Thursday, April 29, 2010


Mojitos are my favorite drink ever. I do not remember where or when I had my first one, but I do know that I fell in love with mojitos in Madrid, when Marianne, Becky, Laura and I all ordered them at some random bar we wandered into off the street. I usually drink wine or beer, but that night I wanted something a little different, and something about a mojito just seemed so continental and sophisticated. Not to mention that a well made mojito is just so perfect! It's sweet without being syrupy, and I love the squirt of acidic lime juice. Of course, there's also the mint leaves, which make the drink what it is— amazing.

Since that time, I've discovered that mojitos aren't all that easy to find outside of Cuban or Spanish establishments, and that their quality can really vary. (The best ones I've had were the blackberry mojito they used to serve at the otherwise unimpressive Sweet Emily's, and the super affordable $6 one at Esperanto). Nothing is more disappointing than a bad mojito, and there's so many things that can go wrong. It's all about balance: too much sugar, or not enough, or an excess of lime juice or rum can totally destroy a mojito. Because they're hard to find and so often butchered, I've always wanted to make my own.

When Nathan and I bought a huge bunch of mint for our first Master Meal several weeks ago, I jumped at the opportunity to try my hand at my favorite drink. Nathan promised to pick up the seltzer, so I only needed to grab the traditional white rum and limes. I ran to the liquor store at 6:00 on a Sunday, and was thrilled to find they were still open. I walked one block north, and found that the supermarket had just closed for the night, and there was not a lime in sight. You know its a great neighborhood when they'll sell you liquor but not bread on a Sunday evening. Every bodega I entered seemed to sell lemons, but nary a one had limes. Despairing, I headed back to Nathan's, where I had one final burst of inspiration. Hoping against hope, I tried the Harlem BBQ in Nathan's building, going up to the bar with my sob story, clutching my bottle of rum and begging for a lime or two. The female employee was sullen and skeptical, but one of the guys got me a little plastic cup and tossed in a handful or two of lime wedges. Success! I was ready to begin.

Now, I've had some tragically bad mojitos in my day, so I was anxious not to repeat the mistakes that have left me so devastated in the past, (I'm not joking: good mojitos are transcendent, and knowing how good they can be, I want to cry when they fall far short of my lofty expectations). In order to prevent a mojito disaster, I read a couple recipes, and was confident that with a little trial and error, I could properly recreate my favorite drink.

This first thing to do is to make a simple syrup from equal parts sugar and water, heated in a small sauce pan until the sugar dissolves. This takes like 30 seconds of stirring, but you can use regular sugar if you think it's easier. Then you'll have crunchy grains of sugar in your drink, but I actually kind of like that. Anyway. Pour a small amount of simple syrup into your glass and add a bunch of mint leaves. Use a muddler to bruise the mint leaves, releasing the mint oils. We have muddlers we got for free at a Yelp event, but the back of a spoon would work too. Don't be too rough or vigorous, or the mint will turn bitter. Next, squeeze in a wedge or two of lime, and fill the glass two thirds of the way with crushed ice. I tried the first time with big ice cubes, but crushed ice has more surface area and keeps your drink colder. Finally, top off your glass with club soda or seltzer, (or champagne or prosecco to be really fancy), and stir. You can also add an extra sprig of mint for garnish, gently rubbing it between your hands to release the minty scent and flavor.

What I discovered is that while finding a good balance between the rum, sugar and lime is not rocket science, it was difficult to replicate the same perfect blend when making multiple drinks. I used to have two shot glasses, but I threw out the hot pink plastic "girls night out" one when I moved, and the glass one I got at a Yelp event broke in transit. Nathan doesn't have shot glasses either, so I had to eyeball it. Of the three I made that first night, the first was too strong, (I gave that one to Nathan), the second was perfect (and I selfishly drank it myself), and the third was too sweet (and I valiantly struggled through it). I still had plenty of mint leftover, so I made them again the next night with Grace and Laura. This time I made a small pitcher's worth, so everybody's was equally balanced and delicious. Love!

I'll leave you with this fun list of mojito dos and don'ts, (who knew a drink could have so many rules?) and this rather sad photo of the mojito I made. Indoor lighting is a bitch.

it was tastier than it was pretty!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

master meals, week 3: mark peel's cornmeal crusted trout

God dammit Nathan, we were going to do Jonathan Waxman, and he cleaned house, winning both the quickfire and the elimination challenge. They spent the whole episode calling him "Chef Kenobi," for god's sake!!! Instead we settled on Mark Peel, who followed the trend of our featured chefs by finishing in LAST PLACE. Our chosen cheftestants have also managed to drop the bar for the lowest score each week, with Peel garnering only 9½ out of a possible 20 stars! Nathan tried to console me by assuring me that probability was not on our side, as there are way more losing chefs than victorious ones in these early rounds, but I pointed out that the chances of us selecting the absolute lowest scoring chef three consecutive episodes is way less than choosing one of the two winners.

