Wednesday, December 31, 2008
One week ago, on Christmas eve, my daughter, my mother, and I went to celebrate our respective birthdays together at a new (for us) restaurant -- Cafe Firenze -- located in the next town over. Clearly, the menu is Italian, but the special draw of this restaurant, in addition to the good food, is the chef/owner, Fabio Viviani.
Ring a bell?
Fabio is Fabio of Top Chef fame, and while we had no expectations of actually seeing him that night, we weren't disappointed.
I would have liked to have had some photographs from our visit, but the restaurant was rather dark inside. We tried the camera, but even with a flash, it was a no-go. So, you'll just have to accept my descriptions.
We were seated in a booth on one side of the dining room. The large bar was a focal point in the center of the room, with seating around the perimeter. Each booth had small pillows, so that one could adjust the distance from the table and have a comfortable back rest.
After placing our orders, the waiter brought a basket of fresh bread and a bowl of something that looked like salsa, only it was actually bruschetta sauce. Yummy sauce at that. You could eat it straight from the bowl. A plate of lemon and lime slices were also on the table to add to your water glass.
For an appetizer we ordered the beef carpaccio, which was topped with arugula and shaved parmesan. Our three entrees were chicken, spinach, ricotta agnolotti with a tomato sauce, chicken and mushroom risotto, and a beef filet covered with a green peppercorn-mustard sauce and served over garlic spinach and truffled mashed potatoes. All three dishes were very well executed and we ate every last morsel.
I mentioned to the waiter that we were there celebrating our birthdays, and he offered a gratis dessert, a small molten chocolate mousse cake. My mother and daughter ordered the cakes, but I chose a dessert off the menu, a trio of creme brulees. Three small cups of just the right size came on a platter -- vanilla bean, chai, and espresso, all super delicious.
Our experience at Cafe Firenze was definitely positive. Both the food and service were excellent and the prices were in line with comparable restaurants. I'm looking forward to returning, no excuses needed. I would highly recommend a visit if you are ever in the neighborhood.
And, of course, I'll keep rooting for Fabio to win Top Chef!
Happy New Year!
December was a busy month. Trying to fit in all the baking and cooking events plus regular life events was challenging at best, and I suspect a few things fell by the wayside. One item I couldn't pass up, as usual, was bread, especially a holiday-themed bread.
For Christmas breakfast, I made the Yule Wreath from the Bread Baking Babes, with the oversight of my mother and nut-sprinkling help from my daughter. Since I don't know if I can post the same item for two events, I decided to bake one more holiday bread, and send it along to Bread Baking Day #15, hosted this month by Annarasa.
I used a basic recipe from Peter Reinhart's Crust & Crumb: All-Purpose Holiday Bread. It's a simple recipe that can be customized depending upon the holiday. I loaded the dough with sliced almonds and finely chopped dark chocolate, and because I don't have a panettone pan, I just made boules, which I brushed with a simple syrup while still warm. It's not a particularly sweet bread, but it is good. There is a slightly brown color from the chocolate. You can add dried fruit instead of chocolate, and try spices like cinnamon, cardamom, or allspice. You can shape it into smaller rolls or make one large loaf. It's that versatile.
So, I hope everyone's new year is a good one and includes lots of fresh bread. Thanks also to Zorra @ 1x umrühren bitte for such a great event.
All-Purpose Holiday Bread
(adapted from Crust & Crumb by Peter Reinhart)
3/4 cup (3.5 ounces) unbleached bread flour
2 teaspoons (0.25 ounce) instant yeast
1 cup (8 ounces) buttermilk, at room temperature
4 1/3 cups ( 19.5 ounces) unbleached bread flour
1/3 cup (2.25 ounces) sugar
1 teaspoon salt
5 large eggs, cold
1/2 cup (4 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
11.75 ounces sponge (use all from above)
Additional ingredients, such as fruit, nuts, chocolate, spices, vanilla, etc.
1. To make sponge, stir together the flour and yeast in a mixing bowl. Add the buttermilk and mix until smooth. Cover the sponge with plastic wrap and allow it to ferment at room temperature for 1 to 2 hours, until very bubbly.
