Monday, December 27, 2010

The Kitchen Reader: Memories Around the Holiday Table

The Kitchen Reader group is taking the month off - instead of reading, we're posting a memorable holiday recipe. 

Christmas to me isn't turkey. We never developed the taste for turkey, so my mother always roasted a goose or a duck for our holiday meal. Both are definitely rich (aka fatty), but both are so much more flavourful in our view. 

Fast forward to 2010, where the husband and I spending our first Christmas at home in Boston with my sister joining us from Toronto. The only goose I found to roast was at Savenor's, but at $130 for the bird, I couldn't bring myself to buy it in the event that we screwed it up. They didn't have a whole duck either, so I bought two of these:

That is a poussin, otherwise known as a young chicken. This baby was a pound, which I thought would be fine for one person. It looked like a small supermarket chicken in the package, but when we pulled it out of the wrapping, we found it had both its head and feet attached. My sister isn't particularly squeamish, so she hacked off the head and feet in short order and continued preparing the birds as per a Thomas Keller recipe from his Ad Hoc cookbook. I now have 2 chicken heads and 4 chicken feet sitting in a ziploc bag in the freezer, ready to be used to make stock. 

Incidentally, the poussins were delicious - it's hard to go wrong when they're coated in butter!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

All tarted up with no place to go

We were supposed to head up to my cousin's place north of Boston for a mini family gathering. They asked us to bring dessert, so I made Joanne Chang's Roasted Pear and Cranberry Crostata from her new cookbook, Flour, of the same name as her bakery. It's somewhat ironic that I bought the Flour book for the husband for Christmas, yet I'm making the first dish out of it. In any case, here's the crostata before it went into the oven:

And here's the after pic:

I should point out that this is was a multi-day, multi-step process to get to both these pics - first I made the dough which was easy (flour, sugar, and lots of butter) that could sit in the refrigerator for a couple of days. Then I made the frangipane, which is an almond cream filling that consists of ground up almonds, sugar, and more butter. That could also be made ahead of time and hung out in the fridge with the dough for a couple of days. The third step was to peel, core, and halve 9 pears, sprinkle them with sugar and more butter, and roast them for close to an hour. Once they were cool, I could finally assemble the damn thing, which then needed another hour to chill in the fridge - hence the before picture.

Let's just say the after pic definitely doesn't look like the one in the cookbook. It's most likely due to the fact that I can't seem to follow directions - the recipe very clearly states to roll out a 12-inch round with the dough, but leave a 3 inch ring on the outside clear of fruit since that's the crust. Well, I apparently don't know what a 3-inch strip looks like because I certainly didn't have enough dough to encase the sides of the fruit. The dough also shrank back on me and the frangipane oozed out somewhat, but it filled the house with the smell of buttery goodness. 

So we have a dessert, but now we have no place to go - we're under a blizzard warning here in the Northeast, which means we're stuck at home. I guess it's not the worst thing to be snowed in with a buttery tart - anyone within walking distance from our house is welcome to come by and have a piece!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Daring Cooks: 1 stick of butter for brunch

Jenn and Jill have challenged The Daring Cooks to learn to perfect the technique of poaching an egg. They chose Eggs Benedict recipe from Alton Brown, Oeufs en Meurette from Cooking with Wine by Anne Willan, and Homemade Sundried Tomato & Pine Nut Seitan Sausages (poached) courtesy of
Trudy of Veggie num num.

This is my first Daring Kitchen challenge and my eyebrows went up when I saw it involved poaching an egg. I have nothing against poaching an egg, I've just never had the urge to poach eggs before. Since it seems like a handy skill to have in the kitchen, I decided I'd jump in to my first challenge and conquer the poaching of an egg.

Here's a couple of things I learned right off the bat when I set out to make the first recipe in this challenge:
  1. Don't make a hollandaise sauce right after a great workout at the gym. 
  2. Have more than 5 eggs on hand when you start to cook.
Miraculously,  I managed to make the recipe without royally screwing up, but just barely. Here's the first screw-up:

First egg in the pool
Turned into this...
Before I took the plunge, I went searching for egg poaching videos online (yes, I know how sad that sounds) and found a helpful one featuring a chef instructor from the CIA (Culinary Institute of America, not the other CIA). Poaching eggs looks easy - make sure you have salt and vinegar in the water, keep the water temp between 165 and 185F, create the whirlpool, make sure they aren't sticking to the bottom, take them out when they start to float and plunge them into an ice bath to stop the cooking.

I decided to go with a test egg and while it looks pretty good, the damn thing never floated so 5+ minutes of poaching created an egg with a pretty firm yolk. Luckily it wasn't fully cooked through, but I kept a very close eye on the next two eggs that I poached. At least I got 3 edible eggs for our lunch.

