25 October 2007

My second blog party - happy halloween!


It's almost time for another Blog Party. I had so much fun at last month's party, and was so encouraged by our fabulous host, that I've been looking forward to October's event all month. The theme? Halloween. I never get invited to Halloween parties, so this sounds like a lot of fun to me.

I've been craving pumpkin lately, so I knew it would have to make an appearance. I had considered some sort of dessert that incorporates lots and lots of miniature candy bars, but I'm also trying to watch my weight. What I needed was a pumpkiny-delicious dessert that would come in nice small portions, perfect for a party as well as for my waistline. Enter ramekins!

I've been wanting to use these adorable two ounce ramekins since I purchased them in my recent Amazon cooking supplies spree, and I kept thinking "you know what I really want? Pumpkin flan." Lord knows why. I've never actually had flan, and certainly not with pumpkin, but from an early age I've always concocted fabulous ideas for theoretical fancy restaurant menus, and so things like this tend to pop into my head. I did a quick Google, and what do you know? Recipes abound!

Next I had to think of a drink, and here I was thwarted. I planned to do orange and black and make a yummy liquorice martini. I even found a recipe for one called a "Dirty Witch," which I found absolutely hilarious. But I couldn't find Sambucca anywhere! So I rifled around in my cabinet and instead went with Kaluha, chocolate liqueur, and Diet Coke (drink very quickly, as it starts out frothy like a milkshake but curdles after a minute or two). Still, there is some relation to Halloween – when I was in college, my roommate loved to trick or treat, and so we would go out around the neighbourhood in costume, collecting candy from unsuspecting and sometimes grumpy adults. One year, however, we showed up at a lady's house who didn't have any candy, but liked the idea that we were trick or treating at the age of twenty so much that she gave us each a can of Coke and said that we should come by and have a drink with her sometime. So this is for you, Coke can lady!

Pumpkin Flan

I tried two different methods for the caramel top to my flan. The first was to pour some sugar in the ramekin and then hold it over a hot burner, shaking constantly, until the sugar melted. Well it turns out, ladies and gentlemen, that a hot burner is… hot. I couldn't stand the heat, so instead I made a syrup with 2/3 cup sugar and ¼ cup water. All you have to do is stir to dissolve, put it over medium heat, and then wait a while. It took mine about ten to twelve minutes to achieve the amber colour I was looking for, but it did darken up quite quickly after I removed it from the heat. The recipes say that you should use a wet brush to brush down the sides, but I gave this up halfway through. Also keep in mind that your utensils and pan will be a bit of a pain to clean when the sugar hardens, so soak them immediately in soapy water.

I poured an even amount of the syrup in each ramekin, and of course again forgot that syrup is hot. I saw a drop about to fall on the table so I instinctively put my finger on it, and then when I realised the syrup was, you know, boiling, stuck my finger in my mouth as a slave to another stupid instinct. So now I have a really attractive burn on the corner of my mouth, as well as on my finger. Oops.

The flan itself is relatively easy. I combined two recipes, trying to make something that would be creamy enough to taste rich but not with so many eggs that I'd die of heart disease at the age of thirty. What I ended up with was a mixture of ¾ cup canned pumpkin puree, three eggs, ¼ cup sugar, 1 t vanilla, ½ t cinnamon, and a dash of pumpkin pie spice. I whisked all that together until it was pretty smooth, and then added a cup of whole milk. The resulting mixture was thin, creamy, and pale orange.

I poured an equal amount in each ramekin, and had a little left over, but better too much than too little, I think. Then I set my ramekins in a small but fairly deep baking dish and filled it with water halfway up the sides. Once the flans were happily bathing, I popped them in a 325-degree oven for 55 minutes and walked away. When I came back, they were completely set. Maybe I could've taken them out earlier, but they didn't burn or anything, so I'm not bothered.

Keep in mind that, once again, these ramekins are – you guessed it – hot. Remove them from the bath with a potholder or something else heatproof. I set them on another clean baking sheet to cool for about half an hour and then popped them in the fridge. Chill eight hours.

Now, the best part, I actually had someone to help me eat my creation this time! My friend Rita has been looking forward to flan since I mentioned it two weeks ago, so she and another friend, Leslie, got to watch the big finale as I inverted our treats onto plates. In reality, it was a little anticlimactic. The caramel stayed hard and stuck inside the ramekins, though a little bit dripped out. The flans themselves were lovely, though a bit difficult to remove. They had a nice, light, creamy texture and a sweet and pumpkin-y taste that I really enjoyed. Next time I'll let the caramel cook a bit longer, I think, and use less in each ramekin, but despite that fluke I'm happy with the recipe.

