Monday, June 29, 2009

Day 103 - Jelly Roll

Sunday was Gay Pride Day, and not being a lover of crowds, I was planning to sidestep the celebration by enjoying the afternoon with FNBF in the new High Line park. Unfortunately, the High Line was closed for the day (fear of 12 jillion partying GLBT'ers crashing through the gates, no doubt). Plan B involved walking along the Hudson to our dinner destination, Spunto, a restaurant in the West Village, however en route, we inadvertently got swept into the eye of the "storm." After a torturous, yet proud, half hour spent crossing the parade at Seventh Avenue and Christopher, we slipped into a booth at Spunto and tucked into a delicious pizza and other assorted goodies, and then leisurely walked through the detritus of the parade back to my place, where I did what any self-respecting gay man does to celebrate the end of Pride Day: I made Martha's Jelly Roll.

Jelly Roll (p. 464)

Génoise is a new word for me. It's a fancy French term for sponge cake. The only cake that's less interesting to me than yellow cake? Sponge cake. Also, Angel Food Cake (yikes, I have to make that, too!). Ho hum. But then I remind myself, this project isn't about making only what I like. It's about trying everything and learning everything, and this was definitely a learning experience. So bring it on!

The batter for this cake is very HM (High Maintenance). It either has to be sifted 800 times, or melted then brought to room temperature, or heated indirectly until warm, or whipped to soft peaks, and then folded ever-so-gently.... I practically had a heart attack making this.

Some of the weird steps along the way:

Folding the flour mixture into the whipped eggs was really tricky! I knew that folding means "be gentle," but the flour was being so ornery! It was beading, almost like oil against water, as if it had been Scotch-Guarded! I kept thinking it was incorporated, and then I'd fold over a huge colony of dry flour beads! And this happened several times! I knew that over-folding was a no-no, so eventually, I just moved on to the butter stage. Here too, the butter was a little reluctant to be incorporated. But by the time I called it finished, I was pretty clear it was really done. And I don't think I pushed the batter too far.

I saw the instruction in the recipe to spread the batter into the pan with an offset spatula, but I didn't really get it until I actually poured the batter into the pan. Usually, you can give the pan a shake, and the batter will level itself out. But this batter is so thick, it really has to be pushed around and molded. It's really quite an unusual texture....

The cake cooked perfectly! Golden brown and springy, just like Martha said!!

I love the part where you roll it in a towel and let it cool rolled up, to teach it its shape. I felt like I was teaching my little cake-baby the facts of life.

The only part that went a little badly was the filling/rerolling. Once the cake was cooled, I unrolled it and slathered it with my homemade peach jam. I think my jam might have been a bad match for this, consistency-wise... too chunky/runny. The chunks kept it from spreading well, and the runny parts made the sponge cake a little soggy. The whipped cream went on fine, though.

Next came the rerolling. As I rolled the jelly roll, the whipped cream was being squeezed out, and when I finished rolling it, there was a big, blobby line of whipped cream across the roll, which had to be removed to "close the seam." I know it would have been better to keep that cream inside, but I'm not sure how I could have made that happen. It would probably have something to do with rerolling it more loosely....

The cake set nicely and I served it with a generous sprinkling of confectioner's sugar.

I thought it tasted just OK, but FNBF was more emphatic about it than that. Maybe some people really go for this kind of cake, because Ryan and Judith were over today and ate it very happily.

In any case, I'm glad to have learned how to make it. Next, I'll make something I'm excited about. :-)

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

In case you can't find the Jelly Roll, "Carol Merrill" is pointing to it.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Day 102 - Salt-Baked Fish

Saturday night was Marcy Time. You know the drill: veggies and/or fish. I'm running out of recipes!

I recycled the Sicilian-Style Sautéed Greens from Day 48, since they were such a big hit. This time, instead of almonds, I used hazelnuts (I had them from the Skate recipe). Again, it was delicious, and again it garnered raves.

The fish, on the other hand....

Salt-Baked Fish (p. 141)

OK, I completely take responsibility for the fish being clanky. It was a last-minute idea to do this recipe, and instead of hunting down a proper specimen, I made a hurried stop at the grocery store in Koreatown, grabbed what they had, and took my chances. What they had was Croaker. Who ever heard of croaker? Evidently, it's a somewhat common fish. They didn't have a big one, just smaller ones, so I got two.

I also picked up some salt there. Martha calls for Kosher salt, but what they had was coarse sea salt. I knew that Kosher salt is ofter called coarse salt, so I figured I'd be OK.

Well, once I opened the package of salt, I realized I might be in trouble. This salt was much less refined than your average Kosher salt, somewhere between Kosher salt and rock salt. Yikes! I had to use the whole four pound bag, and Martha said I'd only need three pounds. Would it bind together to create a steam vacuum the way it was supposed to??

Preparing the fish was quite easy, some busy work with slicing lemons, washing herbs, but on the whole, quick and painless. And cooking fish in a coffin of salt is so crazy and unusual! I had a rapt audience the whole time!

As for cooking time, Martha said 15 minutes per pound, but I was cooking two fish which, together, weighed a pound and a half. Was I supposed to cook them for only 15 minutes, because each fish, individually, weighed a pound or less, or should I cook them for 22.5 minutes, because together they weighed 1.5 lbs? Eeek!

There's a doneness test that involves a metal skewer being inserted into the thickest part of the fish to check for warmth. The closest thing I had to a metal skewer was my meat thermometer, so I used that. And when I checked at 15 minutes, it came out cold. So much for 15 and 22.5. I ended up cooking them for about 30 minutes.

Amazingly, the fish was cooked really well, perfect degree of doneness. But wait, I'm getting ahead of myself.

The cracking of the salt crypt is pretty fun and wacky. The salt did bind and it got really hard and crunchy and required some serious muscle to pound through. Once you get to the fish, then it's just about exhuming the bodies, and shoveling the salt to the side.