2. To make dough, combine all the other dough ingredients and the sponge in a mixing bowl.
3. Mix the dough on slow speed for 1 minute, then on medium speed for 5 minutes. Add any additional ingredients and, using the dough hook, mix until the dough is soft and tacky, and the dough registers about 80 degrees F. Add a little water if the dough is too stiff, or a little flour if the dough is too sticky.
4. Mist the dough with cooking spray, cover it with plastic wrap, and let it rise until it increases by 1 1/2, about 60 to 90 minutes, depending on the room temperature.
5. Form the dough into the desired shape. Cover and let rise for 60 to 90 minutes or until nearly double.
6. Bake at 350 degrees F until deep, golden brown, with an internal temperature of 185 degrees F.
7. Cool on rack. Decorate as desired or brush with a simple syrup.
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Even though most of the Tuesdays with Dorie Bakers are posting about cheesecake today, I am writing about butterscotch pudding. I'm not really that perverse (oh, wait, yes I am actually, but that's not the reason). I wrote about my cheesecake last week. To be honest, I wish I still had some because it was an awesome dessert, one of my all-time favorite cheesecakes.
Now, on to the pudding, which I have dedicated to my friend, Megan. This one is for you, Megan!
First, let me say that everyone like the pudding, which I made for Christmas dessert. On the negative side, I thought it was very mild, not heavily butterscotchy, and I have made real butterscotch pudding before, so I have a food-memory for comparison.
Second, call it blasphemy, but I used Irish whiskey, since it was all I had. Even so, I had to beg the 2 tablespoons from my daughter. You see, she turned 21 on the 15th, and her knitting gang (yes, 40 to 50-year-old knitters comprise a gang, especially this particular group) decided to hold a slumber party to celebrate her milestone birthday and welcome back the two 21-year-olds, home on winter break. So, my daughter, because she legally could, stocked up on Guinness, beer, and alcoholic spirits for the party. Not even these hard-core knitters could drink it all, so my liquor supply has now increased in size. But the whiskey is still hers. And she's protective. Hence, the begging for 2 tablespoons.
And, in the end, I could barely taste the whiskey in the pudding. Maybe actual scotch would have been stronger. Maybe I just need to add more.
Back to the pudding. I read that recipe at least a dozen times, and each time I thought, "You've got to be kidding, right?" Pan, food processor, pan, food processor, pan. It's just a pudding for heaven's sake (or similar words to that effect)!
So, with Megan on my mind, and my perversity shining through, I made the pudding my way. Would you be able to tell the difference? Not a chance.
First, I put all the dry ingredients into the saucepan. Then I mixed all the wet ingredients together, except for the vanilla, whiskey, and butter. I combined the drys and wets and cooked the mixture until it thickened. Then I whisked in the small bits of room-temperature butter, and finally, added the flavorings, whisking like a mad woman. (Not really, but it makes a good story.)
While the pudding chilled, and Christmas dinner finished cooking, I toasted some pecans in butter and added a pinch of salt. At serving time, I plopped some freshly whipped cream on top of the puddings and sprinkled on the nuts.
Shall I tell you that we all licked our bowls?
I ended up with only one dirty saucepan and one dirty, large measuring cup. That's it. No frills, no spills, no mess.
My second complaint, though, about the dessert was the toasted pecans. They were really good, but once I ate one, that's all I could taste. The delicate flavor of the pudding was lost. So, for the last remaining pudding, which was all mine, I ate it au naturel and savored the deliciousness of the butterscotch/whiskey flavor.
Next time I make it, and there will be a next time, I will experiment with different spirits and see how they compare.
So, whether it's cheesecake or butterscotch pudding, be sure and browse through TWD for some delicious desserts. For the record, the pudding was chosen by Donna of Spatulas, Corkscrews, & Suitcases.
**Just as an added note, butterscotch (the original stuff) has nothing to do with scotch. It's a mixture of butter and brown sugar, used to make candy, sauces, and puddings. The 'scotch' part comes from the process of cooking (scorch) or from cutting the hard candies (scoring). Feel free to indulge.
Monday, December 29, 2008
I seem to be having a last-minute end-of-the-year baking/posting frenzy trying to squeeze everything in. I really enjoy participating in the Weekend Cookbook Challenge and it was so easy this month that I saved it for the last possible moment.
