Saturday, February 27, 2010

Andi & Julia: January Goal

My goal for the month of January was to cook a meal taken entirely from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Since most of the recipes are supposed to serve six, and I didn't want to try halving the recipes, I invited two friends whose potlucks, dinner parties, and food experimentation always inspire me: Carlos and Lana. Along with Gabriel, I figured the four of us could handle food for six, leaving me with a few leftovers. When choosing a menu I had a few things I kept in mind. My first constraint was the lack of a good heavy dutch oven that can go between the stove-top and the oven. I also wanted to cook either a chicken or a beef dish for the main course. As for the dessert, I wanted to choose a cake, simply because it would be a little more in my comfort zone. Here's the final menu:

Boston Bibb Letuce Salad with Sauce Vinaigrette
with goat cheese, cherry tomatoes, and almonds

Sauté de Boeuf à la Bourguignonne
with mushrooms, bacon, and onions

Pomme de Terre Saut
ées en Dés

French Baguette

Reine De Saba
with chocolate-butter icing and almonds

I actually started my preparation (on the last Saturday of January) by making the cake, but let me first describe the main part of the meal. I sautéed the mushrooms for the beef burgundy first, and then made the glazed baby onions. That was what I used the bouquet garni seen at the beginning of the post for. Then I started cutting the potatoes into a small dice. The sautéed potatoes were the suggested side dish for the beef, but rather than the "elongated olive shape" suggested in the main recipe, or potato balls, formed using a "potato-ball cutter," I chose the much simpler dice. They went in a non-stick pan with butter and olive oil, and at this point, Gabriel took over the potatoes. He was much more talented than I at the shaking and flipping required to keep the potatoes from sticking or cooking too much on one side. The beef dish was actually the faster sauté version of the famous boeuf bourguignonne that was such a big deal for the food-blogger Julie in Julie & Julia. So I started by browning the sirloin steak, leaving it a little rare in the middle. Then I started on the really fantastic sauce: red wine, garlic, beef stock, and tomato paste, all thickened with a beurre manié (a paste of butter and flour, whisked in at the end). At the very end, Gabriel helped me assemble the salad and shake up the vinaigrette in a mason jar.

I felt a little overwhelmed near the end, and almost forgot a few important parts of the sauce for the beef, but sitting down at the table with my friends and a glass of wine, I felt it was all worth it. The salad was a good combination of the tangy dressing and the sweet tomatoes, the creamy cheese and the crunchy almonds. The potatoes were simple, dressed only in butter and herbs, but they were so smooth, with the texture almost like that of a risotto. (I've made them since, in an stainless steel pan, with much less success - non-stick is the way to go). The beef was tender and flavorful, but the big hit was the sauce, which I will admit we were sopping up with bread and eventually eating straight from the pan.

Now to the important part: dessert. The chocolate was set to melt in a bowl over simmering water, and the butter and sugar were creamed together. And then, partly because I wanted to try it by hand, and partly because I didn't want to wash the beaters I had used for the butter and sugar, and beat my egg-whites by hand. It was tiring, and it took a little bit longer, but it resulted in a finer and more consistent foam. And holding up my whisk and seeing stiff peaks felt a lot more rewarding than when I use electric beaters. I mixed the chocolate with the butter and almond meal, and then carefully folded in the whites and flour. I poured it into a 9 in. pan (although the recipe called for a 8 in pan) and put it into the oven. I should have modified the cooking time because I changed the pan size, but I didn't think about it. So my cake turned out a little less moist than it was supposed to, but it still tasted delicious.

I made the chocolate-butter icing after dinner (wearing pearls, of course) and spread it on the cake. We took a break from playing my favorite game, Pictionary, to dig into the cake. And though I won't reveal who won *both* games of Pictionary, I will say that the cake was a winner. :) So the completion of my first goal for the year was a success. I see more meals inspired by Julia Child in the future...

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Potluck 1/28 - Peaches!

The theme for the last potluck in January was "Travel." I had flown in from a research collaboration trip earlier that Thursday, and was only hosting because no one else had volunteered. I had a new Peruvian cookbook, so I decided to try making Arroz con Leche, or rice pudding. I had rice, but needed condensed and evaporated milk, an orange, and some port. So I went out to my car, turned the key, and... sighed in frustration. The bitter cold had agitated my finicky car battery, and my car wouldn't start. I called Gabriel and he agreed to pick up the food items at the new campus area grocery store while I went to a nearby liquor store for port.

I followed the directions, but felt that there was not enough rice for the prescribed amount of liquid. So I turned up the heat and figured I'd boil it away. Silly me: condensed milk+too hot pan+stepping away to put out dishes=terrible burnt milk smell. I rushed to the stove, turned off the gas, and started frantically stirring. Of course, that aggravated the problem, as I was now mixing liquidy (but unburnt) rice pudding with the horribly burnt stuff. I transferred the pudding to another pan, skimming out the blackened bits, and hoped someone would bring a better dessert. I was in luck: Geoffrey brought flourless chocolate cake (hallelujah!), and we also had salad and stuffed shells to round out the meal.

