Conquering Fears with a KitchenAid

July 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

While we established my love for ice cream a few posts back. I’ve not quite fully addressed my sweet tooth’s other passion: baked goods. For as long as I can remember, I’ve found something very exacting and magical about the process of starting with myriad ingredients, combining them in just the right way and a few hours later seeing the transformed results. I also love that the combinations and ratios and a base of no more than a dozen or so ingredients can result in so many varieties of textures, consistencies and flavors. From cookies to cakes to quick breads to scones, the base of these is essentially the same.  Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the results are most often sweet and delicious.

My first true love when it came to baked goods most definitely reflects my upbringing in the 80s in a very small Southern town: the Sarah Lee frozen pound cake. While my taste has evolved a bit, I have to admit I am still kind of in awe of it’s unmatched texture, and distinct “buttery” flavor, not to mention the uniform, perfectly browned rim that outlined each slice.

Of course, studying abroad in Paris did nothing but exacerbate my love of pastries and breads in particular. I loved the smell wafting from the boulangerie-patisseries each morning and decided that any culture that reinforced purchasing a fresh baguette on one’s way home EVERY evening was a-okay in my book.

For many years, however, I’ve sort of played it safe or taken the easy route in the baking department – an occasional layer cake here or there, maybe some profiteroles as a stretch. Yeast, kneading dough, rolling it out, willing it to rise properly – it was a bit intimidating, I admit.  A few weeks ago, however, a beaten up box arrived at my apartment and the 20+ pound hand-me-down KitchenAid (thanks, Mom!) has opened my eyes to the possibilities that paddle and dough hook attachments allow a baker.

For my test run, I went the bread route, first thinking cinnamon rolls then scaling back to a slightly less sweet and indulgent treat (only because I was not in possession of cream cheese at the time and believe any good cinnamon roll demands cream cheese frosting). When I stumbled across Pioneer Woman’s recipe for Homemade Cinnamon Bread, I went straight to work. I tacked the yeast that intimidated me all of these years, and found that while baking in a hot oven in 90+ degree temps may seem counterintuitive, a hot apartment kitchen creates the perfect conditions for dough to rise. Luckily I also purchased a rolling pin a while back, so this dough was spared being rolled by a wine bottle which has been known to happen to many a pizza dough and pie crust in the past.

Thanks to the ridiculous heat we had in New York last week, I shaved about 30 minutes off the first 2-hour rise and an hour off the second 1 3/4- hour rise. Given we still have a month or two of summer to go, there may be a lot more bread baking in my future! At each step I followed instructions and tried to be exact, and thanks to Ree’s great photos and step by step instructions, I have to say it seemed even…easy! Behold the results: it even swirled, which is really all I could ask for anyway.

Up next? I’ve received a request for croissants from my in-house taster, but I feel as that might just be taking things a bit too far at this early stage…we shall see.

 

Ice Cream Circa the 80s

July 10, 2011 § 2 Comments

Ask almost anyone who knows me and they will tell you that I have a major sweet tooth…or perhaps several sweet teeth. In either case this tooth (or teeth) takes a particular liking to ice cream and has since I can remember going to Baskin Robbins as a kid, ordering Word Class Chocolate (I still hold this to be one of their finest flavors) in a sugar cone and, much to my mother’s dismay, insisting on biting off the tip of the cone to let the ice cream melt and funnel down through it and, of course, all over me in the process.

I attribute this to my father who was once mistaken for a Ben & Jerry’s stock boy by a fellow customer one time at Kroger when searching for his favorite flavor (I believe he was wearing a Ben & Jerry’s t-shirt and Birkenstocks at the time, so the assumption was a fair one). As further evidence, while visiting me once at Davidson, we stopped in the Main Street location to see what new flavors they were serving. My dad had his heart set one a specific flavor he obviously researched online, but much to his dismay, that specific store wasn’t serving it at the time. He settled on a runner up, and I assumed we would adopt a “maybe next time” mentality and go on with our day. No such luck. After eating his first scoop, we drove approximately 10 minutes to the Lake Norman location where he found the elusive flavor and proceeded to eat a scoop there too. More stories like this exist, but I think this paints an accurate picture of the genes that were passed down.

For an ice cream lover, New York City is an exciting but dangerous place. My latest find, the pistachio cherry gelato at Epicerie Boulud is a current favorite, but I am already anxious to try Steve’s Ice Cream which recently opened a few blocks from my office in midtown, the  ice cream sandwiches from the Coolhaus truck which often stations itself a block away to taunt me, and of the course, the brick and mortar Big Gay Ice Cream store once it opens in the East Village.

So it should come as no surprise that one of what I consider to be the best features of our new apartment is something we weren’t aware of until after we signed the lease. We are renting this apartment from the owner, who, as it turns out, must share or even rival my passion for frozen sweet concoctions.  While doing a walkthrough/introduction with her just before moving in, we were scanning the kitchen cabinets to make sure they were all emptied. Above the fridge, Rupert noticed something tucked in the back and inquired. “Oh, that ice cream maker stays if it’s okay with you. It’s just too heavy to move and it fits perfectly up there”, she explained. Okay with me? Um, yes, that will be just fine. But it wasn’t until yesterday that I had time to climb up the step stool and put it to use.

Now, despite my high ice cream standards, I’ve never had a complaint with the $40 frozen canister variety of machines. Sure waiting for the canister to freeze requires some advance planning from the time you would like to be eating ice cream, but it is usually worth the wait. For true connoisseurs, I suppose this is just not acceptable. Enter the Simac Gelataio Super.