I'm very frustrated in our inability to pick a more masterful top chef master, but I have to admit that our Mark Peel Meal was incredibly easy and delicious, and he just happened to get slammed with some particularly bad luck during the episode. He prepared a delicious seafood sausage with mustard greens, and only needed to bake them into a puffy Yorkhire pudding. Unfortunately, the oven they were using was faulty, and his dish didn't bake in time. He was forced to crank up the temperature at the last moment, which turned the pudding into a leaden clump of dough at the bottom of his dish. The critics seemed to like the rest of the dish despite its overall failure, but the diners gave him only one star, leaving him to finish in last place behind the ever odious Ludo Lefebvre. Sorry Mark, and better luck next season!

cornmeal crusted trout

The one thing that Mark did leave us with is this phenomenally easy recipe for cornmeal-crusted pan-fried trout. Coat a couple of nicely seasoned trout fillets in a mixture of cornmeal, flour, chopped parsley, salt and pepper, and then place them flesh side down in a pan with some very hot oil. After a minute, add some butter, wait two minutes or until skin begins to curl, and then flip and cook for another 30 seconds or a minute. Serve with lemon wedges. Incredibly simple, but so good!

We had ours with some rice and some spinach I sauteed with a little olive oil and garlic until it was thoroughly wilted. I love meals that come together in under a half an hour and without any stress!

Next is the last of the first round top chef match ups, and we're going to featuring the work of our first female chef, Jody Adams. She's the owner of Rialto's, which is in Cambridge, and is Nathan's dad and step-mom's favorite restaurant. We always eat really well there and I'm confident we can find a really good recipe of hers to replicate. Here's hoping that she does better than our first three Masters!

Monday, April 19, 2010

rosemary brown butter soda bread

easy soda bread

So when I saw this recipe for a soda bread with black pepper, oats, brown butter, buttermilk and rosemary, I instantly wanted to make it. At the time I had some buttermilk in the fridge leftover from my traditional Irish soda bread, and some rosemary from this amazing Roman pork chop recipe that Nathan needs to blog for y'all. Of course, by the time I got around to making it, I no longer trusted the buttermilk (how do you even tell when that stuff goes bad?), but I just stirred in a tablespoon of white vinegar to some whole milk from the food co-op, and I was good to go. I also used some half white half whole wheat flour from the food co-op, so I wound up with a brown loaf. It was pretty cool.

half white flour from my CSA

This recipe is definitely a keeper. Easy, tasty, and a little bit rustic and different-- what's not to like? It was a bit crumbly, but if you're interested in making bread but don't want to mess around with yeast, a soda bread is a great option. No kneading needed. This one only has a few more ingredients than the traditional Irish one I posted for St. Patrick's day, and is a great every day loaf. The browned butter, the freshly ground pepper, the rosemary, and then oats... And all you have to do is mix the dry ingredients and then add the wet ones! Good stuff. I did worry that my loaf was too wet and sticky, but I added a smidge more flour and it baked up just fine. I initially forgot to brush the tops with egg white, which was definitely unnecessary and kind of became a mess, so I wouldn't fret over that step either.

Mostly I've just been eating it on its own, but tonight we ate some sliced, toasted, and slathered with butter. We also made tortellini with a rosemary tomato sauce with jarred tomatoes from the food co-op, garlic, fresh parsley and a little red pepper for a kick. I was worried it might be too spicy, but Nathan has a deft hand with the spices, and the sauce was great. I also bought some mesclun and made up a salad with scallions and my previously blogged new favorite dressing. It was a good dinner.

soda bread with dinner

Sunday, April 18, 2010

master meals, week 2: david burke's steak and egg salad pita

This week's Master Meal features David Burke, who has like, seventeen amazing restaurants in New York City. Nathan and I had a lovely meal at Fishtail, and Nate's also been to the former David Burke & Donatella. I was really excited to learn that Burke would be appearing on Top Chef Masters, because I feel like he's one of those chefs in New York whose touch turns everything to culinary gold. Even though I've only eaten one inexpensive Restaurant Week meal at a David Burke establishment, I can tell that this is a man with great vision for his food, who considers every detail when creating his restaurant experiences.

