Thursday, April 30, 2009

Casserole Queen, C'est Moi!

Being so crazed and on-the-go lately, I haven't been able to enjoy one of my favorite pastimes--just chillaxing on the weekend and watching me some Food Network! But I did manage to get a little Throwdown with Bobby Flay going on this past Sunday. And it was a very fun episode with these two crazy gals dressed in 50's "Leave It to Beaver"-wear, calling themselves the Casserole Queens, and delivering homemade casseroles in person to lucky customers in the greater Austin, TX area. These wacky chicks were challenged to a pot pie throwdown, but unfortunately for them, Bobby was victorious with his typically spicy, chipotle-laced filling and sweet potato biscuit crust (yum!). However, the pot pie that the Queens made looked fabulous, too. It was more traditional, but also more elegant than your mama's pot pie. There were French influences with the addition of white wine and tarragon, and of course, the puff pastry crust fancies it up quite a bit, too. It takes a bit of time to get it all assembled, but it only takes about a half hour to bake, and it makes a TON! Yeah for leftovers! THANKS, Casserole Queens!

Before I post the recipe, I will freely admit that I took a few liberties with it. I found the filling a little bland once it all came together, so I increased the tarragon and spices, and added some garlic powder, for which it seemed to be crying out. And I added an extra potato, because I'm crazy like that! Also, I needed more puff pastry than originally called for to cover my casserole (and it's really the crispy, lacquered puff pastry that MAKES this pot pie so special). And I switched the order of preparation around a little bit so that it made more sense. For example, why add the chicken while sauteeing the shallots, and then continue to cook it as the sauce thickens? It's already cooked--you'd just be drying it out. Moreover, I chose not to blanch my peas. They'll cook enough in the oven. (One doesn't wish mushy peas...unless you're making that British delicacy, mushy peas, I suppose.) The next time I make this, I would consider adding some mushrooms, sauteeing them with the shallots. MMM! But here is tonight's inaugural incarnation...

Casserole Queen Pot Pie
(Source: adapted from
Food Network)

1 sheet frozen puff pastry (you'll need 1 1/3 sheets of Pepperidge Farm brand for a 9x13 pan)
2 tablespoons butter
2 medium shallots, thinly sliced (my shallots were jumbo-sized!)
1/4 cup chopped red sweet pepper (I used jarred roasted red peppers)
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt (I used a vegetable salt blend)
1 teaspoon dried tarragon
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
pinch of cayenne
2 cups milk
1 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup dry white wine
1 roasted chicken, bones and skin removed then shredded (save time and use a deli-roasted chicken)
1 1/2 cups green peas
1 1/2 cups sliced carrots, blanched
3 potatoes, peeled, diced, and boiled just until tender
1 egg plus 1 tablespoon milk, for egg wash

Thaw puff pastry according to package directions (40 minutes at room temperature), and preheat oven to 425 degrees F.

Meanwhile, in a large skillet, melt butter over medium-high heat. Add shallots and cook five minutes, stirring frequently. Add red pepper. Stir in flour, salt, tarragon, and black pepper. Add milk and cream all at once. Cook and whisk until thickened and bubbly. Stir in wine, chicken, peas, carrots and potatoes. Transfer the chicken mixture to a 9x13 Pyrex dish. Place pastry over the chicken mixture in casserole dish (you'll have to fit one-third of a sheet on the end to cover). Brush puff pastry with egg wash, then cut slits in the pastry to allow steam to escape.

Bake in the preheated oven for 30 to 45 minutes (mine was done at 30 minutes). Let cool and re-thicken for 10 or 15 minutes before cutting and serving.

P.S. Yes, yes...I know that it seems strange to be making such a hearty, rib-sticking casserole as this when it's almost summer for most folks around the country. And though the temperature here inexplicably rose past 90 degrees earlier this week, as of yesterday, I had to close up the windows and turn the heat back on. Even as I type, the wind is howling something fierce, so I guess casserole recipes are still warranted. I'm not sure if this makes me happy or sad--perhaps a bit of both?

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Say...CHEESE! we are at the end of April, and I'm almost caught up with my blogging! Ok, I'm still a week behind, but given that I was almost a MONTH behind at one point, I'd say that's fine progress!)

So...masochist that I am, despite the fact that it's the ugliest time of the semester, I signed up to teach another cooking class for Continuing Education last Saturday. Thus far, I have done three canning classes, a pie-baking workshop, and continuing my theme of "lost culinary arts," this time I chose to teach beginning cheesemaking. I certainly could not have taught advanced cheesemaking, because I have not yet myself graduated to the hard cheeses, as I have neither a cheese press nor the refrigerator space to devote to aging the cheese. Moreover, I simply don't have patience to wait weeks or months to eat my cheese! So I stick to soft, fresh cheeses that are really quite easy to make, and that I thought would translate well to a workshop structure. But it sounded a lot easier in my head than it turned out to be in real life. The main thing one must accept in cheesemaking is that, often enough, cheese refuses to be made on a schedule, and it's going to be ready when it's ready, and not when it's convenient for the likes of YOU!

