Monday, December 31, 2012

2012: The Year in Review

This past year has been one of growth: for  me personally, for this blog, and for me and my counterpart culinarily speaking. The year started off with the acquisition of a new camera and a commitment from me to this blogging endeavor - to improve the quality of the content and to attempt to find a voice.

From a culinary perspective, Gareth continued to explore new terrain and expand his skills. 2012 was the year of meat-binding. Starting with our New Year's Eve roasted rabbit, Gareth continued to use this technique for roasting meat and herbs throughout the year with delicious results.

Frenched rack of lamb, bound up with rosemary sprigs

Beef roast bound with an herb and bleu cheese filling

Pheasant bound with herbs and potatoes

We also began exploring the many fine offerings from D'Artagnan. First discovered at our local Wegman's, we began ordering directly from their website at the end of 2011. They provided last years' Solstice Partridge, but also kept us well-stocked with duck breast and various cuts of lamb. By mid-year, I was ordering whatever was on sale to see what Gareth would do with it. This got me a taste of roasted pigeon, several amazing quiches, and a willingness for my counterpart to cook pheasant.

Braising squab on the stovetop

This was the year of the wedding cake, a labor of love for our favorite couple who finally tied the knot. We produced a three-tiered white cake covered in butter cream that reached about a meter in height. Of all our exploits, this was by far the grandest. While I did not create a blog posting about this, my personal Facebook page included an extensive photo gallery of the two-day process.

That's a lot of batter

Gareth's first wedding cake

At work, my spouse embraced the Indian culture of his team, an appreciation he brought home and into the kitchen. He developed his own curry powder and tried his hand at several Indian staples, including kheema, biryani, and butter chicken. While I attempted the latter myself early in the year, Gareth perfected it, and it is now in regular rotation, much to my delight.


This was also the year that I remembered how to bake. I've traditionally played more of a passive role in the kitchen, helping to prep, taking photos, and doing clean up. But in the running dialog about food between me and my spouse, I came up with some of my own ideas this year. Keeping in mind a chefy approach, I created my first pinwheel cookies and baked the best pie I've made in well over a decade.

Mary Cherry Christmas Pie

So what does 2013 hold in store? More experimentation, more good food, and more participation from me. The Food Journal is also undergoing a bit of a redesign. I hope to launch the new and improved site in the next couple of months.

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

New Year's Cassoulet, a Crowning Acheivement

Cassoulet is a slow-cooked dish of beans and fatty meats with a rich sauce originating in southern France. There are many variations on this dish, depending on the neighborhood and the year.  The traditional cassoulet contains white beans and a variety of meats that include pork, sausage, mutton, and duck or goose confit, cooked in a casserole dish with a hearty sauce.

For our cassoulet, we decided on a mix of cannellinis and limas. My counterpart started with dry beans, letting them soak for several hours while he assembled the rest of the ingredients and prepared the meats and sauce.

Soaking beans

For our sauce, we chose the Espagnole, one of Escoffier's Mother Sauces from which all other are derived. The Espagnole sauce is a brown sauce consisting of a roux of butter and flour, along with a stock of roasted bones, some roasted vegetables, and tomato puree. My counterpart roasted the last of our Christmas lamb shoulder and some carrots, then simmered them on the stovetop to create a rich brown aspic. He added this to a basic roux, then set the bones to stocking one last time. He also added the roasted carrots and juice from a can of tomatoes and let the sauce simmer until thickened.

A roux of butter, flour, and a little roasted stock

Add a little tomato

Add a little carrot

At that point, more stock is added to the sauce and it is strained. He used a mesh colander to strain our sauce into our 8-cup Pyrex measuring cup.

The sauce is ready to be strained

Straining the sauce

Once strained, the sauce is reheated and allowed to cook down. The end result is a strong and savory brown sauce with a pronounced roasted flavor.

Reheating the strained sauce

While the Espagnole was cooking down, we turned our attention to the meat. We chose lamb, ham, mild Italian sausage, and pancetta. Gareth cut down our lamb and browned it on the stovetop in the pot that would eventually hold our cassoulet. Once the outside of the meat was browned, he transferred it to a flat skillet and browned some onion and shallot in the lamb fat. He added chunks of ham to the onions and pieces of sausage to the lamb and continued to cook everything until the sausages were cooked through.

