Monday, December 15, 2008

Chicago: Part Three: The Sweet Finale

by Xani

OK, we had a little interlude there with the Thanksgiving and Burger posts... but I absolutely can't go on blogging without telling you about my very last night in Chicago last month. And with another big, delicious trip to NYC rapidly approaching, I better do it now, before it's too late!

As you know, I had done lots of research about where to go, what to eat, the best burgers and cupcakes in Chi-town,etc., and during all this research, I stumbled across an interesting fact: the super-fancy and highly regarded TRU restaurant offers a very special dessert tasting menu, for which they have special late-night seatings, which require advance reservations and a credit card number to secure. I was intrigued... especially since the executive pastry chef at TRU is none other than Gale Gand, whose Food TV show Sweet Dreams was a favorite of mine back in the day.

So, a few weeks before the trip I showed up to work and told co-worker Mike I had good news and bad news: the bad news is, we were going to a restaurant with a dress code and he would have to pack a suit for Chicago; the good news was, it was for DESSERT!

After all that meat, on our final night in Chi-town, we followed the Chowhounders' advice and ate a light dinner at Friends Sushi (cute little joint with decent sushi and a sleek all-white and candlelight decor-- it felt like we were in a Sophia Coppola movie) before our 11pm dessert reservation at TRU. We walked around the Magnificent Mile in the FRIGID cold, one last time, before ducking into TRU and beginning out dessert "experience."

First of all, TRU is fancy. Like, really fancy. And quiet. At least when we arrived, it was really, really quiet. And with the high ceilings and austere decor, it was bordering on stuffy... and Mike and I were both feeling a little intimidated. I actually had to give myself a little pep-talk so I wouldn't be too freaked out to take pictures (and I really, REALLY wanted to take pictures). Eventually we relaxed a bit, a few more tables were seated and the noise level crept up from "library" to a more comfortable level, but here are some of the things that made this place a little fancy/scary:

Synchronized Water service: of course they offered sparkling or still (bottled), but we went for plain old tap (and I cringed a little as I said it). Two servers come to pour, in unison, with a flourish.

Napkin service(?!?): Another server approached with a small tray in his hands. "Ma'am would you like a white napkin or a black napkin?" Seriously, napkin service??

Tea service: Co-worker Mike asked to see their tea list, which our waiter brought out along with a tray with a dozen small boxes of loose teas. They were all beautiful, and our waiter told us a little bit about each one. Mike made his selection and they brought it out in a lovely clear glass teapot. You know me, I got coffee (which was delicious and come in a pretty silver service).

With our coffee and tea they started the "tasting" just the way any good meal starts-- with great bread. But of course, this being all-dessert, these little babies were sweet, as was the amuse bouche that followed. It was a key lime and honey concoction that the server topped off with some fizzy lime soda at the table. Garnished with a little cube of lime jelly, flecked with gold leaf (which would make many appearances throughout the tasting).

Then we began our three-course tasting! They brought us each different dishes for each course, so we switched half-way through each plate and were able to try six desserts each. We were very quickly on our way to sugar-overload...

***DISCLAIMER*** This meal was over a month ago and details are hazy. Who am I kidding, details were hazy moments after we left the place as I lapsed into diabetic shock. I'll do my best to describe what I remember of each dish, and you can enjoy the pretty pictures... or not-so-pretty-mostly-blurry pictures, as I was still pretty weirded out by the fanciness of the place and was trying to take pictures on the sly, without any of the other diners or waiters noticing!

First course: Greek Yogurt panna cotta type-thing, with honey center, dried fruits, and mint meringue and sorbet. Hate to peak this early but this was really one of my favorites-- so light, great flavors, and not TOO sweet. The honey was amazing; it tasted the way perfume smells (and I don't even LIKE honey)

This was a roasted plu-ot (plum and apricot hybrid) with... stuff. Ice cream? A cookie? I wish I remembered more.

Second course: The shell was white chocolate, filled with champagne-poached peaches, and creamy filling of some sort. The stuff on the side was peach-champage granita. Note gold leaf.

