Wednesday, March 31, 2010

My new (purple) baby...

Like I said in my last post, my trip to NYC was a little different this time around. Normally, we spend our time walking the city, neighborhood by neighborhood, when we're not at a show that is. And we usually try to see several shows, so a goodly amount of our time is also spent in the TKTS line, as is our money! Because of the gawd-awful weather over spring break, we saw much of the Big Apple by car, and we actually only took in one show...if you don't count our fabulous evening of campy piano bar with friends, Tony and Larry, at Marie's Crisis in the Village, which is my new favorite place in the world! But we only hit Broadway once this trip, as I had other plans for a big chunk of my travel budget.

As I shared before, my darling friends, Phil and Rob, gave me my first piece of Le Creuset for a very special housewarming gift--the handy and versatile 3 1/2-quart braiser. But I had made a promise to myself years ago, that if I ever was so blessed to own my own home, I would purchase for myself a genuine Le Creuset dutch oven. And when Sur La Table introduced a ravishing and exclusive new color called cassis--a deep, greyish purple, my very FAVORITE color!--I knew what I had to do. As it happens, there are but two Sur la Table stores in the entire state of New York (and the other is way out on Long Island). So to save myself shipping on heavy cast iron*, and while I had my car in the city, I decided a trip to Soho to fulfill my cookware destiny was in order.

BEHOLD my gorgeous new baby--a 7 1/4 quart (#28) Le Creuset round French oven in the heart-fluttering cassis color! I know, I know. It's among the most expensive things I've ever purchased after my home, education, various automobiles, and a couple of no-account purebred hounds. But I just ADORE it! And it is just marvelous to cook with! We got home from NYC just before St. Patrick's Day, and I was determined to inaugurate the sacred cooking vessel with some tasty corned beef and cabbage. The beauty of the Dutch oven is, with just a cup or two or liquid, you can braise the meat and vegetables until they are melt-in-your-mouth tender, rather than boiling them and diluting their flavors. In fact, I daresay that my stunning new pot did its job a little TOO well.

Toward the end of a very low and slow session in the oven for the corned beef, I threw in some typical vegetables: potatoes, carrots, parsnips, and onions. When I checked them less than a half hour later, the potatoes had already become so tender that they just fell apart! What to do, what to do? I decided the only thing that made sense was to mash them, but the potatoes were too hard to distinguish from the parsnips at that point. So I just mashed all the veggies together along with a big knob of butter, a splash of apple cider vinegar, some evaporated milk to make it creamy, and a little salt and lots of black pepper. Not only was the root vegetable mash a gorgeous orange color from the carrots, it was simply delicious! That is one delectable mistake I plan to make again in the future!

*If any of you are swooning over the cassis-colored Le Creuset and are helpless to resist the temptation as I was, I have a great tip to save you shipping costs. Apparently, if your purchases at a Sur la Table location total $200 or more, the shipping is FREE! This is NOT the case for items that you buy through their website, so what you should do is call one of their retail stores, have them look up the item to see if they have it in stock, and then make the purchase through that store and have them send it to you. You're welcome.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Spring Break in the Big (Soggy) Apple

I had a week for spring break this year as usual, but with Cyd having only worked at her job for a couple of months, we didn't think it was wise for her to push it by asking for too much time off so that we could go somewhere together. Therefore, we decided on a just few days in the Big City, especially since we hadn't been there since she moved to Minneapolis. It was just our luck, though, that we were there during MONSOON season! I have never seen the like! The streets were lined and the trash cans were filled with busted umbrellas that the crazy winds had blown inside-out. We made the foolhardy decision to drive in to the city for a couple of the days that we were there (couldn't walk far and/or wait for buses in that kind of downpour!), and when we drove back to Secaucus to our hotel at night, the flash floodwaters were up over the tires of my car! Naturally, the sun came out and things dried up the day we had to leave for home! BOO HISS! We want a do-over!