15 October 2007

Exotic Muffins!

When I read the "exotic muffins" prompt for Muffin Monday, my first thought was something with chiles and dark chocolate. I love that combination, and it seems exotic enough. But then, the combination of chiles and chocolate has been really popular lately, and I didn't want to blog about the same thing everyone else was doing.

I toyed with a number of combinations. A lot of them had something to do with whisky, strangely enough. After a while, I was so burned out on thinking about what type of muffin would be "exotic" that I had to go to the dictionary. This is what the trusty American Heritage Dictionary gave me for exotic:

1. From another part of the world; foreign: exotic tropical plants in a greenhouse.

2. Intriguingly unusual or different; excitingly strange: "If something can be explained simply, in a familiar way, then it is best to avoid more exotic explanations" (Chet Raymo).

3. Of or involving striptease: an exotic dancer.

As tempting as it was to try and come up with muffins "of or involving striptease," I decided to think about the first two definitions. The first, of course, is relative. "Foreign" depends on your starting point, something that's always been important to me as I study all sorts of social and cultural relativism. And this has an application in food – a lot of the "trendy" dishes are a product of globalization, some sort of a twist on something people have been eating every day for years on the other side of the world. In the second definition, I especially liked the word "intriguing." I wasn't feeling brave enough to concoct a muffin that was "excitingly strange," but intriguing I could handle.

What I came up with was based on my perspective as a pre-teen, when I was both fascinated with all things French and thought that anything French was exotic, unusual, and probably extremely expensive. I dreamed of the days when I might be able to drink wine and eat cheese and chocolate on a regular basis. Of course, now that I'm grown up, I realize these things aren't conducive to a happy waistline, but sometimes we just have to splurge. And thus, my Good Life Muffins were born.

I started with a new purchase from Amazon.com: two shiny and new 12-cup nonstick muffin tins. I'm very excited about my new tins, because as a single person I like to be able to make my desserts in portions small enough to consume in a single sitting without feeling a little queasy afterwards. Muffin tins plus a set of six two-ounce ramekins mean that I'm in business.

Next I thought about how to incorporate those three ingredients – wine, cheese, and chocolate – in a single recipe. Personally, I love the combination of sweet and savory, but I wanted a simple base with the subtle hint of wine to serve as a drawing board for the shocking combination of chocolate and nice, sharp cheese. I especially liked the idea of having chunks of cheese and chocolate that would melt, but retain their basic shape.

I started with an adaptation of a recipe I transcribed long ago from a diet cookbook but never actually tried. You basically just mix a couple cups of variety baking mix, 2/3 cup wine (I used my all-time favourite Cabernet Sauvignon) an egg, and 2 T vegetable oil. If you want a sweeter muffin, you could add some sugar, but I kept things simple. Give the mixture a nice vigorous beating with a fork. It'll be kind of sticky and goopy, and that's okay.

Now, gently fold in your cheese. I went with crumbled Gorgonzola, but you can use anything with a bit of a bite to it. The amount depends on how much flavour you want – for a milder muffin, you can use less cheese or even reserve it at this step and just press a few pieces into each muffin after you pour the batter.

Pour into 12 greased muffin cups or use paper liners. Put a chunk of your favourite dark chocolate in each – I used Dagoba's roseberry, which is not only delicious but also organic. Bake in a preheated 400 degree oven and bake 20 minutes or until golden.

The verdict? As I said, the muffin itself is very subtle, with just a hint of cabernet. You could add seasonings of your choice for a variation, or sugar, but I was okay with the subtlety. The chocolate and cheese provided great contrasting bursts of flavour, and they were delicious warm.

So there you have it, folks. Good Life Muffins – exotic, at least, to me. Thanks to Pernille for hosting Muffin Monday!

12 October 2007

Farmer's Market Finds Part II

It's time for another Farmer's Market Finds! I decided to wait till after my next Farmer's Market trip (this past Saturday) and do a big round-up post of all the yummy fresh veggie meals I've been making. It was another successful outing, with a ton more leeks, another basket of green tomatoes, several jars of exotic homemade jams, a Russian cheese and raisin pastry "for the road," homemade baklava and buttermilk brownies, some sweet heirloom peppers, an eggplant, a small squash, and a small zucchini. I also went to New Pi and picked up a few random things like sea salt and Ciao Bella blood orange sorbet (so worth the splurge!) They had a sale on my favourite Amy's rice bowls, so I leaped on that. I also got several vegan cookies that I really need to learn to recreate. If anyone knows a recipe for a dark chocolate cookie that involves walnuts, oats, and chocolate chips and is both soft and crumbly on the inside and crispy (oily) on the outside, let me know!

