Sunday, January 31, 2010

Day 321 - Agnolotti, Tortelloni, Spinach and Cheese Filling, and Duck Confit Filling

When I served Orange-Braised Rabbit to Barbara and Dawn and Kevin, we had such a great time together that I've been looking forward to having the three of them back for an encore. I had been telling Barbara, who's been through culinary school, that I was having some pasta issues, so she offered to come over to give me some tips next time I attempted it. Well, tonight is that night, and Dawn and Kevin are back, on Kevin's birthday eve, for Pasta Glutfest, 2010.

We're making two new shapes and two new fillings. And Barbara's shaking things up with some of her own special goodies.

Duck Confit Filling (p. 374)

You knew this was coming.

This filling is pretty much what it sounds like. The other ingredients are sliced, sautéed shallots, thyme leaves, sherry for deglazing, and egg yolks. The duck tastes so damn good that you could probably pair it with a Snickers bar and it would still work, but these flavors are terrific.

The only thing I'm going to say is that it might be a better idea to chop/mince the shallots than slice them. It would probably make the filling easier to work with, especially when filling a smallish shape like agnolotti. I got a little hung up on shallot slices here and there.

Still, it's a small complaint about a really delicious filling. This is definitely the most substantial pasta filling in the book (although I haven't done the meaty Tortellini in Brodo yet). The duck meat has a weight to it that I like in contrast to the light pasta. Mmmm.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Agnolotti (p. 370)

Since Martha suggested that the duck confit filling would be particularly great in agnolotti made with Spinach Pasta Dough, I thought I should try it. I whipped up a batch of dough, and for the record, it came out beautifully, no problem. (I have much better luck with the spinach dough recipe than I have with the regular dough recipe.)

One of my big pasta problems is that in the rolling out of the pasta, I can't get a nice, wide, evenly shaped sheet. But since I was going to be cutting out 2 3/4 inch round circles for this pasta shape, I didn't even bother trying! I just needed to make sure that my sheets were at least 3 inches wide, which they (mostly) were.

This is a pretty easy shape to make, following Martha's excellent directions. Put a teaspoon of filling in the center of the circle, fold in half, wet edges and seal.
The trickiest part is getting the cut circles off the counter when you haven't put enough flour under them to release them. I used a bench scraper a lot. Also, these are quite small, so shaping them is TIME CONSUMING! If you want to make nicely shaped pasta, allow some time for this! (Dawn took this picture, so you can get a sense of how behind I was: still shaping pasta when my guests had already settled in. Not good....)

We thought this pasta might be nicely paired with some tomato sauce, so I whipped up this Marinara. In the end, though, the tomato overwhelmed the flavor of the agnolotti, so we swept the sauce aside and tried to enjoy the pasta solo, which was great. I can't think of how these could have been any better.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Spinach and Cheese Filling (p. 373)

I didn't end up having enough spinach for this recipe, so I added some chard to get me the rest of the way there. Once that was drained and chopped, it was just a minute before this was done. All I had to do was add the cheeses (ricotta, parmagiano-reggiano, and pecorino-romano - any other two name cheeses I should have put in?) and the egg yolks, and it was ready to go.

This is a great, middle-of-the-road, delicious filling that could work with any pasta and any sauce. It's easy, quick, and sure to please even the most finicky eater.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Tortelloni (p. 371)

Barbara made a batch of regular pasta dough for these, and I watched and learned. There were some differences in Martha's recipe, a slightly different egg to flour ratio, and a little added olive oil.

She showed me some great mixing and kneading techniques which, though more time-consuming, yielded a better finished product. It's hard to describe the technique without a visual, but the gist is that it's gentler, less manhandling than I usually do.

Barbara was also completely responsible for shaping these. Of course, I made her do them according to Martha's instructions, which you know secretly drove her crazy. But she humored me, and the result was fantastic.

These are nice, chunky pieces of pasta, with a good amount of filling. The filling only lasted for 18 pieces, but let me tell you, 4-5 pieces per serving was plenty, especially if you're serving these as a first course. There was something really satisfying about the scale of them. Unlike some pastas, you really felt like you were getting a meal, without feeling like you were being bombarded by a bunch of dough.

Barbara's idea for serving these was to put them in a chicken stock with some escarole and parmagiano, which was amazing. That said, I think we got the two sauces backwards. These tortelloni would have been great in the marinara, and the duck agnolotti could have shone in the broth.

Ah well, we'll know for next time....

Barbara: A
Martha: A

By the way, Barbara made a great first course: Shaved brussels sprouts tossed with olive oil, lemon juice and zest, with walnuts and pecorino-romano. Great taste and texture, really delicious.

In honor of Kevin's birthday, I made One-Bowl Chocolate Cupcakes with this peanut butter frosting. Here's a good tip: All the measurements in this cupcake recipe are divisible by five (except for the eggs) which makes it really easy to reduce. I only wanted cupcakes for tonight, so I divided everything by five and put in one egg, and they came out beautifully. I got five, well-sized cupcakes. Four for tonight and one for the chef to taste. :-)

Until we eat again...

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Day 320 - Duck Confit

I have been dragging my feet for months around making this... and I love duck confit! The issue was getting my hands on a ton of duck fat, but with the deadline looming and two other recipes that depend on Duck Confit as an ingredient (a pasta filling and Cassoulet), I couldn't stall anymore.

Duck Confit (p. 232)

Fariway sells duck fat from Dartagnan in 7 ounce containers, but buying 2.5 pounds would have cost me close to $40. I knew there was a better way. I had tried at Ottomanelli, but that day, they were out of the size I needed. But this week, I was in luck!

