Saturday, December 26, 2009

Geodesic Gingerbread

The December 2009 Daring Bakers' challenge was brought to you by Anna of Very Small Anna and Y of Lemonpi. They chose to challenge Daring Bakers' everywhere to bake and assemble a gingerbread house from scratch. They chose recipes from Good Housekeeping and from The Great Scandanavian Baking Book as the challenge recipes.

As I have said before, I like to cook and sometimes I like to bake, but my strength is not with the artistic skills necessary for things like beautifully decorated cakes and cookies. And that goes double for gingerbread houses! On top of my reluctance to do a project like this was the additional problem of still-recovering hands (which made rolling dough difficult), the tail end of a flu/cold which really sapped my energy and a very sore ankle which affected my ability to stand for any length of time. Woe is I!

After feeling sorry for myself and posting a note on Daring Bakers that I probably would not be able to participate, my darling daughter, Elisabeth, came to the rescue. She devoted a whole day to assembling a gingerbread house - not just any house, but a geodesic dome, which took architectural skills, physics knowledge, incredible patience, and enough good humor to survive and overcome all the problems and obstacles. And the icing on the cake (literally) was that she and her boyfriend, Sean, spent Christmas afternoon decorating the creation, complete with satellite dish, outhouse, Christmas lights around the front door, decorated trees, fences, snowmen and other little details.

The template for the dome was basically a triangle, but Elisabeth also made some trees, so she made a template for 3-D trees, as well.

Here are some of the many, many (50-60) triangles she needed to make the dome.

The dome was a challenge because it could not have any permanent internal supports. She tried several differents methods of construction: just building it with skewers to support the dome - FAIL; building inside a bowl, with the plan being to "unmold" it when it was solid - FAIL; and, the final solution, build it over an upside down bowl and let it get really, really hard before removing the bowl.

Once the structure was done, we set it aside for several days, made sure we had lots of candy to decorate, and waited for Christmas for the final stage.

This is it! The details are hard to see because there is so much going on, but there are some snowmen in plain sight, a tree with a star in the background, and lots of candy embellishments. My favorite additions were the little string of lights around the front door and the satellite dish on the roof. Both were made from Tootsie Roll miniatures, as was this little creature: Doofus, Elisabeth's cat, ready to pounce.

And here are the artists, celebrating their success. Note the particularly cute adornment on Elisabeth's head - a gift from Santa. A little hard to see, but goes well with her HO, HO, HO t-shirt.

So my Christmas blessing this year was clearly Elisabeth and Sean helping me take on a challenge that threatened to overwhelm me. It was probably more fun watching them than doing it myself. Family can be really great, can't it?

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year's to all!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Feeling a Little Crusty

After all that turkey, what better dinner to enjoy than salmon? And thanks to the December Daring Cook challenge, that's just what we had.

The 2009 Daring Cooks challenge was hosted by Simone of Junglefrog Cooking ( Simone chose Salmon en Croute (or alternative recipes for Beef Wellington or Vegetable en Croute) from Good Food Online (

I haven't been cooking much for the past month. We were gone half of November and then I had my little mishap and had to have help even to get Thanksgiving dinner on the table, so our day-t0-day meals have been purchased or defrosted rather than prepared with fresh ingredients. It was a relief to really cook again.

This challenge was surprisingly easy. The pastry is an all-butter short pastry, which is rich and meltingly good. The salmon I used was Alaskan coho. While the original challenge called for a watercress, argula and spinach topping for the salmon, I changed that because Bob's kidneys don't like spinach and I don't like watching Bob writhe in pain!

I used mushrooms, toasted hazelnuts and marscapone. I sauteed the mushrooms in butter and olive oil, cooked off all the liquid, added some sherry, salt and lots of black pepper. I toasted the chopped hazelnuts in a dry saute pan and then mixed the nuts and the mushrooms together with the marscapone. A little thyme, a little more pepper and we were good to go! I spread the mushroom mixture over the top of the salmon filet, wrapped the whole thing in pastry and baked it for about 30 minutes.

The flavors all worked really well together. The buttery pastry was balanced by the meaty mushroom/nut mixture and the salmon worked well with everything. We ate well that night!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Try to Remember....November

A whole month just flew by with very little cooking by yours truly. Bob and I spent 10 days sailing down the Danube being fed by professional chefs and the most work I did was to pour my Sprite in my glass as I rested in the lounge each afternoon, writing in the travel journal and recording our adventures. The food on the boat was splendid and since we walked many, many steps each day, didn't feel too indulgent. I skipped most of the wine (so virtuous!), but did have a beer or two on dry land.

I planned to do the Daring Baker challenge, cannoli, when I got home but managed to fall and sprain both hands/wrists, especially the left, which meant I could do virtually nothing. Missing out on the cannoli was bad enough, but I was also too impaired to do much Thanksgiving prep work, which was a major concern. Fortunately, not only did Elisabeth come down to take me to the doctor, she came early on Wednesday and worked like a little demon all afternoon and evening, doing all the prep work and even making some of the final dishes. And then on Thursday, the Morris-Briehl's came early and Sarah and my God-daughter Emma pitched in and everything was good! Bob handled the bird duties (both the whole roasted bird and the deep-fried breast), Elisabeth and Emma decorated the table, my mother took on ironing the table cloths and setting the table and I did nothing much but pretend to be in charge.

