Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Holiday Cookiepalooza continues

Mexican Wedding Cakes, originally uploaded by riptideredsf.
My Mexican Wedding Cake/Sugar Bombs got a little make-over this year with a little help from smitten kitchen. Butter, sugar, vanilla, flour. All on hand, sitting on my kitchen table, ready to go. As is my usual start of the day off, I'm down at my local java joint, noodling away on the internet when up pops this gorgeous recipe: Cashew Butter Balls. I like to think that great minds think alike...but the reality is, everyone who has ever baked a cookie, makes some version of this because they are easy and delicious...even when they're over baked. The timing on this one was freakin' freaky though, as I was only moments away from churning out my old version (I ended up following Deb's recipe using almonds since I already had so many on hand).
This excited me on two fronts: Cashews (lovelovelove 'em) and an all food processor prep. The recipe I'd been using for years (from a 10 year old Good Housekeeping Holiday edition) was the beat-with-a-wooden-spoon method and oddly enough, instructed to add the vanilla to the dry mixture?!? I never thought to question this before. I wondered what those darkish, little, crunchy clumps were in a recipe sans nuts.
Now I know better.  

Friday, December 21, 2012

Crusty Macaroni and Cheese

Crusty Mac 'n Cheese, originally uploaded by riptideredsf.
I'm always on the look-out for The Best Mac 'n Cheese recipe, even when I'm not. Those two words, macaroni and cheese, seem to be on my radar whether I like it or not. Every trip to a grocery store will generally include one bag of dried pasta. I have a pantry box full of pastas...most of which is elbow macaroni.
A few years ago, it was a very focused search for a mac 'n cheese recipe that sparked my cooking OCD adventure and ultimately birthed this blog .  I discovered  my two greatest sources of little kitchen inspiration: Smitten Kitchen and America's Test Kitchen. Only just now, when I went back to link that Smitten Kitchen mac 'cheese recipe and re-read that post -that- started- it -all, did I notice that smitten was bitten by the same mac 'n cheese bug I just was.
I did not have mac 'n cheese on the agenda when I started my pot of water to boil (I do this frequently) the other night.   Whilst the water was heating, only then did I take notice of  an uncharacteristic accumulation of cheeses in the fridge (cheeses rarely get the chance to accumulate). Suddenly the stars begin to align and I spy CookFight, sitting right there on my kitchen table and waaaaiiit-a-minute...wasn't there a recipe hour later Julia Moskin's Crusty Macaroni and Cheese was all mine. As it turns out, Smitten Kitchen's recipe for Easiest Baked Macaroni and Cheese was all about the companion mac 'n cheese recipe to this verysame Julia Moskin recipe.
The recipe originally appeared in the New York Times in January 2006 with this article and went on to become one of the the NYT most emailed and forwarded articles. It stirred up a Mac 'n Cheese contraversy as one editor called it "Julia Moskin's Discusting Macaroni and Cheese" because of the "obscene"(as if there is such a thing) amount of cheese the recipe requires (24 ounces). The cheese pretty much stands alone here. A mere 2/3 cup of milk is sprinkled over the top before it goes into the oven.
The recipe simply calls for american and cheddar cheese. The dryness of a sharp cheddar needed for flavor is balanced by a softer, moister, gooier, melty cheese. I didn't have any american cheese. I pulled out my kitchen scale and commenced to shredding my refrigerator rescue cheese assortment ( sharp cheddar, mozzarella, gruyere, parmesan and blue cheese) until the scale hit 24.
When all was said and done, the results were amazing and the next time I'll actually plan this with the two simple cheeses.
I love how the universe works.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Christmas Cookiepalooza

