When It Rains, It Pours...

Lest you be misguided by such blog entries by the title of "Domestic Goddess," there are, in fact, plenty of disasters in the kitchen around these parts. Disturbingly, I seem to be having quite a few of them lately, though I do have the good fortune of most of my dishes being edible at least, even when they aren't as tasty as hoped. I have prepared a couple of truly inedible meals in my new kitchen, and I hope that this alarming uptick in their occurrence can be traced to the much-increased volume of cooking I'm undertaking, as well as the new equipment to which I'm trying to get accustomed.

For instance, one Saturday several weeks ago, I attempted to prepare a North African chicken stew, and I completely burnt it to a crisp. My burners run hotter than they did at my old condo, and I'd expected Justin home for dinner at any moment. I laid down on the couch for a quick nap (I wasn't feeling well at the time), fully anticipating that Justin to come home in five to ten minutes and wake me up, upon which we'd have dinner. Justin, however, decided to run several errands after work before he came home, and I slept long enough for all the liquid to evaporate from the pan. I awoke to the smell of burning food, and found a carbonized mess awaiting me, with a few edible chunks of chicken near the top. It was a disaster, and I was livid with myself for the wasted time, effort, and food.

Yesterday, I had another epic fail in the kitchen, though thankfully there was no risk of fire this time. I had selected a recipe for pork chops, glazed in a maple-mustard reduction and cooked in a cast iron skillet. For side dishes, I decided to make Alton Brown's garlic mashed potatoes again (they were that good!), and try my hand at making Brussels sprouts at home for the first time. I've only discovered that I can actually tolerate eating them in the past year or so, so I thought it would be a good idea to see if I could replicate all the deliciousness I've been experiencing at various restaurants around town on my own.

As it turned out, the side dishes were the star of the meal, and even those didn't go smoothly. The potatoes were fine, but after I got everything trimmed, sliced, and measured for the sprouts, I put them in the oven to roast and set a timer when I'd need to stir them. Being busy with the pork chops, it didn't occur to me until much later that it seemed like an awful long time had gone by with no alarm. I opened the oven door to find the sprouts were barely even soft, much less browned. I looked at the display on the oven to discover that the clock wasn't on. All the buttons were non-responsive to my touch. Something had mysteriously gone wrong, and the oven appeared to be completely dead.

Panicked, I went to get a pan to finish the Brussels sprouts on the stove, and suddenly the oven came back on, albeit with the clock about twenty minutes behind. I'm not sure what happened, and now I'm faced with a deeply-rooted fear that I may have to replace my stove/oven in the near future, which will probably be ungodly expensive. At least the Brussels sprouts came out perfectly: tender on the inside with a hint of sweetness from the apples contrasted with salty bacon bits and nicely browned exteriors. Still, the whole episode was very strange...

The pork chops, however, were a total bust. I must have over-reduced the glaze, as it quickly solidified into a sort of maple and rosemary-scented caramel. There was no way to brush it onto the chops at that point, so I did my best to glob a piece on top and hope that it melted over the meat. All this fiddling and fussing with the sticky "glaze" caused me to utterly overcook the meat. It didn't burn on the outside, but it was completely dried out, hard and leathery. You could barely cut it with a steak knife, and the consistency of it in your mouth was somewhat akin to sawdust. I wanted to throw away the leftovers in disgust, but Justin insisted on keeping them and not wasting the food.

The misery didn't even end there -- the maple mixture burned onto my new cast iron skillet, and was practically impossible to remove. I fear I may have to reseason my pan after the valiant attempt Justin made to clean it, which is exactly the kind of kitchen project I'd rather avoid.

At least the meal wasn't a complete waste, but it was still a pretty disheartening experience. I don't think I'll be tackling pork chops again for a while, though I've gained enough confidence to try Brussels sprouts on the menu more often. I've got a few more recipes for them pinned to my Pinterest board, and I'm looking forward to experimenting with them. Hopefully the meals that they accompany will go better than the one we had last night...

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Apples
adapted from Back To Her Roots

1 lb. Brussels sprouts, washed, trimmed and halved
1 large apple, cored and diced
4 slices, thick-cut bacon, cooked and crumbled
1/4 c. olive oil
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

Preheat oven to 375.
1. In a large bowl, combine sprouts, apple and bacon and stir until evenly distributed.
2. In a small bowl, whisk together olive oil, maple syrup and balsamic vinegar.
3. Pour olive oil mixture over sprout mixture and toss to coat.
4. Pour out the sprout mixture in one layer onto a greased cookie sheet. Season liberally with salt and pepper.
5. Roast in oven for 10-15 minutes, turning once halfway through cooking, or until sprouts are tender and brown.


Let There Be Light...

Today we conquered one of the few remaining roadblocks standing between us and finishing the work on our house: the electrician came to install all our new light fixtures today. Previously, our light fixtures were a motley assortment of hideous, broken, and cheap dreck. Our rooms were dimmer than they needed to be, and as the weather has gotten warmer, we've realized that the master bedroom, located at the back of the condo, doesn't receive very good air flow, necessitating the installation of a ceiling fan. I'd purchased all new fixtures months ago, and they've been piled up under a window in the living room since before we moved.
In addition to the two new fixtures in the kitchen and the futuristic chandelier in the living room, we also added a third recessed light above the island.
We were finally able to get an electrician to come today to put them all in, and the difference they make is dramatic. Not only does the place look classier and more finished now, all of our rooms are much brighter. This has mixed results -- my work space in the kitchen is much better illuminated, and it'll be much easier to tweeze my eyebrows in the bathroom, but suddenly many of the surfaces that I've been meticulously trying to keep clean look far dirtier. Life is all about trade-offs, I suppose.

The mancave. I couldn't get the new fixture in the photo, but you can see how much progress has been made in there now.
Most importantly, now that we've swapped out the light fixtures on the bathroom walls, we can paint in there, which is the last big project we have on the list to tackle ourselves. There are still smaller things for us to do, like hanging the curtains in the master bedroom (which will be no small feat, considering the scale of the bank of windows in there), and hanging all our artwork -- both projects that will help add the finishing touches to our home. Plus, we have a list of projects that we're going to hire a professional for, like installing a tile backsplash in our kitchen and installing stone tile on our window sills to prevent water damage from all the condensation that forms on them. 

