I Wanna Wok...

By now, it ought to be clear that I'm somewhat of a glutton for punishment when it comes to my time in the kitchen. I take on recipes with the intent of expanding my cooking skill set, and am constantly tackling recipes that other people might reserve for a special occasion. This time, I engineered another visit to H-Mart, the intimidating, panic-attack inducing Korean grocery store that I visited with Justin a little over a month ago, with the intent of producing nearly a week's worth of Asian-influenced recipes that have been lingering on my to-do list. I was inspired in this endeavor by a rare sale on flank steak at my regular grocery store (seriously, why is beef so expensive?) that enabled me to tackle a particularly tempting stir-fry recipe I'd had my eye on.

Today's visit to H-Mart was far less stressful, perhaps because we'd come on a day with inclement weather, but whatever the reason, it was far less crowded. Since I was more familiar with the layout of the store this time, I was able to find everything we needed in relatively short order, and we made it out of the store with a large selection of items for under $20. Not bad at all.

I was even more happy that I'd given H-Mart another chance when I tasted the dinner I had created using the ingredients I had purchased there. I'm definitely going to have to watch the price of flank steak like a hawk, because both Justin and I would like to see this dish become a semi-regular meal around our house. 

As per the suggestions in the comments on Epicurious, I doubled the amount of sauce for the recipe, which was a stroke of brilliance, as the dish would have been very dry otherwise, and the sauce was absolutely delicious -- a perfect balance of rich and savory flavors. The snow peas provided a nice crunchy element, though in the future I might experiment with adding baby corn as well, both to increase the vegetable content, and because I really love baby corn. Also, if you can't find fresh, Chinese-style noodles near you, I think this stir fry would be equally satisfying served over rice.

Beef and Snow Peas with Pan-fried Noodles
adapted from Gourmet

1 lb. package fresh Chinese-style noodles
1/4 c. oyster sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
4 teaspoons corn starch
1 c. water
5 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
1/2 lb. snow peas, trimmed
3 scallions, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons minced, peeled ginger
1 lb. flank steak, thinly sliced across the grain
1. Cook noodles according to package directions, then drain in a colander.
2. Stir together oyster sauce, soy sauce, sugar, cornstarch, and water until smooth.
3. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until hot. Add noodles to skillet, pressing them with a rubber spatula to form a cake, and cook until underside is golden, 2 to 3 minutes. Flip cake over and drizzle 1 tablespoon oil around sides of cake, then cook until underside is golden, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer noodle cake to a cutting board and cut into quarters.
4. Heat 1/2 tablespoon oil in a wok or 12-inch heavy skillet over medium-high heat until it begins to smoke. Stir-fry snow peas with a pinch of salt until bright green, 1 to 2 minutes, then transfer to a plate. Add 2 tablespoons oil to wok and stir-fry scallions and ginger with 1/4 teaspoon salt 30 seconds. Add half of beef and cook, undisturbed, 45 seconds, then stir-fry until beef is just browned, 1 to 2 minutes more. Transfer to plate with snow peas. Add remaining tablespoon oil and cook remaining beef in same manner.
5. Stir sauce mixture again, then add to wok and bring to a boil. Stir in beef and snow peas, then serve spooned on top of noodle cake.


The Five Year Engagement...

My ongoing effort to get us out of the house more often took us to the movie theater tonight, where we were actually able agree on a romantic comedy. This is notable mainly because Justin is a very tough sell on any movie that remotely comes across as being marketed toward women, and the film's title, The Five-Year Engagement, wasn't doing me any favors. However, the film's cast did boast the presence of Jason Segel, whose work Justin admires, and whom I've gained an appreciation for since his involvement with the latest Muppet movie. Unlike many compromises, when both sides end up unhappy, both Justin and I really ended up enjoying ourselves.

The movie turned out to be raunchier than I had expected, but then again, given that Jason Segel was the leading man and Judd Apatow as a co-producer, I really should have seen that coming. While I wouldn't have expected such material to work for Emily Blunt, whose particular brand of neurosis was perfectly showcased in The Devil Wears Prada, she actually demonstrated tremendous chemistry with Segel, and scored some of the film's more memorable lines. Plus, the film boasted a brilliant supporting cast, from an endearing performance by a nearly-unrecognizable Alison Brie, to the scene-stealing work of Chris Parnell, to a number of cameos by various high-profile comedians, The Five-Year Engagement was practically brimming over with talent.

Even if the film reached its climax in a typically unrealistic but highly romantic way, I respect The Five-Year Engagement for presenting a more believable take on modern relationships. Life may not always live up to our expectations, and we may have to adapt the vision we had for ourselves, but happy endings are still possible. I may be prone to buy into that message given my own state of romantic bliss, and I know that there are many people out there for whom things don't work out. But I still think The Five-Year Engagement makes a perfect date-night movie, with enough bawdy humor to keep the men engaged, and sufficient romantic optimism to make the ladies swoon.

Hamming It Up...

Despite the disastrous clean-up situation after our last round of waffle-making that brought me to the brink of throwing away a brand-new waffle iron, I found myself pulling it out of the depths of the kitchen cabinet in order to give things another try. I had spotted a recipe in the latest issue of Bon Appetit that provided one-stop shopping for brunch: ham and cheese waffles. They combined sweet and savory, protein and carbohydrates, and most importantly, I had all the ingredients in the house between our leftover Easter ham and the buttermilk I used to bake my blogiversary cake earlier this week. I couldn't ask for more.

The waffles turned out crisp yet fluffy, with a nice salty kick from the ham and cheese. I was a little wary of how they would pair with the maple syrup suggested in the recipe, but the combination was spot-on. If you like getting maple syrup on your ham or sausage when you go out for breakfast, it's a safe bet you'll like these waffles.

