Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Chocolate Mousse Cake

Chocolate Mousse Cake

My coworkers have made it abundantly clear that they love chocolate. I've made a number of different cakes for them and the chocolate ones always receive rave reviews (after a bit of silent savoring). So for our December birthdays I thought I would pull out all the stops: chocolate mousse cake. Chocolate cake filled with chocolate mousse and topped with straight-up chocolate. Talk about a chocolate-lover's dream...

Chocolate Mousse Cake
1 package gelatin
3T cold water
1/4 cup boiling water
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup cocoa powder
3 cup heavy whipping cream
2 cup flour
2 cup sugar
3/4 cup cocoa powder
1.5 tsp baking powder
1.5 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp salt
1 cup milk
1 cup brewed coffee
3/4 cup vegetable shortening
2 eggs
1 block of bittersweet chocolate

1. Combine gelatin and cold water in a small bowl. Let it stand for about 2 minutes, then pour in boiling water. Stir mixture until gelatin dissolves. Set gelatin mixture aside.
2. In another small bowl, combine sugar and cocoa powder.
3. Beat cream in a standing mixer until it becomes foamy. Gradually add sugar-cocoa mixture. Beat until the soft peak stage. Thoroughly beat in gelatin mixture, but do not overbeat the cream. Cover and chill the mousse for at least 4 hours.

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease two 9" round cake pans and line bottom with a round of parchment. In a large bowl, combine flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Add milk, brewed coffee, vegetable oil, and eggs, beating mixture until smooth.
2. Split mixture between two prepared cake pans. Bake for 20-25 minutes until a wooden toothpick comes out clean. Let cool for 10 minutes, then remove from pans and let cool completely, about 1 hour.

Assemble Cake
1. With a serrated knife, cut off the top of one cake so it is level. Place this layer, cut side up, on a serving plate. Spread half of mousse over this layer (perhaps less, depending on how moussey you want it). Carefully place remaining cake layer on top of the first layer. Spread the remaining mousse around the top.
2. Microwave block of chocolate in 5 second bursts at half power until soft but not melted, about 15 seconds. Using a vegetable peeler along the edge of the block, make chocolate curls and shavings.
3. Top cake with chocolate curls. Refrigerate cake until serving.

Chocolate Mousse Cake

Chocolate Mousse Cake

Patty Melts

One of my longtime favorite greasy-spoon indulgences is the patty melt. Grease from meat, cheese and butter combine with bread and onions in a wonderful sandwich. In essence, the patties are flattened hamburgers, so this recipe is no more difficult than making a Cheddar cheeseburger. But its sumptuousness extends beyond that of your everyday burger, especially since you leave off most of the vegetables.

Patty Melt

Patty Melt, recipe from Saveur Magazine
Yield: 6 servings

1.5 lbs ground beef
Kosher salt
Black pepper
5T canola oil
2 yellow onions, halved and thinly sliced
12 slices rye bread
12 slices Cheddar cheese
8T unsalted butter, softened

1. Season the beef with salt and pepper. Divide the meat into six 1/4-inch thick patties.

2. Heat 2T oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and browned, about 12 minutes. Set the onions aside and wipe out skillet. Working in batches, heat 1T oil in skillet over high heat and cook patties, flipping once, until well browned, about 4 minutes total. Transfer to plate.

3. Top each of 6 bread slices with some onions, one slice of cheese and a burger patty. Top each burger with another slice of cheese and a piece of bread (I omitted the second piece of cheese). Spread butter over the top and bottom of each sandwich.

4. Heat skillet over medium heat and cook sandwiches, flipping once, until golden brown and heated through, about 6 minutes.

Cake Pops

The following is the tragic story of a tasty, imaginative treat. The setting: end of the semester. The protagonist: cake pops.

Cake Pops

This year I have expanded the amount of food searching I do on the web. I have a host of websites that I scope out at least weekly. There is a great deal of ingenuity in the food world and one of the more striking ideas that I've seen in recent months are Bakerella's cake pops. I had some leftover cake from an earlier recipe, so I ran a beta-test of these pops to great success.

The recipe is as easy as the concept is amazing. You can start with any cake you want. Crumble it up and mix it with frosting. Form balls and freeze them for a few hours. This is one of the tricky steps because your hands get covered with the dough so washing them occasionally becomes a must. Insert sticks into the balls, let them freeze some more, and dip them in melted candy-making chocolate. Let the chocolate solidify and serve. The chocolate makes for a crunchy shell that conceals the tasty, sweetened cake on the inside.

Now for the tragic part of this story, I made red velvet pops covered in white chocolate and mint-chocolate pops covered in milk chocolate. I stood the pops up in dense styrofoam blocks to solidify and serve. I put the pops into my car and slowly drove the few miles to our end-of-the-year symposium. Unfortunately, these cake pops are extremely top-heavy. And without someone to help me, they all managed to flip themselves all over my car. I didn't mind eating them in this state, but I imagine others might not feel as safe. They were delicious, no doubt, but it was just not meant to be that day. If you're looking to wow a group of people, definitely make these pops. I suggest using a solid base or just setting the pops in cupcake liners to solidify and serve. You won't lose any wow-factor and you'll guarantee your pops survive to be served.

