Not Made from Scratch

I didn’t have time to make anything from scratch this weekend, what with getting ready for the apocalypse. Turns out, I needn’t have bothered. What a disappointment that turned out to be.

Anyway, I cheated and made some brownies from a box.

Bad cell phone camera photo

If you have to go with a boxed brownie, you can’t go wrong with the Ghirardelli varieties. The finished product is richer, moister, and denser than those made using the mixes by Betty Crocker or Duncan Hines. Probably because the quality of the chocolate is far superior to what is used in those varieties. I used the walnut flavor this time around, and there were nice sized walnut pieces in the mix; other varieties I’ve made, like the triple chocolate, have real chocolate chips!

Although the mix is probably about $2 more than other varieties, it’s totally worth it. The same can be said for all of the Ghirardelli products, including the chips, baking bars, and cocoa powder. They are my products of choice anytime I bake something that calls for chocolate (which is often).

Since I cheated with the brownies I did whip up a milk chocolate ganache to spread over them. Ganache is super easy to make, and it can be used in a variety of ways—from a drizzle for cakes and brownies, or as a filling for sandwich cookies.

Here’s what you need:

½ cup of heavy cream

4 ounces chopped chocolate (I used a milk chocolate baking bar for this recipe, but you can use white, dark, semi-sweet, etc. You could use chocolate chips as well, if you don’t feel like dirtying a knife).

1 teaspoon vanilla extract (I added this because I like vanilla. You could even add liquor or other flavorings, if you wanted to. Or, just leave it out).

Here’s what you do:

  1. Chop chocolate and place in a small bowl
  2. Bring cream to a boil
  3. Pour over chocolate and let stand a few minutes
  4. Whisk together until smooth
  5. Let thicken and cool for about 30 minutes
  6. Spread or drizzle over baked goods

I’ll be bringing these to work tomorrow, to celebrate a co-worker’s birthday and the fact that none of us got left behind. Knowing our office, these sweet treats will be gone before lunchtime.

Bon Appétit!

Macarons

Macarons: One of the many reasons I'm counting down to vacation. Photo taken from: http://blog.purentonline.com

In less than two weeks, Chester and I will be on a plane to France for vacation. I am ridiculously excited. We’ll be spending two weeks there, visiting various places, including Giverny, Aix-en-Provence, Marseilles, Monaco, and Nice, various small towns along the way, and, of course, Paris (where we will celebrate our first anniversary on June 4!).

When we go on vacation, Chester usually ends up doing most of the planning. He organizes each day in a spreadsheet, makes lists of places to eat and maps out the options, and finds the best deals on hotels. If he ever gets tired of his full-time job of analyzing data all day, he would make an awesome tour guide (he definitely wouldn’t be the kind with a huge umbrella though). But mostly, I’m just along for the ride (this is particularly true when we’re driving. I’m supposed to be the navigator, but the truth is I’m horrible at reading a map and usually just fall asleep in the passenger seat).

All of this probably makes me sounds lazy or disinterested in our trips. But I find that when I don’t know exactly what we are supposed to be doing, I get a lot less stressed about getting from place to place by a certain time. I think Chester would also agree that this makes me a whole lot more pleasant to vacation with.

Although I haven’t done a ton of research, there are definitely things I cannot wait to see and do during our time in France. Visiting Monet’s house, hanging out in cathedrals and museums, breathing in the smell of lavender in Provence, hitting a flea market in Paris, driving through small towns to visit chateaus, and people watching in Monaco are currently at the top of my list.

Mostly though—and this should come as a surprise to no one—I’m excited to eat. And, I plan to try everything. It’s a good thing I’ve stepped up my gym visits in advance of this trip, and that we’ve got a lot of walking planned during it.