There's just a hint of the ceiling fan in this one, but I really like the stainless steel finish with the room.
For the first time, I really feel like the end is in sight. Stay tuned to see how it turns out!


Wake and Bake...

Though I've been undertaking most of the cooking in our newly-minted household, there is one domain where Justin still reigns in the kitchen -- weekend breakfasts. This tradition goes back to the early days of our relationship, and I still think there are few things greater than sleeping in on a Sunday and getting to watch the man you love prepare a delicious meal for you while you kick back and relax. Today, I even got to play executive chef and pick out the recipe that Justin used to prepare us both breakfast.

I selected herbed-baked eggs, one of the most popular recipes by Food Network personality Ina Garten, whose recipes I more or less trust implicitly, though many of them need to be scaled back to feed a modest number of people. I've only made one recipe of hers that didn't turn out well, and I think that was more due to my error than hers (it was for potato leek soup, and I think I delved too far into the dark portion of the leeks when slicing them, because there were tough, fibrous bits in the otherwise well-flavored soup.) Plus, I have a soft-spot in my heart for Ina, because she could have been my mother's twin before my mom lost almost a hundred pounds. Watching her is kind of like learning to cook from my own mom, who is an excellent cook but has never enjoyed being in the kitchen.

Baked eggs had a particular appeal to me because Justin recently used the Crate and Barrel gift card he got at his Christmas office party to purchase a set of ramekins for me. It's a major bakeware item that I didn't already have (a rare thing in my well-stocked kitchen), and I knew there were whole categories of recipes that lay out of my reach until I acquired some. I've saved several recipes for pots de crème to my Pinterest board, and you can look forward to those going forward, but for now, I knew we could use our new dishes to make baked eggs and I wanted to put them to use as soon as possible.

This dish was very quick to put together, faster than anything involving potatoes, like a hash, though Justin didn't enjoy meticulously mincing herbs when he was starving. (I think he would have preferred a quick bowl of cereal this morning, but he acquiesced to my request because he is the greatest boyfriend ever.) We're still getting the hang of our broiler, which either seems to brown the surface of food while the rest of it goes raw, like this morning's eggs, or it never browns the surface at all, as with some garlic bread we made last month. We ended up having to finish the eggs in the microwave, which we overdid, leaving the eggs hard instead of soft and just-barely done, but the flavor of them was excellent.

Once we master our broiler, we'll definitely be trying these eggs again. It's always good to have more recipes in your brunch arsenal, and this was a delicious change of pace. Plus, now that we have those ramekins, we'll be sure to get our money's worth out of them!

Herbed-Baked Eggs
adapted from Ina Garten

1 clove garlic, finely minced
1/8 teaspoon dried thyme
1/8 teaspoon dried rosemary
1 teaspoon dried parsley
1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons heavy cream
1 tablespoon butter
4 large eggs

Preheat the broiler for 5 minutes and place the oven rack 6 inches below the heat. 

Combine the garlic, thyme, rosemary, parsley, and Parmesan and set aside. Carefully crack 2 eggs into each of 2 small bowls or teacups (you won't be baking them in these) without breaking the yolks. (It's very important to have all the eggs ready to go before you start cooking.)

Place 2 individual ramekin dishes on a baking sheet. Place 1 tablespoon of cream and 1/2 tablespoon of butter in each dish and place under the broiler for about 3 minutes, until hot and bubbly. Quickly, but carefully, pour 3 eggs into each ramekin and sprinkle evenly with the herb mixture, then sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper. Place back under the broiler for 5 to 6 minutes, until the whites of the eggs are almost cooked. (Rotate the baking sheet once if they aren't cooking evenly.) The eggs will continue to cook after you take them out of the oven. Allow to set for 60 seconds and serve hot with toasted bread.


All The Small Things...

One of the fundamental aspects of learning to live together is compromise, and in our household, the kitchen is no exception. I've been begrudgingly trying to consume more vegetables and integrate them into our meals, as per Justin's preferences, and my hot sauce collection has gone from zero to five different bottles in the nearly two months we've been living together. Meanwhile, Justin has been trying to cope with a smaller range of snack food choices, and a decreased emphasis on noshing between meals. Still, this merging of culinary traditions has been fruitful; I'm constantly confronted with new items in my pantry and refrigerator that need to be used, and that forces me to get creative with some of my ideas.

For instance, Justin, a huge fan of hummus, purchased a glut of tahini about a month ago when he found it on sale. Tahini may have a long shelf life, but it was taking up valuable cabinet space, so I looked to a recipe I'd spotted in last year's Food & Wine anthology, which I recently acquired from Grandma Betsy, who'd decided she was unlikely to make any of the recipes from it. (It's not exactly easy to source specialty ingredients in a rural town of under three thousand people.) Unsurprisingly, the recipe that caught my eye was for cookies, and the idea of using a ingredient usually associated with savory dishes in a dessert intrigued me.

I haven't made cookies yet since we moved, in part because I'm still a little leery of our oven, and partially because I hadn't quite gotten over the post-Cookie Bonanza burnout that afflicts me every year. Still, without any pressing distractions like a turn at Cake Day or celebrating Pi Day, it seemed like it was time to finally christen my oven with its first batch.

These tahini cookies came together very quickly, with a bare minimum of ingredients. The most difficult part was rolling out the dough into a 1-inch log, as all that fluid tahini made for a very, very soft dough. I also made somewhat of a mess trying to roll the squishy dough logs in sesame seeds, which I likened to making a craft project with glitter -- the tiny seeds went everywhere, and I just know I'll be finding them all over my kitchen for weeks, regardless of how much I vacuum and wipe.

The resulting cookies turned out unlike anything I've ever made. They are exceptionally tender and soft, to the point where you can score them with a fingernail, but still sandy, like a shortbread cookie. The tahini gives them a nutty, toasted flavor, while the sesame seeds along the edges give them a bit of extra crunch. They almost have an addictive quality to them, and their ultra-petite size gives you the illusion that it's okay to eat a handful of them, even though tahini is a fairly calorie-dense food, and they also feature a decent amount of butter.