The skin didn't peel away as easily as Martha suggests it might, but I think that probably had mostly to do with these particular fish, being as small as they were. It was a chore to get the flesh off the bones, and eventually I just started dumping the fish meat onto a plate, which meant we were picking bones out of our food for the rest of the night.

I need a lesson in deboning! I'm still pretty ignorant about the anatomy of a fish - I should definitely stop everything and take those fish lessons in the beginning of the chapter: How to Fillet a Flat Fish and How to Fillet a Round Fish. It might remove some of the mystery for me.

In the end, I think the salt-bake method is valid and effective, and fun and kicky. The flavors are rather tame, they really let the fish be the star. Unfortunatly, I chose some really stupid little fish, and that brought down the quality of the recipe. I'd like to do this again with Kosher salt and a nice big snapper or sea bass, like Martha suggests.

Jeff: B (For shopping poorly)
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

Midway through the "exhumation"

Friday, June 26, 2009

Day 100 - Sautéed Skate Wing, Peach Ice Cream, and Peach Jam

100 days! Wow... I have to say, it feels like longer, though not in a bad way.

When I was on the phone with Martha telling her I was doing this project, she said something like "You must be learning a lot," and I said "I'm a different person in the kitchen." Which is pretty good for 100 days, right?

Harriet and I have a monthly date, and at my birthday dinner, she invited Adinah to join us this month, so I thought I'd cook for them again....

Sautéed Skate Wing (p. 254)

I don't think I've ever had skate... maybe in a bouillabaise, but never out in the open. It's a prehistoric looking fish, and you can see why the meat is referred to as "wings." The fillets are uniquely shaped and the meat has deep ridges, but it's relatively sturdy and stood up well to dredging in flour and sautéing.

As Martha suggests, this recipe cooks up quick, so you want to do all the prep work beforehand, and there's not too much.

The biggest job is suprêming the grapefruit. I'd seen chefs suprêming on Top Chef, so I knew the gist of it, but until you do something yourself, it's just a concept. It's so much easier than I thought! You literally slice the peel off the grapefruit, top then sides, cutting right through to the flesh, until you have a rounded piece of fruit completely exposed on all sides. (Not peeled, mind you, but inner flesh exposed.) Then you cut in between the membranes to release the fillets/segments, and when that's done, you squeeze the juice out of what's left. It's such a refined way to handle citrus, I never would have thought to do it myself...

The rest of the prep is toasting and chopping hazelnuts, setting out flour, butter, thyme, salt and pepper, oil, making a little lemon juice.

The cooking happens quickly (of course never as quickly as it says in the book - why are my timings still wacky?). I used a stainless steel sauté pan because Martha says to brown the fish, and I've thought maybe the non-stick pans don't brown as well. But even with the oil pretty hot, the fish didn't quite brown, at least not in the 2 minutes she says it takes. No matter... it tasted amazing and was perfectly cooked, but just wasn't very browned.

Once the fish is cooked (then covered and waiting), you wipe out the pan and make the sauce. This is a classic browned butter sauce, so I wanted to make sure at least the butter browned. Again, the timing was totally off. Martha said that browning would happen in 30-60 seconds, for me it was more like 5 minutes. Fine. I can wait.

In went the juices and the thyme and the nuts, and then it was done!

It makes a beautiful presentation, with the grapefruit sections, and it tastes just incredible. Salty, sweet, meaty, crunchy, buttery, fruity, herby. Probably one of my favorite recipes in the book so far, it's a perfect blend of flavors and textures.

Adinah and Harriet also loved it, and they both admitted to a prior skate snobbery, but now they have been converted!

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Peach Jam (p. 471)

I made this so I could make the Peach Ice Cream that follows.

I think there might be a giant omission in this recipe. There's nothing in there about skinning the peaches. I looked at many other peach jam recipes to see if I could find one that used the skins, but they all involved peeling the peaches. So I peeled. I can't imagine Martha didn't intend for me to peel...

Again, things took a little longer than described in the recipe: the 5-6 minutes of cooking to thicken the jam was more like 15. But the results were lovely. Homemade peach jam! Yum.

Mine is quite chunky, and it's a tad sweet for my taste, but you know I'm not a sugar hound. I like things on the tart side... But it's going to taste great in the ice cream!

Jeff: A
Martha B
(A less savvy student might not have known to peel the peaches...)

Peach Ice Cream (p. 471)

This recipe is literally the vanilla ice cream recipe with peach jam folded in at the end.

As you may remember, I wasn't that excited about the vanilla ice cream, so I wasn't really looking forward to this. However, I think maybe I executed this better the second time around, because today it tastes magical to me.

The part of the recipe I think I blew the first time was the cooking of the custard after the egg yolks have been incorporated. You're supposed to cook it until it thickens and can cover the back of the spoon, and I think I quit too soon. This time, I let it get really thick, and it developed a taste that I can't put my finger on, but it tastes somehow "brown" to me. Like toasted caramel or something sweet and browned. It's really delicious! And with peach jam added?? To die.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

Adinah (l) and Harriet (r) with their new favorite fish, skate!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Day 92 - Barbecued Baby Back Ribs, Spice Paste, All-Purpose Grilling Sauce, Herb Oil and Spice Mixes for Grilled Vegetables

I don't know why, but I've been in denial about writing this entry. Maybe because there are so many things to talk about, not just recipes but also a very special phone conversation!!

FNBF is excited to have his first official share in Fire Island this summer. He invited me to spend a few days this week out there, off-peak. I'd never been to The Pines, so it was great to see what all the fuss has been about. Of course, being in The Pines on a brisk Tuesday, partly sunny Wednesday and cats-and-dogs Thursday probably bears no resemblance to being in The Pines on a sunny summer weekend, but I can imagine....

Being the thoughtful BF that he is, FNBF mentioned that our time in Fire Island would present a wonderful opportunity to knock out some of the grilling recipes in the book that are impossible to accomplish in a city apartment.

Well, he didn't have to tell me twice!

