Monday, August 3, 2009

Day 137 - Steamed Artichokes with Smoked Salmon, Poached Eggs, and Hollandaise, and Buttermilk Shortcakes with Rhubarb and Berries

Two compound dishes in the same day?? What was I thinking? Well, I was able to stay focused all day on just the cooking... until game night, that is. :-)

Part one was a Marcy special. The whole reason I started hosting our weekly brunches was that we were going to the Fairway Cafe every week and both ordering Lox, Eggs, and Onion. Eventually I realized, "I can make this for us at home!" So I started serving brunch at my place. And then once I started the project, I've been cooking a different meal for Marcy every week. I knew she would love this one, because it has the eggs and salmon in it:

Steamed Artichokes with Smoked Salmon, Poached Eggs, and Hollandaise (p. 82)

There are a lot of balls to keep in the air with this dish, and I definitely dropped one of them, BIG TIME.

The easy part is steaming the artichokes. That takes care of itself. FYI, mine steamed in a quick 30. (Martha says 30-40 minutes.) And defuzzing a cooked artichoke is a HELLUVA lot easier than cleaning out a raw one.

The smoked salmon was store-bought and already sliced, so I didn't have to worry about that.

That leaves the poached eggs and the Hollandaise.

I've never been very good at poaching eggs. For some reason, I get egg drop soup. I think I'm following the directions pretty well, but maybe my water isn't simmering enough... Ah well. They came out passably, but I wish they had more white attached. Martha trims hers for a neater appearance, but I don't end up with enough white that I can afford to trim any away....

I'm saving the Hollandaise story for its own entry, see below.

The dish was adorable. I mean, c'mon, a poached egg with salmon in an artichoke flower? With Hollandaise? It's so twee!! And it's irresistible. Even though it's not a whole lot of food, it takes a while to eat it, with all the artichoke leaves and then the heart. If you serve this, though, you will want to serve some kind of hearty bread product with it. (FYI, I also served some steamed asparagus.)

Jeff: A- (points off for measly poached egg whites)
Martha: A

Hollandaise Sauce (p. 96)

This was my first attempt at Hollandaise, and it gave new meaning to the word fiasco.

It was going so well... part one with the shallot and wine and vinegar and pepper, reduced, then strained? Delicious, all good.

The next part was questionable, which was all my fault. I had frozen some unused egg yolks from when I made meringue, because Martha told me I could (p. 451), and I used them in this Hollandaise, which was probably ill-advised, as it's tricky enough to make this sauce under perfect conditions, you shouldn't tempt fate by using any sub-standard ingredients. So the egg yolk was behaving strangely. It started out grainy, and it looked like it might never recover. But then once I started adding the butter, I thought I might be out of the woods.

Now here's where the even bigger problem occurred. I added all the butter, and I had an outrageously thick sauce. Not even really a sauce anymore. More like... butter. Because that's exactly what it was: butter. Not hot, melty butter, but room temperature butter. Next, I added the lemon juice and salt and cayenne, but the consistency was still waaaaaay too thick. So I started adding water to thin it out, just as Martha suggests. No change. More water. No change. And pretty soon, I've added so much water to no avail, and I know something HAS to be wrong. This is just butter with water whisked into it!

So I put the bowl back on the bain-marie (you're going to have to get the book to learn what a bain-marie is), and the butter starts to melt. And you guessed it: I have watery Hollandaise. I'm not sure what happened, but the only thing I can think of is that the bowl should have stayed hot enough to melt the added butter, and it didn't.

So I put the bowl on the heat and ended up with CRAZILY watery Hollandaise. So I thought, I'm just going to whisk this over the heat until all the water evaporates. And that's exactly what happened. I whisked that thing for a solid 15 minutes, and eventually it found its way back to Hollandaise. Amazing! Of course it was an hour before Marcy was coming, but Martha told me how to store it for up to an hour.

So I covered it with plastic wrap (to avoid getting a skin on top) and left it sitting on the hot saucepan. And once it was time to assemble the dish, I lifted off the plastic wrap... and it was completely ruined. Curdled, separated, no resemblance to Hollandaise. Just a curdy, oily, disaster sauce.