For our second Master Meal, Nathan and I had the distinct challenge of translating Burke's playful and artistic culinary creations into home dining. Luckily for us, Burke had done half the work for us, drafting several "easy way" versions of dishes he actually serves at his restaurants for Food & Wine Magazine. After much consideration, we went with the steak and egg salad sandwiches. OK, to be honest the minute I saw the phrase "deviled egg salad," I knew Nathan would insist we make it, and that was fine by me. Instant end to deliberation.

steak and egg pita

Unlike our first Master Meal, which was slightly underwhelming, this was a great success. The egg salad mixed four chopped hard-boiled eggs with mayo, hot sauce, Woucestershire, paprika, dry mustard, diced celery, and some parsley and onion in place of the recommended chives. This had a nice kick to it, but wasn't too "angry," (this appears to be David Burke's favorite food adjective), in part because I added some extra mayo. I was skeptical about the egg boiling method, (cover eggs with water, bring to a boil, then turn off the heat and let them sit for ten minutes before draining and peeling), but it worked almost perfectly, with firm yolks that still had a hint of orange gooeyness in their centers. (I love my eggs to be slightly less than hardboiled.)

The steak, which we seasoned, brushed with olive oil, and pan fried for five minutes a side, was delicious, with a wonderfully seared crust and perfectly juicy, medium rare interior. The watercress, tossed with lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper, finished off the sandwich with a burst of freshness. My only slight complaint is universal to steak sandwiches: the steak strips are too hard to bite into, and I always end up pulling huge pieces out of the bread. Other than that, everything was great. Even the fact that we could only find whole wheat pitas to brush with olive oil and grill couldn't bring down our meal. Total success.

Unfortunately, while our meal may have turned out better this week, the result for our contestant of choice was the same: last place. And while Jimmy Bradley's failures could pretty much be attributed to his partner, David Burke had no one to whom he could pass the buck. He choked all by his lonesome. To his credit, they did seem to have a fair number of good things to say about what he made, but I think the editors must have been being really nice to him, considering the critics gave him really awful scores. It's a bummer too, because Marcus Samuelsson, who wound up in the winner's circle with Carmen Gonzalez, seems like a cocky bastard. If he's the ultimate Master, I'll be so angry, especially when I think about just how totally sweet and awesome last season's winner, Rick Bayless and runner up Hubert Keller were.

Anyway, we didn't just pig out on steak sandwiches and watch tv. I also made up a quick baby arugala, itty bitty tomato, blue cheese and crouton salad with dressing using this Alice Waters' recipe because I felt like we couldn't just have sandwiches for dinner, and also because I'd had the tab with the (incredibly easy) recipe up in my work browser for almost a week. The directions call for smashing one small garlic clove and two pinches of salt into a paste, adding two tablespoons of red wine vinegar and some freshly ground pepper. After that "macerates," or whatever, you whisk in two or three tablespoons of olive oil and you're done! Easy and delicious.

The only step that is remotely tricky is the garlic smooshing, which is meant to be done in a mortar and pestle. Now, while I have dreams of a Julia Child style "mother of all mortars" someday gracing my countertop, this is not currently something either of us own. However, Nathan and I both have nice wooden muddlers that some alcoholic beverage vendor was handing out for free at a Yelp event we went to last year. Aside from my recent venture into the world of mojitos, the muddlers rarely get used in their first line of work. Instead, they usually get called into duty as pestles, and they are pretty good at making the substitution. We've tried various stand in mortars, and last night I finally found the perfect one: some random ceramic sake container that someone in Nathan's apartment had left down on the free stuff table. It was deep, with a narrow bottom, and had a spout which later proved quite handy when it came to pouring the dressing. I love successfully improvising kitchen appliances.

Thus ends this week's edition of Master Meals. Next week six of the chefs featured in season one will be back, which rocks my rocks. Unfortunately, among them is Ludo Lefebvre, who was one arrogant son of a bitch. I can tell you for certain that we won't be featuring him on the blog any time soon, and I will definitely be rooting for him to lose again. I am also hesitant to try my hand at anything of Wylie Dufresne's, because I probably wouldn't have the necessary gadgetry.

So what are we going to make? Well, unlike the first two installments of Master Meals, Nathan and I haven't eaten at the restaurants of any of these six chefs. However, I did read The United States of Arugula, and I was intrigued by its mention of Jonathan Waxman's roast chicken dish, which sold for an unprecedented $23 way back in 1984. We had such great success with Julia's chicken recipe that I've been itching to make another one, so don't be surprised if you find an oven roaster featured next week. We'll see what Nathan has to say about this idea. Until then, stay tuned.