This was another favorite-- various chocolate and nut elements as well as a piece of manchego cheese and a manchego foam, and concord grape sorbet. Very delicious, interesting combination of flavors. Then again I like cheese with pretty much everything.

Third course: Chocolate and coffee-- I remember this one because Mike took one bite and said "would it be inappropriate to eat some of these sugar cubes to get this taste out of my mouth?" We suspect Mike is a super-taster as he cannot STAND the taste of coffee. He's a good sport, anyhow.

Deconstructed chocolate bar: each element was a different flavor found in a candy bar: chocolate, nougat, caramel, etc, etc. Gold leaf, again! At this point I was definitely in sugar shock.

Six gorgeous plates of sweets were followed by, what else?, more sweets! A rolling trolley of Mignardises (sweet little tidbits served after a meal and dessert-- or in this case after a meal OF desserts!) was brought to our table, and we were allowed to pick as many of the little bites as we wanted. Exercising some restraint (not too hard, as we were both soooo full of sweets by this time), we each picked three:

Passionfruit jelly, maple macaron, orange caramel

Mike's picks-- I only remember that the lollipop was chocolate with five-spice powder.

And that was it, right?? Nope, there were also handmade chocolate truffles, about five different kinds, that a server brought over and allowed us to choose whatever we liked. But, no pictures... I could barely lift my hand to bring the truffle to my mouth...

The truffles were the last thing before the bill (where we discovered Mike's pretty tea was $15!), and then it was time to leave. The super-gracious host had our coats waiting for us and we bundled up in the lobby-- then he gave us each a little bag with a jam-filled coffee cake to take home! As it was past midnight at this point it wasn't so much a midnight snack as a "breakfast treat" for the next morning. I ate mine the next day on the plane as I headed to Detroit... it was a sweet reminder of a very memorable experience at TRU, and a great first trip to Chicago!


Friday, December 12, 2008

"Burgers are our Religion"

by Xani

That is the slogan of a fabulous new burger joint in federal hill, The Abbey Burger Bistro. It's not often that a new place in my neighborhood opens, and even more rare that I would visit a new place FOUR TIMES since they opened their doors (less than a month). And knowing what we know about me and my love of burgers... well, you know they've got to be good.

Abbey Burger Bistro opened late last month where the Sky Lounge used to be-- I had been there once or twice to drink a Key Lime Pie Martini (love that graham cracker crust!) or dance on their translucent upstairs dance floor. But, the new incarnation has something way better-- amazing burgers! Like, really, really great. Ten times better than any of the other pub burgers in any of the other federal hill joints. It's a miracle! My four visits (to date) include: lunch with EP during the "soft opening," dinner with EP, Matt, and Smulson last Friday to show them our new discovery, lunch with Matt and his buddies the very next day (he likes the burgers as much as I do! My excuse was getting out of my freezing cold house for a couple hours), and finally EP and I went back again just a couple nights ago before seeing Eric Hutchinson at the 8x10, just a few steps away.

Abbey Burger features locally-sourced Black Angus beef and bison, as well as turkey, lamb, and chicken burgers. They've got a few appetizers (including some awesome waffle-fry nachos), tons of bottled beers and about a dozen on tap, and, for your sweet tooth, a variety of SPIKED milkshakes.

But the real story is, of course, the burgers. How good does a burger have to be to warrant eating 4 of them in less than a months time? Damn good. Like over 9 out of 10 burgers on the burger scale. And let me tell you why:

The burger patty: whether beef, bison, or lamb, is delicious. I always go medium-rare and they always come out perfectly cooked, with plenty of great flavor, and just the right seasoning. Really thick and juicy, too (as in hot burger juices running down your hands-- you're going to need the extra napkins they give you).

The toppings: plenty of options here. The chef has a few of his own creations for you to try, or there's a make-your-own checklist you can fill out to do it your way. The chef knows what he's doing though-- the Bistro burger (cheddar, bacon, and a fried egg on an English muffin) is a hit and the peanut butter burger (with bacon and, yes, real creamy peanut butter, on a classic bun) sounds too weird to be good but in reality it has become one of my favorites. The PB is subtle but somehow works with the beef and bacon. And their classic buns are sturdy and hold up to the juicy burgers til the last bite. The English muffin and thick toast are good bread choices, too.

