Monday, February 21, 2011

Carnitas Breakfast Tacos

Cakes, cookies, cupcakes, pastries, bread, and custards. This is what my diet has consisted of the past few weeks. I am not kidding, I feel like I have been on a constant sugar high, and on a serious carbohydrate overload. First quarter of pastry school will do that to you I guess.

It is also approaching April, and spring is just about here. For a baker, that means one thing. It is officially wedding and shower season. I have one friend with a bun in the oven, and another with a rock on her finger, and they are both going to be showered with gifts and well wishes from friends and family, and treats from my kitchen in the next month or so. I have noticed when I do large projects like dessert tables, or fancy cakes, that I forget to eat, and just nibble on the scraps or the rejects from the goodies I am baking.

This habit, while delicious, and actually helpful to my waistline (that whole forgetting to eat thing can make you bikini ready in no time) it's definitely not a good way to sustain myself for the long hours standing in my kitchen. I need to take better care of myself this spring season, and that means cooking more. I have no trouble being a busy bee baker, but I have been neglecting my first loves, meats, cheeses, pastas, mexican, italian, thai food! No more. One of my many spring resolutions is to not only prepare for these events with lots of do-ahead baking, but also making nutritious, filling, meals to keep me going until summer.

Welcome to operation carnitas. There have been many times that I have ordered carnitas tacos, or burritos from Chipotle, or better yet, the authentic mexican taco stand down the street, but had never even thought about making them at home. I feel as though my life has changed. Have I mentioned that I am a bit over-dramatic when it comes to food? No?

Carnitas are incredibly easy to make, and provide a perfect filling for burritos, breakfast tacos, or simply served over rice. The best part? Braising is one of those cooking methods that takes just a little prep, then you get to stick the meat in your dutch oven and forget about it for a few hours. Plus it makes a LOT of shredded pork, perfect for being wrapped in individual portions and freezing (if it makes it that long). Spicy, tender, juicy, a little sweet, this is a killer recipe, and would be great for a crowd. My boyfriend and I have already mowed down more than half of a nearly five pound pork shoulder over the last three days, so I can say with complete confidence, you will love these carnitas.

Orange Beer Braised Pork Carnitas 
for a 4.5 pound pork shoulder, feel free to halve recipe for smaller cut of meat

4.5-5 pound pork shoulder roast, cubed into 3-4 inch pieces
2 teaspoons salt
6 teaspoons chili powder
3 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons garlic powder
2 teaspoons fresh ground black pepper
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
4 slices thick cut applewood smoked bacon, diced
12 ounces beer (I used a New Belgium pale ale, any full flavored ale would work fine here)
2 quarts chicken stock
zest of 1 orange
juice of 2 oranges

In a medium bowl, combine salt, pepper, chili powder, cumin, garlic powder, cayenne, and paprika. Toss each piece of pork shoulder in spice mixture to coat lightly, rubbing gently into the meat with your fingers. Let the meat rest at room temperature for about 20 minutes to let the rub penetrate.

In a large dutch oven, heat the olive oil over a medium flame, and when it is hot, add the diced bacon. Cook, stirring frequently, until the bacon has rendered all of its fat and become slightly crisp, about 8-10 minutes. Be careful not too cook the bacon on too high of heat because it can burn. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon, and any excess bacon fat from bottom of pan, leaving just enough to coat the bottom of your pot. In batches, over high heat, sear the pork shoulder pieces, until brown, about 2-3 minutes on each side. Remove the pork and set aside. When all pork has been seared, add the chicken stock, beer, orange juice, and zest to the pot, and bring to a simmer, scraping up all the browned bits on the bottom of the pot.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. When the liquid is at a simmer, add the pork and the bacon pieces back into the pot, cover tightly, and braise for 3-3 1/2 hours, until meat is falling apart. Turn meat over a few times throughout braising process. Remove pot from oven, then remove the pork from the pot, place in clean bowl and cover tightly with tin foil. Put your liquid over medium high heat and bring to a simmer. Reduce the sauce at a simmer for about 30 minutes. You will want to skim as much fat off the top of the liquid as possible, it will reduce the greasiness of your carnitas.