Sesame-Citrus Sea Bass

In my last post, I wrote about a surprising sesame dessert. Now sesame seeds went savory to help me make a quick, flavorful dinner of sesame-citrus sea bass.

Sesame Citrus Sea Bass

Sea bass fillets are first immersed into a mixture of egg whites, cornstarch, white vinegar, and salt. After allowing to sit, the fish is coated in a mixture of white and black sesame seeds and pan fried in hot oil until the outside turns golden brown. The fish is served atop mixed greens with a dipping sauce made from lime juice, honey and thyme. The tender fish is made even better with the crisp crust of sesame seeds. The sweet and citrusy sauce makes for a good, if sweet, dressing for the fish and salad. This could easily be a healthy lunch to take to work that makes everyone jealous.

Sesame Dessert

Asian supermarkets are a marvelous source of inspiration. If you feel confined in your culinary options, stuck in a cooking rut or simply in the mood for something different, just go to an Asian or Indian supermarket. They always have a different set of ingredients compared to your local grocer. Maybe you will find some frozen calamari that you can stuff. Or you could use some new and strange vegetable to give your everyday meals an air of mystery. Or, like me, you could see a package that piques your interest.

Sesame Dessert Box

This is "sesame dessert." What struck me the most about this package is not only that the dessert is instant (like Jell-o pudding), but also the amazing black color. How many foods are naturally black? Char marks on the grill are black. Dark chocolates get very close to black. There are, I suppose, black beans too. To make pasta black, we have to turn to squid ink for some help. But colors are far more prevalent than pure black. Even a colorless white would appear to be more common: sugar (granulated and powdered), milks and creams, egg whites, and salt. But what does pure sable taste like? And how does one make it?

Sesame Dessert

The dessert comes in a packet of a bluish-gray powder. You simply add boiling water to the powder and mix it well until it is homogeneous. Et voila! You're staring at pure darkness in your bowl. But don't be afraid of the dark. It tastes of toasted sesame. I expected a thicker consistency, but this soupy dessert turned out to be a little more watery. It is sweet, but not overly so, with a great taste of ground sesame seeds. I did grow tired of eating it after a few minutes, though, so I came up with an idea.

Sesame Dessert Sundae

I probably should have let the sesame dessert cool first, but I thought it would be a great way to make some plain vanilla a little more interesting. The sweet sesame and vanilla worked well together. The ice cream gave the topping more consistency. This could have made a great milkshake too. I have a couple packets left still, so who knows where this sesame dessert will show up again?

Jan Hagel

Who doesn't love an easy recipe? Or a recipe with relatively few ingredients? When I read about jan hagel on CakeSpy, it sounded too easy not to try.

Jan Hagel

Jan hagel is pretty much a Dutch butter cookie. You simply combine butter, sugar, egg, flour, cinnamon, and water. This dough is pressed into a jelly roll pan and sprinkled with chopped walnuts. Bake it, cool it, cut it, and you're done. I must note that I had to embarassingly make this recipe twice. The first time I forgot to spray my pan with nonstick cooking spray. Always, always, always remember to grease your pans when baking. It's such an easy step to forget at times, and yet it will determine if your efforts and money yield delicious results that are mobile or stuck to the pan. The first batch tasted good, but it was too difficult to share. The second batch came out wonderfully. You don't need complex flavor combinations to make a satisfying cookie. A buttery base with nuts and cinnamon is all this cookie has to offer and it's more than enough for my tastes.

Cappuccino Brownies

Continuing with my holiday baking extravaganza, I took a break from cookies to prepare this batch of brownies. For me, brownies used to be delicious slices of chocolate cake with more of a cookie-like consistency. But over time, I've come to appreciate darker, richer chocolate flavors. While the cakier brownies still have their place in the world, my ideal brownie is more like a crumbly, chewy fudge. After seeing this recipe for cappuccino brownies in Bon Appetit magazine, I could not help but add them to my baking to-do list.

Cappuccino Brownies

Dense, fudgy brownies begin in a saucepan. The first and primary ingredient is the chocolate, which is melted with butter. Sugar and eggs are added, then espresso powder (for enhanced chocolate flavor intensity), vanilla and salt. Finally the flour is incorporated and the brownies are baked just until they are just done. A little underdone never hurt either, as the remaining batter condenses as it cools.

To recreate the look of a cappuccino, a white chocolate ganache is spread on top and allowed to cool completely. A light dusting of cinnamon finishes off the illusion. The espresso powder in the brownies helps these wonderful confections to taste as if you are chewing your favorite drink from the local coffee bar.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Palace International

Have you ever had African food? For most people, including me last week, the answer is no. If you have, it may have been Ethiopian or Moroccan. But how about food from a Kenyan? If you live in Durham, you have the opportunity to have authentic African food at The Palace International.