Most importantly, the cooked waffles released cleanly from the waffle iron, without creating another epic mess. We made these waffles for dinner, and it would have been miserable to spend our evening scraping food debris from our cooking implement. Now that I've gotten a successful batch of waffles under my belt, I'm ready to dust off the waffle iron with a bit more frequency, and explore a variety of conventional and unconventional recipes alike.

Ham and Cheese Waffles
adapted from Bon Appétit

1 3/4 c. flour
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 large egg whites
3 large egg yolks
1 cup melted butter
1 cup buttermilk
3/4 cup soda water
1 cup thinly-cut strips of ham
3/4 cup shredded sharp white cheddar
Maple syrup

Preheat oven to 300°. Heat waffle iron until very hot. Whisk flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and kosher salt in a large bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat egg whites in a medium bowl until medium-soft peaks form. Whisk egg yolks, melted butter, buttermilk, and soda water in a medium bowl; gradually whisk into dry ingredients. Fold in egg whites.
Coat waffle iron with Pam. Pour batter onto iron, spreading it into corners (amount of batter needed will vary according to machine). Scatter 1 rounded Tbsp. ham and 1 Tbsp. white cheddar over each waffle. Cook until golden brown and cooked through. Transfer to a baking sheet; keep waffles warm in oven between batches. Serve with butter and warm maple syrup.


Sometimes You Catch More Flies with Vinegar...

"Easy, weeknight meal" is not something that is in my culinary vocabulary. I am notoriously bad at judging how long a recipe will take to make, and besides, I'd much rather turn out something with the potential to be amazing than something merely ordinary, just to have it done quickly. Even when I try recipes that are billed as being fast and simple, they never seem to come together as painlessly as promised, so most of the time I don't even bother seeking them out.

However, when I spotted a recipe for pork chops, pounded out into a thin paillard and quickly grilled, over some charred green onions (a preparation I had discovered a fondness for when I sampled them at Mercat a la Planxa during last year's Restaurant Week), dressed with a bright, citrus-y vinaigrette in Serious Eats' "Dinner Tonight" column, it spoke to me. I filed it away to Pinterest, and waited until I could get the ingredients on sale. The stars fell into alignment this week, so I was able to give this meal a chance at long last.

For once, this was a dinner that lived up to its billing: the meal came together with near-lightning speed, so much so that it beat out the brown rice we had put on to cook as an accompaniment by over twenty minutes. All the components cooked in the same pan as well, which is always an added bonus, though we managed to flood our kitchen with smoke, due to our woefully inefficient ventilation system. We're hoping to get a grill sometime this summer, so when that happens, we'll be able to prepare this meal outside and save ourselves the worry over accidentally setting off our smoke detector.

This recipe would make a perfect summer meal anyway; the orange-vinaigrette is tangy and light, almost refreshing, and it is a perfect foil for the silky grilled scallion and the smokey pork. I'm looking forward to enjoying this again on a warm, lovely evening sometime soon.

Pork Paillards with Orange Marmalade Vinaigrette 
adapted from Serious Eats

1 lb. thin-cut boneless pork chops (about 4)
2 bunches of scallions, roots trimmed but left whole
1/2 c. orange juice
2 teaspoons cider vinegar
2 teaspoons heavy cream
2 tablespoons orange marmalade
1/3 c. canola oil
1/3 c. olive oil

1. Season the chops with salt and pepper and set aside.
2. In a small bowl, whisk together the orange juice, vinegar and cream. Whisk in the marmalade, then add the canola oil in a slow stream at first while whisking constantly to create a smooth dressing. Continue whisking in the rest of the oil, taste for seasoning, and set aside.
3. Prepare a grill or heat a grill pan over high heat. Rub the scallions with olive oil and grill until charred and soft, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove to a platter and add the pork to the grill; cook until well-marked and firm, 3 to 4 minutes on each side. Transfer to a platter to rest for a moment.
4.  Drizzle the pork and onions with the vinaigrette, and serve immediately with brown rice.


Happy Blogiversary...

Hard as it may be to believe, yet another year has gone by here at "The State I Am In," bringing us to my third annual blogiversary. I've managed to persevere through all the upheaval of moving and creating a new home to write a total of 191 posts in the past year. That's the most posts I've written in a single year since I started blogging, and works out to a post every 1.9 days. Given everything that I've accomplished in the last year, I'm pretty pleased with myself!

I've undergone quite the lifestyle change in the past year, moving away from the heart of the city to a far-flung neighborhood, and building a home with the man I love. My posts skew more toward the domestic side these days, chronicling our various home improvement projects and the progress we're making on finishing our condo, as well as the meals I prepare for us. I made it my New Year's resolution to expand my cooking repertoire this year by trying new recipes, and using Pinterest as a visual to-do list has helped me to try over three dozen new recipes in the nearly three months since we moved. In case you hadn't guessed, "food" is still the most popular tag here at "The State I Am In," just as it always has been.

Accordingly, I've decided to continue my tradition of marking my blog's anniversary by baking a special cake. I've always tackled something new for my blogiversary, but in the past, I've always followed a random whim. This year, I thought I'd take a slightly different tack, and make a cake with a long, storied tradition -- my grandma's red velvet cake. For as long as I can remember, this is the cake Grandma would bake to celebrate family birthdays (usually my mom's or my aunts'), though she has changed her recipe countless times in recent years, in search of something slightly better. In my opinion, however, nothing can trump the original, and my copy of the recipe is the one she used throughout my childhood.

Red velvet cake is usually thought of as a Southern dessert, and didn't start to become widely available in Chicago until the cupcake boom of the past decade or so. Its striking red color, and unusual, marshmallow fluff-like frosting, both unnerved and fascinated my friends whenever we would share a cake with them when we were growing up, and several of my girlfriends have blamed me for ruining them on all commercially available red velvet cakes today.