Christmas Cookiepalooza, originally uploaded by riptideredsf
Two years ago, whilst noodling around in cyberspace, I came across this post over at The Amateur Gourmet that transformed a lifetime of Christmas cookie baking. I, like pretty much everybody who has their go-to Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe, figured my recipe (well, Good Housekeeping's actually) was The Ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe. I baked that recipe, which included peanut butter, oatmeal and Rice Krispies, every Christmas for 10 years as part of my Menage et Trois. Three go-to recipes that became legendary and much anticipated amongst family, friends and co-workers. I'd spend the week before Christmas up to my ears in baking every night after work so as to deliver the freshest cookie trays and gift bags as close to Christmas as possible. It wore me out.
When I came across Adam's post, a Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe from Top Chef Just Desserts contestant Eric Wolitzky, I was intrigued by the same things he was: melted butter and measurement by weight...but the game changer was the note about freezing the cookie dough. How did I not know this!?! Only then did it occur to me that was how my mom was able to produce the insane assortment of cookies we'd bake every year. I'd been torturing myself needlessly.
Form and freeze the unbaked cookies on the baking sheet until solid, then transfer them to a freezer bag. I lay the bag flat on the table to distribute the frozen cookies into an even layer then I suck all the air out of the bag, to make all subsequent bags stackable.
This is the recipe that propelled me into buying a kitchen scale. The ingredients are simple so the dough comes together quickly. I've made a few tweaks to this since last year. I use a combination of chocolate. Bitter and semi-sweet chips as well as a dark chocolate bar that I chop up. I read the tip about using different chocolate from Alton Brown who recommends including milk chocolate as well, but I just don't like milk chocolate. The combination of flavors and textures makes every bite different.
I loved, loved, loved the idea of melting the butter because then I could take it a step further and brown it! I make these cookies all the time now.
The other cookies in this trio are Kim Severson's Bacon Fat Gingersnaps from CookFight and Dorie Greenspan's Beurre & Sel Jammers.
I can't tell you how thrilled and delighted I was when I found Dorie's recipe in this month's Bon Appetit. I started making her recipe for Sables about a year ago when I discovered her recipe for World Peace Cookies (which I currently have in my freezer). She creates Jammers, baked in custom designed cookie rings, for her new cookie store, Beurre & Sel in Manhattan. The uniform shape is recreated in the home kitchen using muffin tins! They're a bit labor intensive, but worth it.
The gingersnaps were the not-all-that bookend,  of an otherwise deliciously prepared meal,  at the book event dinner for CookFight. The cookie I ate that night, though tasty, had been over-baked (like the Gougeres). So, of course, since I vindicated Julia's Gougeres I had to do the same with the Gingersnaps, seeing as I just happened to have a jar of bacon fat just waiting for  my next attempt at skillet cornbread. The bacon fat replaces butter...brilliant! Moisture achieved and Kim's recipe is deemed a keeper!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

white bean soup with chive oil

I can already tell that this is going to be a  favorite and much repeated  recipe in the little kitchen. It's Kim Severson's recipe from CookFight, the Kid's Party Challenge. In spite of some questionably old white beans, the soup would have been remarkable just on it's own with all of it's flavorful components,

but the real souper-star is the brilliant bonus of the Chive Oil. Not only because it turned my bowl of soup into a work of art and tastes wonderful, it's a great refrigerator rescue solution to any herb teetering on the brink of the trash can. I shall never ever ever again throw away dead chives! I can't recall a single time I ever managed to use an entire bunch of chives.
You just blanche a bunch of chives (30 seconds in the boiling water-then plunge into the ice bath), pat dry, throw them in the blender with some olive oil, strain the oil through a mesh strainer, pour into your squeeze bottle and drizzle away!
Here's a great interview that came up the other day on the Amateur Gourmet which might give you an idea of  the experience of being in the presence of these two ladies.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Cheddar Gougere Smackdown