My two cheesemaking mentors are Ricki Carroll, author of Home Cheesemaking (the cheesemaker's bible!) and the website,, and David B. Fankhauser (yes, that is his real name!), Professor of Chemistry and Biology at University of Cincinatti's Clermont College. Dr. Fankhauser has a marvelous cheesemaking website that is all the beginner really needs to consult, as he offers simple recipes, with clear, step-by-step instuctions and pictures of how to make cheese using everyday ingredients and equipment. As a professor is wont to do, he also offers a beginning cheesemaking syllabus, starting with yogurt and ending with blue cheese. I didn't want to make yogurt--I wanted to make cheese! So I started with his basic neufchatel recipe (that's cream cheese made with whole milk instead of cream). Though I started with what I believed to be plenty of lead time, the resulting cheese was still not completely ready by class time on Saturday! Fankhauser and Carroll agree that it could take as long as 20 hours for the curd to set up, and though my first batch went that long (and the swap-out that I made for class went up to 28!), it still wasn't really firm enough when I had to give up and move onto straining it. And then that was the next disaster--it is supposed to drain overnight, but mine really wasn't dry enough for my tastes until 2-3 days later! But I managed to scrape about a cup off the sides of the cheesecloth (well, flour sack towel, as I prefer to use), which I mixed with lemon zest, garlic, black pepper and fresh herbs from my Aerogarden for the students to sample in class. So it all worked out in the end.

You should try to make some of your own. Other than it taking roughly forever, it's all passive time, and it's really easy. And the cheese turns out lovely and swoopy and silky. You can flavor it however you like, or it makes a heavenly, tender cheesecake. Fankhauser likes to fold his into scrambled eggs. Or you can mold it into shapes, and then coat the little logs or rounds with fresh herbs or paprika and/or red or black pepper, etc. Wouldn't that make a delightful appetizer or hostess gift to take to your next dinner party? Ooh, or take that a bit further and try what this Italian fellow did with his...make tomini elettrici sott’olio (or cheese with herbs and pepper preserved in olive oil). How good does THAT sound, as Ina would ask?

Fankhauser's Neufchatel
(Source: Fankhauser's Cheese Page)
Makes 1 to 1 1/2 pounds of cheese

5 quart stainless steel pot with lid (sterilized by boiling water in it for 5 minutes prior to use)
thermometer reading in the 50-100°F range
sterile clean handkerchief, cheesecloth or flour sack towel
large strainer or colander 1 gallon fresh whole milk (store-bought may be used, use skimmed milk for low fat but less flavorful cheese)
1/4 cup cultured buttermilk (or 2 ice cubes of frozen buttermilk)
1/4 Junket tablet (or 5 drops of liquid rennet)

1. Assemble ingredients and sterilize the pot by covering and boiling a small amount of water for five minutes.
2. Add buttermilk to milk in the pre-sterilized 5 quart stainless steel pot. If using ice cubed starter, stir until completely melted. Warm with stirring to a final temperature of 65°F.
3. Meanwhile, dissolve 1/4 tablet rennet in 1/4 cup cool water. (If you use liquid rennet, use five drops/gallon of milk, also dissolved in water. Be sure it is not outdated.)
4. Add the dissolved rennet into the 65°F inoculated milk while stirring.
5. Cover and let sit undisturbed overnight at room temperature (65-70°F,
6. The next morning, a soft curd should have formed. If not, let it continue to sit and firm up (could be 20 hours or more!). When curd is adequately formed, cut it into 1/2-inch cubes.
7. Ladle cut curds into a clean sterile handkerchief suspended in large strainer or stainless steel colander. Pour the remaining whey through the cloth. If the cloth becomes clogged, lift the cloth back and forth or scrape the forming cheese away from the cloth.
8. Hang the curd in a cool place to allow the whey to drip out: pick up the four corners of the cloth, wrap a heavy rubberband around, and loop one end through the other end. Insert a chopstick through the open end, and suspend the cheese bag over a receiving vessel to catch the whey (I just tie mine with kitchen twine to the shelf above). Let hang overnight (or for a day or two!) until it reaches the desired texture.
9. The next day, open the cloth to reveal the cheese.
10. Sprinkle on 1- 2 teaspoons of salt, according to taste. Inadequately salted cheese will be more bland, and will not keep as well. Work to mix the salt in thoroughly. Store covered in the refrigerator until use. Recycled cottage cheese containers work well for this.
11. If you like, you may pack the cheese into a mold of your choice (a squat tin can with the ends removed works well).