In fact, the recipe is really quick and easy and downright tasty to boot. I really shouldn't have waited until the last minute because now I have a bunch of delicious cheese balls that I will be forced to eat. They go with champagne and New Year's Eve, right? Sara, of i like to cook, came up with the appetizer theme for the last WCC of 2008. I haven't made these in so long, and truly, I don't recall where the recipe originally came from, but I do know it's a good one.
And, all you bakers with extra Rice Krispies floating around from a recent challenge, this is the recipe for you!
Have a happy New Year everyone. Oh, and have a cheese ball, too.
Cheese Rice Krispy Delights
1 stick of butter, softened
1 cup of grated cheese
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons flour
1 cup of Rice Krispies
(If needed, a few drops of water)
Mix. Form into balls. Place on a greased cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees F for 20 minutes.
I guess that's what instructions were like way back when. Here's what I actually did:
Cream butter with a mixer. Add grated cheese and mix thoroughly. Add flour and mix thoroughly. Add the rice krispies and mix until incorporated, using a spatula to blend in any remaining dry bits. I didn't need to add any extra water.
Form into bite-sized balls and place on cookie sheet. Bake. Remove to rack to cool. Try not to devour all at once.
Check out the WCC round-up later this week for some great appetizer ideas.
The Daring Bakers challenge for December was definitely interesting. Instead of a traditional Bûche de Noël, we were tasked to make a modern French Yule Log, a multilayered frozen dessert that resembles a piece of art.
This month's challenge was brought to us by the adventurous Hilda from Saffron and Blueberry and Marion from Il en Faut Peu Pour Etre Heureux. They chose a French Yule Log by Flore from Florilege Gourmand. Recipes may be found on Hilda's blog.
While each layer had its own challenges, assembling the final dessert was the biggest challenge for me. No matter how it turned out, there was no way to make any changes by the icing stage. It’s like unwrapping a surprise package and receiving a less-than perfect gift.
1) Dacquoise Biscuit
I chose to use ground hazelnuts for the dacquoise. It turned out perfectly and was very tasty.
The mousse was the most challenging step for me. The pâte à bombe, where you beat hot sugar syrup into egg yolks, bombed, so to speak. Oh, the egg yolks were beaten just fine, and the sugar syrup was correct, but the vast space of the Kitchen Aid 5-quart bowl allowed the creation of wonderful spun sugar and giant hunks of crystallized sugar, but no egg yolk-sugar mixture. The egg yolks remained blissfully in the bottom of the bowl while the sugar spun all over the baking area.
Not wanting to waste eggs, I strained them from the sugar chunks, put them in a smaller bowl, and beat them with a hand mixer. I remade the sugar syrup, then poured it in with one hand while beating with the hand mixer in the other hand. The majority of sugar syrup was blended into the egg yolks, but the beaters ended up with sugary hair-like growths all over them. I assume there is a point to this step, but it is the part that will kill this recipe for me. And, of course, having to make this part twice, my chocolate-gelatin mixure was definitely cool. I did set the bowl over some hot water so it wouldn’t be completely hard. Ultimately, the mousse turned out fine.
3) Ganache Insert
After preparing the dacquoise and the mousse, I made the ganache. THEN, I re-read the directions. So, the poor ganache rested on the counter while the half-assembled log did time in the freezer. I must say, though, that when I was finally able to pipe it onto the log, it was the perfect consistency. Not too firm, and definitely not runny, and not a mistake after all.
4) Praline (Crisp) Insert
For the crispy insert, I chose to use Rice Krispies for the crunch and Nutella for the praline paste, keeping in line with the hazelnut theme. It turned out just fine, sort of like a candy bar, but it does fall apart easily when it warms up.
5) Crème Brulée Insert
I must be one of the few Daring Bakers who did not have a problem with the crème brulée. While I did bake it a few minutes longer than required, it turned out fine within the specified baking time and temperature. Instead of vanilla, I added toasted, chopped hazelnuts to the milk mixture, let it steep for 90 minutes, and strained it before adding the egg-sugar mixture, so it has a nice, subtle taste of hazelnuts.
The final icing turned out perfectly.
I can’t say the same for the log underneath. It was all bumpy from the layers.