The weather and transportation situation made this a different trip to NYC than usual. Normally, we focus on one neighborhood or borough at a time, and spend a day checking out many attractions in each. But the weather kept us from doing much of that kind of leisurely poking around, so we drove around a lot, and most of our city views were through the car window. In some ways, that was neat, because we saw a lot of places that are typically out of reach of tourists on foot. Also, with the weather so bad, not as many people were out and about, so we often got lucky and found parking very near our destination. If not, we tag-teamed a desired location, with one of us double parking and/or circling the block, while the other ran in and made purchases. In that way, we hit a LOT more places than we would have taking the subway or bus.

One night, we sucked it up and paid the big bucks to park in the Theatre District to have dinner with friends and see a show. (I happened on a website called that really helped, though. We actually found a lot for fifteen dollars to park all evening, and it was only a couple of blocks from the theatre.) We were meeting our friends at Joe Allen, the famous eatery right near to most of the Broadway theatres. The food was boring and horribly overpriced, but I had a great time seeing my old pals, and the most exciting thing was dining one table over from Victor Garber on one side and Scarlett Johansson on the other!

Then we went to see a show called "Next to Normal," which neither Cyd nor I cared for very much, but we sat right behind Billie Joe Armstrong, the lead singer of Green Day. So it was a star-studded evening in Gotham!

Since the weather was so awful, we thought we might do something indoors one day, perhaps a museum. I have never been to the Museum of Natural History, and I tried to convince Cyd to go, but she was none too keen, muttering something cynical about not wanting to spend the day looking at rocks and dirt and old bones and plastic Indians! (Sigh.) So instead, we checked out the Tim Burton exhibit at the MOMA. It was SO great! You got to see his early works (children's books, commercials, t.v. shows, short films), his drawings and paintings, sketches and models, movie props and costumes, and much more. I highly recommend it, especially if you're a Burton fan!

As for food recommendations, here are the highlights from this trip:

Baked: Worth the trip out to the hinterlands of Brooklyn for goodies like Sweet and Salty Cupcakes and Brownies, Chocolate Bourbon Pecan Bars, Brewer's Bars (=blondies), and so much more.

Balthazar Bakery: The best bread in the world! Try the brioche loaf, the walnut bread, the baguettes, and especially the Valrhona chocolate loaf!

Dean and Deluca: The source of all good (and expensive) things. One special find this time was a beautiful and delicious cheese called Cahill's Irish Porter Cheddar.

Doughnut Plant: This is, HANDS DOWN, the best thing we ate in NYC! In fact, we made two trips down to the Lower East Side for these doughnuts while we were in the city, and we are still obsessing about them, trying to figure out how to get some friends down there to overnight us some more!

They are just SO amazing--light and tender and made with real fruit glazes and fillings and fresh nuts roasted in house. I loved the yeast doughnut with sunflower seeds and one with a fresh, organic orange glaze. Cyd loved the coconut cream and the peanut butter and jelly-filled square doughnut. But we agreed that the best doughnut by far was, surprisingly, a cake doughnut called Tres Leches (the unassuming little one in the top left corner). It had a light, sweet glaze on the outside, and buttery cake on the inside that was oozing with a luscious, creamy filling. SO GOOD! Totally worth the ridiculous two-dollar price.

Five Napkin Burger: This place had a nice, bistro-like atmosphere, and we got there early enough to get a booth by the window, which was fun for people-watching. Their signature burger (ground chuck, caramelized onions, Gruyere and rosemary aioli on a soft, white roll) was good, but smallish and way overpriced at $15. The Tuscan Fries (with parmesan and rosemary) were particularly yummy. I also ordered a side of their fresh pickles made in house, but they were too sweet for me (I prefer dills).

Junior's Cheesecake: Best cheesecake in NYC...or anywhere! We shared the chocolate mousse cheesecake, which was OUTRAGEOUS, but I really think it's all about the "plain" cheesecake. No need to gild the lily here!