The next cheese on Fankhauser's syllabus is labneh, a Middle Eastern cheese made from yogurt. But we weren't making yogurt, so I moved onto ricotta, which has a very similar method. In fact, I was speaking to my colleague, Mohan, who regularly makes paneer, the Indian cheese, at home. And interestingly, his paneer and the ricotta that I make are pretty much exactly the same, except that he goes on to press his in a mold of some kind, just like the sliceable form of ricotta known as ricotta salata. Of course, the real kind of ricotta (meaning "recooked" in Italian) comes from reheating the whey after making some other kind of cheese until the remaining solids float to the top to be collected and strained. Making ricotta that way as I often do, well, as Forrest Gump's mama would say, you never know what you're gonna get (or more to the point, how much)! If you want a richer product and a larger, more reliable yield, you can make ricotta starting with whole milk, or make it even better with the addition of some heavy cream, as my beloved friends, John and Keith, do when they make theirs. In fact, this is their simple but simply fabulous recipe:

John and Keith’s Whole Milk Ricotta
Makes 2-3 cups

1/2 gallon whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons white vinegar (regular, white wine, or white balsamic)
1/2 teaspoon salt

Stir milk and cream together in a large, pre-sterilized pot and bring to 185 degrees, then remove from the heat. Gently stir in the vinegar (John and Keith prefer Trader Joe’s White Balsamic) for about 30 seconds, then the salt for another 30 seconds. Let sit at room temperature (ideally, around 70 degrees) for two hours, then strain through cheese cloth/hang until it is the desired consistency.

John says of this cheese: “It is delicious. And it makes a wonderfully generous amount of ricotta…probably a little richer than that made with whey.”

I let the class sample the yummy ricotta on foccacia crackers with either my roasted red pepper spread on top or with my friends, Mike and Kurt's inspired combination of cheese, blackberry Earl Grey jam, and sriracha. (Ok, no one in class was brave enough to try it with the sriracha, I am sad to say! Oh well..their loss.) Lastly, I had to share the magic of the 30-minute mozzarella with my class, which was first introduced to me in Barbara Kingsolver's amazing book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (by way of Ricki Carroll). I made a couple of batches ahead of time, and then we made one in real-time in class. And it was so interesting, because I used three different kinds of milk, and got three different kinds of cheese. The first batch (Byrne Dairy) was so soft and tender, almost like Brie or Camembert. The second batch (Upstate Farms) turned out more like American-style mozzarella, kind of rubbery, but in a good way. And the last batch that we made in class was probably the most perfect, right in the middle texture-wise (Sunoco's brand of milk, called Wilson Farms)--neither too soft, nor too firm--the Goldilocks of cheese, if you will. So we sampled the very soft one with crackers and pepperoni and some of my dilly beans. The firmer one, we shredded to make a pizza alla bismarck at the end of class, which incorporated both the mozzarella and the ricotta that we had made. And the third one I gave to my dear friend, Lee Ann, along with some ricotta and Neufchatel, for loaning me another big stainless steel pot for all of my cheesy prep work. (Thanks, Lee Ann!)

All in all, I think it was a very successful first attempt at teaching basic cheesemaking. I managed to give a mini-lecture on equipment, ingredients and basic methods, complete all three cheeses, AND have time to make the bonus pizza at the end of class, with 10 or 15 minutes to spare! The experience will be very helpful when I teach the class again the weekend after next. Apparently, the idea of making cheese was extremely popular, so they asked me to add another section! Yeah! Blessed are the cheesemakers (and any manufacturers of dairy products)! And here are some would-be cheesemakers from last Saturday, filling out their course evaluations and probably saying, "What does this woman know? Her Neufchatel is still runny!"

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Never Too Much Easter!

It was a blessing to have a little extra time off at Easter, because the following week was crazy-busy! Monday night, I had a dress rehearsal for my community choir's spring concert. It was called "Broadway Duos: The Great American Songbook, Vol. II" and featured the wonderful songs of such great pairs as Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, and Rodgers and Hart. And I even had a solo this year--scary! (Normally, I'm more of a duet/trio/ensemble kind of gal.) Then Tuesday is trivia night, of course, and Wednesday is my night class. Thursday night was our final dress rehearsal for the concert where I had to sing my solo in front of the whole choir for the first time. YIKES! But they were very kind and supportive, and it went well, I think. (I sang "My Funny Valentine" in the style of Michelle Pfeiffer in "The Fabulous Baker Boys"--but NO, I did NOT slink around on top of the piano, thank you!) Friday night, Lee Ann and her daughter/my friend, K, made our way to the Places des Arts in Montreal to see "Hairspray!" which was SO much fun! I LOVE LOVE LOVE that show! (I wish I had some food news to report, but we walked a half an hour through a very raunchy area of town--with a seven-year-old in tow, mind you--to an Italian place called Da Giovanni that I saw recommended on Chowhound or somewhere, but it was crappy and overpriced. Oh well.)

Then Saturday night was the big concert. It was almost a full house, and I think the show was very fun and well-received. And thank you for asking...I think my solo went alright. I can tell you that doing it with a live jazz combo of piano, drums, stand-up bass and trumpet made me feel like I was singing in a smoke-filled cabaret in the 30's or 40's. Loved that! And some of my friends from work came to see me perform, so that made it even more special. Come to think of it, the whole thing was eerily reminiscent of a scene from The Talented Mr. Ripley, though I am not, I repeat NOT, a serial killer! (You believe me, don't you? You better, or you DIE, and I steal your identity! Mwah-ha-ha!)