Apparently, I should have really crammed all the layers together and mashed them into the sides of the pan, or perhaps trimmed the darn thing to make it even all around. So there is a mirror-smooth glaze over this gnarly cake-like thing. (Could that be why so many DBers slathered the sides with nuts and other objects?)
There are so many gorgeous Yule Logs on the Daring Bakers Blogroll. Please take a moment to take a look.
Friday, December 26, 2008
Those Bread Baking Babes came up with the most delicious and versatile recipe just in time for the holidays: a Yule Wreath, chosen by Lynn, of Cookie Baker Lynn. It's a good thing I have a patient family (translate: no small children). We had Christmas breakfast at noon all because of this bread. Next year, I will bake it the day before.
The dough was so satiny that I just wanted to keep petting it. I finally controlled myself and put it in the proofer.
While the yeasties were doing what they do best, I made the almond paste. That was so easy (in the food processor), that I will never have to search for it again and pay high prices. Everyone kept snitching pieces of filling, uncooked and cooked.
I kept an eye on the bread while it was baking. I was sure I had created the "bread that ate New York"! It was huge! Which meant, of course, that there would be enough for everyone and then some.
For the glazing process, I set the bread on a rack on top of waxed paper to catch the drips.
I spread on the glaze and my daughter sprinkled it with almonds. Then we moved it to the table. I felt like one of those contestants on Food Network challenges, where it takes 3 people to move the baked/sculpted item.
My mother immediately called dibs on the waxed paper with its globs of glaze and bits of cooked filling. I never did see that piece of paper again.
This is a marvelous bread, and I heartily recommend you check out Lynn's blog to get the recipe and see what the other Bread Baking Babes made. (There is a delicious savory filling from Tanna.)
Christmas was a grey day, but the Yule Wreath plus the poinsettia plus the lighted tree made it a great day.
Thursday, December 25, 2008
With all the holiday baking this month, it was nice to be able to make a savory dish. Luckily, I prepared this soup earlier in the month and enjoyed it for lunch several times along with various breads and crackers that I had made. This recipe was chosen by Natalie of Burned Bits.
The soup was easy to make. The ciabatta bread eventually disintegrated into the main body of the soup with a little help from a whisk.
I really loved the crispy croutons, bacon, and basil that garnished the top. They were simply roasted in the oven. (I could have eaten just the garnish and been happy.)
The only change I would make would be to cut the croutons into smaller cubes. As is, they are quite a mouthful. It's also a great dish for a grey, winter day.
I'm not sure how many Barefoot Bloggers will be posting today, but please check out the results over the next week.
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Thankfully, this month we were allowed to switch the order of our baking assignments. I had an opportunity to make dessert for my Tuesday quilt group, so I chose the cheesecake as the perfect dessert. Plus, I had all the ingredients on hand. (I had been collecting cream cheese for a short while.) To jazz it up a bit, I picked some limes off the tree. I love limes, and they added just the right amount of flavor to the cheesecake.
I was glad that I had my super Kitchen Aid, though, since there was so much filling. My regular-sized KA would have struggled, I'm sure. I wrapped the springform pan snugly with 2 sheets of heavy duty aluminum foil to protect against leaks. I did have to bake it longer than the recipe stated, so I went by appearance rather than time. The end result was just right.
I really liked everything about this cheesecake, especially the flavor and texture, and so did my friends. In fact, after it was gone, I really missed having my evening sliver for dessert! Another good feature is its versatility. It truly is a basic recipe, allowing for many flavor combinations.
Thanks to Anne of AnneStrawberry for a delicious choice for December. When you check the TWD blogroll, you may find a variety of desserts this week, but all will be delicious. Happy Holidays to everyone!
Monday, December 22, 2008
Thanks to Megan for a bake-along challenge. Last week Megan made Chocolate Crackle Cookies using a recipe from Martha Stewart. Yesterday I was finally able to fit them into my schedule. I've made these before, using a different recipe, but not often because I always thought it was a huge investment in chocolate. How my perceptions have changed! After Daring Bakers and Tuesdays with Dorie, 8 ounces of chocolate doesn't even cause me to cringe anymore.