I bought their 1.75 pound container ($16) and one of those 7 oz. containers, getting me up to 2 lbs 3 oz, which meant I was just 5 oz shy of what I needed.

Meanwhile, I was going to have to trim the 6 leg/thighs of the extra fat and skin, so I figured I could render at least 5 oz more from that. (I think I ended up with a few ounces more than that.)

The first part of this recipe involves curing these trimmed legs in a salt and herb cure. I've never cured anything before! It's like the dry version of a brine. The ingredients here are garlic, salt, bay leaves, thyme, and another thing I've never experienced before: juniper berries. Crushing a juniper berry brings forth an incredibly distinctive smell - it's really easy to get the connection between juniper and gin.

The duck legs get covered with the "cure" and popped in the fridge for 1-2 days. I went the full two, because I wanted massive flavor.

I was interested to see how the duck meat had changed in color and texture after having been cured. While it went in looking like dark meat poultry, it came out looking more like prosciutto. Fascinating....

Next is the melting of the 2.5 pounds of duck fat in a Dutch oven. (Seeing that much fat in one place is kind of gross, but at least it's not high temperature deep frying, spattering, etc.) The cure gets rubbed off, and the garlic goes in the fat, followed by the duck legs, skin side down. The duck cooks in its own fat for 2.5-3 hours. The temperature is carefully maintained at 200°, so it's a low and slow technique.

Mine were done around 2:50, when they were moved to a glass container. The solids were strained out of the fat, and the fat was poured over the legs and left to cool. Then into the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks to await use!

I expected these to look brown and crispy by this point in the process, but no, they were quite soggy and pale, so I didn't bother tasting them.

Allow me to flash forward to the next day when two of the six legs were browned and brought back to life to be used as pasta filling.

The legs were lifted from the now solidified fat, which was brushed off as much as possible. Then they went into a cold cast iron skillet and heated at medium low until the skin was crispy. Martha estimated this to take ten minutes, but mine took at least twice that long. Also, the skin was sticking very passionately to the pan, and even my offset spatula couldn't successfully separate the two. Luckily, I didn't need good looking legs for this pasta filling recipe. Finally, the legs were flipped and heated through, and I got a little taste.

Delicious!! The amazing thing to me is that the only flavoring came from the curing, which was brushed off pre-cooking. I guess two days sitting in salt is enough for full flavor. Yum!

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Day 319 - Grilling a Whole Chicken, Perfect Grilled Bell Peppers, and Perfect Grilled Leeks

My cousin Harriet is over for dinner tonight. Harriet was here for one of my favorite dishes in the book, Sautéed Skate Wing, so it's going to take a lot of kitchen magic to match or top that meal....

Grilling a Whole Chicken (p. 169)

I can't say I was looking forward to making this. I do love a nice chicken, but grilled? Whole? I missed the opportunity to do this on a real grill over the summer, so I'm stuck grilling on the stovetop cast iron thing. Since the chicken needs to be covered, I came up with the brilliant idea of using my fish poacher upside down, since it's roughly the same size and shape as the cast iron grill.

Since this is in the same section of the book as the Spatchcocked Chicken recipe, I was reminded of the brine that Martha uses for that dish. I figured, why not try it again? So I brined this chicken (recipe on p, 167) for a few hours in the fridge. Then I put it on the grill and waited for the automatic thermometer to tell me it was done (165° in the thigh).

About 45 minutes later, the thermometer was beeping and the bottom looked like this. Who doesn't like some nice burned chicken skin??

Then I flipped it over to brown the skin on the breast. It didn't brown as quickly as Martha said it would, maybe because I had brined the bird. In fact, where the chicken wasn't browned, it looked kind of sad and pale. (see right)

But who cares what a chicken looks like when it tastes this amazing?? OMG, I thought the Perfect Roast Chicken was the only way to go, but this is a definite contender! I don't think it's the grilling that made this so great. I'm pretty sure it's the brining. The meat was SO flavorful and moist. In fact, I'd made a Mango Pineapple Chutney to accompany what I was sure was going to be a dried-out, horrible, grilled whole chicken. But we didn't even want to use the chutney because it distracted from the amazing chicken!

The real test will be brining a chicken and then roasting it. Maybe THAT'S the ultimate whole chicken experience....

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Perfect Grilled Leeks (p. 350)

I was showing off to Harriet as I was prepping these leeks: "You know, leeks are very dirty. Wanna see a trick for washing them without chopping them?" and I proceeded to trim them and do that fanning out the leeks thing under runnning water to clean them. Meanwhile, I hadn't read this recipe thoroughly enough to remember that these were going to get boiled before grilling. I had trimmed the root end off! Now they'd never stay together in the leek pot!

Then, I came up with my next brilliant idea to use a toothpick to hold them together, which pretty much worked. (One fell apart.) I boiled the leeks, then grilled them, then slid out the toothpicks before serving.

I'm not sure if I overcooked them in the water (I didn't even go the full 8 of the 8-10 minutes Martha suggests) or if this is just the way it goes, but to me, after being drained and grilled, the leeks still seemed waterlogged.

But don't ask me. I've just come to the conclusion that I don't love leeks. Why don't I love them? This is going to sound weird, but I think they taste (and smell) a little barfy. So I probably shouldn't weigh in on Perfect Grilled Leeks.

Happily, Harriet loved them, so I'll give myself an A. :-)

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Perfect Grilled Bell Peppers (p. 349)

I may have just realized that I don't like leeks, but I have always been certain that I hate bell peppers. I don't like the taste, the first time or the fifth. They give me instant indigestion, and I can taste them a mile away.