One of the things I made last week was a huge success – this was my first try with leek and potato soup, and though it wasn't the same thick creamy concoction I went crazy for in Ireland (perfect on a cold day with an iced coffee) it was still pretty damned successful. I found the recipe on a British site, and followed it more or less though I made a few adjustments.

You start with a couple of large leeks, and you want to wash them thoroughly before shopping. I learned that leeks have a LOT of dirt between the layers, so it's best to cut a nice long slit in each leek and trim the root and the dark green parts before you wash it. Rub between the layers to get all the dirt out and then put your leeks on the cutting board. Cut into four long slices and then chop. Throw those leeks into a pot with a couple nice big cloves of minced garlic and two tablespoons margarine, already melted over medium low heat. Fry about ten minutes, stirring frequently, or until the leeks are soft. I'd like to point out now that I peeled the potatoes in this interim, as the recipe suggested, and it was an absolute disaster. You really need to be stirring constantly to avoid burning or browning (and I think it's less than ten minutes, honestly) and despite a nice new peeler I had a lot of trouble peeling a pound of my small, lovely butter potatoes from the market even in ten minutes' time. Not only did I keep dropping them into the trashcan that I was peeling into, but I was bleeding from about five cuts on my hands and kept having to throw cubes out because I got blood on them. Ew.

Anyway, go ahead and peel your potatoes in advance (I used a little less than a pound) and chop into little cubes. These particular potatoes were great for their mild and buttery flavour. Toss them into the pot with the leeks and add broth. I realised, as I was about to add the four cups vegetable broth called for by the recipe (actually it says chicken, but I clearly ignored that), that I didn't actually have any veggie broth left. Also, I didn't quite have the pound of leeks and pound of potatoes called for, so I used two cups vegetable stock and maybe about a cup and a half of water. I thought the stock had a lovely flavour, and I'd stick with it the next time. Also throw a few shakes of salt in and plenty of pepper (it says ¼ t but I just dumped a bunch in – I love that sinus-clearing black pepper in soups). I also added a shake of garlic powder.

Bring to the boil and cook about 15-17 minutes or until the potato is soft. The recipe says you can do it twenty minutes if you'd like to mash your potatoes, but I don't want my soup to look like grits and I like big chunks of potato. Once it's done, you add milk or cream. I used skim milk and it was thin but still tasty, and I didn't mind the consistency at all. You can just add to taste in each bowl (and you don't have to cool it any before eating!) or add ½ pint to the whole pot. I chilled the leftover and just added milk to each serving after microwaving.

The next thing I tried with last week's finds was a strawberry and arugula salad that did NOT go well. I don't know if it was the particular arugula, or just arugula in general, but it was VERY bitter and after a few bites I gave up. A shame, too, because the fresh strawberries, pecans, and honey mustard dressing made a great combination.

The final thing I did with my market leftovers was this quick veggie fry up. I chopped my remaining green tomatoes, some red tomatoes, and red onion – unfortunately the okra seeds had all hardened so I had to pitch it. Still, what I had was quite tasty, if a wee bit too oily.

So this week, my first cooking attempt was baked leek. The recipe comes from an unknown cookbook in my collection (transcribed to my computer), but it's absolutely amazing. The whole recipe was twenty weight watchers points, so about four or five for an average serving – not bad at all. The topping is nice and crusty, though it softens up if you try to microwave to reheat. The goat cheese, though, really makes it.

Basically you just simmer eight cleaned and trimmed whole small leeks in water to cover until soft, about six to eight minutes. Then you lay them in a greased baking dish and put together a cheesy topping – 1/3 of a cup light plain yoghurt, five ounces of (amazing) fresh goat cheese, ¼ cup grated Parmesan, a large egg, and salt and pepper to taste (I was pretty generous because I didn't put salt and pepper in the pot with the leeks). Give it a nice vigorous beating with a fork and spread over the leeks. I used a square casserole dish and spread it pretty thin, but it worked fine.

Next I just tossed together another ¼ cup grated Parmesan (great way to use that stuff up!) and a couple torn slices of Peppridge Farm buttermilk bread (any bread will do). One was an end slice – smart move. Sprinkle over the top of your leeks. Next I added the "secret ingredient," a handful of fresh thyme, which I think really added to the flavour. You want to bake 35-40 minutes at 350. I pulled it out after about thirty-two because the topping was golden. It was really good, but the outer and larger leeks weren't quite tender enough. I'd wait till the topping's pretty well browned, or just take off the outer layers of the leeks after cooking them.

