Thursday, November 20, 2008

Chicago: Part One

by Xani

Oh, Chicago-- where do I even start? It was my first visit to this awesome city and there was so much to eat, so little time. I was there for almost a week and didn't even get around to the most classic Chicago food icon, deep dish pizza. But fear not, while there was no pizza there were many, many, MANY other tasty treats. Starting with...
The Best Cupckake of My Life

People, I have no words. I have no words about what a delicious, amazing creation this was. But this is a blog, so I'll try to make some up. Co-worker Mike and I popped into More Cupcakes after arriving in Chicago on a chilly, drizzly day. It was not far from our hotel on the Magnificent Mile, and since the weather made exploring the city not so appealing, we thought we'd drown our sorrows in sugar!

More Cupcakes is totally tiny and cute. There's just enough room for a couple of customers to stand next to a huge glass wall displaying the various cupcakes. The friendly ladies behind the counter explained all the flavors (they had about 10, and they change daily), and suggested a couple of favorites. They had regular cupcakes (which were actually on the large side) and minis. I was of course tempted by the minis, but I was MORE tempted by the unusual flavors that were only available in the full-size. Namely, salted caramel and maple bacon! Mike picked up a couple of his own: s'more and the cupcake of the day, which was some kind of pumpkin creation. Then we popped in next door to grab some beverages at Starbucks, and then retired to our hotel to sample the goods.

Wall of cupcakes

minis-- you can see their regular-size counterparts above, for scale

Maple- Bacon

Pumpkin Cupcake of the Day


Then I was faced with a tough decision- which to eat first?! I opted for the salted caramel and this ended up being a very wise decision. When I cut it in half (because I was only planning on eating half) I found THIS:

Oh yeah. That's an oozy, sticky, sweet, salty caramel filling in there. And it's making me drool as I type this. The salted caramel was the glue (literally) holding this all together, but I have to say that each individual element of the cupcake was just perfect. The cake itself was fairly firm and dense (it had to be to keep in that flood of caramel!) but not at all dry or crumbly. The top, bottom, and sides had nice crunch-- kindof like the toasted slices of pound cake EP and I used to have as treats when we were kids (side note: why are we still not eating that regularly, its sooo good!). The icing was a light, fluffy buttercream. Buttercream isn't always my favorite, because it's mostly butter (not that that's a bad thing) and doesn't have much flavor or sweetness of its own. But in this cupcake, a lightly sweet buttercream had exactly the right taste, texture, and sweetness to complement the cake and caramel. Just. Perfect. It's a damn good thing More Cupcakes is all the way in Chicago, otherwise I might find myself eating one of these each and every day, and that would be a bad habit to pick up.

I ate half of this cupcake right then and then found myself nibbling through the other half as I got ready to go to dinner later that night at Kuma's Corner. Nibbling a cupcake right before dinner may seem like a bad idea, but was actually a stroke of genius as we had to wait almost two hours to eat at Kuma's (more on that later)! I didn't get around to trying my maple bacon until the following afternoon, and perhaps that affected its quality, or maybe it just paled in comparison to the salted caramel. No filling in this one, but lots of crunchy bacon bits in the same firm cake (although this one was a bit more crumbly-- again, this could be due to the time it spent sitting out), and the maple-buttercream was topped with a few yummy candied bacon bits. It was good, but nothing could top the Holy Grail of cupcakes.

So there you have it-- More Cupcakes Salted Caramel, the best cupcake of my life (so far). I have much more Chicago delicious-ness to share with you and I promise it's coming soon! Stay tuned for burgers, steaks, hot dogs, and a very special sweet finale!


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Funghi Trifolata with Pici Pasta: Stretching the Envelope -- and the Pasta

by BCD Dad

The recipe.

We ran across some semolina flour at the Amish Market in Easton, MD a few weeks ago and it rekindled an interest in making pasta from scratch using that flour. Unfortunately, our hand-operated pasta machine is still packed in one of fifty or so boxes in the garage, so we looked for a recipe that did not require a machine. Our web search turned up a recipe by Mario Batali called "Funghi Trifolata" that looked perfect: not only did it use a semolina flour dough and include instructions for the hand-made dough, but it also called for a pound of fresh mushrooms that coincidentally was in the refrigerator and eager to participate.