I took the opportunity to make them tonight because I know Harriet likes them, and if she wasn't able to finish them, I could count on her to take them home (and far away from me).

I charred them on the grill, while the chicken was cooking, then put them in a paper bag, per Martha's instructions. After 10 minutes steaming in the bag, the skin is quite easy to rub off, except where the pepper hasn't been charred. I had to do a little knife work in those places, but in the end, I had four beautiful grilled pepper halves. Warning: after charring and spending 10 minutes in the bag, the peppers fill up with liquid inside, so be prepared.

Harriet was loving them so much that she insisted I try them. I have to confess, they did taste pretty good. For peppers, that is. They were surprisingly sweet. Like, fruit sweet. (I always forget that peppers are in the fruit family.) I thought there might be a pepper door opening for me, but then it slammed shut with that first burp seconds later. Why such indigestion? Ah well....

Still, this recipe is sure to please pepper lovers everywhere.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

Day 318 - Stir-Fried Sliced Pork with Black Bean Sauce

Ryan's back for Chinese food! This recipe is my final variation on the original shrimp version, already having completed the sea scallops and cubed pork variations as well. Ryan has been here for three of the four - what are the chances?

Stir-Fried Sliced Pork with Black Bean Sauce (p. 266)

Again, it amazes me that I am able to achieve what seems like authentic Chinese flavor just by following this relatively easy recipe.

I couldn't find a Thai chile today, so I bought a Habañero pepper. Hot! Being a spicy wimp, I removed the seeds and ribs, and I only used half of it. I always manage to forget that I've been working with a hot pepper, and then one minute later, I lick something off my finger and BAM! My mouth is on fire. Note to self: Wash hands for five minutes after chopping hot peppers.

As I was about to start slicing the pork tenderloin, I thought "These are going to be some weirdly shaped slices." The tenderloin was smushing down when I went to slice it, and while I was hoping for beautiful thin disks of pork, I was getting something closer to shreds and batons. In the end though, it really didn't matter. Cooked, the pieces just seemed like they came from a random coarse slice, each piece different but none problematic.

I do hate frying, what with the spattering and mess. And this is a full out spattery mess. I question the amount of oil used. I think it might not need that much. Luckily, the sauce sort of binds to the meat, and the oil stays apart, so you can leave a lot of the extra oil in the pan. Still, I wonder if two tablespoons vs. three would suffice.

As Martha mentions in the book, there's no extra sauce here for vegetables or rice. If you want extra, you should definitely double or even triple the sauce recipe.

If you are doubling or tripling this whole recipe to serve more than two people, let me just remind you of a mistake I made the first time I made this (with cubed pork). Don't overcrowd the pan with meat (or seafood) when you're stir-frying. If there's too much in the pan, the meat won't brown. It'll end up wet and gummy, and what you want, instead, is some browning action. So definitely fry in batches, giving each piece some breathing room, if you're making more than this two-person serving.

This does taste super-great. And it is ready really quickly. The most time here is spent chopping and mincing for the sauce. But once the cooking begins, it's four minutes tops until table time. The Habañero fit right in, and using half was just the right amount of spice for us spicy-babies.

I still think that the shrimp version is the most stellar of the four, but I'd happily eat any of these any day.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Day 317 - Chocolate Layer Cake and Chocolate Swiss Meringue Buttercream

It's Tracy's birthday, and that calls for a celebration. She was flying back from Florida, arriving at 6:30PM, so to be safe, we planned a cake-only party for 8PM. And since I only had one cake left in the book (!), I didn't have to think too hard about what I was going to make....

Chocolate Layer Cake (p. 455)

This recipe is the cake variation of the recipe titled "One-Bowl Chocolate Cupcakes with Swiss Meringue Buttercream." And though I'd already completed that, it's been a while, so I felt like I was making this for the first time.

Having made some pretty labor-intensive cakes, I truly appreciate that Martha included a recipe as simple and straightforward as this. One bowl, people! No folding in of egg whites, no sifting, just throw everything in the bowl and whisk. Easy, breezy, beautiful.

The cakes come out rich and dark and puffy! I had a little bit of an issue, in that in order to bake the cakes until the tops of the mounds were cooked through, the edges of the cakes ended up a little dry and crusty. I thought about trying to trim all the way around the perimeter of the cakes, but then I pictured clumps of cake coming off and me trying to stick them back on, and I resisted the urge. Instead, I just gingerly chipped off the driest pieces, sort of filing it down.

I trimmed a little off the tops, and I wish I had taken off more. It didn't matter so much with the layer that ended up on the top of the cake, where a little rounding is welcome, but the layer on the bottom, which I had turned upside down, was quite rounded, and there was a noticeable gap between the perimeter of the cake and the cake plate. Ah well. I'll know for next time.

I did have a slight disaster inverting the cakes after taking them out of the pans - I lost a little chunk from the bottom of one layer. I tried not to get too upset, knowing that this frosting would be able to hide a multitude of sins.

The cake is absolutely delicious. It's chocolate-y and moist and rich, without being too heavy or overly sweet... really great balance. This will be my go-to cake for ever more.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Chocolate Swiss Meringue Buttercream (p. 456)

I love this frosting. And that's coming from someone who hates frosting. But this is magical frosting. And the addition of chocolate makes it that much more magical.

I definitely had a mini-meltdown in the middle of this recipe. I had heated my egg whites and sugar, I'd whipped it into stiff, glossy peaks, and then I added... I believe the culinary term is: "a buttload" of butter. And Martha clearly warns that the frosting may appear curdled at this point, but that further whisking would bring it back to life. Well, somehow, I got it in my head that I had OVERblended with the whisk and I moved on to the paddle part, which is the final stage of mixing, when you're getting the air bubbles out. And the curdling was only getting worse.