After such an insane week, all I could think about was vegging out in my big comfy chair all day on Sunday and trying to recuperate before returning to work on Monday. But then I got a call from Janice inviting me to their annual Orthodox Easter Celebration and Mediterranean Buffet. If there was anything that could compel me to rise from my big chair and drive back into town for the eighth day in row, it was Janice's Middle East Feast! Of course, I could not go empty-handed to the party, so I decided to bake an overly-elaborate cake, as is my ridiculous way. You see, I was watching Kathy Griffin's new special, "She'll Cut a Bitch" (tee hee), and she was talking about taking some of her birthday cake over to Cher's house (LOL!). She described it as a marble cake with chocolate-chocolate chip buttercream filling and vanilla buttercream frosting. That sounded like some bakery's specialty to me, so I Googled it, and sure enough, it had to be from Hansen's in L.A. I tried to find recipe online to simulate such an animal, but I guess I should have looked harder, because the cake I produced was definitely sub-standard.

I started with the Rose Levy Berenbaum's sour cream butter cake and followed Rose's own instructions on how to convert it into a marble cake. But it was kind of dry and crumbly and wouldn't hold together when cut. Plus, it didn't have much flavor, even though the white part should have been tangy from the sour cream, and the chocolate part had both melted bittersweet chocolate and Special Dark cocoa powder. It's a mystery. And then I made not one, but TWO real, Swiss buttercreams! The chocolate-chocolate chip was DELICIOUS but set up too much, kind of like a truffle filling. (I know, I know, that sounds good, but I wanted it softer and silkier!) The vanilla bean buttercream that I made for the frosting was perhaps the most successful part of the project, but if it's even possible too imagine, I found it...well...too buttery! It was just too rich, and I don't remember ever having made that claim about a baked good before! (Sigh.)'s back to the drawing board for this particular cake. Maybe I'll consult my cake wizard friend at school, Keri Denchick, and asked for her advice--note to self.

At least there was an amazing Mediterranean spread at the Padula's! I don't know the proper names for everything, but there were olives and cheeses and little stuffed red peppers, a green salad with feta (fattoush), spanakopita (spinach in puff pastry), lentils, rice and vermicelli (my favorite!), kibbeh and little individual meatloaves, too, green beans with stewed tomatoes, dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), stuffed grey squashes, spicy chicken shawarma, various pita-type breads, baba ganoush, hummus, and tzatziki, and I can't remember the rest!

And those were just the savory courses! For dessert(s), in addition to my lackluster cake (pictured, center), there was candy and cookies and phyllo-based desserts of all kinds, including Janice's homemade baklava. There were dates and other dried fruits that her daughter and my pal, Dominica, cut into beautiful shapes and arranged very artfully, and there were the sweetest little pastel-colored petit fours that they found somewhere in Montreal. It was an amazing dessert spread!

The best part of all was when, Janice, in her maternally generous way, sent me home with so many leftovers, that they sustained me for the next three days during a very rough week at work! BLESS HER HEART! All in all, it was definitely worth hauling my tired old bones into town for! YAY for double Easters!

Monday, April 27, 2009

An Easter Miracle! (A Few Days Off!)

I made it back to New York State from Tucson just before midnight, so by the time I drove home from Albany, it was pushing 3am...on a school night! UGH! So as you can imagine, I was dragging that week! But mercifully, I had a three-day weekend at the end of it--Easter Break, as our school seems to pay no nevermind to the separation of church and state schools. ;-) But I bless them for it, because I desperately needed the time off! But as I had been out of town and so busy for several weeks, I was quite keen to get back in the kitchen and do some proper cooking. As it turns out, I had several opportunities to do so.

First, one of my close colleague's elderly father passed away, so I wanted to drop off some food as her family members began to gather. I made the simple but simply scrumptious ham, orzo, and goat cheese casserole of beloved memory, and also a new carrot cake recipe that I made as sheet cake, rather than in fussy layers. I didn't try the cake, of course, but it baked up very nicely and smelled great! Here's that recipe:

Carrot-Pineapple Buttermilk Cake
(Source: adapted from
Serves 10 -12

2 cups flour
2 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 pinch nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs
1 cup white sugar
1 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup vegetable oil
3/4 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
3 cups peeled and finely grated carrots
1 (8 ounce) can crushed pineapple, drained
1 1/2 cups chopped walnuts

Set oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 13 x 9-inch baking dish.

In a bowl beat eggs with sugar, oil, buttermilk and vanilla for five minutes (no less!). In another bowl, mix together flour, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt; add to the egg mixture, beating at low speed until blended. Fold in carrots, drained pineapple, and walnuts; mix until combined.

Transfer to prepared baking dish. Bake for about 30 minutes. Remove from oven and cover the pan loosley with foil to prevent excess browning. Return to oven and bake for another 12-13 minutes more, or until the cake tests done.

Cool completely in the pan then frost with cream cheese icing (recipe follows).

