29 January 2009

Out of Town


Dearest all,
FYI, I have not abandoned you. Really. Despite the fact that things haven't been entirely hectic around these parts (hah!), I really just haven't been able to get to the computer much, which has actually been sort of refreshing. But I am going out of town this weekend, so I will be out of commission for a bit.
I promise to come back soon.
Really.
Love,
Mei

21 January 2009

Elephant Ears


Honestly, there's not too much happening around these parts. But I did want to tell you about these cookies, which also come from my latest lovely gift. I'd never made elephant ears before. When I was in the 6th grade, during the school's arts week, Mr. Onofrey ran the cooking module, and had made his own puff pastry at home, by himself. I was amazed--especially when he pulled out elephant ears, light and flaky and buttery and sugary and crisp and caramely and just. so. amazing. So amazing that I still have the recipe packet that he wrote out and photocopied for everyone who attended the module.

After that, I've been wrecked on puff pastry. I find the frozen kind never very good (or even very easy to work with, for that matter), but I really do love elephant ears. So when I saw a recipe for some, without actually having to make puff pastry, I was interested. Very interested, in fact. I was so interested that I even overlooked the fact that there is a whole tube of almond paste in the recipe. And then proceeded to make it, even though I wasn't convinced that almond paste in elephant ears would be the best route to go. And no spices.

But I was so so so wrong. They are delicious. And worth every ounce of almond paste.

If you choose to make these cookies (and you should), I have a very very important footnote. If you make the filling ahead of time, and do not let it sit to room temperature, which is hard to do, since the dough and the filling warm at different rates, you may have to pull out large-ish chunks of the filling and roll it out with a pin so it is nice and thin, and then kind of patchwork it onto the dough. A metal spatula is NOT going to cut it, especially if the dough is rolled out and rather malleable. But the patchworking seemed to work for me... so perhaps you can make it work for you?

Jumbo Almond Elephant Ears, adapted from bigfatcookies

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 cup sour cream

7 ounces almond paste, broken or cut into 12 pieces
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup powdered sugar
2 teaspoons heavy (whipping) cream or milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract

approximately 1 cup granulated sugar, for rolling

prepare the dough
1. Sift the flour, baking soda, and salt into a large bowl. Use a pastry blender to combine the flour mixture and butter, until the butter pieces are the size of small lima beans or so the butter pieces will be different sizes, and there will be some loose flour.
2. Add the sour cream and mix in with a spoon for about 2 minutes, until a smooth dough forms. Form the dough into a smooth ball and flatten it into a rectangle about 8 by 5 inches. You will see small pieces of butter in the dough; that is good. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 to 60 minutes to rest and firm the dough. You can also refrigerate the dough overnight, but then be sure to let it sit at room temperature for up to an hour so it is soft enough to roll out easily.

prepare the filling
1. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat the almond paste and butter until smooth. Mix in the powdered sugar, cream, vanilla, and almond extract until blended to a smooth, soft mixture. Likewise, you could make the filling in a food processor, and beginning with a few on/off bursts, process until a smooth mixtures forms, about 1 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl, cover, and set aside at room temperature for up to 1 hour or refrigerate if leaving overnight.

2. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line baking sheet(s) with parchment paper.

3. Unwrap the dough. Lightly sprinkle flour and sugar on the rolling pin and rolling surface. Roll dough to a 14 x 12 inch rectangle. Don't flip the dough over while rolling, but lift and turn several times as your roll it to prevent it from sticking to the rolling surface. Use a thin metal spatula to spread the filling in a thin layer over the dough. Turn the dough, if necessary, so a short side faces you.

4. Measuring along the 14-inch sides, mark the center of the dough. Rolling from the 12-inch edge that is closest to you, roll the dough like a jelly roll just the marked center. Then roll the far side towards the center until the two rolls meet. you will have a double log of filled dough that is smoothly attached on the bottom side; turn so that side is up, for easier cutting.

5. Press the ends of the log to smooth them, and use a large, sharp knife to cut the log into twelve 1-inch-thick slices. Dip both sides of each slice in sugar. Roll out each slice of dough to a large butterfly shape, about 4 x 5 inches, and about 3/16-inch thick, sprinkling the rolling pin as necessary with sugar. The cookies will not all be exactly the same size. Use a large spatula to place the cookies at least 1-inch apart on the prepared baking sheets. Sprinkle the top of each cookie with about 1/2 teaspoon sugar.

