To look at him, you'd never guess that my friend David is a psychopathic eater.
OK, maybe psychopathic is a strong word, but really he has some crazy eating rituals. First of all, he subscribes to that exercise-world concept of six meals a day, which he eats religiously, hungry or not. Add to that the fact that most of these meals are identical every day, i.e. the same broiled chicken and brown rice every day at 2PM, the same omelet every day at 11PM, etc.
However, after 41 of those meals each week, there comes what David calls his "cheat meal." This is when he allows himself to eat anything and everything he wants. Anything. And everything. This could mean three sundaes in a row, a bucket of fried chicken, a large pepperoni pizza, or all of the above. Usually, it's all of the above. This meal makes up for all the discipline and flavorlessness of the 41 meals leading up to it.
And tonight, David assigned his cheat meal to me and my cooking. Do you realize what a burden this is? I have to cook things rich and naughty and delicious enough to be worthy of the hallowed cheat meal! Here goes....
Gnocchi with Basil Pesto (p. 376)
Who doesn't love gnocchi? This is one of the ultimate comfort foods in my book. 22 years ago, I remember watching my girlfriend at the time (Karen, the one who taught me how to scramble eggs) make them. And about 20 years ago, I tried to make them myself using sweet potatoes. (Failure - too wet. I should try that again....) So this is a gnocchi homecoming.
Martha makes a big deal out of specifying that russet potatoes are the perfect and only ones for this recipe, so imagine my disappointment when Fairway has no potatoes labeled "russet." However, a quick Google search on my phone indicates that russet potatoes are also known as Idaho potatoes, i.e. your average baking potato, which Fairway has in spades. What did we do before phones with internet access??
So, I boiled the potatoes unpeeled and was fascinated to see how easy they were to peel after having been cooked! The skin slides right off. I put them through my food mill (Martha said to use a ricer, but I don't have one), and then I spread them on a baking sheet to cool. Once cooled, I mixed in the egg, flour, and salt and kneaded. The dough came together pretty quickly, and I used all the extra flour she said I might need to get it to be smooth and elastic. In fact, I always think my doughs are too sticky and I end up adding too much flour, so even though I also thought this dough was on the sticky side and wanted to add even more flour, I resisted and left it alone.
Next came the rolling and the shaping, which was well described in the book and easy to do. The only thing I'd add is that when shaping the gnocchi, I found that the dough was sticking to my fingers and the fork, so every so often, I would dip my thumb and the fork into some flour to keep it from sticking to the gnocchi, which was very effective.
Eventually, I had two trays of sweet little baby dumplings. (For the record, I halved the recipe, which is supposed to serve 8-10 people. Knowing it was David's cheat day, I figured we could probably polish off a serving for 4-5 people.)
All that was left was cooking them, which took almost no time, even less than the two minutes Martha predicted. You know they're done when they float. Unlike the ravioli from last week which floated right away, these sink to the bottom of the pot at first, but within a minute, they're floating and asking to be removed.
Drained and tossed with pesto, I have to say, I don't think these could have been better. Martha mentions that getting the texture of the dough just right is tricky and takes some experience, and that it's easy to end up with dense and rubbery gnocchi, or gnocchi that fall apart in the water... But these were perfection. I honestly don't think there's any way anyone could improve on the gnocchi that I served tonight. A bold statement, I know, but that's how great they were.
Obviously I can never make gnocchi again, because I stumbled into some weird wormhole where this challenging thing came really easily to me. But hallelujah! If all else fails, cheat meal was worth it for the gnocchi!
Basil Pesto (p. 379)
This recipe necessitated the purchase of a mortar and pestle, which I happened to find at Ikea the other day! Martha says you can make it in the food-processor, but it will be sweeter-tasting if you grind it. And I want the sweeter-tasting version.
I like the concept of boiling the garlic beforehand, which really does mellow the flavor. I had a mishap with my pine nuts (I overtoasted them and had to throw them out and start over), but eventually I was ready to mort and pest. (FYI, evidently the name "pesto" comes from the tool used to make it.)
It is definitely more time-consuming to grind it this way. My mortar isn't very big, so I had to add the basil and pine nuts a little at a time. But eventually, I got there, and while I can't say that it tasted appreciably sweeter than your average pesto, I will say it tasted damn good! I'm using a slightly upgraded olive oil, and I think that may be making a difference, too.
This tastes great with the gnocchi, and you really don't need a lot of sauce to deliver a ton of flavor.
Individual Chocolate Soufflés (p. 460)
These were supposed to be the cheat-meal pièces de résistance, the lure that would make it worthwhile for David to cheat for a home-cooked meal. I know he's a sucker for a rich, chocolate dessert, and since Martha describes these soufflés as molten chocolate cake's "more refined cousin," I thought they'd be a shoo-in. (Incidentally, David brought me two beautiful white ramekins as a gift, to fill out my collection. Thanks, David!)
I have to confess, I've made chocolate soufflés recently. To celebrate my friend Marcia's birthday, a group of us took her to a private cooking class at Epicurean School of Culinary Arts in LA. We all divided up to make several courses, and my course was chocolate soufflés (see me at left, with batter). Since I had done this just a few months ago, I wasn't particularly daunted by the task.
One thing Martha was asking me to do that I know I didn't do the last time was to create these parchment "collars" for the ramekins. I guess they guide the soufflé to rise within bounds, but this seems a little like overkill. Also, Martha insisted that I put the ramekins in the freezer before filling. Hmmm.
By the time I finished making the soufflé batter, I have to say EVERY pot, utensil, and dish in my house was dirty. I should have taken a picture of it because it was CRAZY!
So, everything went fine, the eggs got separated, the yolks got tempered, the chocolate got melted, the egg whites got whipped into stiff peaks, the ramekins got filled, etc. And the soufflés rose! They did exactly what they were supposed to do.
As beautiful as these soufflés were, they were off. The flavor of the batter was great. Very chocolatey, nice and dark, just enough sweetness. But the consistency was wrong. Yes, it was fluffy and light, but it was cooked all the way through! Martha says "chewy exterior and warm, puddinglike center," and this was neither of those things. Instead of chewy, this top was downright delicate, and the soufflé was evenly cooked throughout. No pudding whatsoever.
I have a theory about why this happened. I've been using the convection feature on my oven. If you don't know what convection is, imagine that your oven gets hot in the same way, but instead of the heat just coming directionally from the heating coils, a convection oven blows a fan that spreads the heat around evenly, so everything cooks at the same temperature at all times.
It occurred to me that maybe soufflés depend on directional heat. Maybe the tops needed the heat beating down on them, and maybe the lower part of the ramekins needed less heat so they could stay puddingy. Can anyone corroborate or add their own theory? I'm curious to know where I went wrong.
In the end, the soufflés were more than edible - delicious, even. But not really soufflés at all. More like moist, puffy chocolate cake-ettes.
Not worthy of a cheat meal. :-(
I must add that David ate a ton more than I mentioned here. Not only did he have two and a half bowls of gnocchi and a soufflé, but he also had a slice of yesterday's pork loin and several portions each of Lemon Sorbet and Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream!
He is not one to waste a cheat meal!!
Until we eat again....
David was kind enough to pose with the pork loin that never got photographed on Day 61