In no particular order, here are the things I’m most excited to try. Of course, I’ve had some of these things before, but never in France:

  1. Macarons—in as many flavors as possible. Ladurée in Paris is apparently THE place to get them, so I will be making a stop there.
  2. Cheese—Wikipedia told me 400 varieties of cheese in France, so I can pace myself and try 28 per day for the duration of our trip
  3. Foie Gras—yes, I know how they make it. Yes, it makes me sad. But, it’s so yummy.
  4. Bread and/or pastries of all types
  5. Chocolate
  6. Steak frites
  7. Bouillabaisse
  8. Croque Monsieur—just like grilled cheese only better
  9. Crepes
  10. Escargot—they drown them in garlic butter, apparently, so maybe I’ll forget what they actually are.
  11. Seafood—from the French Rivera
  12. Fresh fruits, veggies, butter, and eggs—I don’t eat the latter two in my real life, but they are sooooo delicious and a fun splurge for me when I’m on vacation. I still talk about the butter and eggs we had in the Scottish Highlands when we were there for my BFF’s wedding two years ago.
  13. Beef Bourguignon—because I love Julia Child, and this is one of her signature recipes.

I love Julia because she's a messy cook just like me. And, also, because she acts kind of crazy and/or slightly drunk in the kitchen.

Ooof. I’m stuffed already.

Have you been to France? Do you have any recommendations for us about things we should see, do, and/or eat? Spill them!

Gadgetry: Ice Cream Storage

In spite of my questionable culinary skills, I absolutely adore kitchen gadgets. I could peruse the floor-to-ceiling displays of gadgetry at Bed, Bath, and Beyond for hours. The myriad of options to choose from for can openers, garlic presses, and spatulas makes me giddy. It’s too bad that I don’t like shrimp, because now I have no excuse for buying a shrimp cleaner. And, unfortunately, I avoid doing dishes at all costs, or else I would have purchased one of those soap squirting dish wands long ago.

In my last post about my amazing lemon ice cream, I forgot to tell you about one of my most important gadgets—the Zak Designs Ice Cream Tub. Chester got these for me as a Christmas gift this past year, and I love them.

What’s so special about this container, you ask? Why don’t I just use one of the 50 Rubbermaid or Chinese take-out containers that always fall on my head, every time I open the cabinet near the microwave? (I swear that containers are like rabbits. Every time I throw one out, 20 more take its place).

No, I can’t.

I went that route when I first started making ice cream, but they didn’t really do the job. They don’t have an airtight enough seal—the ice cream either never froze all the way and/or ice crystals would form on top of it, even when I covered the top of the ice cream with plastic wrap. Plus, they just didn’t look pretty when I took them out of the freezer to serve guests.

The Zak containers seem to be solution to both of these issues. I have three of these pint-size ice cream tubs, and two of them are sufficient for storing the amount of ice cream produced by my Cusinart. The containers have a foam insulated core and a freezable gel lid that acts like an ice pack to keep ice cream cold for over an hour out of the freezer.

The Pros:

  • They have a pretty airtight seal, which keeps the ice cream from getting those gross crystals and helps it stay fresh longer.
  • They are multipurpose. A few of the reviews on Amazon.com suggest that you can freeze the gel lid in advance of a supermarket trip and use the container to transport pints of ice cream home. Or, you can fill it with other food items that need to be kept cold (like potato salad) during transport.
  • The ice cream is easy to scoop out. Just let the container sit out at room temperature for about 10 minutes or so.
  • They come in fun colors. I also have a blue one, in addition to the orange and green ones in my photo above.
  • They are dishwasher safe.
  • They are reusable. Yay for environmental sustainability!

The Cons:

  • Because they are so well insulated, the ice cream takes awhile to become completely frozen. So, you may want to make your ice cream a day in advance, to give it time to set.
  • They have a pretty airtight seal. I know, I said that was a pro, right? But, the lid is extremely difficult to remove, once frozen. There’s this little indented spoon thing at the top that seems like it should be a handle, but doesn’t really work for opening the darn thing. My solution: don’t fill it to the brim and don’t put the lid on super tight. I still cover the top of the ice cream with plastic wrap to safeguard against ice crystals forming—this is probably not necessary, but makes me feel better about it. If you forget this part, you end up trying to get pry the thing off with a knife or running it under hot water, cursing the entire time.

Here's another photo of the container, so you can see the useless spoon thing on the top. In theory, your thumb should be able to fit right in the spoon to help twist the lid off. Doesn't really work that way. Also, would be so fun if an actual spoon could be popped out of the lid so you could eat the contents of the container.