Friday, April 16, 2010

loaded baked potato with cumin carrots and pan fried pork chop

I made this dinner last Friday before I went out and it was super easy. It also adhered to my favored meal formula: meat + starch + veggie = dinner. Yay. In a twist on a meal my parents have made countless times, I made a simple pork chop, a baked potato, and some cumin roasted carrots. It was easy, homey, and utterly satisfying.

pork, potato, carrot

The star of the meal, believe it or not, was the baked potato. I had gotten some fairly small red ones from the food co-op, so I poked holes all over the largest one and popped it in the microwave on the baked potato setting. I also set the toaster oven to 350 degrees so I could finish it off in there. I fried up a little bacon and chopped up some scallions to sprinkle on top. I also had some sour cream I was going to use, so I decided to try using this cool bacon horseradish dip that Laura got me in Florida. I just mixed a small amount of the mix into some sour cream, and it was instantly a delicious dip. I'm not generally a proponent of powders and prepared foods, but this was actually pretty tasty and the company claims to sell natural foods. I don't want to know what's in it, but I'll definitely eat it again, haha, as well as the cucumber dill variety.

purple potato with bacon horseradish sour cream dip

The potato itself turned out wonderfully. I had never had baked a potato that was anything but a boring yellowy white inside, but this little beauty was a lovely shade of purple. So cool. I love loading lots of stuff in my potatoes, so this was definitely a winner, haha.

A couple of hours before I started cooking, I defrosted a pork chop I'd had in the freezer for awhile. I decided to prepare it as simply as possible, partially because I felt damn guilty about all the sour cream and bacon. (Of course, I was cooking the bacon and the chop in the same pan at the same time, so I probably shot myself in the foot there...) Nathan's stepmom, Patricia, had gotten me this awesome pink Australian salt for my birthday, and although it's really cool, it's also the sort of thing that almost feels too good to actually use. However, the label suggests using it on meats, so that is just what I did, along with some freshly ground pepper. I cooked on fairly high heat and it turned wonderfully golden brown.

The third thing I made was these cumin roasted carrots I had recently stumbled across on a food blog. With all the moving we've done recently, I've had ample opportunity to familiarize myself with the forgotten contents of my pantry, including a bag of cumin seeds. Tossed with olive oil oil, salt and pepper, my cumin seeded carrots were like crispy sweet potato fries after 35 minutes in the oven at 400 degrees. If I were you, I'd check these puppies after 25 minutes because they cooked way faster than the recipe claimed. That being said, these were awesome and I am definitely going to continue making them with my surplus of food co-op carrots. I also tossed in some of my chopped scallions, which made for nice if unnecessary addition.

All in all, it was a very successful meal, and it gave me plenty of fuel for my Friday night fun.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

master meals, week 1: jimmy bradley's orzo lentil salad

So today's post introduces our first weekly feature on Garlicus Maximus: a dinner featuring a recipe from one of that week's Top Chef Masters competitors. I'm calling it Master Meals. (I'm sorry if that's unspeakably corny, but I kinda like it.)

Nathan's Top Chief pose

I've been a fan of Top Chef since its second season, and it actually was a big influence on me as I began cooking more and more. The Masters spin off is arguably better than the original, as the chefs are way less bitchy and competitive. Much of that stems from the fact that they are established and successful chefs, and are playing for charity, rather than to jump start their careers with nationwide exposure and prize money. There also seems to be a great camaraderie between all these culinary giants, and it is great to see how much they all respect and admire each other's different cuisines. The challenge of our Master Meals will be to find recipes from these great chefs that can be easily prepared by the home chef, aka Nathan and me. Needless to say, I don't expect we'll be making anything of molecular gastronomist Wylie Dufresne's, but I hope we can find some cool things to cook.

The season actually started last week, but I had a job interview so Nathan and I were not able to prepare our first Master Meal until Sunday night. While finding the time to cook was tricky, selecting a cheftestant was easy. My parents took us to the Red Cat for my birthday last month, and we were just blown away by the Jimmy Bradley's food and the restaurant as a whole. I especially loved that everything I read about Bradley's approach to cooking and dining echoed what we had experienced at the Red Cat. A "purveyor of straightforward, occasionally irreverent, food, and contagious conviviality, all of it wrapped up in an attitude-free package"? Yep, that was our meal in a nutshell. Not to mention the incredibly solicitous and helpful staff! As Bradley said himself in this (otherwise somewhat boring) interview, "All of my restaurants are chef-driven. Everything starts from the kitchen. My places aren’t about what’s fabulous, exclusive, and snooty. Customer service is a top priority, too. I concentrate on anticipating guest needs and recovering when we fail — we need to know what you need before you need it, and when we do make a mistake, we should be able to make up for it easily." I can say from first hand experience he's made that vision a reality.

