dishes and decided spur of the moment to cut out one of the four chillis, since the first time I made one of these dishes with chillis, it darn near burned my mouth off. (The fact that I was sick of cutting by that point had nothing to do with it. Honest.) Insert standard disclaimer about reduction of onion application here.

Then came the cilantro. Wow ... I had no idea what a ridiculous amount two cups of chopped cilantro was. I'm going to be finding small pieces of chopped cilantro everywhere. I wouldn't be surprised if there's some under my pillow. You can't clean up the stuff: it goes everywhere. Dust has nothing on chopped cilantro. I'm afraid I might have caused problems with the koftas because I got sick of the cilantro and didn't chop it as finely as I might. Of course, starting to form the meatballs, then realizing I'd managed to miss that ridiculous amount of cilantro and having to re-clump them to start fresh ... that might have had something to do with it.
In my defense, this was a matter of misreading, not simple forgetfulness.

At this point, I should mention that I have a new kitchen gadget. It's a massive grater that has seven different sides and sizes, from extra fine grate to slice. Already having a Lesser Grater - which is the standard cheese grater - and a Greater Grater - which is the restaurant-style winding cheese grater - this one is, perforce, the Uber Grater. The Uber Grater was used to grate the potato for the koftas.

Once in motion, all went smoothly. I put the chilli into the soup too early, but that didn't seem to do much to the flavor. Discovered when I went to blend it that I had too much soup for my blender. Started to use the immersion blender, decided that would take too long, and poured part of the soup into a standard bowl to do it in two batches. Five minutes solid of improvisational madness.

I really should get the cosmic message that I wasn't meant to fry food. Every time I try, something goes awry. In this case, the koftas weren't particularly enthuiastic about holding together, but I whipped them into shape in time to finish the lot.

Final verdict (koftas):
Decent, but not worth the effort. They were kind of flavorless, and I don't think cutting back on the chillis was the problem.

Final verdict (soup):
Same kind of thing - not much flavor. I was really surprised, considering the fact that the soup involves steeping a piece of ginger root ...

After dinner, I got out my candy bar batter. Only comment here is I got the impression from watching Five Ingredient Fix that this was a fairly runny batter. Not so: I had to practically paint the batter onto the candy bars. My dog was intensely interested in this whole process.

I really needed more peanut oil, but I squeaked by, adding just a splash of extra-virgin olive oil ... a real waste of the stuff, but I needed the quantity. They fried up like a dream. I had purchased an assortment, so it was a wide variety of mini-bars. Watching the batter form in the hot oil was a bit like watching one of those science shows with pictures of amoeba. I ended up with some fried candy bars that had delusions of funnel cake.

Final verdict (candy bars):
All right, so maybe I am not completely hopeless at frying - I rather liked this. I might try to thin the batter in the future, just for ease of use. It's quick, easy and worth trying.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Menu Plan: Weekend of 4/16

I tried so hard not to describe this weekend's menu as potentially biting off more than I could chew, but it is the perfect description. I surrender to the pun.

In a triumph of hope over experience, I will be frying again, not once, but twice. If it goes pear-shaped this time, I will know not to do it in the future.

Here's the lineup:

Beef Koftas with Coriander & Mint - 500 Indian Recipes (Shehzad Husain, Rafi Fernandez, Mridula Baljekar and Manisha Kanani)
Grape & Walnut Raita - 500 Indian Recipes (same)
Indian Pea Soup* - 500 Indian Recipes (same)

Pistachio Ice Cream
Mini Fried Candy Bars - Claire Robinson

* = not to be confused with "Indiana Pea Soup," which my fingers insisted on writing.

This requires a delicate dance of timing one dish off the other, which means that one of two things will happen: I will utterly fail, and have one portion of the meal completely well in advance of the other, or (as has happened thus far) my delays will cancel each other out and serendipitiously have me finishing at the same time despite.

In other news, I cannot wait until Blogger fixes their problem with removing line breaks from posts ...

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Do NOT Stop, Drop and Roll

I bought only four lemons for both the pudding cake (recipe called for four) and the orzo (recipe called for one) ... and still came out on the other end with leftover zest and juice. Going to keep the leftovers and toss it at random into one of my weekday meals, if I remember to. Thus verily do I slowly approached Chopped basket status.