Barbecued Baby Back Ribs (p. 176)

I love ribs. LOVE. Ribs. And it's something that I would never think to make, so I'm thrilled that it's in the book and that I'm forced to take it on. I had some preparing to do, being that you have to make the Spice Paste and the All-Purpose Grilling Sauce in order to make the ribs (see below). So I made those in NYC and packed it all up in a thermal bag to haul out to F.I.

Once I got out there and saw the small Weber grill, I became concerned that I wouldn't be able to follow the recipe exactly, as the instructions say to use indirect heat, i.e. put the coals on one side of the grill and the ribs on the other. This grill didn't have enough room for that kind of separation. Also, I forgot to pick up an oven thermometer in the city.

But the universe provides! I found an oven thermometer at one of the mini-stores in The Pines, and as for the grill situation, I had an opportunity to Ask Martha herself about it!

As a subscriber to Martha's Tweets, I get texts from her all day every day, including a weekly message letting me know that her Sirius/XM radio show is about to air and encouraging me to call to ask her a question. Every time I've tried to call, I've gotten a busy signal. So I'd given up.

But there we were on Fire Island, and FNBF says, "You should call her." "Nah, I never get through." "Just try it!" So I tried again, and amazingly, after a short screening conversation with an assistant, there I was on the air, chatting with the Big M!!

She was great, so kind and confident and straight-forward. I told her my concerns, and she told me everything I needed to know to trouble-shoot the grill situation. I mentioned that I was cooking my way through her book and loving it. She wasn't surprised. :-) I didn't get a chance to plug this blog, mostly because she was very skillful at moving the conversation along. In the end, I was thrilled merely to have had a brief moment with her live on the phone. What a kick! Thanks, FNBF, for making me do it. (He thinks I'm going to become obsessed with talking to her and start calling her every week, etc., and he may be right.)

Minutes after the call, I was putting the ribs on the grill. It's a great thing that the recipe is so specific about the temperature and that I had an oven thermometer because the temperature inside the grill was so overly hot. Martha says to check the temperature after 20 minutes and that 275°-300° is appropriate, but our grill read 400°! Thankfully, she had told me that I could shpritz water on the coals to cool them down, which I did. And I also left the top of the grill partly open, and eventually, the temperature was perfect.

It's a somewhat long process (2.5 hours), with turning every half hour, but what a reward at the end!! One of the racks was doing exactly what she said it would (i.e. breaking a little in the middle when picked up with tongs), but the other one was rock solid. So we took one off and let the other one stay on another half hour. I think they were probably both done at the same time, and the reason it didn't bend was because there was a piece of meat across the top that was a little charred and wouldn't allow it to move. But no matter...

These ribs were AMAZING!! The spice rub gave them a crazy delicious taste, the grilling sauce was just right, and the slow cooking was unbelievably fabulous! Falling off the bone, tender but slightly charred, a little sweet, a little sour, a little spicy, a lot salty, oh dear Lord, were they good!

Martha says this recipe serves 4-6, but you will want to eat them all yourselves. We managed to finish the whole batch in one sitting, and even though we were stuffed, we would have eaten more.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Spice Paste (p. 173)

So easy and what incredible color this gives whatever it touches (including your hands and clothes). You could put this on shoe leather and it would make it taste great.

We just put it on the ribs, but I'm curious to see how this would taste on chicken or beef....

Jeff: A
Martha: A

All-Purpose Grilling Sauce (p. 177)

This is basically BBQ sauce, but it's quite delicious. It has a great depth of flavor, and of course, as with everything in this book, it tastes very fresh and bright. And it's interesting to make it to see how those disparate flavors combine to make that BBQ sauce flavor. There's dark brown sugar, vinegar, onions, garlic, tomato juice, tomato sauce, molasses, chile powder, mustard powder, Worcestershire sauce, toasted cumin seeds, oregano, and a fresh jalapeño. Lots of ingredients, but lots of flavor! And for those of you who think, as I did, that putting a jalapeño pepper in there would make it spicy, it doesn't! (I removed the ribs and the seeds, for that reason.) It just deepens the flavor. And I hate peppers, but I can appreciate the taste in this sauce.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Herb Oil for Grilled Vegetables (p. 348)

Lots of fresh herbs and minced garlic floating in olive oil make for a beautifully flavored oil for grilling. This recipe goes a long way, and there was so much left over that I used it for roasting some vegetables when I got back to the city. It works great there too! All the bits of herbs brown in the oven, but the taste is amazing.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Spice Mixes for Grilled Vegetables (p. 348)

There are two mixes in the book for parboiled vegetables on their way to the grill: a Southwestern flavor mix and a fennel flavor mix. We tried both with some potatoes. It's tricky to get a lot of the spice to attach to the vegetables, so the flavor isn't very strong, but both lend a subtle and delicious undertaste to the potatoes. I wouldn't say one flavor is better than the other because they're both so different. I'm not a huge potato fan, so this probably won't get a lot of play in my life, but it was fun to try.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Grilled Asparagus (p. 349)

Nice on the grill. We didn't skewer them. They didn't get marked by the grill, but we didn't want to cook them to death, so maybe that's why. Delicious.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Grilled Corn (p. 349)

We tried this both ways, taken out of the husk and cooked in the husk. Two completely different experiences! Out of the husk, the corn was dried out and charred, and it was delicious, but a very unique taste sensation, made me think of Native Americans for some reason. In the husk, the corn was more typically luscious and sweet and juicy. I think there's value in both preparations, it just depends on what you're looking for.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Grilled Fennel Bulbs (p. 350)

These were parboiled, then covered with the herb oil. It think I parboiled them too long. They were a little soggy. Plus, they cooked upstairs on the duplex grill, so they didn't get any char going. Still, they tasted great.

Jeff: B+
Martha: A

Grilled Onions (p. 350)

Yum! Herb oil and fire make onions taste great! We enjoyed these with burgers the night before rib night. Delicious!

