Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Slow Dancing in a Burning Room

A few weeks ago, I bought a 4.5 quart enameled cast iron Dutch oven, and it has stolen my heart as far as kitchen beauties go. It looks so cute sitting on my Barbie stove, and kind of makes me feel like Barbie herself (Why that makes me feel happy inside, I don't know.) because of all the bursts of color on the stove as well as the awesome Anthro apron that Niknak gave me for my birthday.
I've been wanting one of these things for a long time now; it's like every time I turned around someone I knew was concocting a wonderful meal in their Dutch oven and I didn't have one. All my friends rave about how evenly they cook, how they don't require high heat, how you can use it on the stove top and in the oven, and yada yada yada. It's like a crock pot before Crock-Pots were ever invented....another reason for me to love the French.
As soon as I got mine home, though, I was at a complete loss for what to cook in it. Typical. First of all, I've never even cooked with cast iron (pathetic, I know), and second of all, well, I didn't want to mess up the fire orange enamel the first time I used it. Such a scaredy cat. You can imagine my hesitation when the echo of the salesman's words, "You'll have this forever...," were ringing in my ears. So I decided to play it safe and whip up my new and improved winter 2010 broccoli cheddar soup for the last time of the season (unless we have another cold spell in May). I kept repeating to myself, don't touch the pot with bare hands and don't use a metal spoon.
It was so yumyum; a great exit for the broccoli cheddar soup, although, I think it could've used a bigger batch of roux than I prepared to thicken it. Something to strive for in the next pot. I also think it would've been a little smoother had I not used extra sharp white cheddar cheese....gotta love the flavor of the stuff, though.
Next on my list of Dutch oven concoctions will be Peposo (peppery stew), slow cooked in the oven. I'm making this Peposo with a pork loin (rather than its traditional ingredient beef), compliments of one of the hogs my brother recently had slaughtered, garlic, a sprig of rosemary, red wine, and of course, black peppercorns. It's going to be outrageous.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Walking On Air

Contrary to many folks out there, math was my favorite subject in school. I initially went to UVa to major in "Mathematics" and be an Algebra II teacher.......aaaand I majored in English and Religious Studies after my first calculus class. Maybe it was my Ukrainian professor who used to close his emails with, "Your Evil Professor, Daniel T.," who knows; and now she's working in a law office, you're thinking. Hm. When I was in high school I had a teacher named Mrs. Henley who made math kind of fun; she was really sweet and everybody loved her, which totally gives you the upper hand if you're a math teacher. I had her for Geometry and Trigonometry (I really don't remember anything about Trig except for three things: sin, cos, tan. That's kind of sad to me.) and both years, our class celebrated on March 14 by eating various pizzas and pies in honor of the constant Pi (3.14159265...). Clever idea, Mrs. Hen.

I've always wanted to make chocolate souffles, I can't really say why, maybe I just like the word "souffle." I studied about them in Mrs. Fletcher's Foods & Nutrition class at LHS, and I'm thinking of a movie where the main character makes chocolate souffles at least twice (Any guessers?) that always makes me want to bake some. When I read Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard, she has recipes at the end of every chapter and one of the recipes is her French hubby's recipe: "Gwendal's Quick & Dirty Chocolate Souffle Cake." On Saturday, in honor of Pi Day (even though it was technically yesterday), I made this cake in my new aqua pie dish. So it is going on the chocolate cakery shenanigans list because it was an absolutely divine, like a perfect chocolate angel food cake. No butter, either; that's definitely the first cake I've ever made without butter or shortening. And I like the idea of making it in one dish because I didn't have anyone besides H. to eat it. Making 8 miniature souffles wouldn't have been the most practical thing to do, even though it would've been prettier. As souffles are made with lots of eggs and they puff up because of the egg whites, which facilitate wonderful airy-fluffiness, and my cake did eventually fall in the pie dish, but it still tasted wonderful. I tried to document the rise and fall (but caught mostly the fall). Also, I really really wanted to use this pie dish because I think it's adorable. And I don't really make pies. Ever. Unless it's a fudgy tart or, my personal favorite, Mom's chocolate bourbon pecan pie.

Here's the chocolate souffle prior to oven-time.

I have a major problem of wanting to peep in on my baking creations while they're in the oven. The problem is, I read somewhere that every time you open up the oven door while it's on, you lose 25 degrees, which demotes even baking and is also a waste of power. But because my Barbie oven has neither a light, window nor more than one oven rack, I feel like I'm in a dream kitchen that has an oven made post-1945 with all the amenities mentioned above. I could sit in front of the oven window the whole time.

