Saturday, January 29, 2011

Tough Decisions & Tender Biscuits

I have been sitting in front of a blank post form for about 30 minutes now. I think I have started a first sentence at least ten times and promptly deleted the boring, meaningless words. Maybe it's the day-quil giving me serious writing block or, it could be all the butter I have consumed in the last few days.

The writers block and lack of posting in the past few weeks is more likely due to the slightly drastic changes my life has taken in 2011. It is almost February and all of the sudden I find myself once again with one job. I officially quit my design job (you know the one that I was laid off from, and was rehired to, all in the past 15 months) after a lot of pushing for some commitment and security, which turns out was all in vain. Hard decisions had to be made. What was best for my soul, my sanity, and my career? Was it better to take a part time job in a environment that wasn't healthy but where I was using my degree, or is it better to keep my job as a food server where my managers care about my well being and my sense of job security?

This dilemma was something I had been struggling with for about 3-4 months, but the issue was pushed front and center when I decided to enroll in a baking and pastry certificate program here in Chicago. This is something I have wanted to do for a long long time, and I finally decided to take the plunge and go for it. I am three weeks in, and besides a long and boring weekend sanitation class, it is everything I hoped it would be and more. We have made scones and biscuits, focaccia, challah, french baguettes, and other goodies. I have learned so much in the little time I have been in school and can hardly wait for what the rest of the year will bring.

I have come to feel really good about the tough choice I felt I had to make, and cannot wait to be able to put all my positive energy into school and the many baking jobs I have lined up for the spring. So, let's kick off what will probably be a long string of baked goods here on the blog with some delicious buttermilk biscuits. I have never made biscuits before, and for some reason had gotten it in my head that they were a difficult thing to make. I don't know what I was thinking, they are incredibly easy, and so fast. Most importantly though, they are buttery and flaky and taste amazing.

Buttermilk Biscuits
adapted from Professional Baking by Wayne Gisslen

2 lbs. 8 oz. all purpose flour (if you have them available, use half bread flour and half pastry flour for better results, but for the everyday home cook, AP still produces an excellent biscuit)
.75 oz. salt
2 ounces sugar
1.5 oz baking powder
.4 oz baking soda
14 oz. unsalted butter, cold and cubed into 1/2 inch pieces (plus some extra melted for brushing)
1 lb 10 oz buttermilk

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, sugar, baking powder, and baking soda. Sprinkle the cold butter over the dry mixture and with your fingers, break up the butter into smaller pieces to evenly distribute throughout flour (you can also use a pastry cutter, but using your fingers is way more fun). For flakier biscuits, do this until you have chickpea sized pieces, in other words, leave fairly big chunks of butter in your mixture. Just walk away, stop touching the butter (I know it's hard). For more mealy textured biscuits, you can break up the butter until it is in very teeny pieces, but I recommend the layered flaky goodness.

Add the buttermilk to your flour and butter mixture and mix with a spoon until dough starts to come together, then get in their with your hands and form the dough into a rough ball. Turn out onto a clean, lightly floured surface, and knead just a few times until you form a cohesive dough.

Gently press into a rectangular shape, and roll out with a rolling pin until about 3/4 inch thick, being sure to keep your surface underneath the dough floured to prevent sticking. Cut into 12-16 rectangles, depending on how big you would like your biscuits, and place on a parchment or silicone lined baking sheet. You can either keep them together in a tight rectangle for soft interior sides, or spread them out for a evenly baked, crispier biscuit. Brush tops lightly with a bit of melted butter. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until biscuits are golden brown and have puffed up.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Curried Squash & Wild Rice Soup

The weekend has once again come and gone, and yet again I am left with thoughts unfinished and tasks undone. My to do list has grown exponentially, and it seems that I am playing an endless game of catch up. Sunday marked the first day in weeks that my alarm clock was quiet until after the sun came up.

I suppose I could have caught up on the sleep lost over the past few weeks to racing thoughts and hard decisions, instead, I rolled myself out of bed and pulled out my Le Crueset. I flicked the burner on, and in went the turkey carcass that has been waiting in my freezer since thanksgiving, some carrots, onions, herbs, and garlic. Soon, the wonderful scent of homemade stock was filling the apartment. All I had to do was wait, so I pulled out another stock pot, and went to work peeling squash, sweet potatoes, and apples.

Soon enough, my stove was full of soups bubbling away, and my mind was perfectly clear. I was no longer worrying about the big changes about to come, or the new directions my life may be taking. I wasn't thinking about jobs and money and bills and credit cards. All I had to think about was not burning the chicken and apple sausage or over cooking the wild rice that were destined to join the roasted squash in the soup pot. I was filled with the anticipation of a new recipe working out with no kinks, and most of all filling my tummy with a wonderfully hearty and comforting soup.

This soup is chocked full of good stuff. Butternut squash, sweet potatoes, apples, and shallots, get roasted together and pureed. Then nutty wild rice is added, and topped with some chicken apple sausage. Lets not forget the warming kick from a little curry powder that really balances out the sweetness from the apple and squash. I have a few soups I tend to make over and over again, so this time I was looking for a little familiarity, but also something new.

I kept thinking about a butternut and wild rice soup from Emril Lagasse, recommended to me by my sister, but when I went to look up the recipe, it had a ton of heavy cream, and just didn't appeal to my mood at the time. So I took the notion of combining squash, sausage, and wild rice and made it my own. This was a great adaptation of a simple roasted vegetable soup, I hope you all get the chance to try it soon.

