Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A classy drink, a trashy cake

When I started this blog I was what you'd call an “enthusiastic” drinker. These days I’m an occasional drinker, which is only a problem when I’ve got my hands on a book as full of seductive cocktails as Donald Link’s Down South. I want to taste them all. I feel blue and headachey just thinking about it. 

But Easter, hosted by my sister, needed a drink and I went straight to Donald Link. I was most tempted by his deer stand old-fashioned, which Link describes as a "wintry cocktail made with local ingredients like Louisiana honey, coffee bitters, and pecans. This drink ends up a tan milky color (like swamp water form the Atchafalaya Basin), and it’s rich and strong. . . “

Wonderfully strange and enticing, but all wrong for April

I went with the St. Edwards No. 1 and it was an excellent, pale, Eastery choice. The recipe: Into a shaker pour 2 ounces gin, 1 ounce St. Germain, 1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice, and 2 dashes grapefruit bitters. Shake with ice, strain into a martini glass, and garnish with an edible flower. Beautiful, as you can see.

What you can't see is how delicious it was. Donald Link describes this as a “cold, austere” cocktail, which to me sounds like a martini. But where martinis are steely, the St. Edwards No. 1 is delicate, crisp, and floral. These drinks were such a hit that my brother-in-law made a second round. Two drinks on Sunday and all I could think about on Monday was how tired, depressed, and grimy I felt, and how ready to go back to coconut water. 

I also contributed this Food52 s’mores cake to the Easter meal. It was kind of trashy looking and I wasn't bursting with pride when I put the 9x13 pan down on the dining table and struggled to slice through the sticky top layer of bottled marshmallow fluff. It was a big slab of goo, sort of like a s’more, sort of like a deconstructed marshmallow egg, and I wasn’t all that keen on it at first. I might even have apologized. Only the next day did my kids and I start to really fixate on that big slab of leftover goo, as the marshmallow, chocolate pudding, and graham crackers started to melt together. It got better with age. Monday, we all picked at it. Yesterday morning I decided to throw away the last scraps for reasons that will be obvious to anyone who isn't built like a pipe cleaner.

Owen came home and said, “Where’s the leftover marshmallow cake?” 

I know that kid. If I admitted to throwing it away he would wail and accuse me of violating Earth Day. I said, “I ate it.”

He replied waspishly, “Well, I guess it’s time for you to start a diet, now."

I would have been pissed off too. It was one of those desserts you can't get out of your mind. If you do decide to make this cake, the recipe's a little funky. I don't know why you have to put the chopped chocolate in a heat-proof bowl if you're not going to melt it in that bowl. Also, I ran out of pudding before I'd coated all the layers. I just quit layering at that point and all was well.  

Sunday, April 20, 2014

That’s not what you say to a budding hoarder!

It’s been boring around here. How's that for a lead sentence? I spent spring break alone at home while Isabel and Mark toured eastern colleges and Owen visited his grandparents. I fed and watered our 20 animals, cleaned Owen’s impassable bedroom, cut a lot of grapefruits in half, and typed. 

I spent one long, perfect afternoon lying on the sofa reading Blake Bailey’s memoir, The Splendid Things We Planned. It’s been years since I did something like that and it was a total joy. The book is about Bailey's profoundly troubled brother, Scott, who was . . .  well, what wasn't Scott? As depicted by Bailey he was infuriating, loving, lovable, repulsive, dangerous, self destructive, sexually predatory, pitiful, and more. It's strong stuff and not for everyone, but if you have the stomach for it, the book is brilliant.

Here's the cookbook connection: When he was young and living in New York City, Bailey once got toweringly drunk and brought a pregnant prostitute back to his apartment. The next day his best friend, Michael, walked in on them. It took me a while to figure out that the Michael in question was Michael Ruhlman. 

I love that.

The day after I finished Splendid Things I went out and bought Ruhlman’s new book, Egg, which is dedicated to Blake Bailey. I haven’t read or used this incredibly handsome book yet, but with 127 eggs in the refrigerator, there's no question that I will.

Everyone flew in last night and I collected them at the airport and the joyful reunion lasted a solid hour. Then, when we were about 4 minutes from home, Owen asked suspiciously, “Mom, did you clean my room?” 

Jennifer: “Yes.”

Owen: “NO!”

Mark: “All I can say, buddy, is you’d better go through the trash.” 

Jennifer, pulling the car to the side of the road: “Mark, would you like to walk home?”

And just like that, life wasn’t boring anymore.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The great and the really good

Owen and a famous person. But who? 
So many things I wanted to post about -- this charming story on the legacy of the food writer Laurie Colwin; whether it’s possible to eat 7 servings of vegetables per day without feeling like a lawn mower; the delectable, tooth-breaking caramel Rice Krispie treats from Sweet; the extended absence of the bobcat from our chicken yard and (related) return of the rats -- but somehow it hasn’t happened and now tackling it all feels overwhelming, like writing a term paper.

