Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Balance is hard

A friend of mine who lives in NYC was telling me that she was going to Felidia, one of Lydia Bastianich's restaurants in New York, for a family celebration.
I always like to give a look to Italian restaurants abroad.

Checking on the online menu, an antipasto caught my eye: Le Barbabietole, marinated beets, goat cheese, peach, watercress, balsamic vinaigrette.
I've never been a fan of beets, until this summer, when I felt the urge to buy some and I actually ate them!
So, instantly, I needed to know how a similar combination would taste.

I took some of the last peaches around, some beets, goat cheese, basil instead of watercress.
Goat cheese here in Italy is not as tangy as the one you normally find in the US, so I should have known that the balance came all down on the vinaigrette.
But for some reason, I decided to divert from the balsamic vinaigrette and put together something that could probably be called a "Bellini Vinaigrette": champagne vinegar, a hint of peach syrup (home made), olive oil, a dash of salt, pepper and Dijon mustard.

I had to work on that dash and on the proportions of the vinaigrette quite a lot, because all the other ingredients were on the sweet side.

The result wasn't too bad, but not exciting either, that's probably why my name is not Lydia.
I think I'll try that vinaigrette on something more appropriate.

But as for now, I'm still curious to know how those "Le Barbabietole" taste.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Zol-au-Vent and Vol-au-Rocher

The September 2009 Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Steph of A Whisk and a Spoon. She chose the French treat, Vols-au-Vent based on the Puff Pastry recipe by Michel Richard from the cookbook Baking With Julia by Dorie Greenspan.

This was a nice challenge, but I had an accidental shortcut to it.
September has been pretty hot here, not exactly the right climate to make puff pastry.

I had in the freezer some I had made in late spring. I kept it there as a last resort, waiting until the last moment to see if I had a cold day to document the entire challenge, but the cold day never came (and I can't say I'm sorry for that), so I hope that my word on being the maker of the pastry is valid enough as for the accomplishment of the challenge.
It must be, because if I had bought it, it sure would have risen much better!

Vol-au-vents are tricky to eat: the puff pastry crumbles a lot (at least, you hope it does!) and when they are big you risk The Big Splash Of Content.
That's why I went for bite-size.
Maybe too much, but in my opinion this is a case where smaller is better.

I made an appetizer and a dessert.
The appetizer involves one of my family's all time favourites: gorgonzola, which was paired with pears.

Nothing else: the pears were ripe and juicy enough to give out the right amount of liquid and only a few seconds of heat were needed to melt the zola in order to mix the two.

The dessert was a reinterpretation of a Ferrero Rocher, the puff pastry playing the part of the wafer.

A quick ganache with Nutella and whipped cream, added with ground hazelnuts.

In my intentions, a whole hazelnut was to be in the center of the vol-au-vent, but a whole hazelnut didn't fit in the bitesize structure without pulling the balance with chocolate too much.

I wish my husband took some classes of creative food writing: asking for an opinion and just getting "MMMMHHHH!" for an answer, as much as participated it is, is starting not to be enough for me.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

To Arthur!

Today is the 250th birthday of Guinness.
250 years.
A quarter of a MILLENNIUM!
That's a lot.

Of course I have some connection to Guinness and to Ireland in general.
Ireland was my first destination when I started to travel, I went there two summers in a row as a student to attend English classes and it was the first gateway through which I saw what was in the world other than my neighborhood.
A few years later, when I was 23, a series of events led me to go there for a month by myself, I went wherever my nose led me and learned how to muddle through public transportation, B&Bs reservations and unforeseen events with noone's help.
I felt truly at peace for I think the first time in my life sitting on a bench in Galway, looking at the ocean.
It has been such a rewarding experience!

The family that hosted me the first time I went to Dublin was so young and funny that we kept in touch for some years to follow. The guy was a baker, known in the area for a very special brown bread, the recipe coming from the wife's family.
I miss them a lot, and I miss that bread.

When I got married I picked Ireland as a honeymoon destination because I wanted my husband to see the places and meet the people that had meant so much to me, I felt like he couldn't fully know me if he didn't go there.
And in our honeymoon, being finally not alone and of age, Guinness played quite a part. Above all, I learned that it's true what they say, a pint tastes different depending on the pub in which you're drinking it.

Oh, and now I really wish I could hop on a plane and go there once again!

To celebrate Sir Arthur Guinness, I baked two desserts, one from a cookbook I bought in Ireland and one I spotted on a blog a few months ago but kept for the occasion.

The first is a Guinness cake, it resemble a lot one of those British puddings, it envolves melting butter and brown sugar in some beer

then adding a ton of fruit peel and pinenuts and mixing with flour

It's not something you can do one day for another: after the cake is baked, it has to be kept in aluminum foil and for 3-4 days it will be washed down with a few spoonfuls of THE dark beer.

In the end you get this fully flavoured pudding cake that will spin your head at the first taste:

Maybe even too fully flavoured: we are not afraid of a good glass of beer, but a full slice of it really goes straight to your brain. So what I did was to cut it in big french fries size pieces and roll them in a mix of sugar and cinnamon.

The second baking tribute were some Guinness cupcakes I found on the Big City, Little Kitchen blog, an adaptation of a Nigella's recipe.
I just had to twist slightly the recipe using whole yogurt instead of sour cream, but as for the rest I followed it.