The containers sell for about $12 or so, but I think they are worth the investment, especially if you plan to become a homemade ice cream making queen or king. Which, we all know, I am.

Last week, I made my baby brother a batch of strawberry ice cream for his birthday. He actually sent me a two line text message telling me how delicious it was.  He hardly ever texts me, and when he does, I’m lucky if I get a two syllable word. So, I should probably put this recipe in the definitely make again category, as a result of that rousing endorsement.

When I made this, Chester was sleeping, and I was too lazy to take any photos of the process or the finished product, but here’s the recipe I used anyway. It’s kind of a hybrid of a recipe from Epicurious and the booklet that came with my ice cream maker. There are a few recipes that I came across that simply called for tossing sliced strawberries into the ice cream maker about five minutes before it was done freezing, and I almost went with one of these because I was kind of pressed for time the day I made the ice cream. But I think taking the extra two hours to let them macerate in lemon juice and sugar before using them was worth it—it gave the ice cream a more concentrated flavor and a pleasingly pink color.

Baby Brother’s Strawberry Ice Cream

Ingredients:

  • 3 ½ cups heavy cream
  • Fresh lemon zest (I use a heaping teaspoon)
  • Pinch of salt
  • 2 eggs
  • ¾ cup of sugar
  • 1 lb strawberries
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preparation:

  • Combine cream, zest, vanilla, and salt in a heavy saucepan and bring just to a boil. Remove from heat.
  • Whisk eggs with 1/2 cup sugar in a bowl, then add hot cream in a slow stream, whisking. Pour back into saucepan and cook over moderately low heat, stirring constantly, until slightly thickened.
  • Immediately pour custard through a fine sieve into a bowl, then cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally. Chill, covered, at least until cold, about 2 hours.
  • Cut the strawberries into quarters. In a small bowl, combine the strawberries with the lemon juice and 1/2 cup of the sugar. Allow strawberries to macerate in the juices for 2 hours (I covered the bowl in plastic wrap and had them chill out in the fridge). Strain the berries, reserving juices. Mash half the berries with fork (you could also puree in a blender, but this just makes extra dishes). Keep the other half as is, for later.
  • When custard is chilled, pour reserved strawberry juice and mashed berries into the custard. Stir. Pour into freezer bowl of ice cream maker and allow to chill for about 30 minutes. Five minutes before the end of the cycle, add the other half of the (non-mashed) berries and let mix in completely.
  • Transfer ice cream to containers, and allow to set in freezer for at least two hours.

So, this concludes my second consecutive post about ice cream. The past couple of weeks have been pretty busy and I’m hoping to squeeze in some more posts about real food and restaurants soon. Ice cream has been about all I’ve been able to manage lately.

Lemon Ice Cream and Madeleine Cookies

It seems like Easter was ages ago, but I haven’t gotten around to writing a post about the fabulous dessert that I made. So, here it is.

By now, you should know that I love ice cream. My favorite kitchen appliance is my Cuisinart Ice Cream Maker, which was a housewarming gift from my fabulous co-workers at DU (If we had a freezer in the office that could hold more than four Lean Cuisines, I would be happy to bring you all samples). Anytime an occasion calls for a dessert, I make Chester haul it up from the basement and I keep the bowl in the freezer at all times so I can be ready to whip up a batch of ice cream at a moment’s notice.

We decided on a slightly heavy menu for Easter dinner—pork roast, cheesy potatoes, asparagus, sautéed mushrooms and onions, and my aunt’s French bread. So, we wanted to keep dessert light and decided to make a lemon ice cream. I was skeptical at first—how can lemon and cream go together? But, my aunt had mentioned that she had the flavor at the Amish stand in the Reading Terminal Market; the Amish have never steered me wrong when it comes to dessert, so I reasoned that it must be amazing. To go with it, I decided to make Madeleine cookies, thinking that their pretty shell shape, delicate flavor (with a hint of lemon), and light, cakey texture would pair well with the ice cream. Plus, it gave me an excuse to go out and buy a new baking gadget.

My new madeleine pan. Thanks for the coupon, Bed, Bath & Beyond.