Two new dishes this year that were particularly special to me: An apple tart which Emma and Elisabeth made on Thursday afternoon and cranberry sorbet which Bob made on the weekend. Both were delicious and added a special dimension to our meal, which included my mother's blackberry pie (always delicious) and Sarah's pumpkin (good for dessert and breakfast, too).

My hands are healing and I'm doing a little cooking now. If all goes well, I'll have something to post for the December Daring Cooks Challenge and the December Daring Bakers Challenge. Something to look forward to!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Trio of Sushi

The November 2009 Daring Cooks challenge was brought to you by Audax of Audax Artifex and Rose of The Bite Me Kitchen. They chose sushi as the challenge.

And a challenge it was! I am not very talented in the "make things look cute" skills. I think I did all right on this one, but it looked a lot easier on the YouTube demonstration videos!

We were challenged to make three kinds of sushi: nigiri, spiral rolls, and dragon rolls. Sushi, as many of you may know, refers to the vinegared rice, not to raw fish. In fact, raw fish was not a component of any of my efforts and is not a requirement for sushi. The rice, as the central component, took the most time. The process includes rinsing the rice repeatedly, draining it for 30 minutes, soaking it in water and dashi konbu for 30 minutes, cooking it with sake for 15 minutes, steaming it for 15 minutes, carefully transferring it to a non-reactive container, sprinkling it with rice vinegar/sugar/salt mixture, gently breaking it up and turning it with a fan going to cool it, distribute the vinegar, and make it shiny. This all took a lot of time, so when I was done, I covered it with a damp cloth and took a break.

The first version I made was the spiral roll and I think it was the most successful from an aesthetic point of view. The nori (seaweed sheet) is covered in rice (gently, always gently), six indentations are made and filled with colorful and complementary ingredients. I used green bean, zucchini, roasted red pepper, pickled carrot, chanterelle mushroom and bay shrimp. The roll is then rolled (duh) and cut into slices. The end product is a spiral dotted with the various ingredients.

Cute, right? A little tough to distinguish what the "dots" are, but they are colorful.

I then made the dragon roll, which was a bit more challenging. This roll is also nori covered with rice, but it is flipped over so the rice is on the outside. Inside, I made a row of smoked salmon and right next to it, a row of avocado. This was tightly rolled using the sushi mat. The top was garnished with black roe and covered with thinly sliced avocado. Theoretically, when imaginatively garnished, this looks like a dragon (or caterpillar) with "fire" (or "legs"). Mine looked like a lot of avocado with blobs of sriracha and pickled ginger, but at least I managed to include all the components.

Finally, the nigiri are shaped by hand into a chubby cylinder and then topped with whatever. I used smoked salmon on a couple and seaweed salad on a couple. According to the challengers, this is the most common type of sushi served in sushi bars, but I will have to take their word for it. I thought it was the least interesting of the three, but that could be because I was pretty well sushi-ed-out by this point. The rice is shaped by hand, a little wasabi or other paste is put on the top in a thin line, and then the toppings placed on top of that. That's all I did, although there are additional garnishes and versions, like using the nori to tie the ingredients on or putting a band of nori around the rice to hold less solid ingredients on. I probably should have used both these techniques, but I was ready to be DONE!

This was Bob's dinner. It worked out pretty well because I knew he was going to be late and his arrival was unpredictable, so the sushi was all ready and waiting for him. He didn't manage to finish everything, but he made a pretty good dent.

Now, of course, I have the sushi mat, a large supply of roe, lots of nori and other equipment and ingredients so theoretically, I could do this on a regular basis. This seems a bit unlikely to me, but who knows?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Peachy Keen

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 the Gramercy Tavern as the challenge recipe.

Macarons are a French cookie which are enjoying some popularity. They are beautiful to look at and come in a variety of flavors and colors, limited only by the imagination of the baker. We were to make the basic macaron, color and flavor it as we wished and then make a filling - again, our choice.

One of the reasons I joined Daring Bakers was to push myself to try new things. I don't do much baking, largely because my two-person household doesn't need any temptations around, but also because I love to cook, but my baking talent is pretty limited. This challenge pushed me a little.

The macarons are basically an egg white, sugar and almond flour batter which is piped into little circles. Since it is pretty much a blank canvas, adding color and flavor is the fun part. I had already decided I was going to use peach in my filling, so I decided to use a little orange powdered food coloring to bring some peachiness to the cookie. I also consulted a wonderful book, The Flavor Bible, for ideas for flavoring the cookie with something that would enhance the peach. I'd thought about some ginger, since ginger and peach are a good pairing, but I'm not a huge ginger fan. I then thought about grilled peaches, seasoned with black pepper. The Flavor Bible confirmed that black pepper is a pairing that works, so that was my choice.

