Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

Hubba Hubba.

Apple Nutmeg Upside Down Cake. Haven't tasted it yet (have to fight the urge to dig in, as we're no where near close to dinner time) so I won't post the recipe now, but if it's half as good as it looks, I'll revise to include.

Giving thanks for so many people and so many things this year. It's been a great one. Enjoy yourselves!

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Daring Kitchen Cake Decorating Challenge

I had the best intentions going into last weekend. I'd brainstormed for days about the theme for a cake decorating competition sponsored by the US Confection Connection and and the New York Cake Convention. I had thought hard about what the autumn season means to me, and how I could transfer that feeling to a 9" cake. I dug deep - of course fall brings colorful leaves and shapely gourds, but all the cakes would include those. In a moment of sheer brilliance, a friend mentioned that she always thought of birds flying south when the cooler weather hits. Suddenly, my cake had a theme, and I was ready to go.

I baked off and assembled my cake layers. Fondant was tinted. I researched silhouettes of birds and the shapes of nearly bare tree branches. Everything was coming together nicely, and I had starry disillusions visions of winning the big prize - an all expenses paid trip to NYC in January, and the opportunity to demonstrate your decorating techniques at the convention.

Then, the strangest thing happened. A November heatwave hit Chicago, and it brought sunshine with it. For two straight glorious days, the city's streets and sidewalks teemed with people anxious to do something (ANYTHING) outside. It was an absolutely perfect weekend, with temperatures hitting 70 degrees.

I learned something this weekend. I don't give a shit about birds flying south, or leaves dying and littering the ground. What autumn really means to me is that bone-chilling, ass-chapping, breath-stealing cold is right around the corner and it's just waiting to pounce. I learned that when a mid-autumn day feels more like mid-May, you'd be an idiot to waste it cooped up inside, making maple leaves and yellow-bellied sapsuckers out of sugar. Hell, who knows when we'll get to 70 degrees again?

So, without further ado, I give you my entry to The Daring Kitchen Cake Decorating Challenge.

It might be simple, but it truly does embrace how I feel about the season: Sunny days are at a premium, and they're not to be spent indoors. I abandoned my cake on Saturday morning. Plus, the idea of spending four days in New York City in mid-January was horrifying when compared to the thought of spending the present day, an unbelievably beautiful one, walking around my Chicago.

I couldn't even be bothered to take a decent picture. Had to get out the door immediately. I hope the winner of this contest packs an extra scarf and mittens to battle the New York City winter. Sucker.*

*Not really though. I would go in a heartbeat!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Baked Apples

There's really nothing simpler than baked apples. It's one of those things where the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. Basic ingredients go into the oven - apples, brown sugar, a few nuts and spices, and individually portioned, fragrant comfort food comes out. These babies make a lovely but unexpected brunch item and taste best served warm or at room temperature.

Peel a strip from the center of the apple, and completely remove the core. Any firm-fleshed apples will work; if you'd use them in a pie, you can bake them freestanding. If the apples won't stand up on their own, trim a bit from the bottom to create a level surface. Arrange them snugly in a baking dish. Stir together a mixture of brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, chopped toasted pecans, raisins, and a sprinkle of salt. Plan for about 2 tablespoons of filling per apple. Adjust the levels of cinnamon and nutmeg to your tastes - I used 2 teaspoons of cinnamon and 1/2 teaspoon of freshly ground nutmeg for 8 apples. Pack the center of each apple with the brown sugar mixture. Sprinkle any extra over the tops of the apples. Add 1/4 cup of water to the bottom of the baking dish. Cook the apples in a preheated 350 degree oven for about 40 minutes, basting the apples often. The water becomes like loose caramel as it mixes with the brown sugar filling, and basting allows the flavors to really go throughout the apples from the core and also from the exposed strip on the sides. The apples are done when a fork can easily pierce the flesh.

Of course, this isn't really a recipe since I haven't provided any specific amounts, but it is nearly foolproof, and I encourage you to try it now, while apples are at their peak. The variations are endless: Change out the cinnamon and nutmeg for cardamom; use cranberries and orange zest in the filling; try white wine instead of water. Any way you bake them, the apples will be soft, sweet, and very autumnal.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

French Macaron - Daring Bakers October

Dear Claudia Fleming,

We've been together for a few years now. I've enjoyed your book, The Last Course, a lot during our time together. Your chocolate caramel tarts, with their final flourish of sea salt, have ended a few of my dinner parties. Lavender lemon pound cake, page 150, got me over my fear of floral notes in baked goods. I created a fig and cornmeal cake recipe that was inspired by your fig cornmeal tart. In totality, before this month's Daring Baker's challenge, I was in awe of The Last Course. Every recipe I made from it sparkled, and seemed to trigger excess inspiration. Thanks for that. It's a lovely book.

I've tried to make this work. After attempting your original macaroon (your spelling, not mine) recipe twice to ill effect, I made a slight alteration by increasing the amount of granulated sugar and left the piped unbaked macaroons to sit outside the oven for an hour before baking according to your directions. The feet on those suckers were so encouraging, but the cracked tops meant there was more work to do. My fourth batch kept the new higher sugar level and counter-drying time, but added a few more strokes of the macronage and a slightly lower end baking temperature. No cracking that time, but no feet either.

As I struggled to get those elusive little feet, the mark of a true macaron, I devoured countless chewy almond cookies. Those were tasty little failures, and I wouldn't change them for anything. But Claudia, life's too short to waste good vanilla beans. I adore your idea for putting real vanilla seeds right into the macronage. The flavor is sensational and those dark speckles would be downright dramatic against the smooth creamy color of a well baked plain macaron. I'll keep that tip, but I'm abandoning the rest of the recipe. It's not you - it's me. My macaron-loving heart belongs to Tartlette. Her basic recipe is foolproof, and she makes me feel like a better baker. I hope you'll understand. I'll always be fond of your book, and we'll still stay friends, right?



