dessert for breakfast

i'm pretty well-known, at least amongst my friends, for my whimsical take on things. this can best be summed up by what i like to think of as my motto:

life is uncertain.
eat dessert first.

today, though, i am pretty sure i brought it to an entirely new level of decadence.
i ate dessert for breakfast.

it really started last night. the workday, as they are wont to do, was dragging on forever, and i was restless. the weather here in our nation's captiol was just barely warm enough to justify the three-mile walk home (plus a detour to whole foods). as i started my walk, i had all of these virtuous plans to make a quick, wholesome dinner--a miso soup, with some soba noodles and chargrilled chicken, and maybe a handful of mushrooms and a few bird chiles for spice. the farther i walked, however, the less enamored of this idea i became, and even though i picked up a chicken breast at the store i found myself unable to summon the will to cook it by the time i arrived home. the chicken went back into the fridge, to be replaced on the counter by milk, cream and a pile of chocolate croissants.

have i mentioned that i am completely smitten with nigella lawson? because i am. i love the way she writes, and i love the way she cooks, and most of all, i love her attitude toward eating, which is that eating is a pleasure. so last night, in desperate need of comfort after a useless day at the office (plus day 5 of my spring sanity restoration project, plus packing to head north yet again for the weekend), i took a page out of her book and whipped up a pain-au-chocolat pudding. i have to admit, i seriously considered eating this for dinner all by itself but i managed to exercise some restraint at the last minute and reheat some leftover polenta and chicken.

oh. my. goodness. my first bite of the cream-soaked baked croissant practically made the ickiness of my day banish all on its own (although it helped that i had put my SSRP on hold for the evening and cuddled up in bed), even if i had poured too much of the cream mixture into the pan.

after sleeping the sleep of the chocolately sated for an incredible 8 hours, and finding myself completely unable to get out of bed until 45 minutes after my alarm went off (making me, yet again, late for work) i decided that the croissant pudding deserved an encore performance. what better way to feel good about your day than to start it off with a bit of chocolate, i say.

pain-au-chocolat pudding
(adapted from nigella lawson, how to be a domestic goddess)

6 mini chocolate croissants, sliced into chunks
1 cup skim milk
1 cup heavy cream
2 eggs
1 very large schlug of vanilla (nigella suggests 1/2 teaspoon)
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar

preheat the oven to 350.
place the croissant chunks in a heatproof bowl (i used a disposable loaf pan). meanwhile, simmer the milk and cream together in a pan on the stove. whisk the two eggs, adding the sugar. slowly pour the simmering milk mixture into the egg and sugar mixture, whisking constantly so the eggs don't scramble. add the vanilla, and pour the liquid over the croissant chunks. give it a few minutes to absorb the liquid before placing the pan in the oven.

oven times might vary--i halved nigella's orginal recipe, so i started checking the pan after about 20 minutes. i decided it was finished after about half an hour.

enjoy with a cup of chocolate milk or hot chocolate.


risotto #9 - sweet corn with black trumpets and a drizzle of white truffle oil

came home tonight and remembered the boatload of mushrooms i have hiding in the bottom drawer, so i pulled a risotto off of my “to-do” list and poured it all into the rice cooker.

yes, again. the risotto police might as well keep me in perpetual lockup.

this time, i took my inspiration from the bag full of black trumpet mushrooms i scored at the last farmers’ market and used an emeril recipe for sweet corn risotto with black trumpets and white truffle oil.

surprisingly, i really liked the addition of the corn. i used frozen white corn kernels, and they were very sweet and had a nice crunch. but i was disappointed by the risotto as a whole. it didn’t taste like much. i expected a lot more from a mushroom like a black trumpet--the last time i cooked with a black trumpet, it was a stir-fry, and the flavor was so strong i could barely eat it. this time, all i could taste was the corn and the sprinkle of white pepper i threw on. i couldn’t even taste the truffle oil, much less the rice or the trumpets. i’m curious if this is because i used vegetable stock, which in my experience doesn’t add the kind of flavor that a chicken stock would impart. but the recipe called for veggie stock, and since i had some on hand, i poured it right in.

i'm not sure how i'd do this differently, because i didn't really enjoy it enough to care.

Sweet Corn, Black Trumpet and Truffle Risotto
(from emeril lagasse via the food network website)

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup chopped yellow onions
2 ears of sweet corn, scrapped from the cob
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon white pepper
12 turns fresh ground black pepper
1 lb. risotto
6 cups vegetable stock
1 lb. black trumpet mushrooms
2 teaspoons chopped garlic
¼ cup heavy cream
½ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Drizzle of white truffle oil
1 black truffle

Over medium heat, in a large saute pan, heat the olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter. Heat the oil for 1 minute. Add the onions, corn, salt, white pepper, and black pepper. Saute for 3 minutes. Using a wooden spoon, stir in the risotto. Saute for 2 minutes. Stir the stock into the risotto. Bring the liquid up to a simmer, about 6 minutes. Stir in the mushrooms and garlic. Simmer the risotto for 18 minutes, stirring constantly. Stir in the remaining butter, cream, grated cheese and truffle oil. Simmer for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and serve. Garnish with shaved truffles.