The “mis en place”

I think all of our previous pasta-building has been done using either the heavy-duty Kitchen Aid mixer, a hand-cranked pasta machine, or the Popiel Pasta Extrusion machine the BCD daughters gave us as a gift. So this was the first time no machines were used at all. And guess what? This is really hard work. The dough (just two flours and water) was so stiff that after the required ten minutes of kneading my hands were aching. That was just the beginning. We probably could have done a little more research into the actual process of shaping the dough, but instead faithfully followed Mario’s brief instructions. After kneading and resting (the dough, not me), I rolled it out into a sheet about 1/8 inch thick. Then using a pizza wheel, I cut strips about ½-inch wide.

The kneaded and rolled out dough, cut into strips with a pizza wheel.

The first two exemplars. This is our standard ½ sheet baking tray.

The idea now is to somehow take these flat, thin strips of pasta dough, and convert them into long snake (worm) like pastas. The first one took a couple of minutes to do, and was two feet long! After a lot of trial and error (like trying to make snakes the way we did with clay as children), I finally came up with a technique. I found that if I used a piece of dough about four inches long, and ½ inch wide, it would end up as a very thick spaghetti-like thing, about eight inches long. We probably made close to fifty strands of pici, all sitting on a tray waiting for their moment in the boiling water.

The End Result. Three layers worth.

The sauce itself was elemental. Onions, garlic and sliced mushrooms cooked in olive oil, add cooked pasta, add a little pasta water, some more sliced raw mushrooms right at the end. That’s it.

In the sauté pan for the final step, fresh mushroom slices on top. Look at those noodles. Remind you of anything?

Lessons learned: (1) This is surprisingly rich pasta dough. Although the recipe says serves 4, since this was our only course, we usually don’t have a lot of leftovers. Not this time. It was delicious but we just couldn’t eat more, it was so filling. (2) Making pasta shapes by hand is an extremely difficult think to do. There is a lot of technique involved, and having consistent thickness is obviously critical. Next time, we use the machine.

The completed dish with a slice of Emily’s wonderful rustic Italian loaf.

But there will definitely be a next time.


Sunday, November 16, 2008

Pantry Raid*: Bangers and Mash

by Erin

Last weekend, I spent a lot of time at school studying and doing work for my clients (yup, I have clients through clinic - weird!), so by the time Sunday evening came along, I was ready for some home cooking. (I also find cooking to be an incredible stress reliever, which I was also in need of!) I of course haven't been grocery shopping in an embarassingly long time, but I had been to the farmer's market with Xani recently, so I perused the cabinets and fridge and tried to come up with something. It was definitely another culinary adventure of a hungry law student.

I saw potatoes, garlic, onions, and Italian sausages, all purchased at the farmer's market, and therefore all local and/or organic. Yay!

What did I come up with? Bangers and Mash. Bangers and Mash is a classic English/Irish comfort food (and pub grub) comprised of mashed potatoes and sausages. When I was in Australia someone told me that the sausages are called "bangers" because back during WWII, there wasn't that much food around so they put more water than usual in the sausages, so when they cooked them, they went BANG.

Anyway, I just made the recipe up as I went, but it turned out to be mighty good. I started by boiling up some potatoes. I also tossed about 5-6 cloves of garlic (still in their skins) into the boiling water to cook, so I could have garlic mashed potatoes. (This is so much easier than roasting the garlic in the oven for 45 minutes!)

As the potatoes and garlic were cooking, I thinly sliced some onions and got them cooking in olive oil. Then I had the sausages. We have bought these sausages from the market in the past, and they are fantastic (perhaps because they come from happy pigs?). Although different from traditional English sausages, I had to work with what I had, and I knew they'd be good.

I am always concerned about cooking them long enough, so instead of tossing them into the frying pan, I added them to the boiling water with the potatoes to cook them almost completely. Then I tossed them into the frying pan with the caramelized onions to get browned up.

Everybody in the hot tub

Meanwhile, I drained the potatoes and garlic. I peeled the garlic and added the cloves to the potatoes, along with some butter (okay, a lot of butter) and parmesan cheese. And voila! - garlic parmesan mashed potatoes!

Then it was time to plate. I finished browing up the sausages, put them on the plate with a pile of mash, then topped them both with the super-caramelized onions. Then I added a small pile of mesclun mix (also from the market) to add some freshness and green to the plate.

The verdict? Delicious and so comforting. And I was really proud of myself that I just made it up on a whim. Both the cooking and the eating were relaxing and took my mind off of my crazy life for an hour or so. Well worth it!

Coming up next: Xani's culinary adventures in the Windy City and Motor City!



* Pantry Raid - this was the name of our brilliant idea for a TV show, but then someone ELSE thought of it and put it on the Style Network! And it sucked. And now it's cancelled. So there. Ours would have been so much better! I figured if nothing else, I could turn it into a theme on our beloved blog.

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