Lamb and sausages

Ham and onions

At this point, we very nearly have all our ingredients prepped. There is just once more thing that this dish calls for - onions spiked with cloves. Gareth cut up a white onion into wedges and stuck a couple of cloves in each wedge.

Onion spiked with clove

He then layered the meats, beans, and onions. This should not be done randomly, though. Keep in mind that once assembled, this dish will be int he oven for a good six hours or so. You'll want to start with a good layer of meat at the bottom of the pot. Gareth started with the larger pieces of lamb and ham to cover the bottom. He covered that with a layer of thick-cut pancetta and then layered in the soaked beans, a couple of onion wedges, a couple of garlic cloves, and a couple of sprigs  each of fresh basil and thyme.

Building the cassoulet

A layer of pancetta

The next layer contained more of the same with a little sausage added, then pancetta, more beans, more onions, and more fresh herbs. The top layer of meat was mostly sausage to allow the juices to drip down and saturate the dish while it cooks.

Meat and beans

That final meat layer was topped with the remaining beans, and then the Espagnole sauce was gently poured over the whole thing.

Adding the Espagnole sauce

Ready for the long, slow cook

Gareth added a couple of bay leaves, and placed it in the oven to cook.

This is not a passive cooking process. It can take at least six hours and up to three days, depending on your level of commitment. Remember that the dish contains beans. As beans cook, they require liquid, so you will need to keep an eye on things, checking in on your cassoulet every so often to add more stock or water as needed.

Cassoulet, about half way through

For the last hour of baking, cover the surface of the cassoulet with breadcrumbs. Traditional recipes also call for crackling and drippings.

Ready for the home stretch

The finished product

We cooked our cassoulet for a total of six hours. It came out rich and meaty with hints of peppery spice and a subtle sweetness from the veg in the Espagnole sauce combining with the clove. This is a hearty and satisfying dish for a cold wintery day and perfect for a New Year's dinner.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Surprise Chicken Thighs

Sometimes I get caught off guard, and I am completely unprepared for what comes out of the kitchen. Sometimes I really have no idea what is going on in there. Tonight was one of those occasions. When my counterpart asked what I thought of chicken and mushrooms over pasta (with a little leftover lamb to round out the two chicken thighs in the house), I assumed I would be getting a fairly workaday dinner - tasty, to be sure, but nothing extravagant. Well, that is never a safe bet at my house.

While I was relaxing in front of the fire, my counterpart was preparing an exceptional pasta dish. I will provide what details I can, but I did not fully realize what he was up to for quite some time. In fact, by the time I started paying attention, he had the chicken thighs cooked, the lamb reheated, the pasta dough resting, and a little stock going. And this was no ordinary stock. He was stocking our little bag of giblets.

We save our giblets from everything - turkey, chicken, the occasional small game. We keep them in a ziplock bag in the freezer, and every few months we make pate. Regular readers know that we have been eating quite a bit of small game over the last few months - squab, rabbit, pheasant, to name a few. Each of these little delicacies has come with an equally delectable packet of giblets. So, we had quite the exotic collection on hand. Gareth simmered these with some of the smaller lamb bones left from our Christmas shoulder roast, some leek, onion, and bay leaves and made an aromatic stock that became the base for the mushroom sauce.

The mushrooms themselves were sauteed in goat butter and marsala. Once cooked, a little flour and the stock were added, along with Gareth's favorite secret ingredients - sriracha and a little Thai fish sauce, both of which add a little depth to the sauce. The sriracha provides a little spicy zing while the fish sauce brings a little umami undertone that is not readily identifiable beyond a rich, savory quality. That, combined with the irony flavor of the gizzard stock and the robust marsala made for a complex layering of flavors that the mushrooms took with grace and panache, holding the sauce while it clung to them and supporting those flavors with just a little hint of earthiness.

Then, Gareth added the crowning touch. He pulled some of the more tender giblets out of the stock pot, minced them up, and gave them a quick saute in more goat butter and marsala. He added this to the sauce, plus just a splash of cream, and my so-called chicken and mushrooms was ready.