I knew I wanted a subtle color, so I only added a small amount of the food coloring. The pepper was tougher. I had read that about a teaspoon of flavor, whether spices, herbs, lemon zest or whatever, was about right. I was a little reluctant to add that much freshly ground black pepper - it is pretty potent! I think I ended up with about 1/2 teaspoon, which was probably not enough to make a significant contribution.

The filling was a modification of a cream cheese buttercream I found on Tartelette's blog. In addition to the meringue, huge amounts of butter and cream cheese, I folded in some organic peach preserves. They added not only a wonderful flavor, but also a little color to coordinate with my cookies.

I think these cookies were largely successful, although I've not had an "official" version, so I'm just guessing. I found the basic cookie way too sweet for my taste, but the cream cheese peach filling balanced that out. I don't know that I would make these again unless I needed something pretty for a party. The process was a bit time-consuming for the number of cookies I made and the cookies themselves are extremely fragile.

I gave most of these away because they need to be eaten quickly. So another learning experience! Once again, Daring Bakers achieves its aim in pushing me to the new frontiers.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Fi, Fie, Pho!

The October 2009 Daring Cooks' challenge was brought to us by Jaden of the blog Steamy Kitchen. The recipes are from her new cookbook, The Steamy Kitchen Cookbook.

I have read about the glories of pho (actually pronounced "fuh") on various food sites for a long, ong time. But, as is often the case, I've never gone to one of the many pho restaurants in the area to try it, so this challenge was a welcome one.

Pho is a clear broth, usually beef, but sometimes chicken, as in this case, augmented with noodles, meat, and various condiments. Making the broth is time-consuming but not difficult - just like making chicken stock. Instead of standard chicken stock veggies, however, there are Asian flavors: ginger, star anise, coriander, clove, fish sauce, and cilantro.

The spices - coriander seeds, star anise, and cloves - are toasted in a fry pan for extra flavor. The ginger and onion are charred under the broiler and then peeled and cut up. A whole chicken is cut up, the breast meat separated from the rest of the chicken, and the rest of the bird cut into 3" pieces. The chicken is quickly parboiled to remove impurities. The pieces plus the breast are then simmered in fresh cold water for about 90 minutes with all the spices. The breast meat is removed after about 15 minutes and shredded for serving. Once the broth is done, it is strained, all the solids are removed and the broth is kept warm.

The rice noodles are prepared, along with such condiments as bean sprouts, fresh cilantro, thinly sliced red onion (I soaked the onion in cold water to remove some of the sharpness), lime, Sriracha, hoisin, and sliced chili peppers (from our garden!). I also sauteed some chanterelle mushrooms, which is not at all traditional but turned out to be a good addition.

Bowls are filled with noodles, the shredded chicken breast is added, and the broth used to fill the bowls. Condiments are added to taste.

This was a very subtly flavored broth which enhanced the noodles and the chicken. The condiments added additional flavors and colors.

But wait! There is more. That was not all of the feast that night. I also made what I have always called hum bao, which are Chinese buns made with a yeast dough and stuffed with char siu pork. They are steamed about 12-15 minutes and arrive on the plate plump, soft and flavorful.

The bun itself is neutral and thus a perfect vehicle for the tasty pork. The pork is basically Chinese-style barbequed pork with a sauce of sugar, salt, pepper, soy, oyster sauce and water. It is mixed with scallions and rice wine in a skillet and then slightly thickened with cornstarch. This recipe is from Asian Dumplings by Andrea Nguyen, a fantastic book filled with information about Asian ingredients, including the author's favorite brands, techniques and equipment. I could cook my way through this book and eat nothing else!

And then, the final touch. With help from Bob, who is more comfortable with the deep fryer than I, we assembled dessert wontons. The wrappers were filled with various combinations of chocolate, caramel, peanuts, strawberries (more garden goodies!), and peach. I devised a Snickers-bar wonton - chocolate, caramel and a few roasted peanuts, deep-fried and dusted with powdered sugar. It was intense! The chocolate and strawberry combos were also excellent. We experimented with different shapes and had a good time creating our little treats.

Many thanks to Sarah and Ron, my favorite guinea pigs, who are always willing to come try my experiments. They were enthusiastic contributors to the wonton dessert project. Even though there is always pizza in the freezer, it's still risky business!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Puff and Magic Mushrooms

Sounds a little psychedelic, doesn't it? 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.

Puff pastry is nothing more than layers and layers of butter between flour. If done properly, when it bakes, it puffs up and becomes a flaky, buttery treat. Vols-au-vent are layered pastries. The bottom layer is just a round cut from the pastry after it has been rolled quite thin. Then another doughnut-shaped round is cut to stack on top. When baked, these pieces adhere to form a little dish to hold whatever treats are added.

I decided to fill mine with sauteed mushrooms. My photography leaves something to be desired, but the vol-au-vent did puff up beautifully and made a great container for my mushrooms, garnished with a freshly harvested tomato and a little parsley, both grown in Bob's organic garden. These little puffs were small, only a couple inches in diameter, so they were perfect appetizers for dinner the night I made them. Or...they would have been perfect appetizers had there been any left by the time Bob got home. Really, they were only a couple bites a piece and they were so appealing and after all that rolling and folding and rolling some more... well, I deserved a little treat - or two - or however many there were.

