Just Because It’s 2 Degrees. . . .

Er, yeah.  I made ice cream again.

Just accept that I have a condition, people!

And anyway, it wasn’t THAT cold yesterday.  (It is now, but no matter).

It started a few weeks ago when I bought a new kind of tea–blackcurrant.  I used to drink blackcurrant herbal tea when I was growing up, but then the herbal variety was discontinued, and only available as a flavored black tea.  Leaving aside my inability to deal with caffeine, I don’t much like the taste of black tea.  In my opinion, the tea overwhelmed the flavor of the blackcurrant; this is probably the way it was supposed to be, but I was still unhappy. 

So, I was sans blackcurrant tea for almost a decade.  When I saw an entirely herbal blackcurrant tea for sale at (of all places) a wine shop, though, I bought it immediately.  It’s not quite as good as I remember–probably because it’s a different brand and thus a different formulation–but it’s aggressively curranty, naturally sweet, and has a lovely purple color. 

On the afternoon when I had my third or fourth cup of the tea, I was thumbing through my favorite ice cream cookbook–if I don’t have a dessert to have with my cup of tea, I’ll read about desserts instead.  Lo, there near the center of the book was a recipe for blackcurrant tea ice cream.  I’ve seen plenty of recipes for plain blackcurrant ice cream or sorbet, but never for one where the only blackcurrant presence is that of tea.  For the next two weeks I hemmed and hawed a bit, due to the weather, but then, of course, I made it. 

I brought three cups of sweetened cream to a boil, added two blackcurrant tea bags, then turned off the heat and covered the pan.  I let the mixture infuse for about 2 hours (the recipe only calls for 1 hour, but I got distracted), then removed the tea bags, squeezing out all of the curranty juices. 

The color of cream immediately turned an odd shade of grey.  Hmm.  Not entirely appealing.  It did, however, taste fantastic, so I persevered. 

I whisked three eggs together until smooth, then tempered them with a bit of the cream, which was still quite warm.  (It is a mystery to me how my house, which is consistently far colder than the thermostat reading, has a hot spot around the stove where NOTHING ever gets cold.  It’s great for proofing dough, though).  I poured the tempered eggs into the pan with the infused cream, turned the heat back on to low, and began whisking.  It took about 10 minutes for the eggs to thicken the mixture into a custard; once it had done so, I poured it through a sieve into a big tupperware container, and slid it into the fridge. 

What with one thing and another it was several days before I managed to get the custard frozen; the wait was definitely worth it, though.  The fruitiness of the black currant was still the dominant flavor, but the background of creamy custard smoothed out its forcefulness.  I was a little offput by the greyish color, but, as Teacherman  pointed out, the tone wasn’t too far from that of a green tea ice cream; this made me feel considerably better. 

The recipe made only a few servings, but we made the most of them.  The first night we savored the ice cream by itself, but the second we served it with chocolate sauce.  I’d heard that chocolate and blackcurrant were an excellent flavor match, but I couldn’t imagine it.  It’s true–they’re perfect for each other, but I can’t really describe how.  The closest I can come is to suggest that the combination is similar to raisins and chocolate, but that isn’t really it at all.

There’s a simple solution to this dilemma, though: you’ll all just have to make the ice cream yourselves, and tell me what you think.  And then I’ll have to make it again, to see if I agree.

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Published in: on January 30, 2008 at 1:04 pm  Leave a Comment  

Better Late Than Never

Once upon a time it was Christmas Day. And once upon a time I made soup. Specifically, the most arrestingly red soup I have ever laid eyes on. It was, as the recipe’s author (Nigella Lawson) pointed out in the recipe itself, “so damn Christmassy that it’s ridiculous.”

I chose my recipes for Christmas dinner about four months beforehand.  I am the sort of person that plans ahead with intricate lists and detailed, choreographed visions of sugarplums, but usually not THAT far in advance.  The extenuating circumstance?  Beef tenderloin.  We can afford to buy it about once a year, and when I find a good recipe, I reserve the next holiday meal, whatever it might be, for That Recipe.  Thus, I found a recipe for a filet mignon spiced with garlic and winter spices in September, copied it down, and horded my cash for the interim. 

With the main dish chosen, it was easy enough to pick out the side dishes–mashed rutabaga with cardamom and a green salad with winter spices in the dressing.  Voila.  Christmas dinner. 

