Wednesday, February 17, 2010

a cop of tea.

When I set out to craft this 'blog of mine, I promised myself two things: firstly, that every post would include at least one relevant and original photo; and secondly, that every post would include a recipe. Easy enough, or easier said than done? Remains to be seen, though I am fortunately one for one, thus far.

I have a great recipe to share - one that's simple but seasonal, and one that carries with it, not one, but two spectacular men.

This, however, is just not its night.

I picked that charming little acorn up at the market tonight, once the sun had left my mostly-windowed kitchen in starry-skyed, snowy-lawned shadow. The taking of a proper photo demands that I delay her cooking until tomorrow afternoon, and I am not one to deny a pretty squash her due.

Plus, I am feeling lazy.

Still, I'm going to do my best. I've already included a picture - which, despite its crappy iPhone-ness, is quite original. And before I get to the narcissistic meat of this post, I AM going to share a recipe with you. It just likely isn't what you were expecting. It's a recipe for iced tea.

Someone sent me the following meme, thinking it was something I might enjoy. It has been a long time since I've done one of these (although I will admit, despite an unfamiliarity with the term "meme" until recently, my friends and I filled out embarrassing numbers of chainmail surveys back when we were fourteen), and I thought it might be a fun way to sneak in a total cop of a post. Yes? No? Eh. So here I am, snowed into my cozy little apartment, alone (save for the dogs; you're never alone when you have dogs), sipping an iced tea and preparing to share some answers with you. Go ahead and make yourself a glass before we get started; I'll wait for you.

Burnt-Sugar Iced Tea

As recipes go, this isn't a terribly traditional one. It has just three ingredients, and two of them are marginally variable. The sugar may be added to taste - I use about 3/4 of a cup per gallon of tea, but you should feel free to use more or less as your palate typically dictates. Because the sugars are melted into a caramel and heated to the brink of burnt, though, be advised that you'll likely want to use more sugar than you ordinarily would for a batch of tea; the caramelization adds a roundness and delicate bitterness to this tea that mutes its sweetness. And as for the tea - listen, I am very much in the herbal tea camp. I drink several steamy cups of chamomile, ginger, clover, nettle, spearmint, lemon, or Rooibos tea a week. However, for my iced teas, I am solidly a black tea girl. You use what you like, of course. I won't vouch for the way any herbal flavors meld with the caramel, though, so proceed with caution.

Steep five black tea bags in two cups of water that has just been brought to a boil and removed from the heat for about six minutes. Stir occasionally, being careful all the while not to break the bags. Remove the bags, drain and discard (these are great in compost, by the way). In a deep saucepan (I like to use the base of my double-boiler), heat 3/4 of a cup of white sugar over a high burner, stirring constantly, until the sugar begins to melt. Once the melted sugar has begun to take on the slightest hint of golden color, remove from the heat. Continue stirring until all of the lumps of sugar have melted and the liquid is completely smooth and translucent. Return the sugar to the heat and stir until the caramel darkens to a deep, bronzed chestnut color. Remove from the heat immediately (honestly - sugar can turn from caramel to burnt-like-tar in a split second) and pour in the steeped tea concentrate (exercise a lot of caution here, as it will be very volcanic and spattery, especially if you've used too shallow of a saucepan, and liquid sugar is exceptionally hot). Stir this mixture until all of the caramel has dissolved into the tea concentrate, and then add enough cold water to make one gallon. Enjoy cold, even in February.

A Foodie Meme
Forwarded to me by a dear friend; origin unknown.

What is your go-to ingredient?
Lately, it is definitely oats. Organic oats are a fantastic way to add fiber and protein to just about any dish, and they work equally well in savory as sweet dishes. I put oats into nearly every cookie, cake, bread, pie and cobbler recipe I come across; I always keep large batches of homemade granolas on hand in our kitchen; I regularly employ our slowcooker to make obscenely good overnight oatmeals for breakfast. I've even started using steel cut oats in place of things like polenta, mashed potatoes, and risotto as the starchy base of a meal. Steel cut oats cooked with some wild mushrooms and good Parmesan? Yeah, man. Yeah.

