Thursday, February 23, 2012

True Confessions

I'm an only child.  That meant family dinners with just three of us around the table when I was growing up, so it was always pretty calm, punctuated usually with conversation about what transpired that day.  We were too polite to talk with our mouths full, or interrupt one another.  And heaven forbid if we raised our voices at the table.

Not so with Henry.  He grew up with three siblings (in addition to a slew of others who took up residence in the house from time to time) and their family dinners were loud, raucous affairs.  The first time I was initiated, everyone was gnawing on huge veal chops sporting appendages that looked like dinosaur bones and his sisters were (loudly) comparing notes about their menstrual periods.  I am not kidding.  And when someone asked for a dinner roll, it was pitched to them from the opposite end of the table.  Then they all started yelling arguing about politics.  It was definitely a scene straight from "Annie Hall."

Oh, and his mom was wearing a t-shirt that said, "Beam me up, Scotty.  There's no intelligent life on earth."

All of this probably explains my addiction to the now-canceled :-( television series "Brothers and Sisters."  It gave me a great glimpse into a crazy dysfunctional family and I got to live vicariously through the relationships between the various sibs.  Of course, that's exactly the reason Henry hated to watch it and considered it a soap opera.

Which it clearly was, as evidenced by the fact that they are now airing reruns of it on "The Soap Network" (one of my also-addicted friends clued me in on this).  I recently watched one of the Valentine's Day episodes and cracked up when Justin (who reminds me an awful lot of my son, Eric) wonders aloud "what is it about this holiday that drags estrogen out of men?"

I wouldn't know.  I'm not a Valentine's Day kind of gal, as I have told you before.

We had a non-celebration of it (with like-minded friends) this year and I made a fabulous dinner for the four of us.  I slipped a little with dessert, though.  It involved raspberries.  Red raspberries.  Oops.

RED RASPBERRY GRATIN  (from” Cucina Simpatica”  by Johanne Killeen & George Germon

3 cups mascarpone custard (recipe follows)
4 ½ cups fresh raspberries
Confectioner’s sugar

Preheat oven to 425-degrees.  Place ¼ cup of the custard in each of six shallow ceramic gratin dishes (1-cup capacity).  Divide raspberries among them and sift confectioner’s sugar (to taste) over each one.  Top with remaining custard and sift additional confectioner’s sugar over the top of each one.  Bake for 5 – 7 minutes until custard is just heated through and berries have given off some juice.  Remove gratins from oven and change oven setting to “broil” then brown custards for 1 minute or until tops are golden and bubbling slightly.  Serve immediately.

Serves 6

For the custard:
1 cup whole milk
2 egg yolks (I used extra-large)
½ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup unbleached flour
¾ cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup mascarpone

Scald milk in a heavy saucepan and set aside.  In electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, beat egg yolks until light and pale in color, about 5 minutes.  Add sugar by tablespoons, beating well after each addition.  Change to a paddle attachment and add flour, beating on low until just incorporated.  Pour hot milk into yolk mixture in a slow stream, beating on low speed until smooth.

Return the mixture back to the saucepan and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly until it comes to a boil.  Boil for 2 minutes, remove from heat and transfer to a mixing bowl.  Cool slightly, then refrigerate, covered, for at least 1 hour or until well-chilled.

Whip the heavy cream with the vanilla extract until it holds its shape.  Whisk the chilled yolk mixture until it is smooth  and gently fold in the mascarpone then the whipped cream.  Chill until ready to use (can be made up to 2 days in advance.  This yields approximately 3 cups of custard (enough for 6 gratins).

*  You could actually make this with just about any type of berry - I think it would be delicious with blackberries - but you may need to add more or less confectioner's sugar, depending upon the sweetness of the fruit.  Golden raspberries would work also, just not for Valentine's Day!

*  Watch the custard carefully when you put it back on the heat.  Make sure your burner is on medium-low and stir constantly so it doesn't scorch.  If you do end up with a few browned bits or lumps, you can always strain the custard before chilling.

*  I apologize for the lack of and quality of photos in this post.  I totally forgot to take pictures of the custard-making process and I didn't get any good shots of the finished dessert, either.  So shoot me.

*  Just in case you have any doubts, the friends to whom I served this are very successful restaurateurs here in Atlanta.  One of them made the pronouncement that this was one of the best dessert she'd ever had!

*  By the way, if you can ever get your hands on a copy of "Cucina Simpatica," go for it!  It was first published in 1991 and it has always been one of my very favorite cookbooks.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Just Add Water

This is my basement right now.  Although it never leaked before, that changed dramatically last week after a day of torrential rains. Since we live primarily on the main floor of this house,  it was flooded for 4 days before we discovered it.  Let's just say that a gas mask would have been a good idea before venturing down there.

Ha, and it's about to get worse.  In order to deal with the problem, I found out today that WE HAVE TO TEAR OUT ALL OF THE SHEETROCK.  Oy veh.  This is going to be a l-o-o-o-o-n-g and miserable process.  I hope we can save the carpet, but it's doubtful.  Crap.

I figured I could either start drinking when I found out this morning, or consume chocolate.  I chose the latter.  At least until 5 o'clock.

The good news is that there was actually something good and chocolate-y around here (for a change) to assuage my woes.  That's because I had just baked up a beatiful batch of brownies for a friend's birthday.  I figured she wouldn't miss just one.