Levain Bakery: Finally sampled what is reported to be the world's greatest chocolate chip cookie.'s certainly the world's BIGGEST and RICHEST cookie, but I honestly think the knock-off I've made at home was better. Levain's secrets to success seem to be make them big, overload them with chocolate chips, underbake them, and serve them warm. Still, I found the flavor a little lacking. Maybe it's missing the vanilla that the bakers find unnecessary? Maybe a pinch more salt?

Momofuku's Milk Bar: Tried another of NYC's most famous cookies--the Compost Cookie at Momofuku's bakery called Milk Bar. Again, a HUGE specimen that underwhelmed me. I loved the texture and all the crunchy mix-ins, but the pastry chef, Christina Tosi, adds a pinch of coffee grounds to the dough (you heard me), and though I love coffee-flavored anything, the resulting cookie tasted bitter and had an aroma not unlike a kitchen garbage can. When I got home, I made my own version (from the recipe Chef Tosi shared on Regis and Kelly), and I LOVED them!

Nicky's Vietnamese Sandwiches: I first saw this place featured on "The Best Thing I Ever Ate" from the Food Network. I think it was a favorite haunt of Anne Burrell. And she was dead on with this one! The pork chop bánh mì sandwich--grilled pork chop pieces, pickled carrots, cucumber, cilantro and mayo on a toasted baguette with hot sauce and sliced, fresh jalapenos on the side--was a revelation! And a cheap one, too, at $5.50 apiece!

Tom's Restaurant: Our destination on the first day was Brooklyn, and we tried to have brunch at a place getting a lot of buzz called Buttermilk Channel, but we got there too late. So we headed over to the Brooklyn landmark, Tom's. Even on a blustery, torrential day, we had to wait in line outside for a table (though they brought us hot coffee and cookies). Their huevos rancheros didn't do much for me, but their heavenly, ethereal lemon ricotta pancakes with a choice of three flavored butters (cinnamon/spice, strawberry, and the last one was my favorite, but I'm not sure what it was--it had walnuts and maybe pineapple?) were completely worth the wait! I'm not sure that they weren't the best pancakes I've EVER had!

WHEW! This post is getting Biblical in length! I better wrap this one up and maybe do a "part two" later. But we must end with a recipe inspired by my spring break adventure in the Big Apple. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, the Milk Bar Compost Cookie (or my take on it, anyway)!

To begin with, I made my cookies a bit smaller. And mine were an even thickness throughout, whereas Milk Bar's were thin on the edges with a doughy mound in the middle. I actually liked the flavor of mine better (Cyd said there was no contest!), and I think the texture improved after chilling the dough overnight. Of course, I omitted the coffee grounds. Using a little espresso powder might be a better choice, though I didn't add any this time. I think Milk Bar adds more chocolate chips than I did, then pretzels, potato chips, and some kind of nuts (pecans?). I added extra crunchy stuff to mine, including Rice Krispies, Cocoa Pebbles, potato chips, macadamia pieces, and the piece de resistance, peanut butter pretzels!

I used the following recipe, tweaked by my pal, Anna, on her blog (credit goes to her for the peanut butter pretzel idea!). Because I added a couple of extra cups of crunchy bits, I got a yield of 18 ginormous cookies, using a regular ice cream scoop.

Milk Bar's Compost Cookies
(adapted from Cookie Madness)

8 oz (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, chopped up
1 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 tablespoon corn syrup
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 large eggs
2 cups flour (fluff up the flour and scoop up one heaping cup, sweep top flat, repeat)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups* semi-sweet chocolate chips – wouldn’t recommend chopped chocolate because it might cause more spreading
1 1/2 cups* snack foods (potato chips, corn chips, pretzels, nuts, etc.), broken up

*I only used a cup of chocolate chips and three cups of crunchy/salty things

In a stand mixer with the paddle attached, cream the cold butter, both sugars and corn syrup on medium high for 2-3 minutes until fluffy. Scrape down the sides of the mixing bowl. Add eggs and vanilla and stir to incorporate. Increase mixing speed to medium-high and run mixer for 10 full minutes. During this time the sugar granules will dissolve, the mixture will become an almost pale white color and mixture will double in size.