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Grilled Potatoes (p. 350)

As I've stated before (and above), I'm not a huge potato lover, but these were nice. Boiled for about 15 minutes, maybe more, then rolled in oil and covered with the two spice mixes, these cooked perfectly on the grill. We used smallish new potatoes and left them whole. FNBF thought they came out perfectly.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Grilled Zucchini (p. 350)

These were almost a home run. Just a little overcooked, unfortunately. But they had that great lined pattern that grilled vegetables get. Should have taken them off when Martha said, but they stayed on too long. I'll take a demerit for that.

Jeff: B
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

FNBF with Grilled Corn (two ways), onions, and zucchini. (The tomatoes weren't done a la Martha, since we wanted to slice them and put them on our burgers.)

FNBF enjoying the amazing ribs!

Close up on the ribs, with the potatoes, fennel, and asparagus.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Day 90 - Third Tally

Three months have passed!

And the grand total of recipes and lessons so far?

133!! Only 225 to go!

Thanks for reading so far - looking forward to more culinary adventures with my girl, M.

Until we eat again...

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Day 88 - Sautéed Calf's Liver, Tomato and Onion Confit, Bleu Cheese Dressing, Pea Puree, Spelt, Pâte Brisée, and Blueberry Pie

Another marathon! This time, in honor of my parents' 50th (!!) wedding anniversary. Their best friends threw them an amazing surprise party in Florida in March, so they didn't feel the need to do anything special now, as they'd already celebrated. But I thought there should be some kind of celebratory event near the actual date (June 14), so I invited them over for dinner on the eve of their golden anniversary.

Sautéed Calf's Liver (p. 253)

There are not a lot of people who will happily eat Calf's Liver, but it just so happens that my parents are two of them. (I'm a third, although my brother won't touch it. How did that happen?) My mother had two requests: it should be cut thick, and there should be bacon. Now, Martha's recipe calls for it to be cut 1/2 inch thick, which passed Nancy's test, but there was no bacon in the recipe, just Tomato and Onion Confit. So I made a side of bacon. Anything to please Mother Blumenkrantz.

This liver gets soaked in milk (?), dredged in flour, and briefly sautéed in oil. I've never done anything other than throw liver right in the pan, raw. A brief Google search reveals that people soak liver in milk to make the flavor milder and to release the blood and toxins from the organ. Not sure if this is accurate....

My parents wanted their liver rare, so I didn't cook it for very long. I think two things contributed to a less than stellar result. 1) I believe the temperature of the pan was too low. And 2) I used a nonstick pan, which I think was a bad call. What happened was, the liver never really browned. It actually didn't behave at all the way I expected it to. Maybe it was the milk soak, but it stayed quite beige/tan the whole time, not pink/red, which I would have thought. As much as I would have loved it to develop a nice brown, I couldn't risk overcooking it....

So it wasn't very attractive. (Not that liver is known for its great beauty.) It tasted pretty good. I probably could have seasoned the flour more. The dredging barely seemed to provide anything. Overall, it was tender and tasty, and I have nothing else to say about it.

Jeff: B+
Martha: A

Tomato and Onion Confit (p. 306)

This is meant to accompany the liver, but since I had just done a Costco run, and I had a warehouse amount of tomatoes and onions, I doubled the recipe, and now I'm swimming in this confit.

Confit is a term I only knew re: duck, so I wasn't sure what it meant. Martha defines it as something that's cooked in its own juices, i.e. duck cooking in its own fat. The onions get sweated with some olive oil, then the tomatoes are added and it cooks in the oven for hours. Hours. Four+ hours. It's a commitment.

It tastes good, but what am I going to do with ten pounds of this? Confit omelet? Confit salad? Confit sorbet? Doubling was probably a bad call...

Also, the tomatoes are still not tasting good to me, so anything you make with subpar tomatoes is going to taste subpar.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Bleu Cheese Dressing (p. 359)

Again, this is a flavor that frightens many people, and I knew my parents could take it, so I pulled out this recipe. This dressing is delicious and easy to make. It's also lighter than your average bleu cheese dressing. There's lowfat yogurt in there. And buttermilk is quite low in fat too. The only naughty things are the mayo and the cheese, itself. All in all, great flavor and not too heavy!

FYI, I served this over a salad of romaine and red leaf lettuce, with sliced pear, cucumber, beets, and toasted walnuts.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Pea Puree (p. 311)

This is truly something I would never have made if I hadn't committed to doing the whole book. It's not that I have something against peas, but they're not my favorite. And then the thought of shelling them, blanching them, pureeing them, putting them through a sieve, and then reheating them? Oy. So much work... for what?

Yes, the color is very bright and green. And the texture is interesting. But the flavor is so harsh. For some reason, these peas really tasted of the legume family, i.e. beans, lentils, etc. It was a very earthy taste, not the sweetness, which is my favorite thing about peas. And the puree really concentrated it. There's nothing to distract from the pea flavor. Just a little bit of olive oil and salt, but other than that, the only ingredient in here is peas.

I think it was smart to pair this with liver, because there aren't a lot of things that are strong-flavored enough to compete with this.

This definitely gets filed under the never-again category.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Spelt (p. 413)

My father asked for seconds of this! (And the pea puree, fyi.) I thought this would be the long shot with my parents. Whole grains, served plain, are an unusual thing for most people. It's rare to get something so naked in a restaurant, and no one makes spelt or farro or barley at home. So it never fails to shock me how much people enjoy these grains.

This grain gets boiled, so you don't have to watch the pot too carefully to see if all the water's absorbed. You just drain and serve.

Spelt and farro and wheat berries are all so similar. I don't think I could pick them apart. But they all have a nice, chewy, nutty taste and texture, and when paired well, as they were tonight, I think they make a nice addition to a meal.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Pâte Brisée (p. 437)

My first pie crust! So easy! I didn't realize how little work is involved. It's interesting to me that you have to keep it crude, that if you over-process it, you'll break down the butter and you won't have a flaky crust. (The flakes come from chunks of butter in the crust, so you have to under-process it to make sure there are still chunks in there.)