You see, our family version eschews the typical cream cheese frosting that usually graces red velvet cake (in fact, I believe most red velvet cupcakes sold in shops are merely a vehicle for serving people cream cheese frosting), in favor of "seven-minute icing," the usual topping for Southern coconut cakes. Seven-minute icing, which derives its name from the amount of time you beat its ingredients over a double boiler in order to make it, is sticky, slightly chewy, but also fluffy and creamy. I'm not sure how it came to be combined with red velvet cake; our recipe came into our lives by way of a lady that belonged to Grandma's church, but other than that, we have very little information about how this recipe came to be a family staple. Still, I can't fathom eating red velvet cake in any other format.

I've long been too intimidated to try my hand at Grandma's signature dessert. My mom has successfully made it, and I have more baking experience and skills under my belt than she does at this point, but my repeated failure to replicate my grandma's Texas cake had me spooked. What if I failed at this too? My status as heir apparent to Grandma's baking legacy would be seriously called into question.

My blogiversary calls for something truly special, however, and I decided that this year it was time to conquer my fear of "red cake," and give it my best shot. Thankfully, Mom happened to be over at my house the day I tackled it, because Grandma's instructions for the frosting were somewhat vague. Apparently, her conception of a double boiler varies substantially from the technical term. She conceives of it as a medium saucepan, partially submerged in a wide, shallow pan of boiling water. This unusual set-up was a little harrowing, as the scalding water was sloshing out of the pan as I beat the icing, but the end product turned out absolutely perfect, so I was happy to have obtained some motherly guidance in making it.

I almost don't want to say it, but I think my red cake turned out better than many of the ones I've had from Grandma Betsy, and it was certainly a feast worthy of my blogiversary. Here's hoping my success with Grandma's red velvet cake is a fortuitous sign for the next year of "The State I Am In!"

Red Cake
adapted from Grandma Betsy

1/2 c. unsalted butter
1 1/2 c. sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons natural cocoa powder
1 oz. red food coloring, plus 1 oz. water
2 1/4 - 2 1/2 c. cake flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cider vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
1 c. buttermilk

Preheat oven to 350.
1. Cream together butter and sugar.
2. Add two eggs, one at a time.
3. Combine vanilla, cocoa, food coloring, and water. Mix with butter, sugar, and eggs.
4. Sift together cake flour, baking powder, and salt. Add alternately with buttermilk to egg mixture.
5. Mix 1 teaspoon baking soda and vinegar in a small bowl, and gently fold into batter.
6. Bake for 30 minutes, in two 9-inch pans lined with parchment paper in the bottoms. Ice when cool.

Seven-Minute Icing

2 egg whites
3/4 c. sugar
1/3 c. light corn syrup
2 tablespoons water
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Combine all ingredients except vanilla extract in a saucepan set into a shallow pan of boiling water. Beat with an electric hand-mixer for seven minutes.
2. After beating, add vanilla extract. Spread onto cake immediately.


How Sweet It Is...

I can't deny it any longer: I've been involved in a long-simmering love affair beyond the confines of my relationship with Justin. You can relax though, the object of my affection is not another man, but rather, a vegetable -- sweet potatoes to be precise. It started last year, when I discovered that my appreciation extended beyond the occasional plate of fries, and now I've been trying to sneak them into every dish I can find a recipe for. There was a delectable breakfast hash, a perfect mashed sweet potato side dish, and I even attempted to put them on a pizza, though that turned out to be a questionable decision on my part.

My latest experiment involved a sweet potato pie, but not the version laden with warm spices that one tends to see on holiday menus. Instead, this version, from Donald Link, the chef behind Cochon, the restaurant where we ate so well in New Orleans, was a savory, Cajun-inspired spin on the dish. As if the presence of sweet potatoes and the Donald Link connection wasn't enough to motivate me to try it, the recipe included andouille sausage, which makes everything better, in my experience.

In order to turn the pie into a more practical weeknight meal, I made the crust yesterday, and chilled it overnight, which had the added benefit of netting me a bonus pie crust for the freezer, since my favorite recipe makes enough for a double-crusted pie. I also baked the sweet potatoes in advance, so all I had to do was saute the meat and onions, combine the ingredients for the filling, and bake. It wasn't the quickest meal I've ever made on a work night, but it certainly wasn't the most laborious either.

I ended up having mixed feelings about the pie. While I though that the spicy sausage was a perfect compliment to the sweet potatoes, the texture of the filling was a little light and fluffy for me. A savory entree seems to call for a denser, more substantial mouth feel, and the lightness of this pie made it feel like a dessert with some misplaced meat and vegetables. I think the textural problems could be remedied by pureeing the sweet potatoes with the egg yolks, and stirring in the heavy cream by hand, as the action of the food processor started turning the cream into whipped cream before the mixture was fully incorporated.

It would be worth testing this technique, because this savory pie was a huge hit with Justin, and I did enjoy the flavors, if not the texture. I like the idea of savory pies in general, but then again, I seem to be having something of a pie moment lately. After all, I've made more pies than cookies in our new home, and that's highly unusual for me. Stay tuned to see what I think up next!

Andouille and Sweet Potato Pie
adapted from Food and Wine

1 lb. small sweet potatoes, pierced with a fork
1/2 lb. andouille sausage, cut into 1-inch pieces
1/2 small onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon dried sage, crumbled
1 c. heavy cream
3 large egg yolks
freshly ground black pepper
1 recipe pie crust

Preheat the oven to 350°. Wrap the sweet potatoes in foil and bake for 45 minutes, until they are soft. Let the sweet potatoes cool. Meanwhile, bake prepared pie crust.

In a large skillet, heat a tablespoon of olive oil. Add the andouille sausage and cook over high heat, stirring occasionally, until it is lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add the onion, garlic and dried sage and cook until the onion is softened, about 5 minutes. Let cool slightly.

Peel the sweet potatoes and transfer them to a food processor. Puree until very smooth. Season with salt and pepper. Add the egg yolks and process until incorporated. Stir in the heavy cream by hand. Transfer the filling to a large bowl and stir in the andouille mixture. Scrape the filling into the crust and bake for about 45 minutes, until the custard is set. Let cool for 20 minutes, then cut the pie into wedges and serve.