And, because I wasn't paying attention, the only shot I got was plated up and on the table. I could tell by the aroma that I had missed out on a quality cooking experience. Then I tasted it, and as the meaty, savory mushrooms and tender meat and hearty pasta mixed in my mouth, I thought of nothing else until my plate was clean.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Holiday Baking: Mary Cherry Christmas Pie

When my counterpart and I started discussing Christmas dinner a few weeks back, I knew I wanted a cherry pie. I grew up in Northeast Wisconsin, and we spent our Christmases with my grandparents and cousins in Sturgeon Bay on the Door Peninsula, where orchards of tart cherries littered the landscape from Brussels bordering Kewaunee County in the south up to Gills Rock on the northern tip of the mainland where a ferry could take you to the islands on the very northern tip between Upper and Lower Michigan. Every Christmas, every holiday, ended with a tart cherry pie.

I haven't had a cherry pie for Christmas since that last Christmas with my grandmother in 2004. While I can usually count on my brother-in-law for a sweet potato pie - a regional favorite out here in Maryland - this year I decided that I was having a nice tart cherry pie like when I was a kid.

I have long been a fan of the basic pie crust in the Betty Crocker cookbook, but this year I deviated. I tried the Deluxe Butter Flaky Pastry Pie Dough from The Joy of Cooking, 1997 edition.

This is a double-crust recipe for a 10-inch pie. After recently discovering that my 9-inch pie pan is actually 9.5, I felt confident that this recipe would yield enough crust. For this pie crust, you will need:

2.5 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 sticks of cold unsalted butter
1/4 cup vegetable shortening
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon ice water

Mix together your dry ingredients and set aside.

Cut your butter down into small pieces about 1/4 inch thick. Cut the butter into your dry ingredients using a pastry blender. The recipe - and really all pie crust recipes - claim you can use two butter knives cutting in a cross-wise motion against each other for this process. This has never worked for me, and I doubt it has worked for anyone. If you are a baker, even if only around the end of the year, get a pastry blender.

Now, the point of pie crust is fairly contrary to the point of many other baked items. For pie crust, you want to keep everything cold. Especially so with a butter crust like this one, so don't over work it. Cut everything together until there are still some pea-sized lumps of butter.

At this point, the recipe calls for the vegetable shortening, but also mentions that you can just use more butter if you like. The authors note that an all-butter crust is more difficult to work with. I was undeterred, and cut another half stick of cold butter into my dough.

The dough should still be pretty coarse but also somewhat mixed. Here's where I work it by hand, adding that ice water a little at a time. You want just enough to pull it all together. The third cup plus tablespoon was all I needed.

Divide it in half, shape each half into a flat disk, and chill for at least 30 minutes.

When the pie crust is chilling, I took a little rest, then moved on to the filling.I used the Cherry Pie with Canned or Bottled Fruit, also in The Joy of Cooking. For this filling you will need:

4 cups canned or bottled cherries, juice drained but 1/2 cup added back
1.25 cups sugar for tart cherries
3 tablespoons corn starch
1 tablespoon lemon juice - I used the juice from one lemon
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
2/3 tablespoons butter

I did not have any Door County cherries on hand, and I hear they are not as easy to come by as they used to be, most of the orchards having been sold or developed or let go to rot and ruin. This actually makes me quite sad. But, I had a good substitution with Oregon Tart Cherries in Water. I needed three 14.5 ounce cans to get the required four cups of fruit.

Oregon tart cherries - almost as good as my childhood memories of Door County

Mix the cherries and juice with the sugar, lemon juice, almond extract, and corn starch, and let the mixture sit for about 15 minutes.

Cherry pie filling

While it's sitting, you can preheat your oven to 425 and roll out your bottom crust. Despite the warning about the all-butter crust being difficult to work with, I had less trouble with this dough than with any other pastry dough I've ever attempted. I had enough to line my pie pan without tears or holes or patches. Cut off any overhang with a clean kitchen shears, leaving enough to crimp the top crust.

A single blemish on an otherwise perfect pie crust

If your 15 minutes have passed, pour the fruit filling into the pie crust and dot it with the butter.

