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, 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.