Beer: Like I said, a decent selection on tap and lots and lots in bottles. I recommend the "Fin du Monde" Belgian Ale or a classic Guinness with any of their burger selections.

Spiked Shakes: How do you make a great milkshake even better? Add booze (and bits of Berger Cookies in their killer Berger Shake).

Atmosphere: Dark wood, exposed brick and beams, flat-screen tvs, and good tunes. They may have lost the translucent dance floor but they amped up the coziness factor, and Abbery Burger Bistro always feels warm and inviting-- the kind of place where it's easy to have a good time.

These burgers get two thumbs up!

It's always a good time at A.B.B!

A few elements need work... the service has been slow (due in part to the fact that the place is always packed-- and they haven't done any advertising or even put up a website yet. Clearly the word is out about these burgers), and on one of my many visits they seemed to have mixed up a couple of the patties-- giving medium-well to a friend who had ordered medium-rare, and vice versa. But the staff are always friendly as they race around the dining room and behind the bar. The sides need some work-- I like the sweet potato fries, but EP has a point when she says they don't hold a candle to those at Annabelle Lee Tavern. The regular fries, homemade chips, and onion rings are just ok-- they definitely don't steal any attention from the star of the show. And when we tried the grilled cheese we regretted it and wished we had ordered yet another Peanut Butter Burger... but the facts remains, even with these small issues, I've been there four times in a month... and that's sayin' something.

So there you have it-- my new favorite burger in Baltimore! Abbey Burger Bistro has shown us the light!


Saturday, December 6, 2008

A Very BCD Thanksgiving

by Xani and Erin

We needed a few days (ok, a week) to recover from cooking Thanksgiving dinner before we could write about it.... Now that's we've finally digested everything, and all the leftovers are gone, we can bring you what so many have been asking for: a blow-by-blow, dish-by-dish run-down of the BCD Thanksgiving 2008: Turkey on the Shore! The menu was as follows:

  • Cocktails

  • Olives, nuts, and crudites with homemade blue cheese dressing

  • Dry-brined, roast turkey

  • Giblet gravy from scratch

  • Oyster stuffing

  • Mashed white potatoes with cream cheese

  • Thyme biscuits

  • Brussels sprouts with toasted pecans

  • Roasted autumn vegetables

  • Orange-port cranberry sauce

  • Apple tarte tatin

Of course, the researching and planning started way ahead of time and included an elaborate shopping spreadsheet (per our usual) as well as a pre-ordered, pastured turkey from Springfield Farms, in Sparks, MD. We had a really fun adventure up to the farm the Saturday before T-day, where we picked up the turkey and some other yummy treats, including delicious salted butter and spiced cider! Xani began brining the bird using the LA Times dry-brining method on Monday, and then the REAL cooking started Wednesday, after a lovely, traffic-free drive out to Blackacre.

Mom had already prepared the cranberry sauce, using this recipe from Food and Wine, and the blue cheese dressing (her own, super-secret family recipe), so that was two things we could cross off our list right away. But starting Wednesday night and all day Thursday, we cooked and cooked to create this fabulous meal! On Wednesday night we sat around and caught up, made giblet gravy, and created a game plan for the big day. We made lists of tasks per dish, time of day per task, which dishes were stovetop, oven, or both, and which oven to use for which dish and at what temperature and when. For once, we did this using just pen and paper (legal pad, obvi) so no link!

The list during cooking - complete with grease stains

Xani ponders the list mid-cooking

Cheers to our first Thanksgiving at Blackacre!

Snacks and drinks:

For many, many years we spent Thanksgiving at our grandparents' house where they served the same pre-dinner nibbles every year. We stuck with tradition and served olives, nuts, and a few crudites with Mom's stellar blue cheese. We also sipped a few "Pom-Bellinis", a champagne cocktail we created by combining some champagne, pomegrante juice, and homemade pomegranate vodka that Xani had been infusing for a few weeks (normal!), and topping that off with a few fresh pomegrante seeds. Delicious!

Irresistable blue cheese dressing...

