Thursday, January 31, 2008

First in a series of decadent chocolate desserts

These are the very quick and easy flour-light chocolate cakes we made when coworkers and I escaped the Las Vegas Strip during the annual company trip and went out to the Cordon Bleu cooking school for the day. Incidentally, they are a lot like the cakes I had made only a week earlier to impress my four- and seven-year-old cousins. (It worked.) Here's the recipe:

Chocolate lava cakes

9 oz semi-sweet baking chocolate (70% dark chocolate)
9 oz. butter (diced, room temperature)
4 eggs
6 oz. granulated sugar
4 oz. flour

2 oz. butter for ramekins

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Melt chocolate on low flame in a double boiler.
Stir in diced butter until it melts.
In another bowl, beat eggs and sugar until the mixture starts to whiten.
Stir in melted chocolate and then the flour.
Butter 6 individual (may make a little more, depending on ramekin size), and pour in chocolate batter.
Cook for about 12 minutes.
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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Pairing beer and cheese

36 hours ago I knew nothing about how to pair beers with cheese. But, like a sponge bar towel sponge, I have soaked up the surprisingly vast amount of information available online about pairing beers with cheese.

Have you ever seen that documentary about bonobo monkeys in which it's apparent in the first 58 seconds that bonobo scientists and enthusiasts are in this one-sided competition with chimpanzees? The bonobos seem to the the only ones without a major inferiority complex, and everyone interviewed spends the bulk of their screen time talking about how much smarter, more loving, more complex, more peaceable, and just how all-around better bonobos are than chimpanzees.

That's a little bit the vibe I got from the beer pairing aficionados. They were so aware of the comparison to wine tasting that talking up beer and cheese pairing while talking down wine was a recurrent tic. Instead of "bonobos are smarter" it was "beer has more complexity than wine" or "beer isn't as sweet and doesn't mask cheese flavors" or one of a half a dozen other repeated beer-is-better mantras.

However, once I got past the stream of unsolicited justifications, I found a lot of good information out there about how to pair beer and cheese. Here are a few that I found particularly useful:

The only disappointment was that some of the sites I found downplayed cheese variety. My guess is that's because they're concerned with alienating beer drinkers by suggesting varieties more exotic than those you'd find in the specialty cheese case of local supermarkets. But seriously, if you're reading about beer pairings, you're probably aware that there are more than five types of cheese in the world, right? Pairing in itself is a fairly fussy endeavor, so making suggestions for what beer to pair with jack cheese seems either disingenuous or affectedly prosaic.

Merguez recipes

I've been on the lookout for a great merguez appetizer recipe, and it turns out that they are few and far between. The reason, I think, is that most recipes calling for merguez, that spicy Tunisian lamb and beef sausage, are for bold main dishes, couscouses, soups, stews, and pizzas.

I'm working on a culinary arc for Joel's birthday, when I'm going to do a tasting menu based on foods and flavors he loves. And so the merguez needed to be either the amuse bouche or the appetizer to fit into the meal.

I wanted to share some of the ideas I found, because though, in the end, I decided to forge into uncharted territory and try to make a version of Lebanese meat pies with merguez, I'd like to later revisit some of the recipes I found in the search.

  • Grilled merguez with fresh prune chutney from the Figs Olives Wine blog
  • Fig and merguez salad from Big Oven
  • Stuffed grape leaves with merguez sausage from Gourmet, via Epicurious
I also stumbled upon a suggestion on Chowhound about where to buy merguez in the Bay Area.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Chicken tikka masala

Yeah, maybe it was invented in England, not India, but I don't love chicken tikka masala because it's authentic, I love it because it tastes so good.

I get it pretty much every time we go to the House of Curries on Solano. I don't even really bother with the chicken, I just pour the sauce over rice or scoop it up with naan. I can't resist that combination of smoky, creamy, sweet, and savory. I had it last night and writing about it now makes me want to eat it again. Right now.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Ingredients of 2008

Not a definitive list by any means, simply a way of tracking those slightly unusual—or at least not previously so prevalent—ingredients that come up six or more times in a month in recipes, magazines, articles, cooking shows or classes, and so on.

Tarragon: In the last year or so, I've been seeing tons of tarragon, especially as part of pan sauces. Sure, this isn't the first time in recent decades that tarragon has risen in the ingredient pop charts, but there's definitely a current resurgence. This was the inspiration for this post because I just got the recipe for the cooking class team-building company activity I'll be attending next week and what's on it? Yup, Pan-Roasted Chicken Breast with Rice Pilaf, Mushrooms, Green Beans and Tarragon Supreme Sauce.