Since I only had 5 eggs on hand, I could only make 3 eggs benedict since the hollandaise sauce called for eggs too. The recipe specified 3 egg yolks to make 1.5 cups of hollandaise sauce. That sounded like a bit much to me for our lunch, so I cut the recipe back to 2 yolks. That meant instead of using 1 1/2 sticks of butter, I only needed 1 stick! (This is the reason why you don't want to make a hollandaise sauce after working out - I could feel the benefit of my ab exercises flying out the window.)

I was surprised to learn afterwards that Julia Child described hollandaise sauce making as tricky. It's probably a good thing I didn't know that beforehand or else that might have messed myself up. I can make custard so I generally have a good understanding of how eggs behave, but I had the heat on too high for my double boiler and almost whipped myself some scrambled eggs at the start instead of "slowly thickening the egg yolks over a gentle heat while constantly whisking". Luckily, yanking the bowl off the pot of water and adding cold butter cubes (all 8 tablespoons of it, one bit at a time) rescued the sauce from the brink. After whisking in some lemon juice, salt and cayenne, I had myself some very respectable hollandaise sauce.

The assembly was the easy part. Canadian bacon got thrown in a frying pan to crisp up, store-bought spelt english muffins got toasted, then they all came together to look like this:

They were definitely tasty - it's the hollandaise sauce that makes the dish, and how can you go wrong when you're eating a stick of butter? Actually, I was surprised by how little sauce we used - this is what we had leftover that went in the freezer. I would guess that there was maybe 1 tbsp worth of butter on top of each egg, which isn't nearly as bad as we thought. I still don't understand how the full recipe makes 1.5 cups for 4 eggs, but oh well - I'm happy to have leftovers for the next time!

Half-cup of leftover hollandaise sauce

So my moral of the story on poaching? It's not hard, but it does take some technique aka luck. I'd rather follow the Momofuku instructions from David Chang - keep the eggs whole in the shell, put them in a water bath set to 140F, and cook for 40-45 minutes. I've read techniques to keep water on the stove at that constant temperature, but I'm started to wonder if an immersion circulator could be a handy gadget in the kitchen. Too bad neither the husband or I can waltz into one of our labs and help ourselves to a water bath...

Friday, December 10, 2010

Friday's Food for Thought - The Not So Jolly Part of the Season

Here's the opening paragraph of this article (full link below):

"Consider this fact presented by Women's Health magazine: The average American eats 600 additional calories per day between Thanksgiving and New Year's. Translation: That's an extra six pounds. Yikes!"

Now that's a depressing way to approach the holidays!

It caught my attention though because despite my love of eating, I worry about my weight. And my cholesterol and my overall health, of course, but admittedly, it's first and foremost about the weight.

I have come to terms with the fact my favorite foods will always be higher in fat. I just can't force myself to eat chicken breast or cut bacon out of my life. I've learned to eat less of my favorite fatty things, and to eat as low fat and healthy (ie fruits and veggies) most of the time so that I have room for indulgences. Though it surprised me when I looked at this list and saw the only vice I have is the prime rib. Eggnog can gross me out, I'm allergic to crab cakes, I'm not a fan of gin and tonic or spinach dip and i hate pecan pie. I guess 1 out of 6 isn't so bad?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Once step closer to churning our own butter

The husband and I laugh over this old Dilbert comic:

Ok, maybe it's not that funny. Still, it cracks us up and it's a line we use as we continue to go down the path of food obsessed.

We didn't go off to churn butter, but we did head over to Formaggio Kitchen's new classroom annex to attend a cheese making class. The adventure started when we went to find the building - it's in a sketchy industrial complex near Alewife in Cambridge, and it turned out their classroom/warehouse is in a giant storage unit. An unheated storage unit, at that. I wasn't dressed for arctic temperatures so after two hours sitting in the frigid cold I was chilled to the bone. I do not recommend attending any of their classes in the winter unless you wear heavy layers, though to be fair I did find this class to be worth the discomfort.