I was seriously close to throwing it all out and starting over. And then I thought, well, maybe I haven't overwhisked it. Maybe it just needs MORE whisking. So I put the whisk back on and voilà, I was back in business with my magical frosting once again.

I reserved a quarter of the icing (1.5 C of the total 6 cups) and left it plain, i.e. no chocolate, in order to have a contrasting icing for the top of the cake. I colored the plain frosting pink, and then I decided it would be cute to put that between the cake layers, sort of like a peek-a-boo surprise.

The rest of the frosting became chocolate-flavored with the addition of melted and cooled semi-sweet chocolate. I was shocked at the color of the chocolate buttercream. I expected it to be dark and chocolate-y looking, like the cake. Instead, it was beige, taupe, café au lait. I was informed by Tracy's friend, Brian, that if you want your chocolate buttercream to be dark brown, you have to add coloring, because there's so much butter it can't get too dark. Hmph. No one warned me about that....

In addition to the barely chocolate color, I'd also say that the flavor of this frosting is chocolate-lite. Perhaps bittersweet chocolate would have been a better choice. Or adding more chocolate. Or maybe it was the fact that it was a chocolate-lite frosting on a much darker chocolate cake, so it could never compete with the cake part. Maybe as frosting for a yellow cake, this would have just the right amount of chocolate flavor, but given it's cake counterpart, it seemed pale.

Still, I love love love this frosting. I'm happy to report that it did, indeed, cover all my baking failings. Lose a chunk of cake? Just fill it in with frosting! Your bottom layer is so pointy you can spin it like a top? Fill in the spaces at the bottom with frosting! There are dried out bits around the edges of the cakes? Slap a bunch of frosting on top and who will ever know?

It's so easy to work with. And boy, am I glad I got that lesson from Martha recently. That REALLY came in handy frosting this cake. I did my crumb coat, like a good little boy, then I piled on every last bit of frosting that was left in the bowl. I held my spatula straight up and down and though it's not perfect, I think it came out pretty decently.

I got a little "creative" with the pastry bag and the pink piping on top. I had to do something festive. I love the way the pink stripe in the middle came out. As you can see in this picture, the cakes are markedly tapered, but the frosting fills in the spaces like mortar.

Overall, I was extremely happy with and proud of how this cake turned out. The taste and texture of both cake and frosting was totally delicious and totally professional.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Until we eat again....

Here's the birthday girl surround by her friends, from l. to r.: Amy, Angie, Tracy, Bill, Kristian, and Ann (not pictured - Ginny, Brian, and Tim)

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Day 313b - Prime Rib Roast, Oven-Roasted Potatoes, and White Cake with Lemon Curd and Italian Meringue

But wait, there's more! Day 313a continues with a beef course!

Prime Rib Roast (p. 138)

This was definitely a first for me. I'd cooked beef before this project, but I'd never purchased/prepared any sizable cuts of meat. A steak here, a steak there, maybe a burger. And while I've already cooked a beef tenderloin and a pot roast this year, nothing quite prepared me for the rib roast.

I'm pretty sure that rib roast is the meat that tipped over Fred Flintstone's car. It is a big, honkin' piece of beast. I tried to watch the butcher Frenching the bones, knowing that I still have a rack of lamb Frenching lesson coming up. (It took him about a minute. It will take me about an hour.)

I was prepared by Martha for the hefty price tag - she says "As it is expensive, prime rib should be handled with extra care." So be it. The butcher asked me if I wanted it tied. I said yes, because I figured I could always untie it. But I wasn't sure why it would need to be tied at all. Was it going to fall apart in the oven? Just to be safe, I left it on.

If you're making this, don't forget that there's an overnight "marinade" - chopped sage, orange zest, crumbled bay leaves, salt, and oil. The use of crumbled dried bay leaves surprised me. Would they still be on the meat when served? Would they be edible? I rubbed the meat with the marinade and put it in the fridge overnight, but I was skeptical about how much of an impact it would make. I mean, this hunk of meat is huge. How can any flavor get through to the middle?

This meat comes out of the refrigerator two hours before the start of cooking. (I'm so glad I read this recipe carefully beforehand. The overnight marinade and the two hour resting time at room temperature would be so easy to forget.) The cooking of the beef was too easy. I merely had to put it in the oven, turn the temperature down once, stick a thermometer in when it was getting close, and when the thermometer reached 115°, take it out. Now, this is something you can serve at a party and still be with your guests! No last minute sauce reduction here. And it doesn't take terribly long to cook, either. Mine took just under two hours - not bad.

After it sat for 20 minutes, I took the twine off (lost a little bit of crust in the process) and cut the meat off the bones. As I sliced the roast, I was very happy with the doneness: it was crusted on the outside, and the inside was a bright, red rare. The blood collecting on the serving board was somewhat disconcerting, but I guess that's one of the byproducts of serving a big ole roast.

The slices of meat were so large, I couldn't even imagine eating a whole one. Many people only wanted half. The meat was tender and moist and while there was a lot of fat, it was easy to cut away, and I'm sure it was that fat that made the roast so delicious. I couldn't really taste the effects of the marinade, but the whole thing tasted great so who knows? Would this prime rib have tasted just as good if I had thrown it in the oven straight from the butcher? Would the salmon have tasted just as good if I'd poached it in water? Possibly. But I'll never find out, because both dishes came out so well, I'd be a fool to try anything else.

The dried bay leaves didn't really enter into the eating equation, because there's so much fat around the edges of the meat that I ended up cutting away all the crust. I ate a piece of leaf just to try it, and it tasted crispy/burnt/fine.