Extra Creamy Cream Cheese Frosting
(Source: Recipezaar
Makes 3 cups

1/2 cup butter, room temperature (no substitutions!)
1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla (if possible, use clear vanilla)
2 tablespoons whipping cream, unwhipped (for the best texture, use only whipping cream)
3 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted (more if needed, must be sifted)
food coloring (optional)
1 to 2 cups Cool Whip frozen whipped topping, thawed (optional)

Cream the cream cheese, butter, vanilla and the whipping cream until light and fluffy (about 2 minutes). Add in the sifted confectioners sugar; beat until frosting consistency, (adding more icing sugar or whipping cream if needed until the right consistency is achieved). Add in food coloring if using.

Optional: Add in one cup of Cool Whip frozen topping and beat on low speed with an electric mixer until just blended (add in more Cool Whip until desired texture is achieved).

After cooking all evening on Good Friday, I had to get up early the next morning and take the old basset hound to the vet. $200's worth of tests later and the diagnosis? She's old. (Thanks--I could have told you that for free! She's 14, for crying out loud!!) After the vet, I ran into town to drop off the casserole and cake at my colleague's house, then it was back home to start preparing more food to take to my friend Lee Ann's house for Easter, as she had invited me to celebrate with her family. My charge was to make a lemony dessert, but when I stopped by Wal-Mart a couple of days earlier, I found the cutest little egg trays, so I felt compelled to take some devilled eggs as well--made extra-devilish with minced jalapeno escabeche thrown in to add some color and zing.

At Lee Ann's on Easter Sunday, we had quite the feast with ham and all the trimmings. But I'd say the highlights included Lee Ann's husband Steve's creative and spicy Buffalo cheese grits, a terribly cute Easter Bunny cake that the girls, K and E, made with grandma's help, and dare I say, the lemon cream tart that I brought! Oh, it was DIVINE (as well it should be with the OBSCENE amount of butter that it called for)! The recipe is from Dorie Greenspan via Pierre Herme, and it is the most luscious thing I've ever made or tasted. AMAZING! Seriously, friends, if you love lemon, MAKE THIS AT ONCE!

The Most Extraordinary Lemon Cream Tart
(Source: Dorie Greenspan's Baking: From My Home to Yours)

1 9-inch tart shell, fully baked and cooled

1 cup sugar
finely grated zest of 3 lemons
4 large eggs
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice (from 4-5 lemons)
2 sticks plus 5 tablespoons (10-1/2 ounces)
unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon-size pieces, at room temperature

Getting Ready: Have an instant-read thermometer, a strainer and a blender (first choice) or food processor at hand. Bring a few inches of water to a simmer in a saucepan.

Put the sugar and zest in a large heatproof bowl that can be set over the pan of simmering water. Off the heat, rub the sugar and zest together between your fingers until the sugar is moist, grainy and very aromatic. Whisk in the eggs, followed by the lemon juice.

Set the bowl over the pan, and start stirring with the whisk as soon as the mixture feels tepid to the touch. Cook the lemon cream until it reaches 180 degrees F*. As you whisk—you must whisk constantly to keep the eggs from scrambling—you'll see that the cream will start out light and foamy, then the bubbles will get bigger, and then, as it gets closer to 180 degrees F, it will start to thicken and the whisk will leave tracks. Heads up at this point—the tracks mean the cream is almost ready. Don't stop whisking or checking the temperature, and have patience—depending on how much heat you're giving the cream, getting to temp can take as long as 10 minutes.

As soon as it reaches 180 degrees F, remove the cream from the heat and strain it into the container of the blender (or food processor); discard the zest. Let the cream stand, stirring occasionally, until it cools to 140 degrees F, about 10 minutes.

Turn the blender to high (or turn on the processor) and, with the machine going, add the butter about 5 pieces at a time. Scrape down the sides of the container as needed as you incorporate the butter. Once the butter is in, keep the machine going—to get the perfect light, airy texture of lemon-cream dreams, you must continue to blend the cream for another 3 minutes. If your machine protests and gets a bit too hot, work in one-minute intervals, giving the machine a little rest between beats.

Pour the cream into a container, press a piece of plastic wrap against the surface to create an airtight seal and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight. (The cream will keep in the fridge for 4 days and, or tightly sealed, in the freezer for up to 2 months; thaw it overnight in the refrigerator.)

When you are ready to assemble the tart, just whisk the cream to loosen it and spoon it into the tart shell. Serve the tart, or refrigerate until needed.

Serving: It's a particular pleasure to have this tart when the cream is cold and the crust is at room temperature. A raspberry or other fruit coulis is nice, but not necessary; so is a little crème fraîche. I know it sounds odd to offer something as rich as crème fraîche with a tart like this, but it works because the lemon cream is so light and so intensely citric, it doesn't taste or feel rich. (I served mine with a sidecar of whipped faux crème fraîche--half a cup of sour cream lightened with a cup of lightly sweetened whipped cream.)

Storing: While you can make the lemon cream ahead, once the tart is constructed, it's best to eat it the day it is made.