Formaggio Kitchen Annex

The class was taught by Allison Hooper, the co-founder of Vermont Butter and Cheese company. I see VBC's products often in my grocery shopping rounds, and I am a regular purchaser of their creme fraiche, though I really didn't know much about their other products. It was interesting to hear the story of how the company was started essentially on a whim 25 years ago, but it was more fun to do the eating of the cheeses that she brought and made for demonstration. We had 6 VBC commercial products to sample:
  • European cultured butter: seems like this is made from churning creme fraiche, a cultured cream as opposed to fresh cream. I'm a butter fiend to begin with, so I'm not particularly picky over my butter, but I do find butter tastes better in Europe so I was sold. We bought a new cultured butter with sea salt crystals that is heavenly on a still warm baguette - fat and salt are my two favourite flavours.
  • Fromage blanc: I've seen this ingredient in a Barefoot Contessa episode, but had no idea what it was. It's basically the French equivalent to Greek yogurt, a tangy and runny cheese with a mild flavor made from cow's milk. I prefer the denser texture of the Greek yogurt over the flowiness of this cheese.
  • Creme fraiche: Big fan of this product - I prefer it over standard sour cream, and we use it mostly in scrambled eggs and with roasted fingerling potatoes.
  • Bijou: An aged goat cheese that's mild in flavor. This was good on it's own, but the prepared salad that we were served was an excellent meal. VBC's take on the French chevre chaud salad, where each Bijou round is cut in half and placed cut side down/rind up on slices of baguette (the cheese is quite small) before being placed in the oven to toast and warm through. The cheese never fully melts, but it develops a nice crust with a warm gooey center on a toasted slice of baguette. The salad itself was also very tasty, with an unusual element of cooked leeks.
  • Bonne bouche: This is another aged goat cheese but this one is covered in ash. We learned that the ash comes from poplar wood and it's a neutralizing agent to encourage the bacteria to grow. We also sampled this cheese in a recipe that involves roasted fruit, nuts and rosemary with a warmed bonne bouche as an appetizer to be eaten with bread that is simple to make, impressive to look at and tasty to eat.
  • Double-cream Cremont: A mixed milk (cow and goat) cheese that is intended to be more accessible to those who aren't accustomed to goat cheese. It was good, but not particularly memorable.
All in all it was a great learning experience fueled by lots of snacks, beer and wine, even though my stomach was somewhat angry after consuming so much dairy and our fridge now smells like feet thanks to the new goat cheeses we bought. But will we make our own cheese? We're willing to try some of the soft cheeses, but not the hard aged cheeses that require stringent humidity and temperature settings to ensure optimum ripening. We're most psyched to try making our own cheese curds, but the instructions from New England Cheesmaking Supply Company is fairly daunting. We'll order some culture and rennet and report back on our experiments...

Monday, December 6, 2010

Channeling my inner Martha Stewart

Here's some of the output of the weekend:

White Chocolate Cranberry Ginger Cookies
Not the best picture, I admit - I love how the iPhone 4 can take amazing pictures, but it still takes a little luck - and a bit of operator skill. I probably should have turned the flash on, but oh well. You get the point. They were much prettier sitting on our dining room table though.

I make these cookies all the time, but I really wish I could figure out how to make them consistently. I made the first batch on Saturday but these cookies ended up baking super thin, to the point they wouldn't stand up as gifts. I think the butter got too warm and soft, and I suspect that using some oat flour changed the structural integrity of the dough. I also think the cookie scoop I used was too big - 2 tbsp makes far too big a cookie. Oh well - the husband gets to eat those so he's all happy since his cookie supply has been replenished.

The second batch made on Sunday came out much better - I didn't substitute any oat flour, I put the dough in the fridge for several hours to chill before baking, and I used a small scooper. This doesn't really help in my quest to make consistent cookies since I changed too many variables at one time to determine whether there is one culprit behind my floppy cookies. Nonetheless, I had gift-worthy cookies, which I promptly bagged up, tied with ribbon bows after watching YouTube videos on how to tie ribbon bows (yes, I am OCD) and popped them into the freezer.

Tis the Season for overeating!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Friday's Food For Thought: What the hell do neurologists know about how to eat your gingerbread men?

I've already fallen off the wagon, with last week being Thanksgiving and all - but it's still Friday so I feel like I'm back on track!

Here's the (extremely) short article (link below):

"ONCE THEY actually catch the gingerbread man, most Americans go for his head.

That's according to a biting survey sponsored by Dunkin' Donuts, which asked people how they devour a gingerbread cookie.

Two-thirds say they chomp down on the treat's top, while 20% bite off the legs and 16% go for the arms.

The doughnut chain trotted out a neurologist, Dr. Alan Hirsch, to make sense of the findings.

"If one chooses to bite the head first, it indicates an achievement-oriented individual, a natural leader, who won't take no for an answer," he said.

Those who bite the right hand tend to be "skeptical and pessimistic," while lefties "have a flare for creativity and are more extroverted." The leg-eaters are apparently sensitive types."


So here are my questions:

1. Why would Dunkin Donuts commission this survey? What does it tell them?

2. Why the hell would you consult a neurologist? There's nothing about a person's nervous system that would guide their cookie-eating style. Do these idiots not realize they need a psychiatrist or a psychologist? Oh wait, this is Dunkin Donuts we're talking about.

I haven't eaten a gingerbread man in so long, I don't know what appendage I consume first. And what does it mean if I try to eat the whole cookie at once?

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