The good thing is that I froze two thirds of the pastry for future use. These are so versatile - savory things like salads and roast veggies work just as well as sweet fillings such as custards or fruits. And what about seafood? So many possibilities! That's probably why I haven't yet done anything yet. Too hard to make a decision. But one night Bob will come home to a buttery, flaky treat filled with succulent bites of something. Worth waiting for, I think.

Thank the Computer Gods for Google!

I'm doing a lot of cooking this weekend - more to follow - but my brain was not in gear when I made my shopping lists. Since I was missing what appeared to be significant, exotic ingredients but didn't feel like changing from my tattered sweats to go searching for them, I started googling to see if I could find substitutes. What a miracle Google is! I found suggestions for substitutes for everything from shrimp paste to lemongrass to tamarind paste - and I have all the substitute ingredients, so I'm good to go.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Soup of My Dreams

I love French onion soup. The rich broth, the crouton soaking up the rich broth, the gooey melted cheese - wonderful!

It is not, however, easy to find a really good onion soup. Even in Paris, where you would expect every bistro to have a tasty version of this iconic dish, the quality ranges from tasteless to acceptable. The best I ever had was a restaurant in Seattle. It's all a little fuzzy now, because this was in the '70's, but I remember this small restaurant downtown which had a soup that was the right blend of hearty broth, silky onions and lots of cheese.

I have tried several recipes for the soup, some of which have disappointed me in one way or another, but I keep looking. This week, I tried the recipe from Thomas Keller's "Bouchon." A bit intimidating, it calls for homemade beef stock made from roasted beef bones, onions cooked slowly for 5 hours until deeply caramelized and then the stock and onions combined for another hour to reduce and deepen the soup. I admit that the idea of making my own beef stock put me off a bit, so I found an organic beef broth that had nothing unpronounceable in it and used that instead. I did caramelize the onions for hours, stirring every 15 minutes until they reached this point:

They were practically melted after 6 hours of cooking. I used a diffuser, which allowed me to keep a pretty constant low simmer without having to readjust the temperature on the cooktop. I started with 8 pounds of onions, which took me about 45 minutes, including tear breaks, to slice (I wish my knife skills were better!). They filled to overflowing a 5-6 quart pan, so there were a lot of onions to cook down. I used a mix of yellow and sweet onions, which seemed to work pretty well.

When the onions were done, I added the beef broth and some seasonings and simmered that for another couple hours. The recipe said one hour to reduce by 1/3, but it took longer than that, maybe because I kept the temperature pretty low. The result? Not bad at all. The onions were silk, the broth was deeply flavorful. With a toasted crouton and some Emmenthaler cheese melted over the top, I had something was pretty darn close to my memory and quite a bit better than most of the onion soups I've had in recent years. Time and patience paid off. Next time, maybe I'll do the stock as well!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Pie Pops

One of the websites I visit regularly is Serious Eats, which has interesting articles and pictures from the world of food. It also has a variety of forums for discussing cooking, restaurants, food trivia, and other food-related topics. I once posted a query on cooking a whole pig after Nick's attempt at this project, which had assorted problems. I got great responses, including one from the North Carolina Pork Association, with detailed instructions on how to go about this and even a recipe for sauce.

Several weeks ago, Serious Eats posted pictures of pie pops. These are two-bite pies, on lollipop sticks, filled with whatever pie filling you choose. I tracked back to the website of Luxirare, the person who made these little treats, and found a fascinating tale. This woman is based in Zimbabwe, according to her post. She focuses on food and clothing and is really a designer of both. The little pie pops didn't really have a recipe, but she had such amazing response to the posting she pulled together a list of hints and suggestions for making them which, along with her detailed photographs, resulted in a pretty good approach.

I made strawberry, blackberry and apple fillings for my pops (color-coded with different sugars). At her recommendation, I used pie crusts from the refrigerator section of my local Safeway, rolled quite a bit thinner. I pre-cooked the fillings, adding little more than sugar and other seasonings, along with a little cornstarch for the berries. The pops are not easy to make because finding the right ratio of filling to dough is a bit of a challenge. You want enough filling to give some fruity flavor but not so much your top dough piece is torn or overstretched. I spent an afternoon pulling these together and while they are not as incredibly beautiful as Luxirare's, some of them were pretty good.

Ultimately, these were made in honor of Ron for his birthday. Below is a not-very-good picture of Ron with his blackberry pie pop, complete with candle, which is barely discernible.

Much better than cake!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Birthday Bastilla

Over 30 years ago, I had friends living in the Bay Area. On one of my visits, we went to Mamounia, a Moroccan restaurant, for dinner. I still remember that meal: Green Hungarian wine, couscous in a tangine, mint tea, and, best of all, bastilla. One especially fun thing was our tour of the kitchen after dinner. When the waiter brought the couscous, he lifted the lid of the tangine dramatically and I said, "Voila!" He immediately assumed I knew French and was quite excited. Since voila is about the sum of all my French, I hated to disappoint, but the connection had been made and he ushered us into the kitchen later in the evening. There, the chef was creating the bastilla, making the phyllo, as I recall, by cooking a very thin batter on a pan and pulling it off with his bare fingers.