If I had known how easy this was, I'd have been making pies for years!

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Blueberry Pie (p. 444)

OK, here's where I got into trouble. Yes, the pie crust dough came together quickly and easily, but rolling it out is a whole other story. And rolling it out on a hot night with no air-conditioning? Impossible.

As I mentioned above, you have to have chunks in your butter to have a flaky crust. So you don't want the dough to "melt" before it gets in the oven. You're supposed to roll out your pie crust on a cool counter in a cool room to keep things, well, cool.

Meanwhile, there's been a horrible water disaster in my building and we've been without air-conditioning for the past couple of weeks, with another week to go. :-0

Thankfully, it hasn't been that hot or humid, at least it hadn't been, until the night of the pie crust.

I'm very inexperienced with rolling out dough, so I knew this wasn't going to come quickly, but I didn't realize how little time I had before the dough would break down. By the time I had rolled it out to the relatively right size, it was gummy and sticking to the parchment. I had to put it back in the refrigerator to harden. Of course the same thing happened with the other (top) crust too.

Ultimately, I ended up doing it very quickly and haphazardly. The crusts were misshapen, uneven, patchworked, surely all the butter chunks must have melted. I threw it together so awkwardly that I was convinced it would be a disaster.

There was some left over dough, cut from the edges, which I threw in the freezer as the pie was cooling (it goes in the fridge before it goes in the over), so I could reroll it and cut some shapes out of it. I cut out five little hearts and egg-washed them to the top crust, in honor of 50 years of marriage. (Awwwww.)

And I threw that sucker in the oven. (It was 2AM at this point....) I also made a disk of the remainder of the dough, sprinkled some sugar on it, folded it over and threw that in there too. 15 minutes later, I pulled out my little dough sandwich, which tasted amazing! Like wonderful flaky pastry! Maybe my pie wouldn't be a disaster after all!

Hours later, I served the pie for dessert. It tasted... fine. I guess I was expecting something outstanding, but it was merely fine. I will say this, though. It definitely tastes "real-er" than your average blueberry pie. It's not jellied, it's not hyper-sweet. At the same time, I think we've come to expect blueberry pie filling to be super-sweet, so this tastes somewhat tame, bland. Also, there's a slightly grainy texture to the filling, and I'm not really sure why. Is it the cornstarch?

In any case, it's a very respectable pie. The crust could probably be better, but given the circumstances, I think it came out amazingly well.

Jeff: A-
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

My parents on the eve of their 50th Anniversary! On the plate, clockwise from the bottom left, that's the Pea Puree, Spelt, Bacon, Tomato and Onion Confit, and the Sautéed Liver in the middle.

Look at the little hearts on the Anniversary Pie!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Day 83 - Yellow Cake with Easy Chocolate Buttercream

My friend, Ryan, whom I befriended almost 20 years ago when we performed together in Forever Plaid, has just received his graduate degree from Hunter in Teaching English as a Second Language! In honor of his straight-A record and amazing academic dedication, his good friends (and super-talented couple) Valerie Wright and Mark Lotito threw him a party tonight.

I was assigned dessert (actually, I lobbied for it) and when I asked Ryan what he wanted, he excitedly said "Strawberry Shortcake!"

Um... not in the book, I'm afraid. Cream puffs? Yellow cake with chocolate frosting? Chocolate cupcakes with meringue frosting? Fruit pie?

To which he said, "Strawberry Rhubarb pie!"

Um... Rhubarb Pie's in the book, but not with strawberries. How about Buttermilk Shortcakes with Rhubarb and Berries?

"How about just the yellow cake with chocolate frosting...?"

So it sort of felt like I was making the booby prize cake. But I'm just too stubborn about making my way through this book to cook something extra-bookular.

I should add that yellow cake seems like a big waste of time and ingredients to me. Why make a yellow cake when you can make a chocolate one? (That's the party line in my family. All chocolate, all the time.)

But that's what he wants. (Sort of.) And it's in the book, which means I'm going to have to make it eventually, anyway. OK, I give in. Yellow cake and chocolate frosting it is.

Isn't it always that your biggest successes come when you least expect them?

Yellow Butter Cake (p. 428)

I can't remember ever baking a cake from scratch. I've made cakes from mixes, and I've made banana breads and such, but a layer cake from scratch? I don't think so....

The only tricky thing preparing for this was finding cake flour. I found pastry flour readily, which seemed like it might be close. But alas, there's a distinction between the two. (Don't ask me what it is.)

I did find a classic substitution to use to imitate cake flour: to make 1 cup of cake flour, take 1 cup all purpose flour and remove 2 tablespoons, replace them with 2T of cornstarch. But I didn't want to chance it, so I kept looking until I found the real thing (at Gristede's, of all places). Here's a tip: don't look for it in a bag. It usually comes in a box.

Cake flour is quite fine, and Martha asks you to sift it, as well. So you have a very large, powdery quotient in this batter. (FYI, there's mini-lesson in the margins about sifting. She says that recipes are worded very specifically, so if it says 3 cups of sifted flour, that means sift, then measure. And if it says 3 cups of flour, sifted, that means measure, then sift. Who knew?)

I didn't dare bring a sub-par cake to this party, so I followed all the directions very carefully. Everything that was supposed to be room-temperature was actually room temperature. All the flour was measured by spooning it into the measuring cups (not ham-handedly scooping and scraping it level in one fell swoop). Martha says that baking is scientific, and if you follow the rules exactly, it comes out well. I'd have to agree.

I followed every direction, even the really anal one of alternating the gradual additions of the buttermilk and the flour mixture to the mixer.

The cakes cooked in exactly the amount of time Martha thought they would (40 minutes), and they came out of their pans perfectly. I have to admit, they smelled pretty incredible. I sliced off the tops to level them, but I was being very conservative with the slicing, because I didn't want to waste any more cake than I had to! (I tasted the thin layer of cake I cut off... pretty great, but I didn't want to get too cocky. I still had to frost this bad boy....

