The Corner Office

In the great brownie debate that has been raging since 1952 some of us are "corner" people and some are "middle" people.

I am a corner person.

Don't get me wrong, I'm pretty sure I never have and never will refuse a brownie, middle or not. It's just that nothing satisfies like that sweet, crunchy corner with just a hint of chewy, delicious middle. It's almost cookie-like in its corner crunch, but still meltingly luscious in the opposite angle.

Even more hotly debated than the corner vs. middle battle is the "stuff" versus "virgin" folks. Again... I am not going to say "no" to a brownie. Ever. Nuts, chunks, swirls, flavorings and all. Bring it. I'll devour it. (Hello, my name is Cake and I am a choc-aholic). I don't have quite as firm an opinion on the "stuff" vs. "virgin" debate, but I tend to put stuff in my brownies. I like to "doctor" them as my mother says. The easiest way to do this is to purchase your favorite box mix (yes! gasp! A box mix! Get over it) and substitute a liquor or syrup for half of the vegetable oil. Some of the best ones are Triple Sec, raspberry syrup (luscious stuff that we get at Karl's Sausage Kitchen) or Chambord.

I have always appreciated a good brownie, although I didn't develop a taste for nuts and other add-ins until I was older. As a child my mother made what we called "freezer brownies" because she would wrap them in individual squares of wax paper and tuck them into the freezer for a cold, chewy treat. I'm fairly certain they came from the recipe on the Baker's Best box. They were like manna from heaven to my eight year old taste buds. Oh, the joy that that little waxed square of baked chocolate goodness imparted on my soul!

When I was out in Seattle I decided to make pumpkin brownies for Thanksgiving with my landlords. I used the bones of the Martha Stewart recipe (available on her website) but of course I "doctored" it to make it more my own.

For some time now I have been experimenting with my own brownie recipe to make the ultimate best brownies in the universe. I am as-yet not quite satisfied, although the results have been successful. In honor of Thom's Austrian heritage I made Sacher-torte brownies for a cookout. I currently have a tray of "Tropical Oasis" brownies in the oven for my dear friend Mrs O who loves coconut. (Banana and caramel will round out the flavors). Recently I made a tray of "Banana Split" brownies loaded with bananas and walnuts. They made the entire apartment smell like a banana split. The only thing missing was vanilla ice cream. A tray of those will accompany me to the Ladies Cape Cod Getaway this weekend.

I also have a hunk of Callebaut white chocolate that is just begging to go into Raspberry White Chocolate brownies. Mmm... I'm salivating at the thought.

I'm not sure there is an ultimate brownie recipe out there. It might just be the thrill of the chase... and those four tasty, tasty corners... that is the real reward.

Menu Planning

Finalized the menu for the June 24th event. I love this caterer. They do an exceptional job with the food, but more importantly, they are amazing with the service.

Here's what we're having:

Flakey puff pastry filled with wilted spinach, Swiss cheese and mushrooms.
Petite Wellington beef
Delicate Maryland crab cakes with horseradish cream
Confetti pepper and plum tomato bruschetta
Raspberry, dried apricot brie en croute
Smoked chicken empanada
Southwestern spring rolls with chipotle lime sour cream
Sesame crusted salmon with orange miso sauce
Sesame chicken with ginger and scallion sauce
Vegetable spring rolls

As a culinary professional and cook, menu planning is one of the highlights of my day. I'm often stunned at what people choose to serve at events. Too often you see a melange of items that don't seem to make any sense together or are too awkward to eat for the setting (such as serving knife & fork food at a stand-up event). I use the following general principles when menu planning:

1. Does the food fit the event? Casual food for a casual event. Elegant food for an elegant event. Proper plated meal for a sit-down dinner. Two-bite hors d'oeuvres for a cocktail reception.
2. Does the food fit the attendees? If I know my guests have allergies or dietary restrictions I make an effort to be accommodating. If I'm planning for an event such as this one I try to avoid peanuts and tree nuts (for allergies); I try to serve a variety of vegetarian items in addition to a variety of meat & fish based dishes; and I try not to go too far into "foodie" realm, which can alienate those with less daring palates, while still providing some interest for the more adventuresome folks in the room.
3. Variety. Not "eclectic." Just variety. If you look closely, there are 3 main groupings in the menu above: A) Classic, elegant hors d'ouvres; B) Southwest/spicy choices; and C) Asian inspired flavors. Variety - but not trying to cram the whole globe into one evening.

But the best part about menu planning has always been, and always will be, getting to taste the final product!

The Day My Husband Did the Dishes

The title to this entry is both misleading and unfair, as my husband often does the dishes. But on this day he quite literally licked his plate clean. And then he licked my plate clean. And then he took the pan to the couch and licked that clean. And then he did the dishes.