Because they're little and the recipe makes over 100 cookies (I got 139), it seems like these should make a good gift, but they're also so delicate that it would be hard to pack them without them crumbling. I think they'd make a perfect dainty bite at a bridal or baby shower, if you were hosting one at your house and didn't have to take them very far. Since I don't have any of those coming up on my social calendar, I'm at a bit of a loss for what to do with this recipe, but I'll certainly file it away for future use, as these tahini cookies are definitely worth revisiting.

Tahini Shortbread Cookies
adapted from Food & Wine

10 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 c. tahini, stirred
3/4 c. powdered sugar
2 teaspoons coarse sea salt
1 3/4 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 c. sesame seeds

In a medium bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the butter with the tahini, confectioners' sugar and salt at medium speed until smooth, about 3 minutes. Add the flour and beat until incorporated. Turn the dough out onto a work surface and knead just until it comes together. Divide the dough in half and roll each piece into a 15-inch log, about 1 inch thick. Scatter the sesame seeds on a sheet of parchment paper and roll the logs until completely coated. Roll each log in parchment and refrigerate until chilled, at least 1 hour. 

Preheat the oven to 325° and line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper. Unroll one log and slice it 1/4 inch thick. Arrange the slices on the baking sheets. Bake the cookies in the center and lower-thirds of the oven for about 25 minutes, or until golden, shifting the pans from front to back and top to bottom halfway through baking. Slide the parchment onto a rack and let the cookies cool completely. Repeat with the second log of dough.


Wrapped Up In Books...

It's been a while since I gave an update on our house, but we've been a little stalled while we were waiting for our new bookshelves. We needed them in order to effectively unpack and organize the boxes that were filling up our second bedroom, but since they were going to be my birthday present from my parents, I had to wait for them. They were finally delivered late last week from Dania, and Justin spent the weekend assembling the shelves for the mancave and kitchen, and shelving our vast DVD/Blu-ray collection. With our cookbooks and DVDs properly stored, Justin can now move on to unpacking the rest of the den and making the room livable.

However, we opted to have the representatives from the store put together the massive bookshelf that we're placing against the accent wall in our back hallway due to its size and weight, and they managed to damage a highly visible component while they were constructing it. They offered to give us a discount on it, but given the nature of the damage, we demanded that they fix the piece, which they weren't able to return for until today. By the time I made it home from work, my highly-efficient librarian boyfriend had already alphabetized our book collection, sorted it according to fiction and non-fiction, and shelved everything. I think it looks great, and so much more tidy!

We still have several items left on our to-do list for the house, but having the new bookshelves in place really helps. Next on the agenda is having the electrician come next week to change out nearly all our light fixtures, and after that we'll be able to paint the bathrooms. Things are starting to really come together, and the end of this project is in sight! I'll be sure to keep you posted...


Celebrate Good Times...

I have some fantastically wonderful good news to share with you today: Justin has accepted a full-time job in the law library at a large, international law firm with an office downtown. He first applied for a job there several months ago, but at his interview, the person he spoke with suggested that he might be better suited for another position that would be opening up there. While we were in New Orleans last month, strolling through the Garden District, he got a call from them asking him to submit his resume for this second position, and he interviewed with them again shortly after we got back. After wringing our hands for the past few weeks, Justin received the offer yesterday and accepted today!

Justin is excited about this new opportunity, and I am so, so proud of him. He'll have a better commute, better hours (including no more weekends!), paid vacation time, and health insurance. It's amazing how well things have come together for us this year, even if all this change has been a challenge at times. We are truly blessed, and very thankful for all the good fortune that has come our way so far in 2012. Here's hoping this trend continues! Congratulations, babe!


Imagine Whirled Peas...

It's a well-known fact that I am no fan of vegetables. My mother accepted this fact years ago, and largely stopped trying to foist them upon me, after I would spend entire evenings at the kitchen table having staring contests with the peas that refused to disappear from my plate when I was told that I wouldn't be dismissed from the table unless I ate them. My significant other, however, craves healthy things in his diet, and has been waging an uphill battle to get me to introduce more vegetables into our shared meals. In large part, I've been trying to accommodate his tastes, and incorporating more vegetable side dishes and selecting more meals that have vegetable components.

That's why a heavily vegetable-laced chicken salad from the most recent issue of Bon Appetit caught my eye -- now that my antagonistic relationship with peas has cooled, I thought a three-pea chicken salad would make a perfect lunch for me and my vegetable-loving boyfriend. Luckily for me, I was able to pick up all two of the necessary types of peas (snow peas and sugar snap peas) for a song at H-Mart yesterday, and we had frozen peas and frozen chicken breasts on hand, so there were few barriers standing in my way.

Just because I was able to acquire all the ingredients easily did not mean that I was able to throw this together in a timely fashion. The writers at Bon Appetit classify this as a quick meal, but they are sorely mistaken. This chicken salad is a test of one's knife skills the likes of which I have never experienced before. I spent what felt like forever thinly slicing the snow and sugar snap peas and green onion into fine ribbons, along with finely mincing the garlic and shallots. Sure, it was easy to chuck everything into a bowl and stir it up once it was all prepared, but I'm not sure the dish merited all the effort.

That's not to say that it wasn't tasty. If you like vegetables, like Justin does, I'm sure you'd enjoy this chicken salad as much as he did. For me, however, there were just too many raw vegetables and too little chicken. It was fresh, crunchy, and full of bright, spring flavors, but I couldn't ignore the voice of my inner child screaming, "Eiw! Veggies!" If you have some time on your hands, and access to a farmer's market, by all means, give this recipe a spin, you'll probably enjoy it. As for me, I'll be sticking with my much-beloved chicken salad recipe, that still has some fruit and vegetables for interest, but is more heavily skewed toward the meat side of the equation.