Meanwhile, stir together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. By hand or using lowest speed of mixer, stir in the flour mixture – don’t beat it in or the cookies won’t be as tender. Stir in chocolate chips and salty things. Using a heaping 1/3 cup measure or a traditional ice cream scoop, form rounds. Put the shaped rounds on a plate, cover with plastic wrap and chill for a few hours or until ready to bake. DO NOT bake your cookies from room temperature or they will not hold their shape. I recommend baking them off six at a time, and leaving the other balls of dough in the fridge until the first batch has been consumed. You can even freeze the unbaked cookies and bake them off at a future date.

When the dough has sufficiently chilled, heat oven to 400F. Arrange chilled cookie dough balls on a parchment, Silpat or nonstick foil-lined cookie sheet. If your cookie sheets are thin, you might want to stack two and bake the cookies on the stacked cookies sheets or use an insulated sheet. Bake 9-11 min (I baked mine for 12-14). While in the oven, the cookies will puff, crackle and spread. According to the original recipe, at nine minutes, the cookies should be browned on the edges and just beginning to brown towards the center. But at nine minutes, mine were pale and doughy. All ovens are different so you’ll need to watch the cookies, specifically the edges.

Cool the cookies completely on the sheet pan before transferring to a plate or an airtight container or tin for storage.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Breaking in a new stock pot with a spicy quick fix...

Instead of singing with the community choir this semester, I decided to audition for my college's very first musical revue (where the cast includes students and staff). Although I added another rehearsal each week, the upside is that I have Monday nights free. In fact, I can sometimes be home as early at 3pm! WOOT! So Monday evenings, I actually have time to make a proper dinner. Still, it is a work/school night, so one doesn't wish for anything TOO involved...

On a recent Monday, I was craving a hearty soup of some sort, and I decided to prepare a white chicken chili, which surprisingly, I have never made before. Moreover, this gave me the opportunity to try out one of my new Tramontina stock pots (the five quart). So I did a quick internet search, and found a recipe that looked good. (As a bonus, I happened upon another neat blog with lots of great, user-friendly recipes!) One of the things that makes this white chili so delicious is that a generous amount of sour cream is stirred in after it finishes cooking and gives the soup a wonderful tang. The soup is plenty yummy on its own, but you can take it over the top with any number and combination of garnishes--a sprinkle of fresh cilantro, crushed tortilla chips, shredded cheese, and/or chunks of avocado tossed with a little lime juice.

Creamy White Chicken Chili
Mel's Kitchen Cafe')

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 medium onion, chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 cans (15 1/2 ounces each) Great Northern beans, rinsed and drained*
1 can (14 1/2 ounces) chicken broth
2 cans (4 ounces each) chopped green chilies (if you like less kick, add just one can)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup whipping cream

In a large saucepan, saute chicken, onion and garlic powder in oil until chicken is no longer pink. Add beans, broth, chilies and other seasonings. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Remove from the heat; stir in sour cream and cream. Garnish with fresh cilantro, if desired. Serve immediately. This is especially good served with tortilla chips.

Makes about 6 servings (the amount fit perfectly in my new five-quart stock pot!)

*After we had the chili for dinner (two large portions), the Great Northern beans had cooked down quite a bit, and the soup seemed like it was all chicken. So I threw in a can of cannelini beans to give it more texture and to stretch the leftovers, and I would definitely do that again. In fact, I might opt to use two cans of Great Northern and two of cannelini from the beginning.

