Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Proof I'm not Paranoid (sometimes all the school girls really are out to get you)

This lovely requested an internship with my husband today—photo courtesy of Facebook. And if you're thinking it's her doppelganger ... oh no ... she's pretty proud that her photography class likes her latest pinup style self-portrait. (That's right. Her latest.)

For those of you who are not regulars, the backstory is here.


I've looked forward to food section Wednesdays since my first subscription to the New York Times, back when it was paper and came in a blue bag with my apartment number scrawled in Sharpie. I lived in Chicago, in a studio on Belden Avenue, katty corner from Tower Records and some deli with pickles on the table. I had an upstairs neighbor who enjoyed making obscene noises very, very late. In sweet retribution I would set my CD alarm clock, at full volume on Saturdays and Sundays, for 6:42 in the morning. Moments after I walked out the door to serve the omelette of the day to entitled Lincoln Park yuppies, my alarm treated my wonton neighbor and her naked friends to Philip Glass' Einstein on the Beach

I still love food section Wednesdays (and science Tuesdays, and home and garden Thursdays) and the idea of a dedicated day to share food and drink ideas. Here are some of my favorites from this week:
The dangers of giving people what they want here.
Good head here. (Mark and I enjoyed this a few weeks ago and it was very complex.)
Sustainable fish in Safeway and Target here. (My bus buddy Margaret will be the first to tell you that Alaska makes you a salmon snob. She's right.)
Crazy avocados here.
Dedication I have yet to experience here.
Bliss here.

Monday, February 1, 2010

My Cookies are Still Naked

Stay up all night decorating cookies and hate life or eat naked cookies and love life?


The icing is still stored properly so I can bust it out at any time. Maybe tomorrow or maybe not. Mark's new trick is opening the piping bags and dunking the cookies into the pink. I like the cookies as is.

Because of my distaste for weakness and empathy and heartfelt concern, it's a little known fact that I'm a sucker for Valentine's Day. (It's also a little know fact that I have an elaborate boar hunting fantasy, but that's for a different post.) My wedding anniversary? Haven't remembered it in years. Christmas? More and more it's just another dark day. Thanksgiving? If you've seen one Tofurkey, you've seen 'em all.

But Valentine's is special. It brings out my inner school girl and makes me want pink and red and purple heart shaped anything. Which is to say, I think I'll make more heart shaped cookies next weekend—take the easy way out and decorate them with pink and red and purple sugar. Bring them into work. Share the love.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

I am Martha Stewart's hydrocephalic bastard child conceived in the bathroom of a New Jersey bar when she was drunk on well tequila.*

Today started with fantasies of subtly colored soft liquid icing oozing out of parchment cones. (No, I don't need a tip, but it's a good question. Thanks for asking.) Now, with cookies on the table and garish icing in bags and bowls on the counter I want to go to bed and forget about heart shaped cookies iced with Shakespearian insults.

The roots of my frustration are inauguration and excess. Today I made my first attempt at royal icing. For the uninitiated, royal icing is the stiff icing used to make super detailed decoration on sugar cookies (think butterfly cookies, hockey jersey cookies, daisy cookies, whatever you like best cookies) and it's made of powdered sugar and egg whites. I bought a bag of powdered sugar and a milk carton of egg whites (I thought that last part was clever). My new gel food colors were at the ready. I glanced at the conversion on the egg white carton, and used the appropriate amount for one bag of powdered sugar.

It was runny.

So I mixed in all the powdered sugar I had. Not enough. Then I popped open a can of gum paste and started adding it to the mixture (it's mostly powdered sugar) and finally made icing that was thick enough. Finally.

My problem? The conversion on the egg white carton was for the amount of white it takes to make up for an entire egg—yolk and all. I only needed the whites, and used twice as much liquid as I should have.

After I hit the right consistency, I used too much food color. Aiming for a soft subtle pink I ended up with a bowl of garish bubblegum. Unable to sacrifice enough white icing to right my wrong, I put the pink horror in a piping bag and made an attempt at red. This time I couldn't add enough. I wanted something rich, something strong. I added a little black. It worked like a dream. The red turned out great, but it doesn't match the pink.

(Throughout this process I  made enough steel cut oats for a week's worth of breakfasts and carrot soup and cornbread for dinner. I'm exhausted. I have a table full of cookies and they're going to sit there, bare naked, until tomorrow night.)

To be fair, the cookies are impressive; they came from James Peterson's Baking. They were easy to make, taste fantastic, and have the perfect texture and structural integrity. To add to my cookie joy I learned a little lesson about the relationship between pie dough and butter cookie dough, and then the relationship between butter cookie dough and dough with enough structural integrity to make a cookie that's willing to be rolled, cut, and iced. It's all starting to make sense. Slowly, baking is less magical and more logical.

