A New York Thanksgiving

November 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

Thanksgiving is right around the corner and for the first year ever, I am cooking for my family in New York City. Having already made two trips to Whole Foods with another planned to pick up the turkey, I *think* I’m in a pretty good Thanksgiving place prep-wise. The execution, of course, is yet to be seen.

Since I will only be cooking for my mother, sister and Rupert, I’ve tried to scale back on the quantity of dishes paring out those things we find somewhat superfluous to hone in on the big ticket items. During this process, I definitely did some nerdy thinking about optimizing utility, marginal returns, etc. putting my degree in economics to good use. Also taking into account tastes and preferences, I’ve strategically omitted some of the traditional thanksgiving dishes that somehow have never caught on in my family. Stuffing, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie? No thanks. Call us weird but that’s just how it has always been. That being said, I didn’t want to forego some of Thanksigiving’s traditional flavors, so I’ve incorporated them here and there in the menu below:

Torrisi Turkey
Torrisi’s turkey sandwich definitely ranks among the best I’ve ever had, so I’m looking forward to seeing how well I can recreate the incredibly moist, flavorful meat at home. The breast is also a nice alternative to an entire turkey when only feeding four people.
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/10/dining/10chefrex1.html

Baked Gruyere Cheese Grits 
While grits on the dinner table may seem unconventional, to Southerns it should make perfect sense. Basically grits are just another carbohydrate that is conducive to adding obscene amounts of butter and cheese. What’s not to like?

Balsamic Brussels Sprouts
My favorite brussels spouts of all time. I have my friend Lauren to thank for introducing me to this recipe.
http://smittenkitchen.com/2009/12/balsamic-braised-brussels-with-pancetta/

Sweet Potato Biscuits
While I love a good s’more and realize this may be an incendiary statement, I believe marshmallows have no place on the dinner table. Hence, in place of sweet potato casserole, I’ve snuck the tubers into biscuits instead.
http://www.marthastewart.com/343818/sweet-potato-biscuits

Cranberry Upside Down Cake
I made this cake for Christmas this year, and as I’ve come to expect from Smitten Kitchen, it was incredible. The perfect balance of rich and tart and deceivingly elegant for how easy it is to make.
http://smittenkitchen.com/2010/11/upside-down-cranberry-cake/

And there you have it. Expect a full report next week! In the meantime, a Happy Thanksgiving to all!

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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.

 

 

 

A Few New Favorites

June 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

After a break from blogging, I feel like there is much to catch up on, but I’ll start with a few local finds that have wowed me recently. Then it’s on to Montreal eats (of which there were A LOT) and a trip to Miami, which seemed to be a teeming with New York transplants. As long as that involves Shake Shack, however, I’m not one to complain.

Epicerie Boulud

In New York, my new favorite is definitely Epicerie Boulud, Chef Daniel’s new-ish market of fresh baked items, sandwiches, salads, coffees, gourmet products, and really everything else on could wish for. During a busy day of move-realted errands, we quickly dropped by the dangerously close shop on Broadway and 64th for lunch. I lured Rupert with the promise of gourmet hot dogs, which lived up to his high standards. I opted for the Rocket Salad which was a well-balanced blend of arugula, jamon serrano, machego, marcona almonds, roasted red peppers, cherry tomatoes, raisins, olives and sherry vinagrette. I’m an admittedly picky salad person, and this one was right up my alley. They also have some powerful iced coffee, perfect for getting a jump start on Saturday morning.

When exploring the website while writing this post, I just discovered the breakfast menu as well as an oyster and wine bar menu, which may actually allow me to sandwich my day sometime soon around two visits. I’ve also yet to dive into the baked items and gelato, but I can assure you it’s only a matter of days. The words chocolate ginger pound cake alone cause me to ponder when I can next get there.

The store is replete with great options for eating there (inside standing at bar tables or outside at a few tables adjacent to Bar Boulud) or taking to Central Park. They also have an incredible selection of cheese as well as uncooked sausages, terrines, etc that one could easily take home for a meal.

What is more, the hot dog and salad respectively were around $6.50 and $8.50, which in my book is quite a bargain in NYC, home of the $10-12 make-your-own salad. Based on my salad savings, I hope to make it around the corner sometime down the road to try Boulud Sud, the newest fine-dining restaurant from Chef Daniel.