Here it is directly out of the oven!

This thing started falling just a couple of minutes after I took it out of the oven.

But I obviously didn't care; I kept cutting the infamous Chambers Family Slivers out of this chocolate souffle cake. I'm admitting that this gene has been passed on to me. For those who don't know, the Chambers Family Sliver phenomenon is one characterized by all the women on my mother's side of the family, Granny, daughters and granddaughters all included, who cut teensy weensy little slices of desserts, over and over again. We like to believe that the sliver is a manifestation of eating in moderation; however, two slivers often turns into eating a whole row of brownies or a whole pie without even realizing it. This cake did not last 24 hours. It was phenomenal and I will definitely be making it again! I would guess that this cake was comparable to eating a chocolate cloud if such a thing exists; it was light, fluffy and very air.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Best of What's Around

As I've probably mentioned before, Niknak is one of my closest friends in the whole wide world. We randomly met our second year of college (Spring 2007) in la clase de espanol, found out that we were both English majors and had about two other classes together that semester. We also randomly lived in the same apartment complex a few doors down from each other, and I had met her beau Al through mutual friends prior to even knowing about Niknak's existence in the world. We worked together for a summer at McGrady's Irish Pub while taking a Shakespeare course and well, we became such great friends that we lived together our last year of college. Now, we're both still in Charlottesvegas, working and actually getting to enjoy this wonderful little town without papers and reading assignments hanging over our heads. What's even cooler is that there's only about a 3-4 minute walk between our offices, so not only do we get to eat lunch together on a semi-regular basis, it's much easier to provide moral support for each another in moments of dire straits. For example, Niknak emailed me yesterday and told me that she had a hankering for some Cappellino's Crazy Cakes, to which I responded, I'll meet you there in 15 minutes. We have each other's backs like that. They make the best double chocolate chip cookies in town, in my opinion. They also have tons and tons of lovely cupcakes (with edible glitter too!), and the best part about their location is that they're right smack dab in between our workplaces, providing a perfect meeting point for us.
Normally, we each buy one double chocolate chip cookie , but yesterday Niknak was feeling like a cupcake also, and because I would like to support her endeavors, I too bought a cupcake. The first time I ever had Cappellino's cupcakes were on my 22nd birthday during my fourth year at UVa, and my office bought a big box of assorted cupcakes for a middle-of-the-business-day birthday party; my office rocks! Since that day, I have been hooked. I love Cappellino's Crazy Cakes.
Niknak got vanilla poundcake with chocolate buttercream frosting. Just look at the glitter!
Here's the cupcake that I bought yesterday: Chocolate cake with sweet cream cheese frosting, dusted with Oreo cookie crumbs.
While I was gobbling up this delectable cupcake, I was reminded of something somebody told me a long time ago (now that I think of it, I was probably in middle school) about Oreos, and for a moment, I was a little concerned. Google put my mind at ease when it reassured me that the Oreos-are-made-from-whale-blubber rumor is, in fact, not true. That made my cupcake taste even more delicious, and I was also relieved to find that others had been wondering the same thing because when I was in the middle of typing, "oreo wha," "oreo whale blubber" automatically popped up under the search box. And for goodness' sake, who started saying that whale blubber was an ingredient in Oreos anyways?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Just A Ride

I just finished reading The Scenic Route: A Novel by Binnie Kirschenbaum. I came across the title in a spring 2009 issue of Real Simple magazine. The only reason I remember that is because I used to subscribe to it, but then I wasn't looking at the magazine because I was too busy, one thing lead to another, and before I knew it I wanted salads in November (instead of the hearty stews made from turkey day leftovers) because I was still trying to catch up with the June issue. The rest is history...they stopped coming in September. What's funny about the subscription ending is that I was really sad when October's issue didn't come, even though I wasn't faithfully thumbing through the magazines during their designated months.
Anyways, I am always looking for new authors and books to read because I'd like to read something published after 1817 (even though I do love me some Jane Austen) whose authors do not include Charles Dickens, F. Scott Fitzgerald or Sylvia Plath. Because of my reading habits in college (avg. 2 novels per week), every spring around the end of May, I avidly search for a couple of new books to read over the summer that don't necessarily have to bear the literary masterpiece stamp. So I was attracted to the article in RS that recommended a variety of summer reads; it showed different book covers and had a little blurb written about each one of them. First of all, I loved the cover of The Scenic Route: A Novel; I love the countryside and I heart heart heart road trips (please see picture above and try not to judge my frivolity). I think the article was something about budget traveling, and I recall the blurb saying something like, "Can't quite make it to Europe yet? Read about a captivating road trip through Italy and Eastern Europe with Binnie Kirschenbaum's..." Envision me raising my hand and screaming ding ding ding; how soon am I going to be road tripping it through Europe? So I chose to read it for obvious reasons, and although I didn't really like the book that much, I will have to say that the writing is absolutely splendid and I was impressed with it. I did think that she went a little overboard with regard to the Herman Melville-esque digressions scattered throughout; it didn't really work for her in my opinion, but then again, she's the one who has written and published 6 books, so I'm not complaining. The book just wasn't my cup of tea, even though there were some really cute sounding bed-and-breakfast joints in between the beautiful fields and forests through which they drove. My favorite thing that Binnie wrote in the book was about a moment, and it said this: "...And I was happy, a kind of happy that, if manifested into tangibility, would've taken the shape of a daisy."