Another thing that's wonderful about this soup is that it's a quick fix. I want to say that we had dinner and dessert--both made from scratch--on the table in under an hour! Of course, I had to elicit the assistance of my dear roommate to make the dessert while I was on soup detail. She grumbled about it initially, but once she realized how simple it was to make, she was on board. And it turned out GREAT--another excellent recipe that I ran into on same blog as the white chicken chili. This chocolate chip cake is super-moist and tender, and as easy to throw together as a boxed mix. When I took some to work to share, fights actually broke out amongst my co-workers! I highly recommend that you try this cake...especially if you swap out chocolate CHUNKS for chips and serve it warm. YUM!!

Chocolate Chip Cake
Mel's Kitchen Cafe')

2 cups flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/3 cups sour cream
2/3 cup butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 eggs
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

cinnamon sugar (about 1/4 cup sugar mixed with 1 or 2 teaspoons of cinnamon--to taste)
1 12 oz. bag chocolate chips, divided (or chocolate chunks!)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees (325 if using a glass pan). Grease a 9 X 13 pan with cooking spray. In a large bowl combine all of the cake batter ingredients. Mix for 1 minute at low speed; mix 3 minutes at medium speed. Pour 1/2 of batter into greased pan. Generously sprinkle cinnamon and sugar over batter making sure to get the corners and then sprinkle with 1/2 bag of chocolate chips. Pour remaining cake batter on top and spread across bottom layer. Repeat with cinnamon and sugar and chocolate chips. Bake for 30-35 minutes or until a toothpick comes out with only a few crumbs (don't overbake or cake will be dry!).

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Devils on Horseback

WHEW! What a day! Midterm grades are due, and of course, I should have had them done before we left for spring break, and of course, I didn't do it! So I was in my office until 11pm getting them finished up--such was my penance. :-( When I finally got home, I was rummaging around the fridge for something to munch on in lieu of a proper dinner, and I found a container with a few leftover "Devils on Horseback" waiting just for me. You ate, WHAT, you ask? Well, let me back up a bit...

When I moved into the new house, I had the unenviable chore of cleaning out the refrigerator at the old place. And I discovered that most of the space in that fridge was taken up by little almost-empty jars of homemade jams, jellies, relishes, and chutneys. The new house has a smaller fridge, so I have made a vow to be more faithful in using up the things I make and the jars I open. At the end of January, the first preserve that I made in my new house was a very nice golden mango chutney, and the remainder of that batch was still hanging out in a container in the back of the fridge. I eventually decided what to do with it when I was watching "The Best Thing I Ever Ate" on the Food Network, and one of the chefs recommended the devilled eggs and "Devils on Horseback" at The Spotted Pig, a pub in NYC. I was intrigued enough to do a little follow-up, and apparently, Devils on Horseback are a less genteel spin-off of a British hors d'oeuvre called Angels on Horseback (oysters wrapped in bacon), both of which are cousins of the better-known Pigs in a Blanket. (Sidebar: Don't we just love the British, with their propensity for foods with quirky yet charming names like Toad in the Hole?!)

To redirect, Devils on Horseback are dates (or more commonly, prunes), sliced open, filled with mango chutney, wrapped in bacon (half a slice is perfect), and baked until crispy. Alternately, you can stuff the dates with your favorite soft cheese, wrap, bake, and then serve with mango chutney or pepper jelly for dipping. I think I'll try that version next time, as I bought a whole big tub o' dates at Sam's Club and have plenty of the tasty little devils (or are they the horses?) with which to experiment. However you choose to make them, they are an easy and delicious appetizer, they can be made ahead and reheated for a party, and they are a great way to us up some of those chutneys or savory jellies that may be taking up too much space in your fridge.

Monday, March 22, 2010

All alone with a giant box of Bisquick...

I suppose since I referenced a Bisquick biscuit in yesterday's post, I should follow through with an actual recipe. And in fact, I have two quick biscuit recipes for you today, both of which are pretty good.