Ox Tails

I've heard of ox tails in Hispanic cuisine, but I've never had the gaul to order them. It turns out they are very similar to Korean short-ribs. American-style ribs are cut in between the bones to produce corn-on-the-cob-style eating. Korean-style ribs, on the other hand, are cut through the bone, so you end up eating the meat off of each piece of bone. These ox tails were exactly the same, except they had been slowly simmered in a garlic-ginger-tomato sauce. The tail meat is a little fatty, but that just adds to the delicious, savoriness of chewing the meat off the bone. On the side I had some yellow rice with collards that were sauteed but still fresh and green.

Curried Goat

The other entree we ordered was the curried goat, which was outstanding. The meat was amazingly tender. There were some large bones involved, but also some stand-alone pieces of meat too. The curry sauce was great. It was packed with curry and garlic flavors without being overbearing or too spicy. We had this dish with ugali, a cake of solid grits-like-grain that was a little course but still good.

Strawberry Tres Leches

Dessert choices were decidedly un-African, but they sounded too good to pass up nonetheless. We ordered strawberry Tres Leches. Tres leches is a marvelous Latin dessert that is moist but not soggy. The cake is immersed into a mixture of multiple milks and sugar. This tres leches was served with strawberry jam and white chocolate. As it was served, it was topped with a splash of sweet wine which really rounded out the flavors and made this dessert absolutely incredible. The overall feel of this cooking was a mixture of Spanish, Indian and Ethiopian, which is quite intriguing. I will definitely return to The Palace International to try some of the other dishes that I missed.

Moravian Crisps

Not far from Durham in the town of Winston-Salem, there is a bakery that makes Moravian spice cookies. They are renowned for their pungent spice flavors as well as how amazingly thin they are. In fact, some claim they are the "world's thinnest cookie." Now you don't need to travel all the way to North Carolina to get your cookies (though you probably should anyways) thanks to Gourmet magazine.

Moravian Crisps

Admittedly, I did not roll out the cookies as thin as possible. This is one of my first batch of cookies where I felt comfortable rolling out dough and cutting out the cookies. Mine are more like Moravian gingerbread people (In the picture they're apparently trying to escape.). I decided to omit the icing since I'll be shipping these people around the country. But the cookies don't really need any sprucing up. They have a great holiday taste that replicates those found in Winston-Salem pretty darn well. I think they're a good alternative to the gingerbread cookie this time of year, so if you want a change of pace try making some Moravian people.

Edamame Brittle

I'm always one for trying something new and different. So when I heard about making peanut brittle with roasted edamame (edamame brittle), I leapt at the chance.

Edamame Brittle

The edamame are first seasoned with soy sauce, cayenne and salt. Then the tricky part begins. Working with sugar is always a touchy task. You have to be cognizant of temperature, time, color, and many other details. In short, you have to dissolve sugar into some water and let it boil until it becomes light amber in color. Afterwards, you mix in the edamame and pour it all out to cool on a baking sheet.

You may notice from the picture that my brittle is a little cloudy. Turns out I forgot my basic chemistry. While boiling sugar to make many candies, you have to mix in any sugar granules that have stuck to the sides. Now I've realized why. If you leave those granules, they will mix back into the candy and act as a seed crystal to start off the crystallization of the candy. Crystals are not what you want when you want clear, pretty candy. But luckily, it did not affect the flavor. The brittle is sweet with hints of salty and surprising bites of spiciness. Alton Brown has created a wonderful concoction with these edamame brittle. I know my family will enjoy receiving it for the holidays.

Four Eleven West

I love Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. Not only does it have a nice college-town portion by UNC, but it has many other great restaurants and shops all along it. For a birthday dinner out, we decided to go to Four Eleven West for some good Italian food.

The Crab

The restaurant is nice, but not too nice. Fancy but not too fancy. They have an area for the 9-to-5 work crowd to grab some drinks. The restaurant has many different rooms, making it feel more private and intimate. After taking about 10 minutes to decide between many different dishes, I ended up choosing The Crab. It is a papardelle made from red pepper in a cream sauce made with dill. Mixed in to this is crab meat, mushrooms, scallions, and bacon. Despite the presence of bacon, I did need to add a bit of salt to the dish. But other than that I thought it was pretty good.

Shrimp Carbonara

One great thing about the pasta dishes on the menu is that you can choose between half and full orders. That way you can opt for less food or just order twice as much if you're really hungry or want to save some for later. We also ordered the shrimp carbonara over spaghetti. The sauce was very nice, made with shallots, bacon and peas. A topping of Parmesan cheese finished everything off. We probably could have finished a full order of this pasta quite easily, so it's good we stuck with the half order for our own sake.

Chicken Marsala

Chicken marsala is exceptional when it is done correctly. And Four Eleven definitely did it justice. When making a marsala sauce, the goal is not to make a thin mushroom gravy. Instead, you want to make a wine-based sauce with a sweet flavor and earthy mushrooms. That's exactly what Four Eleven did. The chicken in the sauce was delicious and the pasta was just the icing on the cake.