It's interesting that this meat is served on its own. No sauce, no edible garnish (save for some sage leaves). I guess Martha thinks that it speaks for itself. One of my guests asked for horseradish, which I luckily had in the fridge, but the rest of us ate it plain. And it was good.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Oven-Roasted Potatoes (p. 138)

This recipe is a margin recipe in the book, off to the side. (I've been doing all of those, by the way.) It's Martha's serving suggestion to accompany the roast.

The potatoes are peeled and halved (actually I quartered them because mine were so big) and parboiled for five minutes once the pot has come to a boil. Then they're drained and scored with a fork to create ridges.

Next, you throw them into the roasting pan 15 minutes into the cooking of the roast. There, they sit in the oil that's melting from the meat and collecting in the pan, and they basically fry. You turn them once, and then when the meat is done, so are they.

There was salt in the boiling water, but there was no instruction to season again after that. I salted them just before serving, though, because I thought they really craved it. They occur more as fries than oven-roasted potatoes. In fact, if I had cut the wedges even smaller, they would have been roughly the size of steak fries and possibly even crispier. (Potatoes can never be too crispy, as far as I'm concerned.)

I think the potatoes might have been the best part of the meal. They were crazily crunchy and overall amazing. My only regret is that I hadn't made more. Of everything I served, they were the only dish that "sold out."

Jeff: A

Martha: A

White Cake with Lemon Curd and Italian Meringue (p. 457)

Here's another dessert I would never order in a restaurant, let alone choose to make and serve at a dinner party. It's the same old reasons: there's no chocolate involved, and lemon flavor doesn't belong in a dessert.

I made the cakes and the lemon curd the day before, since they both need to set before assembly. The cake is slightly high maintenance, in that it uses egg whites, French meringue actually, for leavening. You cream butter and sugar, then add in vanilla bean seeds, milk, sifted cake flour, salt and baking powder. Then you have to move the batter to another bowl, clean out your mixer bowl, and make the French meringue (whipping egg whites with sugar at room temperature), then carefully fold the meringue into the batter in stages.

The cakes came out OK, but I was a little concerned because they mounded quite a bit in the center, where it was cracked and slightly wet. I didn't want to overbake the cake, so I erred on the side of underbaked. After cooling on the racks topside down, the mounds had sort of compressed themselves, so maybe everything was fine. I put them in plastic wrap and into the fridge overnight.

Then, with all the extra yolks from the cake, I made the lemon curd. Last time I made lemon curd, it was to use as a spread, but this time it would be cake filling, so I added the optional gelatin for more body.

Lemon curd is amazing. I take back what I said before about lemons not belonging in desserts. This recipe is flawless, and I am once again reminded how much I love lemon curd. Overnight in the refrigerator made it nice and firm and layer-able.

When I went to level the cakes the next day, I was chagrined to see that the middles of the cakes were, indeed, overly moist. Where the mounds had been compressed, the cakes were sticky, and the leveling knife was just wrecking the cake, pulling little clumps with it, even as I tried to smooth it out.

For this recipe, each cake gets cut in half, making this a four layer cake. As I prepared to cut the cakes in half (using the handy dandy toothpick technique, which worked great), I was concerned that the wetness might be all through the cake, but in fact it was confined to the cake tops, and I was able to make nice clean slices through each cake.

I didn't end up using Martha's parchment paper trick on the cake plate because I needed to refrigerate the assembled cake for a few hours, and it would sit too high on the cake plate to fit in my refrigerator. So I assembled the cake on a cake round, which went pretty well. My top cake was slightly smaller than the other three. Not sure how that happened, but my cake tapered a bit at the top. If I had noticed the size issue, I would have hidden the smaller one in the middle. Ah well. The assembled cake went in the fridge to set.

The cake frosting instructions say: "Just before serving, frost the top and sides of the cake evenly with Italian meringue." Just before serving? You mean in the middle of my dinner party? Wouldn't that be rude to excuse myself from the table mid-meat course and head to the kitchen (which is essentially in my dining room) to start making meringue? What to do??

It might interest you to know that this cake is Martha's favorite cake. How do I know this? Well, she and I chatted about it on the phone the other day. Yeah, that's right. I called Martha.

Actually, that chat occurred on her Sirius radio show, Ask Martha. This wasn't my first call to Ask Martha. I had phoned back in June with a question about Barbecued Baby Back Ribs, so I was an old pro and knew the drill. You tell the assistant your question, and if you are deemed show-worthy, you get put on hold and listen to the show live as you await your turn.

When I finally got on the air, I introduced myself as Jeff from the blogging show. She was kind enough to at least pretend to remember me. I went on to explain that I'd be serving this cake at an upcoming dinner party (which is when I learned that it's her favorite), and I needed to know if I really had to make this meringue immediately before serving. In the recipe instructions for the meringue, it says "Use immediately" and after reading that and "frost just before serving," I had visions of frosting the cake too early and watching it melt all through dinner.

Martha put my fears to rest. She actually kind of chortled when I asked the question and exclaimed "No! Frost it before they come!" I explained that I take this stuff very literally.

Then she said I could even torch the meringue a bit to brown it in places, which is not mentioned in the book. Since Martha, herself, suggested it, I felt I should try it!

So, an hour before people arrived, I made the Italian meringue.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Italian Meringue (p. 459)

What distinguishes Italian meringue from Swiss and French meringues is the way the sugar is heated before being added to the egg whites. With French, you add sugar directly to the whites while beating. With Swiss, you lightly heat the egg whites and sugar until the sugar is dissolved, then beat, providing a little more stability. And with Italian, you make a syrup with sugar and water, and when it reaches 238°, you slowly pour it into already half-beaten egg whites, providing ultimate stability.