Marcy was very gracious. She said, Who cares! So I put it on the eggs anyway. I even put some on my asparagus. Marcy thought the flavor was just right. But it was tragically clear that the texture was disgraceful.

I'm going to have to try this again. Next time, I won't try to make it in advance. And I won't use frozen egg yolks. And I won't add any water unless the butter is melted and it's still too thick.

Jeff: D- (I'm taking just a half a point for flavor)
Martha: A

Buttermilk Shortcakes (p. 433)

My air conditioning is working again. So why didn't I turn it on when I was making these?? It really does make a difference!!

I finally got to use my pastry cutter making these! Making biscuits (because that's really what these are...) is something else I've never done, so this was a day of adventure.

A couple of tips for the first timer. Turn on the air conditioning. (Oh wait, I already covered that.) Before you start working with the dough, set up the flour for flouring the biscuit cutter, because once your hands are covered with this buttery goo, you're not going to want to touch anything. I ended up skipping the flour, and it all worked out OK, but it would have been better if I had used it.

This yielded 12 biscuits for me - Martha said 10. I'm thinking I probably patted out the dough too thin, because my biscuits were a little slight. And they spread more than I expected, even though I put them in the fridge for the 20 minutes before baking. I think they could have been colder going into the oven. (Did I mention to turn on your air conditioning...?)

All in all, though, they were delicious. Crumbly and buttery, although I wish they had been flakier. I think my butter got too soft when I was folding/kneading/cutting the biscuits (with no AC). Ah well. Still wholly edible.

Jeff: B (points off for no AC and skinny biscuits)
Martha: A

Rhubarb Compote (p. 436)

Ever since my rhubarb pie, I'm feeling more confident about cooking with rhubarb. I love the way it tastes and the color it gives off when cooked, and it amazes me how little sugar it takes to sweeten it (in this case, a cup for 2.5 lbs of rhubarb).

I learned an important lesson making this compote, and it has to do with bargain shopping. I love a good bargain. And I thought I'd found one when I bought that ridiculously inexpensive straight-sided skillet from Macy's a few months ago. This was a nice-looking pan with a good lid, a great size for cooking larger amounts of food, and I needed something with some generous straight sides. And Macy's was practically giving it away! Jackpot!

Actually, it was a waste of money. This pan is thin and conducts heat really unevenly. I tried to cook the rhubarb in it, but the only rhubarb that was softening was the rhubarb in the center of the pan, over the flame itself. The rhubarb around the perimeter of the pan was uncooked. Arrrgh!

So I had to cook the rhubarb much longer than I should have, stirring every few minutes. In the end, it turned out fine. Actually, I loved it! It was sweet and tart and citrus-y and a perfect complement to the biscuit.

But I'm really mad at that pot now.

Jeff: A
Martha: A
Jeff's Straight Sided Skillet: F

Macerated Berries (p. 437)

It's amazing how a little sugar and lemon juice can change a berry! These strawberries went from fresh to syrupy in minutes! They become sort of like thawed frozen strawberries in syrup, but fresher. My only complaint is that a pint isn't enough for this recipe. You should make twice that.

Jeff: A
Martha: A-
(skimpy portion!)

Whipped Cream (p. 436)

I've never whipped cream by hand! It was exhausting!

I brought all the above ingredients over to my friend David's apartment, as he was throwing a game night. (FYI, we play Celebrity and Running Charades.)

But it was warm out, so I didn't want to whip the cream until it was time to serve it. For best whipping results, Martha wants everything to be cold (the bowl and the cream) and recommends whipping over an ice bath, but I knew that working that out at David's would be a longshot, so I brought a melamine bowl and I put it in the freezer, hoping it wouldn't crack. (It didn't.)

When it was time to serve, I whipped like there was no tomorrow. And eventually it became whipped cream! But it was a good 5+ minutes. The added sugar and vanilla was nice, but I could have done without it or with less. There was so much flavor in all the other ingredients, it might have been gilding the lily to flavor the cream too.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

All in all, these were two high-effort dishes with great payoffs. I'm not sure I'd do either one again, but as usual, I'm so glad to have done them this once.

Until we eat again....

Marcy with the Steamed Artichoke Breakfast Flower (and Buttermilk Shortcakes in the foreground)

Game night attendee John Pinto Jr. with the whole Buttermilk Shortcake concoction

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