*Note: I whisked and whisked and whisked, and my cream never did get up to 180 degrees! I consulted
Dorie's website, and many others seemed to have the same problem. But Dorie says 170 is sufficient.

I hope you all had a peaceful and satisfying Easter!

Trippin' to Tucson

Chapter 1: Midterms. Chapter 2: Spring Break in New Orleans. Chapter 3: Old Friends Come to Visit. And that brings us to chapter 4 of "Where Has Gina Been Since March?" and that is Tucson, AZ for the PBGV Regional and National Specialties. Two days after my out-of-town guests left, I was on a plane again, heading west to my annual "dog thing," as my co-workers refer to it each spring. It's a little hard to explain to the uninitiated, but it is the annual gathering of our national breed club, incorporating two specialty (conformation) shows, performance events like some or all of the following--obedience, rally, agility, tracking, freestyle dancing, and also workshops, demonstrations, lectures, health screenings, club meetings, banquets, annual awards, and so on. In short, it's the biggest gathering of our breed fanciers each year, and it rotates from east to central to west each time. Last year was Orlando (east), the year before that, it was Nashville (central), and so this year, it was west to sunny Tucson.

Normally, I would be thrilled to leave the chilly, brown, late winter scene that is Plattsburgh, NY in early April for the warmer climes of the southwest. However, I was just EXHAUSTED from everything that I had going on, and it was SO far to travel (driving down to Albany, then making two connections to AZ=15 hours of travel time to get there). Plus, the sad thing about these conferences is that you're so busy attending all of the events, that you rarely leave the hotel! I can confirm that the weather was balmy and lovely as I crossed from my room past the pool to conference rooms several times a day, but I didn't even have enough exposure to warrant sunscreen. Furthermore, I thought I might get a chance to visit nearby Nogales, just to be able to say that I'd been to Mexico. But again, federal warnings to spring breakers near border towns notwithstanding, time did not allow for international crossings. Boo hiss.

At least I was able to escape for one evening and get some great Mexican food, which we have a terrible dearth of here in the North Country. My friend Jo, the show chair, suggested a place called El Charro, which Gourmet Magazine named one of the "21 Legendary American Restaurants You Must Visit." So a gang of us went there Thursday night in lieu of attending a dog grooming workshop. This restaurant lays (a doubtful) claim to inventing the chimichanga, and I tried one filled with the house specialty, "carne seca" or sun-dried beef cured with lime juice and spices. This was named one of the "50 Top Plates in America" by USA Today, and though the one I had was ginormous, they make an even bigger one in honor of the USA Today, and is reported to be the same size as that newspaper when rolled up! In any case, my carne seca chimi was very good, but I think the highlight of the evening was when my friend Karen, whose veteran bitch (sorry--but that's the lingo in the dog show world) Hazel won Best Veteran and Best of Opposite in the regional specialty that day, started buying celebratory prickly pear margaritas for any takers at the table. Man, were they good! I rarely drink, but once or twice a year, I will have a margarita, and I like them on the sweet side, usually rounded out with a good glug of orange juice. But this one was sweetened with prickly pear juice, which also tinted it a lovely pink. Yum!

I wish I had more southwestern cuisine reviews for you, but it was pretty much yucky banquet food and snacks from the gift shop for the rest of my time in Tucson. :-( I did grab some deliciously spicy Popeye's chicken during a layover on my way back, but that's about all I have to report, food-wise. Oh, but I do have a couple of product recommendations for you. First, you know those wonderful speculaas-type spice cookies that you get as a snack on Delta and I think American Airlines? I LOVE them!
They are called Biscoff, and they are available for order online. Not only does this company make an excellent product, they also have terrific customer service. My order of cookies was delivered with one end of the box opened and some of the cookies got crushed. I called their customer service, and I had a second box shipped to me straightaway, with no questions asked! I highly recommend doing business with these pleasant folks.

Secondly, though it was my great misfortune to have the WORST Mexican food EVER at one of the banquets at my conference in Tucson, I had an uncharacteristic stroke of luck that night when I won a beautiful basket of gourmet goodies in a health foundation raffle! Of course, I'd never be able to get it home intact, so my friends and I opened it up and ate most of the snacks in our hotel room. It contained pretzels sticks and a teeny jar of honey mustard, summer sausage, pepper cheese, Manzanita olives, flavored almonds, two nice bottles of wine, a corkscrew, and two lovely glasses with a PBGV etched on each. But the BEST thing included in the basket may have been a box of cheese crisps which we quickly devoured, and then both my friend, Lynn, and I went online and ordered more. They have four different flavors, including Smoked Jalapeno, White Onion, and Melting Romano, but the best is their basic Cheddar & Asiago. Another highly recommended commercial product, and another company with great service, as my cheese crisps arrived at my remote home a mere 30 hours after I clicked "enter" to submit my order! Wow!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