Three-Pea Chicken Salad
adapted from Bon Appetit

2 large shallots, 1 halved, 1 minced
2 garlic cloves, 1 smashed, 1 minced
1 pound skinless, boneless chicken breasts
Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
3/4 cup low-fat Greek yogurt
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 pound thinly sliced stringed sugar snap peas
1 cup frozen, thawed peas
1/2 cup thinly sliced stringed snow peas
1/4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh green onion
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest plus 1 tablespoon (or more) fresh lemon juice
Place halved shallot, smashed garlic, and chicken in a medium saucepan. Add water to cover by 1 inch and season with salt and pepper. Bring water to a boil; remove pan from heat, cover, and let stand until chicken is just cooked through, 15–25 minutes, depending on size of chicken breasts. Transfer chicken to a plate and let cool. Shred or dice chicken. 
Meanwhile, whisk yogurt, oil, minced shallot, and minced garlic in a small bowl. Season dressing with salt and pepper.

Combine all peas in a medium bowl. Add chicken, dressing, parsley, green onion, lemon zest, and 1 Tbsp. lemon juice; toss to coat. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and additional lemon juice, if desired.


You Can't Win 'Em All...

It just goes to demonstrate our new-found domesticity that the primary "fun" activity of our weekend involved doing errands. After our trip to Mitsuwa, the massive Japanese grocery store, almost a year ago, Justin has been vowing to take me to H Mart, an equally vast Korean emporium where the prices are lower, and the distance isn't as far to traverse. He's been bringing it up with more frequency ever since we moved closer to it, so I decided to take him up on his offer this weekend.

My motives weren't entirely pure; I mostly acquiesced because I had a cut-up pineapple languishing in the fridge that we weren't eating fast enough, and I had my eye on a recipe for pineapple fried rice that called for a few ingredients that wouldn't be easily found at the local grocery store. Plus, with H Mart's supposedly rock-bottom prices on produce, I figured we could pick up all the ingredients for the dish and a few more veggies for the rest of the week while we were there.

Sure enough, we found everything that we needed at H Mart, but not without inducing a near state of panic attack in me. While Justin was happily munching his way through all the free samples and gleefully checking out all the mysterious and unknown food products, I was being elbowed by little old ladies vigorously jockeying for the best piece of ginger, and having garlic practically ripped out of my hands by eager shoppers. It was hard to know what most of the items for sale even were, much less find what I was looking for, and I mostly lucked into finding the items on my grocery list. By the end of the trip, I found myself completely overwhelmed and taking refuge in the American food aisle (full of cereal, chips, and dairy products), which was the only part of the store that wasn't swarming with people. I'm not sure when I'll want to go back, but the prices were excellent, and the store did have a good selection of Chinese foodstuffs despite being Korean.

Sadly, I'm not sure I'll be returning to buy ingredients for this particular recipe. My usual fried-rice recipe hails from Katherine, and it's very heavy on the garlic, but features little else besides a bit of chicken and some carrots. I find it to be perfect comfort food (plus, it reminds me of my best friend), but Justin thinks it's too bland, which is what had me searching for a recipe we could both enjoy. This pineapple fried rice didn't fit the bill. The fruit was paired with Chinese sausage, which I'm generally a fan of, but the flavor profile of the meat skews towards the sweet side, and there was additional sweetness provided by hoisin sauce. The whole thing was just too sweet. Maybe if there had been more garlic, more ground pork, and more green onions, the dish would have been more balanced, but I doubt I'll be trying it again to find out.


Domestic Goddess...

With our work schedules currently at odds (I'm home on weekends, Justin is at home on Thursdays and random Sundays), and Justin using my car to get to work in the suburbs, I've been spending my Saturdays largely stuck at home. I could walk over to the El or the Metra, or take a bus somewhere, but I spend enough time commuting during the week to want to put that kind of effort into getting myself places on the weekend. Instead, I've been trying to use my time productively, tackling my weekly chores like doing the laundry, and preparing an elaborate meal for us to consume when Justin gets home.

Today, even though the weather is frighteningly warm for March (I really don't see how people can continue to question the existence of global warming after this week), I decided to tackle a project that's been lingering on my to-do list for quite some time -- getting some use out of my massive (and massively expensive) Le Creuset dutch oven. I had meant to delve into the world of hearty braises this winter, but with the move, I ended up not cooking much at home through the majority of the prime braising season. When I found pork roast on sale this week, I scanned through my savory recipe board on Pinterest, and spotted a recipe from the folks at America's Test Kitchen that called for preparing it in a Dutch Oven, I decided to kill two birds with one stone, weather be damned!

Though roasted meat with apples and shallots was probably too heavy for a gorgeous spring day, it was totally worth it. This meal was delicious! Pork and apples are a classic pairing, and my roast turned out perfectly after using the probe thermometer that had been MIA in my kitchen for years until I found it during the move. The meat was juicy, tender, and cooked to just the right level of doneness. Plus, the bountiful herbs reminded me of a meal I might have eaten in France. I would definitely make this dish again, though maybe when it's cooler outside and it won't heat up my kitchen.

Good as it was, I was even more impressed by the mashed potatoes that I made to go with it, almost as an afterthought. Potatoes were on sale at the grocery store, and after discovering that Justin doesn't mind washing the potato ricer after making all those mashed sweet potatoes the past month or so, I decided to give regular mashed potatoes a try as well. However, these were no regular mashed potatoes, they were garlic mashed potatoes from Alton Brown, one of my culinary icons. I saw him make these on his show years and years ago, and they stuck in my mind but I never had a chance to give them a try until now. 

Simply put, these are the greatest mashed potatoes I've ever made. Maybe even some of the best I've ever eaten. The garlic flavor is strong, so I wouldn't recommend them if you're not a fan, and they manage to be rich even though they contain only half-and-half and no butter. Parmesan cheese adds a bunch of umami that makes the dish irresistible. I literally stood over the stove with a spoon eating them straight out of the pot after dinner when I was supposed to be putting away the leftovers. If you love mashed potatoes, you seriously owe it to yourself to give this recipe a try.