Now I had quite a time tracking down any sort of instructions or even information about this specific Super model, but I did learn that the machine was manufactured by Simac, a company in New Jersey, which to the best of my knowledge no loger produces them. I saw a few similar models on Ebay that gave me the impression that this is a serious investment in one’s ice cream happiness. After reading some comment boards here and there, I found an owner’s manual for another model and went with it. l. I particularly like the introduction:

Beautiful fresh desserts with no guilt?! What could be better? I was sold. Luckily the machine IS easy to operate – basically you just flip the chill and churn switches, insert earplugs – this guy is NOISY) let it run for about 45 minutes. Voila – perfectly frozen ice cream. The earplug part was learned by experience, and we will be investing in some soon.

For my first attempt, I stuck with a tried and true gelato base recipe from the Ciao Bella cookbook, reduced the sugar to half a cup and added about 6 oz of white chocolate I melted as I was when heating the milk and cream. White Chocolate ice cream was a special request and all time favorite of Rupert’s. I’ve only ever seen it on the menu at Balthazar, so I have little to compare to, but the resident expert said it definitely met his standards. Now, I feel the possibilities are endless.  And I’ve already started scanning my cookbooks for my next inspiration. Right now one from Thomas Keller’s ad hoc cookbook will probably be up next.

To close, my research also turned up this print ad from 1982 for sale on ebay, that I feel succinctly captures the goal of any ice cream making attempt with all the glamor of 80s food styling.

 

 

 

On Creme Brulee and Caesar Salad

July 8, 2011 § 3 Comments

For the 4th of July, we ventured down to Asheville, NC. In addition to some incredible company (my mom and sister joined us from Georgia), the food we enjoyed put our trip over the top. Having grown up with a family cabin in Balsam, NC as our prime vacation destination, it is always nostalgic to return.

In addition to a few new finds (like the incredible bagels at City Bakery!), revisiting an old favorite inspired me to give it some attention here on the blog. Rezaz should not only be a must on any visit to Asheville, but it also brings up fond memories and challenges my tenets in food. Situated in Biltmore Village, Rezaz has been a go to for my family for several years. In fact, we followed the Chef/Owner Reza Setayesh from his previous post at a golf club tucked somewhere in the mountains not far from Cold Mountain, where the well-known novel was set.

Two of the signature dishes that never leave the menu come straight from his time at that country club and ironically both defy some of my food principles. You see, before my senior year in high school I worked in the kitchen of The Southside Grill in Chattanooga, TN. I was eager to learn and lucky enough to find a restaurant that embraced the locavore movement years before it had a name. We grew herbs in our garden, had daily produce deliveries and sourced meat and fish from local purveyors. The food was remarkable, paricularly for Chattanooga at that time (2000) and I learned more about cooking and baking in three months than I could have ever imagined.

I worked both garde manger, preparing and plating all of the cold appetizers and salads, and as an assistant to the pastry chef. As such, two of the menu items I was responsible for were the caesar salad and creme brulee. I still attest that both of these classics were some of the best I’ve had, but gradually the sheer size of the batches we prepared put me off of them both completely. Emulsifying two gallons of olive oil into a vat of dressing or separating 90 egg yolks will do that to anyone, I suppose. If nothing else I came to appreciate the sporadic occurrence of a double yolk! Torching the sugar on the creme brulee, however, never got old.

Following my summer at Southside, I vowed that creme brulee and caesar salad were dead to me, and for the last 10+ years, I’ve not waivered much in that stance. Mr. Setayesh versions have been the exception. In what is a seemingly simple twist, Setayesh quarters and grills heads of romaine on a wood burning grill for what I imagine is no more than a minute or two as the lettuce barely wilts and remains cool and crisp. This nuance in flavor, in addition to a well executed dressing that is a bit thinner than the classic, makes the salad one I hold all others to in comparison.

The addition to lavender to the creme brulee is another small innovation that elevates the classic to something unique, setting it apart from the ubiqutious versions on nearly every dessert menu. Of course, here again, execution is also key. The proper custard consistency, a shallow dish, and a thick well bruleed crust strike a near perfect balance.

The rest of the Rezaz menu spans several cuisines. The restaurant describes itself as mediterranian but only subtle hints of these are sprinkled throughout the menu. Southern, Italian and Spanish influences also dot the dishes which maintain one consistent feature – they are all outstanding. As my sister remarked, everything on the menu sounds good and is then even better and different (in a good way) than you imagined. To me, this is the sign of a great chef.

On our visit, we had an incredible friend shrimp and calamari salad of sorts that tossed the crisp seafood with green onions, a spicy/sweet asian sauce, shredded lettuce, sesame seeds and green onion. The combination was a case of the whole being more that the sum of the parts. It worked perfectly. Another small plate,a soft, pillowy potato gnocchi was paired with tomato, spring peas, fresh paremsan and a balsamic reduction, also exceeded our already high expectations based on the description alone.

In addition to the food, one of the most remarkable things about Rezaz is the value, the pricing of menu items and the well-selected wine list makes you feel (especially when you have been conditioned with New York prices) that you are getting away with something. I would like to think Rezaz has found the optimal price that keeps customers filling the tables but does not make them sacrifice when it comes to quality ingredients. They love and are proud of what they do and it shows on the faces of each staff member. While I believe they could get away with charging more, I love that fact that they embrace the neighborhood restaurant vibe and make it a place one does not have to reserve only for special occasions. If not for the some odd 600 miles standing between us, I would certainly be a regular.

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