Cheddar Gougere Smackdown, originally uploaded by riptideredsf.
The next big thing to happen to the little kitchen recently was a lovely surprise from my fellow foodie, friend and neighbor Sheena.
The Thursday after Thanksgiving, she picked me up after work to take me to a surprise event she'd been cooking up for several weeks. All I knew was that we were headed across the Golden Gate Bridge to a pre-paid, non-refundable event that started at 6:30 and that it involved food.
As we approached the private dining room at the Left Bank Brasserie in Larkspur that dark and stormy night, and I realized what was in store for us, I was blown away by crazy coincidence. Let me back track a moment.
A few years ago I came across two books that would unexpectedly, collide with a third on this evening, propelling my little kitchen OCD to a whole new level.
It started with Dorie Greenspan's gorgeous book Around my French Table. The most repeated recipe is her Cheddar Gougeres- light, airy, cheesy puff pastries that are super simple to make and pair perfectly with soup or just a  glass of wine.
The other book, The Best Food Writing of 2009 was picked up at Community Thrift around the same time, perfect for bedtime and bus reading. The most re-read story has been Kitchen Smackdown, an entertaining and engaging trio of articles by Kim Severson, Julia Moskin and Frank Bruni, New York Times food writers, friends and co-workers. The articles recount the challenge Mr. Bruni set upon the two friends and collegues to prepare a dinner for six for $50.  He would attend both dinners and judge a winner. 
I hadn't picked up the book in ages, but an impromptu bus ride had me scrambling for some reading as I rushed out the door on Wednesday morning.  Kim and Julia's story was re-visited.
Thursday evening, I was dining with Kim Severson and Julia Moskin.
I didn't know this as we were led through the restaurant, back toward a private dining room. There were about 5 people sitting at a large, lovely table set for 14. A woman standing at a small round table at the entrance checked Sheena and Guest off her list and  handed us each a book, informing us that the authors hadn't yet arrived due to the dark & stormy. I peruse the cover:
CookFight!  I was utterly gobsmacked. I've been OCD/ADD-ing in other places, completely unaware of this books existence (much less this event), the culmination of 11 subsequent kitchen smackdowns between Kim and Julia since that first (and the only one on my radar) in 2009. What a weird, wild and amazing coincidence. Sheena and I had never discussed their names and she had no idea what to expect herself when she set forth planning this.
What an amazing surprise!
I mentioned this to the authors as we had our books signed. Kim wrote:
"To Michele, I love how the universe works!" I'm still floored by it.
The menu that evening consisted of recipes from the book, prepared by the Left Bank chef. It was a series of courses, each consisting of two dishes from the book, from each of the authors.
There were some interesting stand-outs, but maybe not for the reasons one might expect.
Julia's Cheddar Gougeres was one of the starters. I was intrigued because I love Dorie Greenspan's gougeres so much. The ones that I ate that night? not so impressed. They were dry, pale and barely hinted of cheese. How could this be? Was it the recipe or the cook?
There was actually an interesting discussion at one point during the evening when the bookseller commented on chef/authors who insisted on bringing in their own team to cook the event meal. I guess this was case in point. The meal was bookended with a similar kitchen faux-pas in the dessert course,  over-baked Bacon Fat Gingersnaps. Everything else was wonderful. Baking must not be a strong suit at Left Bank.
I couldn't get  those gougeres out of my head. Julia had even commented on their dryness.
Thusly, the little kitchen created The Gougere Smackdown the very next morning. Dorie's recipe came first and resulted in their usual, lightly puffed, cheezy, can't -stop- shoving -these- in- my -mouth, delicateness.
 In the afternoon, I made Julia's, which turned out nothing like the dry biscuits we had the night before. The two variations I'd just prepared  were identical in appearance and consistency and the recipes were slightly different. An additional egg and milk in Dorie's recipe had me thinking they would be the moistest of the two, where Julia's had the additional zing of mustard powder and cayenne. I was using inexpensive, supermarket, extra sharp block cheddar as opposed to some kind of fancy white cheddar that was most likely behind the version I had a the restaurant.
I took them both to Sheena's and had her choose the favorite:
Julia's Gougeres are vindicated and triumph!