The 2009 October Daring Bakers’ challenge was brought to us by Ami S. She chose macarons from Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern as the challenge recipe. Thanks for the Great Challenge!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Fondant Covered Cupcakes

This is what happens when I decide to have a little extra fun at work...I form a cupcake gang, using the only three colors available. Clockwise, from top left:

Morty, Hans, Sally, Chill Will, Lola, and Herman

Lola is my favorite. She's sleek. She's sassy. She's giving you the side eye, but with that smirk, it's impossible to tell if her intentions are good or evil.


Sunday, October 18, 2009

Bucktown Apple Pie Contest

The annual Beth gets her ass handed to her, pouts about losing, and eats her own weight in apple pie day Bucktown Apple Pie Contest was today.

So, what did I learn?

1. People love booze. People will buy slices of a pie that is pasty as hell and is swimming in juice if it has bourbon in it.
2. Store-bought refrigerated pie dough is even easier to spot than I thought.
3. Even though it is the Bucktown APPLE Pie Contest, inevitably an old man will ask where the pecan pie can be found. Not joking.
4. The contest is more fun when you have friends (Courtney and Kristal) to commiserate with.

5. Don't judge a pie by it's crust. Sometimes the ugly ones are the tastiest. (Shout out to Kristal and Joel - yours was so good!)
6. I am overly competitive and need to learn to be a graceful loser. I think that I used to be better at this. Perhaps my pride has grown over the years? My pouty face is ugly and shouldn't be shown in public.
7. It's important to write down what kinds of apples are used in your filling, because the farmers market sells about a gazillion different varieties, and you'll never be able to replicate it without detailed notes. Ever.
8. I really, really, really love pie.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Chocolate Meringue Birthday Cake

Making cakes for close friends is tough for me, because I want to make the perfect thing, a cake that she will love, even if she never knew she wanted it in the first place. The flavors and the facade have to mirror that person's unique qualities. It usually takes me several brainstorming sessions to come up with a complete idea: cake, filling, frosting, and decoration. Last week I went through this process for my wonderful friend Meghan, who is generosity and beauty personified. She deserves only good things. Meghan's love of baking makes her even more endearing, and it also made her birthday cake a little more challenging.

In the end, I chose a moist, deeply chocolate cake. It was filled with alternating layers of salted caramel buttercream (a fabulous idea from Leena! at Leena Eats ) and vanilla bean buttercream.

I followed Rose Levy Beranbaum's recipe for (terrifying) Caramel Silk Meringue Buttercream, a recipe that requires no less than 4 saucepans. It was a bit of a nightmare to make, much more difficult than my standard Swiss meringue buttercream. At several points in the process, I thought that I had permanently f'ed up the whole batch; that I'd let the caramel brown too far , that I had curdled the eggs in the creme anglaise, that I'd added the sugar syrup to the egg whites too quickly. Miraculously, I avoided all of those pitfalls and ended up with a really delicious frosting. True to its name, it was smooth as silk, but also firm enough to stand in its place. I added a bit of salt directly into the the sugar as it cooked into amber, and another bit after the butter was fully incorporated into the frosting. It was just barely noticeable, but brought the entire cake up a notch. It's truly remarkable what a little seasoning can do for a dish!

The sides of the cake were studded with chocolate meringues. Aside from looking really crazy, the little round confections finished off the cake with a crisp and chewy texture. The whole thing came together so well. Meghan was pleased, so I was too. After all, that was the ultimate goal.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Eat Your Juice

I'm not a big juice drinker, but that doesn't mean that I don't consume juice. I just prefer to eat it. Adding juice to recipes, both sweet and savory, is a surefire way to add flavor. When POM offered to send me a case of their delish Pomegranate Juice, I started brainstorming ways to use it. I didn't have to think long.

I knew that I'd drink some of it straight because POM Wonderful is good stuff. It's not loaded with corn syrup, artificial colors, or preservatives like most juices. The only thing in those bottles is 100% pure pomegranate juice and a whole lot of free radical-fighting antioxidants. Even if it wasn't ultra healthy, I'd be drinking it for the taste. POM Wonderful has an addictive sweet and sour balance.

Here's a quick way to incorporate POM and all those awesome antioxidants into a quick dinner:

Pour an 8 ounce bottle of POM Wonderful into a saucepan. Chop half an onion, smash two cloves of garlic, grate a teaspoon of fresh ginger and dump in the pan with the pomegranate juice. Add a dash of mirin, a dash of soy sauce, and a teaspoon of Sriracha. Stir together and cook over medium heat until the juice reduces enough to coat the back of a spoon. Strain, reserving only the liquid. Goes great with chicken or pork, and could easily be doubled and stashed in the fridge for another night.

I spooned this slightly sweet sauce over stir fried pork and vegetables that were seasoned with Chinese five spice. All of the POM glaze was sponged up by a bed of brown rice. Altogether, very colorful, very pretty, and not at all likely to cause your arteries to clog up. All good things!

I think I still have one bottle of POM left, and I'm debating what to do with it. Of course I could just drink it, and I know that I'd enjoy it, but I'm still trying to think of an inventive way to bake with pomegranate juice. Suggestions?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Daring Bakers September - Pâte Feuilletée

It is time consuming, but certainly not difficult, to make puff pastry from scratch. This flaky, buttery dough lends itself to sweet and savory applications, and can elevate an everyday dish to something elegant.

The September 2009 Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Steph of A Whisk and a Spoon. She chose the French treat, Vols-au-Vent based on the Puff Pastry recipe by Michel Richard from the cookbook Baking With Julia by Dorie Greenspan. A vol-au-vent is a puff pastry bowl or shell, made by cutting disks and rings from rolled pastry, and stacking them together. The whole thing puffs up into hundreds of light, crisp golden brown layers.

My favorite thing to ladle into vols-au-vent is boeuf bourgignon, a hearty and heady French beef stew made with red wine. It's one of the more decadent stews around, which makes it a natural pair with buttery puff pastry. I followed Julia Child's recipe from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, except that I used an additional carrot, and wish that I would have upped that even further, as I love the color that they add to an otherwise "brown" dish.

I have lots of extra puff dough, and am looking forward to turning it into palmiers and cheese straws later this week. Some dough will get stashed in the freezer, to be thawed at a future date for a yet unnamed project. It's a good thing to have on hand.