There are, however, two more meals that happen on any given day, and Christmas day is no exception.  It would be easy enough to just fling sandwiches and pastry at people, while getting on with the massive undertaking that most people consider Christmas dinner preparation to be, but given that there were only two people for dinner (this was both Teacherman’s and my own first Christmas spent without either of our families.  Extenuating circumstances?  You don’t want to hear them), there was no reason not to have real food for these meals.

Breakfast was pumpkin-hazlenut smoothies, based on a pumpkin-hazelnut pie recipe I found online.  Voila.  Done.  (And delicious).

Lunch?  Um.  Er.  Thing? 

I never felt particularly Christmas-y this year, and this led to a distinct lack of inspiration when it came to holiday meals.  Every time I came up with something “traditional” (for a typical American, that is, since my family never had a set holiday dinner), it just didn’t sound appealling.  I began ransacking all of my cookbooks, trying to find anything that I might want to eat.

Finally, in Nigella Feasts, Nigella Lawson’s cookbook about holiday food–in the Christmas section, no less–I found a recipe that sounded weird enough to peak my interest: cranberry-beet soup. 

No, really!  (This is becoming a continuing refrain in my posts–Honestly, I made it!  And it was really good!)

I cooked 3 grated beets and 1 chopped onion in some oil until softened.  I then added a bit more than a cup of cranberries, a large clementine’s-worth of juice and zest and a shake of cloves.  I smushed everything together for a second, then added a container of vegetable stock and performed the usual soup routine: I brought it all to a boil and then turned it down for a simmer until everything had cooked through.  Using a stick blender, I pureed it into a pottage of an incredibly shocking color, and served it up. 

And yes, it was really good.  The beets were sweet and earthy, and the cranberries added the sour tang necessary in a beet soup, so often added through liberal use of vinegar.  The texture was silken and the flavors were as bright as the color.  It was undeniably Christmas-inna-bowl. 

(And, unsurprisingly for a beet soup, the leftovers were delicious cold, the next day).

Published in: on January 28, 2008 at 7:40 pm  Leave a Comment  

This is Obviously One of THOSE Days

Some days, I make roasts and soups and complex, layered sauces, all from scratch.  Other days, I make soup out of two avocados blended together with half a jar of tomatillo salsa and topped with a can of crab. 

What kind of day do you think today was?

Honestly, the soup was really good. Ripe avocados, good quality salsa, sweet-tasting crabmeat. It was even pretty, if you don’t mind green. I cannot, however, pretend that it was Cuisine. Or A Recipe. It was just good. And it was fast and filling, and I don’t regret eating it at all.

I should probably be happy that I didn’t fall asleep with my face in it, though.

(And yes, what you heard on the news was correct: it is actually -2 degrees, my car doors are frozen shut, and it was so freezing at work that I still can’t feel my feet.  For reasons unknown to mankind, however, I am eating a cold soup. Not ice cream, though. Both of those things together would be taking things MUCH too far.  Instead I made coconut-kahlua hot chocolate.  From scratch).

Published in: on January 19, 2008 at 7:52 pm  Leave a Comment  

Maybe I Should Have Waited till February

What’s that? You’re telling me that it’s 15 degrees and snowing?

Shut up! I can still make ice cream if I want to!

You might have noticed that I have this obsession. I don’t think a week has gone by in over a year when I didn’t make some kind of frozen dessert. Sorbet, ice cream, semifreddo; I’ve made them all. And I just haven’t stopped. In fact, I have so many ideas that I can’t believe that I’ll ever stop, simply because then the ideas would weigh on my mind.

Tonight we made blood orange sherbet. (I don’t really care for the word ‘sherbet’, but what we made was definitely in between ice cream and sorbet, thus: sherbet). I’ve been waiting for blood oranges to hit the stores since November, when I saw the Bon Appetit magazine recipe for cranberry-blood orange-ginger relish. The first glimpse of them was last Sunday, when I fell upon the display and carried four enormous specimens back to my lair.

<cough>

Kitchen.

But anyway. I hadn’t planned to use them in a frozen dessert, but the relish recipe only called for one blood orange, and as delicious as it was, I didn’t want to make it four times over. Instead, in an impromptu cupboard raid, I made them into sherbet.

I stripped the zest from all three remaining oranges, then supremed each one. I put the zest and juice from all three, and the flesh from two into my food processor and blended them into a puree, along with a can of light coconut milk. (Impromptu=lack of dairy products in the fridge). I sweetened it just a tiny bit–these blood oranges were sweeter than any others I’ve ever had–added the flesh of the last orange, chopped up into small squares, and then poured the mixture into a tupperware container. I chilled it for, as it turns out, 48 hours (Monday night was busier than expected), and then froze it my indefatigable ice cream maker.