What nationality of food do you like the best?
Growing up, it was Chinese; for the past ten years, Thai, Vietnamese, and Japanese have all been vying for first place; lately, I think Indian may be taking over. Too bad for my answer that "Asian" isn't a nationality.

What’s your favorite meal of the day to prepare?
Dinner, as it maxes out the time I have to gather and prepare. But I get to share lunches with Scott much more often than dinners, and while I love cooking for one, I'll always prefer having someone to share with.

What is/are your signature dish? (What dish are you ‘known’ for?)
I don't know that I have a "signature" - see my previous post. Part of me hopes that I never do.

What is your favorite comfort food?
Potatoes, in nearly any incarnation. Dark chocolate brownies with walnuts in them, accompanied by a glass of whole milk. Just about any kind of soup. I love soup so much.

What cooking shows do you watch?
I get really into "Chopped." I take notes when I watch it. Srsly.

Your top three favorite cookbooks are:

"A Homemade Life," "Ratio," and the "Good Cook" series.

Your must-have kitchen accessory is:
A sharp set of quality knives. That is the only acceptable answer to this question.

Do you ever eat fast food? If so, what?
If chain Cal-Mex burrito joints count as fast food, I never stood a chance.

Most memorable meal you’ve had while on vacation:
The steak dinner Scott and I shared in Buenos Aires that involved sixteen side dishes, the best steak I have ever tasted, and a Caesar dressing that forever ruined all others in my mind and mouth.

What restaurant do you want to eat at that you haven’t yet?
Village Whiskey, Dish, Babbo, DiFara, LMNOPea, Ad Hoc, Beast.

What’s your favorite dessert?
Anything with a custard-y texture. Panna cotta, puddings, budinos, pots du creme. And I love savory elements that have been incorporated into desserts - bacon chocolate chip cookies, for example, or black pepper ice cream.

What scent in the kitchen do you love?
This generally isn't located in the kitchen, but I love the smell of grilled meat in the summertime. If they bottled that, I'd wear it like cologne.

What ingredient(s) do you avoid/dislike?
There's not much. I tend to shy from some types of offal, though I'm slowly branching out. And I am relatively certain that I will never, so long as I live, try a raw oyster.

What’s your secret splurge at the grocery store?
Organic whole milk, imported butter, aged Gouda, charcuterie. And I will buy fresh figs whenever I see them, almost regardless of cost.

What’s the most decadent dish you’ve ever had?
Truffled cream of morel soup. And (I'm so sorry that this even exists) chicken-fried bacon.

What’s your favorite midnight snack?
At the restaurant, it's always some type of fresh fish with some type of grilled or sauteed fresh green vegetable (when you're regularly awake until 4:30 in the morning, the ubersnack/minimeal becomes a close friend).

At home, it's just iced tea.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

a beginning

It can be difficult to know where to start.

I'd hoped to skip the arbitrary introductions. There are a number of players in this story of mine, and you're really going to love them: the people, the dogs; my kitchen; the restaurant, too - they'll charm the pants right off of you, I promise. But you'll get to know them, and myself, all in good time. If I'm to do us all justice, I really ought to pace myself.

A recipe for pickles seemed an apropos launch pad (the vinegar, you know - you saw my title, right?), but there's not much growing during a Pittsburgh January that you'd want to preserve for any period of time. I don't have anything in my repertoire that I'd call a "signature dish," nor do I think I could ever pick a favorite. I could have begun this hootenanny with a recipe for something I've been eating a lot of lately, but I doubted I'd impress anyone with bowls of oatmeal or a formula for "salads at the restaurant using whatever I'm not tired of yet." The most recent installment of the latter involved, among other things, ginger, hardboiled eggs, and dried cranberries. The whole mess was surprisingly good, but "tasty" doesn't always guarantee a good first impression.

As I said, it can be difficult to know where to start. But inspiration makes a great diving board, and picking up where inspiration left off is as good a spot to begin as any.

