Tuesday, December 23, 2008


My kitchen and I had a great time last night. There were trays of cookies to bake, and toffee to break, and pork loin to brine, and cranberries to simmer. It was an almost Zen-like experience.

There's something I love about holiday cookie tins. I find even the simplest ones to be lovely, and they're usually packed with something wonderful. This year mine are filled with cranberry cornmeal drop cookies, cardamom butter squares with espresso and chocolate glaze, and peanut toffee with milk chocolate.

I'm so excited to host Christmas this year for my family. Any friends that are around in the evening are welcome to stop by for eggnog, good cheer, and the Sufjan Stevens holiday anthology. Elvis's Christmas album will probably also get some play.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

one sixtyblue Chicken and Biscuits

If you find yourself at one sixtyblue in Chicago's West Loop, do not automatically dismiss the seemingly humdrum chicken and biscuits. If you do, you'll miss out on the most succulent biscuit of your life. It's a fanciful interpretation of a casual, classic dish, and it delivers well beyond expectation.

The top of a 2-bite biscuit was covered lightly with a creamy, thinned foie gras. Sausage gravy is dog food compared to this sauce. It sank right into the crumbling pastry, filling in all of the buttery nooks, and upon touching the tongue, melted away. A crispy skinned quarter of young chicken was moist and tender. The dish was balanced with braised kale, which retained a slight crunch that cut through the rich foie gras.

You think you know chicken and biscuits? You think you love it? After having it at one sixtyblue, your Southern breakfast will never seem the same again.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Gumming It Down

Yogurt, pudding, jello, ice cream, repeat. Since last Friday, there's been no solid food in my diet. I absolutely cannot wait to bite into something crunchy, chewy, meaty, savory. I miss chewing, and I want to make cookies! And steak!

Time for some oatmeal.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Caramel Cake with Caramelized Butter Icing - Daring Bakers November

No one likes sweets more than me, but even I have to draw the line somewhere. That line is firmly in place directly before powdered sugar-based frosting. To call it "buttercream" is nearly an insult to the real thing, a silken celebration of cooked sugar, eggs, and butter. Frosting stiffened with powdered sugar is always gritty and over-the-top sweet, so when this month's Daring Bakers challenge, Caramel Cake with Caramelized Butter Frosting came down from host Shuna Fish Lydon of Eggbeater, I expected disappointment.

The recipes were very easy to follow. I infused my caramel syrup with a tangerine, a flavor that was lost in the final product. The cake and frosting as a whole, which both incorporate the caramel syrup, were just too sweet to allow the subtle fruit flavor to come through. In an attempt to save it, I added less powdered sugar to my frosting than the recipe called for, leaving it looser but still spreadable.

Putting together a normal round cake didn't excite me, so to plate, I cut the cake into long rectangles and toasted them briefly in a dry skillet. This added a welcome texture that helped to break up all of the sugary softness. I smeared a thin coating of the icing on a couple pieces of cake, and reheated some caramel syrup to drizzle over. A dollop of whipped cream and a bit of tangerine zest finished the plate.

The fact that I dislike this cake is completely subjective and personal. Surely there are many people who would love to wrap their mouths around a piece, to feel a spike in their blood sugar akin to shooting cocaine through a needle. It's just not my thing, you know? But I'm not judging you if you did like it. I took a couple of bites before the rest of my caramel cake met the trash can.

Thanks to Shauna and her cohosts this month:

Next month's challenge will be better. Here's to hoping that if confectioners sugar is present, it is for garnish only!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Gobble gobble

The holidays can officially begin, and for the first time in many years, I am very excited for them. It feels odd to not be working long hours in a bakery, mass producing cream pies and planning for the onslaught of Christmas orders, but being outside of the industry is allowing me a deeper appreciation of the season. Do I miss it? Yes, and no.

I am very appreciative of all of the people in my life, and am grateful for the new ones that I have met in the past year, including one clever writer, Valerie Moloney. She's the Chicago editor for Citysearch.com, and we have quickly bonded over our mutual love of food. In the short time I've known her, she has been very generous with invitations to join her at restaurants and events around town. Yesterday, she treated me to High Tea at Chicago's long-famed Palmer House Hotel.

High Tea is a ritual of uppity downtown shoppers, of ladies who lunch, and of tourists hoping to pass as such. The theory behind it is grand: take a leisurely break in the middle of the day to restore yourself with finger sandwiches, scones, and petit fours, and linger over a pot of hot tea. In the lobby of the recently restored Palmer House, one of Chicago's oldest and most traditional hotels, Valerie and I lounged and ate, drank and chatted, and watched and passers-by gawked at us. There were several, and it's not difficult to understand why.

On a high-backed, deep leather love seat, we sat behind a three-tiered array of nibbles, individual teapots, and glasses of champagne. The lobby was already completely decked out for the holidays, and a huge Christmas tree adorned in gold and red loomed over us. Very few hotel guests walked by without a lingering look, and a couple even commented about the luxury if it all.

With the state of the world today, and with so many people struggling to make ends meet, the concept of high tea seems utterly frivolous. The Palmer House charges $35 per guest for tea service, $45 with a flute of champagne, making it a luxury in my mind. Valerie's invitation allowed me to partake in a ritual that I had never experienced, and I appreciate that, but what I appreciate even more is her company. We spent over an hour-and-a-half getting to know each other better. When we were nearly finished, Valerie commented about how much High Tea reminds her of Ireland, her husband's native country, where there is nothing to do but sit and get to know people.

Good conversation and good friends are priceless. Regardless of how you choose to spend your money, give thanks for your loved ones. Spend time together celebrating the season, and celebrating your relationships. They're far more important than any tea service or present, and will last much longer.

Happy Thanksgiving to all of my friends and family. The photo is of an apple pie that I made for today, which is the same recipe entered into the Bucktown Apple Pie Contest, which obviously I did not win, or you would have heard about it! Even though it wasn't a contest winner, it's a damn good pie; easily the best I've ever produced. The crust is perfectly flaky and the filling is composed of three different types of apples that are not overly sweetened. I would type out the recipe, but I'm too lazy right now. It is a holiday, after all! I'm happy to share if it you shoot me an email or leave a comment. Enjoy your turkey!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Publican

The good thing about a blog, unlike a small child or puppy, is that you can neglect it for a month-and-a-half, and when you return it's a little malnourished, but pretty much exactly as you left it. My motivation tank has been on empty lately, but last week's birthday dinner extravaganza brings me out of hiding.

Months ago, before it was even open, I asked Dave to take me to The Publican for my birthday. I use the word "asked" as a synonym for "demanded while holding a gun to his head." He lovingly obliged, and in retrospect, I think that he's glad he did, because we had a really wonderful time.

If you've been living under a rock, or if you're reading from somewhere outside of Chicago, The Publican is the newest restaurant from the masterminds behind Blackbird and Avec, two of the city's dining out meccas. It's a casual place with a mile-long beer list, communal seating, and no acoustics. Plates are easily shared, but The Publican is definitely no tapas restaurant. This is hearty food for people who like to eat. This is a perfect setting for small groups to gather for food, drinks, and very audible merriment. Do you get what I'm saying? The dining room is LOUD. People were having a great time.

The Publican doesn't accept reservations, except on Sunday for their family meal. I was only a little leery given that my birthday fell on a Saturday. We arrived around 8:00 and were told that the wait would be some time over an hour. No problem - we're in it for the long haul. Somehow we managed to squeeze into one of the high top tables standing in the middle of the dining room, acting as the waiting area. We ordered a couple of drinks, and within half an hour, were being squeezed into the huge communal table.

Eating in such close proximity to complete strangers might bother some people, but not me. Sit less than 12 inches away from someone, and one of two things will happen: either you will make friends, or you will ignore each other. To my right, four drunk men were separated from their four prim wives in the style of high school dances; no intermingling of the sexes. They welcomed Dave and I to the table, and gave us welcome menu suggestions throughout the meal.

"This bottle of wine is outstanding, if you're drinking wine."
"The fish stew is okay, but it's really salty."

Instant friends.

We were invisible to the party of four that sat on my left. They were completely engrossed in their double date, which is completely acceptable.

For our first course, Dave selected a beet salad, as he is prone to do whenever the opportunity arises. Crimson beets were cut into quarters and cooked minimally, so as to retain their crispness. Thin slices of creamy avocado alternated with pink grapefruit segments. The textural awe factor of this simple dish went to 11. A perfect bite included a little taste of all three, where the acidic fruit was tempered by the rich avocado, with a hint of sweetness from the al dente beet. A week later, I cannot fully remember the flavors of the vinaigrette that tied it together, but I do remember clean flavors that didn't detract from the three main components of the place. It was a delicious start.