Monday, September 14, 2009


Here I am, in all of my nasal glory, in my first segment for Wilton. This is one of ten Halloween-focused segments we filmed in one day. It may not look like it, but these short snippets take a lot of time and effort to pull together.

The segments are being rolled out one at a time on the Wilton Blog. Kindly leave your cheeky remarks here, and not on the corporate page, because I love my job and would have to seriously hurt anyone who jeopardized that love. Ninja style.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Kitchen Sink Frittata

Frugal home cooks often come up with inventive ways to finish up the odds and ends from their refrigerators and larders. In an effort to cut back on our monthly grocery spending, I've made a conscious decision to become one of those frugal cooks. I need to pare down on the at-home meals so that we can splurge on out-on-the-town meals. That means getting the most out of everything that we buy, and using it in a way that is tasty and enjoyable.

Eggs are my "kitchen sink" fallback dish. Whenever there are vegetables that are past their prime, odd ends of cheese, or just a couple of slices of leftover ham, I think of frittatas, an inexpensive dish can hold any number of veggies and be doctored up a million different ways. I love quiche, but it's laden with heavy cream and butter. Frittatas are the poor man's version of quiche. They're much faster, easier, and lighter since there is no pastry crust, and the addition of milk or cream to the egg base is strictly optional. Frittatas cook up quickly and look gorgeous on a large serving tray. I often make one one the weekend for breakfast, and Dave and I end up eating it for lunch or a light dinner the next day.

This recipe is loose, and is based on what I mixed into my frittata this morning: a tomato that was getting a little wrinkled, a red pepper, half a Spanish onion that was left over from something I don't even remember cooking, the last two slices of Canadian bacon, dried thyme, and about an ounce of creamy Camembert that was sent from the lovely folks at Isle de France. Next week, my frittata will look totally different, depending on what's in the fridge.

Kitchen Sink Frittata

1 garlic clove, quartered
1/2 cup diced onion
1 red pepper, diced
1 tomato, seeded and diced
2 slices Canadian bacon, diced
8-10 eggs (depends on how many I have available)
1 ounce Camembert

Preheat broiler.

In an oven safe skillet, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil over low heat. Add the quartered garlic clove, and allow the oil to continue heating for 5 minutes. Skim the garlic pieces out of the oil and discard. Add diced onion to the pan. Saute until onions are translucent. Add diced red pepper; saute another 3 minutes. Add diced tomato and Canadian bacon and saute until juice from the tomato is almost completely evaporated.

In a large mixing bowl, beat eggs with a generous amount of kosher salt, cracked black pepper, and 1/2 teaspoon of dried thyme. Add eggs to the vegetable mixture in the skillet. Dot the eggs with small chunks of Camembert. Use a heat resistant spatula to move the eggs around, scraping them from the bottom and sides of the pan so that heat is distributed evenly throughout. When eggs are partially cooked but still very runny, stop stirring and allow the eggs to set on the bottom of the pan.

When the eggs are set on the sides and bottom of the pan, carefully move the skillet to the broiler to finish cooking through. The frittata will only need a minute or two in the broiler, so be attentive. Remove the frittata after it begins to brown slightly on the top. Allow to cool for 5 minutes (eggs will finish cooking in the center) before loosening the sides and bottom and flipping onto a serving platter.

Garnish with chopped chives, green onions, or parsley.

Thursday, September 3, 2009


Reyka Vodka is good stuff, my friends, and it's good for a lot of reasons. On its own, it is smooth, clean, and rounded with an easy finish. Paired with tonic and a spritz of lime, my preferred cocktail is crisp and refreshing. Reyka distills its vodka in copper pots and filters it through lava rocks. This stuff is definitely drinkable, and it proves that Iceland produces more than Bjork and days of continuous sunshine.

The Reyka website is very entertaining, particularly the stories behind the eight different bottle caps. Are you enticed yet?

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Wedding Cake - Mission Complete

Summertime finally decided to visit Chicago this weekend. After weeks of glorious, mild temperatures and lots of sunshine, Mother Nature unleashed a beast of a heatwave, with choking humidity to boot. I don't mind the warmth; I like it actually. Chocolate mousse filled cakes with real buttercream frosting, however, don't appreciate it. All of that cream and butter weep with heat, and even wedding cake novices know better than to suggest these types of cakes for summer events. Of course, a four-tiered yellow caked filled with said mousse and frosting was today's order. I'm a dumbass for agreeing to a mousse-filled cake in mid-August, but I'm also a dumbass who likes a good challenge. Extreme caution and proper temperature control was crucial. The cake was delivered to a mansion in Oak Park and stacked on site with a little help from my sister Colleen. She excelled at her rookie wedding cake delivery, blasting the AC in the delivery car, and only smudging the cake with her finger once, and in a manner that was easily fixed. Thanks for the help Miss Col!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Daring Bakers July - Milan Cookies

I know what you're thinking! If you've visited this blog before, you have undoubtedly noticed that the above photo is much better than normal. It's roughly 35,000% better than the photos that I usually post. Thanks to my wonderful Dave, photography geek and boyfriend extrodinaire, for helping out. He's got a way with the camera, and an excellent eye for detail. I'm hoping that he will guest photograph many more blog posts to come!

I grew up just a few miles from a Pepperidge Farm plant, and can fondly remember the scent of freshly baked bread and crackers wafting around town. Today, I associate Pepperidge Farm with some of the best packaged cookies found on grocery store shelves. Attempting to recreate the famous Milano cookie, two crisp, delicate vanilla cookies sandwiched together with dark chocolate ganache, was exciting. I hoped Gale Gand's recipe, the one the Daring Bakers followed this month, would yield a nearly identical confection. I was disappointed in that regard, because although my Milans were tasty, the cookies were slightly chewy, almost like very thin macaroons. I would have preferred a crisper cookie, but wasn't able to acheive that without over browning them, even after dropping the oven temperature from 350° to 300°.