Laying It On Thick...

As part of my overall effort to reduce our grocery bills and minimize food waste, I've become fairly adept at both shopping the sales at our local grocery stores, and clipping coupons. We might not get to eat based on our whims and cravings, but I have been enjoying the challenge of coming up with new recipes to use whatever is a good deal in a given week, and to use up our leftovers. Tonight, for instance, I decided to utilize some of the extra meat that we had frozen after baking up a massive ham that had gotten a tremendous deal on during the week of Easter. I wanted to turn it into something more interesting than a series of sandwiches and omelets, so I looked to my Pinterest board for inspiration, and found an intriguing gratin recipe from Bon Appètit.

It called for layers of thinly-sliced potatoes, nutty Gruyere cheese, tender leeks, chunks of ham, and artichoke hearts to be baked until golden-brown and bubbly. Au gratin and scalloped potatoes are two of my favorites (though it's really hard to go wrong with potatoes in my book), so I really didn't think I could go wrong. 

As it turns out, I don't really care for artichoke hearts, or at least not in this dish. I've enjoyed them in the past on sandwiches, in spreads, and other applications, but for some reason, their tart, almost briny flavor did not pair well with the other ingredients. The gratin was delicious when I picked out all the artichokes (and for the record, Justin, the consummate veggie lover in our relationship picked them out also), but I think I would feel bad preparing a dish so rich without at least some sort of vegetable component in the future.

I'm not sure what would work well in its place. Maybe broccoli? Perhaps zucchini, or would that be too watery? Any ideas?

Ham, Artichoke, and Potato Gratin
adapted from Bon Appétit

1/2 stick butter
4 cups thinly sliced leeks (white and pale green parts only; about 4 large)
3 pounds russet potatoes, peeled, thinly sliced (1/8 to 1/4 inch thick)
1 1/2 pounds 1/8-inch-thick ham slices
2 8 oz. boxes frozen artichoke hearts, thawed, halved lengthwise
10 oz. coarsely grated Gruyere cheese
2 c. chicken broth
1 1/2 tablespoons all purpose flour
1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 400°F. Butter 13x9x2-inch glass baking dish. Melt 1/4 cup butter in heavy large skillet over medium heat. Add leeks; sprinkle with coarse salt and pepper and cook until tender, stirring occasionally, about 12 minutes. Set aside.

Cover bottom of baking dish with 1/3 of potato slices, overlapping as needed. Layer 1/3 of ham over. Scatter 1/3 of leeks over, then 1/3 of artichoke hearts. Measure 3/4 cup cheese; set aside. Sprinkle half of remaining cheese over. Repeat layering 1 time with potato slices, ham, leeks, artichokes, and cheese. Cover with remaining potato slices, ham, leeks, and artichoke hearts.

Whisk broth and next three ingredients in small saucepan over medium heat until flour dissolves. Bring mixture to boil; cook until smooth and thickened, stirring often, about 3 minutes. Pour over gratin. Sprinkle 3/4 cup cheese over. Cover gratin with foil, tenting in center to prevent cheese from sticking. Bake gratin 45 minutes. Uncover and bake until potatoes are soft, topping is browned, and juices are bubbling, about 50 minutes. Let rest 15 minutes before serving.

Your Breakfast, My Liege...

For as long as I can remember, I have loved learning about other places and cultures. When I was little, I was obsessed with ancient Egypt and its pharaohs, mummies, and pyramids, and I would beg my mom to take me to the Field Museum to see their interactive Egypt exhibit. Later, I developed an interest in French Impressionist art, and took my first trip abroad with my dad, to Paris, and have been exploring the treasures of Europe ever since. Today, since my finances keep me from traveling as much as I would like, I satisfy my wanderlust with a combination of watching travel programs on television, and trying exotic foods.

Some time ago, I was watching a show about Belgium, and while I can't remember if it was Rick Steves or Samantha Brown, the thing that stood out the most about the episode were the unusual waffles available in the city of Liège. Unlike regular waffles which are made from a thin batter, these featured a thick, yeasted dough, studded with "pearl sugar," or irregular chunks of sugar that haven't been broken into fine granules. When placed on a searing hot griddle, the chunks of sugar melt and turn into caramel, creating both pockets of caramel and a thin, crispy coating of caramelized sugar on the surface of the waffle. Given how much I love caramel, I knew that someday I had to sample one for myself.

At first, I dreamed of visiting Belgium and munching on a piping hot waffle as I strolled the streets of Liège, but as time wore on, the thought of getting to try the real McCoy became an increasingly remote possibility. I considered the idea of trying to replicate them at home, but I didn't have a waffle iron, and the only place I could find pearl sugar was the internet -- two formidable obstacles. One day, however, when I was browsing the tempting wares at Fox & Obel, my favorite gourmet shop, I happened to observe that they carried pearl sugar. Suddenly, I was one step closer, but I was still missing that waffle iron.

When Justin and I decided to move in together, one of the first purchases I made was a new waffle iron, since I had such fond memories of making waffles together when we'd been able to borrow one of our families' devices. Then, when I was pouring over all my years' worth of cooking magazines to clip the interesting recipes in preparation for our move, I just so happened to come across a recipe in Food and Wine for Liège waffles. Surely, it had to be a sign.

Last week, when we went to Fox & Obel to use up our Groupon, I picked up a box of pearl sugar, and this morning, I finally made my dream of Liège-style waffles come true. The waffles were everything I had hoped they would be, from the overtones of caramel, to the shattering crispness of a candy-coated waffle. The dough was sweet and the yeast gave it an excellent, complex flavor. I was in heaven -- until we went to wash the waffle iron.