In Which My Gays Come to Visit

As you may have gathered from my prolonged absence, my life has been INSANELY BUSY of late! But I swear I haven't forgotten you, dear readers, and I am going to do my best to catch up--I promise! I owe you a long one, so here goes. Now where was I? Oh yes...there were the midterm grades that I had to complete before leaving for spring break, then I was was in New Orleans for a week, and then I was back for just a few days before I was invaded by guests from out of town, so there was MUCH spring cleaning to do to prepare for their arrival! My long-lost roommate, Cyd--BLESS HER HEART--arrived a couple of days ahead of the others (late Wednesday night) and helped me get things ready. Then my boys arrived late Friday afternoon, up from NYC for a whirlwind tour of the North Country. Oh, can I just tell you what bliss it was to see my beloved friends, all in the same room together for the first time in something like eight years?? How I've missed them! (And how my face hurt from all the laughing!)

We started with a late lunch/early dinner at the excellent Thai place in town, Sawatdee. Even my big-city, cosmopolitan friends seemed impressed. (But in the big cities, would a restaurant open a half an hour early just to accommodate one little party? Didn't think so! THANKS, nice folks at Sawatdee!) After linner, we toured Plattsburgh and its scenic environs (yes, there are some!) before heading north to the homestead. It was my intention to take them just across the border to the little pub in Hemmingford for a later supper, but by the time we got settled at home, drank a bunch of wine, and had some snacks (including a deliciously garlicky and cumin-spiked hummus that I whipped up with my friend Mike's collaboration), we decided that we were in for the night.

Saturday morning, we began our adventures with a stop at Parker's Maple Farm for all-you-can-eat pancakes and freshly-made maple syrup. My friends may have chosen to visit at the UGLIEST time of year, but at least they got to enjoy this pivotal (and tasty!) rite of spring.

After brunch, we hit the road north for a day in Montreal (despite some of us not having the proper, CYD!). We visited the beloved Atwater Market (where we bought more local maple products) and my favorite bakery (Patisserie Belge). Then I took them up to the majestic overlook of the city from Mount Royal, then to Old Montreal to poke around and, of course, to view the Notre-Dame Basilica (where Celine was married, natch!). We ended our day with a special dinner at Au Pied de Cochon, which was just MARVELOUS! We got there an hour early, but they seated us within 15 minutes of our arrival. We had a cute and delightfully theatrical waiter (pictured below, center, between Rob on the right, and Kurt--inexplicably dressed as a Brokeback Cowpoke--on the left) who answered our many questions and made excellent suggestions, and promptly served us enormous and very flavorful portions of food.

As far as I could tell, there were very few downsides to dining at Au Pied de Cochon, except that the restaurant is very cramped, and it's the only place in the area that isn't BYOB, so they really gouge you on the price of wine. And given Quebec's ongoing love affair with game and offal, you have to have an adventurous spirit and a strong stomach just to endure the recitation of the specials. I have blocked most of it out as it was too psychologically painful for me, but there was something about salmon head soup (um, I'd rather have the rest of the fish involved in my soup, thanks), a green salad topped with sliced veal heart (I am on the verge of tears now remembering it), and the one that pushed us all over the edge with horror followed by uncontrolled fits of laughter was the Rabbit Royale, which involved disemboweling the poor animal, sauteeing its innards and perhaps combining it with foie gras (the key ingredient in most APdC dishes), stuffing it back in, then pan-frying the back legs and preparing the front legs in a confit. AAAAAAAAAHHHHHH...the humanity! Here are some of the things in which we did happily indulge (click on the smaller pics to enlarge, photo credits on this next batch go to my dear friend, Rob):

This is a traditional Quebecois snack called "oreilles de crisse," irreverently translated as "Christ's Ears," or the Quebecois version of fried pork rinds. They taste like the fatty part of bacon, and some pieces almost break your teeth!

Mike, had duck carpaccio for his appetizer. He said it was a bit bland.

Cyd I shared a crock of French onion soup that had ham in it and a pork broth base, so it tasted like a cross between French onion and ham and bean soup (Kurt had this for his appetizer, too). And then Cyd and I also shared a WONDERFUL endive, apple, and blue cheese salad. There may have been walnuts or something, too. DELISH!

Kurt also had one of these little creatures--a square of foie gras, deep fried until crispy and molten inside, then allowed to cool for just two minutes before the waiter instructed him to "pop" it whole into his mouth. I myself couldn't see the appeal, but Kurt literally wept with joy when he tasted it, and then insisted that Cyd order one. She confirmed the ecstasy of the experience.

It was wrong, but we had to order this for the table to share...poutine topped with foie gras (just in case poutine doesn't kill you fast enough)! Our verdict: fresh-cut potatoes fried in duck fat and topped with house-made pork gravy and local cheese curds doesn't need a topping of foie gras (or the $23 price tag).

Mike ordered some mystery pot of varied sausages and vegetables. The blood sausage was the most intriguing, black in color and heavily spiced.

I have no idea what possessed me to take a semi-vegetarian to the pig restaurant, but Rob happily ordered himself the catch of the day, which was a DELICIOUS haddock dish with fresh veggies and gnocchi served atop the most gloriously savory mashed potatoes.