Pork Roast en Cocotte with Apples and Shallots
adapted from America's Test Kitchen

1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
1 teaspoon dried marjoram
1 (2 1/4 lb) boneless center cut pork loin roast, trimmed
8 shallots, peeled and quartered
1 lb. apples, peeled, cored, and cut into 1/2-inch wedges
1/4 teaspoon sugar

Place the oven rack in its lowest position and preheat to 250°F.

1. In a small bowl, mix together the herbs, salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Rub all over roast.

2. In a Dutch oven, heat oil over medium-high heat. When hot, add roast and brown on all sides, 7 to 10 minutes. Remove roast and place on plate.

3. Lower heat to medium and add shallots to Dutch oven. Sauté 3 minutes. Add apples and sugar. Sauté 5 to 7 minutes.

4. Kill burner heat and add roast back into pan, along with any shed juices. Cover the pot with a layer of foil, and place the cover on top of that. Cook 30 to 50 minutes in the preheated oven, or until the inner temperature reaches 140°F to 145°F.
5. Remove roast from Dutch oven. Place on a cutting board, tent with foil, and let it sit for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, add some salt and pepper to the apple mixture, stir, and cover to keep warm.
6. Slice up pork and serve with shallots and apples spooned over it.

Creamy Garlic Mashed Potatoes
adapted from Alton Brown

1.75 lbs. potatoes (use whatever you prefer, I like red potatoes or Yukon golds)
1 tablespoon salt
1 c. half-and-half
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 oz. grated Parmesan

Peel and dice potatoes, making sure all are relatively the same size. Place in a large saucepan, add the salt, and cover with water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and then reduce heat to maintain a roiling boil. Cook until potatoes fall apart when poked with a fork.

Heat the half-and-half and the garlic in a medium saucepan over medium heat until simmering. Remove from heat and set aside.

Remove the potatoes from the heat and drain off the water. Mash and add the garlic-cream mixture and Parmesan; stir to combine. Let stand for 5 minutes so that mixture thickens and then serve.


Easy as π...

I have finally done it! After years of good intentions, I have finally produced a pie in honor of Pi Day! In the past, my lack of experience held me back from commemorating this psuedo-holiday, as I wasn't comfortable with the idea of tackling such a seemingly-complicated confection.When I finally conquered my fear of pie-baking last year, I found myself under the weather on Pi Day, and unable to participate. This year, however, I wasn't going to let anything stand in my way; I was absolutely determined to honor the arrival of Pi Day.

I started looking through my collection of saved pie recipes a few weeks ago to make a selection. Several of the options I'd pinned to my Pinterest inspiration board called for fruits that were out of season, so those were out. I wasn't in the mood for apple pie, and I kicked around the idea of a pie whose primary filling was salted caramel, thereby eliminating the middle man from the salted caramel apple pie and the banana caramel cream pies I made last year. Ultimately, however, I decided to go with a pie that was inspired by different salty-sweet dessert pairing that is close to my heart -- the chocolate-covered pretzel.

As I mentioned recently, I'm generally more of a salty snack kind of gal, so chocolate-covered pretzels have long been a favorite of mine. They touch on all three of my major food cravings -- salt, chocolate, and carbohydrates; truly, they are a perfect food. That's why I knew I had to make this pie the moment I saw it on a blog.

The chocolate filling for the pie is pretty standard; it's basically a regular chocolate pudding, and I felt comfortable making it after tackling pastry cream for the first time last year while making the banana caramel cream pie. The crust is what makes this pie unusual: instead of the standard graham cracker crust, the base for the pie is formed from pretzels ground with melted butter and brown sugar in a food processor and packed into the bottom of a pie plate. I'd never made a graham cracker crust before, so I can't say whether forming the pretzel crust was more or less difficult, but it was certainly less work overall than a regular pie crust.

In true chocolate-covered pretzel style, the crust received a thin layer of dark chocolate ganache before taking the creamy chocolate filling. Once the pie had firmed up, the ganache layer became texturally indistinguishable from the rest of the filling, but I appreciated the extra hit of chocolate flavor that it lent. The whole thing was topped with a luscious cloud of homemade whipped cream and a shower of shaved chocolate, making it perhaps the most attractive pie I've made to date.

My only problem with this recipe was that I wanted the crust to taste more overwhelmingly like pretzels. I'm not sure if the brown sugar mellowed the salty punch of the pretzels, or if I should have just used a pretzel with a higher salt content (in my family we like our pretzels really salty, and in fact, favor the brand Salty Stix, which should tell you everything you need to know about our preferences on that front), instead of the Rold Golds that were on sale at the store that week. As it was, the pretzels gave a nice toasted note to the crust and maintained their crunchiness surprisingly well, given the wet filling.

I'd definitely give this pie another shot, with a few tweaks to the crust, even if it were nowhere near March 14th. Good chocolate pies are hard to find, and this one fits the bill. Happy Pi Day!

Chocolate-Covered Pretzel Pie
adapted from Tidy Mom

3 c. broken pretzel sticks
3/4 c. light brown sugar, divided and lightly packed
1/2 c. unsalted butter, melted
1/4 c. cornstarch
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
Pinch of salt
2 1/2 c. whole milk
4 egg yolks
3 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped
4 oz. semi sweet chocolate, chopped
1-1/4 c. + 2 tablespoons heavy whipping cream, divided
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons confectioners sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. 
1. In a food processor combine pretzels, 1/4 cup brown sugar, and butter; blend until mixture resembles fine crumbs. Press mixture firmly into bottom and up sides of a 9-inch pie pan. Bake crust until fragrant and just turning golden, 10 to 15 minutes; cool.
2. In a medium saucepan whisk together 1/2 cup lightly packed brown sugar, cornstarch, cocoa, salt, and milk. Place over medium heat and stir until sugar is just dissolved, about 2 minutes. Whisk in egg yolks. Cook, stirring constantly, until custard thickens and just boils, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in bittersweet chocolate and vanilla. Place pan in a bowl of ice and water and stir occasionally until custard cools.
3. While custard cools, make a chocolate ganache to cover pie crust. Place chopped semi sweet chocolate in medium bowl. Heat 1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons of heavy whipping cream in microwave about 30-40 seconds (just until boils). Pour warm cream over chocolate and stir until melted. Pour over cooled pie crust, using rubber spatula to help spread chocolate up the sides and over entire bottom of crust. Place in refrigerator or freezer until set.
4. Pour custard into cooled crust with hardened ganache and press plastic wrap directly onto surface. Chill until firm, 4 hours or up to a day.
5. Whip cream and confectioners’ sugar until soft peaks form, spread over pie and garnish with extra pretzels and chocolate shavings.


