"No matter what happens in the kitchen, never apologize." - Julia Child

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Baking: the good, the bad, and the buttery

It's been a baking kind of week. Monday was my coworker Rosie's surprise birthday party at work, so I made my now-famous red velvet cupcakes for her party. I don't mind tooting my own horn and saying that they are DELICIOUS! And come on, who doesn't love cream cheese icing? How can one not love an icing that consists of a block of cream cheese, a stick of butter, and cups of powdered sugar? YUM. So those were a big hit. Some people even had seconds. All hail the cupcake queen! I'm actually thinking of making red velvet cupcakes for our Christmas Eve dinner party. How cute would those be for dessert, especially with some nice green sugar sprinkles on top? I also just like the portion control of cupcakes. We have our relatives over for Christmas Eve dinner at my parents' house, and by the time we're all done stuffing ourselves (separate entry on the food tk), most people can't fathom eating a slice of cake for dessert. But there's something about a cupcake that makes it okay to just eat it up. Not to mention that the red, white, and green would be super cute. I've taken to making dessert because my aunt always used to be in charge of making it, and she would make and bring a flan. Now I know there are some people out there who love flan, but I sort of hate it. The texture is just gross. And after eating such a big, heavy dinner, no one really wants this dense, rich piece of custard. So red velvets it will be. I considered making an orange spice cake with a glaze, but honestly, I can't say no to an opportunity to make cupcakes.

Today is a cookie swap at work, and so last night I attempted to make orange cream cheese cookies. I say "attempted" because the whole experience was just sort of a disaster. I decided to make two separate batches, because sometimes doubling a recipe can just be horrific, so here I was thinking I was smart. Turns out, not so much. First I grated off part of my right thumb knuckle while trying to grate some orange zest. So I rinsed off my thumb and tried again on a different part of the grater. And I grated the same spot, AGAIN. After applying a band-aid and then grating the rest of the orange as carefully as possible, I discovered that the recipe called for not one stick of butter, as I'd originally thought, but two. Dear LORD. I'd already had one sitting out for what I thought would be the second batch, so at least it was ready to go, but as I tossed things into the bowl to mix, I realized that these cookies were going to consist of butter and not much else. Don't let the name fool you, friends: there is barely any cream cheese (not even half a block!) and even less orange in these things. They are ALL BUTTER. UGH! Paula Deen would be so proud. Of course I discovered this too late. And the portion of batter I tasted must have been the only spot where orange zest and juice happened to get mixed in, because after I pulled these things out of the oven, they just tasted like butter cookies.

But I'm getting ahead of myself here. Rewind. I finished mixing the decidedly cream-cheese-and-orange-devoid butter batter and doled out one sheet of cookies. Part of the reason I chose to bake these things is because the first time I made them they were delicious, and the other reason is because they only take 10 minutes or less to bake per batch. This short baking time, I figured, would allow me to make the 30 or so cookies in the first batch and then pop in the second batch without ending up going to bed at 1 am. This was my plan. But unfortunately, when I pulled out the first tray, the pot holder somehow slipped out of my left hand and I ended up planting my left thumb DIRECTLY on the burning-hot cookie sheet. Dear GOD, that was painful. So now I was out ANOTHER thumb, and I still had cookies to put in the oven and continue doling out. Thankfully Jeremy came to my rescue. He put the other tray of cookies in the oven, tended to my wounded thumb with a frozen gel pack, and washed the sticky, buttery mess of dishes I'd made. He also removed the first round of cookies from the cookie sheet, washed that, and then (with my expert tutelage) doled out the last of the dough to bake the last of the cookies. All while I moaned and iced my thumb and squeezed aloe gel all over it.

So I ended up with only about 30 cookies, which is less than what I'm supposed to have for the swap, and out two thumbs. There was no way I was going to try and make ANOTHER batch of evil, butter-centric batter while I had one shredded thumb and one burnt one, not to mention the fact that I was going to try and make some lentil soup for dinner. So I ended up with an extra orange, a nearly full carton of orange juice, one and a half packages of cream cheese, and less cookies than I needed, not to mention eating just cereal for dinner.

So I'm sparing everyone by not sharing the recipe for these cookies, because honestly, they are crap. I sort of hate butter cookies, and these hardly taste like anything else. I swear that last time I made them they were so much better. Perhaps it's because then I had a stand mixer at my mom's house and now I only have a hand mixer. It's a decent hand mixer, but it's just not the same as having a stand mixer. Maybe someday, when I have money and counter space, I'll actually have a stand mixer. But until then, I'll just have butter-covered, bandaged thumbs.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A recipe a day


My boyfriend Bitty has a page/recipe-a-day calendar available for 2009! Naturally I don't *need* this because I've already got the book, but wouldn't it be fun to see what recipe pops up each day? Even more fun (and potentially incredibly challenging and even more potentially annoying) would be to each day cook what pops up in the calendar. But still, the holder for the calendar is like a sturdy recipe box, so you could just file each one away and make it another day.

Holy mac and cheese!

Last night I made THE BEST MACARONI AND CHEESE EVER. Srsly. SO AMAZING. It was the first time I'd ever tried making it, and I think now I'll never be able to go back to that boxed crap again.

