Tuesday, March 31, 2009

comfort for when you need it

The house currently smells like butter and wine. It’s fabulous.
It’s been a rough week. It’s been a rough couple of weeks, honestly.
A week that made me not give a shit about the sun beating down on me; this was the week for comfort food in all forms.
And so I comforted my boyfriend who (really and truly) needed it with a big slab of a delectable, delicious Shepard’s Pie.
A Shepard’s Pie so good, the name doesn’t even do it justice.
This is the kind of food you might as well just curl up on the couch with: fork in one hand, remote in other, big casserole dish resting on your lap.
Oh yes, it’s that good. And oh yes, it warms your soul.
Just as comfort food should.
Honestly though, I don’t care for the whole "comfort food" term. Because it rests so easily on the typical meatloaf-and-mashed-potatoes blahblahblah.
(Granted, this is a meat-and-potatoes dish, but I digress...)
Comfort food to me is something that’s gonna fill you up, change your mood instantly, and make you feel good.
I find that in a pint of Haagen-Daz. I find that in my mom’s soup. I find that in my Shepard’s Pie.

Shepard’s Pie
I first heard about this dish in high school on a recipe handout about pot-pies and casseroles. This one has stuck with me, with additions made along the way. Oh, and ps: no peas in my Shepard’s Pie. Oh no, no.

1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1/4 t salt
1 stick butter, cold and cubed
2-3 T ice water

1 lb russet potatoes, peeled and diced
salt, pepper
1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup butter
handful of chopped parsley

1 lb ground beef
1 medium onion, diced
2 large cloves garlic, chopped
1 large carrot, peeled and diced
salt, pepper
½ cup red wine (I used a Cabernet Sauvignon here)
8 oz can tomato sauce
½ cup chicken stock (I like the mellower flavor from chicken, but beef is fine, too)

1. For the dough: dump flour and salt into a bowl. Add in cold, cubed butter and cut in with a fork. Or honestly, your hands. Cut in until there are little bits of butter running all throughout.
2. Add in the water 1 tablespoon at a time until a dough forms. Wrap in plastic and chill. You can do this up to a couple of days in advance. (Makes it easier).
3. Preheat oven to 425ºF.
4. For the potatoes: add the potatoes to a pot of water, cover, and bring to a boil. Once boiling, salt the water. Cook until fork-tender.
5. Meanwhile, for the meat: heat a pan on medium heat and add a bit of oil. Brown the beef. Once browned, add in the onion, garlic, and carrots. Season with salt and pepper. Turn on high and caramelize.
6. Deglaze the pan with the wine and stir until it reduces to a glaze. Lower the heat to medium and add the tomato sauce and stock. Cook for about 10 minutes.
7. When the potatoes are done, drain them and mash together with milk and butter and season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir in parsley.
8. On a floured surface, roll out the dough to fit the bottom of a 13x9 inch pan. Dock with a fork and pop into the oven for 5 minutes.
9. Pull the pan out and add the beef on top of the dough. Spread the mashed potatoes on top of the meat. Dot with butter and throw back into the oven for 20 minutes.

Oh, the sweet taste of comfort.

Monday, March 30, 2009

the tale of a lopsided banana cake

That - I’m almost ashamed to say - is still sitting in my fridge. Almost gone, but it’s been a little tough.
And listen: sweets do not last very long around here. A week at the very most.
This is going on two weeks.
It just wasn’t a success like I hoped it would be.
I wanted gooey and big-banana-punch-in-the-face.
Instead I got, "Eh, it’s ok."
And I do not like mediocre pastry. No, no, no.
I thought: a brown sugar-cinnamon custard for the filling. It’ll complement the banana flavor so well and really create such a nice, gooey cake.
And the peanut butter frosting that worked so well when I made the banana cupcakes will be a perfect accent.
The custard was barely noticeable. Actually, it’s not noticeable at all. Only way you’d know is if I told you. And the frosting? It’s good. Well, of course it’s good. How can peanut butter be bad?
But I kinda have to agree with the boyfriend here (now watch the ego blow up): it’s a little overpowering. A little too much.
So much for something I really thought could work.
Oh, le sigh.
The culinary crappers every now and then can really damper a mood, huh?
Not for long in my book, though!
Grab another pot, another pan and move on, I say!
But, I still have to get rid of the big pink elephant known as banana cake just sitting in my fridge. The unloved dessert that nobody wants to get near or finish.
Sorry, buddy.

Friday, March 20, 2009

chocolate chip cookie & me: a love story

I couldn’t tell you when the love affair started, but I can pinpoint when it got intense. Sort of.
Somewhere around my junior year of high school when the boy drama reached all sorts of crazy peaks and every bad day was calmed with a cookie, where every great day was brought to new heights by a cookie. (But more often than not, the bad ones...)
And just like those bad ones years ago, they still emerge on occasion. Like tonight. Where hatred for my job reached all sorts of levels. Still, a job is a job, I know. But every now and then isn’t too much, too much?
So opening the door to my house, coming face to face with the kitchen, I decided this was the time for chocolate chip cookies.