It was, as expected, pretty divine. Every year I forget that blood oranges taste different than regular oranges, and every year I’m surprised by their mellow sweetness. The churned consistency of the sherbet was light, completely lacking in ice crystals, and actually fluffy. I can think of no good comparisons to other textures–one might say that it was almost like substantial, solid cotton candy. It was also, to continue the cotton candy comparison, bright pink. (Unlike cotton candy, however, it was not tooth-achingly sweet and flavorless).

The blood orange flavor was also astonishingly bright and pure, even though there was a can–nearly two cups–of coconut milk involved. There was no coconut flavor to speak of, but I’m sure it contributed to the texture. Unlike many ice creams that I make, I have no desire to eat the remainder with a sauce or a mix in: I want to experience this flavor and this texture over again, just as it is.

There are four more servings in the freezer, and I can’t wait to eat them. It’s supposed to be 7 degrees tomorrow? Shhhh.

Published in: on January 16, 2008 at 8:34 am  Leave a Comment  

Oh Dear

I admit, it does sound weird, but you have to give it a chance! 

Last night was our upstairs neighbor/best friend’s 40th birthday, and his girlfriend threw him a fabulous party.  (How fabulous?  I actually stayed for five hours, even though I usually overdose on partydom by an hour in).  Said girlfriend laid on a bounteous spread of delectables, but since most of my non-Christmas gift-giving tends to be food-related, I still brought a few things. 

Of all the foods our friend loves, bacon is foremost among them.  The love is so great that it’s become a joke among his massive, world-wide group of friends.  “ANYTHING is better with bacon!”  I try not to serve him unending courses of bacon-related goodies, but this party seemed like the perfect opportunity to try a few of the more unusual bacon recipes I’ve been saving. 

A few months ago I checked The Bacon Cookbook by James Villas out of the library.  It’s a nearly 300 page cookbook where every recipe, even the ones for sweets, contains bacon.  One those recipes–chocolate coated peanut butter bacon truffles–was impossible to ignore. 

All right, yes, I know.  Bacon in a dessert is just bizarre.  Bacon is made of meat, and it’s been roughly 600 years since meat and sugar were regular recipe companions, at least in the Western world.  But consider this: maple-glazed bacon.  People eat that all the time!  Also, my mother has been known to eat the occasional peanut butter-bacon sandwich.  I only ever ate peanut butter and honey sandwiches, but it isn’t SUCH a stretch to elide the two.

So I made the truffles.  I cooked 4 slices of bacon until crisp, let them cool completely and then broke the strips into haphazard pieces and put them into my food processor.  I added 4 oz of roasted peanuts, 1 Tbsp of sugar, and then ground all three together until they had amalgamated into a coarse powder.  I tasted–it was good!, but it needed another Tbsp of sugar and a pinch of salt, which I added, along with the stipulated 1/4 cup of smooth peanut butter.  I pulsed the new ingredients in until the mixture had come together and formed a ball. 

I scraped the peanut butter filling into a bowl, and stuck it in the fridge for half an hour to set up.  When the time came, I rolled the paste into small balls, froze them for 15 minutes, and then dipped them in melted bittersweet chocolate and rolled them in unsweetened cocoa powder.  Voila–chocolate peanut butter bacon truffles. 

I let them chill thoroughly before I tasted them.  In fact, I put them in the freezer for a couple of days, and then let them defrost in the fridge for an hour right before the party.  As I arranged them on the pretty platter, I popped one in my mouth–in spite of the positive tastes I’d had while making the filling, I was still a little dubious about the combination of bacon and chocolate. 

Wow.  They were like peanut butter cups, but enhanced.  The sort of food that the adjective “extreme” should be reserved for.  The bacon didn’t add a meaty flavor, or any textural component at all, it just added an extra salty, lightly smokey background to the peanut butter, making it taste more like itself.  The chocolate coating was shatteringly crisp, and the bitterness and purity of the chocolate contrasted perfectly with the richness and complexity of the filling. 

I went hurtling up to the party and thrust the platter at Teacherman and our upstairs neighbors.  They each took one, slightly hesitantly.  A pause, then three swoons: the reactions were ecstatic.  BUT.  After salving the birthday boy with his bacon ration, I offerred the platter to the rest of the guests.  Not one single one of them thought they were good.  Not one SINGLE one!  About ten people refused to try them at all, so they don’t really count, but the other fifteen tried them and thought they were terrible

I tried a second truffle.  Still nutty and salty and chocolatey.  Still the ur-peanut butter cup.  Still delicious.  Other people, though, were making faces of horrified disgust, some even went so far as to make gagging noises.  Everyone ate up their entire truffle, but they roundly declared them to be hideous. 