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Easy Chocolate Buttercream (p. 432)

Would you believe, there are four sticks of butter in the frosting for this one cake? Plus more than five cups of confectioner's sugar? So naughty...

Confession: Martha suggests using Dutch-process cocoa powder, and I couldn't find it so I used regular cocoa powder. (Horrors!) I understand that the main difference between the two is that one is acid and the other is alkaline. So substituting usually involves adding or subtracting baking powder to the recipe, to maintain the right balance for rising. But seeing as that isn't an issue here, I just used the equivalent amount, and unless there's a huge flavor differential, I don't think it suffered any.

This buttercream is easy, as its name would indicate. Not only does it come together quickly and well, but also it's easy to work with, at least according to my limited experience.

The first thing that gets frosted is the middle of the layer cake. Then the top loaf gets "installed," and then you apply the "crumb coat," which is a thin layer of frosting to seal in the crumbs and cover the top and the sides. I had to spend some time filling out the middle, because I guess I didn't trim my cakes very evenly.... Once the crumb coat is done, it goes in the refrigerator for 20 minutes, I'm guessing, to set.

But as I was applying the final "coat," I was a little challenged. Every once in a while, the crumb coat would lift off, revealing cake. I wanted to get a nice smooth finish, but it was difficult to manage the edge where the top met the side. For smoothness, the tip with putting the spatula in hot water definitely helped, but I realized that unless you're piping it into shapes or flowers or you're using fondant, you're going to get a somewhat textured finish when you frost a cake, and that's that.

So here's what the finished cake looked like. I was a little disappointed, I guess, because I had just had a glamorous Cupcake Cafe birthday cake, decorated to the gills, and this looked, well, plain. (I realized, too late, that I should have put a big "A+" on the top....)

Getting the cake to Brooklyn on the subway unscathed was a little harrowing, but thankfully, I had bought these cardboard cake rounds, and I put the cake in a box, which FNBF (he's back!) tied up very masterfully and created a special makeshift cake carrier for the occasion with a couple of Macy's bags. And it arrived safely!

Cut to dessert... I can't tell you the feedback I got on this cake. Everyone was oohing and aahing, and some of that is definitely just the requisite oohs and aahs when you contribute something to a pot luck party. But this definitely went beyond requisite. I heard "better than Magnolia," "this is the best cake I've ever had," etc. And frankly, it was pretty good. For yellow cake.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

Here's the Man of Honor, eating the first slice.

And this is Valerie, the hostess, with her slice. I wanted to show the cake in cross-section. :-)

PS I remade the Braised Broccoli Rabe recipe from my birthday dinner, and I'm so embarrassed to say, on my birthday, what with all the activity, I completely missed the last direction of the recipe: to shpritz with lemon juice. (No, Martha doesn't say "shpritz.") I made some comment in my entry that it could have used some lemon juice, and it turns out, Martha feels the same way! :-) It was even better the second time around.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Day 78 - Cucumber Ranch Dressing, Mixed Bean Crudité, Spaghetti, Fresh Tomato Sauce, Peppercorn-Crusted Beef Tenderloin, and Braised Broccoli Rabe

Oh dear lord, where do I begin?

First of all, let me just say that I celebrated my 44th birthday yesterday with nine of my favorite people in the world, which was wonderful! That said, I also spent yesterday preparing and serving dinner for ten, so I'm exhausted! And the thought of writing this entry is daunting! There are a million dishes to discuss and stories to tell.... Here goes:

Cucumber Ranch Dressing (p. 359)

This was something I made two days ago, because I could make it in advance, and in fact, I thought the flavors might even improve with a couple of days to mellow. It involves a fair amount of chopping and dicing, etc. Grated cucumber, chopped chives and parsley, and of course, I had to make homemade mayo to put in there. :-)

It came out fine. Considering all the effort, I was hoping for something transcendent. One problem with it was the consistency. It was too watery to work as dip, and this after I even drained the liquid from the grated cucumber, which isn't specified in the recipe. I don't think you could catch enough dressing on the beans to really appreciate the flavors. Maybe it's better as a salad dressing....

As for the flavors, it's quite jam-packed with major ingredients... lemon juice, buttermilk, sour cream, chives, these are big flavor players, and together they pack a lot of punch. Maybe overkill? And maybe extra salt would have taken it out of sourland and pushed it into saltyville, which is closer to the ranch we all know and love. Still, the consistency....

Jeff: A
Martha: A-

Mixed Bean Crudité (p. 303)

Very straightforward, this. And I was not a stranger to blanching, so this was old hat. I think if I had never blanched a vegetable before, this recipe could have been a revelation.

I'd never tried wax beans before, and they were a nice surprise. Because of their yellow, translucent color and the name "wax," I expected them to have a weird texture, but really, they're yellow string beans, fresh and crunchy and delicious. There were no Roman beans in the market, so I substituted sugar snap peas, and as you can see, they were the most popular of the three beans.

That's my workout buddy, Ken, sampling them with the Cucumber Ranch. He's an activist and author, and his first novel, The Marrying Kind, is going to be published next year!!

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Basic Pasta Dough (p. 365)

So, the basic pasta dough recipe makes 12 ounces of pasta. But how many does that serve?? Can you compare this to dry pasta, where 2 ounces is supposedly a serving (but it's not really enough)? Should I double this recipe? Triple it?

Because I'm Jewish, and culturally, we're required to serve oversized portions and have leftovers, I'm very distrustful of Martha's portion predictions, and in this case, there weren't even any hard numbers! So I tripled it.

Big mistake! In the end, I cooked 2/3 of the pasta I had made, and of that giant bowl of pasta, we finished maybe half of it, maybe not even half. Granted, everyone was saving room for the main course. Still, I probably could have gotten away with making just the original recipe size. Ah well...