For our entree, Cyd and I shared the restaurant's signature dish, Pied de Cochon (that's the pig's foot to you Americanos, but NOT the version stuffed with foie gras, mind you!). This was a wonderfully flavorful and succulent dish, with the most tender pork and stewed vegetables served over those same awesome mashed potatoes. And I was SO glad that we decided to split it, as the serving was HUGE! The only thing I didn't like was the leftover cartilaginous bits being breaded and fried and served with a drizzle of spicy mustard. Eww.

For his entree, Kurt went a lighter route with a beautiful and tasty tomato tart on puff pastry, which was very good, but would be out-of-this-world come September with seasonal tomatoes!

Lastly, Kurt chose the lighter entree so that he could save room for dessert (though I had a fabulous homemade cherry pie waiting back at home!). He selected the baked apple that was stuffed with cranberries and served in a puddle of something akin to Creme Anglaise. He was very happy.

Sunday morning, we were up and out early, as we had to take Cyd back to the airport in Burlington. After dropping her off, my boys insisted that we take in the local brew pub culture (as is their way no matter what city they visit!). So we enjoyed a long lunch at The Vermont Pub and Brewery where the boys sampled each house brew, including one that we drank in honor of Mike called Handsome Mick's Stout, which tasted to me like someone dumped a used ash tray into a pint of beer. Blech! Then again, I don't drink beer, so what do I know? But I did enjoy my luncheon dish of Toad in the Hole--local maple sausages and Vermont cheddar wrapped in puff pastry and served with house-made apple chutney. Yum! By the time we finished our leisurely lunch, we had a phone call from Cyd that her flight had been cancelled due to inclement weather in the midwest. So we fetched her, forewent shopping on Church Street as it was pouring down rain, and instead headed down to Stowe for some more touristy sightseeing adventures.

First, we toured Ben and Jerry's headquarters and factory (of course we did--and see how Mike looks so very pleased with himself about it). And we sampled the most incredible ice creams there! Unfortunately, the first one is sold exclusively in their scoop shops, so it won't be accessible to most of you around the country*. It's called Goodbye Yellow Brickle Road, in honor of Elton John playing Vermont for the very first time last summer. It has a rich chocolate base, peanut butter cookie dough chunks, white chocolate pieces, and butter brickle bits. YUM!!!
However, I have one more recommendation that can be found in your local grocery stores--Triple Caramel Chunk. It's caramel ice cream with a soft caramel swirl and chocolate-covered caramel chunks. TO. DIE. FOR. (Yes, they kind of ripped off Haagen-Dazs' Fleur de Sel Caramel, but so what? It's awesome!)

*FOLLOW-UP: STOP THE PRESSES! I lied to you good people! When I went grocery shopping after work this evening, I spied a few "Limited Batch" containers of Goodbye Yellow Brickle Road stuck in among the other Ben and Jerry's offerings! And the package says that the proceeds go to the Elton John AIDS if we needed another reason to buy it! So RUN do not walk to your nearest grocery outlet and get some while it lasts in the stores!

After B&J's, we had to head up the road to see the Von Trapps, just so my friends could say that they did. Then we finally made our way back to New York State to relax and enjoy each other's company for one last evening. Since we got back later than we'd hoped, I pulled together a strange smorgasbord of pre-function nibbles, including cornichons from the Atwater Market, little toasted baguette slices topped with either the leftover hummus or some goat cheese and marinated eggplant (also acquired at Atwater), chips and homemade salsa and/or escabeche, or the most creative combination of all (Kurt and Mike put this strange one together): the toasted baguette pieces with goat cheese, a dollop of my blackberry Earl Grey jam, and a squeeze of fiery sriracha. A truly inspired snack! Sweet, spicy, creamy, crunchy--what more do you need in a nosh?!

For dinner, I made the venerable sweet-and-shiny roasted chicken, sprinkled with the house BBQ rub, roasted on top of a half-full beer can with a couple of garlic cloves inside at a scorching hot temp for an hour, then lacquered with homemade apricot pepper jelly and roasted for about 15 minutes more (so flavorful and juicy, both sweet and spicy!), roasted root vegetables (potatoes, carrots, and parsnips), steamed asparagus with butter and lemon (which I overcooked, unfortunately), and a green salad which included some herbs and lettuce from my faithful Aerogarden. The wine and laughter flowed freely, in partial thanks to my old college buddy, Don Wood, of Icicle Ridge Winery in Washington State, who sent me a very timely sample of his wares, including a nice Cabernet Sauvignon and a truly special "Three Blondes" Gewürztraminer--a "must try wine," says Seattle Magazine, and confirmed by my dinner guests. (THANKS, Don!)

Somehow, Cyd managed to convince the airline to change her point of departure to JFK, so she and the boys rolled out at the crack of dawn the next morning, as I stood alone in the driveway, waving goodbye in my jammies, and praying that it wouldn't be ANOTHER eight years before I saw them all together again. :-( Sniff.