SHF#29, or what i learned this weekend

ok, so i learned two very important things this weekend:

1 - how to properly whip egg whites
(1a - how long it takes to bring egg whites to room temperature and how quickly they puff up when you whip them that way)

2 - my oven SUCKS.

as regards to the latter, i've actually known this particularly heinous piece of information for quite some time. for almost two years, in fact, ever since i moved in and discovered, to my horror, that the oven thermometer is 25 degrees off--on a good day. since my stove burner broke. since the oven knob shattered and i have to use a pair of pliers to turn it on. all this time, i've known, intrinsically, how much my oven just really blows.

but on occasion, something happens to especially drive it home to me. about a week ago i made my first attempt at SHF #29, which i'd been excited about ever since jasmine posted what the new theme would be almost a month ago. (because yes, i am that nerdy) i had originally planned to make something nibby, because i've never used cacao nibs before but i see them sometimes in the supermarket, hiding on the chocolate shelf. i started gathering recipes from the new scharffen-berger book, and alice medrich's bittersweet, and luscious chocolate desserts. there were lots of good nib options, but nothing that jumped off the page at me--although i did drool over alice medrich's nibby crepes for a while. i started to settle on the idea of making white chocolate nib nougatine brownies, which i expect i'll make sooner or later, but then i started reading about dorie greenspan and pierre herme and how herme supposedly has the hands-down best recipe for french macaroons on the planet and i couldn't rest without trying them at least once. i immediately set out to find a copy of pierre herme's book, as written by dorie greenspan.

did i mention that the coolest thing about working for the government is that it comes with a borrowing account at the library of congress? a mere day later, i had a copy of chocolate desserts by pierre herme on my desk, waiting for perusal. his macaroon recipe, by the way, only uses four ingredients, which he treats as precious and delicate commodities, nurturing their transformation from almond-y meringue into french chocolate macaroon. i've tried a bunch of macaroon recipes, because, like any sane person who has had the pleasure of visiting paris, biting into my first macaroon was like finding nirvana, a practically religious experience as i sat on a sunny autumn afternoon under the eiffel tower on the champs du mars. i had one of those saucer-sized ones and i stretched it out to last the entire day. i've tried martha's almond version. i've tried williams-sonoma's hazelnut version. i convinced my mother to let me serve them as dessert one thanksgiving, an event for which i practiced for a month and still couldn't get good macaroons.

because my oven sucks.

and once again, this proved all too true (although i think that my egg-white-whipping skills, or lack thereof, played a role in the fiasco) as i spent my friday evening stewing lamb and making macaroons, brittle, foul and dry things that i bit into hesitantly and then threw away. i put the ganache back in the fridge, vowing to try another day.

my opportunity came this past weekend while i was visiting my parents. having recently stumbled upon a gently used copy of the new spanish table for an awe-inspiring $2.89 (and accidentally shipping it to my parents instead of to me), i decided that we should cook out of it for a family dinner on saturday night. and have macaroons for dessert.

ok, i'm not gonna lie. the way i learned lesson #1 was that i forgot about the egg whites i'd measured and set out to warm while i got immersed in the braised lamb with garlic and trying to make my mom actually follow the recipe (the braising technique espoused for this particular recipe seemed backwards. but more on that later). once the lamb was safely in the oven and meant to stay there for a good three hours, i was able to turn my attention back to my room-temperature egg whites. which, seriously, whipped up almost instantaneously, all white and fluffly and shiny and peaky. i gently folded in my dry ingredients, almond meal and scharffen-berger natural cocoa powder and confectioners sugar. i made a pastry bag out of a ziploc and made 24 little round piles of almond meringue and held my breath while they baked.

at first, i thought i'd failed. again. they didn't puff up into neat little burgers like i had expected. but they came right off the parchment and i couldn't resist tasting the deformed ones as they cooled.

it was like finding nirvana all over again.

i didn't change any of the ingredients, so i don't feel right posting the recipe, but i do recommend checking out dorie greenspan's chocolate desserts by pierre herme for all the inspiration a chocoholic could ask for.


my mother let me use her kitchen!

ok, ever since i’ve decided to learn how to cook, my M.O. when i go visit my parents in new jersey has been to think of ways to use my parents’ kitchen, which is infinitely superior to mine. to begin with, their oven works. so does the stove. there are acres of counter space, and a large sink, loads of random cooking utensils, pots, pans and even baking surprises, like muffin pans or biscuit cutters or ramekins or creme brulee dishes. my mom inevitably gives into my plea and says yes, i can cook.

but for me, like for sam seaborn, it’s sort of an honorary thing. mom likes to cook almost as much as i do and she’s got that sort of innate cooking sense that 50s housewives used to have, so any recipes i bring home are usually discarded by the time we hit the supermarket. i tend to take shameless advantage of having someone around to demonstrate a technique or an idea, and if my mom isn’t as good as my uncle mikey, she’s still no slouch when it comes to a meal.

i expected this weekend to be no different than any other. my major goal was to commandeer enough counter space to work on my entry for SHF#29. anything else, i decided, would be a bonus. but much to my surprise, mom let me take the lead. we chose a menu out of the new spanish table: lamb shanks with garlic and wine, starting off with a chorizo tortilla and three-meat albondigas (spanish meatballs). i did the mise en place, i made the meatballs. mom carmelized some onions for the lamb while i preheated the oven and simmered some sauce (again for the meatballs). we teamed up in bafflement as we tried to understand the braising technique for the lamb--the lamb needed to be cooked, uncovered, for almost two hours and that was before the braising liquid even got added! but the lamb, the garlic, the onion and the pimenton she added (i wish i had thought of that last one myself) all melted together into a perfect early-spring stew.