Next came an enormous ceramic bowl filled with steamed mussels from Maine. While the beet salad was easily handled by two diners, the mussels could have easily served four to six. There were at least thirty bivalves sitting in a bath of deliciously savory steaming liquid. A large crusty baguette came alongside for soaking it up. The mussels were delicious, fresh, and still tasted delicately of their ocean home with hints of bay, celery, and beer. My eyes may have rolled into the back of my head at first taste of the bread and sauce, which was perfectly fragrant and addictive. Dave and I were helpless to stop ourselves, dipping, dipping, dipping, into that bowl of liquid awesome. Before long, we had polished off a loaf of bread easily meant to feed six.

Dinner might have ended then, as we were full of carbohydrates, and no longer hungry in the traditional sense of the word. When we heard the "mmmmmmm"s radiating from our friendly neighbors, our gluttonous sides dominated, and we took their recommendation for grilled country ribs, sourced from a Slagel Family Farm in Forest, IL. A plate arrived with generous cuts of succulent, fork tender pork, caramelized with grill marks. Braised trevico, a bitter lettuce similar to radicchio, and crushed peanuts added crunch. Sweet and sour pickled apples balanced the dish and added a welcome touch of fall.

Again, we might have stopped there, but birthdays are not complete without dessert. If I'm being honest, a great meal, regardless of the day, is not complete without dessert, but perhaps that goes without saying? We finished off with a mixed nut tart. Toasty chunks of pecans, walnuts, and pistachios were held together with thick caramel. A ball of caramel ice cream sat alongside, and was the best component of the dish. Although it was the least exciting part of the meal, I gladly polished it off with a cup of espresso.

So, The Publican. Good service, great atmosphere, excellent food, even if you count the mediocre dessert. I absolutely cannot wait to go back with a larger group. The mussels are a definite go-to dish, but with a constantly changing, seasonal menu, you never know what you're in store for. It made for a very memorable birthday celebration, and one of the most fun nights I've had with Dave.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Bucktown Apple Pie Contest

Mark your calendars for the most apple-pie filled day of the year in the Bucktown neighborhood of Chicago!*

The Bucktown Apple Pie Contest is being held on Sunday, October 19. From 2:00 to 5:00, you can sample dozens of varieties of homemade apple pies, hobnob with Gale Gand and Top Chef Stephanie Izard, dance to the country twang of Tanglewood, and hang out with me. Plus, it's all in the name of charity!

As promised, I'll be entering a pie this year, which is a little daunting. I haven't practiced at all, and pie dough can be finicky. The last round of pies I made was for Thanksgiving 2007. Odds are, if you see me in the next couple of weeks, you'll be forced to part with doggie bags.
Bobtail is providing ice cream again this year, because pie is always better a la mode. I vividly remember how amazing the organic vanilla was, and am looking forward to having it again.

*I have to believe that somewhere in this big, wide world that there are more than 180 apple pies in one place, at one time, and if there is really a God, that place has nothing to do with Pillsbury.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Bristol

Sometimes it's okay to forgo main courses, opting to snack through dinner instead. It is especially encouraged at restaurants like The Bristol, the newest addition to Bucktown's culinary landscape. On an impromptu visit, Dave and I nibbed our way through half of their organic, sustainable, and delicious menu of "snacks." Thankfully, the talented folks behind The Bristol had the intuition to avoid the overused term, "tapas," and even worse, "small plates." Those words alone have turned me off to what are probably very fine restaurants, with very fine food. But I swear to God, if I hear of one more small plates resto opening in this city...

Anyway, I appreciate the use of the term "snack," because that's exactly what these are: a few bites of something tasty that will leave you wanting more and won't allow you to stuff your gut sick. We shared several noshes, and everything was fantastic, but these few are the lovely thoughts running through my head this morning.

House smoked pork butt with celery root custard and shaved pears
In a truly sustainable effort, Chef Chris Pandel will be butchering his own animals and using as many parts as possible to reduce waste. He's curing and smoking his own meats, too. I was hoping for a charcuterie plate, but it's not on the current menu. Instead, we started with a plate of smokey, savory pork butt, shaved so thin that it fell apart in the tines of your fork. A couple of varieties of pears were sliced as delicately, and provided great sweetness and moisture. Shards of crisp radishes added bite. A bed of celery root custard was cool, creamy, and much more subtle than I could have imagined. Together, it was delicious.

Corn on the Cob, Taco Stand Style
Dave pushed for this one, and I'm glad he did, because in September, every time I eat corn on the cob could be the last time, until next season. A succulent ear of corn was basted with butter, tangy lime juice, salt, and ancho chili powder. It was cut into five pieces and arranged beautifully in a deep bowl. A small puddle of limey butter accrued at the bottom, which I happily used recoat my veg.

Roasted Beets with Frisee
One seasonal plate was comprised of smoked salmon (not my favorite), beer cheese (never again, even though the server assured me it was not stinky), homemade saltine crackers (just not exciting), and roasted beets. Dave's a sucker for beets, so our wonderful waiter obliged him a huge mound of them. They were the best beets I've ever had, a combination of goldens and reds, cut smaller than playing dice and cooked to fork-tender. They were perfectly seasoned to taste just like themselves, only better. We gobbled them up.

Chocolate Sabayon with Homemade Nutter Butters
I say Sabayon, you say Zabaglione. I don't care what you call it. If it's rich egg yolks and fine sugar whipped over a double boiler until it's pale and creamy and your arm is about to fall off, it's delicious. Sabayon is truly a labor of love, as the maker stands for twenty to thirty minutes over a bowl of simmering water, manically whisking all the while to prevent the delicate eggs from scrambling. The Bristol served it cold, like custard, with a spot of olive oil and a few fat granules of salt sprinkled on top. Along side were two sizable peanut butter sandwich cookies studded with chunks of nuts, and stuck together with more peanut butter. They were crisp on the outside and softer in the middle. Dave thought they tasted exactly like his mother's recipe, which I need to get.

The Bristol has a really unique cocktail list, and many of the ingredients, including ginger beer and bitters, are made by hand. I had a very nice Dark and Stormy, and Dave tried something with Pear and Elderberry that was pure nectar. It's casual neighborhood setting and long list of snacks make this a perfect spot to grab a little something; happy hour drinks, pre-evening nibbles, dessert and wine. The kitchen stays hot until 1:00 am on the weekends, too. It's rare for food of this caliber to be available at that hour, and I predict that The Bristol will very soon be known as Chicago's Blue Ribbon.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Party Crackers - Daring Bakers September

Even the most dedicated sweet tooth enjoys a little salt from time to time. The Daring Bakers September test offered a welcome change of pace with a challenge to produce lavash, a crispy flatbread type of cracker, and a dip, spread, or other accompaniment . Participants were given the liberty of seasoning the lavash to their liking, ad the dip had to be gluten-free and vegan (no wheat or animal products).

After mixing and proofing the yeasted dough, I sprinkled it liberally with ground cumin and rolled it to 1/8" thick. I brushed fresh lime juice over the top and sprinkled with kosher salt.

During baking, I realized exactly how scathing the hot spots are in my oven. The entire left side of the pan was full of blackened lavash, while the right side was barely golden. On the second batch, I was careful to rotate the pans midway through baking.

I completed this challenge during the second week of September, while I was still clinging to summer veggies. In an effort to make the most of it, I made a roasted corn salsa with tomatoes, avocado, red onion, cilantro, lime juice, salt and pepper. It had no choice but to be delicious, as is usually the case with fresh produce used at its prime.

This lavash recipe would be great for parties, as it can be flavored a million ways. I'll stash the recipe away for a day when I'm no longer cooking in a finicky, rented oven. Until then, I'll be purchasing my crackers.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Kuma's Corner

On an unassuming stretch of road, in whatever Chicago neighborhood is just west of Roscoe Village, sits a corner bar not unlike other corner bars. From the outside, it's average in stature, except that people pour out the door, waiting for a table or a bar stool. A year ago there was no queued wait, but thanks to the Chicago-centric PBS program, "Check, Please!" Kuma's Corner has been unearthed as a gem.

Two things set Kuma's apart from other pubs with grub. The first thing that hits you, other than the smell from the fryer, is the bewildering clamor of electric guitars and screeching man-falsetto. This place is a heavy metal haven, make no mistake about it. Album covers from bands I've never heard of line the walls. All of the menu items are named after more bands I've never heard of. Dave digs it, I ignore it.

The second thing that makes Kuma's unique, and the reason I keep returning, are the fantastic burgers, which comprise 90% of the menu offerings. Toppings range from traditional condiments and cheeses to stuff that makes you scratch your head and say, "Really? I mean, seriously?" There are well over 20 burger combinations, all beginning with 10 ounces of delicious red meat stuffed into a pretzel roll. There's a rotating monthly special burger. Each selection, as I mentioned, has a metal band namesake. Check it out:

This burger made me really, really happy. I would happily order it again.