For me, Franklin Street is pretty much the lifeline of Chapel Hill. I hope it will take me many years to eat at all of the wonderful gems along this street. And the day I do, I want them to plan to extend the road.

Pumpkin-Apple Pie

All of the to-do of Thanksgiving and Christmas for me boils down to one question: apple pie or pumpkin pie? Very often I do not have to or want to choose. But every year when my waistline increases as the temperature decreases, I'm thankful for those small changes that make me feel like less of a glutton.

Pumpkin-Apple Pie

So this year I combined my pumpkin and apple pies into one Franken-pie. A recipe from a Nestle cookbook I had guided the way:

Pumpkin Dutch Apple Pie

Apple Layer
1 9" deep-dish pie shell, unbaked
2 cups green apples, peeled, cored, thinly sliced
1/4 cup sugar
2 tsp flour
1 tsp lemon juice
1/4 tsp cinnamon

Pumpkin Layer
1.5 cups pumpkin puree
1 cup evaporated milk
1/2 cup sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 tbsp butter, melted
3/4 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
1/8 tsp nutmeg

Crumb Topping
1/2 cup flour
1/3 cup walnuts, chopped
5 tbsp sugar
3 tbsp butter

For the apple layer, combine apples with sugar, flour, lemon juice, and cinnamon in a medium bowl; pour into pie shell.
For the pumpkin layer, combine all ingredients in a medium bowl and pour over apple mixture.
For the crumb topping, combine flour, walnuts and sugar in a medium bowl. Cut in butter until it looks like a coarse crumb.
Bake pie for 30 minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle with crumb topping. Return to oven to finish baking for 20 more minutes, or until the pie does not jiggle in the middle when gently shaken. Cool completely.

Pumpkin-Apple Pie Slice

When sliced, the pie looks like you took a pumpkin and an apple pie, sawed off the extra pie crust, and shoved them together. The taste, though, is wonderful. My family seemed skeptical at first about this creation as our only pie for Thanksgiving, but we all loved it! The cinnamon really unites these two while they both provide different textures. Plus the crumb topping really makes the pie feel whole and complete.

Pumpkin-Apple Crostata

What do you do when you buy a two-pack of pie shells but only use one? What do you do when your first pie left you with some apple and pumpkin filling? The answer, of course, is to experiment! I tossed the remaining apples in the pumpkin filling, poured this into the pie crust, and, to get rid of the empty look of the pie, I folded the edges of the crust over to form a pseudo-crostata. It bakes in about the same amount of time as the pie (though I'm sure it was probably done a bit sooner), looks more rustic but tastes just as good. This is a good alternative for those who do not care for the full brunt of pumpkin pie's custardiness but still want to enjoy this interesting flavor combination. Plus it makes smaller slices, so you're gaining just as much enjoyment for less guilt. There's just no downside. It makes me wonder what other desserts need to be shoved together...perhaps banana-cherry jubiloster (jubilee-foster, that is)?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Pumpkin Softies

Whenever fall comes around, grocery stores stock up on pumpkin puree because they know that we need to have our pumpkin pie. But I love pumpkin in other contexts as well. Here's a great new recipe I tried out for cookies called pumpkin softies.

Pumpkin Softies

These cookies come out very light and fluffy, with a slight chew to them. The recipe calls for golden raisins, but the last post (lamb chops with pomegranate-fig relish) only used a small amount of the pomegranate that I had, so I made one batch according to the recipe and another with pomegranate arils instead of raisins. I liked both cookies personally. The golden raisins may play upon the pumpkin pie spices better, but the arils add a lively, fresh flavor and just a hint of tartness. So if you're tired of making pie with your pumpkin, try it in a cookie.

Pumpkin Softies
3/4 cup golden raisins
1 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice
2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 large egg
3/4 cup pumpkin puree
2.5 cup flour

Soften raisins in a bowl covered with hot water. Heat oven to 350 degrees F and spray a cookie sheet with non-stick cooking spray.

Beat butter, both sugars, spice, vanilla, and baking soda with a mixer until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in egg and pumpkin puree until well blended.

With mixer on low, gradually beat in flour just until mixed. Drain the raisins and fold into the dough. (If you are using pomegranate arils, be careful while folding so your cookies don't come out red.)

Drop level tablespoons of dough onto the greased cookie sheet. Bake for about 16-18 minutes until they are golden brown on the edges. Remove from cookie sheet to cool completely.

Lamb Chops with Pomegranate-Fig Relish

Ever since I came to live in North Carolina, I've come to truly appreciate seasonality with fruits and vegetables. This past year I had many weeks of fresh produce that changed from month to month. I'm even starting to anticipate the arrival of various items at the grocery store. This is mostly because (and this may sound dumb) produce in its season is just so much better. Strawberries are the most salient example: we now have strawberries year round, but they are really at their peak of flavor in summer. Right now, pomegranates are in season, so I've taken advantage of these beautiful fruit to make an easy weeknight dinner.