This is definitely one of the most confusing experiences I’ve ever had.  If it was just me that liked the truffles, I’d think that my dull tastebuds were to blame, but Teacherman, who has a very sensitive palate, and our upstairs neighbors, who aren’t vastly adventurous eaters, loved them, too.  We all had seconds, and enjoyed them just as much as the first. 

I can only conclude that the rest of our guests were too repulsed by the idea of bacon in a dessert to pay attention to the taste in their mouth.  I hate to dismiss an entire group of people outright, but I can’t figure out any other way to account for what happened.

In any case, and in spite of the reactions of the party-goers, I heartily recommend the recipe.  I know that I’ll be making it again, but this time I just won’t share. 

Published in: on January 13, 2008 at 7:43 pm  Leave a Comment  

Braaaaaaaaaaaaains

No, alas–I didn’t actually eat brains.

(But if anyone can hook me up with some non-Creutzfeld-Jacobs-infected ones, you know where to find me).

What I did eat, and what has me in unexpected rhapsodies, is cauliflower.  A whole head of cauliflower, cooked through and presented in a pool of tomato sauce.  (And if that doesn’t bring brains to mind then your imagination is sadly lacking).

When I was younger, my mother used to make whole steamed heads of cauliflower and serve them coated in cheese sauce.  The dish was delicious and I enjoyed it, but for some reason it never occurred to me to make it for myself.  A few months ago, though, I read a recipe for a head of cauliflower, steamed, and then left to marinate for a few hours in a mixture of giardinera, pickled peppers, and olives.  The marinade wasn’t the best–due, I think, not to the recipe, but to the giardinera, which was a little elderly–but it was so much fun to present an entire head of cauliflower on a platter that I knew I had to do it again.

(Actually, it was two heads of cauliflower.  The farmer’s markets were open at the time and I lucked into finding two tiny, 12-oz heads of cauliflower, each perfect for a single serving.  But nevertheless). 

I’ve served whole cauliflower several times since then, usually in a vinaigrette, either cold or hot, and once sauced with pesto.  But for the last few months, I’ve been neglecting cauliflower; with all the kale and radicchio and sweet potatoes in stores, tumbled into overabundant piles, it was difficult to remember cauliflower, which is usually plastic-wrapped and relegated to the peripheral refrigerated shelves.

As so often is the case, last week I read a new cookbook.  And as is also so often the case, I was captivated by one particular recipe: one for a whole head of cauliflower, tucked into a pot full of tomato sauce and steamed/simmered until done.  I immediately scribbled the word ‘cauliflower’ down onto my shopping list.

When time came to make the dish, I was more rushed for time than I had hoped.  Instead of making a puttanesca-like tomato sauce from scratch, as the recipe indicated, I poured a jar of very good quality arrabiata sauce into my littlest, cauliflower-sized stockpot.  I brought the sauce to a boil and then nestled the cauliflower, divested of its leaves and the discolored portion of the stem, down into the sauce, which came about halfway up its sides. 

I put the lid on, turned the heat down until the sauce was simmering, and then left it alone for 50 minutes.  At the end of its time alone, the cauliflower had turned a nearly translucent shade of cream, a subtle but important change from the dull, aggressive white it had been before.  When I poked it with a knife to check its doneness, the blade slid in all the way to the hilt.  I carefully lifted the head out with my largest spatula and transferred it to a serving bowl, surrounding it with the tomato sauce.

After I presented the bowl to Teacherman’s oohs and ahhs (and zombie references), we neatly bisected the head and dished it out into shallow bowls, ladling tomato sauce over the top of each portion. 

Our forks encountered almost no resistance as we each separated our first bite, and the texture followed through on that promise of tenderness.  In fact, the texture was astonishing.  The cauliflower was whole, and when sliced or cut it remained in perfect shape, with intact florets and all; in the mouth, though, the texture was that of whipped cauliflower, so silken that it nearly dissolved on the tongue, but still remained toothsome. 

The tender porousness of the cauliflower was the perfect foil for the tomato sauce–cauliflower by itself can be a little bland, and the sauce infused the entire head with its spiciness and tomatoy depths.  Together they produced an illusion of creaminess that surpassed any other method of cooking cauliflower that I’ve tried, including cooking it in cream. 