The Big Meal:

Tom Turkey

The star of every Thanksgiving table is always the turkey. This year, having never cooked a pastured, farm-fresh turkey, and having never dry-brined, we were dealing with a good handful of X-factors. The dry-brining method meant seasoning the turkey with kosher salt, sealing it in an over bag, and leaving it in the fridge for 3 days, giving it a little massage each day. Before cooking the bird, we slathered it with a little butter (because a little more butter can't be a bad thing, right?). It roasted in exactly the right amount of time and came out perfectly cooked, thanks to our instant-read thermometer (even though the beeping of the thermometer makes Gellie absolutely CRAZY, and we used it so much on Thanksgiving that he spent most of the day hiding in Xani's room-- poor guy!).

Gellie meets Tom

No tail!

Getting a butter massage

When it was all said and done, the turkey was good, but not the best turkey ever. It was leaner and tougher than a regular grocery store bird. In the future, we would consider cooking this type of bird in a moister environment (by putting some sliced citrus fruits in the cavity, or a pan of water/broth underneath) to help keep the bird juicy.

Also, travesty of travesties: you'll see above that our bird had NO TAIL, which was really sad-- that's the best part! The chef's treat! We reckon some lucky Springfield Farms employee went home with a whole mess of turkey tails, and had himself a feast!

Giblet Gravy

Another downside of Tom Turkey was that he did not have much fat on him at all, and therefore created minimal (okay, zero) drippings. So, Xani made do and made gravy using Julia Child's recipe, some chicken fat (that Mom keeps on hand at all times) and the giblet stock we'd made the night before. It was simple but delicious, and perfectly smooth. Yay Xani!

Oyster Stuffing

Xani found this recipe in Savuer magazine a few weeks ago while getting her hair done, and was instantly SOLD. So many wonderful flavors: oysters, shallots, thyme, rosemary, port, and of course, bacon. We used toasted baguette and pre-shucked oysters from Kool Ice. And the end result was...perfection. It looked just like the one in the recipe, and tasted amazing! Very comforting and intense flavors, and the oysters, surprisingly, were perfectly cooked and did not overpower the dish.

Key ingredient to anything delicious: bacon

After you cook the bacon, you add butter to the bacon grease...holy cow

Veggie mixture plus dried out baguette cubes

Baked to perfection!

Mashed Potatoes with Cream Cheese

We don't know about other families' Thanksgivings, but in our family, its not a REAL Thanksgiving unless there's at least one minor disaster. In years past there have been numerous trips to the hospital, keys breaking off in rental car locks (with our grinders [what they call subs up in CT] trapped inside!), ovens failing to regulate their temperature and therefore soaring to 500+ degrees no matter what and incinerating everything, etc. This year, it was the death of our parents' dear old KitchenAid mixer. After 36+ years of reliable service (it's been in their kitchen for 36, and they got it used!), it up and died just as we were getting ready to mash the potatoes. R.I.P.

So, instead EP riced the boiled potatoes by hand before mixing them with copius amounts of butter, cream cheese, heavy cream and whole milk, per this Martha Stewart recipe. We kept them warm in a double boiler until it was time to serve. They were so rich and wonderful, and super-comforting just the way mashed potatoes should be. Not sure if the cream cheese version can ever take the place of Grandma's chicken-fat version, but excellent, nonetheless. (Note: like Grandma's version, we found that these potatoes were a lot tastier the following day, so this may be a good make-ahead recipe for the future.)

The potatoes were boiled whole and then their skins peeled off while extremely hot

Yum! Creamy and delicious

Thyme Biscuits

Another dish that was meant for the mixer, but had to be done by hand. We used this Barefoot Contessa recipe and substituted thyme for chives. Xani used a pastry blender to combine all the ingredients, then rolled the dough and cut out the biscuits with an empty, thouroughly washed can of green chiles, because we didn't have a biscuit cutter. It worked perfectly!

After chilling in the fridge, we brushed them with egg wash and baked them just before serving. The came out perfectly light and flaky. They didn't rise quite as much as we expected-- not sure if this is due to the chilling before baking or maybe outdated baking powder, but they tasted great!