For our Jimmy Bradley Master Meal, I found this recipe for Lentil and Orzo Salad. It seemed easy but tasty, with tomatoes, cucumbers, toasted almonds and fresh herbs. I basically picked it because I was intrigued by the french lentils, which Nathan's stepsister Helen had recently blogged about with great enthusiasm. I didn't know where I'd get them, but I happened to take Matt to the Chelsea Market on Friday, where recent addition the nut box was serendipitously selling them for only $2.50 a bag. Because the dish called for mint leaves, it seemed natural to pair it with lamb chops, which we rubbed with mustard, parsley, garlic, salt and pepper before pan frying. I also decided that I needed to try my hand at mojitos, my favorite cocktail, the result of which was incredibly exciting and satisfying and summery. We rounded out the meal with some cumin roasted carrots, which I'll be covering in depth on another post.

lamb chop, orzo, and a sprig of mint

As much as I would have liked our inaugural Master Meal to be an unqualified success, the recipe wasn't all that exciting. I wouldn't call it a dud, necessarily, but it was a little bland and forgettable. Nathan and I both felt that the lentils seemed out of place in a pasta salad, like they were a very conscious attempt to add protein to a vegetarian dish. The toasted almonds were a nice touch, but there were so few of them that they were easily overlooked. It also probably didn't help that the out of season tomatoes were flavorless pink mush. I also would have added way way more basil, and maybe some red peppers or a crumbly cheese or something. As Nathan pointed out, it's easy to make a good orzo salad, and we could easily improve on this one, perhaps even at the Whole Foods salad bar. I'm sorry to say that I wouldn't recommend this recipe.

orzo and french lentil salad

Unfortunately for Bradley, his time on Top Chef Master's went much the same way. While his seared lamb carpaccio salad was beloved by the judges, they found his partner, Gorvind Armstrong, had a prepared a rather dry and boring lamb chop. Sadly, the team finished in third place. I had been rooting for Bradley to move on to the Champions round, but I'm looking forward to seeing more of winners, Tony Mantuano and Susan Feniger. Meanwhile, for a Bradley fix I can just head back to the Red Cat, or try swinging by the Harrison. As for the rest of the French lentils, maybe I'll try Helen's sausage recipe before the weather gets much warmer.

Tonight's episode looks like it is featuring some heavy hitters, and I'm looking forward to it. After work, Nathan and I are meeting at the Columbus Circle Whole Foods to shop, and then we'll head up to his place to cook, eat, and "watch what happens." We've already selected our second Master Meal, and I'm excited to say we'll be preparing a dish by the one and only David Burke! Stay tuned to find out what it is!

A Cautionary Tale

We were making some steak, or something like that, I don't really remember. I thought it might be pretty cool to make a blue cheese sauce with it, so I went on the internet and searched for a recipe. The first recipe I found suggested that all you really had to do was put equal parts butter and blue cheese in a pan, turn up the heat, and let the ingredients do their thing. Bitchin', I thought, how easy!

Unfortunately, this was not the case. It quickly became apparent that the blue cheese wasn't melting right, instead separating into the oil and the solids. The butter just kind of added to the oilyness of the pot. It became a sort of yellowish-grayish-blueish miasma of crap.

We tried adding flour to solidify it, but this did not help. The flour absorbed some, but far from all, of the greasy soup. It ended up as a fluffy mess instead of an oily one, looking sort of like the bastard son of the worst matzoball in the world and some grayish goop. Believe it or not, it didn't taste half bad - it retained some of the blue cheese flavor despite this abuse - but it was absolutely unappetizing to look at, and it did not qualify as blue cheese sauce.

We ended up draining away some of the oil, shredding up the floury puffs, and mixing it into some spinach and mushrooms that we had made. It was okay.

So, let this be a lesson. I'm sure there are a lot of great recipes for blue cheese sauce out there. Mixing blue cheese and butter, then trying to salvage it with flour, is not one of them. Maybe you can find one - I sure couldn't.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

one lump or two?

So last year, my old roommate Faye, who is currently living in Morocco as a volunteer in the Peace Corp, posted this blog entry about cooking, specifically with Moroccan sugar. In Morocco, sugar is sold in solid block form, not loose crystals, so poor Faye has to sit and scrape away at her massive cone of sugar in order to get cup of sugar with which to bake. At the time of her entry, I thought "wow, what a strange cultural quirk," and gave it no further thought.