On the page, the Italian method looks very risky. There's some delicate timing here, because you have to get the egg whites to a certain whippedness at the same time the sugar is reaching 238°. You can't stop beating the whites to wait for the sugar, and you can't overbeat them either. Amazingly, I managed the timing perfectly, and it came out really well!

And it's actually amazing how stable it really is. I was slopping that stuff on, and it really didn't care what I did to it, it held its own and went wherever I asked it to. It was like a really light version of Fluff, seemingly synthetic, but I knew better.

It was scary to torch it - I feared that the meringue would just melt or burn, but instead, as Martha said, it allowed itself to be browned! Amazing! I didn't push my luck with a lot of browning - just a tip here, a tip there. In the end, I was really happy with how the cake turned out.

But of course, the ultimate proof is in the pudding. How was the cake received? Thumbs up all around, I'm happy to report! Some commented on the flavor: "It was like white cake and lemon meringue pie had a baby." Others commented on the lightness: "I feel great after eating it, not overwhelmed and stuffed, the way I usually feel after a piece of cake."

It really does manage to walk the line of being rich without being heavy. And the lemon curd flavor is tops. (I wish I had put a little more filling in there, but really, I shouldn't complain - it was lovely.) I served the second piece first (great tip, Martha), and I think it's important to note that the meringue completely held its shape, even while being sliced and served. Italian meringue may be trickier to make, but if you're looking for stability, it is definitely worth the extra effort.

That's Ted, above, with the whole cake and Rubén, below, with the slice.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Incidentally, I also served Roasted Brussels Sprouts as a dinner side, and Roasted Pineapple with dessert, both recipes from the book. Here's Luba and Jeff during the meat course.

Until we eat again....

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Day 313a - Court Bouillon, Poached Whole Salmon, and Cucumber, Cress and Caper Sauce

What I wouldn't give for an assistant editor, to whom I would assign the writing of this entry, because after cooking this meal for the past few days, then serving it, then doing all the attendant clean-up, I'm useless.

But it was such a great night and a great meal with wonderful guests, and I'm so proud of the cooking that I really want to kvell about it!

So what I'm going to do is break it down into two entries to make it easier on me.

And it sort of makes sense doing it this way, since I basically cooked two dinner-party-sized entrees.

Here's who was in attendance:
  • Semi-regular Jeff and Martha guest, Ryan
  • and Michael, visiting for his third time
  • The rest were newbies:
  • Ted, brilliant musician, director, conductor, pianist, musical director, and Running Charades player
  • His beau, Noah
  • Michael's beau, Jeff, the amazing composer/lyricist and co-star of my favorite musical from last season on Broadway: [title of show]
  • Two lovely ladies with whom I performed in the '95 Broadway revival of How to Succeed in Business... (Ted was the conductor, fyi): the beautiful and talented Jennifer and Luba
  • And finally, Luba's husband, the Panamanian superstar-singer-songwriter-actor-lawyer-politician, Rubén. (That's a lot of hyphens for one guy!)

Court Bouillon (p. 231)

I'd never heard of court bouillon before, but evidently it's quite a traditional liquid to make for poaching. I cooked it two days before the actual poaching, since it can stay refrigerated that long, and I was anxious to get as much as possible out of the way before the big day. Meanwhile, it's a good thing I did, because I always forget how long it takes for these big pots of hot liquid to cool.

Court Bouillon is described in the book as being mild and having a "clean taste and light body," which I guess is accurate, although I think some of the flavors here are pretty bright and aggressive, specifically, the sliced lemon, leeks, and vinegar. I wondered how much those flavors would show up in the finished dish....

A bunch of salt would probably have mitigated some of the acid-taste of the lemon and vinegar, but Martha warns not to oversalt at this stage, so I resisted.

I think this is the first stock I've made from the book that I didn't have to strain - Martha says to leave the vegetables in.

Basically, this was a breeze.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Poached Whole Salmon (p. 229)
Whenever I'm called upon to cook a whole fish, I head straight to Chinatown for the amazing selection of super fresh inventory. I easily found a well-priced, perfectly-sized salmon for the occasion and took it right home to poach.

I'd bought a fish poacher months ago, in anticipation of this recipe, and I was excited to try it out. (It's a long, oval-shaped metal pot with a removable rack inside and a lid.) As instructed, I put the Court Bouillon (two batches) in the poacher, then placed the rack on top of the vegetables and put the fish on it. I added some water to try to cover the fish, but it was sitting pretty high in the pot, so I ended up following Martha's Plan B, which is to cover the parts that are above the water line with parchment paper. Incidentally, my fish was just a little too big for the poacher, so I had to trim the tail, which Martha said might happen.

Next was bringing the pot to a simmer over two burners, which took a bit longer than I expected.... Once it simmers, you keep it at a moderate heat (165°-180°) until a thermometer in the thickest part reaches 130°. I had a little trouble keeping the temperature within these guidelines. It really wanted to be 185°, and even though I lowered the flames, the temperature seemed to stay consistently at 185°.

I wondered whether I was supposed to cover the poacher or not. The issue is never specifically addressed in the recipe. I started with the lid on a little askew, but when I couldn't keep the temperature low enough, I took the lid off. It's my ultimate belief that the poacher is not meant to be covered.

I'm not sure if I agree with the five minutes cooking time per inch of thickness estimate. My fish definitely took longer to cook than that, even at a slightly higher-than-suggested temperature. It was cooking so long, in fact, that I started to worry that my thermometer wasn't working properly, so I put a second one in there. It was nice to see that they were both exactly consistent the whole time.