Now, I know there are strong opinions among bakers about the lattice crust being the preferred topping for a fruit pie. A raging debate on this takes place in my own family. My niece has perfected the lattice top crust just to let us older women know that it really isn't that difficult. And it isn't. But, this is my Christmas pie, and I have something special in mind. So, I rolled out my top crust.

And reached for the Christmas tree cookie cutter. After some careful measuring, I determined where the center of my top crust would be and gently cut out five Christmas trees, tops pointing center. I used my pastry blade to ease the dough off the board and into position atop the pie, lining it up based on my measurements. I used the tried-and-true crimping tool of my forebears - a dinner fork - to secure the crust in place. Then, for the crowning touch, I took a small star cookie cutter and cut one out of the dough scraps. I used a little egg white to affix it to the center of my top crust to make Christmas pie perfection.

The top crust with Christmas tree cutouts

And in position atop the pie

So, whether you use a whole crust with vents or a lattice crust, bake your pie at 425 for about 30 minutes. Then, turn the oven down to 350 and slip a cookie sheet under the pie. Bake it for another 25-35 minutes, until the crust is golden and the filling is bubbling. During this second half of baking, use your nose to make sure the edges of the crust aren't overcooking. If they start to get too dark, cover them with foil.

Let the pie cool on a wire rack. You can store it at room temperature for only a couple of days, so clear a spot for it in the fridge.

The finished product - Mary Cherry Christmas Pie

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Nothing as Pleasant as Pheasant

This afternoon my counterpart asked me why I was fascinated with small game birds. He then proceeded to answer this question by preparing roast pheasant for our annual pre-Christmas dinner. This has become a tradition of ours over the years. The day or two before Christmas are hectic and harried, filled with forgotten tasks and last-minute cleaning. You need more than cookies to get through. How much better we are at these preparations when we feel well loved and appreciated. And nothing does this quite as well as a special quiet dinner between me and my spouse.

The pheasant was part of the Wild Game Bird Funpack I ordered from D'Artagnan a few months back and needed time to defrost. A quick method of defrosting small game is to place it in a Pyrex baking dish and set it in a warm oven set at about 170. This allows the birth to thaw without cooking it like what happens in the microwave.

Once defrosted, we prepped the bird. Because our pheasant was allowed to have an active and happy bird life, this was a bit more complex than performing the same action on your typical domestic chicken from the grocery store. One of the things I've noticed with the small game birds we have been preparing is that oftentimes there is some quill removal required. Once that is done, remove the giblets as per usual and either toss them in the stock pot or wrap them up and freeze them for some future use.

A little quill to remind us of the life force in our meal

We then cut up the bird into smaller pieces. This is also similar to the technique you would use with a chicken, cracking the joints before cutting through them with a sharp chef's knife.

Pheasant, sectioned

Once cut down, we proceeded to debone our pheseant. It is important to note that the pheasant is a bird of flight. Once the flesh is removed from the bones, there will be tiny tendons that also need to be removed. These can be pulled out of the flesh and added to the stock pot, along with those bones.

Pheasant, deboned

The ubiquitous stock pot

At this point, we were faced with a choice - dredge the pieces in flour and cook on the stovetop or bind them up with a filling and roast the whole thing. We opted for the latter, and prepared a filling of onions, leeks, garlic, basil, parsley, thyme, and a little honey. We used a little cooked potato as a binding agent.

A little herb and potato filling

One very chefy technique to help with the whole meat-binding process is to use a plain cotton cloth to help you shape your meat before you tie it up. Place the cloth over your board and proceed to layer your meat and filling, using the largest pieces of flesh for the outside.

Assembling our meat and filling on a Russian flour sack towel

Then, carefully and gently roll it up in the cotton cloth, using it to slightly shape things, similar to how you would use waxed paper to shape a log of refrigerator cookies. Slowly unwrap the meat and tie it up with your kitchen twine.

Binding the bird with kitchen twine

Bound and ready for the oven

Once our little pheasant package was tied up, we roasted it at 350 for about 40 minutes.