Fast forward to last month, when I opened a bag of sugar which had been sitting in my old apartment for at least three months before our move. The bag was a solid brick of sugar, and the joke was on me.

one giant hunk of sugar

I spent what seemed like an hour scraping away at that thing, sugar particles flying across the room. What a mess! As annoying as the Great Sugar Scrape of 2010 was, I managed to break down most of the brick, and I can sleep easy knowing that this is unlikely to happen to me again anytime soon, barring an extended stay in Morocco. Faye, I feel for you. If sugar didn't weigh so much, I'd send you a five pound bag and pray it didn't solidify on its transatlantic trip!

scraping away

For now, there may or may not be a not insubstantially sized lump of the sweet stuff submerged beneath the sparkling white sea of sugar crystals, but I am ready to get back to baking.

Monday, April 5, 2010

birthday cakes

a gluten free cheesecake for Matt

The first cake I'd like to talk about is this one, which my brother Matt and I whipped up Friday night for his birthday party. In addition to being delicious, it was also gluten free, not that you could tell. If you have any sort of experience with gluten free baking, that is pretty much the highest praise you can give. Matt pretty much handled the crust, while I took care of the filling. Between this and our cheesey bean dip and guacamole, I'd say we made a pretty good team. Stranger things have happened.

For this cake, I kind of created my own Frankenstein of recipe, combining bits and pieces of three different desserts. I got the cheesecake filling one place, and the gluten-free crust and (the most basic idea for the) strawberry topping at another. Surprisingly, the three elements combined to make one great cake. I baked it in what I guess was a 9 or 10 inch cake form at 350 degrees.

Strawberry Ricotta Sour Cream Cheesecake
adapted from and
1⅓ cups flour or Gluten Free Baking Mix such as Pamela's (I used a gluten free cake mix and subsequently cut down on the brown sugar)
a scant ½ cup dark brown sugar
½ cup cold butter, cut into pieces
⅔ cup finely chopped pecans

Stir the flour mix and brown sugar together in a medium bowl. Cut in the butter until fine crumbs form. Stir in the nuts and pat into your pan, covering the bottom and pressing up the sides. Try not to leave too much dough in the corners of the pan.

16 oz ricotta cheese
16 oz cream cheese, softened
16 ounces sour cream
1½ cups white sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
½ cup butter, melted

Beat together all the ingredients and pour into the crust. Place a piece of foil or a pan below the cake to catch any drippings that might leak from the pan. Bake at 350 degrees until the filling starts to solidify. Let cool on wire rack for 30 minutes and then refrigerate for at least four to five hours before serving.

10 or so strawberries, sliced
⅔ cup strawberry jam
⅓ cup sugar
pinch of salt
cracked black pepper

Simmer jam and sliced strawberries in a saucepan over medium heat with sugar, salt and freshly cracked black pepper until jam is syrupy and strawberries are soft. Pour over the cheesecake after you remove it from the oven.

Of course, that is not to say that things went off without a hitch. First of all, I didn't allot nearly enough time to cooling the cheesecake, so it was still slightly warm when we sliced it up for party guests at around 11:30. Plan ahead for cheesecake, people! Secondly, the recipe for the crust claims that you may have enough crust for a second smaller pie. They are not kidding. If you like your cheesecake to only have crust on the bottom, you could get away with making half as much crust. If you want some crust on the sides, you could absolutely get away with ⅔ of the recipe, and I've scaled the above measurements accordingly. Finally, do not, I repeat DO NOT, bake the strawberry topping onto your cheesecake. Some recipes call for baking a sour cream topping onto your cheesecake midway through the baking process. That might work, but baking on a luscious strawberry jam is only going to dry it out. It will still taste good, but it will look shriveled and sad. Don't do it.

The other cake is not as good as the cheesecake in my opinion, but if you are the type of person who loves chocolate cake, you might disagree. Laura pulled up this recipe over two years ago by searching for a "simple chocolate cake," and I was blown away by how good it was. Since she first made it, I've tried to replicate her results at least three times, but for whatever reason, it's never quite as good as I remember it. However it's still a good chocolate cake with delicious chocolate frosting, and its easy. The first time we made it, we made a pattern with red hot candies in the chocolate frosting, and that was surprisingly amazing. The heat of the candies leeched into the cake, and the moisture of the frosting was absorbed by the red hots, creating a surprisingly balanced cinnamon taste and a thick chocolately frosting. I vow never to make the cake without them again. (I once tried baking the red hots into the cake itself, but that proved disastrous.) I most recently made this for Laura and my 24th birthday party. Even without red hots, it turned out pretty good, but I was a little tipsy when I made the frosting and I didn't take the time to properly whisk in the powdered sugar, which made it a little lumpy. Otherwise, it was good and chocolatey, if totally overshadowed by Dave's amazing and picture perfect chocolate cheesecake with its buttery chocolate crust.