When the sauce is reduced to your liking, reduce your heat to low, and begin picking through your meat, removing the large pieces of fat, and returning the tender meat to the sauce. Take two forks and shred the meat into the sauce. I ended up having no sauce leftover, it was all soaked up by the pork, but if you do thats okay too, pour it over some rice or your pork when you serve it (don't waste it, it is delicious!).

If you want to make breakfast tacos, just heat up some corn tortillas, scramble some eggs, and top with carnitas, salsa, fresh cilantro, and some sour cream if that strikes your fancy. You can also just take a fork and eat them straight out of the pot like I did the night I cooked them. Don't judge, just enjoy!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Carrot Cake Cupcakes

My wonderful, smart, talented, beautiful older sister turned 30 today. She is an amazing woman, strong and opinionated, sensitive and compassionate. She can kick my butt running (well doing anything athletic, really) and trivial pursuit, but is still nice enough to share a bottle of wine or a delicious meal with me. I was lucky enough to be able to celebrate her birthday with her, for the first time in years, here in Chicago and I wanted to send her home with one of her favorite treats: carrot cake.

I cannot think of carrot cake without thinking of my sister and our former backyard neighbors the Sonnabends. They have three kids, and the older two and my sister were inseparable growing up. Carrot cake instantly brings to mind a snapshot of Rian and Sara in matching bikinis with their little pot bellies sticking out, hamming it up for the camera, waiting to take on the suped-up slip and slide my dad concocted. Whenever it was time for a Sonnabend birthday, you could pretty much guarantee that a carrot cake would be blazing with candles. For some reason I always despised carrot cake, and thought it was weird that a kid would want a cake made out of vegetables for their birthday, when they could have their choice of anything. Chocolate, vanilla, fun-fetti, angel food, come on, with all the options, carrot cake? Really??

I have since come around and  now really enjoy carrot cake, I even snagged a cupcake or two for myself last weekend. Paired with a rich and not too sweet cream cheese frosting, these spiced carrot cake cupcakes made the birthday girl very happy.

Carrot Cake Cupcakes & Cream Cheese Frosting
adapted from Smitten Kitchen
makes two dozen cupcakes

2 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground ginger
2 cups sugar
1 1/4 cups vegetable oil
4 large eggs, room temperature
3 cups grated carrots, I used a micro plane to grate the very finely, but you can use the small side of a box grater

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F, and line two cupcake tins with paper liners.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger, and whisk together. In a large bowl, whisk together the oil and sugar until combined. Add the eggs one at a time, whisking to incorporated between each addition. Fold in the carrots, the add the dry ingredients to the wet, and using a wooden spoon, gently mix just until combined, and all dry ingredients are wet.

Spoon into lined muffin tins, until each cup is about 3/4 the way full. Bake for 16-20 minutes on the middle rack, until a toothpick entered into the center of the cakes comes out clean. Let cool in pans for a few minutes, then remove from tins and let cool completely on a baking rack before frosting.

To make the frosting:

16 ounces cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups confectioners sugar
pinch of salt

In a stand mixer, combine the cream cheese and butter, and beat on medium high speed until smooth. Add the vanilla and salt and mix until incorporated. Gradually add the sugar, and beat until light and fluffy, about 3-4 minutes.

Pipe or spread onto cupcakes as desired. 

Here's to many wonderful birthdays to come, hopefully all of them with cake included.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Sugar Flower Revelation

I sort of had a revelation this weekend. Nothing earth shattering, more so a bit of self-awareness that I hadn't realized before. At some point during the six hour long gumpaste-flower-making marathon I got to really thinking about how much things have changed over the past year or two, and ultimately how I have changed. My perspective on my work, new projects, and life in general has completely changed from a nervous, second-guessing stance, to a confident, fearless approach. Can I make a tiered, square fondant covered wedding cake, even though I have never done anything like that before? Sure, why not? Should I try my hand at making a flower out of gumpaste for a cake I am delivering tomorrow instead of purchasing a real flower to slap on top? Hell yeah, I think I can do that. No, I know I can do that.

