Sunday, February 25, 2007

Tardi Gras

IT'S OVER! IT'S OVER! The play was a rousing success, but it's over at last, and I can reclaim my life! Whoo-hoo! So maybe next weekend, I'll have more intricate food projects to blog about. In the meantime, I have two things to share. First, I engaged my trusty crockpot yesterday so that it could be doing the cooking while I was otherwise dramatically occupied. You see, what I really wanted was more of the red beans and rice that June prepared for her Mardi Gras celebration last week. In a truly heartbreaking scheduling conflict, I got to be there for appetizers, but had to leave for a dress rehearsal before dinner was served. But as June is the kindest of friends, she saved me a portion which I gratefully accepted and gobbled down much later that evening. But it was so good that I wanted more! So I decided to make some on my own.

The problem is, I have never made red beans and rice before. Well, I'm an expert on rice thanks to my Hawaiian father, but the red beans are new to me. I consulted dozens of recipes, and no two were exactly alike. I compiled an exhaustive list of all the possible additions and decided to include every single thing that appealed to me. This threatened to produce an inedible hodgepodge, but it actually turned out great. Even Cyd, who does not enjoy rice-based dishes, had to admit that it was very good. The only part that was troublesome was the crockpot method. Several recipes recommended 8-10 hours on low, but after EIGHTEEN hours, the beans were still hard! So I cranked that bad boy up to high, and three hours later (that's 21 hours total for those following along at home!), they were perfectly done...tee hee. So be guided by my folly and also your familiarity with your own crockpot to correct the timing issue. But as luck would have it, mine were done just in time to enjoy while watching the Oscars! And since Ellen was hosting, the New Orleans fare seemed fitting, even if we are almost a week past Mardi Gras. ;-)

Red Beans and Rice

1 lb. dried red beans
1 ham bone or about a cup of country ham, small dice
1 large onion, diced
1 bell pepper, diced (I used an Italian frying pepper)
1 large stalk celery, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 bay leaves
2-4 tablespoons Cajun seasoning (I used "Joe's Stuff")
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon hot pepper sauce (or to taste)
1 tablespoon dried parsley
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes (or to taste)
1 teaspoon chili powder
1/4 teaspoon thyme
1/4 teaspoon sage
1/4 teaspoon marjoram
1/4 teaspoon oregano
salt and pepper, to taste

1 pound sausage (preferably, andouille, but smoked will do)

steamed white rice

Rinse the beans and discard any floaters. Place in the crockpot and cover with water to an inch or two above the beans. Add all other ingredients except the sausage and cook until the beans are tender.

Remove the ham bone (if using) and the bay leaves and discard. Also remove a couple of cups of the beans and mash them into a thick pulp with a potato masher. Add the mashed beans back to the pot to thicken the sauce.

Slice the sausage 1/4 to 1/2-inch pieces and brown the slices on both sides in a frying pan. Add sausage back to the beans and serve over rice.*

*I would offer a rice-making tip here. I used to always make my rice on a stovetop, but when I got my latest microwave, it had a rice-cooking mode. I thought you couldn't possibly make good rice in the microwave, but you can! For a small batch, I rinse a cup of long-grained white rice three times until the water is fairly clear. I drain it and add about a cup and a half of water and a good pinch of salt to the rice. I cover the microwave-safe dish with a good-fitting lid, and then nuke it for about 18-20 minutes. Then I let it sit with the lid on for another five minutes or so before fluffing with a fork and serving. I doubled the amount of rice tonight, and the cooking time was more like 30 minutes. I know, it's a long time, but it makes perfectly fluffy rice every time!

And if that weren't enough, I even managed to squeeze in some canning this evening when I got home from the play. I didn't really mean to can--it was accidental canning. I had unearthed a one-pound package of haricot verts from the fridge when I was digging for something else. Yes, these are the same beans from our Superbowl menu three weeks ago. Clearly, something needed to be done with them, and fast! And I remembered that I had recently run out of my beloved dilly beans that I usually make each summer. I adore anything pickled, but dilled beans hold a special place in my heart (and in my Bloody Mary!). So I decided to throw together a few pints using my favorite, tried-and-true Kerr recipe. Here it is:

Dilly Beans
(Source: Kerr Home Canning and Freezing Book)
Yield: 8-10 pints

4-5 pounds green or yellow beans, ends trimmed

8-16 heads fresh dill (or 1/2 to 1 cup dill seed)
8 cloves garlic, peeled
4 cups white vinegar (5% acidity)
4 cups water
1/2 cup canning or pickling salt
1 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes

Wash and trim ends from beans. Cut into four-inch lengths (smaller beans can be left whole). In a four-quart saucepan, combine vinegar, water, pickling salt and pepper flakes. Bring to a boil over high heat. Meanwhile, in each hot pint jar, place 1 to 2 heads of fresh dill (or two teaspoons of dill seed) and one clove of garlic. Firmly pack beans upright in jars, leaving 1/2-inch of headspace. Pour hot vinegar mixture into jars, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Carefully run a nonmetallic utensil down inside of jars to remove trapped air bubbles. Wipe jar tops and threads clean. Place hot lids on jars and apply screw bands (fingertip tighten only). Process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.