A burger sans bun, avec a bunch of extra meat. More like a dinner skillet than a sandwich. Dang, that andouille sausage was spicy!

Diana and Mike enjoyed their first visit to Kuma's, regardless of their facial expressions. Hey, it's an action shot!

Good stuff to know before you go:
If you go at peak dinner hour, expect a wait. Arriving just before 8:00, we happily cozied up to the bar and ordered rounds of craft beers for about an hour-and-a-half before our table was ready. Just after we were seated, we noticed that the wait for tables had completely ceased, and that there were a few open ones around us. Take note: go late, avoid the wait. Or just be happy with the interesting beer selection, like we were.

The music is loud, but conversation is still possible. Keep in mind you're eating dinner in a bar, not at Charlie Trotter's.

The ventilation isn't the greatest. At first, you might find the smells coming from the tiny, open kitchen overwhelming. You'll get used to it, and it will become unnoticeable. And, it's worth it.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Vino, anyone?

There's an event taking place a couple of blocks from my house this weekend - Winefest Chicago. It's a chance to sample a lot of different varietals and speak with wine makers and local chefs. I am particularly interested in going on Saturday afternoon to hear the presentation at 3:15, led by the folks from Lush Wine and Spirits, a great outfit run by people who are really enthusiastic about the beverages they carry. I might also be persuaded to go on Sunday, since it is conveniently located right outside my doorstep. Anyone want to join me for early drinks?

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Enter the Apple

The beginning of fall is so pleasant, when luscious berries and stone fruits give way to heartier options. Firm apples in shades of green, pink, and red, curvaceous pears with creamy flesh, and succulent, juicy figs take center stage. Apples are an American grocery store staple. Granny Smiths, Golden and Red Delicious can be found year round. In my mind, their immediate accessibility makes them the fruit equivalent to a desperate, single 33-year-old who will settle for any companion to avoid being alone with themselves. No one wants them, because they're always available.

When autumn hits, and a wide selection of varieties is available, nothing is better than a fresh apple. My favorite to eat out-of-hand is the Honeycrisp, an apple that was bred by crossing a Macoun and a Honeygold. It is refreshingly crisp to the bite, and the juicy flesh is a balance of sweetness and acidity. They're a treat on their own, but they don't hold up well to cooking.

The standbys for baking are supermarket residents; soft and sweet Golden Delicious, and crunchy, tart Granny Smith, but there are many lesser known varieties that are suitable for cooking. Jonagolds, Cameos, Empires, Cortlands, Galas, and Braeburns all hold up to heat without turning to mush. To add depth of flavor to baked goods, try using a combination of apples instead of one variety.

This cake is a variation on a German kuchen. An array of textures meet in your mouth, as crumbly struesel and crunchy hazelnuts mix with supple cake and soft, caramelized apples. It's perfect for breakfast or an afternoon snack, and would be wonderful dressed up with creme anglaise for a formal dessert.

Apple Kuchen

For Streusel
1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup (packed) brown sugar
1/2 cup chopped toasted hazelnuts, skins removed
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

For Cake
4 cooking apples, peeled, halved, cored, cut into 1/8-inch-thick slices
1 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1 3/4 cups cake flour
1/3 cup cornstarch
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup applesauce
2 cups powdered sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 large eggs plus 1 large egg yolk, room temperature

Make Struesel:
Mix first 4 ingredients in medium bowl. Add melted butter and stir with fork until moist clumps form. Chill.

Make Cake:
Preheat oven to 325°F. Butter and flour 10-inch-diameter springform pan.

Combine apple slices, cinnamon, and cloves in a bowl. Toss to coat.

Sift flour, cornstarch, baking powder, and salt into another bowl.

Use an electric mixer to cream the butter, powdered sugar, applesauce, and vanilla extract. Mix until very smooth. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating until well blended after each addition; beat in egg yolk. Add flour mixture and beat just until incorporated. Spread batter in prepared pan.

Arrange apple slices in concentric circles on top of the batter. When the top is completely filled in, sprinkle a handful of struesel over it, and arrange a second layer of apple slices. Sprinkle the remaining struesel evenly over the apples.

Bake cake until streusel topping is crisp and tester inserted into center of cake comes out clean, about 1 hour 20 minutes. Cool cake in pan on rack 20 minutes before removing the sides. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Grace's Best Cookies

The name doesn't lie. These tiny cookies are insanely good.

I'm nearly speechless over this bag of Sunflower Seed cookies, made by Grace's Best in Kansas. Whole Foods suckered me into their purchase with a strategically placed sample tray near the check out counter. One sample led to a second, and then a third (and probably a fourth), before I realized that I absolutely had to buy a bag, and to hell with the steep price tag. At $7.99 for 12 ounces, these are neither the cheapest nor most expensive cookies I've ever bought, but they are right up near the top of the tastiest ones.

These little gems are made with oats, sweet cream butter, and brown sugar The namesake sunflower seeds add just a hint of nuttiness, and add an extra dimension to the overall crunch of the cookie. Overall, the texture of the seeds is barely noticable; not at all like birdseed. My first instinct was to pour the cookies into a bowl, cover them with milk, and eat them for breakfast, but the bag didn't last long enough for that experiment. I'll sample the new "Cookie Crisp" cereal when I get my second bag from Whole Foods. You can also buy Grace's Best Sunflower Seed Cookies here. Don't waste time - buy them now, before I snatch up all available product!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Kabob-A-Thon IV

According to American Heritage Dictionary , there are several ways to spell it:

shish ke·bab also shish ke·bob or shish ka·bob (shĭsh' kə-bŏb')
n. A dish consisting of pieces of seasoned meat and sometimes vegetables roasted on skewers and served with condiments.

No matter how you spell it, skewered meats are fun and delicious. My awesome friends, Delia and Nathaniel, were smart enough to realize the powerful combination of kabobs and the beach, and yesterday we gathered for the Fourth Annual Kebab-A-Thon. All are welcome, all are fed, some poke themselves painfully on skewers.

Beef, pork, chicken, and seafood were represented in this round. Homegrown cherry tomatoes, and all the traditional accoutrement filled out the skewers. My swordfish and bacon kebab recipe came directly from Epicurious.com. The bacon is par-cooked and then threaded around chunks of marinated fish and tomatoes before grilling. The bacon crisps up, guarding the swordfish from drying out. Tomatoes and bacon are a classic combination, and something that I've enjoyed a lot this summer.

This recipe comes together very quickly, and unlike chicken or beef, the fish acquires fantastic flavor from the marinade in just 45 minutes. It's the perfect dish for times when you haven't planned ahead, but still want something delish from the grill.

I anxiously await the fifth installment of Kebob-A-Thon, a day devoted to good eating, drinking, and lazing with friends. If you're interested in A-Thoning with us next year, shoot me an email. The more the merrier!

Monday, September 1, 2008

So Long, Summer

I eat ice cream all year round, but the level of consumption really ramps up during the warmer months. This was the first summer that I owned an ice cream maker. In an effort to reduce my food waste, I used it to make ice cream out of all kinds of things. Right now, the freezer is holding bluebery basil sorbet and lemon buttermilk ice cream. My favorite homemade ice cream of the summer, by far, is one that I made last week. It's a variation on Isaac Mizrahi's Mint Chocolate Chip recipe, found on Epicurious.com. I adjusted the original recipe for ingredients that I had on hand, and I was delighted. There are no artificial flavors or colors in this recipe. It garners all of its biting, crisp flavor from fresh mint leaves. The fresh but strong scent hits the nose long before the spoon reaches the lips. It's cold, refreshing, and not too sweet. I don't think that store-bought mint ice cream will ever cut it again. Here's a horrible photo of some of the mint ice cream enveloped in hot fudge sauce, which I had on hand from the last Daring Bakers Challenge.

Mint Ice Cream with Chocolate Flakes

6 large egg yolks
3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups whole milk
2 cups fresh mint leaves, loosely packed
1 cup heavy cream
5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, shaved into flakes with vegetable peeler

Special equipment: ice cream maker

In large bowl, whisk together egg yolks and 1/2 cup sugar.

In heavy medium saucepan over moderately low heat, stir together milk, cream, remaining 1/4 cup sugar, and mint. Heat until steaming but not boiling, then remove from heat. Allow to steep for one hour.

Reheat to steaming but not boiling.