Aroma Kitchen & Wine Bar

I’ve known about Aroma’s wonderful Aperitivo deals for several years, but only last weekend did I discover their incredible cellar-level private rooms. We celebrated a friend’s birthday with a fabulous dinner where the beet appetizer (warm beets, gorgonzola, fig jam, walnuts, warm beet dressing) and buccatini (“cacio, pepe e uovo”, “aroma” pancetta) really stole the show. For the value, I would say Aroma is high on my list of fantastic group dining options. The wine list as well is well-curated and offers something for every price level. If for nothing else, it is well worth it to see what may be New York’s smallest restaurant restroom tucked away through the downstairs kitchen.

‘wichcraft

When ordering lunch for delivery in Midtown, I’ve narrowed my favorites down to a select bunch. ‘wichcraft remains one of my standbys, especially for the tomato soup and grilled cheese in colder months. For several years, I found myself wishing they would introduce a few new sandwiches, just to mix things up a bit, and it seems that lately they have done just that. On the most recent round of new summer sandwich offerings, I have fallen for the asparagus and pea frittata sandwich. Served all day, this would be a perfect indulgent breakfast, but I prefer it as a hearty lunch sandwich. The frittata was perfectly cooked and still very soft even upon delivery and the cheddar and rustic ciabatta are the perfect envelope for it. Now I just have to wait for their incredible gazpacho to make its summer debut and of course make it to Bryant Park every now and then for an ice cream’wich!


 

 

 

Heat Wave

June 21, 2011 § 1 Comment

Summer has officially arrived in New York, timed perfectly with a move to a new apartment on the Upper West Side. While I will miss my favorite East Village restaurants, I’m excited for a new neighborhood to explore and our new place. I could live in the kitchen alone! Most importantly, this apartment will feature a REAL dining table – no more dinners on the coffee table – and will open the door for a lot of cooking and entertaining with friends.

Apparently the owner of the condo we are renting shares my passion for cooking and kitchen gadgets, because she customized the kitchen with some fancy high-tech appliances including an ice cream maker, which will be getting quite a workout this summer. While we’ve only been moved in for a week, I’ve already found time to test the gas range and more importantly the convection oven. My time assisting a pastry chef one summer in high school instilled in me a love for convection ovens when baking. Gone are the burnt corners and bottoms of cookies and cakes. Instead the circulating heat of the convection oven perfectly and evenly cooks and browns all surfaces, vastly improving the end result.

Finding myself with some spare time last night, I decided it would be the perfect time to try a recipe for Tate’s cookies I came across on GOOP. I am firmly in the thin, crispy cookie camp and Tate’s spares no butter to make perfectly thin, crisp cookies that are sold all over New York. My favorite part about this recipe is that it only calls for mixing by hand with a wooden spoon, proving you don’t always need a hand or stand mixer to achieve a uniform, well-incorporated dough.

As the idea of having more than three dozen freshly baked cookies was a bit overwhelming and I only had about a cup of chocolate chips on hand, I halved this recipe. To give my convection oven a whirl, I baked the first batch on the conventional setting and the second with convection. The oven automatically lowered my preset temp of 350 degrees to 325 for convection and the cookies took about twice as long to bake. I kept the size and spacing of the dough the same for the sake of a controlled experiment. The difference, as you see below, was remarkable! My first batch did not resemble Tate’s in the slightest. They were slightly raised and still a bit soft in the middle even as the edges and bottom verged on becoming too brown. The second batch, however, was a dead ringer. The browned butter taste and perfectly crisp, thin texture were spot on. Based on these results, I have high hopes for future baking endeavors!

Convection baking on the left; conventional on the right.

Tate’s Chocolate Chip Cookies
(Source: GOOP)

Yield: About 40 cookies

2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) lightly salted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed
1 teaspoon water
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs, beaten
2 cups semisweet chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 350º.

Whisk the flour, soda and salt together in a bowl. In another large bowl, mix the butter with a wooden spoon to lighten it a bit and then mix in the sugars. Add the water, vanilla and eggs to the butter mixture. Stir in the flour mixture until just combined and then fold in the chocolate chips. Using two soup spoons, drop the cookies 2″ apart onto two nonstick or greased cookie sheets. Bake for eight minutes, rotating the sheets after four minutes. Remove the cookies to a wire rack to cool, and repeat the process with the rest of the batter.

The Great Pumpkin!