*These beans are best after sitting for a month or so to achieve their full flavor--if you can wait that long!

Still no time for proper baking...

Well, the big weekend is upon us. I have, thus far, completed two performances of the play with one left to go tomorrow afternoon. Soon my life will be my own again! YIPPEE! Not that I haven't enjoyed the experience, mind you. I'm just exhausted from my extra-curricular commitments! And what's worse, we've run out of dessert in the house--quel horreur! With little time to devote to proper baking, I am forced to turn, once again, to a shortcut treat. In fact, this one is almost an embarrassment to discuss. It's from my friend, Anna, over at Cookie Madness, and even she seemed a bit chagrined to share the recipe. It's truly the tackiest thing that you'll ever make (even more than any of those cream of _______ soup casseroles that one might crave on occasion), but if you love the sweet-and-salty thing like I do, this may prove your undoing. Think of it as the poor, trailer trash cousin of the delicious but laborious almond toffee. In fact, let's go ahead and name the confection Trashy Toffee, as that name is a perfect fit for this addictive, junk food-based candy. But--God help me!--it's sooooooo good!

Trashy Toffee
(Source: adapted from

2 cups pretzels (I like the thinner, waffle-weave squares)
1 cup Fritos (spring for the real ones!)
8 mini peanut butter cups (again, only Reese's will do)
1 stick butter (8 tablespoons)
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 cups semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate chips
Optional: 3/4 cup chopped mixed nuts or peanuts for the top

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and line a 13x9 inch pan with parchment paper or no-stick (Release) foil. Break up the pretzels and Fritos by hand. Unwrap peanut butter cups and cut each one (at least) in half and toss them in with the pretzels and Fritos.

Place butter in a low or nonstick saucepan and melt over medium heat. When butter is melted, stir in brown sugar. Bring mixture to a full boil and boil for 1 minute, stirring once or twice. Pour over Frito mixture and bake for 8 minutes.

Remove pan from oven and sprinkle chocolate chips over hot candy. Return to oven for 1-2 minutes to soften chips. Spread softened chocolate chips over bars. Sprinkle with chopped nuts if desired. Let cool to room temperature (you might even choose to chill it at this point), then break up into pieces by hand. Store in an airtight container.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Laissez les bon temps rouler!

HAPPY MARDI GRAS, everyone! :-D

Behold the king cake that I fashioned late last night in celebration of today's holiday. Before you are too terribly impressed, let me tell you that this is a TOTAL fake-out recipe. A quickie. A cheater. A Sandra Lee, but actually comes to us by way of the High King of Mardi Gras, Emeril Lagasse (so it must be legit). If you dig into the archives from last February and read about my struggles with last year's king cake, you may understand why I've chosen the easy route this time around. Not only am I consumed with play rehearsals this week, my beloved friend, June, who hails from The Big Easy originally, is hosting a Mardi Gras dinner tonight, and she is making a proper king cake for us to enjoy. This quickie version is made with....wait for it....drumroll, please...CRESCENT ROLLS--my favorite cheater ingredient of all! (Crescent rolls for the Crescent's a stretch, I know, but go with it!) In all my practicing for the Pillsbury Bake-Off over the years, I have reached the conclusion that there is nothing that can't be made with a good old can of crescent rolls. It's not traditional, true, but every king cake I've tried has been on the dry side, just shy of inedible, despite taking hours and hours, or even days to make. This can be made, start to finish, in under an hour, and is truly yummy, rather like a cheese Danish. I also think it would be a great food project for kids to make. As is my way, I have made some additions, deletions, and conversions, but I highly recommend this very simplified recipe for your Mardi Gras celebration when you don't have the time or strength of will to make a king cake from scratch.