Ladle about 1/2 cup hot milk mixture into egg yolk mixture, whisking constantly to prevent eggs from cooking, then slowly stir the egg mixture back into the hot milk, whisking constantly. Place over low heat, and cook, stirring constantly, until mixture is nape, 5 to 6 minutes total (do not let boil or custard will curdle). Strain through fine-mesh sieve into large bowl. Press firmly on mint leaves to release their juices. Discard solids. Cover surface of custard with plastic wrap and chill until cold.

Process custard in ice cream maker, adding shaved chocolate during last minute of churning. Transfer to airtight container and freeze until hard.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Daring Bakers August -

Lately, there have been a lot of things fueling my uncontrollable obsession for all things French. Edith Piaf hits were pumped into a restaurant I recently visited. My friend and Paris-via-Chicago restaurateur, Daniel Rose, treated me to a lazy lunch at Sepia while he was in town. The September issue of Gourmet, devoted to exploring Paris on a budget, landed in the mailbox, making me nostalgic and starry eyed.

Had I tried, I would have been unable to forget Paris this August. The Daring Bakers challenge for this month only fueled the fire. The assignment was to recreate the recipe for eclairs from French pastry master, Pierre Herme.

Upon reading the challenge, I was immediately returned to a state of pure bliss, as I recalled visiting one of the Herme boutiques in Paris last fall. Walking into the store was more like entering a haut couture fashion mecca than a pastry shop. The minimal decor, in shades of lavender, coral, and sunshine yellow was manned by stoic pastry professionals clad in black. The counters were brimming with colorful tortes, exotic macaroons, and layered mousses made from the freshest ingredients. Packaged chocolate bars and pates de fruits demanded to be taken home. For me, it was heaven, surrounded by all of that perfection in the form of beautiful edible art. Pierre Herme's pastry shops are yet another reason to return to Paris, as if I needed one.

After such an amazing experience at his shop, I was delighted to see that the August installment of Daring Bakers was a Pierre Herme formula. Our instructions were to replicate his recipe for eclair dough, professionally known as pate a choux. His original recipe fills the crisp dough with chocolate pastry cream and covers the top with chocolate ganache. We were given liberty to follow the recipe as written, or substitute either the filling or glaze. As an eclair purist, I chose to fill my batch with vanilla bean pastry cream, leaving Herme's ganache to act as the sole chocolate component.

Pate a choux, which can be used as a vehicle for a multitude of fillings, is an easy way to showboat. Although it may not seem like it, choux pastry is relatively easy to make, and it yields an impressive product that far outshines its production. Guests who eat it would not think that the dough is so simple. A combination of eggs, flour, and butter steam in the oven, creating a finished product that is crisp on the outside, and just a bit chewy inside. Steam builds inside the dough as it bakes, leaving crevices that act as a surface area to fill with custards, ice creams, mousses, or fruit curds. One basic pate a choux recipe can be formed into a variety of shapes, including profiteroles, swans, and of course, eclairs.

Herme's choux formula is one for the books. It works beautifully, becoming the perfect golden shell. It will replace my old stand by, as I know that it will consistently yield excellent results. His chocolate glaze recipe, although delicious, included several steps that seemed unnecessary. It involves first making a chocolate sauce that is incorporated into a chocolate ganache to reach the final product. The finished glaze tastes exactly like a much simpler, less time consuming ganache. Since it didn't set up as hard as I would have liked, I think that next time I make eclairs I will default to a basic ganache recipe.

I shared the eclairs with a few friends, and they were undeniably delicious, a real treat. If you missed out on them, here's what it looked like when a partially eaten eclair approached your mouth. It's not quite as good as the real thing, is it?

Participating in this challenge reminded me how of how simple, yet impressive, pate a choux can be. I look forward to making it again soon, and anxiously await the September installment of Daring Bakers! The recipe for Pierre Herme's choux paste and chocolate glaze, from his book, Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Herme, is below.

Pierre Hermé’s Chocolate Éclairs
Recipe from Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Hermé
(makes 20-24 Éclairs)

• Cream Puff Dough (see below for recipe), fresh and still warm

1) Preheat your oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C). Divide the oven into thirds by
positioning the racks in the upper and lower half of the oven. Line two baking sheets with
waxed or parchment paper.

2) Fill a large pastry bag fitted with a 2/3 (2cm) plain tip nozzle with the warm cream puff dough. Pipe the dough onto the baking sheets in long, 4 to 41/2 inches about 11 cm) chubby fingers. Leave about 2 inches (5 cm) space in between each dough strip to allow them room to puff. The dough should give you enough to pipe 20-24 éclairs.

3) Slide both the baking sheets into the oven and bake for 7 minutes. After the 7 minutes, slip the handle of a wooden spoon into the door to keep in ajar. When the éclairs have been in the oven for a total of 12 minutes, rotate the sheets top to bottom and front to back. Continue baking for a further 8 minutes or until the éclairs are puffed, golden and firm. The total baking time should be approximately 20minutes.

1) The éclairs can be kept in a cool, dry place for several hours before filling.

Assembling the éclairs:

• Chocolate glaze (see below for recipe)
• Vanilla bean pastry cream

1) Slice the éclairs horizontally, using a serrated knife and a gently sawing motion. Set aside the bottoms and place the tops on a rack over a piece of parchment paper.

2) The glaze should be barely warm to the touch (between 95 – 104 degrees F or 35 – 40 degrees C, as measured on an instant read thermometer). Spread the glaze over the tops of the éclairs using a metal icing spatula. Allow the tops to set and in the meantime fill the bottoms with the pastry cream.

3) Pipe or spoon the pastry cream into the bottoms of the éclairs. Make sure you fill the bottoms with enough cream to mound above the pastry. Place the glazed tops onto the pastry cream and wriggle gently to settle them.

1) If you have chilled your chocolate glaze, reheat by placing it in a bowl over simmering water, stirring it gently with a wooden spoon. Do not stir too vigorously as you do not want to create bubbles.

2) The éclairs should be served as soon as they have been filled.

Pierre Hermé’s Cream Puff Dough
Recipe from Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Hermé
(makes 20-24 Éclairs)

• ½ cup (125g) whole milk
• ½ cup (125g) water
• 1 stick (4 ounces; 115g) unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces
• ¼ teaspoon sugar
• ¼ teaspoon salt
• 1 cup (140g) all-purpose flour
• 5 large eggs, at room temperature

1) In a heavy bottomed medium saucepan, bring the milk, water, butter, sugar and salt to the boil.

2) Once the mixture is at a rolling boil, add all of the flour at once, reduce the heat to medium and start to stir the mixture vigorously with a wooden spoon. The dough comes together very quickly. Do not worry if a slight crust forms at the bottom of the pan, it’s supposed to. You need to carry on stirring for a further 2-3 minutes to dry the dough. After this time the dough will be very soft and smooth.

3) Transfer the dough into a bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or using your handmixer or if you still have the energy, continue by hand. Add the eggs one at a time, beating after each egg has been added to incorporate it into the dough. You will notice that after you have added the first egg, the dough will separate, once again do not worry. As you keep working the dough, it will come back all together again by the time you have added the third egg. In the end the dough should be thick and shiny and when lifted it should fall back into the bowl in a ribbon.

4) The dough should be still warm. It is now ready to be used for the éclairs as directed above.

Chocolate Glaze
Recipe from Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Hermé
(makes 1 cup or 300g)

• 1/3 cup (80g) heavy cream
• 3½ oz (100g) bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
• 4 tsp (20 g) unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces, at room temperature
• 7 tbsp (110 g) Chocolate Sauce (recipe below), warm or at room temperature

1)In a small saucepan, bring the heavy cream to a boil. Remove from the heat and slowly begin to add the chocolate, stirring with a wooden spoon or spatula.

2) Stirring gently, stir in the butter, piece by piece followed by the chocolate sauce.

1) If the chocolate glaze is too cool (i.e. not liquid enough) you may heat it briefly
 in the microwave or over a double boiler. A double boiler is basically a bowl sitting over (not touching) simmering water.

2) It is best to glaze the eclairs after the glaze is made, but if you are pressed for time, you can make the glaze a couple days ahead of time, store it in the fridge and bring it up to the proper temperature (95 to 104 F) when ready to glaze.

Chocolate Sauce
Recipe from Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Hermé
(makes 1½ cups or 525 g)

• 4½ oz (130 g) bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
• 1 cup (250 g) water
• ½ cup (125 g) crème fraîche, or heavy cream
• 1/3 cup (70 g) sugar

1) Place all the ingredients into a heavy‐bottomed saucepan and bring to a boil, making sure to stir constantly. Then reduce the heat to low and continue stirring with a wooden spoon until the sauce thickens.

2) It may take 10‐15 minutes for the sauce to thicken, but you will know when it is done when it coats the back of your spoon.