This recipe made roughly a boatload of cookies, and leaves the kitchen smelling exactly like an ice cream parlor. I stored my completely cooled, sandwiched cookies in an airtight container, but was disappointed to wake up to cookies that were without a trace of crunch. They had gone completely soft overnight. So much for that boatload of Milans to last throughout the week - they got trashed instead.

The recipe for Gale Gand's Milan Cookies can be found here.

Thanks to this month's host! The July Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Nicole at Sweet Tooth. She chose Chocolate Covered Marshmallow Cookies and Milan Cookies from pastry chef Gale Gand of the Food Network.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Things That Make Me Happy

Tomato and basil bruschetta for a light summer dinner. Seriously, there's nothing better than those flavors, when the tomatoes are perfectly ripe and the basil comes from the backyard. Toss with some finely minced shallot and garlic, and a drizzle of olive oil for a true taste of the season.

My new job as the Assistant Culinary Specialist at Wilton. I love that I love going to work - I'm a new person. More on the job later, after I figure out the company's social media policies.

Receiving emails like this:

Hey Beth,

Seeing your Gchat status lit up reminded me that I was going to send you an email and let you know that Jenny's Mom saved the top of our wedding cake (tradition and all) and we had it the other week b/c it was our anniversary, was GREAT! I never would have thought year-old cake would be any good, but yours was!

Thanks again :)

Hope you are having fun in Chicago. We'll be back in early August, perhaps I'll see you at the Phish show?!

Take care,

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Daring Bakers June - Cherry Bakewell Tart

I adore almonds. Some things will never change. My love for almonds is one of those things. I love them all kinds of ways. I love them toasted whole for snacking, slivered into granola, and minced onto fresh fruit and pudding. I am the Bubba Gump of almonds. The list goes on and on.

Frangipane is a fluffy cake like batter made from ground almonds and butter. I am particularly fond of frangipane for its slightly granular and nutty texture, and the way it puffs up all golden brown, enveloping anything around it. Frangipane is sophisticated and homey at the same time.

The June Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Jasmine of Confessions of a Cardamom Addict and Annemarie of Ambrosia and Nectar. They chose a Traditional (UK) Bakewell Tart... er... pudding that was inspired by a rich baking history dating back to the 1800's in England.

It is pretty rare to find frangipane pastries here in Chicago, a disappointment that I attribute to the dumbing down of the American palate. Ignorant sugar gluttons are still stuck on cupcakes, dried out masses of flavorless cake with greasy shortening based icings. Please, I beseech you, move on! Let the cupcake trend fade away, so that tastier, more qualified sweets can once again shine! There are other baked goods besides cupcakes, people!

This month's Daring Baker's recipe was a welcome challenge. Bakewells are traditional English pastries, and depending on which Brit you talk to, are called "tarts" or "pudding." Flaky pastry dough is filled with a layer of fruit jam and topped with a generous amount of frangipane. The cherry and almond combination makes me swoon every time, so I made a bing cherry jam according to David Lebovitz's instructions, adding a half of a Pink Lady apple for it's gelling power.

Normally I don't share an entire Daring Bakers recipe on Chocolate Doesn't Crumble, because one of the components usually falls flat. This month's Cherry Bakewell Tart overachieved on every level. The pastry crust, which I parbaked for 12 minutes before filling, was buttery and crisp, and I could actually see layers of fat and dough. I highly recommend trying this method of grating frozen butter into flour the next time you make pie dough, pate sucre, or any other pastry crust. I toasted and ground whole almonds, and the frangipane had an ample nutty flavor that couldn't have been achieved with store bought almond meal. In this instance, as with so many others, freshness counts for so much.

Call it what you will. The Bakewell Tart/The Bakewell Pudding is an excellent recipe to have in your arsenal. Master this simple crust and you'll never fret about pasty dough again. Change the jam to match what's seasonal and local in your area, or what you've canned from past seasons. Since frangipane is always a good idea, you'll have an outstanding dessert option all year round.

Bakewell Tart…er…pudding
Makes one 23cm (9” tart)
Prep time: less than 10 minutes (plus time for the individual elements)
Resting time: 15 minutes
Baking time: 30 minutes
Equipment needed: 23cm (9”) tart pan or pie tin (preferably with ridged edges), rolling pin

One quantity sweet shortcrust pastry (recipe follows)
Bench flour
250ml (1cup (8 US fl. oz)) jam or curd, warmed for spreadability
One quantity frangipane (recipe follows)
One handful blanched, flaked almonds

Assembling the tart
Place the chilled dough disc on a lightly floured surface. If it's overly cold, you will need to let it become acclimatised for about 15 minutes before you roll it out. Flour the rolling pin and roll the pastry to 5mm (1/4”) thickness, by rolling in one direction only (start from the centre and roll away from you), and turning the disc a quarter turn after each roll. When the pastry is to the desired size and thickness, transfer it to the tart pan, press in and trim the excess dough. Patch any holes, fissures or tears with trimmed bits. Chill in the freezer for 15 minutes.

Preheat oven to 200C/400F.

Dock the dough with a fork, cover with aluminum foil, and fill with dried beans or pie weights. Parbake for 12 minutes. Remove from oven and cool slightly. Remove foil and beans/weights. Spread as even a layer as you can of jam onto the pastry base. Top with frangipane, spreading to cover the entire surface of the tart. Smooth the top and pop into the oven for 30 minutes. Five minutes before the tart is done, the top will be poofy and brownish. Remove from oven and strew flaked almonds on top and return to the heat for the last five minutes of baking.

The finished tart will have a golden crust and the frangipane will be tanned, poofy and a bit spongy-looking. Remove from the oven and cool on the counter. Serve warm, with crème fraîche, whipped cream or custard sauce if you wish.

When you slice into the tart, the almond paste will be firm, but slightly squidgy and the crust should be crisp but not tough.

Sweet shortcrust pastry
Prep time: 15-20 minutes
Resting time: 30 minutes (minimum)
Equipment needed: bowls, box grater, cling film

225g (8oz) all purpose flour
30g (1oz) sugar
2.5ml (½ tsp) salt
110g (4oz) unsalted butter, cold (frozen is better)
2 (2) egg yolks
1/2 Vanilla Bean
15-30ml (1-2 Tbsp) cold water

Sift together flour, sugar and salt. Grate butter into the flour mixture, using the large hole-side of a box grater. Using your finger tips only, and working very quickly, rub the fat into the flour until the mixture resembles bread crumbs. Set aside.