Needless to say, when I decided to attempt bastilla myself, I passed on the homemade pastry and used frozen phyllo instead. Bastilla is a pie-like dish made with chicken, eggs, almonds, onions, parsley and cinnamon, sugar and other spices. The pie is topped with powdered sugar and cinnamon, giving it a sweet crust. At Mamounia, we ate it with our hands, but tonight we used more traditional implements.

The occasion was our dear friend Ron's birthday. Ron, his wife Sarah and Emma, their daughter and our goddaughter, were good enough to let us host the birthday dinner, giving me the perfect reason to make something different. Plus, they are really good about being guinea pigs!

The menu:

Pre-dinner noshes of hummus, pita, and halloumi, a sheep and goat milk cheese from Cyprus, made to be grilled before eating. Halloumi is quite salty, so the pita is a good counterpoint.

Tomato, avocado and mango salad with spicy seasoning, courtesy of Sarah. Are those colors glorious or what! Just makes you want to start eating RIGHT NOW.

Bastilla, based on a recipe from Sunset magazine, circa 1984. I've had this recipe carefully saved for 25 years and this is the first time I've tried it. Well, the only excuse is that it needed to be made for just the right occasion and this is the first time Ron has celebrated his 59th birthday.

Pie pops were the "birthday cake" for Ron. This little dessert deserves a little more discussion, so watch for another post, probably tomorrow, about their origin.

Happy Birthday, Ron!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Fluffy and Puffy

I'm on a roll! Tonight is Sunday, the eve of Labor Day and a windier, rainy-er day there couldn't be. We had our "fun" outing - a trip to Costco - and came home so Bob could continue building tables for the greenhouse. He has done a beautiful job and we will be blessed with wonderful plants thriving throughout the winter, along with seedlings and other little treats.

For such a wet and windy day, a comfort food dinner was perfect. I braved the rain and harvested some tomatoes for our salad and I made this ham and cheese souffle. I used the same recipe I have used for decades, from James Beard's American Cookery. This souffle recipe has NEVER failed me - it always looks glorious when it comes out of the oven and tastes even better. I add a bit more cheese and ham than the recipe calls for, but I want to make this a hearty, stand-alone meal for us, not a "ladies-who-lunch" mini-meal.

Souffles may sound scary but I have never had a flat one. Just be careful with the eggs whites, folding them gently, and you will have a puffy treat to warm you on a chilly, rainy day.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Tartly Tomato

This is one of my favorite appetizers - a tomato tart. I wish I could say I used tomatoes from our garden but, while we have had a pretty successful year, there have never been enough of the little fellas to do a tart this size.

The base of the tart is several layers of phyllo, brushed with butter and sprinkled with parmesan. The top layer has very thinly sliced onions, mozzarella and then the paper-thin slices of tomatoes. A little salt, a little pepper and some fresh thyme and you are good to go! It bakes until the phyllo is crispy and emerges in all its succulent beauty.

I made this one for a potluck picnic and discovered it is much better just out of the oven, while it is still crisp. When it is packed up to travel, the crust becomes a little too moist. That didn't stop people from eating it - I made two and there were no leftovers!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Torte-lini (A Mini Dobos Torte)

The August 2009 Daring Baker's challenge was hosted by Angela of A Spoonful of Sugar and Lorraine of Not Quite Nigella. They chose the spectacular Dobos Torte based on a recipe from Rick Rodgers' cookbook Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts from the Class Caffes of Vienna, Budapest and Prague.

The traditional Dobos Torte is seven layers of sponge cake filled with chocolate buttercream and topped with a decorative layer of caramel topped sponge. I decided to make a few smaller cakes rather than one large one because there is no way we would ever eat a whole big cake. Somehow, four little cakes seemed more manageable.

Good thing I made that decision because it allowed me to practice until I got it right - or at least as right I was going to be able to manage!

I made very thin sponge circles, cooked on a Silpat, for the layers. I used a cookie cutter on the circles to assure a uniform size. The chocolate buttercream was just standard issue - followed the recipe they gave us. The problem was the weather. Despite my lovely air-conditioning, it was warm in the kitchen and the buttercream quickly became too soft when it sat out. Finding the optimal temperature was tough: soft enough to spread without tearing the delicate sponge cake yet firm enough not to melt.

I also learned that the Food Network, despite its detractors, does provide useful information. I've watched all those cake challenges and I know that real bakers use an internal support system when building layered cakes. As I struggled to keep my first mini-Dobos upright while adding layers, I realized I needed some way to keep the layers even. So, mini number 2 had a skewer inserted in the center of the layers. This made it immensely easier to frost the sides and top without having the thing turn into the Leaning Tower of Dobos.