and this book, oh. my. goodness. i picked it up used for $2. i’d been reading about it in various places across the blogs and joe, the new washington post food editor, raved about it for his new year’s eve menu. when i saw it listed so cheaply i took it as a sign--but accidentally sent it to new jersey instead of to d.c. i practically had to pry it out of mom’s hands, she loved it so much, and it only took me a few minutes of flipping pages to understand why. the variety of recipes is astounding, and most of them are relatively easy to make. there are all kinds of ingredients used, and a lot of the recipes would seriously benefit from my proximity to the farmers market come warmer weather. i’m already drooling over the basque cherry cream pie, for instance, and several of the salads.

but above all, i’m smitten with the variety of foods presented in the book. it’ll keep me cooking all spring, all summer, all fall and all winter with no complaints whatsoever. it’ll also make it much harder to get through my cooking “wish” list, since i’ll have to add practically every recipe in there to it!


it's things like this that make my uncle call me a pastry puke

spring is nearly upon us, so i'm trying to enjoy heavy, meaty, baked sort of dishes while they are still in season. not that i am going to miss winter one bit, oh no, but i figure now is the time to use some of the straggling stew recipes i've been saving, as well as some of the meat i've been picking up from my weekly farmers market trips. this time it was lamb, which, to be frank, i don't usually eat much of. i've never been a fan of the most common lamb dish, that is, the lamb chop, and i assumed it would carry over into other things. really, the only reason i've been picking up more lamb recipe is that nigel slater cooks with it a lot in his kitchen diaries, so i've been looking for it at the market.

and finding it! this week it was stew meat, which i presume was the shoulder or some similar tough cut, except that i'm lazy and i bought it pre-cut. this particular batch of meat had been purchased much earlier this week and i daresay it was on the very razor's edge of still being edible.

or maybe that is just how lamb smells? at any rate, after washing it, patting it dry, and discarding the smelly wrapper, the lamb looked (and smelled) much more palatable and so i soldiered on with my friday night meal.

the recipe was simplicity itself: i browned the lamb, added a nice layer of spices, poured in some braising liquid, and let it go for about an hour. (i had an entirely different culinary adventure during this hour as i attempted to make french chocolate macaroons. i say attempted because...well, i failed.) because i only have one burner on the stove, i had already boiled the sweet potatoes and set about ricing them with my little potato ricer that never fails to splurge little riced potato droppings every which way. i must be using the thing wrong or something.

here's where i get into trouble. or at least, my uncle calls it trouble, because he considers himself a very dedicated (and seriously, a very talented) amateur chef who eschews all things that involve baking, pastry, "butter, flour, sugar, eggs" and above all, a pastry bag. but i couldn't help myself. the recipe has this picture on it--martha stewart, of course--of the finished product looking all pretty and well-presented and the only way i could think of to achieve this look was by piping the riced sweet potatoes onto the lamb stew prior to baking.

so i took a ziploc, loaded it with the potatoes, and piped away. the result was both pretty and tasty, so i was quite satisfied. plus, i was watching the departed, and i'm sort of a sucker for matt damon, so i was a happy girl on this particular friday night.

tonight we went out for dinner in baltimore--good italian food and, of course, vaccaro's for dessert. i was swapping cooking stories with my uncle to prove that i am not, in his words, a "pastry puke" given my love of sweet baked things and i used this sweet potato pot pie as an example. so he says, what kind of crust did you use and i say, a piped out sweet potato crust and he stops me right there. between the shepherd's pie-like topping AND the fact that i piped it out, i definitely lost this round. but the stew was really tasty.

and you know what? i like being a pastry puke.


monday night sandwich heaven

four words: croissant, roast chicken, apples and gouda


it was supposed to be risotto #8 -- mushroom and polenta pot pie

i was all geared up to make the latest in my path of risotto discovery. it probably would have been apple risotto, maybe with some duck, or a sweet potato risotto, even though that sounds a bit gross. in any event, i've been really enjoying my one-risotto-per-week trend because it's been giving me a chance to perfect my technique and to develop a bit of a repertoire. i spent the morning at the farmers market, scouting out what bounty there was to be had as we slough off winter, but as i was putting away my goodies i noticed a pile of mushrooms sitting forlornly on the shelf, no doubt intended for some long-forgotten nefarious cooking scheme.

i am powerless before neglected food, and so i pulled out a recipe from martha stewart that sounded interesting and in keeping with my goal of eating one non-meat dish per week. since i don't really believe in vegetables, especially those of a green variety, this has been a challenge which i have not always met. on the other hand, i have recently discovered polenta, and i have a hunch that this delightful grain will go a long way toward helping me reach that goal more often.

if only i were sephardic, i could even cook it during passover...
but i digress.

martha's recipe was really very simple, essentially an inverted serving of mushrooms-on-polenta dubbed mushroom and polenta pot pie. i was really pleased with how easy it was to make, especially on my one-burner stove and my off-temperature oven. i separated the eggs, as directed, and was thrilled with how light and fluffy this made the polenta, while the earthiness of the mushrooms went really well with the sweetness of the corn grain.

all in all, a lovely sunday night meal, except that i really should have made, well, green beans or something, and perhaps a small slice of dressed-up chicken breast for some flavor variety. all of those mushrooms really packed a whallop! but that is what leftovers are for, right?