Some last minute tweaks with the sausage loaf because I hadn't measured appropriately before shopping: only had about half a cup of dried cranberries, so used some dried cherries as well; didn't have quite enough mozzarella, so threw in peccorino romano; and although the recipe called for 20 oz of sausage, lo and behold, my grocery store sells packages of 19.76 oz. I could not make these numbers up.

(By now, I shouldn't even have to mention that I cut down the onions in both. Just assume where applicable that Lindsey used half or less of the recommended dosage of onion.)

I don't have a handmixer, so the pudding cake required me to waste an unnecessary number of bowls - had to beat something, transfer it to another bowl, clean the standmixer bowl, lather, rinse, repeat ... wait, that's implied in "clean the bowl." I don't think I got the proper peaks in the whites - some of the yolk ran into them, too - so the consistency of my pudding cake may not have been quite right ...

Final verdict (pudding cake):
But the taste is lovely! Perfect amount of lemon and very ... well ... pudding-y. Recommended.

I had no idea just how long it was going to take me to dice one apple. Have I mentioned before that I hate cutting things? Actually, that's inaccurate: I hate cutting food. I love cutting words. Beyond that, it wasn't hard to prepare the sausage loaf right up until the point where it was supposed to be rolled ...

I just have to face it: I wasn't meant to put food inside other food. Every time I've had a recipe where I've had to roll, fold or stuff, something goes drastically, to-the-point-of scrap-this-meal-and-eat-tinfoil wrong. This time, the loaf split. Maybe my Bisquick was too old? I made additional amounts and patched it, but it was still a mess.

After that, the orzo, which I had expected to be labor intensive, went along with ease. I'm not sure I had it fully toasted, but I was pleased with how easily it prepped and surprised how rapidly it soaked up the liquid.

Final verdict (sausage loaf):
No. Not worth it. This is the first recipe I've pitched in a while. I may have overbaked it, but it wasn't even close enough to justify fixing. The filling is slightly sweet, but otherwise tasteless. It needed so much more spice and life that one might as well just find another recipe.

Final verdict (orzo):
The orzo, on the other hand, was a delight. The mint and lemon in it are very subtle - I might kick it up a bit for the future, but quite satisfying as-is. A satisfying and easy side.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Menu Plan: Weekend of 4/9

This weekend, I am cruelly deprived of my microwave due to the machinations of it breaking down, so I had to be careful about my menu choices. I'm actually more concerned about reheating everything for Sunday, but I'll figure it out. Or ruin it terribly and eat it anyhow, one or the other.

I inadvertently ended up choosing by side dish first - started with the bread, wandered into sides, then realized the combo was far too starchy. So no bread this weekend, and a very peculiar combination of flavors that mysteriously appeal to my warped tastebuds:

Orzo with Peas and Mint -- Cook's Country (April / May 2009)

Pork Sausage Apple Loaf

Lemon Pudding Cake -- Cook's Country (unknown 2009 - 2010 issue)

Yes, my dinner is actually a breakfast meal, and still rather starchy. Hush! I am ruled by my tastebuds, and they say that loaf sounds delectable.

Sunday, April 3, 2011


I recently found out there's a brand-new cupcakery in my neighborhood, SugarPlum Cakes. I got jumping excited about this (that is not a metaphor - I did really jump around, in the privacy of my own home) and finally, this weekend, got to visit and taste the cupcakes. It's actually a sattelite of the main cupcakery, but the place was jumping, including regulars who raved about them. The reviews are definitely well-deserved: all three cupcakes I tried were moist and tasty, and I particularly liked those with filling inside. Just the concept of having a cupcakery nearby fills me with glee.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Murphy's Law

New cooking terminology needs to be invented to cover the number of ways I screwed up today.

It began with what could have been a disaster, but still turned out nicely: I missed the butter in the peanut butter cookies. (The butter, not the peanut butter. I'm not that incompetent.) I wondered why the mixed dough was almost dry, but didn't notice the omitted ingredient. I'm sure this altered all number of small oddities that I noticed throughout, such as the fact that the peanuts didn't really stick to the top ... would that be the fault of the butter? Anyhow.