I kept reading about this 00 flour. It's a super-fine, low-protein pasta made in Italy, which is considered especially ideal for making fresh pasta. I thought I'd give it a whirl and found it, without too much difficulty, at Buon Italia at Chelsea Market. It really is super-fine, almost like corn starch.

I piled up the flour, made a well in the middle, and poured in the egg. I guess my well wasn't deep enough, because the eggs spilled over the side and across the counter! I should add, there's something about this flour that makes it almost water-repellent. It took a while to get the egg mixed in there.

Once it all came together (fyi, it took somewhat less flour than the recipe stated), the dough took on a nice consistency, and after about ten minutes of kneading, I achieved that smooth and elastic consistency that you keep hearing about in dough recipes. Then I wrapped up in plastic and let it rest overnight in the fridge before rolling it into sheets. So far so good.

To be continued....

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Spaghetti (p. 367)

After my ravioli experience, I was no stranger to the pasta machine. Rolling out this dough came quite easily, and by the last of 24 sheets (!), I was pretty quick with it. My personal secret is brushing the dough with flour a couple of times during the rolling process. I'd put it through at #1 (meaning the widest roller setting), fold it in thirds, turn 90°, and repeat that a couple of times, then #2 (slightly narrower), then brush both sides with some flour (using a pastry brush), then #3, #4, #5, #6, one more brushdown with flour, then #7, #8, and hang it up to dry.

I got one of those pasta hanging "trees," so I'd roll out eight sheets, hang 'em up to dry for a bit, then put them through the spaghetti-cutting roller, then hang the strands up for more drying, then store it. I had a small factory going....

It's tricky to cut pasta. The sheets of dough have to be wet enough not to break, but dry enough to allow themselves to be cut without sticking together. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't. And sometimes a ripple in the sheet as it was going through the cutter made for a little clumping action.

The clumping action was coming up with some regularity, so I decided to rename this pasta "Clump-etti." Turns out it wasn't as disastrous as I thought. Some people who used more sauce actually found that the wetter it was, the more the clumps actually worked themselves out.

But I have to say, it's hard to roll these sheets through the pasta cutter, keep the sheet side lined up properly while catching the cut side, all the while maintaining smooth motion with the crank, because when you hesitate, you get another little clumping moment. It takes a lot of coordination, and if I were any less coordinated, it would have been even worse! :-) Then to hang the spaghetti up in a way so that it dries as separate pieces? I have no technique for doing that....

Cut to the cooking: fresh pasta cooks in about five seconds. I put this pasta in the water and tasted it after 30 seconds of cooking and I thought, it's overcooked! It's so fresh and delicate! I felt compelled to leave it in there for at least a minute or two, because I thought, it couldn't be hot enough to serve yet! I have to at least cook it through! But honestly, I could probably have passed it once under hot water, and it would cooked through. This bears no similarity to cooking dry pasta....

As for the taste, I thought it tasted pretty average, no offense to Martha or 00 flour. It reminded me of Vietnamese rice noodles, very light and plain, not chewy, not a lot of body or character, very... light. Again, I could probably have salted more generously, both the pasta and the water.

And more to the point, I think a different sauce might have made for a better complement....

Next time, I think I will go for the bigger cutter size, which is roughly fettuccine. Or maybe I'll cut wide noodles, i.e. pappardelle! That'd be fun!

Jeff: B (Clumpetti. Nuff said.)
Martha: A

Fresh Tomato Sauce (p. 381)

It would never have occurred to me to serve hot pasta with a fresh sauce like this, but according to Martha, it a very Italian thing (salsa crudo), and Alysha says her step-father, Doug, who's quite the cook, makes this in the summer, and it's refreshing. So I went for it.

Like the pasta, I made waaaaaaaay too much. Doubled the recipe. Sauce for days....

This is pretty much what you'd put on bruschetta: chopped tomatoes, lots of fresh herbs (oregano, parsley, basil), garlic, olive oil, salt, pepper, the end. And it tastes just fine. It probably tastes as good as the tomatoes are, which are still only OK this time of year. I should have waited until optimum tomato season to make this....

Also, I can't help thinking that this would be better paired with dry pasta. The lightness of fresh pasta is very special, and I think it's too delicate to go with something as hearty as salsa crudo. Martha says slender strands are best for this sauce, so if I were to make this again, I'd serve it with boxed, dried angel hair, which would have more body and bit. But not this tender fresh spaghetti. It just didn't match up.

Yet again, I think I could have salted more. I try to be so sparing with the salt, because people can add their own, but in the end, I think food always tastes better when it's heavily salted.

That's David with the clumpetti and Laura with the sauce.

Jeff: B (Should have waited for better tomatoes)
Martha: A- (Would have been great to know that this is not a good match with fresh pasta)

Peppercorn-Crusted Beef Tenderloin (p. 132)

Martha suggests a 4 pound piece of beef to serve 8 to 10, but there's that Jewish thing again. We don't trust gentile portion suggestions. So I was set on finding something closer to 5 pounds. Meanwhile, Fairway didn't have a beef tenderloin bigger than 2.5 pounds, so I ended up buying two. Perfect, I thought, I'll make one exactly according to the recipe, and then I'll add a little something extra to the second one. Martha suggests some alternate crusts: fresh horseradish or garlic or herbs, so I chose a rosemary/thyme combo, since I was going to be roasting potatoes with those herbs as well.

I took the beef out of the refrigerator an hour beforehand, as directed, to get it to room temperature. Then when I opened up the packages, I was devastated! Instead of being bloody and red and perfect, the meat was darkened, brown, horrible! And it smelled weird too! I literally turned to a tableful of guests and said: Oh no! The meat's gone bad!

My friend Laura, mother of three, major cook, and fellow Martha lover, came running over. Lemme see, she said. She looked, she smelled, and she pronounced the beef fine. She said it was a byproduct of oxidation and room temperature. Phew! Still, I couldn't help but laugh, thinking about all my guests secretly fearing for their lives, girding themselves to eat "spoiled" meat because it's the host's birthday.