Unlike the pudding/cake, these are not at all strong, you barely taste the beer in there (there's so much cocoa!), and they are soft and smooth like few cupcakes I've had before.

Now, my 6yo was a bit disappointed he wasn't getting the usual muffin for his snack at school.
He kept asking why on Earth did I put beer in it, so that he couldn't have it.
And actually all this celebration isn't all that family friendly, we'll probably have to wait after bedtime. The fact that my kids are good in not pushing for what they know is seriously not for them doesn't mean that we have to wave and display the stuff under their nose.

But you'll have time, son, your time will come even too soon!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Dare to confine

This month's Daring Cooks Challenge is hosted by Debyi of healthyvegankitchen.com. She chose Indian Dosas from the refresh cookbook by Ruth Tal, and you will find the detailed recipe and procedure on her website. I'll just say here that they have a chickpeas filling and a coconut-curry sauce.

Dosas weren't that hard to cook, but the challenge was to go and see how you can have a delicious meal while going vegan. And lactose free. Am I forgetting something? Oh, yes, about 99% oil free, considered that you will need some oil to grease the pan while preparing the dosas.

The dosas were very quick to prepare, and not harder than panning crepes.

What I loved most of going into this challenge was the mise en place.

I find it very relaxing to prepare all the things I will need to cook or bake something, the more the better. I love checking the ingredients on the recipe and marking them off, lining up all the bowls, even washing them afterwards (if anyone living with me is reading, he's invited not to comment the last one).

Besides, what's not to love in handling such vivid colors in a late summer Sunday morning?

I do not like it when garlic's flavour is too strong, so I leave the whole cloves in my recipes while they're cooking, then pull them out in the end, so that there's just a hint and I don't pay it forward too much.

All the colors melt in a golden and fragrant concoction of mildly spicy and tangy fragrances:

Coconut milk was required to prepare the sauce, which usually I find here, but not the morning I decided to take the challenge.
Did it stop me?

I'm afraid the coconut's are the only pics of the saucy part.

When it came to assemble the dosas with filling and sauce, I made what I often do with normal crepes: pile them up.
Maybe it was the Dobos Torte of teh last Daring Bakers Challenge that wasn't letting me go.

This configuration was very convenient when it became clear that I would be the only consumer of my hard work.
I should know by now that my husband has a very low spicy-ness threshold: the first meal I cooked after getting married was a pretty hot chicken curry. After 3 bites he politely asked if he could stop eating; he was all red in the face and some tears were rising in his eyes. I couldn't swear it but I clearly remember some smoke coming out of his ears.
The kids were not that enticed, either.

And that's how I ended having my own Indian week!

(Thanks Lisa Michele for kicking my butt! It was the first day of school yesterday, and with all the excitement I was forgetting to post this!)

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Fresh from my replicator

Star Trek has always been a continuous and subtle presence in my life.
I wouldn't miss a single episode when I was a child, I was fascinated by Mr. Spock's logic, and tried ever since to be as logic and rational as he was.
Sometimes it works.
Of course the side effect is that my mood wrecks havoc in the other 23 hours of the day, but hey, I'm only human!

When I got to work in Pharmacy retail, my boss' husband had his own "ship", he organized themed meetings, had a newsletter about the group activities, produced some merchandise.
I never ranked higher than Ensign, and it all ended on some question about Wesley Crusher's IQ.

When the guy-that-would-become-my-husband asked me out formally for the first time, it was to go to a Convention of Star Trek. We never got there, and to this day I don't know if there actually was such a Convention that day.
It wasn't until six months later that we actually got together, but I remember quite a few long phone calls that summer, late at night, right after reruns of Deep Space 9, my favourite of all series, while he's totally faithful to the Next Generation.
Today is our 12th anniversary, which brought me to this nostalgic-futuristic post.

The first time we went to Vegas, we spent a full afternoon at the ST Experience that was at the LVHilton. In the gift shop I found this:

Guess what, I bought it.

It's not an easy book to consult.
It has a section for every series, and then the chapters are about the members of the crew of that series, the recipes organized with the only criteria of being the favourite of some character.
You don't want to look for "a dessert" or "an appetizer", there. You will look for Mr. Tuvok's favourite dishes. Or someone else's.
And the only pictures are shots taken on the set, so you don't even have that visual help; quite a challenge for my TIMOC #4

I went to the Deep Space 9 section, looking for my favourite character's dishes. Comes out that Jadzia Dax and I don't share the same taste at the table (or about men, as it is).
So I picked an Icoberry Torte, Captain Sisko's favourite dessert at Quark's.
Icoberries are not easily found on Earth, but we're allowed to substitute raspberries for them.

1 cup/100gr ground almonds
1/2 whole wheat breadcrumbs (I used white)
6 eggs
1 cup light brown sugar
2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon lemon extract
1/2 teaspoon orange extract
1 cup raspberry preserve
confectioners' sugar

Beat the yolks with sugar, add the cinnamon, the lemon and orange extract, then the dry ingredients, then delicately incorporate the whipped egg whites.
Bake at 350F/180C for 45 minutes.
When it is cooled, spread it with raspberry preserve (well, I had some!) and then sprinkle with confectioners' sugar.
You can add whipped cream, too.

There is also an Icoberry Drink, consisting of icoberry sauce in apple juice; I still had some raspberry pulp frozen in iced cubes, it was a no brainer.

Do you feel 24th century-ish, yet?