Final verdict (cookies):
Even without the butter, however, I can say with confidence this is a very flavorful, chewy cookie - and would probably be even more so when properly performed. Perhaps the butter might tone down the peanut butter flavor a smidge just from ratios, but that would still fall within the much-coveted zone of balance.

The skew of my day continued: I put the plantains into the oven and decided to walk the dog, only to get rained on ... with the sun still out. We came back in. After cooking the plantains about forty-five minutes, I decided they had to be done - I was worried about overbaking them - and removed them.

I think this is the cause of the cascade of craziness that ensued, at least on the empanada side. When they had finally cooled, I checked them and realized they hadn't baked through. The oven was prepped for the chicken and I didn't want to mess with it, so I microwaved them. Then I put the pieces in the food processor and ... it wouldn't start. Between drizzling the butter (the butter I remembered! It's better with butter) for the cordon blue crumb coating and my next assembly of the food processor pieces, it decided not to run.

I improvised, blended the plantains in the Oscar, then mixed the flour in by hand. And immediately could see that what I had were crumbs, not dough-moldable by any stretch of the imagination. I melted the remaining two tablespoons of butter (butter!) and added, and at least got something I could form into balls. I didn't want to add more, concerned I'd change the taste.

However, it wasn't enough. I couldn't smash the dough into rounds sufficiently pliable to fold around the cheese. I ended up halving each ball and sort of smashing the cheese inside. Definitely not your mama's empanadas. I'm not even sure what they were called. However, the plantain dough was good ... very good ... I kept eating it as I went.

At this point, let me back up and observe that recipe provider for the Cook's Country chicken cordon bleu must have had either different-shaped chicken breasts, smaller-but-thicker ham slices, better rolling skills or all three, because the ham-with-swiss did not simply slot in there like peas in a pod. (Pardon my metaphor.) I was convinced the whole thing would never work, so I was quite upset when I stuck it in the fridge.

To add insult to injury, when I went to make the liquid part of the three-step dredging process, I could not get the mustard jar open for anything. I finally tore into my fridge and luckily found an older jar I could use, because the one I had set aside would not open for anything. By this time, I was tired enough that I seriously considered smashing the jar and salvaging as much mustard as I could.

This has easily been my worst cooking day all year. Oof.

Final verdict (chicken cordon bleu):
For all my complaints above ... it does work, and very well. Chicken came out tender, the ratio of ham was good, and while perhaps more of the swiss melted out than I would have liked, it's quite pleasantly cheesy. Somewhat like I am when making bad jokes.

Final verdict (plantain turnovers):
No final verdict possible. I went so far off the map I can guarantee I didn't end up with the intended product. Need to try again and discern if the dough has enough moisture if the plantains oven-cook longer, without a microwave stint.

I need a vacation from my dinner!

Friday, April 1, 2011

Menu Alteration

Since I intend to buy a few treats from a cupcakery, and because I'll be frying right up to the point before I eat, I've decided against the souffles in favor of Soft And Chewy Peanut Butter Cookies from an unidentified 2009 - 2010 Cook's Country. Expect me to try them another day when I can have my main course baking in the oven.

Menu Plan: Weekend of 4/2

First of all: this is not an April Fool's joke.

Now that I have that out of the way ...

Since I always choose a main course and then figure out a side dish, my choice of sides is restricted to things that a) seem like they would complement dinner; b) without making the combination incredibly starchy. I decided to do it the other way around this time, and quickly figured out why I don't: it's hard to pick the side dish in isolation, without knowing the main flavor profile.

However, I finally settled on the following:

Foolproof Chicken Cordon Bleu - Cook's Country (unknown 2009 or 2010 issue)

Ripe Plantain Turnovers with Fresh Cheese Filling - Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen

Pistachio Souffles - How To Be A Domestic Goddess (Nigella Lawson)

As I made my shopping list, I noticed I needed: butter, sugar and ritz crackers. I did not need to buy: orange liqeuer, queso fresco or pistachios. I'm not quite sure what this says about my purchasing habits ...

Substitution notes:

Cordon Bleu:
One substitution - I'm not going to bother to buy a new loaf of bread for this, so it will be whole grain bread. Low fat whole grain bread. I know, I know, the travesty.

I do not have orange-flower water (I have never even seen orange-flower water, at least not that I know of), so, after relying upon my cooking assistant Google, I will be substituting above-mentioned orange liqeuer.