When The Moon Hits Your Eye...

Have I mentioned lately how amazing Justin is to put up with me? This point was driven home to me earlier this evening, after the two of us engaged in a ridiculous tug-of-war over a bowl of bread flour. You see, I tend to be rather anal retentive about my baking, and am a stickler for accurate measuring. The volumetric measurements preferred by American cooks, and therefore employed by American recipe authors, are the bane of my culinary existence. Depending on how hard you pack flour into a measuring cup, a seemingly standard measure can hold a wide range of actual product. Weight, however, is universal. A pound of flour weighs a pound, no matter how densely you cram it into a container.

So when I noticed Justin sweeping the excess flour from the top of a measuring cup into the bowl he was measuring it into instead of the regular container, I kind of freaked out. Cooking may be an art, but baking is a science, and I wanted the pizza crust he was making for our dinner this evening to turn out perfectly. It's hard to gauge the quality of a new recipe when you don't follow it to the letter the first time around.

Justin looked at me like I was from another planet when I asked him to re-measure it, and when I offered to do it myself, a tug-of-war ensued over the bowl of flour. Thankfully, he acquiesced, or we could have been vacuuming up bread flour from the epic mess that could have potentially ensued. I re-measured the flour using a kitchen scale, the pizza crust turned out just fine, and more importantly, Justin didn't leave me over the whole episode. When it comes to baking, I'm crazy, I know. I'm just incredibly lucky to have this man who is crazy enough about me to overlook my irrational perfectionist streak in the kitchen.

As for our dinner... it was interesting. I'd spotted an unconventional combination of toppings in Food and Wine that included sweet potatoes (which have been my recent object of obsession lately), caramelized onions in a balsamic vinegar reduction, mozzarella cheese, and soppressata, a spicy Italian salami, and was keen to try it, mostly as a potential way to use up leftover mashed sweet potatoes. While the onions were delicious, and will definitely be making an appearance elsewhere in my culinary adventures in the future, the pizza was far from the best I've ever made.

Sweet potatoes are not a good pizza topping -- very texturally challenging. I think this pizza would actually be fine without them, as the savory, spicy pork was a perfect foil to the sweet, tangy onions. Minus the sweet potatoes, I'd certainly recommend the other toppings on this pie, if you're into making your own pizza. Just don't follow my example of being a total kitchen drama queen if you decide to go that route.

If you look closely, it turned out somewhat heart-shaped...

Balsamic Onion and Soppressata Pizza
adapted from Food and Wine

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large white onion, thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 c. plus 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 12-inch pizza crust, par-baked
1 1/2 c. shredded mozzarella cheese
4 oz. soppressata, cut into thin ribbons

Preheat the oven to 450.
1. In a large skillet, melt the butter in the olive oil. Add the onion and dried oregano, cover and cook over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons of water to the skillet and cook over moderate heat until the onion is caramelized, about 10 minutes; add a few tablespoons of water to the skillet if necessary. Add the balsamic vinegar and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until it has evaporated, about 10 minutes. Season the onion with salt and pepper.
2. Top pizza crust with the mozzarella, onion and soppressata. Bake for about 10 minutes, until bubbling and golden in spots. Cut into wedges and serve.


What A Pear...

I don't want to jinx anything, but with longer days, the arrival of Daylight Savings Time, and the first inklings of warmer weather, I think spring may be arriving in Chicago. I'm not going to preclude the possibility of an April blizzard, but it certainly feels like spring out there, so I've decided to herald the (potential) arrival of fairer weather by resuming my production of frozen desserts. I know I said that I'd be checking out my new ice cream book, Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams At Home, come spring, but with the move, I'm not exactly sure where it is. I did, however, find my well-loved copy of The Perfect Scoop, so I decided it was time to tackle another one of it's recipes that has been haunting my imagination for years.

It should come as no surprise that this particular ice cream iteration involves caramel -- it's a flavor that has dominated my baking experiments for the past few years, from pies, to cookies, to previous ice cream recipes. It's safe to say, if I can figure out a way to get caramel into a dessert, I will. I particularly enjoy caramel when paired with various fruits. I may not have outgrown my childhood aversion to eating fresh fruits and vegetables, but adding caramel to the mix will almost certainly get me to eat fruit, even if it negates its natural nutritional value. So when I saw David Lebovitz's unique recipe for caramelized pear ice cream, I knew I had to give it a try.

I allowed my fear of candy-making to dissuade me from attempting the recipe for several years, and by the time I'd finally gotten some experience under my belt with making caramel, I never seemed to be able to coordinate pear season with my motivation to make ice cream. I came very close to trying this recipe back in December when my parents received a corporate gift of pears from Harry and David (say what you will about them; they do grow the most delicious pears I've ever had), but I thought we were getting close to moving, and it didn't make sense at the time to be producing more frozen food that would need to be transported from one fridge to the next.

We're still not technically in pear season any longer, but they were on sale at Dominick's last week, and it took them long enough to become ripe that I was able to overcome last weekend's bout of illness that left me inspired to tackle anything food-related, including eating. The fruit was finally good to go today, and making this ice cream recipe with them was surprisingly simple. The caramel and pear mixture was much easier to make than I had anticipated (I'm not sure if that's due to the humidity levels in my new home, or just the fact that I've gotten more experienced with caramelizing sugar), and the lack of a custard base meant that the ice cream came together very quickly.