Since our model doesn't have removable plates, we can't soak the machine in order to clean it, and it was completely caked in baked-on caramelized sugar. We tried pouring oil on it and letting it sit, as per the cleaning instructions that came with it, but all we ended up with was oil all over the counter and the waffle maker, in addition to all the burnt sugar. We tried wiping it with a rag, but the iron's ridges were too deep and narrow to really get our fingers in them. We tried Q-Tips, but they kept breaking and bending under the pressure needed to scrub the sugar off. Finally, after taking many frustrated breaks, I came up with the idea of wrapping a chopstick in a paper towel (to prevent scratching), and using that to chisel off the sugar. It worked like a charm, though it still took a long time to get the infernal device clean.

I was happy to satisfy my curiosity about Liège waffles, but if I ever want them again, I'll have to travel to Belgium for them. Nearly ruining a brand-new waffle iron was enough to dissuade me from ever tackling this recipe again. They were delicious, and I'm happy that I got to have the experience making them, but in the end, they weren't worth all the hours of frustration.

Liège Waffles
adapted from Food and Wine

1 1/2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 3/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/3 c. lukewarm water
2 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 c. unsalted butter, melted
1 c. Belgian pearl sugar

1. In a small bowl, whisk the brown sugar and yeast into the lukewarm water and let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle, mix the flour with the salt. Make a well in the center of the bowl and pour in the yeast mixture. Mix at medium speed until shaggy, about 1 minute. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing for 20 seconds between each. Whisk the vanilla with the 1 cup of melted butter. With the mixer at medium-low, gradually mix in the butter until smooth; the batter will be thick and very sticky. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the batter rise in the refrigerator overnight.
2. Stir the pearl sugar into the risen batter. Cover again and let rest for 15 minutes.
3. Preheat a Belgian waffle iron and spray it with Pam. Gently stir the batter to deflate. Using about 2 tablespoons of batter for each, cook the waffles according to the manufacturer's directions until they are golden and crisp; spray with more Pam as needed. Serve warm.


Original No Artificiality...

I've been feeling a little stir-crazy lately, and if the feedback I've been getting about the preponderance of recipe posts I've been writing lately is any indicator, you're probably not surprised. Much as I love cooking and trying new recipes, I've been dying to get out of the house more lately, so I've been scouring my usual source of inspiration for activities around town, and hunting down entertainment bargains non-stop. Earlier this week, I found a promo-code on the Broadway in Chicago Facebook page for $36 tickets for Fela!, the biographical musical about afrobeat pioneer, Fela Kuti, and I snatched them up.

I hadn't been particularly interested in seeing Fela!, but Justin has more eclectic taste in music than I do, and a better appreciation for world music. He'd expressed an interest in seeing Fela! quite some time ago, but neither of us were motivated enough to pay full price for the privilege. Instead, I kept my eye on Hot Tix and Broadway in Chicago, the two leading sources for discounted tickets to major productions in the city, and waited. Weeks went by, and several deals were offered, but none of them were quite enticing enough. The tickets were either cheap, but terrible, or decent, but only slightly marked down. Finally, tonight, with only a few performances left, there was a last-minute deal for 1/2 price tickets, anywhere in the audience. We snapped up some reasonably-priced tickets that were perfectly-located, and headed over to the Ford Oriental Theater to catch the show.

Once we got to the theater, it became clear that we weren't the show's target demographic -- the crowd was approximately eighty percent young, black urban professionals, ten percent clueless white hipsters embarrassing themselves in their early 1990s hip hop Africa necklaces and Jamaican-print clothing, five percent tourists who wanted to catch a show in the big city regardless of what it was, and five percent stuffy older white people who were probably season ticket holders. Still, despite being obviously out of our element, I ended up really enjoying Fela!

The music was incredibly catchy, and though I didn't appreciate the cast's attempt to get everyone up on their feet and dancing (I hate being made to dance for pretty much any reason), the call-and-response tradition within the African-American community made for some of the most natural, unforced audience participation of any show I've ever seen. At times, I wish the audience had been a little less enthusiastic, as the constant appreciative shouts of "You go, girl!" at the female dancers on stage were a distraction, but it contributed to the show's tremendous sense of energy.

Sahr Ngaujah, who played the titular Fela Kuti, was a phenomenal performer. He was charismatic, and his stamina never flagged for a moment, despite the incredibly demanding role. Justin also tells me that he was very true to the personality and style of Fela, but I'll have to take his word for that. It's easy to understand why he was nominated for a Tony Award for his work in this role either way. The rest of the cast was similarly talented, from the musicians who played on stage and interacted with the singers and dancers, to the incredible dancers who managed to shake their hips at a ferocious rate for the entire length of the show. They were in incredible shape, and certainly easy on the eyes as well.

Fela! was certainly a departure from the usual musical theater experiences that I seek out, but I'm glad that I was open-minded and gave it a chance. We haven't been seeing as much theater as we did last year, but it's a safe bet that this pleasant surprise will go down as one of the best things I'll see all year. If you have the chance to see it while it's on tour, I highly recommend it.


Thin Is In...

I'm a little late in jumping on the bandwagon this year, but I didn't want the Girl Scout cookie season to pass by without acknowledging it in some way. Bloggers all over the internet have been coming up with creative ways to turn the famous cookies into other desserts, or to make cakes and cupcakes that call to mind the flavors of the various annual treats, as if the thrill of eating them straight out of the box is somehow insufficient, and I figured I would jump on the bandwagon as well.

As I've recently discussed, I crave salty snacks more than desserts, but even I can be counted on to pick up a box or two of Girl Scout cookies when my cousins come calling every year, selling them on behalf of their daughters. Since sweet treats tend to linger around my house until they go stale (well, at least they did before I moved in with Justin), I acquired the habit of keeping my Thin Mints in the freezer to extend their longevity while I waited for my transient cravings to emerge and motivate me to eat them. Besides, everyone knows that Thin Mints are at their best when they're cold and almost refreshing.