1) You can make this sauce ahead of time and store it in the refrigerator for two weeks. Reheat the sauce in a microwave oven or a double boiler before using.
2) This sauce is also great for cakes, ice-cream and tarts.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Wisconsin and the Great Big Stink

On a mini-trip this past weekend, Dave and I bought a variety of local Wisconsin foodstuffs. We crammed a cooler full of all the usual suspects: bratwurst, summer sausage, bacon, cheeses, and a couple of microbrews. Our findings also include some lesser known items, like hard honey candies with liquid centers and a couple kinds of wine from the Wollersheim Winery in Prairie Du Sac. In an old fashioned general store we drank a yummy grape soda brewed by Gray's in Janesville, WI, and a Sioux City Sasparilla of Big Lebowski fame. It lives up to its nickname, "The Grandaddy of all root beers."

In an antique store I came across a very old, very well preserved cake decorating set, made all of aluminum. I was amazed that it wasn't rusted, and that it only cost $5.

At a local market, I bought a block of Beer Kaese, a cheese that I was unfamiliar with. From it's name, it sounded like it had to be delicious. Beer and cheese - need I say more? It wasn't until today, when I snipped open its plastic packaging for the first time, that I realized how wrong I could be. The scent was so putrid that words fail me, even though I am five hours removed from it. I felt lightheaded, like the air was being hoovered out of my lungs, when the odor hit me. I tried not to breathe as I reluctantly put the tiniest morsel of cheese in my mouth. Spinning nausea ensued. As quickly as I could, I bagged up the stinky cheese in a double-sealed Ziploc and shoved it back into the fridge. After scouring my hands twice with dish soap, I could still smell the Beer Kaese on me. More spinning nausea.

A quick trip to Wikipedia reveals that Beer Kaese is originally a German cheese, also known as Weisslacker. It is a pungent (read: vile) salted, semi firm cheese that ripens for seven months in highly humid conditions. There is actually no beer in the cheese, but since it is too pungent (read: inedible) to serve with wine, it is often served with beer, for dunking. It is a relative to Limburger, and is frequently found on menus in the Czech Republic.

That's great for the Czechs. They can keep their Beer Kaese. It will never again be found in my home.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Omnivore's Hundred

Below is a list of foods that all omnivores should try at least once, according to Andrew Wheeler of Very Good Taste. It's circulating around the food blogosphere, and I thought it would be fun to see how I compare to others. The items I've eaten are in italics. I'm missing 31 items. Roadkill will probably never make my list. Haggis probably will.

Try it yourself!
1) Copy this list into your blog or journal, including these instructions.
2) Bold all the items you’ve eaten.
3) Cross out any items that you would never consider eating.
4) Optional extra: Post a comment here at www.verygoodtaste.co.uk linking to your results.

1. Venison
2. Nettle tea
3. Huevos rancheros
4. Steak tartare
5. Crocodile (I guess gator doesn't count?)
6. Black pudding
7. Cheese fondue (I think I own a fondue pot)
8. Carp
9. Borscht
10. Baba ghanoush (Sultan's Market!!!)
11. Calamari
12. Pho
13. PB&J sandwich (Most recently, this afternoon)
14. Aloo gobi
15. Hot dog from a street cart
16. Epoisses
17. Black truffle
18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes (shout out to Kreilkamp Distilleries!)
19. Steamed pork buns
20. Pistachio ice cream
21. Heirloom tomatoes
22. Fresh wild berries
23. Foie gras
24. Rice and beans
25. Brawn, or head cheese
26. Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper
27. Dulce de leche
28. Oysters
29. Baklava
30. Bagna cauda
31. Wasabi peas
32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl
33. Salted lassi
34. Sauerkraut
35. Root beer float
36. Cognac with a fat cigar
37. Clotted cream tea
38. Vodka jelly/Jell-O
39. Gumbo
40. Oxtail
41. Curried goat
42. Whole insects (Read all about it here)
43. Phaal
44. Goat’s milk
45. Malt whisky from a bottle worth £60/$120 or more
46. Fugu
47. Chicken tikka masala
48. Eel
49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut
50. Sea urchin
51. Prickly pear
52. Umeboshi
53. Abalone
54. Paneer
55. McDonald’s Big Mac Meal (Although I've never had a Big Mac, I've had my share of McD's)
56. Spaetzle
57. Dirty gin martini
58. Beer above 8% ABV (Delirium Tremens is one of my favorites)
59. Poutine (I must have this immediately)
60. Carob chips (They're not fooling anyone. They're nothing like real chocolate.)
61. S’mores
62. Sweetbreads
63. Kaolin
64. Currywurst
65. Durian (This fruit, native to the Philipines, tastes like barf)
66. Frogs’ legs
67. Beignets, churros, elephant ears or funnel cake (Yes, yes, yes, and yes)
68. Haggis
69. Fried plantain
70. Chitterlings, or andouillette
71. Gazpacho
72. Caviar and blini
73. Louche absinthe (No, but there's an absinthe tasting at Lush later this month. Anyone want to go?)
74. Gjetost, or brunost
75. Roadkill
76. Baijiu
77. Hostess Fruit Pie
78. Snail
79. Lapsang souchong
80. Bellini
81. Tom yum
82. Eggs Benedict
83. Pocky
84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant.
85. Kobe beef
86. Hare
87. Goulash
88. Flowers
89. Horse
90. Criollo chocolate
91. Spam
92. Soft shell crab
93. Rose harissa
94. Catfish
95. Mole poblano
96. Bagel and lox
97. Lobster Thermidor
98. Polenta
99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee
100. Snake (The same night as the bugs)

How Far Would You Go?

Read this post from the Reader's Food Chain blog, and then let's discuss the stupidity of the drunken hipster who was brazen enough to break glass to alleviate his munchies. What a moron.

My poor Alliance. When I was a cake decorator there, I remember thinking, on more than one occassion, that it was quite surprising that the place didn't get ransacked. All those rows of colorful cookies, cakes, and pastries shining like fishing bait from the cold cases, fully visible to all passers-by, but calling even stronger to the hundreds of loopy bar patrons that roam the area.

Ah, my sweet, sweet Alliance...sometimes I still miss you.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Friends Who Lunch (At Hot Doug's)

Who says unemployment is so bad?* I can think of much worse ways to spend an hour than with a spread from Hot Doug's. Geff and I went for lunch today. Gluttony ensued.

Hot Doug's lunch spread, complete with duck fat fries. Clockwise, from top left:

Foie Gras and Sauternes Duck Sausage with Truffle Mustard, Foie Gras Mousse and Sel Gris
Pretty much the most decadent encased meat delicacy you can ever hope to taste. Seriously, where else can you get a sausage that's made with French dessert wine and fattened goose liver? My guess is now where. The meat is topped with truffle oil laced mustard, three enormous pats of foie mousse, and a sprinkling of unrefined sea salt straight from the Brittany coast. In a fancier restaurant, a sandwich of this caliber could easily go for $25.00. Hot Doug's practically gives it away for $8.00.

The New Chicago: Smoked Mexican Chorizo with Chili Mustard, Asian Pear Chutney and Indian Fried Paneer Cheese served on a Pretzel Roll
How many ethnicities can be squeezed into one lunch? The flavor combinations seem overwhelming until you realize that paneer is the unsalted Indian equivalent to queso fresco. Hot Doug's dices and fries the farmer's cheese and lets it mingle with the pear chutney. Just imagine all of that heat and sweet hitting your mouth at once. Pretzel rolls enhance anything put inside of them, including The New Chicago. $7.00.

Brown Ale and Chipotle Buffalo Sausage with Bacon-Garlic Mayonnaise and Smoked Cheddar Cheese
I am often compelled to try the game of the week sausage, and I've never been disappointed. Past trips have included rabbit, venison, and boar. Today's pick lived up to its predecessors: a slightly charred buffalo sausage smothered in creamy, meaty mayo, and smothered again with small cubes of slightly oozing cheese. The sausage casing snapped perfectly, yielding a slightly spicy lean meat. $7.50.

Duck Fat Fries
These potatoes are elusive. They're only available on Fridays and Saturdays. The spuds are always hand cut, but the rest of the week they're cooked with standard oil. They're good every day, perhaps my favorites in the city, but Fridays and Saturdays these perfectly crisp fries will make you weep with happiness. $3.50 for an order that easily feeds two. It should probably serve more, but I don't like to share.

I wonder if Doug Sohn is married? Not for me of course...it's just a general curiously.

*I am looking for a job. If you hear of something you think I would be interested in, please let me know.