saturday morning breakfast

there is something magical about saturday morning breakfast. i think it’s a combination of that weekend-i-don’t-have-to-get-up-today feeling and a memory of the happy younger days when saturday morning breakfast meant either pancakes at the diner with my dad, my friends, or both. to this day, even, dad frequently drags me out to the local greek-owned establishment for a plate piled high with chocolate chip silver dollar pancakes with a hot chocolate and a tall glass of sprite (i have this craving for carbonated beverages in the morning).

this morning is my first sleeping-in saturday in something like a month, and although i originally planned to celebrate this feat by being virtuous and going to a yoga class, the comforts of my bed came in first and i slept through the class, leaving me with a perfect excuse to indulge in a saturday morning breakfast.

well, that and the pint of blueberries and open container of buttermilk in the fridge.
one and one makes two and before i knew it, i was whipping up a batch of buttermilk silver dollar pancakes. i did, however, try a new recipe, pulled from beth hensperger’s bread for breakfast.

i had barely enough time to notice that the recipe used a LOT of baking powder and baking soda before the batter had puffed up like a pillow, all light and fluffy and full of air. i used a mini ice cream scoop to get a few tablespoons’ worth of batter per pancake and plopped it on a griddle. to my amazement, the cakes didn’t flatten out or bubble up or spread across the surface.

here’s the thing about air, though, and it’s that it doesn’t taste like much of anything. even with the buttermilk and the cornmeal and the blueberries, i wasn’t getting a lot of flavor. maybe it’s because the pancakes of my youth were more of a bisquick variety...


a week of stir-fries

last night's foray into the blue box notwithstanding, i did a lot this week with stir-fries. the inspiration came on sunday afternoon when uncle mikey took me on a field trip to the two asian grocery stores he frequents. i came home with a bag of thai bird chiles, a bag of thai basil, a jar of "life-changing" sweet chile sauce, and a hankering for stir-fries.

started off easy with an old favorite, the classic wagamama chicken tama rice, which is really just chargrilled chicken in a thickened oyster sauce with some shiitakes. it's meant to have zucchini, but i had a childhood trauma involving gourd vegetables and so i declined to add those to my wok. by a nice stroke of planning, i managed to make just enough for my 1 meal without having to clog my refrigerator with (more) leftovers. i took this, coupled with the extended daylight, the weather that made it warm enough to walk home, as a good sign.

on tuesday the weather was even nicer than it was on monday, but i couldn't walk home. not and still make it to the dry-cleaners before they closed at seven (it is times like this that i really miss new york city, where the dry-cleaner would deliver and my doorman would keep it for me. *sigh*). i compromised by getting off the metro a stop early and by walking to the whole foods in georgetown instead of taking the metro to the one with the really nice butcher shop in tenleytown. at whole foods i procured a half-pound of seriously good-looking skirt steak, which i sliced across the grain and utilized with the bird chiles, the thai basil, some fish sauce and some rice wine vinegar. i swear, the beef practically melted into the wok, it was so tender.

wednesday i went back to kylie kwong and decided that we needed to get along better, so i gave her sung choi bao of pork another go. this time, i had lettuce and carrots and bean sprouts and as i suspected, these added a nice bit of crunch and color to the light and salty pork flavor.

only i still didn't like it.
no worries, kylie. we'll find common ground soon enough, i am sure of it.

blue box blues

sometimes you can have all of these lofty plans to have a healthy, simple and yet sophisticated dinner, like, say, pomegranate-glazed chicken breasts with a brown basmati pilaf.

and then you walk outside, and notice that since the morning commute, there has been a 25-degree temperature change, the wind has started gusting and water pouring out of the sky. suddenly you're dreaming of a box of kraft macaroni and cheese. with little cut up bits of hot dog and a glass of milk.

so, um, yeah.
that's what i had for dinner.


HHDD #9 - the incredibly ironic (and surprisingly tasty) cheesecake

ok, ok. you might as well add me to the seriously growing list of people who are completely obsessed with dorie greenspan's new book, baking: from my home to yours. i wasn't always this way, i swear. when it was first released, i picked it up because it was new and because i sort of, kind of liked baking with julia, although i didn't think it had enough pictures (baking with julia, that is, not from my home to yours). my first scan of the book elicited a mere 5 recipes that got added to my recipe file, and the book went back on the shelf with a shrug and a sigh and the expectation of practically never using it again.

i'm still not really sure what pulled me back into it, but it was probably my quest for a really good dessert to use for my photography potluck lunch, or possibly a particularly boring sunday afternoon spent whiling away the hours by dreaming of sugary, dessert-like confections. whatever it was, dorie came off the shelf again and i swear, it was like a spiritual awakening or something.

other books--lisa yockelson's chocolate, chocolate among them--have seduced me by sheer volume and creativity in their recipes. i dedicated hours to bookmarking lisa's recipes, painstakingly singling them out for weekend experiments and izzie-stevens-like-baking binges. but her recipes, for all of their sizzle, have yet to work out for me exactly the way i hoped they would. dorie's recipes impressed me with their variety but also their practicality. you read one of her recipes and you think, "damn, that sounds really good." but you also think, "i could TOTALLY make that."

and so here i am, confessing that yes, this past week i made 3--count 'em, three--recipes out of dorie. all in the SAME WEEK.