Now here's the thing:  my friend maintains a gluten-free diet.  Hey, I'm all in support of that but I am not a gluten-free baker and I didn't have time to figure out how to make a delicious gluten-free birthday cake.  Instead I happened upon this recipe from pastry chef extraordinaire David Lebovitz.  Folks, these are seriously good.  My friend texted me after she tried one and here is what she said,"OMG, you nailed the brownies!  Amazing!  I've had three so far.  I need the recipe, please!"

Here it is.  Don't wait to start a gluten-free diet to try them.

ABSOLUTE BEST BROWNIES (which just happen to be gluten-free), adapted from David Lebovitz's "Ready For Dessert"

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces
8 oz. bittersweet chocolate, broken into pieces
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 eggs, room temperature (I used extra-large)
1 tablespoon cocoa powder
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup good quality chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350-degrees.  Line a 9-inch square pan with heavy-duty aluminum foil to overhang sides of pan.  Spray pan with nonstick cooking spray or grease with butter.

Place the butter in a medium saucepan and melt over medium heat.  Add the bittersweet chocolate, reduce heat to low and stir until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth.  Remove from heat and stir in the sugar and vanilla.  Beat in the eggs, one at a time.

Sift the cocoa powder, cornstarch and salt together in a small bowl.  Add to the chocolate mixture.  Using a wooden spoon, beat vigorously for 1 full minute, until the batter loses its graininess and becomes smooth and shiny.  It will pull slightly away from the sides of the saucepan.  Stir in the chocolate chips and scrape into the prepared pan.  Bake for 20 minutes, or until just barely set.  Do not overbake.

Remove from oven and let cool slightly, then refrigerate for at least one hour before removing from pan and cutting into squares. 

Yield:  9 to 12 brownies

*  Don't even think about skipping the "beat for a full minute" step.  It's crucial to the success of this recipe or your brownies will be dry and crumbly.  David describes it as "a life-changing minute."

*  I like to store these in the refrigerator, then take them out to warm up slightly before devouring serving.

Unfortunately, these didn't cure the disaster that is now my basement, but they did help to improve my disposition.  Stay tuned for construction updates!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

No Carbs? There's an App for That

I know, I know. It’s resolution time. Our gym is crowded with people who have good intentions, but they get in the way when I’m dancing around in my favorite step class and they just don’t get it. Grrrrrr! I can’t wait until March when they will all be gone and we can get back to the business of our “normal” gym.

And friggin' everyone is on a diet right now.  Including me, but that’s my norm anyway (of course, it doesn’t help when I go to Leon’s Full Service on a Saturday after that intense, highly choreographed step class and eat my favorite fries with smoked tomato mayo, but what the hell, we won’t talk about that). Although I believe that moderation is the best strategy, for many folks, dieting still means eliminating the carbs. Sigh.

So here is a killer appetizer for those of you who eschew carbs these days. If you are like me, you could eat a couple of these for dinner and call it a day. Yeah, it’s carb-less, but that’s not the point. It’s delicious. Trust me. It comes from Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry Cookbook.


(adapted from Thomas Keller’s “The French Laundry Cookbook”)

For the crisps:
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 empty egg carton

Preheat oven to 325-degrees. Line a baking sheet with a Silpat (silicone liner) or use a nonstick baking sheet.

Place a 2 ½ -inch ring mold in one corner of the Silpat and fill it with 1 tablespoon of the grated cheese. Use your finger to spread into an even layer. Repeat to make 6 to 8 rounds, leaving at least 1 inch between each one.

Bake for 8 – 10 minutes or until they are golden brown. Remove pan from oven and let cool for about 30 seconds to just firm up. Remove crisps one by one and gently press into a hollow in the egg carton to form a tulip shape. After a few minutes, remove them to a baking rack to cool completely and continue making additional crisps.

For the mousse:
6 oz. fresh goat cheese at room temperature
4 to 6 tablespoons heavy cream
1 tablespoon minced Italian parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Place all ingredients in a small bowl and use a fork or small whisk to combine until smooth and creamy (alternatively, you could do this in a food processor). Taste to adjust seasonings.

Spoon or pipe about 2 to 3 teaspoons of mousse into each crisp and serve.

Yield: approximately 16 crisps

*  If you want to be lazy, just bake up the crisps, cool them on a baking rack and eat "as is."  A big basket of these and a lovely white wine will make any of your dinner guests happy and they will never miss the filling.  Consumed this way, they are a darned good substitute for potato chips!  I'm not saying these have a place at your Super Bowl spread, but they do stand in pretty well for a salty snack. 

*  You can also get creative with the filling.  Instead of the goat cheese, think about using fresh ricotta or, in a pinch, herbed cream cheese (like Boursin).  You could also add stuff like crumbled bacon, smoked salmon, caviar, slivered sundried tomatoes and basil ... whatever works for you. 

*  One word of caution:  work quickly when the crisps come out of the oven.  If you wait too long, they will not be pliable and you will not be able to press them into the egg carton (or muffin tin, if you prefer).  In that case, you're back to the "potato chip" option.

So why my interest in the French Laundry?  Perhaps that would be because I managed to score a reservation there next month.  Woohoo and Skinny Cook be damned!!!!!!