October 30, 2009

Apple Cider Doughnuts!

One of my former co-workers just lost her beloved 17-year-old tomcat, Danny Boy. She and I always shared stories about our Superpets, and so this was exceptionally sad news to hear this week. He was a gem in her life, and I figured, she deserved one of fall's little gems to help her through this: apple cider doughnuts!

I obtained the recipe from Coconut & Lime, an excellent baking blog that offers step-by-step photo tutorials for its recipes. You may find the dough sticky, so feel free to add up to 1 cup extra flour during the mixing process. If you're a "lightly-spoon-flour-into-measuring-cups" type like me, a technique I first learned from Cooking Light, you'll definitely find that 3 1/4 cups flour is not enough. But the dough was easy to work with, roll out, cut, and fry, and both it and the frosting have just the right hint of apple cider. I'd maybe go one step further next time and throw in a little apple pie spice, but I think these doughnuts met their challenge, as I received a nice note from my co-worker this morning saying they were just the thing!

Here's to Danny Boy, his amazing cat-mom, and a fall favorite, all rolled up into one rainy Chicago morning!

October 29, 2009

A Solemn Note

This week I learned an old friend from pastry school passed away unexpectedly. She was 37, and we'd had a crazy roller-coaster-ride friendship that year in school and in the following year afterward. We had gone our separate ways eventually, realizing perhaps that had we met at another time, when we weren't so "already adult," we might have tolerated the high-school drama that seemed to plague our friendship. It was odd to me that two people in their mid-30s could still create juvenile-level drama in a friendship, but in the end, it was probably better for both of us that we called it a day and moved on.

That was two years ago. Today, at the wake, I learned that she had taken her own life. When I knew her, I had no idea she was struggling with any of the aspects of life her eulogists told us about tonight. She was not a happy person, and they readily told us about it tonight. I am undoubtedly shocked by the realization that the woman I knew then, who went on field trips to bakeries around town with me,  who laughed with me about our fallen souffles and unset creme brulees, who helped me decorate my new condo, and who fretted with me about whether croissants or puff pastry would be on the final exam in pastry school, had spiraled into the immense sadness she came to be mired in at her death. She seemed so carefree, in-the-moment, and recklessly fun back then.

I don't mean to be so morose on a blog that so happily discusses food and the enjoyment of it, but I just wanted to encourage folks to try and always be attune to those around you and what makes them tick. A time bomb may be about to go off in them, and what they show you on the outside may not be what's going on inside. I wish I'd had seen the drama in our friendship for what it could have meant (a conflicted person) instead of what I thought it did (a drama queen). I miss her and had come to missing her a lot lately, as my pastry business took off over the past year and I wanted someone to share in all the amazing things that were happening. But I am doing too little too late, even in writing this post as a means of paying respect to her.

Sara, you will be missed, my fellow pastry chef. I hope you find peace where you are now, and may there be lots of cakes for you to decorate in heaven.

October 26, 2009

Shitake Mushroom and Crab Bisque

After a week-plus absence from the world of blogs, I've come back with a vengeance... Shitake Mushroom and Crab Bisque. Do try this at home! This resulted from some leftover ingredients for making potstickers and boy, was it worth having a few orphans with nowhere to go. This can be made without dairy (substitute 2 cups vegetable broth for the milk), but I will say the milk gives it some heartiness, great for these already-dreary fall nights in Chicago, that's for sure!

Shitake Mushroom and Crab Bisque

2 tbsp all-purpose flour
2 tbsp butter
1 chicken or vegetable stock bouillion cube
2 cups 1% milk
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp onion powder
1 tsp dried tarragon leaves
1/4 tsp dried thyme

4-5 shitake mushrooms, diced
1 can crabmeat, drained and picked over

In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, melt butter and add flour to make a roux (butter paste). Crumble bouillion cube in roux and mix well. Add milk and whisk quickly to incorporate roux. Reduce heat to medium and continue whisking to thicken (about 5-10 minutes). Add garlic through thyme and mix thoroughly. Add shitakes and crab and heat through. Serve hot with french bread croutons sprinkled on top. Serves 4.

October 16, 2009

Cooking School: Price-fixing, Poilevey, and Profiteroles

You gotta love the price-fixed meal in this economy. How else would we have ever arrived at three courses for under $30? In a state of affairs where main courses alone were trending toward $30 at even midlevel casual joints like TGIFriday's, it's a much-needed shot in the arm of the American wallet. Recently, my friend Christopher and I enjoyed a meal at Le Bouchon in Bucktown/Wicker Park. We had met the chef, Jean Claude Poilevey, at a cooking class we took at The Chopping Block a couple of years ago and were very enamored with his charm, wit, and overall Frenchiness. We were simply speechless when he showed up with our main courses and served us himself! For the first two, I thoroughly enjoyed my codfish brandade and lamb shank, and Chris indulged in the escargot and hanger steak. We also sampled each others' fare and gave our standard nods of approval. A huge fan of the pear, Chris went the rustic tart route and chose the pear country tart for dessert. A big fan of puffs in general (I have a 15-year-old Pomeranian nicknamed Puff, and all winter, you'll find me and my husband encased in various renditions of down, or "our winter puffs," as he calls them), I went with the profiteroles. It got me thinking, what's the difference between a cream puff and a profiterole?

Well, I asked the expert, my good friend Leticia of Simply Special Catering in Columbus, Ohio. She is a food goddess and petit fours genius. There isn't a tiny food on this planet that Leticia can't make. She simply pronounced: "It's the ice cream!" So a cream puff is filled with custard, creme anglaise, or any other form of vanilla cream, and ice cream is what makes a profiterole a profiterole. It's the French version of the ice cream sundae! I highly recommend the ones at Le Bouchon. They come swathed in a rich, dark chocolate sauce that definitely calls for a little Spoonfoolery. Or you can make your own with this pretty darn true-to-form profiteroles recipe from Gourmet.