all of this brings me at last to the irony of my most recent confection, the hidden berry torte. i recently participated in my first food blogging event, sugar high friday #28. i dedicated half of my entry to ranting about how much i hate cheesecake and the other half to extolling the virtues blood oranges and chocolate. i had originally planned on maybe having my first blogging event be "hay, hay it's donna day #9" but i missed the deadline. thus i determined not to miss HHDD #10.

and what's the theme for HHDD#10? cheesecake.

here's my thing about cheesecake: i really hate cream cheese. i guess that is practically un-american, and it certainly verges on anti-jewish in a culture that subsists on cream cheese and lox for sunday morning breakfasts. it gets even more unamerican, because now i have to confess that my ideal subsitute for cream cheese is italian mascarpone (hey, at least it isn't french, right?). i've done a lot of experiments with mascarpone--my favorite is definitely using it as an ice cream base) and i finally decided to just substitute one for the other in a regular cheesecake recipe.

but oh, it gets even more complicated. because i also don't like cottage cheese, an dorie's recipe uses a mixture of cottage cheese and cream cheese. so i just thew in a tub of ricotta. and then, for good measure (and an unexpectedly fast delivery from amazon.com), i adapted the recipe to include one of tish boyle's cream cheese ideas--the addition of white chocolate.

and thus i present the white chocolate raspberry truffle cheese cake.
which, by the way, was really, REALLY good.

raspbery white chocolate truffle cheese cake
(adapted from baking: from my home to yours and tish boyle's the cake book)
½ cup thick berry or cherry jam
9 ounces mascarpone, at room
8 ounces (1 cup) ricotta cheese, at room
¾ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
7 ounces white chocolate, finely chopped, melted and cooled
2 large eggs, preferably at room
Confectioners' sugar, for dusting

GETTING Ready: Butter a 9-inch springform pan, dust the inside with flour and
tap out the excess. Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment or a silicone mat.

TO MAKE THE CRUST: This cheesecake will work with a variety of crusts--graham cracker, chocolate wafer, or pate sucree. I used a chocolate wafer crust in a pie dish, but I would recommend using the crust of your choice in a springform pan so that it cooks more evenly.

TO MAKE THE CAKE: Mix the cheeses, sugar and eggs together. Pour in the tempered and cooled chocolate and mix well. Spred a layer of jam across the crust and add cheeese/chocolate mixture, making sure you have an even layer.

Bake at 375 for about 60-70 minutes, until top is puffed and golden. Because of the chocolate, the inside will still be jiggly, but the cake will firm and deflate as it cools, leaving a uniform texture.

butterfly cupcakes for andy which took 3 trips to the grocery store

i lie, obviously. they weren't for andy, who chides me on my butterfly fetish. or for tiffany, whose birthday it was. they were really for me. and not even to eat them--merely to give me an excuse to plunge once again into dorie's baking bible and play some more.

this time, i chose the "perfect party cake," since i was going to a party and had offered to bring baked goods instead of alcoholic beverages. with respect to the butterflies, i should confess that i have a reputation around my very conservative DC office for being only vaguely acquainted with the standards of an office dress code. this passing fling with professionalism frequently manifests itself with the playful addition of a butterfly to some aspect of my wardrobe: a shoe, a necklace, earrings, a hair clip, and on very special occasions, all of the above.

since it was tiffany's birthday, and andy is tiffany's boyfriend, i couldn't resist the opportunity to turn the "perfect party cake" into butterflied cupcakes. it was too delicious--both in irony, and in the cake itself.

the cake started last weekend with a thinking ahead sort of list for my weekly food shopping. the problem was that i lost my list somewhere between the office and the supermarket on friday night, so i forgot to purchase a key ingredient--lemon extract--for the cake batter. this necessitated trip #2 to the supermarket, to get a lemon, some extract, and while i was at it, some shredded sweetened coconut to use as a garnish.

trip #3 was triggered as i was staring, hypnotized, at the perfect ribbons of batter swirling about my kitchenaid mixer (i have literally never seen a texture like that in a cake batter before. it was like...silk. lemony silk...). i was also making a cheesecake to bring to my aunt and uncle for sunday night, and accidentally used all of the raspberry jam (but more on that later). i had this mad idea to fill the cupcakes with some raspberry jam under the butterflied tops and i became obsessed with the potential disaster of a perfect party cake sans raspberry jam. while the cheesecake was baking, i ran out of the house like a crazy person and into the nearest CVS, where i grape and strawberry jam but no raspberry. inspiration struck me like lightning and i remembered the small and somewhat sketchy "metro supermarket" a mere block away from both the CVS and my house. a wall of jam greeted me in one of the half-dozen aisles, and i grabbed a large-ish jar of raspberry and ran back out again.

i gingerly sliced the top off one of my cupcakes--they were softer and springier than i imagined they would be, and much more delicate--and immediately realized that there was no way i could dollop any kind of filling into these babies. not without completely wrecking the balance and texture and crumb of one of the moistest, springiest, lightest cakes i've ever tasted (like angel food cake, but not). i settled for using the leftover chocolate pastry cream to anchor the "wings" and making the butterfly body out of a stream of strained raspberry jam. only i got too much water in the jam as i was melting it, so it was more like a raspberry sauce than a raspberry gel. i sprinkled the "wings" with powdered sugar and the "body" with sweetened coconut, packed it all up, and nearly dropped it on tiffany's floor because of the rain outside. but it didn't matter. i got my laugh out of both the birthday girl and the butterflied boyfriend, and helped myself to a brownie and a cocktail.

hey, i wasn't kidding when i said they weren't for me to eat. i don't like lemon!

andy's butterfly cupcakes
(inspired by the book "cupcakes!" and adapted from dorie greenspan's perfect party cake)

2¼ cups cake flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 ¼ cups whole milk or buttermilk (I prefer buttermilk with the lemon)
4 large egg whites
1½ cups sugar
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ teaspoon pure lemon extract

GETTING READY: Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Butter 2 12-cup muffin pans, or use cupcake liners.