The flavor ended up being a bit unusual -- the flavor of caramel is dominant, followed by a hint of fresh pear at the end. I'm glad that it was an egg-free base, as I think the eggs would have completely drowned out the other flavors, and the pear would have likely been undetectable altogether. As is true of nearly all of the Lebovitz recipes I've tried, the caramel pear ice cream was texturally perfect -- very creamy and smooth on the tongue.

Mostly, this recipe makes me want to try cutting out the fruity middle man, and create a purely caramel-flavored ice cream. Thankfully, though it's not in The Perfect Scoop, Lebovitz has a recipe for that as well. Stay tuned readers; I'm definitely going to make this happen.

Pear-Caramel Ice Cream
adapted from The Perfect Scoop

3 medium-sized ripe pears, peeled and cored
3/4 c. plus 2 tablespoons sugar
2 c. heavy cream
1/8 teaspoon salt
a few drops freshly squeezed lemon juice

1. Dice the pears into 1/4-inch pieces.
2. Spread the sugar in a large, nonreactive, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Cook the sugar over medium-heat, watching it carefully. When it begins to liquefy and darken at the edges, use a heatproof spatula to very gently stir the sugar, encouraging the heat of the liquefied sugar around the edges to moisten and melt the sugar crystals in the center.
3. Once the sugar becomes deep amber, stir in the pear pieces. Some of the caramel will seize and harden, but as you cook the pears, use a heatproof spatula to stir them and melt any bits of hard caramel. Continue to cook the pears for 10 minutes, until the pieces are cooked through.
4. Remove from the heat and stir in 1/2 cup of the cream, them mix in the remaining cream, along with the salt and a few drops of lemon juice.
5. Let cool to room temperature, then puree in a blender or food processor until smooth. Press the mixture through a mesh strainer with a flexible rubber spatula to remove any tough pear fibers.
6. Chill the mixture thoroughly in the refrigerator, then freeze it in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions.


Stop The Presses...

Today marks a milestone in my burgeoning side-career as a writer: after nearly three years of chronicling my life here at "The State I Am In" as a hobby, I've started writing a restaurant review column for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. It's not a paying gig, and I'm sharing the byline with my dad, though I do all the writing, but it's a good way to grow a portfolio as a freelance writer. There's an old saying floating around the internet that says, "The work you do while you procrastinate is probably the work you should be doing for the rest of your life." If that's true, then perhaps I'm on the right track by taking on this new monthly column. 

I'm grateful to my dad for linking me up with this opportunity, and for financing the tasting dinners necessary to write these reviews. The article is behind a pay wall at the paper's website, but here's the text of the first edition of "Dining Due Dilligence" (clever legal tie-in with the title, eh?):

On the surface, Henri, the elegant French eatery from restaurateur Billy Lawless, lives up to the legacy of its namesake, Louis Henri Sullivan. The attention to detail is impeccable, from the bus boys ironing the table linens in situ prior to laying out the flatware to the room temperature butter served to accompany perfectly crisp, individually-sized baguettes. Such scrupulous care seems more impressive in the dining room's beautifully appointed space, which features elaborate crown moldings reproduced from Sullivan's originals, deep chocolate-colored velvet walls and striking seafoam green accents.
When it comes to service, however, the attention to detail begins to falter. Timing seems to be Henri's biggest problem. Dirty dishes lingered on the table long after each course had been completed and the lulls between courses became maddening at times.

In the same vein, Henri's inconsistencies play out in its food. The meal starts strong with an array of appetizers. The pheasant consommé, though overly salty, featured an intriguing garnish of red grapes that surprised the palate and played harmoniously with the poultry. The pissaladière held the most promise, but fell flat with its chewy, insufficiently rendered (albeit house-cured) bacon. Instead, the tender escargot emerged as one of the favorites.

The entrée course brought a similarly uneven range of dishes. A game special of venison was dry, but the accompanying cocoa nib and pomegranate garnishes were on-point. The veal chop was well-seasoned, but it arrived rather undercooked despite a request for medium doneness. Buckwheat crepes featuring a mushroom filling felt like an afterthought, designed to mollify vegetarian diners. Oddly, the most delicious item to grace the table was a garnish — the duck confit, wrapped in an herbaceous pastry crust, was designed to complement the seared duck breast, but instead overshadowed it.

If you still have an appetite for dessert, the almond financier stands out for its authentic nut flavor — none of the abhorrent artificial almond flavor that dominates so many almond-themed desserts was detected.

The atmosphere alone at Henri would be perfect for impressing an important business client, but you would do well to request a four-person table if you wish your conversation to remain private. Be sure you come for dinner when you don't have to make it to the office for any afternoon meetings.

Visit Henri at 18 S. Michigan Ave., or


Guess Who's Back...

It's no secret that I'm kind of a procrastinator. That's why we're a week into March and we're still not done unpacking from our move. (Though, in our defense, we've done about as much as we can without getting more bookcases. There's simply nowhere to put the books and DVDs that are taking over the mancave at the moment. I've picked out my birthday bookshelves, but they won't be arriving until closer to the actual date.) As part of the general upheaval the move has caused in my life, I've had to put off my participation in the weekly Cake Day rotation at work for months. The last thing I made specifically for Cake Day were the pecan bars I baked back in November, though I was able to count my annual Cookie Bonanza giveaway as my December contribution to the Cake Day lineup.

First, my baking supplies were packed and inaccessible. Then, I was too busy with unpacking and getting settled to take on the responsibility of feeding something tasty to my peers. Finally though, a month after our move, I felt sufficiently prepared to tackle Cake Day once more, and I knew I wanted to make my comeback in a big way. This time, I knew I wanted to make a proper cake instead of my usual more easily-transported baked goods, so I asked if I could move my appointed day to Thursday instead of Tuesday so I could ask Justin to drive me to work on his day off, so I wouldn't have to schlep my cake carrier on the train. With that administrative task out of the way, I set about the task of selecting a recipe to try.

I have several tempting layer cakes saved to my Pinterest dessert board, involving a wide array of flavors that I love -- cinnamon, chocolate, maple, salted caramel... the list goes on and on. I've got a lot of occasions coming up that will call for cake baking, however, including my birthday and my blogiversary, so I had to be judicious with my choice. I ended up being drawn to a mint chocolate chip cake that I had spotted on a random food blog one day, largely because I've been preoccupied with thoughts of a similar confection since Mom's birthday last year. 