Scrape the seeds from half of a vanilla bean into 2 egg yolks. Lightly beat to mix the egg yolks with the vanilla seeds, and quickly mix into the flour mixture. Keep mixing while dribbling in the water, only adding enough to form a cohesive and slightly sticky dough.

Form the dough into a disc, wrap in cling and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or overnight.

Prep time: 10-15 minutes
Equipment needed: bowls, hand mixer, rubber spatula

125g (4.5oz) unsalted butter, softened
125g (4.5oz) powdered sugar
3 (3) eggs
2.5ml (½ tsp) almond extract
125g (4.5oz) freshly ground, toasted almonds
30g (1oz) all purpose flour

Cream butter and sugar together for about a minute or until the mixture is primrose in colour and very fluffy. Scrape down the side of the bowl and add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. The batter may appear to curdle. In the words of Douglas Adams: Don’t panic. Really. It’ll be fine. After all three are in, pour in the almond extract and mix for about another 30 seconds and scrape down the sides again. With the beaters on, spoon in the ground nuts and the flour. Mix well. The mixture will be soft, keep its slightly curdled look (mostly from the almonds) and retain its pallid yellow colour.

The June Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Jasmine of Confessions of a Cardamom Addict and Annemarie of Ambrosia and Nectar. They chose a Traditional (UK) Bakewell Tart... er... pudding that was inspired by a rich baking history dating back to the 1800's in England.

Monday, June 22, 2009


I've certainly been eating enough lately to warrant a blog post or two (or twenty), but nothing seems noteworthy, save the lovely little strawberry gems from yesterday's farmer's market. They were juicy and perfumed, and so red that any name other than L'Amour would be unfit. Check for them at your local market.

Last night's Greek coffee at Taxim, thick and heady with cardamom, was a remarkable end to a good meal. Brian's idea to launch a kiosk serving only Greek coffee might be the next million-dollar caffeine boom.

I'm off to stir my cherry jam a la David Lebovitz before it scorches in the pot. It's off to a pretty start, don't you think?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Daring Bakers - Strudel Two Ways

The May Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Linda of make life sweeter! and Courtney of Coco Cooks. They chose Apple Strudel from the recipe book Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Cafés of Vienna, Budapest and Prague by Rick Rodgers. I opted to split the dough in half, making a smaller savory version and a sweet dessert version. I must not have split the fillings though, because my strudels, although very tasty, lacked a few flaky layers. I enjoyed stretching the dough tissue-thin, watching my hands work underneath it, knuckles pulling slowly and gently to resist tearing.

My savory strudel was loaded with Yukon Gold potatoes, crimini mushrooms, caramelized onions, and roasted garlic cloves. I seasoned the mixture simply with olive oil, salt, pepper, and oregano before roasting in a 400 degree oven for 30 minutes. This strudel tastes wonderful, and uses easily accessible, inexpensive ingredients. The presentation though, is fancy enough for special occasions.

My dessert strudel threw up all over itself. The translucent dough just couldn't hold in all of the sweet-tart strawberry rhubarb goodness, and out it flowed. I really should have poked the top a few times to allow the steam to escape. Oops. The finished strudel was nearly hollow, so it was served along side the oozed fruit compote and a dollop of sweetened whipped cream.

In the world of pastry, strudel is somewhat simple. There is no yeast involved, no lengthy proofing. The dough doesn't need multiple chillings, or to be turned a certain number of times. It's just a simple flour, salt, water, and oil mix that stretches beautifully and welcomes so many kinds of fillings. Don't be afraid to make homemade strudel. It's worth the effort!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Oatmeal Clafoutis - A Disappointing Failure

It looks a lot better than it tastes. The texture is all off. I should have known better than to tamper with a recipe from files of fantastic Coltilde of Chocolate and Zucchini. Her Oatmeal Breakfast Clafoutis seemed like a great combination of healthful ingredients that I eat a lot of, but combined in a new way. In a effort to curtail breakfast boredom, I used Clotilde's recipe as a base, and began making substitutions and modifications to yield a healthier end product.

I should have left well enough alone (there is a reason that Clotilde has several book deals, magazine columns, and is fabulous in general - her recipes work). The steel cut oats that I substituted for regular did not break down, even though I soaked them in milk for 20 minutes before baking. The clafoutis is fibrous and tough, and would wreak digestive havoc on the greatest iron stomach.

So much for my good intentions of a healthier breakfast. This one is inedible.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Pork Chops with Mock Mole Rub

Mole intimidates me. Love to love it, loathe to make it. Mole requires dozens of ingredients and lots of patience, fitting neatly into the category of "I'm not completely nuts yet, so I'll just leave this one to taquerias and restaurants."

Since mole is a labor of love that I avoid, I was pretty excited to see a simple idea for a mock mole rub in Food and Wine Magazine. Their recipe brines thick cut pork chops in a salt water and crushed red pepper bath. I added a bit of molasses to it, since I am fresh out of brown sugar.

The rub requires only a few items that most home cooks will have on hand: unsweetened cocoa powder, chile powder, brown sugar, and salt. The brined chops get coated with the spice rub and grilled over moderately high heat.

With so few ingredients, it would be silly to say that the chops tasted just like mole, but the smokey rich flavor certainly recalled it. Dinner came together quickly thanks to this rub, and I plan to elaborate on it, perhaps adding other mole elements like ground peanuts, and cumin, and cinnamon. I might just keep adding and experimenting until I get all the way to the real thing.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Put the Lime in the Coconut

It's been months since the reincarnation of the cupcake, sending yuppies, soccer moms, and recently dumped women everywhere to pay upwards of $5.00 for a single serving of cake and frosting. These one-and-done cakes are absolutely adorable, mind you, decorated to the nines with billows of frosting, shimmering crystallized flowers, or 24-carat gold leaf. Exotic (read: unappealing) ingredients including bacon, ranch dressing, and foie gras add more shock value than pleasure. All over the country, cutesy businesses with cutesy names have devoted themselves to cupcakes, and each time a new one pops up (and somehow, yes, new ones are still reappearing), I find myself thinking,


Still, with all of the kitsch of the cupcake craze, I find myself baking up a batch once in a while. They have built-in portion control, don't require as much time as filling and frosting a regular cake, and are super easy to transport. Cupcakes, in all of their twee glory, are a damn fine option for taking to a party.