Monday, March 8, 2010

Shake It

I would like to announce that on Thursday night last week, I served up the worst dessert I've ever made. Ever. It was a really vulnerable moment for me because dessert is kind of my thing. If there's anything I'm actually good at baking, it's dessert; it's my favorite thing to eat and therefore my favorite thing to make, so you can imagine my obsessive compulsiveness concerning crafting cakes, confections and such. As a side note, I'm learning that cookies are not really my forte. Every time I make them I am overwhelmed with disappointment, and more generally, when I eat them they are reminiscent of an afternoon snack rather than an actual "dessert" to wrap up a meal, unless they have icing sandwiched and smothered in between them (and this, my friends, takes them to a whole new level). Everyone else's homemade cookies taste better than mine. Hmph. I'm going to go ahead and blame my 1970 oven, though, haha.
Back to the worst dessert I've ever made. I'm getting braver in the kitchen, and with this bravery comes a little bit of crazy innovation, which turned out to be my downfall on this recipe. H. had a dinner party last Thursday with fresh roasted garlic pasta from Mona Lisa Pasta (best pasta EVER) and turkey meatballs with all kinds of yummilicious ingredients like Parmesan cheese and bread crumbs in them as well as his homemade spaghetti sauce. So good. I decided to make tiramisu for this Italian-themed meal, which was a great idea, but an epic fail. I made it the lazy method; I bought lady fingers instead of making them, and by the way, they're really hard to find in the grocery store. All of the ingredients in it were so good, I just overdid it on one. I'd never eaten just plain lady fingers, but they're so delicious; great for dipping in coffee or tea. I creamed heavy whipping cream, cream cheese and sugar for the layers in between the lady fingers, and I could've eaten the whole mixing bowl of this stuff; it was epic. H. brewed some strong coffee in his French press for the lady fingers and my experimental self decided to add bourbon to the coffee, since I don't have rum, brandy or amaretto liqueur (and don't plan on having any of these in the near future). Bad Idea. I mixed the coffee and bourbon together, dipped the lady fingers in them and made a trifle bowl of the dessert: soaked lady fingers, cream cheese goodness mixture, soaked lady fingers, cream cheese goodness mixture, you get the idea. Lastly, I sifted cocoa powder on top of everything. Usually before I serve a dessert, I have to be the first one to eat it, you know, to make sure it's edible for everyone else (unless it's a layer cake because it wouldn't be pretty to serve from a cake with a big slice cut out of it). Anyways, I had a little bit of leftover ingredients to make myself a miniature tiramisu on a plate. Uhm, this "drunken tiramisu" was like taking a shot of bourbon with a little bit of sweet cream cheese and a hint of coffee in it. I could only eat a couple bites of it; it was way too strong. My guinea pigs, JavaLady, D. and H. were more than kind; they all tried it, despite my telling them it was awful. D. really redeemed himself (he's the one who tried to argue that my red velvet cake was not a chocolate cake) by finishing his whole little plate of it. I ate ice cream with hot fudge sauce instead and tried to coax everybody else to do so also, but they were awesome and wanted to try out the tiramisu. I think they all agreed that it was my worst dessert ever. The thing is, I wanted to add the bourbon because cooking with alcohol can really enhance the flavor of desserts, sauces, soups, you name it, and well, it just didn't work out in my favor this time around.
Here it is: The Drunken Tiramisu.
When we fail at something, we learn from the mistake(s) and move forward, right? This adventure reminded me that I did not own a sifter, which, if you bake often, is a cardinal sin. So on Saturday, I bought myself a 5 cup, triple screened sifter, whoohoo! I can't wait to use it for my next cake, which will hopefully be this week: Granny's Devil's Food Layer Cake.
I'm moving up in the world of baking's kitchen gadgetry.
Look at the tripe-screen action on this baby! "Shake, shake, shake, shake, uh-shake it!"
Oh, also, D. brought an "appetizer" to the dinner party because he was overwhelmed with curiosity at this new product: every college kid's dream (and for the nostalgic...because late night snacking in college is the best). Apparently they have 2 other flavors: "Late Night Cheeseburger" and my personal favorite (as far as titles go), "Late Night Last Call Jalepeno Poppers." The Late Night Tacos at Midnight received everyone's stamp of approval, I think...