I can't remember, now, how I found Orangette, but I was an instant fan. I'm not much of a baker (as you'll soon learn), and she definitely is, but I love Molly's rustic, charming recipes and her darling self all the same. When her book was released last year, I consumed it in about three hours, and the recipe with which she ended was the first I used. It's a recipe you can also find on her 'blog, a recipe for a chocolate cake that just happens to be the one she served at her wedding. Which she made herself, by the way; I told you she was something.

But anyway, the cake. It is titled, almost irresistibly, The "Winning Hearts & Minds" Cake. If that doesn't inspire you to preheat your oven, I'm not sure that we can be friends. I was so moved to make it, in fact, that I couldn't even wait to run to the store.

And herein lies the reason that I'm sharing this recipe with you on our first meeting.

I need to admit from the get-go, from our first sit-down together, that I am not really a recipe person. I love to cook, and I love reading the recipes of others. I even, occasionally, write my own. But I am imprecise, and prone to bouts of laziness, and rather devil-may-care in my culinary endeavors. Recipes are, to me, generally too restrictive - hence, my poor (and I mean poor) baking skills. I eyeball, I taste, I adjust, tweak, throw caution to the wind. I'm a good cook, I really am. Just not on paper. And this cake proves it - proves the good, the bad, the ugly.

The recipe that Molly gives for The "Winning Hearts & Minds" Cake is relatively simple. Some good chocolate and unsalted butter, melted and blended into some sugar and eggs and the scantest bit of flour, it's almost impossible to get wrong. Below, I give you Molly's original ingredients (the same used in the recipe that's linked above, one that actually deviates slightly from the one published in her book), as well as the modifications that I made on that first go-'round. If you're a recipe person, I beg you to follow Molly's to the letter; her cake will, as its name suggests, absolutely swindle you. If you're a devil-may-care anti-baker, then I happily suggest you read my notes and take your own personal crack at it. Either way, this cake is going to win you over, whether I have or not. Enjoy.

The "Winning Hearts and Minds" Cake
Orangette, 2004

7 ounces dark chocolate
7 ounces unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes
1 1/3 cup granulated sugar
5 large eggs
1 Tbs unbleached all-purpose flour


4 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate, plus 3 ounches bittersweet chocolate chips
1.75 sticks unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes
1.5 cups dark brown sugar, packed
5 eggs
1 Tbs AP flour

When I made this cake, I found myself shamefully short on a few of the ingredients - thus, my cobbled-looking list. Impatience got the better of me, and while I've since made this cake both ways, it's incredible either way and seemingly quite foolproof. Feel free to stick to the tried-and-true, or to deviate a little based upon your preferences and what you have on hand. It's always a good idea, though, to use the best chocolate and butter you can find, as this dense little vixen really showcases those flavors.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Melt the butter in a just-simmering double-boiler. Add the chocolate, and stir until thoroughly melted. [Note: I like to melt the butter first, separately, because I dip a pastry brush in and use it to butter the cake pan, but you wouldn't have to. You could melt it all together if you preferred.] Add the sugar, and continue to stir over the heat until the sugar is incorporated and the mixture is no longer grainy. Remove from the heat and allow to cool for 5 to 10 minutes.

Add the eggs [I like to bring them to room temperature] one at a time, thoroughly incorporating each before adding the next. Stir in the tablespoon of flour, and again mix thoroughly.

Pour the batter into your buttered [or otherwise oiled] cake pan, and slide it into the oven. Bake for 22-25 minutes, until the center is just set [it will still jiggle slightly] and the top looks shiny and shatter-y, like the surface of a batch of brownies.

Allow to cool completely before eating. The cake is delicious once cooled to room temp, but even more so after a day or two - and Molly actually thinks the flavor is improved by freezing [thaw before eating!]. Give it a shot, and see what you like. You'll not be disappointed, promise.

I know I keep saying it, but this cake really is delicious - no matter how you prepare it. If you're feeling adventurous, though, I've found that the recipe lends itself well to a number of different flavor variations. Consider adding a quarter cup of peanut butter, a half-teaspoon of powdered chipotle pepper, a full teaspoon of cinnamon, or a tablespoon of instant espresso to the butter-chocolate mixture. All are - one more time - delicious. Delicious.