Out of the oven and ready for the table

While it was in the oven, Gareth prepared a mushroom sauce with wine and a little basalmic vinegar. We had some cooked potatoes that he reheated on the stovetop with butter, cream, and leek, creating a coarse mash.

A little coarse mash

A little mushroom sauce

I truly feel well-loved and appreciated. As I drift off to sleep with the flavors of mushrooms, leek, and a little wild game bird still fresh on my palate, I feel I will be prepared for the next two days.

On the plate

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Holiday Baking: Fig and Date Pinwheels

Last weekend's Holiday Baking Marathon resulted in some lovely cookie baskets, including a couple for the office. The baskets included my traditional shortbread and my mother's butterscotch brownies, plus cocoa chocolate chip, honey ginger, Chinese Five Spice, and my first attempt at pinwheel cookies - anise-scented fig and date swirls. It was this last variety that inspired a comment from a coworker that captures the spirit of holiday baking. He said that his grandmother had made those cookies, and he remembered eating them every Christmas when we was a kid. And that's really really the reason for the holiday baking season - to summon cherished childhood memories from years long gone and recapture a little of that magic.

So, out of the three new recipes I tried this year, the one that will be added to my permanent repertoire is the Anise-Scented Fig and Date Spirals from the Gourmet Cook Book for that hopeful, happy feeling it conjured in a colleague. Apologies for the lack of photos - I was deep in the throws of the Marathon by the time I got to these.

You will need:

1 cup packed soft dried figs (8 oz), stemmed and coarsely chopped
1 cup packed pitted dates (7 oz), trimmed and coarsely chopped
1/3 cup water
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons anise seeds, ground in an electric coffee/spice grinder
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened
4 oz cream cheese at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 large egg yolk
1/4 cup granulated raw sugar such as turbinado or Demerara

Whisk together flour, anise, baking powder and soda, and salt in a bowl. I used all purpose flour and did not sift it. Set aside.

Beat together butter, cream cheese, and the remaining 1/2 cup granulated sugar at medium speed until pale and fluffy, usually about 3 minutes. Then add the vanilla and egg yolk until combined well. Add flour mixture and mix at low speed until just combined. The dough will be slightly crumbly.

Form the dough into two flat rectangles, using a pastry blade. Don't work it too much yet. The idea is to just get it into a well-formed shape to chill. Wrap it in plastic wrap and set it in the fridge for at least an hour. I let my dough chill for the better part of a Sunday while my counterpart and I did some gift shopping.

While the dough is chilling, make the filling. At first I was a little intimidated about the whole chopping figs and dates thing. They are thick and sticky and kind of gooey. But, it's easier than you think if you follow good prepping technique:

1.  Sharpen your knife.
2.  Cut the fruit down into manageable strips.
3.  Chop carefully, using a slow and steady cut. Remember, you're not chopping veg - you're chopping something that really is sticky and kind of gooey. Take your time and watch your fingers.

Once the fruit is chopped to a fairly uniform size and shape, transfer it to your food processor and purée  with water and 2 tablespoons granulated sugar until almost smooth.

When you are ready, assemble the cookies. The recipe recommends rolling out the dough between 2 sheets of wax paper. I did not do that. Remembering the Bonus Cookie Technique I learned making the shortbread, I used the pastry blade and eased the dough into a 9- by 7-inch rectangle, about 1/3 inch thick.

Then, I used an offset icing knife to evenly spread the filling on the flattened dough, leaving a 1/4 inch border.   Use the pastry knife to loosen the dough off the rolling board. Gently and carefully, roll the dough into a log. The recipe advises using waxed paper here. I didn't and got good results, so it's up to you. Roll the log in the raw sugar and wrap the rolled dough in more waxed paper. Chill for at least four hours. I assembled my cookies on Sunday night and baked them on Tuesday, so they can rest for quite a while.

To bake, preheat the oven to 350 and line your cookie sheets with parchment paper. Using a sharp paring knife, gently cut the logs into slices about 1/3 inch thick. They will expand when baking, but not much, so you can place them fairly close. Bake them until they start to turn a nice golden color, about 15 minutes.