Brussels Sprouts with Buttered Pecans

Since so many of our other dishes involved sooo much butter, cream, bacon, etc., we decided to go light on our veggie for the evening. We used this recipe from Epicurious, which was relatively simple: clean and halve the brussels sprouts, then boil them in water until tender, then shock to stop cooking. Then put them in a pan to brown up and get a little crispy, and toss with some roasted, buttered pecans. Okay, so there was SOME butter in this dish, but it could've been WAY worse.

Roasted Autumn Veggies

This was the only recipe we made that we had done in the past (last year, to be exact). We used this Epicurious recipe, which is very simple and so delicious. We used butternut squash, acorn squash, and parsnips (forgot completely about the yams!), tossed them with olive oil, salt, pepper, and some cayenne pepper, and roasted them until soft and caramelized. Then we tossed them with some finely chopped red onion, chives, and some apple cider vinegar. A very nice combination of flavors - sweet, spicy, tangy, and just plain good.

We put the BCD parents to work prepping veggies and herbs

Cranberries with Orange Zest and Port

When choosing a cranberry sauce recipe, this one caught our eye because of the cup of port it calls for. Like we said earlier, BCD Mom took care of this recipe the day before we arrived, so when we walked in it was ready for a taste. It was sweet and tart, and you could really taste the port.

We had a beautiful table, thanks to Mom.

Gellie helped set the table

Mom's collection of depression glass makes its debut

Wow, we're full just writing all of that! What a meal - it was traditional but new and unique at the same time. The winners were the stuffing, the biscuits, and the autumn veggies.

But still there awaited the true champion of the meal...

Apple Tarte Tatin

As you may have noticed from this previous post, Xani is on a bit of a Julia Child dessert kick, and after reading this post on Michael Ruhlman's blog, she requested that we make the classic French dessert, Apple Tarte Tatin, for our Thanksgiving sweet. This was definitely a challenge, but it was SO worth it - it was one of the best apple-related desserts we've ever had. We used the recipe from The Way To Cook, which suggested that the tarte be made in a heavy, cast-iron skillet. Of course our cast-iron skillet is about 12-in wide (instead of the 9-in pan the recipe calls for), so we did some quick math and decided to double the recipe.

The recipe called for peeled, cored Granny Smith apples cut into eighths, soaked in lemon juice and sugar to draw out the liquid. Meanwhile, we made caramel by melting butter and sugar together until it was a relatively dark caramel color.

The beginnings of the caramel...

Then we added the apples in a "decorative pattern" as instructed, and then piled the rest of the apples on top. Since we couldn't mix up the apples (it would mess up our pretty apple design!), we basted the apples on top with the caramel to cook them.

Decorative, no?

Cooked down apples in caramel

We then rolled out two sheets of puff pastry (the recipe says you can use puff pastry or pie dough) so that it would fit over the apples in the pan. We placed the dough over the apples and tucked it in over them like a blanky. Then we put the extremely heavy pan filled with molton lava caramel in the oven and let the pastry cook until it was brown and puffed.

Tucked in snug as a bug

All puffed and golden

Then came the truly scary part. We had to flip over this aforementioned super-heavy pan filled with boiling hot lava/caramel! We had practiced before we started anything to determine the best way to do the flip. We used a pizza pan because it has no sides and fit nicely over the top of the cast iron skillet. We asked BCD Dad to help (i.e., we made him do it because we were too scared). The result? It worked! He flipped it perfectly and it was BEAUTIFUL! We were not expecting the steam that came off when we lifted the pan, so that was a bit jarring (and painful) but in the end, it turned out GREAT!



The apples and caramel were so sweet, and the apples weren't too mushy. The dough was not sweet at all, which was good since the caramel was very sweet. We served it with a little bit of vanilla ice cream on the side, and it was a perfect end to a great Thanksgiving meal.

We did it!

The next day, we of course made turkey stock per Michael Ruhlman's article.

We are so thankful for our amazing parents and for each other. We are also so thankful to YOU, our loyal readers (all six of you). We love that you love this blog and we have lots of great posts coming up!

The view from Blackacre as we sat down for dinner...

Gobble gobble,

X & EP

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