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Today Was a Fairytale

I drive the same route to work every morning, and every single morning, there are little things that catch my eye, like the fact that there's always a Jeep Wrangler parked on the side of the road by the Monticello Avenue-Ridge Street intersection with part of the driver's window zipped-down. I wonder if the Jeep ever gets parking tickets, if it's a getaway car for some intense organized crime operation, if people constantly try to hijack its stereo only to discover that because the window's been open, the stereo is shot from the moisture, or if it belongs to a volunteer at the Salvation Army nestled behind the "parking space." I also notice businesses and buildings that I've never seen that have most likely been standing longer than I've been in the world, but hey, I'm always learning something new each day. On this morning's drive to work, I was rockin' out to T. Swift's new song "Today Was a Fairytale" (Irony like this is hard to come by-you'll know what I mean by the end of this...) and I would've been only 1.5 minutes away from work had the dab burned stoplight not turned red (I'm always very tempted to run yellow lights, but I'm trying to work on that since I think it's kind of cutting it close, and apparently there's a law or something that says you're not supposed to speed up when the light turns yellow. Go figure.). So I'm sitting at the red light and I look over at this sketchy furniture store whose sign reads "[can't remember the first word] Furniture: Antique, Old, New, Used, Restored Furniture," and in the window draped on the most nineteen-eighty-fied mannequin was, I'm assuming a pre-worn, white, pouffey wedding gown circa 1992. The kind your Barbie wore. I repeat, pouffy sleeves. No wait, pouffy SHORT SLEEVES. I can understand that maybe after a woman is divorced that she'd naturally want to rid herself of any traces of the memory of her promise to spend the rest of her life with a man she's clearly not spending the rest of her life with. When I saw this dress, I immediately was taken back to the 1990s summer yard sale extravaganzas that my mom and her friends used to have beside of the old Post Office (turned video rental store, turned current dialysis center) in Lebanon. Yard sales were kind of cool if you were a kid for a couple of reasons: 1) Your bank account usually consisted of less than $20 and everything kids want at a yard sale costs less than a dollar and 2) The phrase "Turn your trash into someone else's treasure" could go more like this: Turn someone else's trash into my treasure that my mom will have to haggle away from me to sell next summer at this very spot; the only difference is that it will be on a different table and cost $0.75 less. Anyways, at one of these yard sales, my brother, Bets and I were drinking away our limited stock of $0.25/cup lemonade (we made a huge profit, you can imagine) and one of the "sellers" with whom we went to church rolls up in her van, pulls out her wedding dress and rigs up some method of hanging it on the open door of her van to sell at this shindig. I'll never forget it; we were all astounded. She was selling it for $100.00, but here's the kicker. This lady was a happily-married-to-the-same-man kind of gal; she was just selling her wedding dress because she didn't want to fool with it anymore. We all wondered, What if her daughter Alyssa would've wanted to wear it? Anyways, I always thought that was funny and a little bit tragic, even though theoretically, you only wear a wedding dress one time and then the rest is history and a big box taking up too much real estate in your attic. What a megaepic memory while driving to work. I think it would be funny if somebody opened a shop called Turn Yesterday's Fairytale Into Today: Antique, Used, & Restored Wedding Dresses, and when you sold/consigned your old wedding dress to them, their policy required you to include a 100 words or less blurb about why you're selling/donating your dress to the store. Maybe something like this already exists, but all I know is that it'd be some of the most hilarious reading material on the planet. By the way, Happy March everybody! When March arrives, the weather may still be freezing, but at least the dreariest month of the year is over with and gone; here's to being closer to spring!