Maybe I have been lucky, and all these projects that I have taken on (maybe some of them a bit foolish) have worked out, and worked out well. But maybe, just maybe, it's this new found confidence I have in myself that is responsible for me being successful all the new things I am trying. Letting go of the fear is paving the way for sturdy cakes, delicate sugar flowers, and new and exciting opportunities in the kitchen. I used to worry so much about completing a project on time, and completing it to my standards, that it would get in the way of my productivity and the quality of the product.

So where did this come from? It came from finally doing something that I feel great about. I got out of a field where I was always second guessing myself, and feeling like my skills weren't up to par. I didn't have the passion for product design that the job really requires, and that in turn affected my confidence with my work. I didn't believe that I could draw a beautiful spatula, for example, and therefore I couldn't, and didn't.

In the kitchen, I believe that I can make a beautiful cake. I believe that I can do something, anything, even if I have never done it before. I still have SO much to learn about pastries and cakes and decorating, but I believe that I will take it all in, and will be able to utilize all this knowledge in my new life in the pastry world.

It is really amazing what happens when you sit down to make about 35 layers of gumpaste chrysanthemum petals. I know I have talked before about baking being therapeutic, but I feel that way now more than ever.

Whew, thanks for letting me get that off my chest. Now for what you really came here for: the goods.

This cake and the macarons were made for my sister's very dear friend for her baby shower. She is due in March, and they held a lovely shower for her here in Chicago at the Drake Hotel. I went with some recipes that I know and love, which enabled me to focus on trying something new with the decor. I did a simple and delicious devil's food cake, with cream cheese frosting. The macarons are plain colored shells, some with chocolate ganache, some with lemon curd filling. Some citrus colored ribbons, and a gumpaste chrysanthemum tied it all together, and definitely made me look forward to spring.

You can find the recipes here:

Lemon Curd
Devils Food Cake
Cream Cheese Frosting

Saturday, February 12, 2011

An Ode to the Croissant, the HOMEMADE Croissant

I have always loved croissants. The buttery, flaky layers, the amazing smell, the way a dollop of jam finds it way into all the little nooks and crannies, just sublime. But little did I know how much better croissants could be when they are homemade, and fresh out of the oven.

Maybe it's the freshness of the ingredients, maybe it's the use of all butter and no shortening, and perhaps its the knowledge that you took the time to fold that dough encased butter into about 1600 layers yourself. Whatever the reason, store bought croissants, or the ones in the can, just cannot compare to homemade.

At some point in the near future, I hope to make these again, with step by step pictures, since that is really the only way to describe and show how to truly make a great croissant. I always wanted to make puff pastry or croissants at home, but was always intimidated by the instructions I read online. I never knew how easy it was until I saw it in person in class this week. While it takes a long time, and may be a little tedious, the best way to learn how it to see the method first hand.

Until I can take some step-by-steps, you can see a pretty good tutorial posted on The Kitchn. The one thing that stands out right away from their pictures is the size of the triangles they cut. If you want a more traditionally shaped croissant, you want to cut a very long and skinny triangle, maybe three inches at the base and 10-12 inches long. Then, cut a one inch slit in the middle of the base, and stretch the corners out a bit until you get a shape like the Eiffel Tower. You will get even more layers and rolls this way.

This February, the bleakest month of the year, try something you have been afraid to make. Pie crust, souffle, lemon curd, short ribs, duck, deep fried goodies, what's on your list?

Monday, February 7, 2011

Thunder Snow

It's the snowpocolypse here in Chicago! We got over 18 inches of snow last week, the third highest snowfall in Chicago on record. How did the people of Chicago deal with this? By freaking out, storming the grocery stores and clearing the shelves of meat, bread, and bottled water. Come on people, you live in Second City, put on your big-girl snow pants and walk the two blocks to the grocery store if you need more food.