Now you're probably looking at this picture, thinking, "But Andi, I don't see anything like cake or salad or stuffed shells. All I see is beer!" I swear we did eat, but the talk of the party was really the beer. Mike brought this Audacious Apricot Ale, that we happily drank. I used to like a good fruity beer, but now I usually don't. Except for this one. It was delicious, and some of us began to wax eloquent about it. "It tastes like sitting on a porch, sipping something cool, on a warm summer evening after a hard day of work outdoors," I said. Lana said it reminded her of sitting in a field, eating a picnic consisting of small bites of different foods. Carlos was perhaps less of a fan, saying that it made him think of asking for the barkeep's recommendation, and then being disappointed. Mike was reminded of the first time he tried this particular beer, standing in the circle of a beer-tasting club, sipping beers and describing them. When Ed was asked what he thought of when he drank the beer, he replied, "Peaches!"

We've had the beer again since then, but not the rice pudding. Take from that what you will...

Thanks Mike for introducing us to such a conversation-sparking beer!
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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Potluck 1/21 - The Happiest Potluck on Earth

The January 21st potluck was declared a Disney potluck by the host, Kristin. When we walked in, Beauty and the Beast was playing on the TV, and all of us college and graduate students stood transfixed, wine or beer in hand, listening to Gaston sing about how many raw eggs he eats every morning. Then we contemplated why Belle doesn't seem to actually eat anything during "Be Our Guest" (except for sticking her finger into a pudding or two). All that incredible food gone to waste! The gray pudding, though, I have always found a little off-putting. And because some of us are also musical theatre nerds (thanks Geoffrey), we imagined Angela Lansbury merging her Mrs. Potts character with her Mrs. Lovett character from Sweeney Todd ("here we are... hot out of the oven!"). It's not that much of a stretch, but it puts a whole new spin on things.

As for the food, we had a fine collection of Disney inspired dishes. There was jambalaya for Disney's new movie, The Princess and the Frog, frozen chocolate covered bananas for The Jungle Book, and my favorite, spaghetti and meatballs from The Lady and the Tramp. However, not all of the food was connected to a specific movie. I made crisp but tender chocolate almond cookies called Basler Brunsli (I figured that wearing Mickey ears was Disney enough for me). And, in the spirit of Disneyworld being the happiest place on earth, I cut my cookies into flower and heart shapes, since I didn't have mouse-ear cookie cutters.
Part of why I chose these cookies (besides that fact that they sounded delicious), is that they use the German cherry liquor Kirsch. I bought a rather large bottle of it for the cranberry cake I made for the previous potluck. I still have hardly made a dent, but I have made these cookies a second time since potluck, and I certainly plan on making them again. They were that good. And here's the recipe!

Basler Brunsli - Adapted from recipe at deliciousdays

5.3 oz dark chocolate*

2 1/2 cups almonds meal**

1/2 cup+2Tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder

1/2 cup sugar***

a pinch of salt

1/2 cup+2Tbsp all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting

4 large egg whites

2 Tbsp Kirsch (cherry liquor)

*Trader Joe's carries a 3-pack of small 1.25 oz chocolate bars that is enough for this recipe (plus a little for snacking)

**Again, you can find this at Trader Joe's next to the nuts!

***The original recipe calls for a little over 3/4 of a cup. I made a mistake in my weight->volume conversions the first time and used 1/4 cup. They tasted so good, that when I made them later, I used 1/2 cup and it was perfect.

1. Break up the chocolate and put it in a small glass bowl set over simmering water, making sure the bowl does not touch the water. Let the chocolate melt slowly as your prepare the other ingredients, stirring occaisionally.

2. In a large bowl, mix together the almond meal, cocoa, sugar, salt, and flour.

3. In a seperate bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff, and then fold them into the almond mixture.

4. Finally, add the chocolate and the kirsch. If you plan on saving the dough to bake up later, put in a little extra kirsch, since the cherry flavor seems to fade the longer you keep it in the fridge.

5. Knead until everything is incorporated, then separate the dough into 2 or 3 sections, and form them into disks. Wrap this in plastic wrap, and chill in the refrigerator for an hour.

6. Preheat oven to 450˚, and line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper.

7. On a lightly floured surface (I used my new Silpat for this!) roll out the dough to 5mm (~0.2 inches) thick. It may take a few minutes sitting out of the fridge before it is malleable enough to roll. Cut into desired shapes. Place cookies on cookie sheet. They can be pretty close together, since these cookies don't expand.

8. Bake for 5-7 minutes, depending on the thickness of the cookies, and how crisp you want them. They should be crisp on the outside, and tender and crumbly on the inside.