Brown butter: Brown butter has gone from good idea/important part of a basic repertoire to belle of the dairy ball in the last two years. I see brown butter ice cream and brown butter hand lotion in the near future. Watch out clementine.

Elderberry: I love elderberry. Eva introduced me to it years ago when she took me to a tea shop in Windsor. It was a warm day and she said the cool, refreshing elderberry drink was an acceptable alternative to tea during summer. At least that's what I remember her saying. For Kathryn's engagement party, Nancy bought elderberry liqueur and made elderberry-champagne cocktails. And after going ice skating in Oakland with Riba and Zoey and Zoey's PTL, we went across the street to Flora to get drinks and I got a grapefruit, elderberry, and vodka drink. Delicious.

Belgian beer: Are Belgian beer bars taking over the world, or does it just seem like it? That would be ok with me I think, though I hope this isn't just part of some complicated emigration ploy in the face of the separatist movement.

I need to start writing these down, because I know there are more that aren't coming to mind right now.

What's next? My predictions: Buddha's hand. Raclette. Icelandic food.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Homemade granola

I love granola, but don't buy it very often because most of them are packed with fat and sugar that, frankly, I think is better enjoyed later in the day in another form. But a few weeks ago, I found this recipe for less-bad-for-you granola, and so this weekend I made it and now get to look forward to barely-heart-attacky-at-all breakfast every morning. It was really easy to make and I felt like an pioneer lady cooking up something from scratch that I usually buy already made.

It's not as sweet as store-bought granola, which I like, and it was easy enough that I will probably add and adjust ingredients next time for a more customized granola experience.
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Monday, January 7, 2008

Forbidden rice pudding

So in the end, I made polenta and chili as the vegan meal, and for dessert, we had this forbidden rice pudding. It's the rice that's forbidden, not the pudding, by the way.

I've made it before, using this very simple recipe, and really liked it. It's creamy and sweet and the texture is very down-home rice pudding chewy, but the rich purple color and suble coconut flavor give the whole thing an exotic twist. And, the pudding is good both warm and cold.

Last night I topped each dish with some mango, which was both pretty and delicious, but there was no more mango by the time I took the photo today.
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Thursday, January 3, 2008

The best recipes in the Bittersweet cookbook

My friend and coworker (and co-Bay-Area-remote-worker) Erica also happens to be the most chocolate-oriented person I know. Her great love of chocolate makes my affection for it look like a mere schoolgirl crush.

So when she wrote to me yesterday after reading this mid-December post about my frustration with the format of the Alice Medrich Bittersweet cookbook, I took her suggestions not as informed opinions, but as a road map to the best of the book.

Here's what she wrote:

"Here are totally winning recipes because there's no useful TOC in this book:
PB/Chocolate Torte p. 114
Bittersweet Deception p. 170
Marble cheesecake p. 266
Raspberry-laced chocolate cupcakes p.272
Saucepan fudge drops p. 285"

Thanks Erica!

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Cooking for the vegans

Ross and Nicole ("the Vegans") ended up with two sets of Corning ware after their wedding. And for some reason, they were not able to return the extra set, so they gave it to me!

(Photo: Is he cold because he is hungry or because he is at an evening outdoor wedding in October?)

In gratitude, I have invited them over for vegan dinner baked in one of the dishes they gave me. I have no vegan cookbooks, and so far finding a suitable vegan baked thing online has been a challenge.

Basic criteria:
- Vegan
- Able to be baked in one of the many sizes of Corning ware.

My additional criteria:

- Not trying to approximate non-vegan ingredients: I'd rather try to embrace the naturally vegan ingredients instead of trying to make some facsimile of non-vegan food. Maybe actual vegans do this because otherwise their food universes would be too limited, but it somehow makes me sad to resort to "cheese" with a label that advertises "it melts!"

- Not made of ingredients that are abominations: I'm not into margarine made from split molecules, cheese made of oil, or other Frankenstein-food. This rule ties into the previous one pretty tidily, but in my mind is a distinct concern as well.

The biggest problem so far has been the ingredient imposters. My guess is this is because I'm looking for something casseroley (so I can bake it), and gooey, melty things are often part of that equation. There are tons of vegan food blogs out there, many of which have some good-looking recipes, but I've really limited myself with the criteria.

So far, the best thing I've come up with is a polenta chili bake without the cheese (or with optional cheeze/cheese on the side). I could also trot out a couple of classics from the Lebanese stable (a little imjedara, some baba ganoush, etc.), but that's what I always do when faced with hungry vegans, and I'd like to expand my horizons.