Simple Chocolate Cake
adapted from
1¼ cups sugar
¾ cups butter, softened
1 tsp vanilla
3 eggs
2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
1 cup milk
6 oz. of semi-sweet baking chocolate, melted and cooled

Beat sugar, butter and vanilla in a large mixing bowl. Add eggs and beat to combine. Stir in melted chocolate. In a smaller bowl, combine flour, baking soda and salt. Beat the dry ingredients and the milk into creamed mixture alternating between the two ingredients. Pour batter into a pan (mine is 10 inches around, I think), and bake at 350°F for 30-35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.

½ cups butter
2 oz semi-sweet baking chocolate
1 tsp vanilla
⅛ tsp. salt
2-3 tbsp. milk
2½ c. powdered sugar, divided
red hot candies, optional

Melt butter and baking bar in microwave for 45 seconds or on stove top, and stir to mix well. Let cool to room temperature. Beat 1 cup powdered sugar, vanilla and salt into chocolate mixture until creamy. Gradually beat in remaining powdered sugar alternately with milk until smooth. Do not frost the cake until it has cooled for at least 20 minutes. Decorate with red hot candies.

I'll leave you with this shot of Laura and I blowing out the candles on our birthday cake.

making all our wishes come true

Sunday, April 4, 2010

party food

Happy Easter everyone! Today my mom is making leg of lamb (from the shank, not the rump), and I am so excited! I, on the other hand, will be blogging about simple snacks to serve at a soiree. I'm going to leave out the photos of this sloppy looking food, especially because I didn't think to photograph any of it until midway through the party. You can thank me for saving you the sight of half eaten dips. Regardless of how these things look, they are crowd pleasers and are unlikely to leave you with leftovers.

Spinach Dip with Cilantro and Lime
adapted from The New York Times

2 10-ounce packages frozen spinach
8 oz softened cream cheese
½ cup mayonnaise
½ cup sour cream
½ cup sliced scallions
⅓ cup chopped cilantro
1 lime, juiced
a pinch of kosher salt and cracked black pepper
Tortilla chips, for dipping

The original recipe also calls for 1 tablespoon chopped chipotle in adobo sauce, but I tend not to like things spicy, and I also am not sure how easy that is to find. That being said, I'd sure it'd be a fine addition, but the dip is great without it.

Thaw the spinach and squeeze out excess water. Blend together all the other ingredients in a food processor or with an immersion blender until smooth. Add the spinach and blend again. Stir with a spoon to make sure the bottom is even mixed. Serve with chips. So easy!

Like the author of the original recipe, I am majorly skeeved out by the traditional spinach dip with the freeze dried Knorr soup mix and water chestnuts. My dad suggested we make that a couple of years ago for my graduation party. This seemed like a terrible idea to me, so I began searching for an alternative. Luckily, this dip is great. The cilantro and lime give it a nice kick, and it's not so thick that it breaks all the chips. It's also super easy to make, so I highly recommend you blend some up for your next party. Laura and I like to serve it with Hint of Lime chips, but Nathan prefers plain tortilla chips. YMMV.

Cheesy Refried Bean Dip
from Laura Barker

softened cream cheese
canned refried beans
grated cheddar cheese
tortilla chips, for dipping

Layer all three ingredients (cream cheese, then beans, then cheddar) in a baking dish or pan, and cook at 350 degrees for 20 minutes, or until cheese is melted. Serve with chips! If you've got lots pre-party things to take care of, using pre-made refried beans is a great time saver, but making your own is actually easy enough: simply chop an onion, cook it in a pan with a little oil over medium heat, and then add a can of pinto beans. Cook until everything is soft, season with salt and pepper, and then mash it all up. Voila! Regardless of what kind of beans you use, your guests will love this.

This dip is pretty much Laura's party specialty. In the past I've made my own taco dip with ground beef, refried beans and monterrey jack/cheddar cheese, which is something my Mom likes to make for Super Bowl parties. It's fantastic, but when you're hosting a party and making multiple dishes, this dip is way faster and easier, and is just as delicious. I tried my hand at making it myself for the first time for my brother Matt's birthday on Friday as per his request, and I wasn't quite set on the proportions. Basically, I'd say you want equal amounts of all three components. I used too much cream cheese, so alot of that was left was behind after the cheddar and beans on top had been eaten. My mom made the excellent suggestion of topping this dip with some sliced green onions for a little color and a fresh crunch. I think this would be a great addition!