Lamb Chops with Pomegranate-Fig Relish

I bought two pomegranates and de-ariled them while watching TV. Two pomegranates yielded enough arils to fill a large cylindrical Chinese take-out container. For dinner, I made lamb chops with pomegranate-fig relish. You first grill up the lamb chops with a little salt, pepper and cumin. Then you top it with a mixture of pomegranate arils, chopped dried figs (I prefer the black ones), mint, cumin, molasses, and olive oil. The relish forms a lively mixture that complements the lamb (mint and lamb is a combination as old as mint jelly). On the side, I served some couscous and broccolini sauteed with olive oil to keep with a Middle Eastern-ish flair. This dinner was great during the work week because the amount of time it takes to prepare is just about equal to the time it takes to cook the lamb.

Curry Coriander Cookies

Creating savory cookies is no small task. For me you have to include sugar in most cookies. Otherwise it's just a hard biscuit. But combining sugar with savory spices is the complex part. One of Gourmet magazine's contributions before it closed its doors was to find a man who had perfected curry-coriander cookies.

Curry-Coriander Cookies

The key to making these cookies good is to toast the curry powder and the coriander seeds before you put them into the cookie. This awakens the pungent flavors in these spices. Throw this into some buttery cookies and you have a surprisingly delightful confection that works for dessert as well as it does for part of a meal.

Fruitcake Cookies

It's that time of year when I go bat-$#!+ crazy about baking for the holidays. I find it easier to make people happy with food than to go out amidst the shopping mayhem. To kick baking off for this season, I chose this recipe that makes fruitcakes more palatable.

Fruitcake Cookies

American tradition requires fruitcakes to be dense, heavy and weird in flavor. To receive a fruitcake is often seen as an insult. Most of the manufactured versions of these desserts end up as doorstops, paperweights and bricks for building the first homes of the new year. Other cultures have made wonderful fruitcakes and breads. For instance, Italy has its pannetone, which is deliciously eggy, sweet and light, studded with various candied fruits and nuts. Last year, Bon Appetit magazine managed to bring fruitcake back to our recipe boxes with fruitcake cookies. I will admit that their recipe did seem a bit alcoholic with sherry and bourbon appearing in both the dough and the icing. I used apple juice instead to absolutely no detriment. These cookies are not only edible, but they're delicious. The fruits and nuts contained within the cookie make a wonderfully sweet treat fitting of the holidays. I added some orange extract to the icing as a nice surprise. So now I must doff my Santa hat to Bon Appetit for successfully updating an old classic.

Butternut Squash

We had cause to celebrate recently, so what better to do than eat vegetarian! There are quite a few vegetarian/vegan restaurants in the Durham/Chapel Hill/Raleigh area, so the idea is nothing new. But pulling off vegetarian well is another matter altogether. We decided to try Butternut Squash in Chapel Hill.

Flash-Fried Goat Cheese

We started with a couple appetizers in order to savor the full array of food that this restaurant had to offer. I'm still relatively new to vegetarian eating, so I relish all of the various meat-free alternatives that have been made. Our first dish was definitely one that stands on its own, no matter what your diet (well, maybe not for those who are lactose intolerant...or vegan...or low fat...). Anyways, we ordered the flash-fried goat cheese because it sounded too good to pass up. Soft, robust (and even slightly gamey, but in a good way) goat cheese was formed into balls, covered in a thin batter containing hints of cinnamon, was quickly fried to make the shell crispy and just warm the cheese. It was served with a sweet berry jam, creating a wonderful interplay between sweet and savory. I would definitely recommend this appetizer if you go to the restaurant because it is nearly transcendent.

Tempeh Hot Wings

People who do not or cannot eat particular foods are forced to become creative. If not for tofu and tempeh, vegetarians would be stuck with carbs and vegetables all the time. Butternut Squash has taken tempeh and boldly used it in place of chicken wings. These tempeh hot wings were very good, though not for the faint of tongue. They were very spicy, but also wonderfully flavorful in their Buffalo sauce. You did not miss the chicken at all.

Linguine with Facon Cream Sauce

For dinner, I ordered a special with linguine and a tempeh bacon-cream sauce. While good, not every meat substitute works as well as others. Bacon is a wonderful meat that can be eaten alone or used as the base of an entire cooking repertoire (i.e. Southern cooking). Tempeh bacon has not quite achieved the same effect, part of which may have to do with the ability of bacon to exude its smokey, salty flavor through rendered fat. With the other good dishes on the menu, I would not order this main course again.

Butternut Squash Risotto

To end on a positive note, our other main dish was butternut squash risotto. This was a fine, creamy risotto with a cheesy background flavor. I almost stole this dish for myself it was so good. All in all, Butternut Squash is a wonderful vegetarian restaurant that I think everyone should try just to expand your mind and your taste buds.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Reese's PB Cup Cake

Have you ever had a vision in your head that you knew you had to bring to life? Ever since this summer, I've wanted to make a cake in the shape of a Reese's peanut butter cup, one of my favorite candies of all time. So I bided my time, waiting for the right time to whip up my creation.