I ended up putting the ground green peppercorns and the herbs on both roasts because, well, because I just did. I didn't want to discriminate, and I knew all the meat would end up in the same serving dish.

I popped them in the oven and checked after 18 minutes (Martha says 20-30 minutes, but she was talking about a four pounder, and mine were almost half that size). The temperature of the meat was just right, so out they came.

I can't tell you how perfect they were. Like textbook pictures of beautiful meat. Browned on the outside (I seared them first), and perfectly pink/red on the inside. Red enough to satisfy people who like rare or medium rare, and cooked enough on the ends to satisfy those who wanted it medium.

It's not called tenderloin for nothing - this meat so tender! As Martha says: "It's also one of the more expensive cuts, so you'll want to take care to cook tenderloin properly. Fortunately, this is spectacularly easy to do." She is absolutely right! It would have been difficult to screw this up. It is so easy and so rewarding!!

I appropriated the mustard cream sauce from the Pan-Seared Strip Steak recipe, but frankly, this meat didn't even need sauce. It was fabulous. And it didn't taste spoiled at all.

(Meanwhile, it's the next day, and nobody's called me with a food poisoning story. Hallelujah!)

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Braised Broccoli Rabe (p. 343)

By the time I started cooking this dish, I was so overwhelmed that I barely remember it happening. I have so much leftover uncooked broccoli rabe (always too much) that I think I'm going to make it again tonight, so I can really give this recipe its due.

Some commented that although the broccoli rabe hadn't been blanched, the bitterness level was nicely low. It still tasted quite bitter to me, but I think that's just part of the broccoli rabe experience, regardless.

It's a nice recipe, easy and straightforward. There's lemon zest in there, a nice addition, and I think this could have taken a squirt or two of lemon juice as well....

Very nice and classic.

Jeff: A- (I was so distracted at this point, I'm not sure what I served)
Martha: A

Here's the meat, the broccoli rabe, the mustard cream sauce, and some trusty roasted potatoes.

May I just take a moment to mention some of the non-project things I also served?

A "Martha" green salad, with Boston, Red Leaf, Radicchio, Endive, Watercress, Radishes, Marinated Shaved Fennel, Beets, and French Feta in a Sherry Vinaigrette.

Coffee Ice Cream
(maybe the biggest hit of the evening...)

Vanilla Frozen Yogurt

Pineapple Apricot Sorbet

Birthday Cake from The Cupcake Cafe (I love their chocolate flavor - nice and dark and not too sweet, and the buttercream frosting flowers? Heaven, to look at AND taste.)

My amazing friends, from left to right: Tracy, Alysha, Adinah, Harriet (hiding... Harriet, if you can't see the camera, the camera can't see you!), Ryan, Marcy, Ken, David, and Laura

P.S. The Marinated Roasted Red Peppers were a big hit! Here's Adinah, posing with them. They were so popular, in fact, that Alysha, who doesn't usually like peppers, loved them and insisted that I try one because she was sure that these would override my detestation of peppers. Unfortunately, one small bite was enough to tell that they would not. However, I'm happy to report that they were loved by all pepper-eating people present. Therefore:

Marinated Roasted Red Peppers (p. 315)

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

Monday, June 1, 2009

Day 75 - Marinated Roasted Red Peppers

Well, I'm just now feeling like I might be over this cold. Usually they don't linger so long, but this one was a doozy.

Haven't felt much like cooking, but now I'm gearing up for my big birthday dinner party on Wednesday. There will be ten of us, which is crazy! I think the biggest group I've ever cooked for is maybe six, and that involved serving super-easy pasta (recipe courtesy of my workout buddy, Ken).

On Wednesday, I'm going to be pulling out a number of project recipes simultaneously, so it's going to be quite a feat. I'm sad that I can't involve more friends, as there are so many people with whom I'd love to celebrate my birthday, but ten really feels like the limit for me, especially with my apartment still in makeshift condition.

I made these peppers today because 1) they could be made in advance, and 2) I HATE PEPPERS! The thought of eating peppers really upsets me. Just smelling them is torturous. But if I'm going to have to make them for this project, at least they should be enjoyed by people who appreciate peppers. So I'm serving them on Wednesday. :-)

Marinated Roasted Red Peppers (p. 315)

Part one of this recipe involves burning (roasting?) the peppers in the flames of the gas burner on the stove. (How would I do this if I had an electric range?) I can't say I was comfortable burning something, even peppers, over the open flames of my stovetop. It seemed dangerous and somewhat out of control. And it took a while! I started doing two at once, letting them sit on the burners, suspended over the flames, and I'd turn them every so often. They'd sputter and spit a little bit, which was disconcerting. Eventually, they were mostly black.

Then, they went in a bowl, which got covered with plastic wrap, where they cooled. Next step involved scraping off the charred skin with paper towels, which didn't go well at all. There were all these burnt pieces that were sticking to my hands or the paper towel or the peppers. And Martha explicitly says not to rinse them in water. So ultimately, I found the best solution was to scrape the char off with a knife, so I could control what happened to the charred bits once they were removed.

See above, where I said they were "mostly black?" Well, if I were following the recipe exactly, they would have been completely black. In the places where the skin wasn't burnt, the skin didn't peel off. Sometimes it was loose enough that I could pull it, but in other places, it was still hanging on, especially the inner creases and the top and bottom. So, if you're doing this recipe, hang in there and burn them until they're black ALL OVER. It will make your life easier later on in the process.

This whole things seemed like it should have been easier than it was....

Finally, I could move on to the slicing part. I was surprised to see that when I opened up the peppers, there was a fair amount of liquid (water?) inside. I removed the seeds and spines, sliced them, and covered them with the oil, balsamic vinegar, sliced garlic and salt and pepper. And I stuck them in the refrigerator.

How do they taste? I have no idea. I'd rather die. I'll ask my friends on Wednesday and let you know. :-)

Jeff: ?
Martha: ?

Until we eat again....