Way back in early February, in anticipation of Superbowl Sunday, I was searching these interwebs for ideas for making a Creole cole slaw. In my search, I ran across an intriguing copycat recipe for Popeye's biscuits made with, of all things, 7-Up! I liked the idea of a carbonated beverage giving the biscuits a little lightness and lift, plus a little sweetness from the sugary soda. And of course, the sour cream gives them a lusciousness and that characteristic tang. Moreover, they were certainly a snap to make, and my midwestern-born, biscuit-lovin' roomie gave them rave reviews.

"Popeye's" Biscuits
Star Lynx Secret Recipes)

4 cups Bisquick baking mix
3/4 cup 7-Up or Sprite
1 cup sour cream
4 tablespoons butter

Blend Bisquick mix, sour cream and 7-Up together. Melt butter in a pan. Roll out the biscuits and dip them in the melted butter. Place biscuits in a pan and pour the remaining butter over them. Bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes.

Like I said in my last post, when I asked my BFF, Cyd, to pick up some Bisquick for me at the store, I should have specified which size box! She came home with a GINORMOUS package of the stuff, and I rarely use it, except to make a zucchini bake in the summer, or to make quick pancakes once in awhile. But now I have a ton of it to use up, so I am on the hunt for interesting Bisquick-based recipes. In one of my recent web surfs, I happened upon another biscuit recipe from a now defunct midwestern restaurant called Bill Knapps. (My friends from that region tell me that it was similar to a Bob Evans.) I liked this recipe even better than the Popeye's knock-off. The secret ingredient in this Bisquick biscuit is cottage cheese that you whiz up with an egg in the food processor or blender until smooth, yielding a very tender, very moist biscuit. Much like biscuit #1 above, it has a little bit of sweetness from added sugar and also a hint of lemon to balance out the rich flavor and texture. And my Ohio Buckeye roomie LOVED them!

"Bill Knapp's" Biscuits
Uncle Phaedrus, Finder of Lost Recipes)
Makes 7 medium-sized biscuits

4 teaspoons sugar
1 1/2 cups Bisquick
1/2 cup cottage cheese
1 egg
1 tablespoon lemon juice

In medium bowl stir sweetener with Bisquick just to combine. Set aside.

Put remaining ingredients in a blender. Blend on high speed about 30 seconds or until smooth and completely combined. Pour into Bisquick mixture and stir with a large spoon until every particle is completely moistened and dough comes away from the side of the bowl.

Dust your hands with Bisquick and knead dough until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. Shape dough into 7 equal patties, each about 1 inch thick. Place one in center of greased 8-inch pie plate and arrange remaining 6 biscuits around it.

Wipe top of each biscuit with dab of soft butter or margarine. Cover with inverted glass bowl or Pyrex lid sprayed with nonstick cooking spray. Allow biscuits to "proof" (rise) for about 30 minutes. (Gina's note: This step made no sense to me, as this is not a yeasted dough. But amazingly, they did get a lot "poofier!")

Bake in preheated 450-degree oven 16-18 minutes or until golden brown and doubled in size.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

New house. New kitchen. New stuff!

As my regular readers know, I recently bought my first house and moved in right at Christmas (nice timing, I know). Consequently, I'm still living out of boxes to a certain extent, and as we purged SO MUCH during the move, we are still lacking important things like, oh, furniture that is awaiting my big tax refund before purchase. But I have started making some smaller improvements in the most important room in the house--the kitchen!

I began with some new dishes. What I really wanted was Fiestaware in several different fun colors. But I settled for some Tar-ghay knockoffs in funky, retro colors. I started with eight each: dinner plates, salad plates, bowls, and mugs, half in a bluish-teal and half in a green color called guacamole. Later, I added four additional dinner plates in a sunny yellow, and all 36 pieces were less than $75! Ok, I also had to buy matching neoprene oven mitts and a kitchen clock (that's how they getcha!), so that probably takes me to a little over 100 bucks. Still, that would only get you two Fiestaware place settings, and I have more than eight sets of these super-cute dishes!