Since my Thin Mints were already taking up freezer space, I thought I would transform them into another frozen treat that would take advantage of them at their chilly best by turning them into a batch of ice cream. I'd seen the recipe on Serious Eats, my favorite food blog, and I couldn't get it out of my mind, so I finally relented and gave it a try.

Unfortunately, the product that resulted didn't quite live up to my imagination: the ice cream, which lacked any alcohol or other additives that help keep ice cream from freezing too hard, was like an impenetrable brick. I was concerned that this might happen from the moment I made the custard base, which set up to a dense, mouse-like consistency when I chilled it prior to churning. Instead of pouring it into the machine, I literally had to spoon chunks of it into the canister. It was not an auspicious beginning. 

The ice cream itself tasted fine, though it could have used a bit more mint flavor. Surprisingly, the bits of chopped Thin Mints that were swirled through the mixture at the last minute retained their pleasant crispness. I just didn't enough the chewy, stiff texture of the ice cream overall. At the end of the day, I would have rather satisfied my Girl Scout cookie craving by eating half a sleeve of unadorned Thin Mints, though I was glad to have tried this recipe's intriguing technique of infusing cookie crumbles in the cream for flavor. Hopefully, I'll be able to marry that technique with a different base to create some interesting flavor combinations in the future...

Chocolate Thin Mint Ice Cream
adapted from Serious Eats

6 egg yolks
1/2 c. sugar
3 tablespoons cocoa powder
3 c. half-and-half
28 Thin Mints (one box), divided
5 oz. dark chocolate, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt

1. In a medium saucepan off heat, whisk together egg yolks and sugar until light in color and slightly thickened, 3 to 5 minutes. Whisk in cocoa powder until no lumps remain. Slowly add half and half, whisking constantly. Finely chop 10 Thin Mints (crumbs should be no larger than a pea) and stir into dairy.
2. Put saucepan on medium-low heat and cook, whisking frequently, until custard reaches 180°F on an instant read thermometer (custard should coat the back of a spoon but a swiped finger should leave a clean line). Remove custard from heat and stir in chocolate, then salt to taste.
3. When chocolate is fully melted and incorporated, transfer to an airtight container and chill overnight in refrigerator.
4. The next day, churn in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer's instructions. Roughly chop remaining Thin Mints; chunks should range from pea to nickle-sized. In the last minute of churn, add chopped Thin Mints. Return ice cream to container and chill in freezer for at least two hours before serving.


Happy Easter...

Traditions have always been important to me, especially when it comes to holidays. Christmas witnesses, for example, my annual Cookie Bonanza, my yearly photo op with Lisa in front of the Daley Plaza Christmas tree, and our trek down to White Hall to celebrate with Mom's side of the family at Seton Hall. Easter used to be my day for watching Jesus Christ Superstar, but given that Justin is not particularly fond of Andrew Lloyd Webber's brand of Biblical rock opera, we opted to make Easter brunch at the Chicago Botanic Garden our new Easter custom after trying it for the first time last year.

The unseasonably warm winter and spring we've had so far this year meant that the plants were blooming in force this year, in comparison to the relatively bleak landscape we observed last year. For me, this was actually more of a detriment than a benefit, as it sent my already terrible allergies into a tailspin, and spent the morning sneezing, sniffling, and trying not to rub all the makeup off my eyes. Still, all the blooms made for a much nicer photo of Justin and I in our Easter finery:

I'm sad to report that the food wasn't quite as good as last year. The main dishes were still uniformly tasty, but the selection seemed smaller, and the dessert table was definitely in a sorry state. Where there were several varieties of cheesecake, flourless chocolate cake, carrot cake, cookies, brownies, and a wide array of top-quality candy last year, there were only three different dessert options and the candy seemed to be representative of what might have been on sale at Costco. Considering that the price of brunch had gone up since last year, we were a little disappointed.

Even so, the surroundings were quite spectacular, and we lucked out with incredible weather. It was sunny, and a bit more brisk than it has been lately, but still very pleasant. The jury is still out as to whether we'll be back next year, but I still feel that the Botanic Gardens is probably the best combination of affordability and atmosphere in the area. Even if brunch doesn't fit into your own Easter traditions, I would recommend making a pilgrimage to the Botanic Gardens just to take in the scenery. Just don't forget to load up on allergy medication before you do...


Beans, Beans, the Wonderful Fruit...

Continuing on in the theme of dishes inspired by the expensive Italian charcuterie I was able to pick up at Fox and Obel earlier this week, I decided to try out another unusual pizza recipe that I spotted when I was culling my collection of cooking magazines before we moved. Like the sweet potato pizza I tried last month, this recipe eschewed the traditional topping of tomato sauce in favor of a quick mash-up of white beans, garlic, and herbs. The idea of beans on pizza seemed a little out-there, but on the heels of yesterday's wildly successful orange pasta, I was feeling brave.

Since we'd frozen our leftover pizza dough from our last pizza-baking venture, this dish came together so quickly that I could have saved it to make on a busy weeknight. And just like the pasta, this recipe was definitely a keeper. The carbs-on-carbs aspect of the dish didn't bother me, a consummate carbohydraterian, but the addition of smoky, salty pancetta was what really made the dish. The bean layer was perhaps a little too thick, so I've reduced the amounts in the recipe below, but it was perfectly seasoned with a generous amount of garlic, rosemary, and a hint of crushed red pepper for kick. 

If you substitute bacon for pancetta (though I really recommend the pancetta if you can find it) and mozzarella for the fontina cheese, you could probably make this dish using ingredients you already have in your fridge. We could probably all use a little more fiber in our diets, so go ahead and give this recipe a try -- it will turn out better than you think!

White Bean and Pancetta Pizza
adapted from Food and Wine

4 oz. pancetta, cut into 1x1/4-inch pieces
2 garlic cloves, minced
3/4 teaspoon fresh rosemary
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 15-oz. can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
6 oz. fontina cheese
1 12-inch pizza crust, par-baked

Preheat the oven to 450.