Emeril's Quick King Cake
(Source: adapted from

1 can crescent rolls (I used the larger ones--6 rolls instead of 8)
1/4 cup cinnamon (whoa! that's a LOT of cinnamon--I used more like a generous tablespoon)
1/4 cup butter, softened
8 oz. cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup powdered sugar (this is half of what the originally recipe called for, but trust me, with all the decorative sugar that you'll be putting on top, 1/2 cup is more than enough!)
1 small can fruit pie filling, your choice of flavor (I omitted this as I like the filling to be unadulterated cream cheese!)

a tiny baby or bead or bean
icing (recipe follows)
colored crystals in purple, gold, and green (or granulated sugar mixed with a few drops of food coloring)
  1. After opening the can of crescent rolls, unroll in one piece. With your fingers, press seams together to form one piece of dough.
  2. Mix together butter and cinnamon, gently spread over the dough.
  3. Mix together cream cheese and powdered sugar. Drop teaspoons over the top of the dough.* Drop teaspoonfuls of pie filling (cherry, blueberry or peach) over the dough as you did the cream cheese.
  4. Starting on the long end, carefully roll the dough, horizontally, with the filling and cream cheese inside. Insert plastic baby/bead/bean at any place within the dough.
  5. Place on lined baking pan with the seam side down in a circle, pinching the ends together.**
  6. Bake at 350 for 15-20 minutes or until golden brown.
  7. While the cake is baking, use the food coloring to dye the sugar.
  8. When cake is cool, pour icing over the top of the cake. Sprinkle with the colored sugar, alternating the three colors as you go around the circle.
  9. For icing: Combine 1 cup of powdered sugar, 1 tbsp lemon juice and 1 tbsp water (and I like a splash of vanilla for good measure) until smooth.
*I spread the cream cheese mixture evenly over the dough. And I must tell you, I like cream cheese as well as the next person (by reading this blog, you'll know that that is a laughable understatement!), but I think that this makes too much cream cheese filling for this small cake. It ends up being too thick and rich (and yes, that is possible--when it becomes too goopy). I think half as much would do just as well, and certainly no more that 6 oz. of cream cheese at most.
**If I were making this cake for more than just myself and my roommate (and/or if we didn't still have leftover cinnamon rolls!), I might double the recipe, using two cans of crescent rolls, and joining the two pieces together to make a bigger circle for a party-sized king cake.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

(Not As) Dark and (Even More!) Dangerous Cinnamon Buns

With the play performances looming in a week, we are into crunch time on our practices. So faced with double rehearsals this weekend, I didn't think I'd have time for any big food projects. But then I was reading one of my favorite blogs, Culinary in the Desert (or it might be Culinary in the Country now that they've moved from the Southwest to the East Coast), and damn them, they sucked me in with their cinnamon rolls from the King Arthur Whole Grain Baking Book! They just looked too good not to try. I was very curious as to whether a whole-grain cinnamon roll could maintain a desirably soft interior. And guess what? It can! I credit that to the potatoes and milk in the dough, and perhaps the honey, too. And I love the addition of rolled oats...yum!

Of course, I ended up making some adjustments due to the ingredients that I had on hand. But they really turned out well--certainly equal to the traditional cinnamon rolls that I've made in the past in terms of texture, and I believe more flavorful overall. The main difference was that instead of using part whole wheat and part whole wheat white flours, I used all whole wheat white, as I had LOTS of that on hand and needed to use a good bit of it up. So these are not as dark as the original version. (I will try it that way in the future, to be sure.) Also, they seemed to be making an attempt to make the rolls lower in fat but omitting butter in the filling, but I cannot support that! I want my cinnamon buns rich, decadent, and life-threatening, or why bother? Moreover, I am all about a cream cheese frosting, so I converted their icing recipe as well, just to make it that much tastier...and deadlier. ;-) However, I will reprint the original version of the recipe below for you to try, and just note my changes. Then you can decide which way you want to go.

Dark and Dangerous Cinnamon Buns (Adapted from KAF Whole Grain Baking Book via Culinary in the Desert/Country)

For the dough:
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons lukewarm water (I needed an additional 2 T making a full cup)
1/4 cup fresh squeezed orange juice
5 tablespoons honey
1 large egg, yolk and white separated (I used the whole egg)
4 tablespoons butter, softened, cut into chunks
2 1/4 cups white whole wheat flour
1 1/4 cups whole wheat flour (I used all whole wheat white=3 1/2 cups)
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup dry potato flakes
1/4 cup nonfat dry milk
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons instant yeast

For the filling:
1 cup packed dark brown sugar (I used light)
1 large egg white (I used this in the dough)
2 tablespoons cinnamon
scant 1/8 teaspoon salt

*softened butter (optional)

For the icing:
2 cups confectioners' sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract (I used vanilla bean paste and extract)
2 tablespoons butter, melted
pinch of salt
2-4 tablespoons milk
*I added 4 oz. softened cream cheese and only needed 1-2 T of milk

To make the dough :
In a large mixing bowl, mix together water, orange juice, honey, egg yolk (or egg), butter, flours, oats, potato flakes, dry milk, salt and yeast just until the ingredients are thoroughly combined. Cover the dough and let rest for 45 minutes so the flour can absorb the liquid and the yeast can get a head start.