I got the recipe out of my favorite food book, Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything. (Or Bitty, as I now lovingly refer to him as, after his stint on the show Spain... On the Road Again.) I used a blend of cheddar with monterey jack and something else in it rather than just plain cheddar, and I threw in a package of diced ham just to give the dish a little oomph, and damn. It was SO EFFING DELICIOUS. And honestly not that hard to make either. I think Bitty's secret ingredient is that he tosses a couple of dried bay leaves into the milk while it's heating. This gives the dish a really intense, savory flavor, rather than the sweet, goopy stuff we're used to eating when it comes to mac and cheese. I'll try and include the recipe in a future posting, when I have the energy to type it out.

I also made some perfectly cooked Brussels sprouts (again, I learned how to perfect these thanks to Bitty), and served them with just a touch of melted butter and a sprinkle of salt. They were the perfect vegetable, I think, to accompany a whomping serving of mac and cheese.

I love Brussels sprouts, and my love for them is a recent one, mostly because I, like many people, grew up eating over-cooked and thus disgusting-tasting sprouts. The trick to sprouts is to cook them just enough that they stay firm and just barely fork-tender. This keeps them from getting that disgusting sulfur smell and taste and gives them a nice resistance that is just delightful.

To make some good sprouts, fill a pot with water, throw in a pinch of salt, and set it to boil. While it's boiling, wash the sprouts, then cut off the bottom brown stump. Unless they are baby sprouts, I find that cutting them in half lengthwise helps them cook more quickly and evenly. When the water is boiling, dump them in, keep the water boiling, and give them a quick stir every now again. Watch them carefully. After a few minutes, fish one onto the spoon and try sticking a fork in. They'll be ready when you can get the fork in just easily enough that there is still some resistance. Whatever you do, keep you eye on them and don't let them boil more than 8 to 10 minutes. Drain them in a colander and serve. Delicious!

One thing that isn't delicious is Moxie soda. Best name, worst drink. Hands down. While talking to a coworker, Jeremy discovered that apparently Moxie is still a regional favorite here in New England. Neither he nor I had ever tried it, having grown up in Pennsylvania where it isn't readily available. So when Jeremy was at the supermarket buying the Brussels sprouts for me, he picked up a bottle of the original flavor and brought it home for us to try. It tastes like root beer with a bottle of cherry cough syrup poured in. It's completely disgusting.

"It might taste good with some rum mixed in," Jeremy said after I tasted some, proclaimed it disgusting, and immediately made him try it. "Maybe 50-50, Moxie and rum." He waited a moment.

"Oh my god, it just gets worse," I said. "The aftertaste is even worse."

"It really does," he agreed. "It's terrible. Okay. Maybe like 70 percent rum with 30 percent Moxie."

I gagged again.

"Or maybe just a glass of rum with a little Moxie to top it off," he said.

"How about just a glass of rum with no Moxie?" I said.

Yuck. I don't know, though... apparently some people really like the stuff. Maybe you have to have grown up drinking it, like Jeremy's coworker. Me, I'll stick to ginger ale. But still, 2 out of 3 ain't bad.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

I like food

I like food. I really do. I love it, really, but sometimes, I feel like the word "like" feels even stronger and more charming, more dear, than love. I've always liked and loved food, and so I've been inspired to write this blog devoted to it. I'm by no means a foodie or food snob, just someone who loves a good meal. Quite frankly, I can't stand the pretentiousness of food snobs, who are more into fine dining than just a really fucking good meal. I'm more at home eating at a roadside cafe or neighborhood joint than some fancy place with square plates and Michelin stars (and did I mention itty-bitty portions?).

I grew up with a Cuban mother and Spanish father, so meals mostly consisted of something with rice, beans, and/or pork. My mother has a rather limited repertoire, but those recipes that she does cook are damn good. My father doesn't even burn toast because he's not sure where we keep the toast or how to work the toaster. When I was around 12, I went through a spurt where I made a lot of cookies for about a year (my mother was never into baking, so I have no idea how I got so into this), but then I got older and lost interest in the cookies and then went away to college and graduated completely cooking inept. We're talking over-oiled omlettes, burned onions in a saute pan, dried-out chicken tenders. And don't even get me started on how horrible my rice was. About all I could make was pasta, sandwiches, and salad. So I started thinking I was turning out a lot more like my father than my mother.

But now I think the tables are turning (pun intended?). I moved to Boston in the fall of 2006 to pursue a master's degree and then career in publishing. For the two years I was in school, I never had time to indulge in cooking. Quick and cheap it was again. More pasta, more salads. Occasionally, if I had a little time on the weekends, I ventured into the realms of making soup or a one-pan meal. But only occasionally. I also grew very fond of baking pumpkin bread from Trader Joe's mix, and brownies (also from a mix; so sue me, but I swear that brownies from a mix taste better than homemade usually).

Now I'm out of school and working full-time, which means that I've got no homework and thus have my evenings free. So I've started delving more deeply into the world of cooking. And I have to say that I'm liking it. My recent forays into food, both simple and complex, have been quite successful: red velvet cupcakes, lentil soup, picadillo (a Cuban ground meat dish), even just scrambled eggs are all coming out really fucking good. And I have found that where cooking used to be a dreadful chore that I didn't enjoy, now it's like a fun experiment, a chance to play, to try something new. It's like having a crafting hobby, except that the best part of this hobby is that I get to eat what I make when I'm done.

Because of this new interest in cooking and baking, I decided to start penning (typing?) my thoughts on all things food related, just for the fun of it: recipes I've tried or want to try, restaurants, shows, books, kitchen experiments, gadgets, and more. And of course just postings about damn good food. Hurrah!