In a skillet, cook the pancetta in 2 tablespoons of oil over moderate heat, until crisp; transfer to a plate. Add the garlic, rosemary and crushed pepper to the skillet and cook for 20 seconds. Mash in the beans. Stir in the pancetta; season with salt.  Brush the crust with oil and spread with the bean mixture. Top with the cheese. Bake the pizza until the cheese is bubbling, 7-10 minutes; slice and serve.


Orange You Glad...

Often, my menu choices are inspired by curiosity about a given recipe. I routinely find myself asking, "Does that flavor pairing really work?" or "Could I handle that complicated technique?" Often, I begin cooking with a sense of, "Well, this will either be brilliant or terrible." For the most part, I've had fairly good luck with the thirty or so new dishes I've tried since we moved a little over two months ago (time flies, doesn't it?), despite the skepticism about my recipe choices voiced from such critics as my mother, who frequently questions the unusual flavor combinations to which I am drawn. 

Tonight, I was moved to try a recipe that seemed so odd, even I had serious doubts. It called for pasta in a simple cream sauce flavored with prosciutto and, of all things, orange. I had never heard of such a paring, but I spotted it in a Bon Appetit article about the Emilia-Romagna, the region of Italy that is home to Bologna and Ravenna, both of which I visited last fall when I was traveling with Dad. Considering how exceptionally well we ate in both cities, I figured this seemingly odd recipe couldn't be all bad, so I filed it away for another time. 

This recipe finally moved to the front of the queue today because I had a Groupon for Fox and Obel (my favorite gourmet food shop in Chicago) that was getting ready to expire next week. I couldn't come up with any truly extravagant purchases I wanted to make there, so I decided to stock up on a few expensive and/or hard-to-find ingredients to round out some of the recipes that had been lingering on my to-do list. There was high-quality Parmesan cheese, golden syrup, imported from England, for a few British desserts I've had my eye on, maple sugar for more of my beloved macadamia-maple sticky bars, and pricey Italian charcuterie to make both this pasta dish and a pizza with pancetta that I'm planning to make tomorrow. It was an odd assortment of items, but the Groupon gave me a chance to experiment with some ingredients that otherwise would have been beyond our budget right now.

Ultimately, I'm really glad that I snapped up that Groupon months ago, because both Justin and I loved this pasta dish. I'm going to start keeping an eye out for prosciutto on sale at our regular grocery store, because we'd both like to make this dish a staple around here. It was incredibly quick to put together -- probably about six minutes of effort all together, outside of boiling the pasta water. The sauce may have been cream-based, but the citrus notes from the orange made it feel light and refreshing. The salty prosciutto was balanced by the acidity and sweetness from the oranges, and the whole dish was mellowed by the presence of cream. It was truly perfect, and an excellent weeknight meal. I can't recommend this one enough!

Fettucine with Prosciutto and Orange
adapted from Bon Appetit

12 oz. fettuccine (preferably fresh)
2 tablespoon. unsalted butter
2 oz. thinly sliced prosciutto, torn into 1" pieces
Zest and juice of 1 orange
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan
Freshly ground black pepper

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Season with salt; add pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until 1 minute before al dente, about 2 minutes for fresh pasta, longer for dried. Drain, reserving 1/4 cup pasta water.

Meanwhile, melt butter in a large heavy nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add prosciutto; sauté until browned, about 3 minutes. 

Add reserved pasta water, orange juice, half of zest, and cream; bring to a boil. Add pasta; cook, stirring, until sauce coats pasta and pasta is al dente, about 1 minute. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in cheese and divide among warm bowls. Sprinkle remaining orange zest over pasta.


Using Your Noodle...

It's amazing how things slip through the cracks, falling to the wayside in the endless blur that is our daily lives. The recipe I made for dinner tonight, for example, is something that's been on my to-do list for nearly two months, but it always fell off my radar when something else would come up -- an unexpected dinner with family or friends, being too tired to cook, or needing to eat up some leftovers that I hadn't counted on when I did my meal planning at the beginning of the week. This dish kept getting bumped because all the ingredients were already in my freezer and pantry, and I could leave them be for another week while something intriguing went on sale at the grocery store and needed to be consumed in a short window of time.

It's good to have flexible meals like that; something that you could make at any time, but I've been so eager to try this recipe that I was starting to get a little sad that it always got put off. You see, when I read the list of ingredients, I suspected that I would really enjoy the end product, given that it contained spicy sausage, tomatoes, garlic, saffron, and onion -- all ingredients that can be found in my favorite pasta sauce. So this week I made up my mind that I wouldn't let myself get distracted, and that I would finally make this dish happen.

I was glad that I did. The recipe is a spin on fideos -- broken bits of either angel hair or spaghetti, that are used for a variety of eponymous soup and noodle dishes in Spain and Latin America. This particular incarnation fell more into the soup category, and it came together quickly enough to make it a more than acceptable weeknight meal choice. The broth was flavorful and a bit spicy from the andouille sausage (authentic Spanish chorizo is inexplicably difficult to find around here; the grocery stores only seem to carry Mexican chorizo, which is a fresh sausage, not cured, and therefore not a viable substitute.) The shrimp added a nice pop of briny sweetness every now and then.

My only complaint is that the recipe didn't make very much, and we only had a single bowl leftover. When you have two people in the house that need lunches to take to work, tense words are exchanged over who gets the coveted leftovers and who gets another salami sandwich, so in the future, I may opt to double this recipe. It's definitely worth giving it another go, given the convenience of having all the ingredients on hand (what does that say about me, that I keep shrimp and andouille sausage in the freezer, and saffron in the pantry at all times?), and the fact that it turned out to be just as delicious as I had hoped.