So I'm just going to shelve those topics for now. Two great things and one really good thing happened in the kitchen over the past week:

Great thing #1: parmesan-bacon gougeres from Donald Link’s new book, Down South. My sister likened them to carbonara in the form of crispy puffs. Absolutely fantastic. Adults, kids, everyone loved these cheesy little appetizers.
You can find the recipe here. They’re easy and I can't recommend them more enthusiastically. Some suggestions in case you try the recipe: I wouldn’t bother straining the bacon fat. I grated the Parmesan on the coarse blade of the box grater and ended up with gooey strings of cheese in the gougeres. Desirable -- to me. But if you want a more delicate, elegant gougere, grate the cheese finely. Finally, after putting the hot dough in the mixer, give it a minute to cool off before adding the eggs.

Great thing #2: Donald Link’s peas with feta and mint. Fresh, crisp, and bright, like a pea salad. Have you eaten cold, cooked peas before? I hadn't and it didn't sound appetizing, but since Whole Foods was promoting the hell out of English peas the other day, I decided to give it a shot. So glad I did. 

To make this dish, shell peas, cook them in boiling salted water until they start to float -- just a minute or two. Drain, plunge the peas into an ice water bath and let them cool completely. Drain again, pat dry, dress with olive oil and lemon juice, season with salt and pepper, toss with some sliced fresh mint, and top with a crumbled, tangy cheese, like feta or goat. Everyone in my picky family enjoyed these peas and that's saying something.

Really good thing: Donald Link’s caramel-peanut butter ice cream with peanut brittle. Since the recipe made more than my ice cream machine can handle, I halved the recipe. I halved the eggs, cream, sugar -- and then forgot to halve the peanut butter. I almost cried when I realized what I’d done because this recipe was a big old headache and not something I was willing to do over. I froze the ice cream anyway and it was way too rich and moussey from all that peanut butter, but still very delicious. Made properly, it would have been spectacular.

I got a little bogged down with Momofuku and my goal is to make only five recipes from Down South, but if the next two recipes are as good as these three, I maybe unable to stop.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Dropping beggar's chicken

Those were the days.
Do you dread hearing your voice on a recording? Or watching yourself on video? That's how I feel about reading things I wrote in the distant past. The other day I opened my own cookbook to consult the recipe for bagels and wouldn't let my eyes wander over the headnotes or anything other than the recipe itself lest I come across a stupid or awkward line it's too late to change. 

This morning I thought, shoot, why did I mention dropping a beggar's chicken? The only way to explain is to link to posts from the start of this blog when the only people who read it were blood relatives. And that means I have to reread them.

I'm so glad I did. They're like sweet, sweet little time capsules. I'd forgotten what my life was like in 2008. It was very different.

Beggar's chicken is a classic Chinese dish and at some point I decided to make it. My mother was still alive and since she was a potter, she created the clay "container" in which you cook the chicken (see photo above.) That's how elaborate beggar's chicken is. I'm not sure I would have written about what happened later, but the lone commenter, thanksalot/sassy Isabel, forced the issue,

What happened was, I dropped and broke the beggar's chicken while pulling it out of the oven.

Later I took Owen out to eat proper beggar's chicken in a restaurant. He was so little! I didn't realize how little my kids were when they're little. I feel like he's all grown up now that he's 13 and has giant feet and a baritone, but in a few years I bet I'll see pictures and be shocked at how young and innocent he looked in 2014.

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Momofuku ramen experience

If you love a cooking adventure but have already fried turkeys, baked a wedding cake, dropped a beggar’s chicken, smoked bacon, barbecued brisket, and built your own pizza oven, I suggest you tackle the Momofuku ramen recipe. At different points in the ramen-making process you’ll feel challenged, martyred, excited, annoyed, fascinated, and proud. When you're done, you’ll never want to make Momofuku ramen again. What more could one ask from a cooking adventure? 

I bought the groceries a week ago Friday and served the ramen last Wednesday. Did a little work on the ramen every day in between. What follows is a whirlwind blow-by blow, if that's not a contradiction in terms.

Momofuku ramen is all about an intensely flavorful broth. To make this broth, give yourself at least a day, preferably four. You start by steeping some dried seaweed in a big pot of hot water, then remove the seaweed and replace with dried shiitake mushrooms, which you simmer for a while. Remove the mushrooms and replace with a whole chicken, simmer for a while, remove the chicken and replace with five pounds of roasted pork neck bones and a pound of Benton’s bacon. Simmer for 7 hours or longer then add carrots and scallions and simmer some more. Strain.

Meanwhile, you should make some tare (no idea how to pronounce it), a special sauce that will season the broth. Roast chicken backs in a very hot oven until they're dark brown and exude a lot of sticky, fatty liquid and goo. Pluck out the bones, deglaze the pan with sake, and simmer with mirin and soy sauce for an hour. The finished tare will be the color of coffee and very salty. You can now use this strange substance to season your broth and after you do so, the broth is done!