TO MAKE THE CAKE: Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt.
Whisk together the milk and egg whites in a medium bowl.

Put the sugar and lemon zest in a mixer bowl or another large bowl and rub
them together with your fingers until the sugar is moist and fragrant. Add the but-
ter and, working with the paddle or whisk attachment, or with a hand mixer, beat
at medium speed for a full 3 minutes, until the butter and sugar are very light.
Beat in the extract, then add one third of the flour mixture, still beating on
medium speed. Beat in half of the milk-egg mixture, then beat in half of the re-
maining dry ingredients until incorporated. Add the rest of the milk and eggs, and the remaining dry ingredients. Beat it for an extra minute or two just for good measure, scraping down the sides so that everything is incorporated.

Fill the muffin cups about 3/4 full (you should get about 24 cupcakes) and bake in preheated oven for 20-25 minutes. They will be light-colored and very springy, and a cake tester will come out clean.

Allow to cool, then slice the tops of the cupcakes off and dust them with confectioners sugar. Cut the tops in half to make wings and position them in icing slathered across the now-flat tops of the cupcakes. Decorate, if you like, and make the butterfly "body" with a stream of melted and strained and cooled raspberry jam. Dust with sweetened shredded coconut.

shabbos dinner and some very problematic hamentaschen

you know how most people dream about the weekend because they can see their friends/boyfriend/girlfriend/family and party their hours away?

i am not one of those people.

i dream about the weekend because come friday, i know i have two glorious days of no salary-oriented obligation coming my way. two days of absolute freedom, to do with as i will.

there are, in fact, two versions of this friday dream. the first kind is really a version of the 'party my hours away' scenario--when i have really interesting or exciting weekend plans: a really good photography class, a trip out of town, a weekend in new york city with my nearest and dearest and our favorite restaurant. these weekends are anxiously anticipated, stressed over, packed for, planned for, with a flurry of phone calls and emails as the date draws near. outfits are planned, bars are selected, meeting times added to my google calendar. (in the class scenario, negatives are chosen, equipment is packed, and film is purchased, obviously.)

the second version of this friday dream is more elemental. it's the kind of friday night where i have no plans at all except to stop at the whole foods on my way out of the office and make an ambitious sort of friday dinner. these fridays are savored: new recipes are tried, movies are selected, and, if it is cold out, a fire is most definitely lit in the fireplace. i rarely have company on these fridays. i prefer the more solitary experience of working in my kitchen. which, incidentally, has been almost completely dark for over a month now, since my ceiling lightbulbs burnt out and i can't figure out how to change them. but that's a different problem.

tonight was my first friday night home in several weeks and i wanted to celebrate it accordingly: with a version of what i tend to call "jewish dinner," or shabbos dinner. that is to say, roast chicken with some kind of starch. it's usually rice, or at least it was when i was growing up, but i was armed with nigel slater's kitchen diaries and decided to appropriate his roast chicken with cheese mashed potatoes and gravy. it sounds like a modest meal, and it was, but it was heightened by the fact that this would mark the first time i'd ever attempted to roast an entire chicken.

i found a small young chicken, and enhanced it with a smattering of olive oil, some salt, pepper and garlic powder, and a few cloves of garlic tucked strategically around the bird. i halved some baby yukon gold potatoes and stuck those in the roasting pan to catch the juices. the bird went in upside down for half and hour, then turned properly to finish off. and yes, the breasts were dry--but they were tender, and the dark meat was perfect. (next time i will brine it a bit the day before to seal in some moisture) mashed potatoes got a smattering of cream, butter and jack cheese and i steamed some green beans, just for balance.

but the fun didn't end there. while the chicken was roasting, i decided to make my yearly attempt at jewish cookie baking with some hamentaschen, in honor of purim. hamentaschen are cookie-like pastries in the shape of a triangle and filled with some kind of fruit filling (prune, traditionally, or apricot, but who cares about tradition?) or perhaps some chocolate. i threw it all out the window, including the recipe i've used in past years (and good thing, too, because it never worked, resulting in seriously spread out cookies and burned jam) and turned to my treasury of jewish holiday baking. within these pages i have found many good ideas, and tonight was no exception: a simple cookie dough for hamentaschen, with a chocolate variation. perfect. now i had an excuse for that container of scharffen-berger cocoa powder i bought last weekend on a whim...

my (non-existent) cookie-folding skills notwithstanding, and discounting the serious error in judgement i made by using the last of the blood orange marmalade i found at the cowgirl creamery, these were pretty damn tasty with a glass of milk.


(adapted from a treasury of jewish holiday baking. for more info about hamentaschen, check out this great blog entry, including much more photogenic pastries than mine, over at baking and books)

Note: If you want to make nondairy hamantaschen you can replace the butter with shortening or with nondairy margarine.