Curried Squash and Wild Rice Soup
this makes a HUGE pot of soup, feel free to halve

1 - 4 lb butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cubed into 1 inch pieces
2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed into 1/2 inch pieces
6 shallots, peeled and quartered
2 small granny smith apples, or 1 large, peeled, cored, and quartered
10-12 cups chicken stock
1 1/2 cups wild rice, cooked according to package directions
1-2 tablespoons curry powder
4 chicken-apple sausages (feel free to substitute any sort of sausage here) quartered lengthwise and diced
olive oil
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Toss squash, apples, shallots, and sweet potatoes with a few tablespoons olive oil, season generously with salt and pepper, and spread in an ever layer on two baking sheets. Roast for about an hour, tossing a few times, until soft and cooked through, and beginning to turn golden brown.

Transfer about 1/2 the vegetables to a food processor with 2-4 cups of chicken stock (enough to cover veggies), and puree until smooth. Transfer to stock pot, and repeat with remaining vegetables.  Stir in the cooked wild rice, and add the remaining chicken stock to desired thickness. Season with 1-2 tablespoons of curry powder, depending on how spicy you like it, and salt and pepper to taste. Bring the soup up to a very gentle simmer.

Meanwhile, heat a small amount of olive oil in a medium saute pan, and cook the sausage over medium high heat until cooked though and crispy brown on the outside. You can either stir the sausage in, I prefer to use it more as a garnish.

This soup freezes very well, so feel free to make a huge batch, it will be enough to get you through the remaining months of winter.

Monday, January 3, 2011

A Nearly Perfect Christmas Eve Eve Dinner

For years, my immediate family has had a tradition of making an extravagant meal the night before Christmas Eve, also known as 'Christmas Eve Eve'. It's like a kickoff to the main event, though in recent years it has become my favorite part of the entire holiday. We have made blinis and beef cheeks, lamb shanks and crab cakes, gougeres, tarts, truffles, and about anything else you can think of. We have opened numerous bottles of Brunello and Porto and Champagne, and spent many many hours and days prepping and cooking and baking.

While every year has been memorable, this year topped them all. And it wasn't just the food that made this year outshine them all. Yes the revamped-retro inspired menu was incredibly aggressive, and we pulled it off swimmingly, savoring each and every bite, but it was the company, and the laughter, that will stay with me the most when I reflect back on this Christmas. We cooked and baked for two days, all four of us squeezed into the kitchen for one of them. There was laughing and heckling (in the most loving sense possible), lessons being taught, and skills being eagerly learned. Stories of our lives spent apart over the past month were told, encouragement and understanding were shared. Wine flowed freely into skillets and stomachs, and the food that we worked so hard on, was eaten around a beautifuly decorated table. Most importantly though, the meal that night was eaten together, the four of us, celebrating our health and happiness.

Okay that was pretty mushy, I may or may not be suffering post-Christmas home-sickness and cookie withdrawal. Onto the good stuff (the menu of course!). It all started with the idea to recreate a dish that my family had at a new restaurant in Minneapolis, who had the audacity to serve tater tot hot dish.  Now, this was not the tater tot hot dish of my youth. You know, the one with ground beef, a can of cream of mushroom soup, canned green beans, all covering a crispy layer of frozen tater tots. Nope this was tater tot hotdish, brought into the 21st century and put on steroids. We knew we had to make this at home, but what to serve with it? The menu quickly formed by thinking of slightly kitschy, old-school, retro food, that we could revamp and put a gourmet spin onto.

First up, pigs in blankets. Actually by the end of the appetizer course these became known as 'chicks in snuggies'. I blame the Champagne. Homemade sous-vide-d chicken sausages, were sauteed and wrapped up in buttery puff pastry. We baked them up and dipped them in a horseradish-sour cream sauce, and an oatmeal stout-mustard-shallot sauce. These exceeded all expectations. We knew they were going to be good. How good though? We were blown away.

Next up, soup and salad. We took the classic wedge salad and threw it on the grill along with some cherry tomatoes. We had homemade blue cheese dressing prepared by my smarter, prettier, older sister. Here's where the fun with the deep fryer came. Pops sous-vide-d some pork belly, breaded it, and deep fried it. It was crispy, fatty, pork heaven I tell you. Pork Heaven. Amen.

We added some roasted pureed cauliflower soup for good measure, you know, cause we didn't have enough to eat already.

Now, this may not be the prettiest dish you've ever seen on camera (plus, it was dark, and I really just wanted to dig in), but trust me, you can not go wrong with oatmeal stout braised short ribs, porcini mushroom béchamel sauce, deep fried potato croquettes, and steamed buttered french green beans. This may be the peak of the proverbial comfort food mountain. I dream about this dish.

The crowning moment, the cake.

Actually this was a disappointing moment, and the reason for the title of this post being a nearly perfect dinner. This recipe came from the cover of last month's Bon Appétit Magazine. The problem was that the cake just wasn't very good. I am not sure if I did something wrong, which is entirely possible, but the actual cake was dry and crumbly. If I ever made this again, which I may, it was stunning, and the frosting was insanely good, I would stick with the chocolate devils food cake I have made many times now. Poor thing sat on the table for three days after Christmas since no one could bring themselves to toss it.

Thankfully, there was cheese.  It just wouldn't be Christmas eve eve dinner without a cheese plate and a vintage Porto. And Trivial Pursuit.

Someday, my sister and I will beat my parents....someday. Until then, we will just have to keep practicing making amazing meals, and spending much needed quality time together as a family.

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