My only issue with the dough was it's stickiness, even after chilling. I had to keep refrigerating the dough after 4 or 5 balls because it would stick to my fingers. I think I lost several cookies just from that. But, I did prevail, and I have to say the cookies are delicious. For science's sake, though, I think I will track down my previous recipe and do some comparison baking. For science, you know.
You can find the recipe on Megan's blog.
OK, Megan. What's next on the bake-along agenda?
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
I am pleased to report that my stock of homemade boysenberry jam has been replenished, along with a jar of homemade apricot jam, thanks to two of my friends.
For my part, I brought the Tall and Creamy Cheesecake, spiked with lime. Because this is still Tuesday, I'm mentioning it, especially for those who haven't made it yet. The real post with photos and comments will come next week. Just a head's up -- it took longer than 90 minutes to bake. I recommend going by sight rather than by time. It's a winner, though, because all plates were licked clean (figuratively). Since I have only a few slices left, I need to photograph them before they disappear as well.
There were mixed results and opinions about these cookies. For me, they didn't come close to equaling the taste and goodness of the previous cookie recipes (Linzer Sables and Grandma's Sugar Cookies). All my cookies were more scone-like, bite-sized, and bumpy-looking, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but they just didn't grab my attention. Although I will say that their flavor improves with age. The 4-day-old cookies taste better than the fresh ones, unless I'm just desperate for cookies.
For the jam component, I used some of the French jam that had made an appearance in the Linzer Sables. It's good jam, and added sweetness to the cookies, but the flavor was lost.
It's always good to try something new, and I'm sure some of the TWD bakers loved these, but I will not be making this recipe again, especially when some of the earlier recipes were clear winners.
Sunday, December 14, 2008
This time of year I always wish I were back home, enjoying the winter weather and celebrating the holidays and my birthday in the place where I was born. Since plans won't permit it this year, I decided to bring home to me in the form of nearly-traditional cookies: orange bizcochitos.
Bizcochitos, a New Mexican tradition, are one of my favorite cookies, partly because of the anise and partly because they are New Mexican. If they are made strictly according to tradition, they would contain a ton of lard and be shaped like little fleur-de-lis. While I have nothing against lard, it would probably spoil before I could use it all up, so this recipe uses butter instead.
One of the key ingredients in these cookies is anise. I truly enjoy the flavor and aroma of this spice, especially when I'm preparing it for baking. I use one of my handy mortar-and-pestles to grind the seeds.
The smaller one was purchased in New Mexico during a Christmas visit many years ago and I use it frequently for pulverizing small amounts of herbs or spices. The larger one, which has such a nice feel, was bought in Provence several years ago. It has a deep bowl, useful for larger quantities of spices. I'm always searching for mortars-and-pestles with character. There is something very satisfying about grinding your own spices by hand.
These orange bizcochitos are my new holiday cookie this year. They are easy to prepare and because the dough is chilled, it can be in the refrigerator, ready to bake fresh when needed. I used a decorative glass stamp to press the cookies rather than a regular glass, but the design sort of baked out, so it's probably not worth the extra effort. They still taste the same. The original recipe is in the November 2007 issue of Cooking Light, or here, online.
I am also sending this to Susan at Food Blogga for her annual Christmas Cookie Roundup (way too many delicious cookies over there!).
Saturday, December 13, 2008
Guess where we went this week? La belle France! The only problem with this week's choice is that I really wish I were there. In person. Right now.
The last time I was in France, I visited Tours, staying in a lovely chateau and touring the city and the countryside. Did you know that's where the real Sleeping Beauty's castle is? Lots of castles as a matter of fact, and all are beautiful and fascinating.
One evening, some friends and I had one of those nice, long dinners at a local restaurant. We closed down the place, and even got to meet the owner and his friendly dachshund. One of the special dishes that I recall was poached eggs in a red wine sauce. It was absolutely delicious.
While this isn't the same egg dish, it did bring back memories of a wonderful visit. Thanks to Lauren for choosing one of my favorite countries.
Champignons à la crème avec oeufs pochés et Gruyère
(Best of Gourmet 2002)
1 pound cremini mushrooms, trimmed
2 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
1 large shallot, coarsely chopped
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup heavy cream
3 ounces Gruyère, shredded (1 cup)
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
3 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
6 large eggs
Pulse mushrooms, garlic, and shallot in a food processor until finely chopped.