Reese's PB Cup Cake

A birthday is the perfect time to make someone feel special by going all out for them. Luckily for me this birthday celebratee was a huge fan of PB cups as well. So I set to work. First I baked two of my standard chocolate cakes. For the peanut butter filling, I took a recipe for peanut butter fudge and omitted half of the powdered sugar. I wanted to make sure the fudge in the center was sliceable. I baked the cakes in 9" cake pans and I poured the fudge into an 8" pan to set. Once it was decently solid, I placed the fudge between the two cake rounds. Next I shaped the cake by cutting the sides at an angle. I frosted the entire thing with chocolate frosting. For the sides, I used a petal tip to pipe on overlapping lines of frosting to create a ridged effect. I tried a few other tips but this one seemed to be the best. In the end, I was very satisfied with the cake. The peanut butter fudge in the center was a delicious complement to the chocolate and was as much of a giant PB cup as I had envisioned.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Portuguese Roasted Chicken & Potatoes

I recently bought a new cookbook called The New Portuguese Table. I bought it because I have absolutely zero experience with Portuguese food. When I think of European cuisine, Portuguese is not first in line. Sadly enough, it may not even be in line most of the time. Instead it was just a large question mark in my head. But now I'm beginning to appreciate the culinary niche that Portugal fills within the food pantheon. So for dinner last night I made my first Portuguese meal.

Portuguese Roast Chicken

Above you see frango assado com batatas (aka roast chicken with potatoes). A chicken is rubbed with massa de pimentao forte (aka strong or "amped-up" red pepper paste), a mixture of sweet and smoked paprika, red wine, lots of garlic, bay leaf, tomato paste, cilantro, parsley, and some other spices. This was also the first time I have rubbed a chicken under the skin with flavoring. The paste by itself is very strong, but on the roasted chicken it mellowed and added some strong spice flavors. The potatoes had a chance to crisp up on the edges, but you can use them to sop up the natural juices the chicken lost while roasting. Portuguese cooking reminds me in some ways of rustic Italian, but with different flavor combinations based on Portugal's proximity to the Mediterranean and Africa. Like many cultures in Europe they have their own specialty meats and cheeses that often make cameo appearances in their cooking. I was very impressed by what I tasted and what I saw in the book and I can't wait to try another recipe.

Chocolate Chip Cookies

There are few foods that represent Americana better than chocolate chip cookies (other than the obvious apple pie). Nestle Tollhouse has been a standard in my house for as long as I can remember. Most of the time I just use the recipe off the back of the chocolate chip bag. For some reason that same recipe has been transcribed onto a recipe card and placed into a family recipe box as if it was our own. And in some ways it is, being passed down generation to generation of Americans. The only way to make it more patriotic is to put little American flags in it.

David Leite set out to improve chocolate chip cookies. He consulted many different sources to find out what would elevate these cookies to their best. In brief, he started by weighing out the flour, substituting a combination of cake and bread flours for all-purpose flour. He also substitutes chocolate "feves" (some sort of fancy-pants disk), which are supposed to melt more nicely than morsels (I ran out of Ghirardelli disks so I supplemented with chips without much detriment). The dough, once made, is left to rest for about 36 hours. This is rationalized to "let the flours get moisturized" or some sort of other food pseudo-science. Lastly, some coarse sea salt is applied to the top of the cookies for a little salty-sweet combination.

Chocolate Chip Cookies

The cookies did turn out pretty good. They were moist and chewy with some crispy edges. The original recipe usually yields cookies more on the crispy side. These cookies also tended to be thicker in that they did not spread out as much, possibly because the dough is kept cold. The salt on top is what really was a hit with everyone who had one. Many people said it was like eating a chocolate covered pretzel. So in the end, you have to decide on a bit of a trade off: is it worth it to spend the extra time to buy the special ingredients and make the dough in advance for the better experience, or is it better to just use what many people have on hand to make perfectly good classic cookies? The answer, in reality, depends on each person, but these cookies are definitely worth the effort at least once.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Pumpkin Lasagna

Pumpkins are finding their way into everything this time of year. You can pretty much use them in any of your favorite foods. Do you like cookies? How about pumpkin cookies? Hershey's chocolate kisses? How about add some pumpkin? Pumpkin pancakes? Pumpkin creme brulee? Pumpkin cake? Pumpkin stew? Pumpkin lasagna?

Pumpkin Lasagna

Well, if you can't tell, this is pumpkin lasagna. The recipe was crafted by Robert Irvine of Food Network and can be found here. It is made pretty much the same as a normal lasagna, except you add layers of pumpkin puree and sliced zucchini. One nice feature of the recipe is that it has you make a quick homemade meaty tomato sauce (perhaps it qualifies as a bolognese?).