At the time, I had spotted a cake based on the grasshopper cocktail in my copy of Baked: New Explorations in Baking, and had wanted to make it for her, knowing her fondness for the ice cream beverage. Even on her birthday, she remained dedicated to her diet, and requested that I forgo making her a cake last year, but the idea of combining mint and chocolate in cake form stuck with me. The recipe that I'd spotted on the internet was similar, but considerably less complicated than the Baked version, so I decided to give it a go.

Though I have a foolproof chocolate cake recipe to which I am immensely devoted, I decided to go ahead and try the devil's food chocolate cake suggested by the blogger who devised this cake. The recipe originally hailed from David Lebovitz, and I trust him implicitly when it comes to making desserts, plus, my much-beloved chocolate cake recipe is a little too fluffy and soft to hold up to heavy frosting when stacked. It would be nice to see if Lebovitz's recipe could offer additional structure without sacrificing taste or texture. Thankfully, it was almost as delicious as my regular go-to cake, and it held its shape beautifully under the generous layer of frosting I applied.

The frosting itself was very simple to make, though I wished I had mint extract on hand instead of the peppermint extract I used because I think that would have tasted a bit better. Something about that much peppermint kind of reminded me of toothpaste, but nobody else seemed to be of the same mind. I particularly liked all the finely ground bits of bittersweet chocolate studding the frosting; not only did they drive home the mint chocolate chip theme, they also made the frosting extremely forgiving. I didn't have to worry about crumb-coating the cake to keep the crumbs out of the frosting, as the chocolate cake flecks would have blended right in. Given my lack of frosting skills, this was a definite advantage for me.

My offering was very well-received by my colleagues for Cake Day, and I even managed to save a piece to bring home to Justin. Being the masochist that I am, I'm still curious about the Baked grasshopper cake, but that's going to have to wait until the next month of furious cake baking is behind me. Stay tuned to see what I come up with for the cake-centric occasions to come next month...

Mint Chocolate Chip Cake
adapted from Raspberri Cupcakes

For the cake:
9 tablespoons cocoa powder (I used a combination of natural and Dutch-process)
1 1/2 c. cake flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 c. granulated sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 c. water
1/2 c. milk (any variety)

Preheat the oven to 350. Spray two 9-inch cake pans with Pam and line the bottoms with circles of parchment paper. Spray the parchment paper with Pam too.
1. Sift together the cake flour, cocoa powder, salt, baking soda, and baking powder.
2. In the bowl of a standing electric mixer, beat together the butter and sugar about 5 minutes until smooth and creamy. Add the eggs one at a time until fully incorporated.
3. Mix together the water and milk. Stir half of the dry ingredients into the butter mixture, the add the water and milk. Finally stir in the other half of the dry ingredients.
4. Divide the batter into the two prepared cake pans and bake for 25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool completely before frosting.

For the frosting:
2 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, softened and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
4 c. powdered sugar, sifted
2-3 teaspoons mint extract
5 oz. semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
green food coloring

Beat butter with an electric mixer on high until fluffy and smooth. Add powdered sugar one cup at a time, beating until combined. Add mint extract to taste and green food coloring. Gradually add chocolate pieces until you have a good distribution of chocolate bits.


Rolling in Dough...

Sometimes life surprises you. When I set out to make dinner tonight, I had high hopes for the new soup recipe I was going to try, which I had culled from Food & Wine. It was, for an intents and purposes, a basic potato soup, jazzed up with spicy shrimp seasoned with a special pepper paste from Turkey that I had to visit the ethnic grocery store to locate. Almost as an afterthought, I decided to whip up a batch of homemade biscuits to go with it, partially because soup alone no longer qualifies as a meal once you have a man in the house, partially because I had leftover buttermilk that was on the cusp of expiring after some ill-fated cornbread-inspired pancakes a while back, and partially because I'd spotted this recipe on Cook's Country while embroiled in one of my Saturday PBS cooking show marathons and thought it looked interesting.

As it turned out, the soup was a total flop. It was incredibly bland, and the shrimp, which weren't particularly spicy after all, didn't improve matters much. On the other hand, the biscuits, which I hadn't expected much from, given my unsuccessful history of biscuit-making attempts, were out of this world. They were, by far, the best biscuits I've ever made, and possibly some of the best biscuits I've ever eaten. Perhaps I shouldn't have doubted the folks at America's Test Kitchen; after all, they've been right about so many other flour-based dishes, like my favorite pizza crust recipe, and my new favorite pie crust.

These biscuits were light, fluffy, and soft, with a flavor that approached my Platonic ideal for biscuits -- a hint of butter, a bit of tang from the buttermilk, and the nuttiness of browned flour. Plus, they were enormous; the recipe is called "cat's head biscuits" because each individual biscuit is roughly the size of a cat's head, and that may even be too modest. They're huge, so you get the joy of eating lots of biscuit without the guilt of mentally totally up how many biscuits you just ate. Bonus!

I liked these biscuits so much that I feel it's my duty to share the recipe with you, even though the people at America's Test Kitchen are infamous for sending cease and desist letters to bloggers who publish their recipes. These biscuits are worth the risk. Go forth and make them before I get asked to take down the recipe, trust me!

Cat's Head Biscuits
adapted from Cook's Country

1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1 1/2 c. cake flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
4 tablespoons vegetable shortening, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 1/4 c. buttermilk

Preheat oven to 425. Spray a 9-inch round cake pan with Pam.
1. Combine flours, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in large bowl. Rub butter and shortening into flour mixture until mixture resembles coarse meal. Stir in buttermilk until combined.
2. Use greased 1/2-cup measure or large spring-loaded ice cream scoop to transfer 6 heaping portions of dough into prepared pan, placing 5 around pan's perimeter and 1 in center.
3. Bake until puffed and golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Cool in pan for 10 minutes, then transfer to wire rack. Serve. (Biscuits can be stored in airtight container at room temperature for 2 days.)