Wednesday, May 20, 2009

More Desserts than Food Again - 5/20/2009

This was a good weekend for eating. Some friends and I started by taking advantage of Restaurant Week at a French restaurant in downtown Durham. It's called Rue Cler. While we waited for our table (some patrons just don't know when to leave), we were treated to a tasting of some Rose champagne (Bugey Cerdon) and pommes frites. As an appetizer, I wanted to try the pate maison, which oddly enough tasted of Romano cheese. We had a 3 course prix fixe selection. I chose a salad with feta and pecans, shrimp with gnocchi and duck breast with potatoes au gratin (one of the best I've had). All were quite delicious in their own way, but the size of each dish was moderated to make up for the 3 courses. The prix fixe portion of the menu was set at $25. For dessert, we split a terrine au chocolat (an oddly delicious cross of a chocolate mousse with a dense chocolate cake) and a banana-caramel crepe. We chatted and had a good time until they kicked us out around 11pm (they didn't really kick us out, but we got the hint from the way they were cleaning up).

Free-standing Lasagna

Here's a dish to feed a small army. It is a free-standing lasagna (aka lasagna pie). Instead of a casserole dish, it's made in a springform pan. There are 6 distinct and alternating layers in this dish: noodles, sauteed carrot and zucchini, sauteed spinach and mushrooms with basil, a ricotta-Parmiggiano mixture, tomato sauce (home-made), and mozzarella cheese. The only real trick is that the noodles are trimmed to fit in the round pan. It is baked for an hour, rested for 15 minutes and then unveiled for all to marvel at. I enjoyed this dish (and I'm continuing to enjoy the leftovers), though next time I would probably try to increase the Italian flavors a bit. But this was definitely an innovative recipe that will satisfy both meat-eaters and vegetarians.

Wine-Poached Pears

I had a Merlot-blackberry sauce, made with vanilla, cinnamon and citrus, left over from a failed recipe, so I decided to use it for poaching pears. Pears are not one of my favorite fruit, but they are growing on me. The gritty nature of the flesh is the least appealing feature, but that's where poaching comes in. It softens the pear and adds some other flavors to distract your mouth. I peeled some medium-sized bosc pears, then poached them in the simmering sauce for about 5 minutes per side, then let them cook to room temperature. The real battle with these pears is making sure they are evenly cooked and colored without beating them up too badly or letting them cook for too long. But in the end, you're left with a sweet treat with full-bodied flavors. I accented mine with Ciao Bella blackberry-Merlot sorbetto (what a coincidence to find that at the store), a cardamom-vanilla whipped cream and a sprig of mint that I'm growing myself.

Berry-Saffron Cookies

I received a sampling of Berry-Saffron Cookies recently that were, simply put, amazing. The story behind them is that they started as a chocolate chip cookie recipe that has evolved to incorporate non-traditional flavors so much that you would scarcely recognize the resemblance to the original recipe. This newer version contains a combination of strawberries (dried, I believe), sesame seeds, dark cocoa powder, turmeric, salt, pepper, and saffron, among some other possible flavors. The reason I liked these cookies so much is they are something you must savor to really enjoy. While eating them, you sharply taste the salt and a bit of pepper, but there's a background chocolatey flavor with hints of berry, meanwhile your entire mouth is filled with a plume of saffron essence. Unlike many other cookies, just eating one of these treats is very satisfying.

Spekkoek Box

What do you do when you have a friend confused by baking? Help them out of course!


One problem with this solution that I did not recognize initially was that the item to be baked is from an Indonesian cake mix. The difference with this cake is that it is made of multiple layers that are sequentially baked on top of one another. The goal is to have lots of even, thin layers (easier said than done). As you may be able to see in the picture, the cake is surrounded by burnt shrapnel. Our end product was a bit of a diamond in the rough. The extended baking burnt a bit of the outside of the cake, so some cosmetic surgery was necessary. What was salvageable was an interesting cake, moist from lots of butter and a touch of rum in the recipe, possessing a flavor like vanilla and some other unidentifiable spices. This cake is undoubtedly better when made from scratch by a professional, but how many Indonesian bakeries are there around here?

Raspberry Cream Cheese Coffee Cake

I'm turning into a baking fiend. Someone in my lab mentioned celebrating something and I was all over it like a fat kid on a box of Ho-hos. I made this beauty of a coffee cake, flavored with raspberry and cream cheese. You start by making a crumb with flour, butter and sugar, saving some on the side. To most of the crumb, you add baking powder, baking soda, salt, sour cream, egg, and almond extract. This mixture is spread into a springform pan as the base of the coffee cake. On top of this is spread a mixture of cream cheese, sugar and egg. About half of a jar of raspberry jam is placed on top of the cream cheese mixture (I pretty much just marbled mine a bit), then this is all topped with slivered almonds and the reserved crumbs. This is all baked for about 55 minutes until it is golden brown on top (no real way of testing it for doneness without just cutting into it). My cake layer was a little dry, but the cream cheese and jam helped to alleviate this problem. Everyone seemed to enjoy it, especially evident from the way it was gone within some hours of it being put out. I'll chock this one up in the win column.

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