Knead the dough on a lightly floured surface until you have a medium-soft and smooth dough. Place in a large lightly greased bowl and cover - let rise until it is very puffy, but will most likely have not double in size - about 1 to 2 hours. (I almost gave up after 2 1/2 hours and was ready to pitch the non-rising dough. But after FOUR HOURS, it was perfectly doubled.)

To make the filling:
In a medium bowl, stir together brown sugar, egg white, cinnamon and salt until completely combined. (I omitted the egg white, spread the dough with softened butter instead, and then sprinkled on the cinnamon-sugar-salt mix.)

To assemble the rolls:
Gently punch down the dough and place it on a lightly greased surface. Roll the dough out until it is a 12 x 16" rectangle. Scoop the filling onto the dough and use an off-set spatula or wet fingers to spread it evenly over the dough, leaving a 1" margin along one of the edges. Roll the dough into a log (not too tight to allow for rising), starting with the long end that has the filling all the way to the edge, turning it so the seam will be flat against the surface. Use plain dental floss and cut the dough into 16 1" pieces. You can use a very sharp knife, but the dental floss makes for clean cuts without smooshing the dough.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Evenly space the buns into a 9 x 13" baking dish lightly coated with nonstick spray. It is okay if they don't touch each other. Cover and let rise for 1 to 1 1/4 hours - they will not double in size, but should rise by about half as large as they started out. (I let my rise in the refrigerator overnight instead.)

Place in the oven and bake until they are a deep golden brown on top, about 24-28 minutes. Remove the pan and set on a wire rack for about 3 minutes. Carefully turn the rolls out onto a wire rack and then flip them back again (so the tops are up) onto another wire cooling rack. (I just left mine in the baking dish and did not turn them out before icing them.)

To make the icing:
In a large mixing bowl, mix together confectioners' sugar, vanilla, butter, salt and 2 tablespoons milk (and some cream cheese if you like). Add in additional milk, if necessary, to achieve a creamy spreadable icing. Spread the icing over the baked rolls while still warm.

Makes 16 buns.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Snow Day II: Electric Bugaloo

As I suspected we might, we had another snow day today. (My first clue was that I couldn't even open the back door late last night to let the dogs out because it was blocked by a deep drift of snow!) Still, I've lived here for seven years, and the double snow day is heretofore unprecedented! This called for a special snow day breakfast, and I knew just the thing! Some years ago, I visited the Vermont Maple Festival, and there was a very popular fellow there named Ernie making something he called Finnish Pancakes. Luckily for me, he was distributing a handout with the recipe on it that I have since toyed with and merged with a couple of others. It closely resembled the "Dutch Baby" that I had been making from a King Arthur Flour recipe. And then I saw something very similar on Martha which she called Puffy Maine Pancakes, although she made smaller, individual pancakes from the batter. I have also heard this called a German pancake, and it is clearly the sweet cousin of the savory English side dish to roast beef, Yorkshire Pudding. More recently, I came across someone on the Cook's Illustrated message boards who shared the same type of recipe which she called "Huffy Puffy." That may be my favorite name, especially if you're making breakfast for children.

Whatever the nationality or moniker, this is a delicious and almost magical dish. When it comes out of the oven, it will have puffed up to double or even triple the height of the pan, though it deflates within a few minutes as it cools. Then the tender, eggy, custardy creation is served with maple syrup or fruit preserves or--and this is my preference--a drizzle of browned butter and a thick snowdrift of powdered sugar. That's why I think that this is the perfect breakfast during a blizzard! (Though it would be just as tasty in tropical climes, I'm sure.) Some folks might even prefer this as a dessert, especially with a fresh berry sauce or maybe some fried apples instead. Yum! You could pop it in the oven just as you and your guests are sitting down to dinner, and have that big "wow" moment as you pull the puffy, golden beast from the oven and bring it to the table. And the applause will turn to grateful tears and perhaps hugs for the chef once they taste it. Don't believe me? Try it and see what happens!

Snow Day Baked Pancake
(serves 4, or 2 if it's for me! tee hee)

4 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cup milk (or better yet, half-n-half!)
2 tablespoons vanilla sugar (or granulated sugar and a splash of vanilla extract), optional
pinch of salt
*a little nutmeg or cinnamon would be optional, but I don't prefer it
4 tablespoons butter
confectioners' sugar, for dusting

1. Heat oven to 425° Place eggs, flour, milk, sugar, and salt in a medium bowl; whisk until combined. Batter may still be slightly lumpy. The batter may be made a day ahead and chilled overnight, but it's just fine if you don't.