6. Bake the cookies one sheet at a time until the tops are evenly light brown, about 15 minutes. The cookies will spread about 1 inch and rise slightly. The filling may bubble up slightly on some of the cookies and have a few darker spots scattered on them. Cool the cookies for 5 minutes on the baking sheets, then use a large metal spatula to carefully transfer them to a wire rack to cool completely. They outsides of the sugar-coated cookies will become very crisp as they cool.

Cookies can be stored in a singer layer in a tightly covered container at room temperature for up to 3 days.

17 January 2009

January


Let us take a moment to think about Maurice Sendak and his timeless love song to the months of the year:

In January
it's so nice
While slip sliding on the ice
to sip hot chicken soup
with rice
Sipping once
sipping twice
sipping chicken soup with rice.

I have to admit that I had to look this up. (I wish I carried more poetry in my head, but there's a lot of other stuff taking up important space in there. Like how I ought to wear thicker socks and stuff.) The version that I remember in my head is more like "January is cold with ice, so I like chicken soup with rice." My version seems more appropriate for January 2009. I mean, January is one of the most brutal months around, don't you think? I mean, it's cold, it's snowing and icy, and it's dark. (Well, ok, New York for the past few days has been sunny, but by no means warm, and what is the point anyway of getting excited about the sun if you can't do anything in it? Just think of my February kite-flying fiasco. But that is for another time.) But do you know what I discovered? There is nothing, and I mean nothing, not even sipping chicken soup with rice, better than getting a few last holiday gifts after the holidays. Jeff's parents just sent me two brandspanking new baking books to play with (thanks, Lorie and Bob!), and they couldn't be more exciting, not at all.

And January definitely got a little better with the addition of Peanut Butter Crispy Bars--kind of like a cross between a peanut butter cup and puppy chow and really, really good rice krispy treats. And because they are so rich and delightful, and you and your boyfriend probably couldn't finish a whole pan even if you try your darndest, you can give some away and spread the post-holiday cheer around.

Which is something definitely to look forward to in January.


Peanut Butter Crispy Bars, adapted from Baked

1 3/4 cups crisped rice cereal
1/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons light corn syrup
3 tablespoons melted butter

5 ounces good-quality milk chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 cup creamy peanut butter

3 ounces dark chocolate (60 to 72% cacao), coarsely chopped
1/2 teaspoon light corn syrup
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter

make the crispy crust
1. Lightly oil the bottom and sides of an 8-inch square baking pan. (I used a 9x10 pan, it seemed to work just fine.)
2. Put the cereal in a large bowl and set aside.
3. Pour 1/4 cup water into a small saucepan. Gently add the sugar and corn syrup into the center of the pan (do not let any sugar or syrup get on the sides of the pan) and use a small wooden spoon to stir the mixture until just combined. Put a candy thermometer in the saucepan. Cook over medium-high heat and bring to a boil; cook until the mixture reaches the soft ball stage, 235 degrees F.
4. Remove from the heat, stir into eh butter, and pour the mixture over the cereal. Working quickly, stir until the cereal is thoroughly coated, then pour it into the prepared ban. Using your hands, press the mixture into the bottom of the pan (do not press up the sides). Let the crust cool to room temperature while you make up the next layer.

make the milk chocolate peanut better layer
1. In a large nonreactive metal bowl*, stir together the chocolate and the peanut butter.
2. Set the bowl over a saucepan of simmering water and cook, stirring with a rubber spatula, until the mixture is smooth. Remove the bowl from the pan and stir for about 30 seconds to cool slightly. Pour the mixture over the cooled crust. Put the pan in the refrigerator for 1 hour, or until the top layer hardens.

make the chocolate icing
1. In a large nonreactive metal bowl, combine the dark chocolate, corn syrup, and butter.
2. Set the bowl over a saucepan of simmering wter and cook, stirring with a rubber spatula, until the mixture is completely smooth. Remove teh bowl from teh pan and stir for 30 seconds to cool slightly. Pour the mixture over the chilled milk chocolate peanut butter layer and spread into an even layer. Put the pan in the refrigerator for 1 hour or until the topping hardens.
3. Cut into 9 squares and serve. The bars can be stored in the refrigerator, covered tightly, for up to 4 days.

*Does anyone know what a reactive metal bowl is?

11 January 2009

Breakfast Trials

I don't know about you, but at my house, breakfast is the hardest meal to prepare for. I, having a ravenous appetite and freakish metabolism, need two breakfasts on weekdays: one before I leave the house (a little something to offset my morning coffee), and then something for about an hour into the school day. First breakfast, I have recently discovered, needs to be no bigger than a piece of fruit or some toast, but the second needs to be more sustaining. Since lunch, by that time, is almost a full 2 hours away?