Pumpkin Lasagna Slice

I thoroughly enjoyed my slice and had to stop myself from eating half of the pan. What really makes the dish work is that Robert Irvine did not just throw some pumpkin into a normal lasagna. He added the sliced zucchini, kin of the pumpkin, for support as well as some strong flavors from de-cased sausage meat in the sauce. That may be what makes pumpkin so versatile and prolific. It can behave meekly like a mild squash for soups and other vegetal-focused purposes. But it also holds up to strong flavors. Look at the quintessential use of pumpkin in the holiday season: pumpkin pie. You throw ginger, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, and a whole host of other pungent spices at pumpkin puree and it just laughs as you get in line for another slice of pie. Pumpkin can even help you balance different flavors. One of the more prevalent "alternative" flavor profiles for pumpkin outside of pie is to use brown butter and sage, the former of which has more subtle notes while the latter is a strong adversary. Pumpkin not only balances the two, but still manages to steal the show. That is what helped it to stand out in this pumpkin lasagna. Hefty sausage and tame tomatoes shine even brighter when pumpkin hangs out in this Italian melange.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

NC State Fair 2009

This is the last weekend of this year's North Carolina State Fair. I just have to say that I love fairs. There's something about the atmosphere of fun, overeating and slight nausea that appeals to me. The theme this year is "A Whole Lotta Happy," which pretty much summarizes the constant euphoria I feel as I wander my way around the fairgrounds.

Award-Winning Pumpkins

Award-Winning Watermelons

Award-Winning Squash

The State Fair always has a unique combination of disparate elements: fried foods & BBQ, slightly rigged games, rides with an okay safety rating, and a celebration of agriculture (pictured above). Every year, farmers compete to have the largest produce imaginable. The first picture shows pumpkins ranging from 221 pounds to the blue-ribbon-winning 376 pounds. If those pumpkins were made into jack-o-lanterns, I'd be afraid that they'd eat little trick-or-treaters. In the watermelon picture, the melon on the right in the foreground was about normal size, if not a little large, and the one of the left was just monstrous. The Japanese may be making square and heart-shaped melons, but we're making them the size of Godzilla. These giant sizes also extend to other squash. It is difficult to have some perspective from these pictures, but the butternuts in the back are the size of a large baby. Also at the fair were prize-winning sweet potatoes, snow peas, and apples, as well as Oreo cows, mules, mini-donkeys, cows for milking, sheep, a sow with her piglets, ducklings, and chicks. For city folk like me and my friends, this was a nice foray into the agricultural world so we can see not only where food comes from, but also the amazing power of selective breeding and genetics.

Fried Foods 1

Fried Foods 2

As they said in Charlotte's Web the movie, "a fair is a veritable smorgasbord." And whenever I go I do glut like Templeton the rat. If push comes to shove, the fair can be described in two words: fried food. I wish I new how to combine two photos into one, but for now the above pictures show what one stand was selling in terms of the deep-frieds. One problem about going to the fair is you cannot eat everything you want, otherwise your stomach might burst. One tip is to bring friends with you with whom you can "share" or "pawn off" your food.

Turkey Leg & Corn Dog

For starters, we had to get some protein in us. One of my staples at any fair is the foot-long corn dog. There's something beautiful about a hot dog on a stick surrounded by cornbread and dipped into ketchup and mustard. The smoked turkey legs, if you can handle them, are also a must at least once in your life. They exude a delicious smokey flavor that you almost don't mind shoving your face into a huge piece of meat. But don't fill up on any one food as there is an entire world of flavors yet to be sampled.

Sweet Potato Fries

Sweet potato fries are absolutely wonderful no matter where you get them. Other fried sides that have become staples are French fries, funnel cakes with any number of toppings (from cinnamon apples to maple syrup to chocolate), and elephant ears. Many stands just say they have "fried dough," and nothing could be simpler or sweeter than the warmth of sugary dough with some powdered sugar slowly melting on it.

Fried Candy

Fried candy is one of my favorite items at the fair. Every year they unveil a new, wonderful fried food. This year's newest feature is fried Ho-Hos (pictured above bottom). They were pretty good, if not a little difficult to eat, but my favorite fried snack cake will always be the Twinkie with it's plume of warm vanilla flavor. Also pictured above are fried Oreos, which become softer after being fried and nearly melt in your mouth. Lastly is fried PB&J, which is, in reality, a fried Uncrustable, but that does not mean it was not one of the greatest things since fried sliced bread. Then again, I am a sucker for peanut butter. They also had fried cheeseburgers and fried pecan pie, both of which sounded good but a little too much for us to handle at that point in the day.

Apple Fritters

Keep your eyes open at the fair because there is food and fun to be had that most people don't see. On our way through the fair, we came across a stand selling apple fritters in an ice cream cone. Intrigued we bought some and they were marvelous. They were fried apple strips that tasted of apple pie in one bite.

Chocolate-Covered Banana

Chocolate-Covered Cheesecake

Pig Lickers

Chocolate also has it's time in the limelight at the fair. Chocolate-covered bananas are a little difficult to eat because they are frozen first, but it was pretty good. I think they can't let the bananas get too ripe for fear of falling apart, but it still tasted good. Cheesecake also works wonderfully when dipped in chocolate and shoved on a stick. It helps that the cheesecake was from Cheesecake Factory, but the chocolate added another layer of sumptuousness. One note is that not everything at the fair is good. One over-popularized item was pig lickers (chocolate-dipped bacon). I think this suffered from a lack of trying: pre-cooked bland bacon covered in a lackluster chocolate sauce. The two flavors never actually melded. I may have to try this one at home just to show that it can be done.