I ripped a recipe for Coconut Cupcakes with Lime Buttercream straight from the pages of Cooking Light (May 2009). This particular recipe calls for a bit of potato starch, a rare ingredient that can be used in lower fat baked goods to help retain moisture. I was able to find Bob's Red Mill Potato Starch in the organic section of my grocery store. The end result: Moist cake with just the slightest hint of coconut. Gritty, fake buttercream frosting was pleasingly tart and refreshing, with pretty speckles of lime zest throughout. Try the cake recipe with a bit less sugar and 1.5 times the coconut to even out the ratios. A lime meringue frosting would work really well with the coconut cake, even better that Italian or French buttercream.

Fortunately, the buzz is that pie is edging its way into the Chicago spotlight, and that cupcakes are going down. There may be hope yet.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Ile De France Goat Cheese

I am part of a lucky group of food bloggers chosen by Ile De France to sample and play with their brand of goat cheese. I've been enjoying the smooth, creamy cheese for a couple of weeks. It's spreadable for crackers or bread, but I like it best crumbled and melted into dishes. Ile De France goat cheese is mildly tangy. When it combines with eggs and spring vegetables, it becomes a silken alternative to the sour cream I occasionally add to scrambled eggs. This roasted asparagus and mushroom omelet is my favorite recipe from the month. Try it with Ile De France goat cheese, or any of your favorite cheeses.

Roasted Asparagus and Mushroom Omelet with Goat Cheese

1/4 cup crimini mushrooms, sliced
1/4 cup asparagus, cut into 1" pieces
2 eggs
1/2 ounce of crumbled Ile De France Goat Cheese
salt and pepper to taste
chopped parsley for garnish

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Heat a teaspoon of olive oil in a saute pan. Add sliced crimini mushrooms. Season with salt and pepper. Saute over medium heat until mushrooms give off their liquid and begin to brown, about 10 minutes. Keep warm.

Season asparagus pieces with a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast for 5-7 minutes until just tender. Keep warm.

Preheat a nonstick skillet over low heat. Add a small amount of butter. Break two eggs into a bowl, and beat with a fork until yolks and whites are fully incorporated. Season with salt and pepper. Pour the eggs into the skillet. When the edges of the eggs have set, redistribute uncooked eggs with a heatproof spatula so that uncooked eggs flow underneath.

When the eggs are nearly set, add the asparagus and mushrooms on one side, and crumble the goat cheese over. Fold the other side of the eggs on top of the vegetables and cheese mixture and slide onto a plate. Garnish with chopped parsley.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Your Attention Please!

After months of begging and pleading by friends and strangers, The Agnostic Servant has resumed blogging. Be regaled with horrifying tales of life from behind the concierge desk at one of Chicago's most she-she* hotels.

Without further ado, I present How May I Whelp You?**

*Is that really how you spell that term? Is it chi-chi? No. That's the nasty Mex-American restaurant chain from the '80s.

**Dad, in the unlikely event that you continued reading this post after the hyperlink, please try to contain your excitement. Your prodding played a large part in The Servant coming out of retirement.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Sure Signs of Spring

It's asparagus, and it was delicious! Super thin, super crisp, and simply perfect roasted with salt and pepper. It's so skinny that it cooked up in three minutes in a 400 degree oven.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Miller Lite Can Cake

Some girl named Liz must really love Miller Lite.

Creating a cake like this is fairly easy. Round cakes are baked off and sliced into layers just like a regular cake. They they are split down the diameter, and the layers are filled vertically rather than horizontally. If you measure the cuts correctly, and hit the diameter exactly, there is no carving involved. Simple!

See a few more of my sculpted cakes here.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Spinach and Mushroom Lasagna - Daring Bakers Marchd

The March 2009 challenge is hosted by Mary of Beans and Caviar, Melinda of Melbourne Larder and Enza of Io Da Grande. They have chosen Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper as the challenge.

Why don’t I put béchamel sauce on everything? Pizza? Burgers? Raisin Bran? This month’s Daring Bakers challenge reminded me of how simple yet delicious a traditional white sauce can be. Couple it with handmade spinach noodles, Portobello mushroom ragout, and a sprinkling of parmigiana-reggiano, and dinner is a tasty vegetarian feast.

To keep the meal meat-free, I substituted a mushroom ragout for the suggested three-meat sauce. I used a combination of portobellos and white buttons seasoned with fresh sage and simmered in tomatoes. The recipe was adapted from Epicurious.

Mushroom Ragout
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, medium dice
1 pound Portobello mushrooms, caps (halved if large) and stems sliced thin
3/4 pound white mushrooms, sliced thin
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons chopped fresh sage leaves
3 – 28 ounce cans of whole tomatoes, roughly chopped with liquid reserved
Salt and pepper

In a large heavy kettle heat butter and oil over moderate heat until butter is melted and cook onion, stirring, about 5 minutes, or until softened. Stir in all mushrooms, garlic, sage, and salt and pepper to taste and cook, stirring, about 15 minutes, or until liquid mushrooms give off is evaporated. Stir in tomatoes with reserved juice and cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, 30 minutes, or until sauce is thickened.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

None for you, none for me

Isn't this the saddest thing you've ever seen?

All of that melted ice cream could have fed dozens of starving children in third world countries. Or it could have fed one Beth.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Now Accepting Donations

As I've mentioned, I've been doing research about ice cream, and more specifically, about the multiple factors that make it a formula. A fantastic blog entry by Michael Laiskonis, pastry chef at Le Bernardin, has me pointed in the right direction, but it's also left me salivating over a crazy expensive book.