The problem is, though, that I don't really like cereal, which is quick, and can be at least kind-of nutritious. Oh, don't get me wrong. Some cereals are fine. As is granola. But I'm picky. And I don't really like to drink milk.


So that leaves us with what? Something warm, or something that isn't cloying. (Please note that breakfast is really only a problem during the week. Weekends are a breeze.) Oatmeal is fine, as are bagels, as is yogurt. Or leftover chinese food on chi fan (hi, Dad!). But it makes planning kind of difficult. Usually there really just isn't too much around, or I'm in a hurry. But I think I've found a solution: this morning, as Jeff and Abby and I were leaving our warm brunch spot to head back out into the cold, I espied some cinnamon swirl toast, plated and steaming and ready to be delivered. I nearly swooned. I love cinnamon swirl bread, and I have since I was a little kid. It reminds me of our kitchen in Chicago and taking two pieces out of the Pepperidge Farm package and that stickly sweet cinnamony smell that came out of the bag and then would emanate out of the toaster a few seconds later. But please let it not have raisins! There is no better way to ruin a perfectly good cinnamon swirl loaf than to load the swirls down with raisins.


So my own version was in order. No raisins, but some pecans ground into the mix. No cinnamon sugar topping, as suggested. And a bitterly cold afternoon to scoot the process along. All three qualifications worked perfectly. Perfectly! Warm out of the oven, with a cup of lukewarm tea, it was just what the doctor ordered. Next time, though, I might add a few more spices--cardamom (as a nod to my beloved Swedish Bakery), maybe some nutmeg. Why not? After all, a chilly sky is the limit on baking day, right? Especially when it comes to making sure that breakfast isn't an afterthought.

Cinnamon Swirl Bread, adapted from The King Arthur Flour All-Purpose Baking Cookbook

dough
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/4 cup nonfat dry milk
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
3 tablespoons sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
4 tablespoons butter, cut into medium-sized chunks
1 cup water

filling
1/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 cup chopped pecans
2 teaspoons unbleached all-purpose flour
egg wash, made from 1 large egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water

1. In a large mixing bowl, combine all the dough ingredients, mixing until the dough begins to come away from teh sides of the bowl. Knead about 10 minutes, until the dough is smooth and satiny. (Note: the butter will start to work its way into the rest of the dough, and will kind of come out slimy all over the place. If it gets too oily, sprinkle a little flour on your work surface and everything will be fine--just work through it) Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl with plastic wrap, and set it aside to rise for 1 to 1 1/2 hours; it will be puffy, if not doubled in bulk.
2. Pulse filling ingredients except the egg wash in the food processor.
3. Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled work surface and shape it into a long, narrow rectangle, about 16 x 8 inches. Brush the dough with some of the egg wash (set the remainder aside) and pat the filling gently onto the dough. Beginning with a short edge, roll the dough into a log. Pinch the seam side and ends closed (to keep the filling from bubbling out) and place the log in a lightly greased loaf pan. Cover the pan with lightly greased plastic wrap and let the bread rise for about 1 hour at room temperature, or until it's crowned about 1 inch over the rim of the pan.
4. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
5. Brush the top of the loaf with the remaining egg wash.
6. Bake the bread for about 45 minutes, tenting it lightly with aluminum foil for the final 15 minutes or so if it appears to be browning too quickly. Remove the loaf from the oven, and after about 5 minutes, gently remove it from the pan.

04 January 2009

Chicago is Still My Kind of Town

How is it already January and I have to go back to school tomorrow and I haven't even told you about the goodness that was visiting my parents in Chicago over the holidays? It was a really nice trip--both my parents seemed really well, and very happy, espeically with their now-functional fireplace! We watched TV and read a lot, and Jeff and I even went snowshoeing for a little bit on Christmas day. But the some of the best times were hanging out with my parents trying new places to eat--both of my parents had been raving about this bar, Hopleaf, for a while, and we had also been informed that we were all going to go to a noodle bar that my mom had read about: Urban Belly.


Only Jeff and I ended up going to Hopleaf, but I think that was alright. It was snowy, and slushy, and neither of my parents were too excited about heading out to go to a bar (albeit their favorite one--my parents have a favorite bar!). Jeff and I got there kind of early, about a quarter to four or so, but we unfortunately learned that the kitchen wouldn't open until five, so we just ordered beers. Luckily for us, Hopleaf specializes in quality Belgian beers on tap--there were so many to choose from! Unfortunately, though, one of us still had to drive home (um, yeah, that was me), so I could only have one. Little did I know that 8.5% alcohol hits you like a wave if you haven't eaten too much because you were expecting the kitchen of the bar you were going to to be open. Oops.