Finally, the fish hit 130°. Next thing is to turn off the heat and just let it sit cooling in the liquid for an hour. Then, lift the rack out of the pan and let it drain over the sink or a large pot for another half hour. I didn't have a pot that large, and I needed to be using the sink for other things, so I came up with a brilliant (self-evident) idea. I put the fish over the sink long enough to empty the bouillon from the fish poacher, and I let the pot cool for a minute or two. Then I put the fish and the rack back in the empty poacher to drain. Smart, right?

Next, it was time to skin it. I was happy to read that I'd only have to skin one side, since the other side rests against the platter, never to be revealed. The skin was quite easy to remove. I think I spent more time scraping away the brown/grey stuff. It would be really easy to go all OCD during this part of the process, i.e. trying to scrape absolutely perfectly, with no upsetting of the fish meat. I reminded myself that the cucumber garnish would be able to cover any egregious scraping screwups. And it ended up looking just fine.

Once the fish was fully skinned and scraped, it was ready to go in the refrigerator covered in plastic wrap. This was the only scary part of the experience: getting the fish from my counter onto the platter. A seven pound fish is pretty big, and even with two big spatulas, it's tricky to move a fish that big without its head flopping off, which would be ugly. Somehow, I managed to move it in one piece. (I remember feeling like I was cradling a baby's head in my hand.)

Warning: Don't assume that you will easily be able to fit a platter with whole salmon in your fridge. The only place I could find for it was on top of all the juice bottles and milk cartons, etc. on my top shelf. I suggest making sure you have a place for that platter in your fridge before you get to this point.

Finally, when it got close to serving time, I sliced the English cucumber on my mandoline for the fancy garnish. I love the idea of this garnish, i.e. making it look like the cucumber slices continue around the fish. The cucumber slices were pretty wide, though, so I wasn't able to fit that many slices around it. Still, I loved the way it looked.

As for the taste, totally classic. No twist, no reinvention. This was plain salmon at its best. Did it taste like lemon, vinegar, or leeks? No, not at all. But whatever was going on in that bouillon conspired to make this salmon taste just great. Perfect level of doneness, moist as moist could be. I loved how simple it was. Classic is really the best word.

(That's Jennifer with the salmon, to the right, and above, from left to right: Michael, Noah, and Jennifer.)

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Cucumber, Cress and Caper Sauce (p. 231)

If I had been thinking, I would have used the food processor to make this sauce. It would have made short work of finely chopping an English cucumber and a bunch of cress. (I couldn't find any Upland cress, so this was made with all watercress.)

The chopped cucumber gets mixed with salt and vinegar and left to sit for five minutes. Quite a bit of juice collects as it sits, and I wondered whether that was intentional, and if so, should I incorporate the juice or throw it out? As I'm writing this, I realize the smart thing to do would have been to reserve it, for adding in later if so desired. Alas, I hadn't had that light bulb moment at the time, so I proceeded without removing it. The sauce ended up being slightly watery, but not alarmingly so.

Flavor-wise, this sauce has a nice, subtle character to it, unlike the standard, dill-in-your-face sauce one is accustomed to having with poached salmon. This sauce really lets the salmon be the star. The only other thing I can think of to say about it is that it tastes very green. In a good way.

Jeff: B (should have thought of draining off/reserving that accumulated liquid)
Martha: A

Here's the table set for the first course, Mango and Hearts of Palm Salad with Lime Vinaigrette, from Everyday Food, Great Food Fast.

And here are all my guests, from left to right: Ted, Jennifer, Jeff, Luba, Michael, Rubén, Noah, and Ryan.

Coming soon: Day 313b - Prime Rib Roast, Oven-Roasted Potatoes, and White Cake with Lemon Curd and Italian Meringue!

Until we eat again....

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Day 309 - Beef Consommé, Shallow-Poached Fish Fillets with Lemongrass-Orange Beurre Blanc, and Chocolate Ice Cream

I have a very special guest duo tonight: Casey is a Jeff and Martha repeat customer, having experienced the Perfect Roast Chicken dinner last April, and while Megan did sample my leftover Blueberry Pie in June, this is her first official appearance on the blog.

As I mentioned the last time, Casey and I met in '86 performing together in an Off-Broadway production of The Pajama Game. No longer performing, now he's a brilliant Broadway director/choreographer (Spamalot, The Drowsy Chaperone, this season's All About Me, and next season's Minsky's).

Megan and I met performing together in the '95 Broadway revival of How to Succeed in Business... when she played Matthew Broderick's leading lady, Rosemary, and I played his arch-nemesis, Bud Frump. But I'm guessing you probably know her best as the unforgettable Karen Walker from the TV show Will & Grace. I'm happy to report that she'll be back on Broadway this spring in Lips Together, Teeth Apart, and also back on TV starting in April on Party Down. But tonight, she's on 30th St. gamely eating whatever I put in front of her.

While this is mostly a social occasion, we did find a few moments to chat about our new collaboration: tentatively titled Karen, the Musical, it's a show that will bring "Karen Walker" to the musical theatre stage. Casey's directing/choreographing, I'm writing the score, and of course, Megan will star. Crazy, right?

Remember how I was talking about my friends with their particular dietary wants and needs? Well, here are some of the limitations from one or both of my guests tonight: no red meat, no dairy, no shellfish, no gluten. Yikes!

Here's what we ended up with....