I’ll be making this dish often; I daresay I won’t even forget about cauliflower again.  I just need to find all sorts of different sauces to steam the cauliflower in. . . .

Published in: on January 7, 2008 at 8:59 pm  Leave a Comment  

Soup For the Season

Somehow, I have been gone for a long time.

I meant to post more–I’ve been eating and cooking and experimenting just as much as at any other time. But I worked hard the week of Christmas–worked at my actual job, which is another story–and then collapsed into relaxation the week after. Writing was one of my many usual activities that simply didn’t take place.

Today, I finally have some breathing room. I’m not working so fast that my eyeballs are a blur, and I’m not so exhausted that those selfsame eyeballs won’t even open. Strangely enough, today’s lunch was the simplest thing I’ve made in almost a month. (That breakfast where I ate frozen fruit and cold cuts doesn’t count).

As some of you may know, Nigella Lawson is one of my favorite cookbook authors. I was given the original edition of How to Eat as a Christmas present years ago (thanks, Dusan!) and I poured over it like a novel. The voice was entrancing and the recipe were excellent. I still go through that cookbook every few months to see what treasures I might plumb. I only own one other of her cookbooks–Nigella Feasts–but I’ve checked her remaining three out of the library on numerous occasions, and made any number of the recipes therefrom.

Today was a lazy day. I might be finished with exhaustion, but I’m not done vegetating. I can’t recall a day in years when I stayed in my pajamas and bathrobe past nine in the morning, but today I was still lolling around on the sofa well past noon. When I looked up from my book and noticed the time–roughly concurrent with the moment that my previously silent stomach chose to howl like a banshee–I had to come up with something to eat quickly.

Thus, a recipe from Lawson’s latest cookbook, Nigella Express (which, as one might expect from the title, is a compendium of fast/easy recipes): Pesto-Pea Soup. The recipe has only five ingredients (if you count salt and water as ingredients), required less than 10 minutes to prepare, and was exceedingly tasty, which is exactly what I needed in my befuddled, unshod state. (I had to do a little math to reduce the quantity of resulting soup–I didn’t have 3 bags of frozen peas, merely half of one–but thankfully the elementary division wasn’t too difficult for my feeble brain).

I took half a bag of frozen peas out of the freezer and dumped them into a saucier, along with a whole scallion, washed, but unchopped. I added a cup and a half of hot water and a pinch of salt, then brought the whole thing to a boil and let it simmer for about 5 minutes. The recipe calls for letting it simmer for 7 minutes, but the peas seemed done in 5, and I since didn’t want to cook them to a grey ooze, I just stopped early.

I let the mixture cool a fractionally, discarded the scallion (odd, but I followed the recipe), poured the peas and liquid into my food processor, and then added the ingredient that turned prosaic peas into something snarfable: pesto.

Back in September, I bought a small container of lemon-basil pesto at the Madison farmer’s market, and I’ve had it in my freezer ever since, waiting for the perfect recipe. It must be admitted that I forgot it was even there, but last night I rediscovered the jar right next to the ground poppyseeds I needed for another recipe, and in my frantic, lunch-planning state, the memory of that pesto brought to mind Lawson’s recipe.

I scooped the bright green paste–fragrant even when frozen–out of the jar and into the food processor, there to mingle with the cooked peas. The heat of the water (and a bit of nudging with a spoon) melted the pesto immediately, and I pureed the whole thing together into a nubbly pottage. I poured the mixture back into the saucier, reheated it a bit, and then served it, with no accompaniment, in plain white bowls.

Unsurprisingly, the pesto is the key ingredient in this dish. The soup was heady with basil and the rising vapors wafted the scent of lemon. The cheeses and nuts in the pesto added depth and creaminess to the soup, without being aggressive with their individual flavors; the peas still shone through, not just as a textural component, but with the definite sweet, grassiness inherent to peas. In spite of the noticability of the peas, however, using a poor pesto would undoubtedly result in a poor soup. I was lucky to have such a delicious pesto on hand, but if I had to procure pesto for making the soup in the future, I would make sure to buy the best available.

(And yes, I would have to buy it. It is depressing to admit, but I have been trying to make pesto for YEARS, with the highest quality ingredients, often from my own garden, and it always turns out brackish and disgusting. So I buy good pesto from the farmers market, or, in the winter, the refrigerated case at the nearest earthy-crunchy grocery. It serves me well, and I usually don’t feel guilty).

Published in: on January 4, 2008 at 5:17 pm  Leave a Comment