But then Jeff and I sat it out, drank our beers and waited. It was very pleasant to sit in the window table, read the Chicago Reader and Beer Advocate, and decompress for a little. And then when the kitchen did open--well, let's just say that the "bar food" was great. I had moules frites, and Jeff had a brisket sandwich. Both disappeared quickly. Jeff also had a second beer, and I got to drive home.


The other place we went on my parent's suggestion (and with my parents!) was the adorable noodle bar Urban Belly. We had been out driving around, and we had been kind of worried about parking, until we pulled into a little strip mall where the shop was located. An unexpected boon, since there was a neat little parking lot where we could not worry about getting stuck in the snow. And inside were delectable dumplings, and so many different kinds of soups and noodles--it was great. The perfect response to a chilly, windy night. The dumplings were savory and zippy and nice--we had both the pork/chive and chicken/mushroom--and the soups were pretty darn good. Dad had a kim chi laced ramen with bay scallops, mom had a pho broth with pork belly, and Jeff had spicy soba, also with scallops. I nibbled all of them. And was terribly happy. Eating a dumpling and noodle meal with my favorite people? Nothing better.

We also saw so many people that needed seeing--I miss you already!

Hopleaf Bar
5148 N. Clark St.
Chicago, IL 60640

Urban Belly
3053 N. California Ave.
Chicago, IL 60618

02 January 2009

Eating In and Out and About

It has been quite the weekend. Our friends Brice and Susan came up for concerts, chilling out, and a lot of eating. To start, I made Gourmet's newest rendition of spaghetti and meatballs; I figured that anyone coming off a nearly five hour bus ride would need something good to eat. And man did that ever come true. Brice and Susan were delayed, driven in circles, and then delayed some more, arriving safely in New York at about 8:30, about three hours after their original time due in. And what better than wine and comfort food, ready and waiting?


We then proceeded to have a weekend full of eats, including a stint at the new Shake Shack after a trip to the Natural History Museum, where we all happily chowed down on perfect french fries (they might be my favorite in the city), delicious burgers, a hot dog, and, of course, the all important milkshakes. Jeff and I have our order down pat for when we go--we share everything except hamburgers. It's a winning situation all around.


As for the spaghetti and meatballs, they were just about perfect (if I do say so myself). Not too heavy, not too oily, and with a touch of lemon zest to add lightness and finesse. Next time, though, I'll add a little spice to the tomato sauce while it simmers, and maybe some herbs, too--it really needed something to make the flavors pop. But I wouldn't change a thing about the meatballs. Or the spaghetti. Or the wine. Eat this meal with copious glasses of wine. You won't regret it.


Spaghetti and Meatballs, adapted from Gourmet

for tomato sauce
3 28-ounce cans whole tomatoes in juice
1 medium onion, chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped

for meatballs
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
5 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups torn day-old country bread
1 1/2 cups whole milk
3 large eggs
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
3/4 pound ground veal
3/4 pound ground pork
3/4 pound ground beef (not lean)
1/2 cup olive oil

1. Drain tomatoes over a very large bowl, reserving juice. Crush tomatoes with your hands and add them to juice.
2. Cook onions in oil in a very large pot over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 10 minutes. Add garlic and cool, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 2 minutes. Stir in tomatoes with their juice, 2 teaspoons salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper. Simmer sauce, uncovered, stirring occastionally, until slightly thickened, about 45 minutes to an hour. Season with salt.
3. While the sauce simmers, cook onions in olive oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 10 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a very large bowl to cool.
4. Soak break in milk in another bowl until soft, about 5 minutes. Firmly squeeze bread to remove excess milk; discard milk.
5. Stir together cooled onion mixture, bread, eggs, parmesan, parsley, oregano, lemon zest, 2 1/2 teaspoons salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper until combined. Add meats to the bread mixture, gently mixing with hands until just combined. (Do your best to not overmix.)
6. Form meat mixture into about 35 (1 1/2-inch) balls with dampened hands (this helps the mixture not stick), arranging meatballs on 2 large baking sheet or in shallow baking pans lined with foil.
7. Heat olive or vegetable oil (1/2 cup) in skillet over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking, then brown meatballs in 5-6 batches; do not crowd the meatballs in the pan. Turn frequently, about 5 minutes per batch. Return to baking sheets.
8. Add meatballs to sauce and gently simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, until cooked through, 20-30 minutes.

Serve with spaghetti and extra parmesan cheese.

(Meatballs with sauce can be frozen in an airtight container or heavy-duty sealable bags up to 3 months.)

The Shake Shack (Uptown location)
366 Columbus Ave.
New York NY 10024