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.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Pizza at Home

A little interim posting. I made pizza dough one weekend, using the dough recipe from Pizzeria Bianco, a legendary pizza place in Phoenix. I'm not sure it is my favorite recipe - I'm still searching for the perfect dough - but the results were good. Here is a picture of the pizza Bob put together:

We put some olive oil on top (no tomato sauce), and garnished with Kalamata olives, artichoke hearts, tomatoes, mushrooms (including some morels), proscuitto, and fresh mozzarella. Very tasty! The crust is a little thicker than I like but the texture was good.