Megan & Andrew

Meyer Lemon Cake
Fresh Raspberry Filling
Lemon Vanilla Buttercream

Vertical Stripes, Hairy Finishes, and Three Pin Cushion Flowers

August 2, 2008, Catalyst Ranch

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


During a leisurely afternoon stroll, I popped into a little candy shop on Damen Avenue, just a bit south of where I live. I've gone past Suckers Candy a million times, but never entered. When Colleen and I moved to the neighborhood a couple of months ago, we nicknamed the life sized penguin outside the place "Ferdinand," or something equally as stupid, and joked that we should steal it to act as our butler. Of course we didn't actually do it, as we're both law abiding citizens, and our apartment is really more earth toned, which would clash with Ferdi.

Anyway, I went into Suckers today, and it was really unlike anything I've ever experienced. Penny candy was before my time. The candy aisles that I'm accustomed to are of the Walgreens variety. Suckers changed all that, and reminded me of what I've never known - rows upon row of jars, teeming with sweets in every color of the rainbow. There are gummy candies of every shape and flavor imaginable. Older items I rarely see, like bulls eyes, which remind me of my grandmother, and Mary Jane's which remind me of the cheapest neighbors on Halloween are available individually. There is Bazooka Joe bubble gum, which is still wrapped in a comic. Classics from my childhood include Fun Dip and Pop Rocks, and of course, Suckers has those too. I overheard another customer remarking about the selection of British goodies. A counter stocks chocolate dipped confections.

The thing that really blew me away though, that really stood out in this 50 square feet of cavity inducing heaven, was the ice cream cooler. Suckers carries individual serving cups of Plush Horse ice cream in a variety of flavors.

I remember The Plush Horse. As a kid, when my parents told us to get in the car, that we were going for ice cream, all I could do was squeal with delight, scramble for the seat belt, buckling it tight across my lap as to restrain my flailing limbs which were uncontrollable with excitement. Back then, and still now, I love ice cream. It's the stuff of dreams.

The first time we went to The Plush Horse, my parents didn't tell us that they were going on a pilgrimage, on a fantastic voyage that would lead us past thirteen Dairy Queens. They didn't elude to the fact that perhaps we should bring along a canteen of water to stave off dehydration. Rather, they packed Colleen and I into the car and started for Palos Hills, which was approximately no where close to our house. I've never been good with directions, and to this day I still have no idea where Palos Hills is located. We drove through miles of forest preserves, where the only illumination came from headlights. Occasionally a deer meandered close enough to the road to be spotted. Other than that, there was no entertainment. The drive seemed to last forever, especially considering the deliciousness that waited on the other end. Colleen and I must have been bouncing off the walls by the time we actually stepped out of the car and into The Plush Horse. It's a cute little old fashioned place. They make their ice cream in house and have 30 varieties. I remember ordering our cones and taking them outside to sit in the hot summer air. After all of the ice cream I've eaten in my life, I can't speculate on what I ordered, but I can bet that Dad had a chocolate malt. That's what he always gets - bet the house on it.

I've never seen The Plush Horse ice cream for sale outside of their shop in Palos Park, and when I came across it today in Suckers, it made me smile. I had to tell the shopkeeper about our trips there, about how the drive seemed to last forever and the ice cream never lasted long enough. It's a really nice memory to have, and one that wouldn't exist if my parents had chosen any one of those Dairy Queen locations.
Although I was thrilled to see it, I didn't buy any ice cream. The chocolate malt I'd had just prior was keeping me full. It gives me a good reason to go back to Suckers.

Monday, July 7, 2008

When Life Doesn't Give You Lemons

This is my lovely little Meyer Lemon tree. Some day, it will bear me fruit.

After seeing rows upon rows of lemon trees in the flower markets in Paris, I needed to have one. The dark green foliage acts as a canvas for the bright yellow fruits. If you rub a lemon leaf between your fingers it leaves behind the most sunny, clean scent. They also make great templates for making chocolate leaves.

Dave bought me one for Christmas, and I've faithfully watered it twice a week. The little tree survived the winter inside my Chicago apartment. It flowered minimally on two separate occasions, each time producing only three or four buds. I took a tip from a gardening website and attempted to cross-pollinate the buds using a cotton swab, which prompted many jokes about my having sexual relations with trees. Mock me if you must, but I really want lemons. When your tree gives you lemons, you make lemonade. And lemon meringue pie, and salad dressing, and herbal teas, and cleansers for the kitchen sink. Despite my efforts to speed up nature, no fruit grew.

Enter the month of June, and more moderate temperatures. It's not surprising that my little tree has recently begun to thrive. It's been living outside since the threat of night time frosts passed. I've tricked this plant into believing we're in Florida, with plenty of sunshine and lots of heat. It's flowering out of control. The pretty pink and creamy white buds are too numerous to count, and more pop up every day.

This afternoon I spotted a bee doing it's thing amongst the flowers. Nature's taking its course, so I'll leave the cotton swabs in the medicine cabinet for now. Yes indeed, this tree will give me Meyer lemons some day, and then I'll have my lemonade.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Summer Vacation

Thursday was my last day at Tags Bakery. This was one of my final projects. Don't look at it too long, or your retinas might burn out.

I've just returned from a long Independence Day weekend in Wisconsin - beautiful weather, raucous boating, tasty eats and drinks, and excellent company. It was a great beginning to my mini-summer vacation. There's no work this week. The Sweet Miss Givings project is in full effect on July 14. Our kitchen is under construction, and they will be plenty to do. Better enjoy myself while I can.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

On Laminated Doughs - Daring Bakers, June

At first glance, this month's Daring Baker challenge made me cringe, and then I got excited. June's recipe is Danish Braid, a filled coffee cake made from laminated dough. The pastry itself is flavored with vanilla bean, cardamom, and orange zest, lending itself to many kinds of fillings.

I haven't laminated dough since pastry school, when I had an entire class devoted to it. Danish, coffee cakes, croissants, and sweet rolls are made from laminated dough. There are two parts to the pastry; the detrempe and the beurrage. The detrempe is flour, yeast, sugar, and flavoring, which are mixed with a dough hook to incorporate and then kneaded by hand.

The beurrage is a butter smear that is incorporated into the detrempe through a series of four "turns", or rolls and folds. Each turn involves rolling the dough into a thin rectangle, then folding it into thirds and chilling before beginning the next round. Chilling allows time for the gluten in the detrempe to relax, and for the butter to solidify a bit. Try doing the turns in quick succession, without chilling, and the butter will to ooze out the sides of the rubber band dough. It's much easier to just let it sit in the fridge for a while between turns. The process of turning and resting the dough is called "lamination." Each turn creates more layers of pastry and butter, which equals flakiness. When the turns are done correctly, the layers of butter create steam in the hot oven, which make the pastry light and flaky. If your morning croissant is more cake like, you can be sure that the dough wasn't laminated correctly.

Danish, and other laminated doughs, are really a two day process. The mixing, turning, and resting happened yesterday, and then the dough rested in the refrigerator overnight. Today the dough was divided in half, and rolled into a large thin rectangle, cutting slats on both sides.

I filled my Danish Braid with fresh blueberry compote. The pastry is closed through braiding and left it to proof. It took several hours to double in size. After brushing with egg wash and sprinkling with slivered almonds, the braid is finally baked. It's a long process, and left me yearning for the laminating machine at work, which does all of the rolling for you.

So, how did it turn out? (No pun intended. Okay, it was intended.)

The pastry at the bottom of the braid melted away, and there's nearly nothing holding the blueberry filling in. Although I was careful when rolling, it was probably too thin. The pastry is not as flaky as I had hoped, so I must have done one of my turns incorrectly. The cardamom and vanilla bean give it nice flavor, but it just doesn't warrant 2 days of prep. The filling though, would be excellent for a pie. Contrary to popular belief, I don't use canned fillings.

Danish Braid
from Sherry Yard’s The Secrets of Baking

Makes 2-1/2 pounds dough

For the dough (Detrempe)
1 ounce fresh yeast or 1 tablespoon active dry yeast
1/2 cup whole milk
1/3 cup sugar
Zest of 1 orange, finely grated
3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 vanilla bean, split and scraped
2 large eggs, chilled
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
3-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt

For the butter block (Beurrage)
1/2 pound (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour

Combine yeast and milk in the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and mix on low speed. Slowly add sugar, orange zest, cardamom, vanilla extract, vanilla seeds, eggs, and orange juice. Mix well. Change to the dough hook and add the salt with the flour, 1 cup at a time, increasing speed to medium as the flour is incorporated. Knead the dough for about 5 minutes, or until smooth. You may need to add a little more flour if it is sticky. Transfer dough to a lightly floured baking sheet and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Without a standing mixer: Combine yeast and milk in a bowl with a hand mixer on low speed or a whisk. Add sugar, orange zest, cardamom, vanilla extract, vanilla seeds, eggs, and orange juice and mix well. Sift flour and salt on your working surface and make a fountain. Make sure that the “walls” of your fountain are thick and even. Pour the liquid in the middle of the fountain. With your fingertips, mix the liquid and the flour starting from the middle of the fountain, slowly working towards the edges. When the ingredients have been incorporated start kneading the dough with the heel of your hands until it becomes smooth and easy to work with, around 5 to 7 minutes. You might need to add more flour if the dough is sticky.