October 12, 2009

Cooking School: Cupcake Batter vs. Cake Batter

Can you use cake batter for cupcakes and vice versa? A lot of people have asked me that, and the short answer is: sure thing. However, there are a few things to remember about refrigeration, shelf life, and baking time between the two options... Cupcakes have a shorter shelf life due to their compactness. Since they have a smaller surface area overall, they'll dry up faster. So if you need to bake a cake ahead of time, you can bake it up to three days ahead of time, wrap the individual layers well in plastic wrap (unfrosted), and at least freeze it (never refrigerate baked goods for extended periods; the slow wafting of cold air in your refrigerator at a constant rate dries up baked goods like the Sahara). Frosted matter can and should be refrigerated though, especially if the frosting is dairy-based (traditional buttercream). Wilton, Duncan Hines, and Pilsbury frostings are shortening-based, and so when frosted, cakes and cupcakes can remain at room temperature.

Additionally, the general timeframe for baking cupcakes is 18-22 minutes, depending on your oven (whether it bakes hotter than most, which some people do experience). You definitely can't bake cupcakes for as long as you do a cake. Also, you should try to bake and decorate cupcakes over a 24-48-hour period and then make sure they get consumed shortly thereafter. Like that's ever a problem for most people. Who doesn't love a cupcake?

Clockwise from top: vanilla with vanilla buttercream and fondant flower with silver dragee; carrot cake with ginger cream cheese frosting and fondant-and-buttercream carrot; red velvet with cream cheese frosting and white chocolate disc; lavender lemonade with lavender-lemon buttercream and dried lavender blossoms.

October 5, 2009

Day of Mourning in Foodie Land


Wow! This hit was right in the kisser today. Gourmet Magazine is folding??? Next month's is the final issue. As a former journalist (book editor and freelance writer) and present-day chef, this was very sad news to read today. Gourmet is a food bible, and Ruth Reichl its lording Goddess. The Web site literally got up and running just this year (Gourmet was late to the online game, probably because the magazine has for so long captured its readers the old-fashioned way--through paper and print.), and now it may not survive the year. I was suspicious when its infamous Politics of Food column was dropped a few months ago. I suspect that's an expensive one for the mag to maintain, as it requires a journalist and a foodie to really get to the meat of the story. Even as an equally avid Bon Appetit fan, I was sorely disappointed to hear that one will stay afloat, while Ruth et al are on the streets looking for work. Having lived through a fair number of failures and takeovers in the book publishing world, I know this story too well. I just wish some famous food giant out there in celebrity chefdom would consider pitching some money at Conde Nast and keeping the Gourmet food dream alive. I can't imagine my mailbox this December without it. :-(

October 3, 2009

Cooking School: Sugar Pumpkins vs Jack-O-Lanterns

I've been asked what's the difference, so here goes... If cooking, use sugar (or "pie") pumpkins. They're "meatier" so-to-speak, and provide more heft to a dish, especially pie or pasta filling. Large pumpkins, having thinner walls and lots of seeds, are really only farmed for carving. You can read more about all the differences here. I agree wholeheartedly with what Produce Pete says about sugar pumpkins and soup. I've tried making my curried pumpkin soup with canned pumpkin puree, and well, forgedabouddit! Nothing beats the real Action Jackson--a sugar pumpkin! You can get my curried pumpkin soup here. In the meantime, here's a toasted pumpkin seed recipe we tried last night, with the pumpkin seeds from the latest batch of soup. These make a great, healthy snack, and I daresay they could replace popcorn at your next movie theater outing!

Indian-Spiced Pumpkin Seeds

2 cups washed and dried pumpkin seeds
2 T vegetable oil
1 tsp garam masala (Indian combination spice, found at Whole Foods or a local ethnic grocery store)
1 tsp salt

Preheat oven to 350 F. Set baking rack in oven at second level (not the middle, but not the highest rung either). Line a 14 x 10 jelly roll pan (cookie sheet with a lip) with parchment or Silpat. In a bowl, combine pumpkin seeds, vegetable oil, garam masala, and salt. Mix thoroughly and spread on sheet pan. Bake for 35 minutes, stirring once halfway through baking. Allow to cool and store in airtight container or sealed Ziploc. Keeps 1 week.

October 1, 2009

Broccoli-Leek Chowder with Bacon

Our vegetable share produced a bumper crop of broccoli the past two weekends. What to do with all these florets? They were accompanied by some rather perfect red potatoes and a gorgeous leek, so I came up with the following introduction to fall... Grab a spoon and dig in!

Broccoli-Leek Chowder with Bacon

4 strips bacon, cooked and crumbled (reserve 2 T bacon fat)
1 large leek, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp thyme
1 tsp tarragon
6 small red potatoes, coarsely chopped (skins on)
1 large head broccoli, trimmed to single florets
1 quart (32 oz) vegetable broth
1 c shredded Gouda or Gruyere cheese
salt and pepper to taste

Heat 2 T bacon fat on medium-high heat in a large stockpot. Saute leeks 2-3 minutes, until golden. Add garlic and saute another 1-2 minutes. Add herbs and potatoes and cook and stir about 3-5 minutes to soften (do not brown potatoes). Add vegetable broth and bring to a boil for 5 minutes. Reduce heat to low, cover, and allow to simmer until potatoes are soft (about 20 minutes). Remove soup from heat and allow to cool about 15 minutes. Ladle half the soup into a deep bowl and use an immersion blender to puree this portion (or pour into a blender and puree). Return puree to pot and reheat on medium-low heat. Add broccoli and simmer 3-5 minutes. Serve hot with cheese and bacon sprinkled on top. Serves 6.