2. Melt the butter in a 9 x 13 pan in the preheated oven (you could halve this recipe and make it in n 8 x 8 pan, too). Once melted, pour the batter into the hot pan and return to the oven. Bake until pancake is golden brown and very puffy, 15-20 minutes. Drizzle with a little browned butter and dust liberally with confectioners' sugar; serve immediately.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Valentine's Day "Blizzard" of '07

(The was the view from my front porch earlier today. The house is right on a very busy rural highway, and this was early in the day before the snow really started accumulating! Can you see the snowmobilers there at the four corners? Click on the picture to enlarge it for a better view.)

Well, this has been an odd day! I stayed up half the night making some 90-odd Oreo truffles for my colleagues at work as a Valentine's Day treat only to have school cancelled due to a huge Nor'easter snowstorm! On the one hand, this is nothing short of a nightmare, as Wednesday is the absolute worst day to miss. You see, I have two classes that are Monday-Wednesday only and one once-a-week night class on Wednesday. So it is going to be hideous trying to figure out how to get those classes caught up.

But that's the grown-up teacher in me talking. The kid in me was delighted to have a snow day! I woke up around 8am, heard the news that school was cancelled, and went right back to bed for a long winter's nap! When I arose much later, I decided that a special Valentine's Day meal was in order for dinner. First, Cyd helped me assemble an icebox cake, as she has been bugging me to make her another one since we polished off the first. This time, I tried to make it look like the version that I just saw in the display case at Billy's Bakery this weekend, with the edges of the cookies sticking out of the cake. And since I had leftover chocolate from the truffles, I topped it with both bittersweet and white chocolate shavings. Pretty, huh?

Then for dinner, I made the short ribs that Cyd has also been harrassing me about for weeks, and I served it over another of the Rossi pastas from my Christmas stash, the wild mushroom linguini. Scrumptious! And of course, we sopped up the delicious sauce with some of the amazing Pane Pugliese from Sullivan Street Bakery. I was worried that it may have gone stale, but after five minutes in a hot oven, it crisped right back up. The interior is tender and holey and stretchy and replete with a tangy, sourdough-like flavor. If there is a better bread on the planet, I haven't found it yet!

Well, however you dined this evening and whatever the menu, I hope you all had a lovely Valentine's Day, and that you enjoyed some romantic time with your special someone!

Oreo Truffles

16 oz. Oreo cookies
8 oz. cream cheese, softened
2 cups bittersweet (or semi-sweet or milk) chocolate, melted
1 cup white chocolate, melted (optional)

Crush Oreos in a food processor. Mix softened cream cheese for a minute or two in the bowl of a stand mixer until completely smooth. Add in the crushed cookies and mix thoroughly. Shape into small balls, about one teaspoon's worth apiece. Freeze for about an hour or until very firm (I just put mine on the roof of my car out in the garage at this time of year!). Melt the bittersweet chocolate, dip each cold truffle, and place on a lined sheet pan to firm up. Once set, drizzle with melted white chocolate as a contrast. Store the truffles in a covered container in the refrigerator. Makes about 50, depending on size.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The long, sad tale of our NYC weekend....

As the great Mary Chapin-Carpenter once sang so poignantly, “Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug.” Those lyrics perfectly sum up the events of my weekend in NYC. Sometimes you are lucky and get the best of the Big Apple, and sometimes, the City has its way with you, and you get the worm! I started with the best of intentions. I would head down early Saturday morning to attend the PBGV Specialty at the Meadowlands in Secaucus, NJ held annually the weekend just before Westminster, then spend that evening and the next day in NYC before heading home Sunday. But before we even departed the North Country, there were bad signs. First off, I had some trouble with the car that had to be repaired before the road trip (new tires and an alignment, and I still feel something’s funny under there!). Of course, this caused some concerns about the financial viability of travel plans. Then both our arrangements for a place to stay in the City Saturday night and our pet-sitter fell through at the last minute. So I managed to Priceline a room in Secaucus (for $65 total—whoo-hoo!), find another pet-sitter, and throwing all caution to the wind, off we went. We were supposed to pick up some friends in the Bronx on the way to the Meadowlands, but when we took the exit that they said to take, we were in Nyack, NJ and not the Bronx! With the help of a friendly patron at a Mobil station (that unfriendly New Yorker thing is a stereotype that does not usually bear out), we got back on track and made it to the show on time and got to see all the wonderful PBGVs. (We'll be rooting for our girl, Fairchild, tonight at Westminster!) But that was about the last thing that went well all weekend. :-(