Now to the toppings: Rub a big slab of pork belly and a big hunk of pork shoulder with sugar and salt and let sit overnight. The next day, roast them -- but separately, because they cook at different temperatures. Shred the pork shoulder. Put both shoulder and belly into the fridge. You could use the shoulder immediately, but the belly needs to chill.

When the pork belly is cold and firm, you're ready to go. Start heating that broth. Cut the belly into cubes and fry, warm the pork shoulder shreds in the oven, slice up some fish cake, cut nori into squares, poach a few eggs, chop a bunch of scallions, cook some collard greens, and boil fresh ramen noodles. Ladle hot broth into bowls, add your cooked noodles, and top with all the other ingredients mentioned in the previous sentence. Bon appetit!

Was the ramen good? Hell yeah, it was good. My father loves Asian noodles more than anyone I know and it was a huge pleasure to be able to serve him such an impressive bowl of ramen. He's not a gushy man, but he got a little gushy.

But to be perfectly frank -- and when am I not? -- the ratio of deliciousness to effort with Momofuku ramen is a lot lower than it is with Top Ramen, its trashy distant cousin. Top Ramen is lousy, but it 's no trouble at all. You never, ever wonder if it's worth the effort, you just snarf it up. Momofuku ramen is delicious, but it's a whole world of trouble, and as you're eating you'll be asking yourself whether it's that delicious.

I know what my answer is. Fun kitchen project. The box has now been checked. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Tea and cookies

A couple of quick recipe reports: 

Tea-based desserts are polarizing. No matter how silky and fragrant it is, no matter how pretty it looks in your grandmother’s vintage china tea cups, if you make jasmine panna cotta roughly half the people at the table simply will not eat it. Last night, my 4-year-old nephew shouted, “I don’t like it!” after a single bite. No one else was quite that direct. They just quietly put down their spoons.

But the other half of the people scraped clean their cups. Infused with jasmine pearls tea, Valerie Gordon's panna cotta from Sweet is similar to a lovely tea cream I made last year, but firmer, richer and probably better, though I’d have to taste the two side by side to be sure. 

The panna cotta wasn’t roundly adored, but the accompanying almond shortbread was. These delicious, buttery, nicely salty cookies (another recipe from Sweet) are about the size of poker chips and ridiculously easy. You should make them . All shortbread is good, but this one is extra good. I’m stingy with my star stickers. Valerie Gordon now has three.  
Just feeling exuberant, I guess!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Ssam and Shrek cookies

The Momofuku cookbook is eccentric and absorbing, but I’ve been consuming it in tiny chunks because David Chang has a pungent, supercilious persona that I find hard to digest. Here’s something that really turns me off: He repeatedly describes losing his temper with his employees. He’s apparently famous for it. Every time he brings it up, I hate him a little. I can’t help it. I identify with the employees. 

But here’s something I love about him: His devotion to American country hams. After tasting some great country ham, he became convinced that Ssam Bar "had to serve country ham, had to put money in the pockets of people who are preserving an old American tradition, and had to do it in New York before anyone else." With great passion he tries to persuade the reader to start buying and eating country ham. He succeeds. I ordered a country ham. One day soon I will make red eye mayonnaise, warm up a baguette, and slice some salty, pink Tennessee ham. He’s an interesting guy, David Chang. He should stop yelling at people.

Since the last post I’ve cooked two new Momofuku dishes: pork sausage ssam and steak ssam. Ssam is food (Korean) that’s wrapped in lettuce or some other leafy green, sort of like tacos. You may have heard of Chang’s bo ssam, a great, sugary-salty shoulder of pork that is slow-roasted for many hours and served with oysters, rice, and various sauces, along with a big bowl of lettuce for wrapping. It’s a tremendous party dish -- bounteous, communal, delicious, easy. I can’t recommend it more highly. I consider it a staple now; I’ve made it six or seven times and it never disappoints. 

These two new ssams aren’t quite as brilliant. They’re relatively easy and quite delicious, but don’t feel bounteous and communal. Rather than pulling chunks of meat from a giant shared haunch, you serve yourself neat little portions. Steak ssam = marinated beef that is grilled, sliced, and served with rice and pureed kimchee. Pork sausage ssam is made by mixing ground pork with various Vietnamese ingredients (fish sauce, lemongrass), baking it in a brownie pan, cutting it into rectangles and grilling it for a few minutes. This ssam is served with fish sauce vinaigrette and scallion ginger sauce. Both ssams are very good. Realistically, I probably won’t make either again. 

The same is true of the last two recipes I’ve tried from Valerie Gordon’s Sweet. Her matcha cookies with white chocolate and macadamia nuts are superrich, intensely sweet, and only faintly tea-flavored. We all liked them, but they sat around for a week, disappearing at the sluggish rate of maybe one per day which means they got stale before they got eaten. Was it their warty green appearance? I called them Shrek cookies, but no one knew what I was talking about, so apparently that cultural reference is dead. 

But maybe it wasn't their looks. Maybe everyone in the house is sick of cookies. No one ate the salted peanut blondies either, and they were tasty, tan, and conventionally attractive. I can’t explain.