Ingredients: Makes about 3 dozen cookies

  • 1/2 cup vegetable shortening
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter or margarine
  • 1 1/4 cups sugar + a pinch for the egg wash
  • 3 eggs + 1 for the egg wash
  • 1/4 cup cocoa powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • Approximately 4 to 4 1/2 cups of flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • Fruit preserves. (Not jam.) You can also use Nutella. (i used raspberry, cherry, blood orange and nutella. why discriminate??)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

In a mixing bowl, cream the shortening, butter and sugar together. Add the eggs and blend until smooth.

Stir in the the vanilla. Fold in 4 cups of flour, salt, cocoa powder and baking powder. Mix to make a firm but soft dough. Cover and let the dough rest for 20 minutes to give the flour time to absorb all the moisture.

Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Divide the dough into 2 or 3 flattened discs and work with one portion at a time. Roll out the dough onto a lightly floured board to a thickness of 1/8 inch. Use a 3-inch cookie or biscuit cutter and cut as many rounds as you can.

In a small bowl mix 1 egg, 1 tablespoon of water and a pinch of sugar to make an egg glaze. Brush the rounds with the wash, then fill each with a generous 1/2 teaspoonful of your desired filling. Fold 3 sides of each circle together, creating triangles.

Brush the cookies with additional egg wash. If desired, sprinkle with regular or coarse sugar, and bake in the center of the preheated oven until golden brown, 18 to 25 minutes. Cool on the baking sheets.


risotto #7 - duck with blood orange

happy, happy birthday to me.

i suppose i should feel guilty about it, but while everyone congratulated me on my quarter-life crisis and expressed their hope that i would be doing something fun and exciting to mark the occasion, i slogged through the long, weary wednesday by dreaming of something much more modest: a clean kitchen. a fire in my fireplace. a stack of cookbooks to peruse. my cat, taking up the entire couch. a favorite movie queued up in the DVD player.

a bowl of warm, sweet risotto. my most favorite risotto. a risotto worth saving my last blood orange of the year for, a blood orange risotto garnished with slices of roasted duck breast and a segmented orange.

i tend to save this recipe all year in eager anticipation of the all-too-brief availability of the ruby-fleshed citrus. and then, of course, i don't want to overdo a good thing, so i usually only get to taste the fruits of this particular labor once or at best twice during the season. it seemed fitting, then, to save the recipe as my reward at the end of a long, snowy birthday.

my one caveat is that i once again broke all risotto protocol and succumbed to the siren song of the rice cooker. the idea of being able to put everything into a pot and let it sort itself out while i settled myself in for the evening was just too much for me to resist!

i skipped dessert and sipped at a glass of pomegranate juice while i basked in the warm glow of the fire and the animated banter on my small screen.

risotto with duck and blood oranges
(adapted from the williams-sonoma risotto cookbook and beth hensperger's rice cooker cookbook)

2 T olive oil
1 T minced shallots
grated zest of 1 blood orange
1/2 cup arborio rice
2 cups fresh chicken stock
1 duck breast fillet, skin on, and cross-hatched with a sharp knife

first, coat the bottom of the rice cooker bowl with olive oil, and turn the cooker on. as the olive oil heats up, sweat the shallots until they start to stink up the kitchen and release their juice. add zest. stir in the rice until each grain is coated and translucent, with a small white dot in the center (about 3-5 minutes). pour in stock, and reset rice cooker for the porridge cycle. (mine has one--otherwise, reset the cooking cycle and set a timer for about 20 minutes)

check on the rice intermittently, because letting the porridge cycle complete leaves you with clumpy, goopy, soupy rice instead of tender-to-the-bite risotto. while the cooker does its thing, sear the duck breast in a skillet until the fat renders. transfer to a 400F pre-heated oven and roast for approximately 10 minutes. let the duck rest, then slice on a diagonal and remove the skin.

spoon the risotto into a bowl and garnish with the blood orange segments and the sliced duck breast.

(makes enough for just 1)

2007: a cake odyssey

it took me weeks of drooling, a weekend of planning, and two days of cooking, but i did it.
i made a cake. a real cake. with layers. and pastry cream. and frosting.
and i served it to people. real people.

i did it all in honor of my birthday.
or maybe i used my birthday as an excuse for the cake.
does it make a difference?
it was my first real cake.

it started weeks ago, when i was trying to find a recipe for my photography potluck dessert. i was flipping through dorie's baking book, thinking about new recipes. i was mulling over a red velvet cake. i'd become enamored with the far breton. but in between, i spotted a brilliantly delicious idea: chocolate black-and-white cake. four layers. chocolate pastry cream. white chocolate whipped cream. all kinds of chocolatey decadence. i briefly considered it for the dessert but decided to save it for a better occasion. i admit, at the time i sort of expected that the occasion would never arise. i almost never get a chance to make a real cake. even the cupcakes i make, i have to halve the recipes and freeze portions of that.

i was patient, though. i waited for inspiration. and then i remembered the perfect excuse: my birthday. last year, i used my birthday as an excuse to make a gigantic chocolate buttermilk cream cake with cherry compote (yum!). but that was kids' stuff. a sheet cake, chopped up and dolloped with pastry cream and cherries.

this year, i chose the chocolate black-and-white cake. this was a real cake. it has layers. it needed multiple cake pans. i knew i'd never be able to do it in one post-work baking session. not if i wanted to stay sane. and while sanity may be overrated, it's much harder to earn a paycheck without it, so i opted for the two-day approach. monday night, i came home and baked the cake layers. tuesday night, i came home and made the pastry cream and the whipped cream.