Beef Consommé (p. 72)

If I were to have a Jeffie Awards category for worst effort-to-payoff ratio, this would be at the top of the list. At least after two days spent cooking Wine-Braised Short Ribs, there's a pot of amazing short ribs to tear into. After spending a day making White Beef Stock in order to spend another day making Beef Consommé, what do you get? Clear soup. Beautifully rich, sparkly, stellar clear soup, mind you, but still, clear soup.

I'm not going to bother re-explaining the technique of clarifying the stock with a "raft," as you can read it in my Chicken Consommé entry. I will say that I find it interesting that someone figured out that by combining egg whites, minced mirepoix veggies, ground beef, and a chopped tomato in beef stock, all the impurities and cloudiness would be pulled out of the stock, leaving only clear, clear broth. I'm curious about the science of it, but I don't think I ever need to execute it again.

This soup tastes totally fine, nice, great, complex, etc., but the fact remains: no one is ever going to properly appreciate the amount of time that went into making this soup, and I don't blame them! People come, thinking there's going to be some nice, hearty fare, and then they get a bowl of clear soup!?! Wah wah wah wah....

That still doesn't stop me from trying to guilt everyone into oohing and aahing about the incredibly time-consuming consommé. Which I'm sure is charming.

Needless to say, with the completion of this recipe, my relationship with consommé is now officially over. Hallelujah.

I garnished my consommé today with julienned carrot and leek, following Martha's lead from the book.

Megan is photographed with the soup because, unbeknownst to me, Casey has soup-a-phobia, i.e. fear of savory liquids, so he was unwilling to endorse the consommé.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Shallow-Poached Fish Fillets with Lemongrass-Orange Beurre Blanc (p. 222)

Here's another recipe I'm doing for the second time, the first time being the main recipe and today's version being a variation of it. I wasn't happy with the way the first pass turned out, so I'm hoping to improve my technique this time around.

Tonight I served turbot, a fish I don't know. It's on the list of endorsed fish for this recipe (flounder, turbot, sole), and I know Martha wouldn't lead me astray. It seemed a little thicker and firmer than the flounder I used the first time.

This variation is actually a little simpler than the original: fewer ingredients and just a bit less busy work.

It's my first time dealing with lemongrass, which is like an adventure. I'm not really sure what lemongrass is, but I have a feeling it's in the bamboo or hearts of palm family, since those are the two things I was reminded of when I was working with it. I'd love a little lemongrass tutorial, since I think I may have thrown away more than I needed to. Otherwise, I did exactly as I was told: chopped off the woody ends, smashed it and minced it. It seemed impossibly tough when I was chopping it, but I was surprised how much it softened up during the cooking process.

One of my big issues with this dish the last time was that the fish got cold while I made the beurre blanc. Plus, I think I overcooked it. So this time, my plan was to undercook the fish in the pan, then keep it covered in a warm oven while I made the sauce.

I should confess, when I did this the first time, I was still being wimpy about reducing liquids. I didn't used to like to crank the heat too high back then, but now I just go straight for the hard boil when I need to reduce. Otherwise, it takes too long, and you end up with cold fish.

This time, I whipped through that sauce, and between my quickness and the warm oven, the fish ended up being cooked just right. Unfortunately, I don't think I'm a huge turbot fan. I found it to be more fishy-tasting than I prefer. (I know, fish tasting fishy shouldn't be a problem.)

The sauce was nice, subtle, but not a showstopper. Whereas my sauce the last time was overly thick, I think this one could have been a touch thicker. I daresay I would have been able to better appreciate the delicateness of the sauce's flavors if the fish hadn't been so... assertive. My favorite bites were the ones that included pieces of the garnish: suprêmed orange slices. (I love supréming fruits! It makes me feel like I'm on a cooking show.)

Megan and Casey were both very complimentary about the dish - Megan even said that if she ordered it in a restaurant, she'd have been very pleased with her choice. I was much less enthusiatic about it, but I'm glad they were happy. FYI, that's the Toasted Coconut Rice from the January issue of Martha Stewart Living. I also served Steamed Sesame Spinach from the website. Thumbs up all around.

For the last variation on this recipe (Beurre Rouge), I'll aim to get the thickness of the sauce just right. And I'll shoot for using sole, since it's the only fish on the list I haven't tried yet. Maybe it won't be so... fishy.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Chocolate Ice Cream (p. 471)

Does anyone remember how dismissive I was when I first made the Vanilla Ice Cream recipe from this book? Well, I've completely changed my tune.

As I've since learned, I wasn't cooking the custard long enough, and once I started to do that, my ice creams really started taking off. (Suggestion: err on the side of cooking it too long vs. too short.)

Which brings me to today's chocolate ice cream:




I'm pretty confident that this is the best chocolate ice cream I will ever eat IN MY LIFE. It is completely stellar. The chocolate flavor, the consistency, the richness, absolutely genius! I licked clean every bowl, spoon, dish, etc. that touched that "batter." I practically froze my tongue to the ice cream machine canister, trying not to waste a drop.

My triumphant experience was marred only by rereading the last line of the recipe: "Serve immediately or... freeze up to 3 days." Huh what?? Three days? It's the freezer, for crying out loud! What's going to happen to it?

Frankly, I don't care. I'm keeping that ice cream for as long as it lasts.

Which will probably not be too long.

But it will definitely be longer than three days.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

As you may have noticed, I keep this blog almost exclusively related to Martha's recipes and lessons. If I'm going to serve extracurricular dishes alongside my Cooking School recipes, they're almost always from her publications or website. However, I'm making an exception today to mention a book I just started using: Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day. Without going into detail, I have to say that this book offers a revolutionary approach to breadmaking, which is incredibly low maintenance and offers excellent results. Check it out!

Until we eat again....