1. Combine butter and flour in the bowl of a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and beat on medium speed for 1 minute. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and the paddle and then beat for 1 minute more, or until smooth and lump free. Set aside at room temperature.
2. After the detrempe has chilled 30 minutes, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll the dough into a rectangle approximately 18 x 13 inches and ¼ inch thick. The dough may be sticky, so keep dusting it lightly with flour. Spread the butter evenly over the center and right thirds of the dough. Fold the left edge of the detrempe to the right, covering half of the butter. Fold the right third of the rectangle over the center third. The first turn has now been completed. Mark the dough by poking it with your finger to keep track of your turns, or use a sticky and keep a tally. Place the dough on a baking sheet, wrap it in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
3. Place the dough lengthwise on a floured work surface. The open ends should be to your right and left. Roll the dough into another approximately 13 x 18 inch, ¼-inch-thick rectangle. Again, fold the left third of the rectangle over the center third and the right third over the center third. No additional butter will be added as it is already in the dough. The second turn has now been completed. Refrigerate the dough for 30 minutes.
4. Roll out, turn, and refrigerate the dough two more times, for a total of four single turns. Make sure you are keeping track of your turns. Refrigerate the dough after the final turn for at least 5 hours or overnight. The Danish dough is now ready to be used. If you will not be using the dough within 24 hours, freeze it. To do this, roll the dough out to about 1 inch in thickness, wrap tightly in plastic wrap, and freeze. Defrost the dough slowly in the refrigerator for easiest handling. Danish dough will keep in the freezer for up to 1 month.

Makes enough for 2 large braids

1 recipe Danish Dough (see below)
2 cups filling, jam, or preserves (see below)

For the egg wash: 1 large egg, plus 1 large egg yolk

1. Line a baking sheet with a silicone mat or parchment paper. On a lightly floured surface, roll the Danish Dough into a 15 x 20-inch rectangle, ¼ inch thick. If the dough seems elastic and shrinks back when rolled, let it rest for a few minutes, then roll again. Place the dough on the baking sheet.
2. Along one long side of the pastry make parallel, 5-inch-long cuts with a knife or rolling pastry wheel, each about 1 inch apart. Repeat on the opposite side, making sure to line up the cuts with those you’ve already made.
3. Spoon the filling you’ve chosen to fill your braid down the center of the rectangle. Starting with the top and bottom “flaps”, fold the top flap down over the filling to cover. Next, fold the bottom “flap” up to cover filling. This helps keep the braid neat and helps to hold in the filling. Now begin folding the cut side strips of dough over the filling, alternating first left, then right, left, right, until finished. Trim any excess dough and tuck in the ends.

Egg Wash
Whisk together the whole egg and yolk in a bowl and with a pastry brush, lightly coat the braid.

Proofing and Baking
1. Spray cooking oil (Pam…) onto a piece of plastic wrap, and place over the braid. Proof at room temperature or, if possible, in a controlled 90 degree F environment for about 2 hours, or until doubled in volume and light to the touch.
2. Near the end of proofing, preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Position a rack in the center of the oven.
3. Bake for 10 minutes, then rotate the pan so that the side of the braid previously in the back of the oven is now in the front. Lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees F, and bake about 15-20 minutes more, or until golden brown. Cool and serve the braid either still warm from the oven or at room temperature. The cooled braid can be wrapped airtight and stored in the refrigerator for up to 2 days, or freeze for 1 month.

Blueberry Filling a la Beth
16 oz fresh blueberries
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
zest of one orange
1/4 cup fresh orange juice

Mix together the sugar and starch in a sauce pan. Add all other ingredients. Cook until boiling and thickened. Cool completely before filling the Danish Braid.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Blueberry Pancakes


I must have been seduced by the growing selection of produce available at the vegetable market last week. I came away with strawberries, cherries, nectarines, blueberries, sweet corn, scallions, cucumbers, romaine lettuce, and a bunch of other stuff that would take forever to list. What small nation did I think I was feeding? I blame the vibrant colors of summer crops. It's difficult to resist those beautiful shades, every color of the rainbow, from strawberries to blackberries. Five days later, and I am frantically searching for ways to use all of the food before it spoils.

The strawberries have become ice cream, and the sweet corn went into salads. Having the day off, and no where to be until much later, I embarked on a breakfast project. Blueberry cheese pancakes served two purposes - use up the berries and the buttermilk that's about to become Gouda, and satisfy my love for the day's first meal. I love a leisurely breakfast.

For perfectly browned pancakes, with a slightly crisp exterior and a giving middle, nothing cooks better than cast iron. When it's hot, rub with butter to prevent the cakes from sticking. The flavor it imparts is just an added bonus. I served with Trader Joe's Grade A Maple Syrup, which has a robust flavor. I recommend it.

Blueberry Cheese Pancakes
1 3/4 cups All Purpose Flour
2 tablespoons Sugar
1 tablespoon Baking Powder
pinch salt
3/4 cup Buttermilk
1/4 cup Cottage Cheese
1 teaspoon Vanilla
1 pint fresh blueberries

Preheat griddle above a medium flame. When the pan is hot, grease with butter.

Mix all ingredients, except blueberries, until smooth. Drop by 1/4 cup onto hot griddle. Scatter blueberries on top of cakes. Cook about 2 minutes on each side, or until browned. Serve with extra berries and warmed maple syrup.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Grilling Out

After much procrastinating, I finally bought a propane tank for the grill. Let the summer begin!

What's the best part of living in the Midwest? Contrary to popular belief, it's not the mild, predictable weather. For this girl, the best thing about living in Illinois is the close proximity to sweet corn. In the summer months, when it's available everywhere, five ears for a dollar, there is nothing better. I love corn, and have fond memories of eating it straight off the cob, glistening with butter and salt, during the summers of my childhood. Nowadays I'll eat it any way I can get it when it's at it's peak. Earlier this week I bought my first ears of the season. I shucked, oiled, and grilled them up before slicing the kernels off to toss into this salad.

"Kick ass" and "salad" are two words that I never thought I would use together, but this one fits the bill. The dressing doubles as a marinade for the shrimp, so long as you discard the portion the raw shrimp swims in. It's very tasty, refreshing, and would have been even better if I had accompanied it with a margarita.

Lime, Cilantro, and Garlic Dressing

Juice of 5 limes
1 small garlic clove, minced
1 small jalapeno, seeded and minced
6 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon cumin
salt to taste

Mix all ingredients together. Use as a salad dressing, or a marinade for shrimp, fish, or chicken.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Life is Just a Bowl of Egg Yolks

I don't remember what I was making when I took this picture a few weeks ago. I simply liked the way the bright egg yolks looked against the pattern of a bowl my grandmother gave to me when I went away to college. It looked like edible sunshine.

It's time to face the facts. I am just no good at photographing food. Pictures of otherwise good looking, good tasting food come out looking like S.O.S. Thank heavens for professionals.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Imitation as a Form of Flattery

In the cake biz, clients often bring photos of cakes they've seen and ask if it can be duplicated. This one one that I worked on for a wedding today. The original design was created by the fabulous Cake Girls, right here in Chicago.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A Night at the Opera

Booze, sweets, and tunes. Looks like the beginnings of a good night.

I recently joined an online group called The Daring Bakers. A monthly challenge is issued and we bakers have a month to complete the project. All participants then post a blog about their experience with the recipes.

My first challenge: Opera Torte. The classic version originated in France. In its purest form, this fancy pastry consists of thin layers of almond based cake filled with mocha buttercream and chocolate ganache, covered with shiny chocolate glaze.

The Daring Bakers challenge added a springtime twist by subbing white chocolate for dark and forbidding strong flavors, like coffee. I chose to compliment my torte with fresh raspberries and Chambord Liqueur.

Like an idiot, I decided to begin my torte at 8:30 pm for a dinner party the following day. There are four distinct recipes that comprise one Opera Torte, and the assembly of all four components takes some time. I was ambitious at 8:30, and dead tired at 11:15, when I put the nearly completed project to rest for the night. Here's the shake down:

The first step of building an Opera Torte is to bake jaconde, a cake that is flavored with ground almonds and lightened with whipped egg whites. Because it is spread very thin, it rises minimally and bakes fast. Yay for fast! At least one part of this recipe is fast!