Oriol Balaguer is respected for being one of the finest pastry chefs not only in his native Spain, but worldwide. He's also commanding a hefty fee for his pastry tomb, Dessert Cuisine. I've found it for $175 at The Cookbook Store. It retails above $200 elsewhere.

Unfortunately, the Chicago Public Library doesn't shelf this gem, so if I ever want to set eyes on this book, I have to make it happen. If all of my dear readers donated only $1 to my O. Balaguer's Dessert Cuisine fund*, well, then I will have $3. Maybe $2. Let's make this happen!**

*Does anyone remember Fund My Beetle? I made whopping $1 from that campaign, and still somehow managed to get the VW Beetle! And that Beetle is now long gone!

**I would gladly take excellent care of this book and return it to its rightful owner if any one would be so gracious as to loan it to me. I promise I will copy all recipes to a separate sheet of paper, and will never actually bring the book into the messy kitchen, so as to avoid marring it with chocolate splatters, flour dust, and compote stains. I'll be really careful, I swear!

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Daring Bakers - Chocolate Valentino

This flourless chocolate cake recipe, called Chocolate Valentino, is meant to be baked in a heart-shaped pan. I have an excess of single-serving disposable aluminum cups that Dave bought at the dollar store as a gag because I generally despise anything involving hearts. Barf. Usually, I use them as a vessel to bake eggs, but the Chocolate Valentino provided an excellent excuse to use some of them up. I halved the original recipe and came out with 8 individual cakes. I adore flourless chocolate cake, one of the richest and most decadent treats I can think of, but this particular variation came out dry and cakey. I was a little disappointed, as I had hoped for a fudgy texture. Perhaps my egg whites were too stiff? I'll try it again some time, since the ingredient list is only 3 things.

I've been reading about ice cream a lot lately. It's one of my favorite things to eat, and I'm becoming obsessed with making a perfect version at home. The custard-based recipe included in this challenge is similar to many homemade formulas. I infused the cream with Mexican vanilla bean to keep the flavor simple. The ice cream is very good, with extremely pronounced, floral vanilla flavor and gorgeous speckles of black beans. A sprinkle of cocoa nibs added a crunch and contrasting flavor.

I've learned that using an inverted sugar, like honey, molasses, or corn syrup in place of some granulated sugar helps to reduce crystallization in ice cream. Adding powdered glucose to the mix adds pliability to the finished product, so it is scoopable right from the freezer. My biggest beef with homemade ice creams are that they are more ice and less cream until they've had a few minutes to thaw. It's impossible to scoop them straight from the freezer. I've bent a spoon or two trying to do it.

So, I'm on the hunt for ice cream formulas that already include an invert sugar and glucose. Let me know if you have any thoughts!

The February 2009 challenge is hosted by Wendy of WMPE's blog and Dharm of Dad ~ Baker & Chef.
We have chosen a Chocolate Valentino cake by Chef Wan; a Vanilla Ice Cream recipe from Dharm and a Vanilla Ice Cream recipe from Wendy as the challenge.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Shrimp and Broccoli

Despite my love of crispy bacon, juicy chicken, and medium-rare steak, I've decided to go vegetarian for a while. I've heard rumors that decreasing meat consumption leads to increasing energy levels, so to get through the last of the dreary winter slump, I'm including lots of seafood and beans, and maybe even a little tofu into my diet.

There's a recipe for roasted shrimp and broccoli that has permeated the blogosphere, and with good reason. It's speedy, flavorful, and healthy, making it especially perfect for weeknight dinners. I got the recipe from The Amateur Gourmet. I substituted garlic powder for the coriander called for in the original, sprinkled the top with a few toasted pine nuts and Parmesan cheese, and served over a brown rice and quinoa medley for a nearly guilt-free meal.

Feel free to share your favorite animal-free recipes with me!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Cafe Orchid

I didn't even know that there was a restaurant next to that one florist that's across the street from the Dunkin Donuts at the awkward intersection of Addison, Lincoln, and Ravenswood. It's hidden away, partially by location and partially by its complete lack of curb appeal. Last night, I had the epiphany that many others have already experienced. Cafe Orchid totally rocks.

Our group of six dined on flavorful Turkish specialties, including stuffed grape leaves, fried liver with red onions, kibbe, hummus, iskender, and baklava. Every item was fresh and full of flavor. Cafe Orchid's BYOB policy went a long way to keep the bill in check, and when I say "long way," I really mean from here to the moon.

Here's the fat:

2 orders of kibbe fried mixture of ground lamb, bulgar, and pine nuts shaped like mini footballs and served with thin yogurt
2 orders of stuffed grape leaves
1 feta platter feta, olives, sausage, tomatoes, honeydew melon
1 order of hummus
1 order of fried liver with red onions

1 order of iskender like gyros meat, served atop bread that soaks up juices and yogurt sauce and covered with chunky tomato sauce
2 orders of manti Turkish ravioli that is reminiscent of gnocchi, served drenched in garlicy yogurt sauce and finished with either melted butter or tomato sauce
1 order of roasted chicken with rice

2 orders of baklava super delicious and buttery, and I normally don't like honey
2 cups of Turkish tea

5 or 6 bottles of wine (I lost count) brought from outside of the restaurant. There is no corkage fee at Cafe Orchid.

And here's the skinny:
$23.00 per person, tax and tip included.

That's right, $23 measly dollars for an absolute feast! You've spent way more than that on dumber things (I know you ordered that Snuggie), and less tasty meals. Cafe Orchid hooks you up with great, fresh, home style food at a great price. Return that Snuggie and treat yourself to a fantastic meal at Cafe Orchid, or enjoy it in the comfort of your own home with delivery or take away.

Cafe Orchid
1746 W. Addison
Chicago, IL 60613

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Paczki Day

Today was not a good day to wear black.

I stopped through Alliance Bakery this morning to pick up a dozen assorted paczkis, the delicious filled Polish donuts that are only available around this time of year. They're a little lighter on filling than I remember, but still quite yummy. The custard ones used to be dipped in chocolate fudge, which was over-the-top amazing, but now they get standard confectioner's sugar treatment.