Heat butter in a skillet over moderate heat until foam subsides, then cook the mushroom purée, stirring until fragrant and heated through, about 5 minutes. Stir in cream and boil 3 minutes. Add half the cheese, stirring until melted, then stir in salt and pepper. Keep warm over low heat.
Fill a deep skillet with water, then add vinegar and bring to a bare simmer. Break each egg into a cup, then slide into the simmering liquid. Immediately, push the white around the yolk with a slotted spoon, moving egg gently. Add 2 more eggs in the same way. Sinner 3-4 minutes for runny yolks, or 5-6 minutes for firm yolks. Transfer eggs to a plate lined with paper towels and poach the remaining eggs in the same way.
Divide mushroom purée among gratin dishes. Pat the poached eggs dry and season with salt and pepper. Transfer eggs, one at a time, with the slotted spoon to the gratin dishes and sprinkle with the remaining cheese. Put dishes in a shallow baking pan and broil 5-7 inches from the heat until the cheese is melted and bubbling, 1-2 minutes. Serve immediately.
Recently, when I prepared my rustic pasta meal for Cook the Books, I balanced the main course with a side of spinach. The extra touch of garlic and crushed red pepper was just perfect.
Spinach, Sicilian style
1 pound fresh spinach, about 2 bunches
3 cloves of garlic, sliced
crushed red pepper flakes
salt and pepper
Wash spinach leaves, discarding any blemished ones. Cut into strips.
Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil, add one teaspoon salt and the spinach. Blanch for only 2 minutes. Remove spinach with slotted spoon, place in a colander, and drain. (I'm sure this step can be streamlined.)
Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the sliced garlic. When the garlic starts to turn golden, remove the skillet from the heat, add the spinach, then simmer for 4-5 minutes, or until tender. (It won't take long.) Season to taste. Sprinkle with the crushed red pepper flakes.
Serve hot or at room temperature.
As an alternative to frosting or sugaring cookies, sometimes we like to paint them. When my girls were little, especially around major holidays, it was a good way to have them help with the baking, while providing a creative outlet. It's not messy and there are no decorating rules. Each cookie is an empty palette.
So, for anyone wishing to let their artistic talents bloom, here is the recipe.
Take one egg yolk, mix with 1/4 teaspoon water, then divide into small portions and add food coloring. Mix. Grab a brush. Paint.
I expect to see glorious painted cookies on everyone's blog now.
Thursday, December 11, 2008
As planned, after lunch, I began reading La Cucina: A Novel of Rapture, by Lily Prior.
I had purchased this book a number of years ago to read during one of my European trips, but travel being what it is, I never opened the book. It sat, forgotten, on my shelves, until October, when I came across a blog event that paired this book with food, a most appropriate pairing. Since I already owned the book, I decided to participate.
My only concern about reading this book during my stay in the jury waiting room was that I would become so lost in the plot that I would somehow embarrass myself in front of a group of strangers. It's easy to do with this book -- get lost in it, that is, not embarrass yourself. Such a rhapsody of food and lust and fascinating characters -- a true diversion.
I nearly managed to read the entire book that afternoon, but all prospective jurors were sent home early (thankfully), leaving me just a few chapters shy of completion. Nothing like being left hanging.
With so many culinary possibilities, I vacillated between making pasta or bread. In the end, I chose the pasta, as it had been awhile since I had made fresh pasta and the very effort required to knead the dough would be cathartic. So, I did it the old-fashioned way:
I made a basic meat sauce to go over the pasta and cooked some spinach with red pepper flakes as a side (a Sicilian recipe).
It was a satisfying meal, a tribute to Rosa and all her trials. The bread, however, is still calling to me, so I may have to break down and whip up a focaccia sometime soon.
I must say that I debated whether to post this. Compared to some of the other participants in this event, it's not glamorous or exciting. I did enjoy the story and the characters and the challenge of preparing a recipe inspired by the plot.
Soon after December 15, we will all be treated to the creative results of this challenge over at Cook the Books, so be sure to drop by. Thanks to Deb from Kahakai Kitchen, Rachel from The Crispy Cook, and Johanna from Food Junkie, Not Junk Food for having such a great idea.