The next thing I tackled with my veggies was Laura Rebecca's Vegetable Tian (adapted from the September issue of Martha Stewart Living). It was really easy, and though a little oily I thought it brought out the taste of the vegetables very well. I was smart to use small vegetables, though I suppose you could really layer them up high to the top of the pan. You can find the recipe at the preceding link, and I didn't make many adjustments. I had a bit too much eggplant so I just pan fried the leftover slices for a snack. The leeks definitely got much too brown while I was slicing my veggies, so apparently I didn't learn my lesson the first time. I used red wine – specifically my old standby Sutter Home Cabernet – and when I added the oil after the first thirty minutes I think I ended up with about two tablespoons. If I'd done better with that part I think it'd be just about perfect. Lovely for a light meal, and remember that small vegetables are often more flavourful. (Also, this is incidentally vegan because I didn't bother with the grated Parmesan at the end!)

Coming up we have a couple of baking challenges – my own recipe for "Good Life Muffins" baked for Muffin Monday and cranberry fig scones adapted from a vegan recipe, baked for my own Vegetarian Feast challenge. Unfortunately, there will not be any Apple Brandy Spice Cake with Creme Anglaise this month, planned for a couple of dessert challenges occuring simultaneously, and you can blame Apple for that - charging me $100 for a replacement battery that's supposed to be free under AppleCare (I thought). Boo, Apple. Boo.

07 October 2007

Potluck Desserts!

As I mentioned in my last post, I had two potluck dinners to go to at the beginning of this week. Since I've been in Iowa City, I've been lucky enough to have several parties to attend with fantastic food offerings, and these were no exception. As you can see, I went with a dessert theme and tried two fruit-and-chocolate concoctions. The combination of fruit and chocolate is one of my favourites, and both of these were easy-peasy, a relief for a busy law student such as myself!

Sunday night's potluck was hosted by my Criminal Law professor, and it unfortunately conflicted with Quire practice, so I needed to pick a contribution that would be easy for a friend to bring in my absence (I went, but showed up late) and that didn't require refrigeration. I had originally planned to do the stuffed mushrooms I tried for the last Blog Party, but I decided I wanted something even easier. Enter white chocolate gnocchi!

This recipe only involves three ingredients, and that sounded great to me. Saturday night I mixed the gnocchi preparation, adjusting the amounts so that I had a tad bit more than the recipe __ originally posted on her blog. I used two Ghiradelli white chocolate bars and 4-1/2 T light corn syrup. As promised, the chocolate thickened considerably, though as you can see from the above picture the syrup kept wanting to separate and form an oily film. I wrapped my "dough" up nice and tight in cling film, and let it sit overnight in a Tupperware at room temp. When I returned for it the next morning, there were hard pieces and puddles of syrup and I was braced for disaster, but once I started kneading my chocolate, it formed a doughy consistency. I rolled it out into two of these phallic logs, and then cut into pieces about gnocchi-size. Then I pressed each with my thumb and rolled them on a fork for the indents. As you can see, they aren't perfect-looking, but hey, they taste fine! For the sauce I just threw a bit pile of fresh strawberries in the Cuisnart, pureed, and sprinkled with powdered sugar. The gnocchi were very sweet, but the sauce cut it nicely, and it's easy to have one at a time. Unfortunately, my friend Sara took them and then left them in her fridge before the potluck, but some friends ate them and gave the recipe two thumbs up!

For the second potluck, on Monday night, I attended my friend Kirsten's "Feast on the First." The theme this month was Oktoberfest, and I wanted to make a Black Forest Cake, but again - that requires effort. So instead I concocted this cheater version. The cakes you see here are made with plain old Duncan Hines dark chocolate cake mix. I let them cool about ten minutes in the pans after baking, drenched with chilled Smiranoff black cherry vodka, and then let them cool another five minutes before transferring to the racks. I was a bit afraid with the vodka (normally you use cherry liqueur) and next time I think I'd use more, but it was still good.

To assemble the cake, I opened up a can of light cherry pie filling and poured some more vodka in there, letting it soak in while the cakes cooled. I put a layer of light Redi Whip on the first cake, topped with about 2/3 of the pie filling, and then did the second layer with more Redi Whip and the rest of the filling. What you see here lasted about three seconds - by the time I walked the mile or so to Kirsten's apartment the cake had fallen apart and all the whipped cream had melted, despite my sticking it in the freezer for five minutes before I left. So if you try this, make sure you cool the cake layers completely before continuing. Despite the mess, though, this was quite a tasty cake!