Chunky Guacamole
adapted from Alton Brown's Guacamole Recipe

3 avocados
1 lime, juiced
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon cayenne
½ medium onion, diced
2½ small tomatoes, chopped
1 large handful chopped cilantro
2 cloves garlic, minced
tortilla chips

Use a potato masher to blend two of the avocados with the lime juice, salt, cumin and cayenne. Chop the third avocado into small chunks, and add along with the tomatoes, cilantro, tomatoes, and onion. Stir to combine and then let sit for one hour before serving to allow the flavors to meld. Serve with chips

We made this for Matt's party when we found some beautifully ripe avocados at Pat's Meat Farm on Larkfield. Unfortunately, since they were an impulse buy, I didn't think to buy more than two avocados, which definitely wasn't quite enough for this recipe. It was still tasty, but the ration of avocado to tomato was a bit off. Also, we chopped all the avocados, rather than mashing all of them as Alton would have instructed us, so ours turned out pretty chunky. Generally I'm am a fan of giant avocado globs, but I think that a smoother guacamole can be nice too and would try to strike a better textural balance next time. My final recommendation would be to measure the cayenne and cumin carefully, as I got a little cumin happy and it definitely tasted like it. Other than that, this is really simple and a great party food. Who doesn't like guacamole?

I will definitely be bringing these recipes back for future parties/gatherings!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

buttermilk carrot pancakes/cilantro ginger and lime marinaded chicken, and orrechiette with bacon, wilted radicchio and cabbage/pork fried rice

These three dinners are quick things I've whipped up in the last few weeks based on what I've had lying around in the fridge. The pancakes were only alright, but the other two meals were definitely winners.

carrot buttermilk pancakes with sour cream

These I made to try and use up some of the extra buttermilk I had after I made Irish Soda Bread. I was in a rush to get out the door, so I was just trying to do something simple and easy. Pancakes are the obvious use for buttermilk, but I wanted to make them a little more substantial for dinner, so I decided to grate in two carrots from the co-op to make them into a sort of latke. I also added two eggs, a tablespoon or so of vegetable oil, and enough flour to make it into a spoonable batter. Fried in butter and served with a hefty dollop of sour cream, these were palatable enough, but I'm sure I could make better pancakes if I gave it another shot.

cilantro ginger and lime marinaded chicken, pasta with cabbage, radicchio and bacon

This was my favorite of the three meals. Laura had cooked some chicken earlier in the week, but there was still one breast in the fridge, begging to be cooked rather than be left to spoil. I had a bunch of cilantro and some limes left over from making spinach dip for my birthday party, and we still have a huge ginger root in the fridge that we are only slowly chipping away at. A little fresh ginger goes a long way. I had an inkling that I could combine the three ingredients with some white wine, sesame oil, garlic, salt and pepper for a decent marinade, as it was similar to a preparation my mom uses. A quick peek in my Flavor Bible confirmed my suspicions. I let the chicken marinade for about 45 minutes, and then I just cooked it in the cast iron skillet. SUCH a good flavor combination. I only wish that I had had more than one measly chicken breast.

Meanwhile, I also had half a head of cabbage leftover, and small amount of radicchio from that bloggers' favorite pasta dish. I thinly diced three or four slices of hearty bacon, and fried that up til nice and crispy. I removed that from the pan and cooked half of my remaining cabbage, a fist-sized head of radicchio and some sliced garlic with salt and pepper in the drippings. I added some balsamic after it was starting to get soft, which reduced nicely. I also cooked some orecchiette, and just tossed that with the bacon, cabbage and radicchio. I think I added a little butter to make sure the pasta was all coated, and to make the dish even less healthy. I probably could have sprinkled on some romano cheese, but it didn't occur to me at the time and it was still pretty delicious. Oreccheiette is a pretty hefty pasta, so it stood up well to the hearty mix-ins. Even though I completely winged this and it seems like a strange dish, I would definitely make this again. More specifically, I would highly recommend cooking radicchio with balsamic, as it loses all its bitterness and becomes so sweet and delicious.

The pork fried rice I did not photograph, but it was very similar in spirit to the Mark Bittman recipe that I featured on the blog last month. Once again, I minced up garlic and ginger and fried them in vegetable oil. I used the sesame seeds once again, but I dry toasted them in the pan, in the hopes they'd be crunchier. I think this worked better than frying them with the ginger and garlic. Next I defrosted an old pork chop and and diced it up, sauteing it with scallions, salt and pepper. Then I scrambled an egg and chopped it up. Finally, I took some old rice from the fridge and cooked that until it dried up and got sticky. I still didn't have soy sauce or sesame oil, but I went out and bought some the next day, and they made a world of difference on the leftovers. Fried rice is a great, versatile dish, and I look forward to experimenting with it more in the future.