I also learned how to keep my cut cookies from shape shifting. Instead of rolling the dough directly on the counter, roll it in between two sheets of parchment—or one sheet of parchment and one Silpat—peel off the top layer of parchment, trim up the dough to fit on a sheet pan, and place the dough on the pan. Chill. Cut shapes, peel of the excess dough, and bake (the cut cookies are still on the bottom sheet of parchment that you rolled them on). It works like a dream. Thanks JP.

With any luck tomorrow I'll have the drive and the skill to make the insulting cookies.

* Mark has impressive facility with 3D modeling software, and if I'd giving him a head's up, he could have created a stunning illustration to match my title. Maybe next time.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Not the prettiest girl on the block, but she puts out: Tarte Tatin Part II

Tarte Tatin is what dessert should be: carefree, without pretension, and shockingly more than the sum of its parts.

Carefree because the crust is on top and then the bottom so the pastry never needs to look good, never gets soggy, and doesn't have any structural obligations. Without Pretension because the tarte is nothing more than a pan full of butter, sugar, and apples with a crust (an obscenely easy crust if you own a food processor and know how to turn it on). More than the Sum of its Parts because the time the apples spend on the the range, browning in butter and sugar and their own juices, coaxes the fruit into a complex jam bliss.

The tarte popped out of the cast iron pan beautifully. I used JP's technique of heating it up on a hot burner for a little less than a minute, palming the crust, and rotating the tarte so all the pieces were ready and in agreement to come out of the skillet together. The apples browned and held their shape. The crust was texturally Utopian.

Thank you James Peterson.

But the tarte wasn't without drama: Mark and I are in domestic discord over tarte tatin.

Mark would prefer the tarte scented with apple pie spices. (Expected. Pedestrian.) He would prefer a bruléed top. (Hmmm.)

I'm game to try a sugary crispy crust next time around because it might be a thing. But apple pie spices? Can he not taste the complexity of the carmelized apples? The brown butter caramel? And if he can, why is it not enough?

I was incredulous and he wanted to drive his point home. He announced—some might say proclaimed—that the tarte was so lacking it tasted ... English.

To hell with him; I'm in love.

It's true the tarte is a little homely. Her looks aren't what I fantasized about when I was rolling the dough. But she smells like heaven and  feels sensual in my mouth—and if that's not enough to earn a repeat performance, I don't know what is.

The recipe was fantastic and I'll make it again (always in the cast iron skillet).

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Tarte Tatin Part I

I decided a good weekend project would be a run at tarte tatin—an upside down, one crust, cook on the stove then in the oven, apple pie named after two spinster sisters.

And if that isn't enough to hook you ... Emile Hernry is pushing a new $100 tarte tatin pan that looks attractive but unnecessary. I want the traditional method to prevail (and to spend that $100 on a new bottle of Calvados).

The tarte starts with butter and sugar on the stovetop that melts into a caramel sauce. Add apple quarters on end until you can't add any more. Let them cook. They shrink a bit and soften and the juices bubble up over the pan. It's a tremendous mess but the smell is fantastic. As the apples shrink and soften you add as many more as will fit. After several minutes of cooking I had successfully placed seven pounds of apple quarters, standing on end, in one medium sized skillet.

For about 20 minutes fifteen apples were cooking in butter and sugar and their own juices. Really, the smell was unearthly.

Thinking I know better, as is my way, I made a few adjustments to the recipe:
I used a cast iron skillet instead of a nonstick skillet. When I try to unmold the tarte tomorrow morning before work this choice might come back to bite me. But I've read that nonstick at high heat is a carcinogen and I believe it ever since I smelled an empty nonstick pan that was accidentally left on a hot burner. It was noxious. My cast iron pan is about the right size, is so well seasoned that it's almost nonstick, and is the pan of choice for browning. (I wanted brown apples.)
I used salted butter. I was inspired by the short bread cookies I made the other day (their high salt content elevated them from expected to exceptional) .
I didn't rotate the pan every five to ten minutes to promote even browning. This is a great instruction ... I forgot.

For the most part, the recipe went as planned. I cooked 3/4 cup butter with 3/4 cup sugar in a skillet. I added apple quarters until the pan was full. I waited and added several more. The juices bubbled and turned jammy. But when I went to spot check apples to see if they were properly browned on the bottom, I had a problem: The apples were cooking to mush. When I tried to pull them out of the pan with a fork, I ended up with 2/3 of an apple quarter. The rest was a buttery apply sludge on the bottom of the pan.

(According to JP's instruction I used golden delicious apples—a popular baking apple in France because of their flavor and because they hold their shape well.)

There wasn't much to do. You can't uncook an apple. I tuned up the heat to boil off some liquid and removed the pan from the range. I placed the crust on top (I used a large pot lid as a circle template) and popped it into a 400 degree oven. It baked for 48 minutes. I let it cool, ran a knife around the edge to loosen any sticky bits, and right now it's in the fridge. In the morning I'll warm it up on the stove and unmold it.

I'm really hoping for deep brown, caramelized apples. The jammy apple syrup stuck to the rim of the skillet looks promising. It's deep amber.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Total Eclipse

Hello, Beautiful.