About the Ice Cream

There are any number of ice cream recipes out there, but those with a custard style base, like I used for the lemon ice cream are generally the best. This style contains sugar, eggs, and milk and/or cream. The finished product is rich and creamy and tends not to form ice crystals when it sits in the freezer. The eggs can be a bit tricky at first because you need to make sure that you cook them at a high enough heat to reduce the chance of food-bourne illness, but not high enough to curdle the mixture. In addition, you need to whisk the mixture continuously so that the eggs don’t scramble (the first time I made ice cream, I fished quite a few pieces of scrambled eggs out of the custard before freezing it). But, once you know a basic recipe for a custard style base, you can make it in about five minutes and add anything you like to it (fruit, chocolate chips, candy, etc.) to make an infinite number of flavors.

Lemon Ice Cream

Makes About One Quart

Ingredients:


  • 1 tablespoon freshly grated lemon zest
  • 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 cups half-and-half
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Preparation:

  1. Zest and juice lemons.

Lest you think I don't know how to work basic kitchen gadgets, here are few shots of me in action. I even have an apron, so you know I'm serious.

  1. In a saucepan whisk together the zest, the lemon juice, the sugar, and the eggs.

  1. Whisk in 1 cup of the half-and-half and the vanilla, and cook the mixture over moderately high heat, whisking constantly, until it just comes to a simmer.
  1. Strain the custard through a fine sieve into a bowl, pressing hard on the zest, and chill it, covered with plastic wrap, until it is cold.

  1. Whisk in the remaining 1 cup half-and-half.
  1. Freeze the mixture in an ice-cream freezer according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

  1. Store in an airtight container and allow to ripen in freezer for a couple of hours. Random tip–If you have a rice cooker, the spoon that comes with it is an excellent tool for scraping down your ice cream maker freezer bowl and transferring the finished ice cream to a container.

About the Madeleine Cookies

From the Bon Appetit Desserts: The Cookbook for All Things Sweet and Wonderful


Ingredients:


  • 2 large eggs
  • 2/3 cup of sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ½ teaspoon grated lemon peel
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 10 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, then cooled slightly
  • Powdered sugar (for dusting)

Preparation:

  1. Preheat oven to 375°F and generously butter and flour pan for large madeleines (I used Pam for Baking spray to grease the pans)
  1. Using electric mixer, beat eggs and 2/3 cup sugar in large bowl just to blend. Beat in vanilla, lemon peel and salt. Add flour; beat just until blended. Gradually add cooled melted butter in steady stream, beating just until blended.

Looks like cake batter!

  1. Spoon 1 tablespoon batter into each indentation in pan. Bake until puffed and brown, about 10-16 minutes. Cool 5 minutes. Gently remove from pan. Repeat process, buttering and flouring pan before each batch.

  1. Random tip–rinse out the pan with cold water between batches. I found that this keeps the cookies from burning (probably because it cools the pan down a bit).

Just like what they have at Starbucks!

The Finished Product

My mom has had those ice cream dishes since I was maybe five? I think my dad brought them home from Sealtest, back in the day. I used to think they were beautiful and dreamed about having the same set when I grew up.

Once again, the Amish know what’s good. The ice cream tasted just like the filling inside of a lemon pie. It had the tart and refreshing qualities of a sorbet, but was so much richer and creamier. Just as I thought the Madeleine cookies were the perfect complement to it—since they don’t have a ton of flour in them, they aren’t dense and filling, but their cake-like texture meant that they soaked up the ice cream like a sponge. I was worried at first because some of the cookies in the end slots of the pan got slightly burnt, but they had a caramelized, rather than charred flavor.

I should mention here that my brother contributed to the dessert by helping to make whipped cream. By this, I mean he poured the cream into a bowl, went around two or three times with a whisk, decided he was tired, and made my mom and I finish the project. Then, he took all the credit for improving my dessert.

Whatever. I know that the lemon ice cream was the star of the show–we practically licked the containers clean. I think it’s going to be my go-to flavor for the upcoming summer months.  So. Much. Yum.