It was a special New Year's Eve. It was our first as a married couple. It was our first together. Yes, in five years we had never rung in the new year together because Thom always had to work. Not this year. This year it was just us. I decided to mark the occasion with a special dinner at home, just the two of us.

While down in the Bronx with Mom I had picked up a few veal cutlets and I decided to make a roulade around ham, mushrooms, spinach and cheese. The day before I made the filling: 

The next day I stuffed, rolled and trussed each cutlet and pan seared them:

I served them with mashed potatoes, steamed french cut green beans and an absolutely killer bottle of White Hall Lane 2004 Silver Anniversary Cabernet Sauvignon.

Like any great meal it was the sauce that made this dish so utterly fantastic (and plate-licking worthy!). Caramelized onions and mushrooms with demi-glace and cream. Divine. Absolutely divine.

For dessert we indulged in a mocha-caramel cake:

It was a memorable New Years indeed.

Pear-Gingerbread Upside Down Cake

Thom and I had been discussing gingerbread for a while. It's definitely a staple from his Austrian-centered childhood and I have fond memories of thick squares of gingerbread cake consumed with tea whilst sitting in the dining room with my mother and grandmother.

What I wouldn't give to be able to talk to my grandmother now that I'm grown...

Anyway... I definitely went easy on this one and didn't bother with making my own cake. Betty Crocker all the way. I did, however, reach into my back pocket of tricks I learned during my brief stint staging at Zebra - I had the pear tart tatin in mind. I won't be giving away Chef Alexander's recipes - but I will show you the assembly process:

Arranging the pears in a cast iron skillet. There is a brown sugar glaze on the bottom.

Ladling the batter over the pears carefully so as not to disturb their arrangement:

The cooked cake cooling on the counter (say that 5 times fast!)

When cooled to the touch - invert cake onto serving plate:

Next time I will definitely make my own cake batter, but this was fun and quite tasty with a cup of tea.


Caramel Porter Cake with Salted Caramel Frosting

A while ago Thom came home with Saranac Caramel Porter beer, a limited release for the holidays. I tasted it - yummy. I don't normally drink much, but I asked him to save me one to cook with. I wasn't sure what I would make (and assumed something with beef) but in the end there was a birthday and I made a cake instead.

I loosely based my cake on this recipe, but changed the amounts and some ingredients to suit my tastes (as well as ingredients I already had on hand). The frosting recipe came from here. I made double the amount of caramel sauce and flavored half with Cointreau to use as a soak before frosting and then as a glaze on top along with a ganache drizzle.

Here is the process in pictures:

The ingredients:

Simmering the beer and butter together with the cocoa:

Cakes go in the oven:

And they come out!

The glamour shot, with frosting and glazes:

It was so good we each had two pieces!

Happiness in a cast iron skillet

Last night afforded me one of those all too rare opportunities to have dinner at home with my husband. Knowing well the contents of our refrigerator I had planned all day to make a meal reminiscent of a Provencal/Northern Italian comfort food dinner. We started by making a basic risotto (using what we had on hand, we omitted the white wine and used leeks instead of onions). At the end of cooking this was seasoned with lemon zest, lemon juice and salt & pepper.

Next I tackled the main course - pan seared chicken thighs. I broke out the cast iron skillet for this special task and got a good sear on the skin side of the thighs before turning them and lowering the heat. When they were almost done I added leeks and the remains of the marinated antipasto from the spaghetta - chopped marinated olives, artichokes and mushrooms. I added some flour to the accumulated fat in the pan and made a quick roux, then used lemon juice and stock to make a pan gravy. It was starting to look like a great meal.

Our friend DJJonQPublick joined us with a bottle of Macon Villages Chardonnay as I popped a tray of asparagus into the oven. These were seasoned simply with S&P and lemon and then finished with a little grated Parmigiano Reggiano.

In the end the lemon was a little strong, although pleasant. Thom said he could taste olive and artichoke predominately. I will definitely make this (or similar) again. It's a great way to present a gorgeous dish that frees up the fridge from leftovers!

We ended with an apple-pear-oatmeal crisp a la mode, but I think that will taste much better today now that the oatmeal has had more time to absorb the flavors.

On the stove right now is fennel-cauliflower soup. Mmm... soup!