After the dog show, we bussed into the City, hopefully, for dinner and theatre. I had my heart set on seeing “Spring Awakening” (hailed as the new “Rent,” and I am the most devout Renthead!), but there were no tickets. My second choice was “Grey Gardens,” but I really couldn’t afford to do two shows this time, and the TKTS guy felt confident that they would have “Spring Awakening” tickets the next day. So I decided to wait and put all my eggs in the Sunday matinee basket, and we headed to Chinatown for some dinner and a little shopping. I had printed out all 18 pages of The Village Voice’s Top 100 Inexpensive Restaurants in New York, and I had a particular restaurant picked out called Great NY Noodle Town. However, I couldn’t make out whether it was at 28 ½ Bowery or 281 Bowery. Naturally, I chose the wrong direction, and after walking forever in the freezing cold, we were still only in the 100’s and leaving Chinatown heading toward Soho! We were cold and hungry, so we just decided to eat at some place we passed on the way back; it was good but nothing remarkable. After the dinner debacle, it had become late, and I began to stress out because all the shops were closing, and I hadn’t yet found the scarf that I came looking for. But we managed to find the perfect Valentine’s Day, red-and-pink, rose motif, velvety, fringy scarf at the last stall before the subway! So it seemed like things were looking up. But then it took nearly two hours to get all the way back to the hotel in North Rutherford, and we were exhausted by the time we showered and fell into bed. Then I was so worried about getting up in time to get to the theatre to try to procure show tickets, that I really didn’t sleep much, keeping one eye on the clock all night.

Sunday was a study in chaos and disappointment. I’ll spare you all the boring details—too late— but the short version is, we weren’t able to get tickets to either show (my greatest heartbreak), and in making various attempts to procure the tickets (from theatre to theatre and from the midtown TKTS to the South Street Seaport one which we never could find!), we managed to suck up the best part of the day, so that we weren’t even able to connect with our friends for breakfast, brunch or lunch (compounded by the fact that I think I left their phone number at the hotel back in NJ in my morning haste and had no way to contact them). After tears were shed and the dream of seeing a show was finally abandoned, we shifted into Plan B mode, which was to pop in on some of our favorite food places in the City, and procure provisions to cart home to Plattsburgh. But there was inordinate amount of traffic for a Sunday (hence, no parking anywhere), and we seemed to have an extraordinarily difficult time of finding some of the places, and when we finally did, many of them were closed! BOO HISS! So we barely made a dent in our to-do list, but we did manage to procure at least a few goodies from several of our favorite haunts.

From Balducci’s, we got coffee and olives. From Balthazar, we got a loaf of brioche and some of their divine chocolate bread. From Billy’s Bakery, we tried a vanilla-vanilla cupcake to see what all the fuss is about and to compare them to the ones I made at home. The cupcake was still a bit on the dry side (though not quite as much as mine), and the frosting was still sickeningly sweet to my taste (although a little creamier than mine). We also tried the red velvet cupcakes (at $2.50 apiece! OUCH), and though they were superior to the vanilla-vanilla and a glorious color, they were still a bit on the dryish side. We definitely preferred the boiled icing to the powdered sugar stuff. But still, nothing to rave about. At Porto Rico in the Village, we acquired more coffee. And though I nearly got a ticket for double parking, no trip to NYC would be complete without a stop at Jim “No-Knead” Lahey’s Sullivan Street Bakery (which is now, strangely, not on Sullivan Street in Soho, but in Hell’s Kitchen). The Sullivan Street Bakery is like a temple to foodies and breadheads, and even if I get that ticket in the mail at a future date, it may well have been worth it. I grabbed a loaf of their legendary Pane Pugliese, a large ciabatta, two pieces of my personal Achilles heel, the Potato Pizza (a crispy dough topped with just thinly-sliced potatoes, onions, olive oil, sea salt and maybe a little rosemary—sounds like nothing, but it is EVERYTHING!), and also two pieces of the Pizza con Pecorino with hunks of pecorino cheese stuffed inside the dough. LORD HELP US! And then I also decided to try their Carta, which is just a crispy flatbread cracker-type of deal, but it’s quite delicious. Oh, and of course, we popped into the Chelsea Market for some of Jimmy’s Gelato (though their name has now changed to L’Arte del Gelato). Sadly, they did not have the beloved Chocolate Cayenne flavor of blessed memory, but I enjoyed some stracciatella (vanilla with shaved chocolate pieces) and Cyd had peanut butter. They were both good, but not anything close to the spicy chocolate variety.

After all the running about, we decided to make one last Hail Mary attempt to find our friends in The Bronx. We did not have their phone number, but I had my Mapquest directions with their address on it. It seemed doubtful, given the day’s frustrations, that we would get there without incident, but so we did, and we even managed to get a parking spot near their building! However, as they had show tickets that night (for “Spam-a-Lot” which we saw last year), and we didn’t have time to go back down into the City and all the way back up, we settled on a quick dinner at a local pub called the Piper’s Kilt (tee hee….”We have a piper doon!”). But at least we had that time together, though we were not able to check another NYC restaurant off our “to-try” list. (Sigh.) But before you get to pitying me too much (which, naturally, was my goal), I must report that the day ended on an upbeat note with a stop at Stew Leonard’s in Yonkers where I procured many tasty things, including freshly-baked challah, homemade tortillas and garlic croutons, flavored pankos (paprika, mustard), ginormous shallots, sugar snap peas, a mixed bean salad, marinated boccocini balls, Stew’s own cream cheese and their smoked mozzarella, their own in-house dried soppresata and also some fresh provolone and parsley sausages, and even a King Cake for Mardi Gras!