The other struggle I had was the caramel topping. The original recipe calls for the caramel to be poured on the top of one layer, which is then cut into pie-shaped slices and made into kind of a whirl-i-gig topping by supporting the wedges with either a hazelnut or some piped buttercream. This seemed too complex for my little cakes, so I decided to do some fancy caramel swirls or ribbons or whatever to top the little darlings. Nice plan and they always make it seem so simple. Believe me, making caramel into lovely shapes requires skill and probably hours of practice. Caramel is HOT when it is poured. Letting it cool a little is essential (one large blister established it had not cooled enough); letting it cool too long results in brittle rather than pliable caramel. Suffice it to say, timing is critical. I did manage some swirly things and some thin strands and other shapes. Not what I was going for but I recognize my limitations. I like to think of the decorative topping of my Dobos Torte-lini (I made that up) as abstract. Perhaps it is symbolic of the merger of the traditional dessert with a modern variation. Or maybe it is just weird.

The torte was very rich. It did taste good, but small bites were more than adequate. Once again, we tasted but did not indulge. I saved the pretty one for Nick and he had about two bites before he was sated. For some reason, my sweet tooth has pretty much disappeared. I'm hoping Daring Bakers will choose some challenges that are not so desserty - maybe croissants or an interesting ethnic bread.

I'm unable to do the Daring Cooks challenge this month, but if I make anything interesting, I'll post. Otherwise the next Daring Baker challenge will pop up on September 27. And by the way, if you want to see what a serious pastry chef can do, check out This woman's work - both pastry and photography - is incredible. Her variation on the Dobos challenge is absolutely gorgeous and creative.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Remains of the Day

Nick has been home from Boston for a brief summer vacation before starting back to dental school in a few days. He was a busy person - very active social life - so I saw him mainly for meals. We have a ritual when he is home: He gets to choose the dinners he wants from his favorites. We had the welcome home New York strip steak with baked onion rings and salad (his dad actually grilled the steaks, so this was an easy one for me); the Caesar salad with grilled chicken; the dinner with friends which included a variety of dishes plus a homemade rustic peach tart (rustic because the crust, while delicious, was incredibly hard to work with so there were lots of patches); homemade pizza with a dough I had frozen some time ago - excellent result when cooking on the pizza stone in the oven; jerk chicken with papaya and pineapple salsa; and tonight, ribs with a fruit barbecue sauce, corn fritters (from Michael Ruhlman's book, Ratio) and watermelon.

The picture is the remains of that meal - not much left! The ribs were so tender they literally fell off the bone. I use a recipe that calls for brining them overnight, then marinating them in a mustard/spice rub for an hour or two, then slow cooking wrapped in foil with a little pineapple juice to steam (in the oven), then another brown sugar/spice rub and finished off on the grill. I find doing the major part of the cooking in the oven makes for a more predictable timeline and better control (for me) of temperature, so I modified this recipe to include the oven time vs. additional time on the grill.

Nick leaves tomorrow, but I'll probably start thinking about the Christmas vacation dinners the next day!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Not Paella - But the Pan Works

Olga from Las Cosas de Olga chose the August Daring Cooks Challenge. This dish, rice with mushrooms, cuttlefish and artichokes, is a Jose' Andres recipe. Andres is a Spanish chef who lives in Washington, D.C. and owns several restaurants there. I've seen him on TV - quite a character!

Since I make paella regularly, the basic approach to this dish was familiar. A critical part of the dish is the sofregit, a sauce of olive oil, tomatoes, garlic, onion and mushrooms. The condiment is an allioli, which is a Spanish version of aioli - a garlic and olive oil emulsion.

The sofregit cooks for a long time, until the tomatoes are broken down and everything is soft. It is added to the cooked cuttlefish (I used calamari), artichokes and mushrooms, which are sauteed in olive oil. White wine is added and then the rice, water, and saffron. It cooks until the rice is done and is served with the allioli.

This dish was okay, but I have to say I prefer my paella. I think using water (I could have used fish stock, but didn't have any) meant a loss of a layer of flavor. And while the calamari were fine and were something I could conceivably use in paella, I didn't think they added enough to flavors - compared to prawns, clams, chicken and chorizo. I also struggled with the allioli. The directions were a little vague - 4 garlic cloves, salt, some drops of lemon juice and then olive oil "until you have the consistency of thick mayonnaise." This was all done by hand, with the mortar and pestle the primary tool for smashing the garlic to paste and incorporating the olive oil "drop by drop." While some people on the Daring Cooks forum reported great success with this labor-intensive approach, some of us had less luck. I should have used the food processor. As it was, I referred to Michael Ruhlman's "Ratio" to get an approximation of how much olive oil I would need since the recipe was not at all specific.

While it is interesting to explore other Spanish foods, I'm going to stick to my standard paella, which I think is more flavorful and more versatile. With family and friends with various eating taboos (no seafood, prawns but not clams, no meat, nothing spicy), a good paella with prawns, chicken, chorizo, clams, lots of veggies has options for everyone - and the rice is especially appealing.