October 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

Over the last month or so, pumpkin has been emerging both in the supermarkets and on the internet, like clockwork as it does each fall. While Thanksgiving traditions should (and will) be given their own post, one thing that is traditionally missing on my family’s Thanksgiving table has always been pumpkin pie. Gasp…I know. That’s right, no pumpkin pie and usually no pie in general. We are much more a cake family that occasionally detours towards cobbles, crumbles and buckles when seasonal fruit is involved. Perhaps it’s that reason alone that pumpkin pie has just never appealed to me.

My pumpkin memories come instead from my best friend’s mom’s pumpkin bread. I still recall the smell of it baking and us gobbling down as much as we could get our hands on when it was still warm from the oven. While I don’t recall how old I was, at some point I copied her recipe on an index card in bubbly child’s handwriting. I still use the card today and smile over the ingredient list when I come to 3 cups flower. As soon as I buy another loaf pan (and find storage for it my studio apartment kitchen), I plan to whip up a batch this season but in the meantime, I couldn’t resist some doing something the jar of Libby’s pumpkin I picked up on an autumnal whim on my last trip to the grocery store.

Enter one of my favorite dessert sources: Baked. This recipe from the first Baked cookbook actually came to me via another tried and true source Martha Stewart. I halved the recipe as my fridge can only hold so many pumpkin whoopie pies and came out with about a dozen large whoopie pies. Admittedly my decision to make this particular version of whoopie pie was most definitely based on the cream cheese icing, which I believe can be considered a dessert in itself. Leftover icing in my kitchen means finding any appropriate vehicle with which to consume it. Graham crackers and teddy grahams while low brow serve this function surprisingly well…

But back to the whoopie pies! They bake very quickly – no more than 10-12 minutes – and come out very soft and cake-like. The tang of the frosting was the perfect complement to the sweetness of the pumpkin. Next time, I may miniaturize them even more than suggested to create a more macaroon-ish sized treat.  They also went over well with my elderly neighbor Ben and one of my favorite doormen Jose who are often recipients of my baking experiments when I need to unload them for fear of consuming them all myself!

Cupcake Counter Culture

March 9, 2009 § Leave a comment

Thanks to the unseasonably warm weather, this weekend involved a bit of aimless city wandering. I ended up in Chelsea, where I stumbled upon Billy’s Bakery. Actually truth be told “stumbled upon” is not entirely accurate. In reality, a friend and I passed a cupcake-toting pedestrian and then made a point to keep our eyes peeled for the source. The line out the door made it clear a stop was in order. While waiting, I peered through the window at a guy who was icing and sprinkling a sheet tray’s worth of freshly baked chocolate cupcakes.

In a time when no one knows when or where the next round of layoffs may strike, I imagine I am not alone in pondering of how I would fill my days were it not with my current job in publishing. At that moment, I realized cupcake-decorator would not be a bad way to go. I have rarely encounter a member of the cupcake workforce who is not pleasantly cheery and enthusiastic about their wares. Moreover, how often do you see anyone leave a cupcake store without a smile (assuming they are not already mid-bite and thus incapable of smiling).

In light of this cupcake-happiness correlation, I, for one, am glad I live in a city overrun by cupcake entrepreneurs. Instead of weighing in on the age-old best cupcake debate, I’d prefer to simply highlight my two most recent encounters:

Billy’s Bakery

The banana cupcake with cream cheese frosting will not be forgotten anytime soon. Be sure to check out the arts-and-crafts-y wall paper adorning one wall. Even with cupcake in hand, however, I found myself ogling to the cakes, pies and cookies in the next case over. I predict a return trip in the not-so-distant future.

(184 9th Ave btw. 21st and 22nd St., 212-647-9956)

Butter Lane

For thorough cupcake research, it is best to travel in packs. When I stumbled upon Butter Lane, I was with no fewer than half a dozen friends making it easy to purchase every flavor available on that given day and sample away. I would steer folks towards the specialty icings such as coconut, raspberry and grapefruit ginger, which really stood out among the rest. Best of all, Butter Lane allows customers to sample icings and then custom order the cake/icing combo that suits you best. Brilliant.

(123 East 7th St. btw. 1st Ave and Ave. A, 212-677-2880, Closed Mondays.)

I find cupcakes are enjoyed most under impromptu circumstances, so there is no telling when or where I will have my next one. A long standing spot on my to-try list, however, is Babycakes in the Lower East Side. Babycakes boasts sugar-free, vegan cupcakes which in theory, I confess, sound rather dismal. But based on the raves I’ve heard from many a dessert connoisseur, I remain open-minded and intrigued.

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