4H Cakes

Blue Ribbon Cake

Lastly, the local 4H clubs have competitions in many categories including sewing, canning and baking. Pictured above are some of the awesome cakes that were showcased, including the winning box-of-chocolates cake. I wish I had known about this when I was a teenager.

The state fair was, simply put, awesome. Word to the wise, do all the rides you want before you chow down on fried foods and play games before you leave so you don't have to carry a giant moon/banana around the park (what can I say? I'm just good at the water shooting games). If you've never been to a state fair, you've not enjoyed America at its best with deep-fried, capitalist, fast-paced fun.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Rest in Peace Gourmet Magazine

Last week it was announced that Gourmet Magazine was shutting down as of the November issue. I just found out this morning while listening to a podcast of the Splendid Table. As you may have noticed, I used Gourmet's recipes on a regular basis. Their associated magazine, Bon Appetit, is still in business. In fact, all active subscriptions to Gourmet will be shunted to Bon Appetit. The overarching website, epicurious.com, will still carry all of Gourmet's recipes.

The only reason I've read for Gourmet's sudden shutdown is a precipitous decline in advertising revenue. It seems all print media from newspapers to magazines is suffering, especially in this slow economy. What is not clear is what will fill the vacuum left by Gourmet (nature abhors a vacuum, after all). No new technology is poised to replace food magazines quite yet, but some are getting closer.

The most obvious replacement would be to make the magazine electronic. E-readers such as the Kindle will at some point come in color, which would allow magazines to exist even if they're made of ones and zeroes instead of paper. But changing media from print to electronic may not get at the heart of this cultural shift. Food writing in some regards is outsourcing to lay people. While I do have 3 food magazine subscriptions, I also read about 10 food blogs on a regular basis. Many foodie sites also compile posts from these blogs to summarize the current state of the food blogosphere. My new favorite is foodgawker.com.

Food blogs are great, but they still do not yet replace food magazines. Magazines can compile sets of recipes around a singular theme, holiday or culture. Most of us bloggers do not have time to devote every entry to exploring the cultural ties of a particular ingredient. Perhaps today's food magazine writers will switch their focus on blogging, but the key would be to come at blogging with the same fervor, not as a supplement to or promo for magazines. I still love when I get a new magazine and can flip through the hi-res photos of well-crafted foods. The writers get to travel all over the world to draw our attention to international traditions and trends. But as blogging grows in worldwide popularity and scope, we may yet regain what we have recently lost. But until that happens, the food world is a little more empty for its loss. Hopefully, all those who worked for Gourmet will be able to use their talents elsewhere to keep the food-obsessed informed of today's culinary and innovations and trends. Tonight, let's all serve a 21 bun salute to our fallen ally.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Cuban Revolution

The American Tobacco District is what I consider to be one of two hotspots in downtown Durham (the other being Brightleaf Square). If you want to make an evening out of an outing to the performing arts center or the ballpark, American Tobacco is the place to go. One new restaurant there, Cuban Revolution, was our destination on a cool Friday evening.

The restaurant itself is quite dark on the inside. The dining room was bustling with activity, most of which was clearing out to go see Kathy Griffin at the DPAC. We were seated right away. To start, we ordered a mango milkshake and an egg cream. While the mango milkshake did not have much flavor at all, the egg cream was fizzy, creamy and delicious.

JFK Sandwich

One of our entrees was the JFK, a steak sandwich on Cuban bread. The sandwich was slathered with mayonnaise. We're still unsure if this was because they just like mayo or if they were trying to make up for a sub-par sandwich. On the side were some black beans and rice which tasted pretty good, but the texture was off. Beans normally have a grainy texture both inside and in the surrounding sauce. But these beans were disconcertingly smooth. The rice had the same issue, making me think that the whole lot was over-buttered.

Ropa Vieja

I ate the ropa vieja, which had good flavor coming from the tomatoes and peppers in the sauce. I was not accustomed to having so much broth with my ropa vieja, but it tasted fine. I would have eaten the broth, but our waitress pretty much disappeared after we got our food, so I was never able to get a spoon before I lost interest. On the side were some platanos maduros, which were firm and sweet, as well as some tostones seasoned with adobo, which were pretty good.

It is very difficult for me to give Cuban Revolution a lot of credit because it seems to be nothing spectacular, especially for the price. I grew up in a suburb of Tampa, which has an extensive Cuban community. I'm accustomed to receiving tremendous quantities of delicious ropa vieja with lots of yellow rice and maduros on the side for a reasonable price. As one of few Cuban outlets in Durham, Cuban Revolution may be the best we have, but that still does not make it a great restaurant. If you're in the American Tobacco District, I would recommend going to Tyler's Taproom or the Mellow Mushroom. As for Durham's Cuban scene, it seems we will need to stand up and demand better quality Cuban fair: viva la comida!