Tutti a tavola

When my mother was a child she would accompany her mother from their apartment building to Biancardi's butcher shop. Mom used to tell me her memories of sawdust on the floor. My grandmother always referred to the shop as "Anna's" because the owner's wife was Anna. Many years later when I was a small child and we were living in New Hampshire, my mother would occasionally pack up the car with a cooler and drive 6 hours down to the Bronx in order to load up on Anna's meats. I have a hazy recollection of driving back to New Hampshire with my mother and grandmother in the front of the car and my brother and me stuffed in the back seat amidst coolers and bags of bread, pastries and other delicacies to make the cold winter in rural New Hampshire seem more like home.

More recently my mother and her best friend would travel down together, sometimes staying with her friend's son in Brooklyn, and so I was no longer stuffed into the car like so many pounds of sausage. With her friend now living out of the country however, and a little mother-daughter bonding in order, Mom and I made the trek back to the old neighborhood to visit Biancardi's and pick up "a few things from Anna's." Instead of being transported back to my youth (I was only 3 when we moved out of the Bronx and into New England) I was transported across the ocean to Italy. The rows and rows of luscious meats glistening in the icy cold case contrasted by rows and rows of house made dried sausage hanging suspended over the heads of the butchers - each one with a friendly, yet weary face, dark hair and white coats stitched with their name in red. I instantly knew I wanted to have a spaghettata.

A spaghettata is what my Italian friends in Bologna would call a potluck. It isn't "real" Italian; I'm not even sure it qualifies as slang. But every so often they would invite a passel of friends over for mountains of pasta. Everyone would bring something (usually wine) and we would linger long over the table. Saturday night Thom and I brought the spaghettata to life in our small North End apartment.

I started making the ragu several days prior. I used a combination of resources to make my Bolognese sauce which consisted of ground veal, beef and pork, diced prosciutto, diced onion, celery and carrots, white wine, milk, tomatoes and a bouquet garni. I let it cook for several hours, rested it for two days, and then simmered it for 3 hours the day of the party.

The menu was fantastic. Between ourselves and the generosity of our friends we feasted on a gorgeous antipasti of olives, artichoke hearts, marinated mushrooms, peppers and zucchini as well as prosciutto, salami and mortadella. We had a fabulous pecorino tartufato (pecorino cheese with truffles), mushroom tapenade, balsamic onion tapenade, bread & crackers and breadsticks stuffed with asparagus, prosciutto and fig jam.

Dinner was spaghetti Bolognese, three kinds of sausage: thick fennel sausage, sweet Italian sausage and chervelata, a sausage stuffed with cheese and parsley. We also had a vegetarian lasagna which was thick with carrots, mushrooms and zucchini. With continuously flowing chianti we were able to linger long at the table.

After we had all rested for a while we were ready to start on dessert. We shared pears and clementines accompanied with ricotta salata and more of the fig jam. We also enjoyed cannoli and biscotti as well as some lusciously sweet and bubbly prosecco and espresso.

It's always sad when a party ends and everyone goes home; but when you are able to wake up on Sunday and make a delicious pizza from the leftover mushrooms, zucchini and sausage it helps the savory memory to linger long.


Time on my Hands

More often than not, I am inspired by what I see at the market. Whether it's the supermarket, the Haymarket or any one of the dozens of food boutiques and emporiums in and around Boston. Last week Stop & Shop had great little packs of Baby Bellas (small portabella mushrooms) and veal shanks packaged two to a pack. That sounds like it's just the right size for Thom and me!

A couple of days ago I cooked the mushrooms, along with some regular white mushrooms, in butter and shallots with Marsala. I put up about half in the freezer and the other half I used to make Chicken Marsala. As this was my first time making Chicken Marsala at home it was less than mind blowing, but it still produced a tasty meal. I cooked off some short Mostaccioli pasta and spinach and I mixed the mushrooms with cream and combined all to make my sauce. I topped this with the chicken, smothered under melted provolone. A perfectly adequate (and hearty!) lunch, but definitely not the Chicken Marsala that used to make me weak in the knees at La Groceria.

Oh, La Groceria - I miss you so! I don't remember exactly when or why we first stumbled upon it, but I distinctly remember sitting in a completely dead restaurant with my mother, brother and grandmother and being served a revelatory meal of classic Italian-American staples by the most flamboyantly gay Brazilian waiter I'd ever seen. However, when I saw him dancing in a g-string on a float at Gay Pride I realized he toned it down considerably for work. Of course, we all adored him and my mother made friends with him. From then on, she would ask to sit in his section. But the food! This was not the cookie cutter chicken parmigiana I was accustomed to at the Chateau. This was light yet crispy, with a fresh tomato sauce topped with a mozzarella that even my unrefined palette knew was something much more special than the gluey mess I loved on the pizza at Papa Gino's. I must have been somewhere around 14 or 15, because Grammie was still alive. Although I had chicken parmigiana that first trip, there were many visits after that when I had to make the difficult choice of ordering my usual (the parmigiana) or this new, sexy, adult meal - Chicken Marsala. The Marsala sauce was sweet and sultry and although I was adamant about hating mushrooms, I would eat them (well, some of them) if they were immersed in that sauce. I remember asking to go La Groceria for my 16th birthday. On the way back to the car my father serenaded me with 16 Candles by The Crests. La Groceria is gone now. Over time, like so many once great restaurants, it lost its verve and went downhill to the point of closing. It has been replaced by Craigie on Main.