Then there was the issue of my old pots and pans. About twelve years ago, I bought my first set of higher-end cookware, a $400 collection of Calphalon Professional Nonstick acquired from (and financed through!) Dillard's department store. It had served me well over the years, and with their lifetime warranty, whenever the nonstick coating started to wear off (which was far too often!), I could ship a pan back, and they would replace it, free of charge. But I have since become concerned about the dangers of nonstick coatings (the noxious fumes that are emitted at higher temps and the possible carcinogenic properties of the inevitable Teflon bits that flake off). So after doing a LOT of research for a LONG time, I came to the conclusion that my new pots and pans had to be triple-clad stainless steel for durability and the most even cooking, and that the ideal brand, of course, would be All-Clad. But you have to be a neurosurgeon to afford just one of those pans! (Same with Sitram, Paderno, Demeyere, and so on.)

Then last summer, Cooks Illustrated had an article comparing All-Clad to several other lines, and shockingly, an inexpensive brand called Tramontina sold at---wait for it---WAL-MART(!!!) performed just as well, and an 8-piece starter set sells $149 at present, less than the cost of ONE AC pan! The main downside was that the starter set came with some undesirably small pans. But Wal-Mart also sells a 10-piece set with larger, more conveniently-sized pieces for $249 (this JUST dropped from $279, though apparently, it was available on "Black Friday" for $199, but I am trying not to think about that). You can only find this set online, but they will deliver it to your local store for free! I may want to add one or two more open stock pieces eventually (looking at the 12-inch jumbo cooker and the 8-quart stock pot with steamer insert). But I am going to get a feel for the pots and pans that came in the set first and then decide if I am lacking anything.

I confess that I took the pots and pans out of the packaging and just left them on the counter to admire for a couple of days. But finally, I was ready to christen the 12-inch skillet with some lemon ricotta pancakes for a weekend brunch. Now they say that you only need to cook or low or medium at most with these fully-clad pans. So I started out on level 4 on an electric stove (out of 10...ours don't go to 11!). And I put a ton of oil and butter in the pan, for fear that the very soft batter would stick. But I ended up pouring off all but a thin slick of the fat, and turning the pan down to 3! It just cooked so well and so evenly, and the clean up was a cinch (a simple soaking usually does the trick, or you might use a little Barkeeper's Friend and a nylon scrubbie). In sum, I am in love with high-quality cookware (even more so when it's at a discount price)! Why in the world did I wait so long??

Oh, and the pancakes were pretty good, too. This is embarrassing, but it was a Bisquick-based item. You see, I wanted to make this biscuit recipe from a now-defunct restaurant in the Midwest called Bill Knapps (never heard of it myself, but the recipe sounded good). I asked my roomie to pick up some Bisquick at the store, but I did not specify what size, so she brought home this GINORMOUS box of the stuff! Now I'm looking for creative ways to use it up. Here's what I did (to make six big pancakes):

Lemon Ricotta Pancakes

1 large egg
1/2 cup ricotta cheese
1 cup Bisquick
1/2 cup (to 3/4 cup) whole milk
finely-grated zest of half a lemon
2 teaspoons sugar
pinch of salt

*If you have them, adding a cup of fresh blueberries would be wonderful, too!

Whisk the egg and ricotta cheese together until fully combined and very smooth. Then add the Bisquick, milk, lemon zest, sugar and salt and whisk just until combined (if the batter looks a little thick, add a little extra milk).

Preheat your skillet, and add a little oil or butter (or I do a bit of both). Using a 1/4-cup measure, form round cakes in the pan, and cook approximately three minutes per side, or until browned (wait until the surface is dry and bubbly before flipping).

Serve with a drizzle of melted butter and a good dusting of powdered sugar and/or your favorite berry jam!