We didn’t arrive home until 2:00am with our souls (and pocketbooks!) more than a bit depleted. But I suppose the worst weekend in New York City is always better than the best weekend in Plattsburgh. And there will always be a next time… (Great, the way my luck’s going, I’ve just tempted fate by saying that, and now I’ll probably get hit by a bus…SHEESH!) ;-)

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Lee Ann's Sweet and Salty Birthday Treats

My dear friend and officemate, Lee Ann, had a birthday this week, and she requested the same extreme lemon cake that her husband, Steve, had back in September. But to add a different--pun intended--twist for Lee Ann, I made it in my fairy cottage bundt pan that I got on clearance after the holidays. Isn't it cute? :-)

Then, for a fun birthday present, I ordered her party pack of new Kettle Chip flavors (thanks to my buddy, Randi, for the idea and for a picture of the goodies). The company hosted a "People's Choice" contest recently to choose their newest flavor, and customers could buy a sampler of five different kinds: Royal Indian Curry, Island Jerk, Dragon 5 Spice, Twisted Chili Lime, and Aztec Chocolate. (Island Jerk won, by the way, and will soon be on store shelves near you!) The five bags of chips also came with some cute postcards that have food pairing suggestions (tee hee), a metal bookmark, and a sampler of world music entitled, "Putumayo: Music for Every Palate." Neat, huh? And here's the best part...the whole party pack from Kettle Foods, including shipping, is only 15 bucks! Better yet, if you want to order some for a friend and keep a set of chips for yourself, it's just $25 for the double pack. (You don't have to ask...of course that's what I did!) And yes, you can still order some for yourself, but hurry, as these are limited edition trial flavors, and since the contest is already over, I suspect they will be gone very soon.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Lions and Colts and Bears, OH MY!

There are occasions for sophisticated, elegant dishes, and then, there's SUPERBOWL SUNDAY, the national holiday for tacky, heart-clogging cuisine. It's all about meatballs and wings and devilled eggs and seven-layer dips and ribs and nachos and cocktail weenies and pulled-pork sandwiches with spicy slaw and so on. Then again, it's just me and the roommate today, so that menu might be a bit of overkill...literally! Tee hee. Ironically, I loathe sports, but I love a Superbowl party. During the big game, I am always to be found in the kitchen, preparing a steady stream of snacks, only popping into the living room to catch the commercials and the halftime show. Today, I made just three savory dishes and one sweet dessert (but recipes for my favorite seven-layer dip and salsas can be found in previous posts, FYI). Continuing on in my kitschy, retro meatball theme (because I still had half a bag left over from the Hawaiian meatballs of recent memory), I decided to make that church potluck classic with the grape jelly and chili sauce. I added a tablespoon of Dijon mustard to give it a little something extra, but that was it. Easy peasy! Instead of traditional hot wings, I thought I might like something more like the lemon, garlic and oregano house wings at the Lebanese restaurant in town, Aladdin's, so I adapted one of my favorite recipes for Rao's Lemon Chicken from the famous restaurant in New York City. And then because I have been tormented by the recent commercials for T.G.I. Friday's (we don't have one here), and because I was unwilling to make a three-hour round trip just to have their green bean fries, I tried my hand at making my own after reading a thread about it on the Cook's Illustrated message boards. Finally, in honor of the big game being played in Florida, I made some tangy little key lime tartlets. I hope you all enjoyed your game-time grub, too, and that your team won!

Superbowl Meatballs

half a bag (about 3 lbs.) of frozen meatballs, thawed in fridge overnight
32 oz. jar grape jelly
2 12 oz. bottles chili sauce
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard (preferably, whole-grain)

Fill crock pot with meatballs. Add grape jelly, chili sauce, and mustard. Stir to combine. Heat on low for 5-7 hours.

Lemony Chicken Wings
(Source: adapted from Rao's recipe for lemon chicken via

1 1/2-2 lbs.chicken wings
2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley (or one tablespoon dried)

Lemon Sauce:
1 cup fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
2 cloves minced fresh garlic (of course, I used four!)
1 teaspoon dried oregano
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat broiler for at least 15 minutes so it has its maximum heat.
Broil chicken wings, turning once, for 10-15 minutes or until skin is golden-brown and juices run clear when you pierce the pieces with a fork; don't overcook or chicken will be dry. Remove chicken from broiler, but leave broiler on.