It’s something about the ritual, the process.
The creaming of the butter and sugar at 2 in the morning. The cracking of eggs and folding in of chips.
Baking, unapologetically, in my underwear and fuzzy pink slippers, bathing the whole house in the smell of baked goods in the oven. There is something about all of it that calms me down and makes my irrational thoughts just melt away. Good for not only me, but possibly the well being of anyone around me.
And it’s perfect.
Sometimes, I crave chocolate. Or rather, always...
And more often that not, I crave it in the form of a home baked, warm and gooey chocolate chip cookie.
And still, I don’t back down from my belief that most of the happiness in the world lies behind the warmth of a homemade chocolate chip cookie right out of the oven.
This is the best recipe I have ever found for chocolate chip cookies. You can throw all your other ones out because this one is just perfect. Given to me in my Introduction to Baking class by best-baking-instructor-ever Chef Rob (the hilarious kook from that Food Network Challenge Mickey Popcorn thing), these are soft and chewy. What I always do when baking cookies is I like to take them out a minute or two before they’re done, and I let them cool right on the baking sheet. They bake up just right and the yummy, chewy goodness is too much to resist. Which is why I’ll eat a good 10 or 12. In a sitting. If you are not a chewy cookie fan, you can leave them in a little bit longer and they’ll crisp up a bit for you.
But really, why would you want to?

Chef Rob’s Chocolate Chip Cookies
This recipe is in ounce-form, sorry to say. Good scales are quite inexpensive and a nice investment if baking a lot. And honestly, a worthy investment if making these cookies.

6 oz light brown sugar
6 oz granulated sugar
9 oz butter, softened
1 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla extract (really: optional. I very, very rarely use vanilla in my chocolate chip cookies. It’s not really necessary here if you ask me.)
2 eggs
13 oz all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
12 oz chocolate chips
6 oz walnuts, chopped (optional, but I do love the texture)

1. Preheat the oven to 375ºF. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil, parchment paper, or lightly grease.
2. Beat butter, sugar, salt and vanilla together until "light and fluffy". I like to say it looks more like the consistency of frosting. It gets pale and smooth and creamy. About 2-3 minutes.
3. Add in the eggs one at a time until incorporated.
4. Sift the flour and baking soda together. Add in all at once to the mixture and mix until just combined. Don’t over do it. You’ll develop gluten and make a tough cookie. Nobody likes a tough cookie. Really.
5. Fold in the chips and walnuts. Drop by teaspoon-fuls onto the baking sheet. I make about 50-60 2-inch cookies with this recipe, but the outcome really depends on how big you like your cookies.

Pour a glass of milk and pile some cookies onto a plate. These are so, so delicious.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

in the meantime

So since I last wrote, I've just been cooking. And baking. And cooking. And baking. And...well, you get the idea.And it's not so much that I haven't wanted to write in here, I guess I've just been so pre-occupied in eating is all.
Because, really, what good is cooking if there's no eating?? Eating - though not more than laughing - is one of my favorite things.
Like the pizza-kick I was on for a good bit that included a pizza for my lovey:

With goat cheese and spinach and bacon and caramelized shallots and a light tomato sauce. Mmm. Mmm.
Or the (not-so) traditional Cassatta Cake:

The first cake I fully made and truly loved. I used to have a cake thing. A terrible cake thing. Where frostings were awful and cakes would fall apart and it never looked like the cover of the magazine or whatever other picture I was trying to emulate and the discouragement was almost too much. So I'd plop the pile of cake crumbs held together with unbearably sweet frosting into the fridge and I'd try not to scream when I opened the fridge again.
But. I've mastered cakes. Oh, I have. And my mastery of cakes is leading me down a path I am way too excited about.
The Cassatta though, is a gorgeous orange chiffon with ricotta filling and covered in whipped cream. The traditional is decorated in candied fruits, but mine is a simple array of fresh fanned strawberries. Almost too good to eat. But really...
And there was that divine meat-and-potatoes dinner:

Because at the end of the day, you can spare me your froo-froo and your ridiculously gourmet and your over-exertion of a dish. There is absolutely nothing better than a perfectly seasoned peice of meat, a nice heap of potatoes (a good sweet potato mash is always nice), and a good bit of green to balance everything out (like the sauteed spinach with shallots for a mild, onion backdrop) . There is beauty in simplicity. Especially when we're talking food.
And that picture does not do it much justice.
And the chocolate cake:

Ooey and gooey and a tad underdone, but the light mousse in the middle and the nice, thin layer of ganache bring it all together for a perfect bite of chocolate heaven.
And to finish it off, my favorite spaghetti-and-sweet-potato pasta that I am so fond of. I can't help it.

So I've been keeping a little busy eating. So sue me. But now I need to get busy excersicing.
So if you will excuse me...