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Monday, February 1, 2010

Potluck 1/14 - The Great Reunion

I say this potluck was the great reunion... but only because I was on an airplane somewhere over Lake Michigan when the real first potluck of the year occurred the week before. There were many delicious dishes at potluck (lemon-egg soup, an Indian dish with mushrooms, spaghetti, a tuna bake), but the stars, in my opinion, were the cinnamon rolls and buns made by our gracious hostess, Lana. I wondered if she would share the recipe, but found out that there was something better she had to share - a great story about family and the origins of the recipe. It doesn't hurt that Lana's specialty is writing... so, I'm happy to bring you Lana's story about her grandmothers buns. Since there's no recipe accompanying the story (it's a family treasure, I'm told,) I've included at the end a recipe for my contribution, cranberry cake.

For potluck on January 14, I made buns. And more buns. There were two kinds: cloverleaf buns and cinnamon buns. Both came from the same batch of dough, which I made using my grandmother’s recipe. Cloverleaf buns are my grandma’s specialty. She brings them to every family holiday gathering, and she has been making the same ones for as long as I can remember: little golden, airy, buttery puffs. I remember when I was very young, being in the kitchen of the farmhouse where my grandparents lived at the time, and watching them make these buns together. There was a woodstove in the corner near the door, and my grandparents would place bowls of dough covered with tea towels near the stove so the dough could rise in the warmth, away from any drafts. That is such a strong image for me, the magic and mystery that happened under those covered bowls.

I remember watching my grandparents make the buns, and having the privilege of “helping.” They used very specific techniques that they had created and revised and honed over many years. To make the cloverleaf shape, you must shape three small balls of dough for each bun and place them together in muffin pans. When they rise and bake, the little groups of dough expand into the right shape. However, my grandparents didn’t shape the balls just by rolling them. They used a method which involves placing a piece of dough in the palm of one hand and then shaping it with the fingers of your other hand. Watching them shape each piece of dough so deftly was like watching master artists at work. I remember being given pieces of dough to shape and being so slow at forming just one ball that I am sure my grandparents finished whole trays of buns while I worked at my one little piece.

Jump ahead in time to 2010. I just moved to Madison about five months ago, and with no job yet, I have a lot of time on my hands. To fill some of that time (and to have food to bring to potlucks!) I decided it was time to learn how to bake. I am 800 miles from my grandma (and my mom, who is also an excellent cook and baker) and now I decide I want to learn!

I started off with quick breads, cookies, cakes and pies. My mom emailed me recipes and advice and I asked her questions over MSN as I went. It was like having a personal online tutor! I enjoyed those lessons, but the time came when I thought it would be fun to try to make my grandmother’s fabled buns. My mom didn’t know how to make them nor did she have the recipe, so our online lessons weren’t going to get me very far. My grandma thought about writing out her instructions and mailing them to me, but she said that the best way for me to learn would really be in person, because so much of her process involves instinct and knowing how the dough should feel. So we decided to wait and do a lesson when I took a trip home. And that’s what we did. One afternoon in November, my grandma taught me her secrets. I won’t divulge them all here, but I will write a little of what she told me. She said that when she was young, the people she knew who made bread would try to add as much flour as the dough would hold. They ended up with really tough, heavy breads. My grandmother thought there must be another way to do it, so she set out to experiment with ways to make breads the way she thought they should be. She came up with her own method and recipe, and the result is indescribable; her buns are truly the lightest, airiest bread products I have ever tasted. I’m still working on mastering the technique--mine don’t come out nearly as light as hers do--but she has a whole lifetime of practice on me!

I am still learning and I am far from perfecting anything I have baked, especially the buns. But I feel incredibly honored to know my grandmother’s special recipe, and to be able to share her buns with the potluck crowd!

Thanks, Lana! And thanks to both you and Carlos (pictured above) for hosting potluck!

Here is the recipe for my contribution, which I found at The Kitchn, and made one or two changes to. (Go here for the original recipe!)

Cranberry Cake
makes 1 9x13 or 1 10" springform cake (I used a 9x13 pan)

3 eggs
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup unsalted butter, slightly softened and cut into chunks
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 tablespoon kirsch (optional)
2 cups flour
2 1/2 cups cranberries, defrosted if frozen

Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly grease a 9x13 pan or a 10" springform pan.

Beat eggs and sugar together for 5-7 minutes, until they are pale yellow. Add butter and flavorings and beat for 2 minutes. Stir in flour and fold in cranberries. The dough will be rather stiff, especially if the cranberries are still cold. Turn out into the greased pan. If including the nut topping shown below (you should!) spread it on at this time

Bake 45-50 minutes for a 9x13, or a little over an hour for the springform. You made need to tent the cake with foil in the last 15 minutes or so to keep the top from browning.

Cool completely before serving.

Optional nut topping:
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 cup nuts, like walnuts or pecans, broken into halves or quarters

Heat the butter in a pan over medium-high heat. Add the sugar and stir. Add the nuts and cook for several minutes, stirring, until the butter and sugar mixture is shiny and smooth and the nuts smell toasted. Spread over the cake batter and bake as above.
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