I had a cheese one earlier. Since the coworkers haven't scooped them all up yet, I'm contemplating having a go at a strawberry-filled.

Happy Fat Tuesday!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Banana Bread with Walnuts

After many wasted efforts, I've finally beat my rebellious oven. I baked this banana bread in a regular loaf pan set atop an Air Bake sheet pan, with a regular sheet pan directly beneath it on a lower rack. This magical combination of metals managed to direct heat away from the fiery bottom of the oven, which regularly scortches every baked item to dark black. I feel well accomplished today.

I substituted whole wheat flour for some of the white flour in my usual banana bread recipe, adding fiber and a nutty flavor. Out of the oven, this quickbread yields a crunchy crust and tender crumb. It's great with a smear of butter.

Banana Bread with Toasted Walnuts
1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup whole wheat flour
1 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs at room temperature
1 1/8 cups sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
4 blackened bananas, mashed
1/8 cup sour cream
1 teaspoons vanilla
1/2 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter a 9"x5"x3" loaf pan, dust with flour,and knock out excess.

Sift together flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt.

Beat together eggs and sugar in bowl of electric mixer at medium-high speed until very thick and pale, about 10 minutes. Reduce speed to low and add oil in a slow stream, mixing, then mix in bananas, sour cream, and vanilla. Remove bowl from mixer and fold in flour mixture and walnuts.

Spread batter in pan evenly, and bake in middle of oven until golden brown and a wooden pick or skewer comes out clean, 1 to 1 1/4 hours.

Wait 10 minutes before loosening bread from the sides of the pan with a butter knife. Turn out of pan to finish cooling.

Thursday, February 5, 2009


There is absolutely no way that you can fit this sandwich into your mouth. No freaking way. Perry's Deli, a Chicago mainstay for over 20 years, opened its second location at 719 W. Maxwell. Expect the same menu of jaw-stretching sandwiches, simple sides, and sodas that you would find at the original spot.

The camera phone doesn't lie. It may take crappy, out of focus, washed-out pictures, but it doesn't lie. Perry's makes a skyscraper of a sandwich. Deconstruction is your only hope for consumption. This is only half of one. The other half is somewhere in the background. Kind of ironic that Perry's is being filed under Tidbits, huh?

Monday, February 2, 2009

Chips, dips, wings, chili, and more dips. And chips.

Superbowl Appetizer Smackdown


Something to hold my attention while others watch a 6 hour long football game.


Fritos are a deliciously salty snack, and should be eaten with reckless abandon.

Check out this spread, and this was only about half of it! Crockpots housing chili, Thai peanut chicken wings, and something called "white trash dip," (can't identify what was in it, but can verify that it was yummy) didn't make the photo.

There was also a variation on the ever-popular snack food stadium, which garnered a symphony of "oohs" and "aahs" as well as The Hustler award for presentation.

Thanks to Sally and Jody for hosting a great party, and producing a lovely goat cheese and macerated beet appetizer. My veggie consumption for the day, all two tablespoons of it, came solely from those delicious little bites.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Foiled Again!

It's truly amazing that I haven't learned my lesson yet. I've lived in this apartment for nearly 10 months, and I haven't yet come to terms with the fact that my oven is a gaseous beast from hell. The thing generally runs about 50 degrees too hot, and when left to its own devices (if the oven door isn't opened at regular 20 minute intervals), the heat continually increases from there. I've lost dozens of baking experiments to that oven, and these lemon cranberry muffins are no exception. I was planning to take these to a friend's brunch tomorrow morning, but I've been thwarted.

Do not adjust your monitors. The bottom of that muffin is (unfortunately) black.

Now, I'm out of cranberries and lemon zest. What's plan B?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Quotable, if nothing else

Chocolate Doesn't Crumble kind of got a shout out on Citysearch today. Sort of. I'm the "local food blogger" in the blurb about Michael McDonald and onesixty blue.


Wednesday, January 21, 2009


tid·bit (tĭd'bĭt') Pronunciation Key
n. A choice morsel, as of gossip or food: "The book is chock-full of colorful tidbits about theater and theater people" (Alec Guinness).

Welcome to the first installment of Tidbits. The notion of physically sitting down to write and revise a lengthy blog entry makes me nauseous as of late. I've already apologized for the lack of content in the past month. It's not for lack of subject matter; I've been doing a lot of good marketing, dining out, and drinking lately. To curtail the workload on you and me, I've decided to start a selection of sleeker posts, pared down to give you maximum information and/or maximum entertainment about the Chicago food scene. Let me know what you think!

Also, I just like saying the word out loud. Tidbits. Tidbits. Tidbits!

Tidbit Cellar Rat, an indy wine shop on North Avenue, is owned by Dean Schlabowske. He's a former buyer for Binny's or Sam's or one of the other big boxes. "Corporate Wine Still Sucks," the store's motto, is displayed prominently in the window. At a free tasting on Saturday, I asked a question about a wine that was poured. Schlabowske, looking very put out from having to answer questions from peons potential customers, was appallingly patronizing as he uttered, "Burgundy is a region in France."

Um, thanks dude, I already know that. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll be taking my business over to Lush Wine and Spirits, where the non corporate juice is served with a lot less condescension.

Tidbit You know what's a really great idea? Taking coconut macaroons and putting them in a pastry crust. Brilliant! The folks at Real Tenochtitlán have morphed the flourless chewy cookies into a tart, Pay de Coco y Almendra. I ate it with some of my best girls on Saturday, and have been dreaming about it since. Moist and incredibly flavorful, it outshone the rest of our meals.

Tidbit Damn it, Jim Oberweis is an asshole. He puts an addictive chemical in his chocolate milk that makes you crave it fortnightly, smartass!* Might as well get something free out of the bastard.

*Massive props to anyone who can name the movie!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Productivity At An All Time Low

When even a midweek lunch at Blackbird doesn't spark a post, something is definitely amiss. Excuse me for just a little longer while I wallow in my lack of ambition. I just can't seem to get anything down on paper, or on screen, lately. Thanks for your patience. I'll be back soon.