Monday, July 27, 2009

S'Mores Translated

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 (

I squeezed this challenge in between trips. I also wanted a relatively cool day to bake, since neither marshmallow nor chocolate seemed to call for the kind of hot days we have been having lately. This is the Pacific Northwest - where's the rain????

The cookies were okay, but I don't think I would make them again. The cookie part didn't have a lot of flavor - should have amped them up a bit. The marshmallow actually turned out pretty well. I had a lot of reservations about making them because I had to use a similar process to make a meringue for an earlier challenge and it did not go well. This time, everything worked out pretty well. The marshmallows are made by combining water, sugar and corn syrup to a soft ball stage, adding softened gelatin and pouring the resulting mixture into softly whipped egg whites and then continuing to whip them to hard peak stage. I added the vanilla and the resulting product was pretty marshmallow-y!

The recipe said we would have 2 dozen cookies - wrong! More like 6 dozen. The cookies were small. I used a pastry tip to cut out the circles to about one to one and a half inches since I didn't have a cookie cutter that size. After the cookies baked, I piped the marshmallow on them. I have lots of piping tips, but no pastry bag, so I used the ziploc method. Worked fine, mostly. Below is an example of a good piping job!

Lest you be overwhelmed by my piping skills, let me show you another sample - the alien version.

Okay - not classic, but a certain extraterrestrial flair, don't you think?

The final product would have been lovely gilded with gold leaf, but that's another thing I don't have in my otherwise relatively well-supplied kitchen. I did add some sugar sprinkles to some of the cookies, which was kind of cute but added nothing to the flavor. The chocolate was simply semi-sweet chips melted with some canola oil. I hand-dipped these suckers - all six dozen of them. My fraternal grandmother had a job as a candy-dipper in the first half of the 20th century. I'm sure she would have been better at this than I, but I managed. Pretty boring after the first couple dozen. The result:

My mother liked these, my husband sneaked a few but for the most part, they were not good enough to put in my favorite cookie recipe collection. Well, okay, I don't really have a favorite cookie recipe collection, but if I did, these wouldn't make it. If I had had time, I could have played a bit - maybe add a peanut butter or jelly layer between cookie and marshmallow, maybe add some extra flavor to the cookie layer, whatever. But didn't happen and not going to happen.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Racing in New Hampshire

I spent a week in New England this month, mostly in far northern New Hampshire. Nick and three of his friends were doing an adventure race and I went along for the ride. We had some luck in intercepting the team at various checkpoints, so I did get some pictures.

The food, however, was not as memorable as the rest of the trip. I only ate in three different restaurants (we were in the middle of nowhere, so there were not a lot of choices). I swear, the only vegetable known to northern New Hampshire is the french fry - or its close relative, the sweet potato fry. I had a lobster roll (pretty good) with french fries, fish and chips (also pretty good), chicken pot pie (not great, but it did have carrots and peas) and french fries, tuna melt (yummy) with french fries, cheeseburger and french fries (11 PM, we were starved and this was a $2 burger cooked by volunteers at one of the checkpoints of the race and probably the only food available at that hour), a grilled cheese sandwich and fries. The only meal without fries was breakfast and I probably could have ordered them then, too. Salads were pretty much non-existent and the one I did order was not very good - lots of onion but not much else. When we returned to Boston, I started my week of being a vegetarian - salads, salads and more salads!

The Balsams Grand Resort

Apart from the food, the trip was wonderful. New Hampshire is gorgeous, with lots of green, lots of rivers, and dramatic notches (what we might call mountain passes). While the mountains are not the height of the Cascades or Olympics, they are dramatic nonetheless. Since this area is sparsely populated, there is lots of open space and there are parks everywhere. The resort we stayed in is on the national historic register and is truly a grand old resort, one you can imagine wealthy East Coast people coming for a summer vacation. Dress for dinner (we skipped that part), gracious living, service that was impeccable, tennis, golf (with suitable dress required), pool, lake with watercraft, trails for hiking and mountain biking. The dining room had room for 550 diners, there was a ballroom, a theater, the polling place for the Dixville Notch precinct (which opens at midnight on the day of the presidential elections and reports the first returns - 16 voters in 2008), sun rooms, billiards room, and probably more that I missed. Amazing place. The nearest towns are 10 miles to the west (Colebrook) and 10 miles to east (Errol) and neither one is even large enough to warrant an entry in the Triple A travel guide.

The people doing these adventure races are all so friendly, it is just fun to be in the vicinity. The mother of one of Nick's teammates and I spent Friday afternoon and Saturday driving around looking for them and every time we stopped at a checkpoint to see if they had checked in, the race people recognized us and knew our team. If they do another race, I'll be there!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Fish and ..... Bananas?

This challenge came from Sketchy, who chose a recipe from the Alinea cookbook - Skate with Traditional Flavors Powdered. This was a really busy month for me and I cannot say I was enthusiastic about doing this recipe. Lots of time-consuming steps (not technically difficult, just lots of time) and I wasn't sure I would find the couple days I would need to complete all the prep. Despite misgivings, I decided to give it a try.