The result is a slightly sweet, mild cookie with a light fruit filling.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Surviving the Holiday Baking Marathon

Despite my optimism back in September and the very best of intentions, I did not start my holiday baking until about four days ago. This is late, even for me. I usually get going shortly after Thanksgiving. This gives me sufficient time to try out new recipes and to just start over if I need to. I manage to produce two successful varieties of cookies a weekend for about three weeks and end up with a nice variety of offerings that I package up and deliver to work and friends. This year, I had a bunch of new recipes and just a single weekend to make everything work out. This weekend, I executed my first Holiday Baking Marathon.

Now, my initial intent is similar to what I did last year, in which I shared recipes and techniques while I baked my way through the weeks between Thanksgiving and Yule. And at first I was taking photos. But, once the reality of five batches of cookies in a single day sunk in, I realized there was no time for a do-over. I abandoned the camera and focused solely on my technique to ensure that everything turned out right. While I will try to get a couple of recipes up this weekend, this posting will focus on how to survive the holiday baking marathon. Here are 10 tips to ensure you get through:

1.  Put On Your Sneakers
You will be on your feet for a long time - I was in motion for a good eight hours on Saturday. If you are not wearing proper footwear, your back will give out, and you will fatigue that much quicker. Get those sneakers out of the gym bag and lace up. You're in for a long haul.

2.  Hydrate
While coffee is a wonderful companion to cookie dough (you've got to taste it, right?), you will want to make sure you drink a lot of water. Why? You will be in motion for a good, long day. This really is a bit of a marathon, and you should not underestimate your body's need for water.

3.  Eat a Good Breakfast
You will need to taste a lot of cookie dough, as well as the finished products. Get a good layer of protein in you first. Nothing fancy - a couple of eggs with cheese and a glass of milk should put you in a good place.

4.  Start With a Clean Kitchen
This will save valuable time later. That the time to clean and organize your workspace. Think about the volume of cookies you will be producing and ensure you have sufficient space to mix, roll, cut, sheet, and cool everything. Rearrange if you need to - just get that workspace established and ensure there is enough of it.

5.  Assemble Your Ingredients
Look at your recipes and get out all the ingredients you will need for all of them. This is not as daunting as it sounds as cookies are made of the same basic stuff - butter, sugar, flour, vanilla, eggs, baking powder, spices. Get it all out, plus any tools and utensils you will need, and arrange it all in your workspace.

Getting the workspace together

6.  Use Basic Good Cookie Technique
Regular readers may remember these from last year's sugar cookie post - start with room temperature ingredients, preheat the oven, line your sheets with parchment paper, rotate them halfway through baking. Oh, and use your portion-control cookie scoop, because if it looks the same, it cooks the same.

Bonus New Technique: For shortbread or any other dry dough that is chilled and then rolled and cut, put away that rolling pin and get out the pastry blade. Work the dough by hand initially. Then shape it into a square, drop it on your board - sans flour - and use a smoothing action with the pastry blade and your hands to flatten the dough. When it starts to loose that basic square or rectangular shape, use the pastry blade to press the edges back in place.  Here's a little photo essay to demonstrate:

Once you have it as thick as you want it, cut your cookies. I am partial to British soldiers, and using this technique, I got perfectly shaped shortbread. Of course it helps that my counterpart did the flattening.....

Shortbread soldiers

7.  Take a Break
After once recipe has finished backing and you're cleaned your tools for the next round, sit down for 5-10 minutes. Drink some water. Breathe. Think about the next recipe. Give your feet and back a break. Bend down and touch your toes for a moment to stretch everything out before starting up again.

8.  Clean Up Right Away
Do not procrastinate on this one. You're dealing with butter and sugar - greasy and sticky and messy. You are best off cleaning up as soon as you can.

9.  Package Properly
The best way to store your cookies is a plain old ZipLoc bag. Use one of the jumbo-sized baggies. Lay it flat on the counter and arrange a double-layer of completely cooled cookies inside. If you are planning on storing the cookies for over a week, lay the bagged cookies flat on a shelf in the freezer.

10. Prepare for the Inevitable Sugar Hangover
I posted about this last year as well. Once you are done with your baking for the day, break out the V-8 and get some veg in you to counter-balance all that sugar.

Happy Baking!