The same day I made the Marsala I also made the osso buco. As time consuming as osso buco is to make I knew I would hold them for a couple of days to let the flavors meld so I wasn't too worried about them. Yesterday I was grocery shopping at Russo's and had a great idea when I saw the absolutely gorgeous mushrooms they had available. I picked up some chantrelles and maitake mushrooms (which look very similar to oyster mushrooms). This morning Thom and I combined forces to create a wonderfully rich mushroom ravioli with the fresh mushrooms I picked up yesterday along with the ones I had cooked off in Marsala wine several days earlier. I took the veal off the bone and reduced the sauce. I pushed the marrow out of the bones (hence the hole or "buco" in osso bucco) and added it to the sauce. The end result was a creamy, woody risotto with a rich and flavorful ragu. Not a bad way to get through Wednesday.


Beacon Hill Bistro or, Baby, What Happened to You?

I have a long standing love affair with Beacon Hill Bistro. Like any good clandestine affair we only see each other occasionally. But the meetings were always passionate and incredibly satisfying. The long tiled dining room with its banquettes and bistro chairs setting the stage beautifully; the efficient servers with their crisp button down shirts and long aprons to lovingly guide one through the experience; the classic, elegant and delectable menu that welcomes you like an old friend. We were good together. Like any good secret affair the Bistro didn’t draw too much attention to itself. It was just there, waiting for me to return to its comfortable embrace when I had wearied of the newness or shenanigans other restaurants. 

So when my mother and I ventured into the Bistro last night on a whim I expected to find the same fabulous experience I had had for the last several years. But much like finding out your lover has decided to cover his bald spot with a bad comb-over or gained twenty pounds since your last meeting I was, in a word, disappointed.

From the moment we started conversing with our server I knew I was in for a bad night. A casual, “how’s it going” turned into hearing the saga of how the marathon traffic had confounded our server’s commute, replete with eye rolling and physical demonstration of what sitting in traffic was like. This isn’t Waffle House, honey. I didn’t expect you to slide into the booth next to me and get comfy. A simple, “fine, thank you. May I answer any questions about the menu?” would have more than sufficed. I was then given to understand, through grimaces and squinting, that the fondue was not a wise choice. Because, “a bowl of cheese is too much cheese for one person.” Not for me, thank you. Back up the truck and pour the melted, delicious cheesiness all over me. But thank you for editorializing my selections. It was about as comfortable as an old lover telling you you had cellulite or pointing out the zit on your chin. I ended up asking for a side of Brussels sprouts and asparagus (not on the menu). I expected a plate of golden & green pan roasted deliciousness. I received a soupy bowl of green and past-golden-to-almost-black vegetables. Swimming in a brown bacon broth. Which, frankly, was weird.

My mother ordered the beet salad with farmer’s cheese to start, which, thankfully, was as wonderful as ever. This has been consistently good for both of us for at least 2 years.

For our entrees we both opted for pastas. Mine was duck and swiss chard (again, in a bowl of soupy mess – if you’re going to serve the dish “in brodo” then perhaps you should specify that on the menu) and while the flavors were good, the pasta was tough and doughy and the chard hadn’t been cleaned properly and was gritty. Really BHB? Seriously? Sandy, soupy pasta? C’mon! I literally couldn’t eat it for fear of grinding down the enamel on my teeth. The management was very considerate of the situation, however, and took the dish off the bill. My mother’s pasta was also a glue factory.  I greatly appreciate that the manager came over to speak to us and that my dish was taken off the bill. I appreciate that. But perhaps the lesson here is that if you do something well (classic French bistro food) don’t try to do something else (modern Italian pasta).

Maintaining consistency is a challenge for every restaurant and the lack of consistency is quite often the death knell of a stalwart. The seasonings were over-wrought and the prep wasn’t accurate. Either BHB has a passel of newbies in the kitchen or it doesn’t care anymore.

I think I will wait a while before going back. Perhaps my old flame needs a little time apart to figure out his mind and what he wants. When he's ready to be as good as ever I'll be back. Until then... well... as the saying goes, "there are more fish in the sea" and in Boston you can't walk 20 feet without darkening a restaurant doorway.