Skate is a little manta-ray like fish, which, in addition to being hard to find, is on the Monterey Bay Aquarium's "avoid" list. Besides that, the fish guy at Metropolitan Market seemed to think it would take lots of time to prep - lots of cartilage. So, I substituted Alaskan cod, which seemed to work just fine.

I also followed the recipe in the Alinea cookbook rather than using the changes Sketchy suggested. It was fewer ingredients and fewer steps, which worked better with my schedule.

First up, the powders. I dried capers and parsley in the toaster oven - about three hours for the capers and an hour for the parsley - then ground them in my spice grinder. I poached lemon rind in simple syrup (three times) and then dried it in the toaster oven for about three hours and then ground it. I also ground dried banana chips. I baked dried milk on a Silpat for several minutes until it was brown and then combined it with the banana chip powder.

The green beans were sliced into little rounds, about 1/4". They were poached in beurre monte, which is unsalted butter combined with a small amount of simmering water in an emulsion. The entire recipe called for one pound of butter made into beurre monte!! That's a lot of butter! I poached them very briefly.

The cod was cut into slices and poached in the beurre monte until done and then drained.

To compose the plate, I put three fresh banana slices on the plate, topped with the green beans and the fish. I sprinkled some of the banana/milk powder along the edge of the fish. The other three powders (caper, parsley, and lemon) were swirled on the plate. The idea was to take a bite which had all the flavors: banana, beans, fish, and all the powders. I told Bob, my long-suffering guinea pig husband, that if it was ghastly, we would go out! But it wasn't! It was really quite good and Bob even had seconds. No way would I have imagined that banana and green beans went with fish, but it was quite tasty and the powders just enhanced all the flavors. I guess that is why Grant Achatz, chef at Alinea, has such an amazing reputation for putting together unusual textures and flavors. I have to go to Chicago and eat his food!

So a successful challenge despite all my reservations. Probably not a dish I will ever do again, but an eye-opener for sure.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Dinner on the Deck

With the wonderful weather we have been having, dinner on the deck was an enticing thought. And with friends Harold and Janet Wood visiting from California and Sally Soest willing to make the trek down here from Seattle, the perfect opportunity presented itself.

I found a menu from Sunset magazine which I had saved (I do have a system!) and decided on the Hawaiian-themed meal. Not pictured, because it was largely devoured before the camera came out, is the bowl of Maui sweet onion chips with a sweet onion dip. For the first time, I was truly successful in caramelizing onions - no burning, just beautiful, golden brown, soft, caramelized onions, which were pureed with buttermilk and sour cream into a simple but tasty dip. I think the trick is to slice the onions pole-to-pole rather than crosswise and to cook them at a VERY low temp for a very long time. I ignored the recipe, which said to use medium heat for 20 minutes and put them on a lower setting and did not look at the clock. It was much longer than 20 minutes, but I honestly don't know how much time it took because I decided they would be done when they were done. And who wouldn't enjoy the aroma of sweet onions turning into gooey goodness?

The salad was easy and just right for a warm evening. Slices of avocado (God's gift to us) and papaya on butter lettuce right out of Bob's garden, topped with a Hawaiian vanilla vinaigrette. Just champagne vinegar, olive oil, infused with a Hawaiian vanilla bean. Nummy.

Our dear Sally is not a seafood fan, so this course subbed chicken for the prawns in the original recipe. Worked great! I marinated the chicken in a coconut milk/garlic/ginger/lime mixture, grilled the tenders on the stovetop grill pan, topped with a little lime juice and toasted coconut. The chicken was tender and the coconut added some crunch.

Entree number two was a pork tenderloin/grilled pineapple sandwich on Hawaiian sweet rolls. I actually found these rolls in our local Safeway - totally unexpected - so I didn't have to find a substitute. The pork was brined in a brown sugar/salt/Hawaiian vanilla mixture for several hours. While the recipe called for grilling it, I roasted it inside (I couldn't face dealing with a hot grill in the hot weather - wuss). After about 20-25 minutes, I basted it with the sauce - hoisin, ketchup, ginger, garlic, sesame oil, and soy sauce. I grilled the pineapple slices on the grill pan and basted them with the same char-siu sauce. I cut the rolls on the top and put slices of pork and pineapple in each, topped with a little more sauce. Another success!

I really used Hawaiian vanilla because we had visited the Hawaiian vanilla plantation on the Big Island last year and brought home vanilla and vanilla beans. They use nothing but alcohol and vanilla in their extract, unlike most extracts which add sugar and water. I think the flavor is a bit stronger, but I can't claim to have the world's best palate. I just like the idea of vanilla being purely vanilla - no added sugar.

All these recipes are in the June 2009 issue of Sunset magazine and undoubtedly on their website. None of them was difficult or particularly time-consuming (other than brining/marinating time) and it was a pretty low stress meal to put together.

And the company was even better than the food~truly a wonderful evening of friendship and conversation. Lots to talk about - Sarah Palin's resignation, the woes of school districts around the country, trips and travels. A great way to kick off the July 4th weekend.