Place chicken pieces on a baking sheet with sides. Pour lemon sauce over the wings and toss to coat well. Put pan under broiler and broil chicken for 2 minutes; turn pieces and broil for 1 minute more. Place chicken pieces on a large, warmed, serving platter.

Pour sauce remaining in pan into a saucepan over high heat; stir in parsley; cook for 1 minute. Pour over chicken and serve with lots of crusty bread to sop up sauce.

To make lemon sauce, combine all sauce ingredients in a bowl and whisk together. Refrigerate until needed; whisk again before using.

Green Bean Fries
(Source: adapted from a recipe by Eric aka Veal Boy via the Cook's Illustrated message boards)

1 pound fresh green beans (I used thinner, straighter haricots verts)

1 1/2 cups beer, open and let sit for a couple hours (I didn't wait, and it was fine)
1 1/2 cups self-rising flour (or you could use cake flour and baking powder instead)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon Hungarian paprika (I used smoked, bittersweet)
a few dashes of hot pepper sauce (optional)

Mix the flour, salt and beer together using a whisk until smooth. Then add paprika and pepper sauce, mixing just until incorporated. Wash and dry green beans and break off the end. Deep fry in vegetable oil at 370-375 until golden. Drain and sprinkle lightly with kosher salt. Serve with an aioli (or your favorite) dipping sauce.

Note: They will stick to bottom if you just drop them in, so lower slowly by hand.

Key Lime Tartlets

1 package graham crackers, crushed
6 tablespoons butter, melted
pinch of salt
sprinkle of ground cinnamon

1 can sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup key lime juice
3 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla

Combine crushed graham crackers, melted butter, salt and cinnamon. Press equal amounts into the bottoms of a regular muffin tin to make 12 little crusts. Bake at 350 degrees for about ten minutes until lightly browned.
Mix together the sweetened condensed milk, key lime juice, egg yolks and vanilla. Divide the batter equally on top of each graham cracker crust and bake the tarts for about 15 minutes at 350 degrees until just set. Let cool in the pan for ten minutes before refrigerating until completely chilled. Serve the tarts with a dollop of whipped cream and a decorative twist of lime!

Note: Of course, this recipe can be made into a regular 9-inch pie if preferred.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

"But monsieur, it is only WAFER thin!"

I'm still trolling my Magnolia and Buttercup Bakery cookbooks for fun treats to make. Their famous cupcakes didn't do much for me, but I figured that there would be something that would float my boat, and I found just the thing! Let me preface this by saying that I am amazed that these bakeries in NYC have people lined up around the block to buy desserts for tip-top dollar that are just the simplest and homiest recipes that one could imagine. In fact, this one is the cheatin'est of all cheater recipes. This is the grandpappy of all sham cookery! This one would make Sandra Lee wet herself with excitement. There is no baking or cooking of any kind required to make this "cake." It is merely assembly of cookies and whipped cream. In fact, I was thinking that this would be an excellent cake to make with kids, if you have any of those grubby little snifflers underfoot. You can even simplify it further by making the cake with Cool Whip, but I strongly advise against it. I mean, come on! You can't even whip up some proper cream? It's the only real food preparation that you have to do! Jeesh!

Now some people remember this dessert fondly from their childhood, although it was usually in a log shape. My mom never made this one at all. Banana nut bread was her game. But what's not to like? It's whipped cream and Oreos, basically...and who doesn't enjoy cookies n' creme? Moreover, it's a magic cake. It starts with crispy wafer cookies, but after it has been refrigerated for at least five hours or overnight, the cookies soften up and create the cake-like texture. Fun!

Chocolate Wafer Icebox Cake
(adapted from The Magnolia Bakery Cookbook)

3 cups heavy cream
3 tablespoons sugar (I used vanilla sugar, and more like 4-5 tablespoons of it)
1 tablespoon vanilla extract (I added one additional teaspoon of vanilla bean paste)
2 (9-ounce) packages chocolate wafer cookies (I used about 1 1/2 packages of Nabisco Famous Wafer know, the ones that are like thin, unfilled Oreos)
Unsweetened cocoa or chocolate shavings (I used the latter)

In a large bowl, beat cream, sugar and vanilla with an electric mixer on high speed until soft peaks form.

On a flat serving plate, arrange 7 cookies side by side in a circle, keeping 1 cookie in the center.

Spread with 1/2 cup whipped cream, making a 7-inch circle. Repeat with remaining cookies and cream, making 11 layers of cookies and ending with a layer of cream (there will be a few cookies left over). Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

To serve, dust top lightly with cocoa powder or chocolate shavings.