in the usual order of things, the pastry cream would have taken me two or three tries and the whipped cream would have taken me two or three minutes. but this cake demanded more of me. the pastry cream, complete with cornstarch, took but a few minutes of stirring and thickening. the whipped cream, because--well, basically because i was stupid--took 3 tries and a grand total of four hours. (and a recently-discovered stash of white chocolate ghiradelli bars.)

when it was all done, i doubted my ability to slice the two thinner-than-expected cake layers into the four that dorie describes, so i slathered chocolate cream on both halves and sandwiched them together. i got up early this morning and did a crumb-coat layer of frosting, chilled it for 20 minutes while i took a shower, and finished it off. it didn't look as pretty as dorie's, so i shaved some dark chocolate bits over the icing. it still didn't look as pretty as dorie's, so i decorated it with fresh raspberries. i wrapped it up and brought it into work (a co-worker joked that if i had gotten knocked over on the metro, i would have had to call in absent on account of homicide).

i am pleased to report that my cake was a total success. it lasted about 5 minutes from the first slice. people came scrounging back for crumbs. my baking prowess was praised.

i was a happy birthday girl.


beef mani--err, rigatoni (WCC #14)

there was lots of meticulous planning happening today on account of my impending birthday and my intense, izzie-stevens-like baking craze.

so of course i got clobbered at the grocery store. i had this grand list, i’d been working on it all day. i’d plotted out my strategy to make dinner and also start making a cake from dorie in time for wednesday (yellow buttermilk cake, with alternating layers of white chocolate ganache and bittersweet chocolate pastry cream). i even remembered to defrost the beef for the manicotti.

i stood in the dry goods aisle, surrounded by cans of tomato products and bags of rice and boxes and boxes of pasta. in spite of this overabundance of carbohydrates i could not find a single box containing manicotti. all i could find was rigatoni. oh, hell, i figured. surely i could mix up the filling and just layer it in a baking dish full of the pasta.

this, as it turns out, was completely true, and very reassuring. the beef was so moist and tender, which i chalk up to the fact that it was local and organic and all of that good stuff you look for in meat. i decimated my stock of cheese, pulling out ricotta and mozzarella and parmesan.

i should mention my other clobbering, which was my complete lack of cornstarch. i should have expected it. just last week i was cleaning out the crevice i call a “pantry” and found an empty box of cornstarch. forgot to replace it while i was shopping today. so even though i had gone so far as to triage my cooking tasks for tonight, i had to shelve my plan to make the pastry cream until tomorrow. i suppose i could make the pastry cream without the cornstarch, but i have enough trouble with pastry cream as it is without removing an ingredient that will help thicken and stabilize it!

today at work i was reading old journals and marveling in my delight in the fresh fruits of summer. it’s cold, and blustery and still winter and i usually try to not buy non-seasonal fruit in january but i was reading about the fresh july strawberries and i couldn’t help myself when i saw the piles of chilean and california fruit stacked up all neatly at whole foods. a small basket of strawberries, a container of raspberries and a container of blueberries found their way into my cart, along with what i expect will be a final sack full of blood oranges (these were noticeably less tangy than usual).

in order to make the best of this unusual harvest, i present my WCC #14 - a fruit salad. while i was digging through all of the cheeses in my fridge, i also found half a tub of farmers market mascarpone. the solution was obvious: cannoli cream fruit salad. it’s a giada de laurentis recipe that i usually keep handy during the summer months. i decided to bring it out of hibernation a bit early...

fruit salad with cannoli cream
(adapted from giada de laurentis)

1/2 cup mascarpone cheese
1/2 cup ricotta cheese
sugar, to taste (i used splenda)
1/4 cup chocolate chips
fresh fruit: 1 segmented blood orange, a scattering of blueberries, a double handful of raspberries and 3 strawberries, hulled and halved

mix cheeses, sugar and chips until creamy and smooth. dollop on a plate with fresh fruit (macerated, if you like that sort of thing, maybe with a squirt of lemon juice to keep everything tangy)

since it is winter and i can’t live in complete denial, shivering here in my apartment, i whipped up some hot chocolate.

triple chocolate hot chocolate
(adapted from emily lucetti’s a passion for desserts)

1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup milk
pinch salt
1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
2 oz. white chocolate
1 oz. semisweet or bittersweet chocolate

simmer milk and cream, then temper all 3 chocolates and salt until melted and smooth.


found - pancetta!

another entry from the kitchen diaries on this fine winter’s evening.
if you can call it winter when the high today was in the 50s, of course.

but blood oranges are still in season, so it must still be winter.

planned all week to make a nice dinner after my class today, and decided to pull something new out of the unfailingly excellent kitchen diaries. the only caveat: i was determined to finally find some pancetta, which is inexplicably absent from both of my local D.C. whole foods locations.

the columbus circle location, however, suffered from no such lack, and i arrived home this evening in proud possession of a duck breast, a bag of fingerling potatoes, and a pound of pancetta bacon to roast in the oven. the potatoes got sliced and a cold water bath before being roasted for an hour in pancetta drippings with onions, olive oil, salt, pepper and thyme. the duck got seared and then finished off in the oven as the potatoes were reachcing the final stages of roasted perfection.

the result? salty and rich potatoes, a slightly overcooked duck, and a segmented fake blood orange to cut through the richness with its acidity.

oh, and a nick and nora charles movie in the background.
bon appetit!