Deconstructed Lasagna

When I was younger, my family’s Saturday night routine consisted of going to 5 p.m. Mass and then out to dinner. Over the years, we became regulars at certain restaurants in the city. My brother, as I’ve mentioned, was kind of a picky eater (trust me, that’s the understatement of the year) and my grandfather wasn’t really an adventurous eater either (that’s the second understatement of the year), never venturing far from pasta (which he liked cooked really soft) and gravy. So, when we found something that they liked, we tended to stick with it for awhile.

For a few of years, we favored Pasta Blitz in Old City, which changed its menu and décor to become Positano Coast. Unlike the current incarnation, which features a slightly upscale menu that’s heavy on seafood, Pasta Blitz was a pretty traditional Italian restaurant. Think pasta, chicken marsala, and meatballs and sausage.

Almost every week, I would order the same thing: Lasagna with Meat Sauce. Sometimes I would try to switch things up with a different type of pasta dish, but I always regretted it. Don’t get me wrong, all of the food at Pasta Blitz was excellent, but I wasn’t really satisfied unless I had my lasagna.

Lasagna is truly the comfort food of Italian cuisine, if you ask me. It has everything you could ever want—gravy, lots of cheese, and pasta noodles. And, you can vary the recipe to include whatever kind of fillings strike your fancy—from veggies, to meatloaf mix, to sausage—so it’s different every time. And, for me, whenever I eat lasagna, it conjures up memories of those Saturday nights with my family, in which my grandfather would tell bad jokes, flirt with the waitresses, and sneak off to pay the bill before the waiter dropped the check off at the table and my mom or dad picked it up.

The thing about making lasagna at home that’s annoying is that it’s pretty labor intensive, so it’s not really an easy weeknight meal. So, I was excited to try the No Bake Lasagna with Ricotta and Tomatoes, from the May issue of Martha Stewart Living. Yes, friends, I cooked again last week and survived to tell the tale.

Basically, all you need to do is boil the lasagna noodles and arrange them on a plate, make a light tomato sauce, add some dollops of ricotta and strips of parmesan, and sprinkle with basil to make it look pretty. My husband still hasn’t latched on to my suggestion that we try to have one meatless meal a week, so I sliced up some prosicutto and added it to the sauce.

Deconstructed Lasagna. Chester's makes everything look so pretty in pictures!

There you have it. Lasagna in about 30 minutes. And, with less cheese and filling materials, it’s lighter and healthier than traditional lasagna (I didn’t feel the need to take a nap immediately afterward as I usually do after a lasagna dinner).

I’m still kind of craving the traditional lasagna, though, so I’ve decided to put that on the menu for the Mother’s Day Dinner/Baby Brother Birthday Celebration that the husband and I will be preparing on Sunday. Hopefully, I’ll remember to write about that too! Last week was busy, and this one is shaping up to the same. I’m behind on some of the stuff that I’ve been wanting to share, but hopefully, I’ll catch up.

No Bake Lasagna with Ricotta and Tomatoes

From the May 2011 issue of Martha Stewart Living Magazine

Ingredients:

  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 7 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 3 cups mixed red and yellow cherry or grape tomatoes, halved (2 pints)
  • Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 2/3 cup chicken stock
  • 8 lasagna noodles
  • 2/3 cup small basil leaves
  • 1/2 cup reduced-fat ricotta cheese
  • 1 ounce Pecorino Romano cheese, shaved

Preparation:

  1. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a high-sided skillet over medium heat. Cook garlic until pale golden, about 3 minutes. Add 2 cups tomatoes and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook until soft, about 7 minutes. Add stock. Simmer until saucelike, about 1 minute.
  1. Add remaining cup tomatoes. Cook until warm, 1 to 2 minutes.
  1. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Cook pasta according to package instructions until al dente. Drain.
  1. Step that I added: Mince a few slices of prosicutto and brown in a skillet with olive oil until crispy. Add to tomato sauce prepared in steps 1 and 2.
  1. Toss pasta in skillet to coat. Stir in basil, reserving some for garnish.
  1. Divide pasta among 4 plates. Top with any remaining sauce. Dot with ricotta, and drizzle with remaining teaspoon oil. Top with shaved cheese and remaining basil. Sprinkle with pepper.

 Serves 4