Fideos with Shrimp and Chorizo
adapted from Sunset

1 onion chopped fine
4 oz. cut spaghetti
3 garlic cloves, minced
pinch of saffron threads
1 15 oz. can crushed tomatoes
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 lb. Spanish chorizo or andouille sausage, halved lengthwise and sliced thickly
2 1/2 c. chicken stock
1/2 lb. medium shrimp, peeled and deveined 

1. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large wide pot over medium-low heat. Add onion and cook, covered, until starting to soften, 5 minutes. Add pasta and more oil if it looks dry, then toast over medium-high heat, turning constantly with tongs, until golden. Add garlic and saffron, tomatoes and tomato paste, sausages, and broth.
2. Boil pasta in soup, uncovered, until noodles are tender, about 5 minutes.
3. Add shrimp and cook just until pink and curled, about 1 minute. Season with salt to taste.


Happy Birthday To Me...

When you want something done right, you just have to do it yourself. That was the tack I took when it came to celebrating my birthday this year after an attempt at throwing myself a birthday party resulted in a shamefully low guest-count. Somehow, my birthday fell on the weekend of several weddings, concerts, family visits and other long-standing commitments that had the vast majority of my friends otherwise engaged. I cancelled my party, but I remained determined to celebrate the passing of another year on Earth with a cake that would have been worthy of the first party to be thrown in my new home.

Justin offered to bake a cake for me, but I put the kibosh on that idea right away, even though it was sweet of him to offer. If I couldn't satisfy my urge to play hostess, I would at least get to try out another one of the cake recipes languishing on my Pinterest board. In fact, I had so many delicious-looking options to pick from, I could hardly choose which direction to go. I eventually narrowed it down to a maple cake with maple cream cheese frosting (I had a package of cream cheese in the fridge already) and a snickerdoodle-inspired cake with a brown-sugar buttercream frosting. I vacillated back and forth for quite some time, but it was ultimately my recent oven troubles that caused me to select the snickerdoodle cake -- the maple cake called for a full hour-long bake time, and I was worried that the oven might not hold out that long after last week's incident with the Brussels sprouts.

I still need a cake comb to decorate the sides better, but I really like the swirl pattern I created on top with an offset spatula. (I totally stole this idea from the blog where I saw the cake, but I'm going to keep it in mind for the future.)

I do love snickerdoodles, and anything cinnamon-flavored in general, so it wasn't much of an imposition to be pushed into this choice. This cake wasn't quite as easy to put together as the mint chocolate chip cake I baked for Cake Day last month, since it required splitting cake layers, and the frosting wasn't quite as straight-forward, but after the cake project I undertook for Justin's birthday last year, everything has seemed relatively simple in comparison. I did discover that the cheap knives Justin brought with him when we moved in together actually work better for the purpose of splitting cakes than my more expensive ones -- the blades are thinner, and the fine serrations, which destroy my cutting boards otherwise, cut through the cakes with less tearing. 

Thankfully, I seem to be making a small amount of progress when it comes to my cake assembly and decorating skills. This cake had the straightest sides and flattest top of any cake I've put together in the past couple years, though my ability to smooth the sides of the cake is still regrettably lacking. I was able to put a nice swirly pattern on the top of the cake, which I think looks better than trying to smooth it off. If it's going to be lumpy anyway, why not embrace it?

The cake turned out incredibly moist and delicious, though the crumb was a bit coarse and it was not immune to the slight denseness that characterizes homemade cakes. However, I'm not a fan of frosting in general, and I didn't particularly care for this one. The flavor of it was fine; I used the fancy genuine cinnamon (not cassia) that I received as a gift from Katherine a while back, which I had been saving for too long for a special occasion. Such is the problem with truly special ingredients -- you save them for a special occasion and then there never seems to be a sufficiently special time to use it. I figured my birthday would have to suffice.

Sadly, the frosting had a somewhat unpleasant granular texture, which I attribute to the brown sugar, since I've never had a frosting made with powdered sugar turn out like that. It didn't ruin the cake, but it kept the recipe from being an unqualified success.

Still, it worked just fine as a receptacle for birthday candles, and Justin gamely sang "Happy Birthday" to me before I blew them out. Twenty-six was very good to me, and I can only hope that twenty-seven goes just as well. I could do a lot worse than celebrating in my own home with the man I love over a piece of delicious homemade cake, and I hope I get the chance to do the same thing again next year.

Snickerdoodle Cake with Brown Sugar Cinnamon Frosting
adapted from Foodie with Family

For the cake:
1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1 1/2 c. cake flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 c. unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 3/4 c. superfine sugar
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 1/4 c. whole milk, at room temperature

Preheat oven to 325, and butter and flour two 8 or 9-inch cake pans.
1. In a mixing bowl, whisk together the flours, baking powder, salt and cinnamon. Set aside.
2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and sugar until fluffy and pale in color.
3.Beat the eggs in one at a time, fully incorporating each egg and scraping down the bowl between each addition. Beat in the vanilla.
4. Add about 1/3 of the milk, beat to incorporate, then 1/3 of the flour, again beating to incorporate. Repeat this process, scraping down the bowl as necessary, until all of the milk and flour are added and mixed in evenly.
5. Divide the batter evenly between the two pans and bake, rotating midway through, for about 35 minutes or until the cake tests done.
6. Let the cakes cool in the pan on a rack for 5 minutes before turning out onto the racks to finish cooling.  

For frosting:
2 1/4 c. unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 c. light brown sugar, packed
2 teaspoons cinnamon
8-9 c. powdered sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 c. half-and-half

1. Beat together the butter, brown sugar and cinnamon until fluffy and pale in color.
2. Add 6 cups of the confectioner's sugar and the vanilla extract and beat, starting on low and moving up to high, until it is fully incorporated.
3. Scrape down the bowl and add the half and half. Beat to incorporate again.
4. Add another 2 cups of the confectioner's sugar and beat, starting on low and moving up to high, until fully incorporated. Check the consistency of the buttercream. If it needs to be thicker, add the remaining confectioner's sugar. If it is too thick, add more half and half a teaspoon at a time, beating after each addition, until it reaches the desired consistency.