Luckily I was prepared for the lack of groceries in the store, with a freezer full of homemade bread. I was hoping to pick up some steak and make some beef bourguignon before the blizzard hit, but all the crazies got to the meat case first. So I subsisted on bread and cheese and salami (tough right?).

This prosciutto bread ranks up there with some of the best bread I have ever had. I mean, a little lard, a lot of prosciutto, crispy crust, chewy moist insides? It doesn't get much better than that people. I cheated a little because I was able to use the big stone ovens with automatic steam in my pastry school kitchens, which resulted in an amazing crust, and a beautiful hard cornmeal-dusted bottom. But, if you are handy you can get close to the same effect at home with a pizza stone and a spray bottle of water.

Prosciutto Bread
from Professional Baking by Wayne Gisslen

Yeast Starter:
15 oz Bread Flour
9 oz water
.03 oz fresh yeast (this is just a pinch of yeast, barely measurable)

9 oz water
.33 oz (1/3 oz) fresh yeast
1 lb bread flour
.33 oz salt
1 oz lard, softened
3.25 oz yeast starter
5 oz. Prosciutto, diced into very small pieces
cornmeal for dusting

In a small-medium stainless steel bowl, combine the .03 oz of yeast and the 9 oz. of water and mix gently to combine. Add the 15 oz. of bread flour, and mix to combine, using your hands to gently knead in the bowl a few turns until it comes together. Dough will be dry and shaggy, but that is ok. Cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for 18 hours, or if you find a nice warm 80 degree spot, you can reduce that to 12 hours.

Once your starter is ready you can finish making the dough. In a large bowl, combine the .33 oz. fresh yeast with the 9 oz. water and mix to break up the yeast a bit. Add a bit of the bread flour and mix with a wooden spoon until you get a wet slurry consistency. You can now add the salt and fat. Mix to combine, if you have chunks of lard, it is okay, they will get kneaded in. Measure our just 3.25 ounces of your starter and break it up into smaller pieces and then add to your slurry. Begin adding flour a little at a time, until the dough comes together enough for you to handle it with your hands.

Turn dough out onto a floured surface, and begin kneading, adding flour as needed. You may not use all 9 ounces of your flour, but you will want to keep kneading and add flour until the dough is no longer tacky. Knead for about 8-10 minutes, until you can gently poke the ball of dough and it springs back almost completely. Gently knead in the diced prosciutto until evenly dispersed. Gather dough into a ball and cover with plastic wrap. Let dough rise for 1 hour at 80 degrees, or if your kitchen is cooler, until it has doubled in size.

Turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface, and gently press all the air out of your dough. At this point it is time to portion and scale your dough, but I chose to make this into one large loaf, which made it great for sandwiches. If you would like to make two smaller loaves, weigh your entire dough, then portion it into two equal pieces. Gather your dough into a ball, pulling the bottom into itself to create a stretched skin on the outside of your dough. Let the ball of dough rest on your counter under a bowl or a damp kitchen towel for 20-30 minutes. This will let the gluten relax and make it easier to shape.

You can either leave it in a round shape, or gently roll the edges to create more of a football shape, called a battard. Sprinkle a generous amount of cornmeal on a parchment lined baking sheet (or on a pizza peel or an upside down baking sheet if you are using a pizza stone) and let proof at 80 degrees for 1 hour, or slightly longer at a cooler temperature.

Meanwhile preheat your oven to 425 degrees F, and if using, preheat your pizza stone. When your bread is proofed, take a sharp knife and make three long slashes diagonally across the top of your loaf, about 1/4 - 1/2 inch deep. Bake until loaf is golden brown, and has reached an internal temperature of  around 200 degrees F, about 40-45 minutes. Every 5 minutes for the first 20-25 minutes of baking, quickly open the oven door and generously spray the oven around the bread with cold water. When bread is done cooking, it should feel light for its size, and sound hollow when thumped with your fist.

This is important...make sure you cool your bread on a baking rack completely. This allows air to circulate all the way around the bread and prevents your bread from getting soggy. Store in a paper bag at room temp for up to 24 hours. If you are not not using it right away, slice and freeze wrapped first in plastic, then in aluminum foil.

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