After the layers are baked and cooled, they are lifted out of their pans and cut into strips to be filled. The first filling was Italian buttercream flavored with fresh raspberry puree and of Chambord, a tasty raspberry liqueur. Filling number two was a white chocolate mousse that was easy to make but took forever to set up.

I ended up with an odd number of jaconde strips, so I had two layers of each filling. Once the cake was assembled, I stuck it in the fridge to chill and stumbled into bed. I woke early the next day to a solid, cold cake that was ready to glaze. I stuck with the white chocolate recipe provided, and since I had extra puree from the buttercream recipe, chose to garnish the finished product with it. The effect was not unlike blood dripping down the sides of the cake. Thankfully, it tasted much better.

White chocolate isn't really my thing. I consider it to be the bastard child of the chocolate family, or at least the adopted one. The fact that it isn't really chocolate at all, due to its lack of cocoa mass, aggravates me. It needs a new name. I would like to nominate "solid sugar milk." I was a little disappointed that my first challenge had me using white chocolate as a main ingredient because I rarely enjoy it's overt sweetness. Although this version of the Opera Torte came together pretty easily, and looked pretty enough to serve at a Southern bridal shower, I found it to be sweet to the point of inducing cavities.

There were parts of the recipe that I enjoyed. The jaconde cake is a winner. It came together easily, baked flawlessly, and tasted delicious. I'd definitely make it again. The Italian buttercream was a standard, and a method that I frequently use. And, it's pretty difficult to mess up simple syrup, with equal parts of sugar and water, and flavoring to taste. I'll pass on the white chocolate mousse and white chocolate glaze, and most likely, next time I make Opera Torte, it will be the traditional way.

Opera Torte (based on recipes in Dorie Greenspan’s Paris Sweets and Tish Boyle and Timothy Moriarty’s Chocolate Passion)

(Note: The joconde can be made up to 1 day in advance and kept wrapped at room temperate)

6 large egg whites, at room temperature
2 tbsp. (30 grams) granulated sugar
2 cups (225 grams) ground blanched almonds2
2 cups icing sugar, sifted
6 large eggs
½ cup (70 grams) all-purpose flour
3 tbsp. (1½ ounces; 45 grams) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

Divide the oven into thirds by positioning a rack in the upper third of the oven and the lower third of the oven.

Preheat the oven to 425◦F. (220◦C).

Line two 12½ x 15½- inch (31 x 39-cm) jelly-roll pans with parchment paper and brush with melted butter.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (or using a handheld mixer), beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks. Add the granulated sugar and beat until the peaks are stiff and glossy. If you do not have another mixer bowl, gently scrape the meringue into another bowl and set aside.

If you only have one bowl, wash it after removing the egg whites or if you have a second bowl, use that one. Attach the paddle attachment to the stand mixer (or using a handheld mixer again) and beat the almonds, icing sugar and eggs on medium speed until light and voluminous, about 3 minutes.

Add the flour and beat on low speed until the flour is just combined (be very careful not to overmix here!!!).

Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the meringue into the almond mixture and then fold in the melted butter. Divide the batter between the pans and spread it evenly to cover the entire surface of each pan.

Bake the cake layers until they are lightly browned and just springy to the touch. This could take anywhere from 5 to 9 minutes depending on your oven. Place one jelly-roll pan in the middle of the oven and the second jelly-roll pan in the bottom third of the oven.

Put the pans on a heatproof counter and run a sharp knife along the edges of the cake to loosen it from the pan. Cover each with a sheet of parchment or wax paper, turn the pans over, and unmold.

Carefully peel away the parchment, then turn the parchment over and use it to cover the cakes. Let the cakes cool to room temperature.

Simple Syrup
(Note: The syrup can be made up to 1 week in advance and kept covered in the refrigerator.)

½ cup (125 grams) water
⅓ cup (65 grams) granulated sugar
1 to 2 tbsp. of the flavouring of your choice (i.e., vanilla extract, almond extract, cognac, limoncello, coconut cream, honey etc.)

Stir all the syrup ingredients together in the saucepan and bring to a boil.

Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature.

(Note: The buttercream can be made up to 1 month in advance and packed in an airtight container. If made way in advance, you can freeze the buttercream. Alternatively you can refrigerate it for up to 4 days after making it. To use the buttercream simply bring it to room temperature and then beat it briefly to restore its consistency.)

1 cup (100 grams) granulated sugar (Used to say 2 cups but should be 1 cup)
¼ cup (60 grams) water (Used to say ½ cup but should say ¼ cup)
seeds of one vanilla bean (split a vanilla bean down the middle and scrape out the seeds) or 1 tbsp. pure vanilla extract5
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1¾ sticks (7 ounces; 200 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature (Used to say 1¾ cups of butter but it should be 1¾ sticks).
flavouring of your choice (a tablespoon of an extract, a few tablespoons of melted white chocolate, citrus zest, etc.)

Combine the sugar, water and vanilla bean seeds or extract in a small saucepan and warm over medium heat just until the sugar dissolves.

Continue to cook, without stirring, until the syrup reaches 225◦F (107◦C)6 on a candy or instant-read thermometer. Once it reaches that temperature, remove the syrup from the heat.

While the syrup is heating, begin whisking the egg and egg yolk at high speed in the bowl of your mixer using the whisk attachment. Whisk them until they are pale and foamy.

When the sugar syrup reaches the correct temperature and you remove it from the heat, reduce the mixer speed to low speed and begin slowly (very slowly) pouring the syrup down the side of the bowl being very careful not to splatter the syrup into the path of the whisk attachment. Some of the syrup will spin onto the sides of the bowl but don’t worry about this and don’t try to stir it into the mixture as it will harden!

Raise the speed to medium-high and continue beating until the eggs are thick and satiny and the mixture is cool to the touch (about 5 minutes or so).

While the egg mixture is beating, place the softened butter in a bowl and mash it with a spatula until you have a soft creamy mass.

With the mixer on medium speed, begin adding in two-tablespoon chunks. When all the butter has been incorporated, raise the mixer speed to high and beat until the buttercream is thick and shiny.

At this point add in your flavouring and beat for an additional minute or so.

Refrigerate the buttercream, stirring it often, until it’s set enough (firm enough) to spread when topped with a layer of cake (about 20 minutes).

White Chocolate Mousse
(Note: The mousse can be made ahead and refrigerated until you’re ready to use it.)

7 ounces white chocolate
1 cup plus 3 tbsp. heavy cream (35% cream)
1 tbsp. liquer of your choice (Bailey’s, Amaretto, etc.)

Melt the white chocolate and the 3 tbsp. of heavy cream in a small saucepan.
Stir to ensure that it’s smooth and that the chocolate is melted. Add the tablespoon of liqueur to the chocolate and stir. Set aside to cool completely.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, whip the remaining 1 cup of heavy cream until soft peaks form.

Gently fold the whipped cream into the cooled chocolate to form a mousse.
If it’s too thin, refrigerate it for a bit until it’s spreadable.
If you’re not going to use it right away, refrigerate until you’re ready to use.

White Chocolate Glaze
(Note: It’s best to make the glaze right when you’re ready to finish the cake.)

14 ounces white chocolate, coarsely chopped7
½ cup heavy cream (35% cream)

Melt the white chocolate with the heavy cream. Whisk the mixture gently until smooth.

Let cool for 10 minutes and then pour over the chilled cake. Using a long metal cake spatula, smooth out into an even layer.

Place the cake into the refrigerator for 30 minutes to set.

Assembling the Opéra Cake
(Note: The finished cake should be served slightly chilled. It can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 1 day).

Line a baking sheet with parchment or wax paper.

Working with one sheet of cake at a time, cut and trim each sheet so that you have two pieces (from each cake so you’ll have four pieces in total): one 10-inch (25-cm) square and one 10 x 5-inch (25 x 12½-cm) rectangle.

Place one square of cake on the baking sheet and moisten it gently with the flavoured syrup.

Spread about three-quarters of the buttercream over this layer.

Top with the two rectangular pieces of cake, placing them side by side to form a square. Moisten these pieces with the flavoured syrup.

Spread the remaining buttercream on the cake and then top with the third square of joconde. Use the remaining syrup to wet the joconde and then refrigerate until very firm (at least half an hour).

Prepare the ganache/mousse (if you haven’t already) and then spread it on the top of the last layer of the joconde. Refrigerate for at least two to three hours to give the ganache/mousse the opportunity to firm up.

Make the glaze and after it has cooled, pour/spread it over the top of the chilled cake. Refrigerate the cake again to set the glaze.

Serve the cake slightly chilled. This recipe will yield approximately 20 servings.