Friday, January 29, 2010

Who are you calling a tart?

Another day, another celebration for another coworker. Ergo another dessert to prepare.

Today was Alice's 25th birthday. Alice, for those of you who don't know, is basically the glue that holds AJWS together. She's the executive assistant to our esteemed President (the fabulous Ruth Messinger) and to say that Alice handles grace under fire is the understatement of the year. So of course, when she requested a lemon tart I felt the need to deliver.

I have a few recipes that I use for lemon curds and custards but just didn't have the stamina barely 24 hours after the grand cannoli cake to stand whisking over a double boiler. I decided to try a simpler recipe with a cream cheese based custard and shortbread crust. After an intense day of work and the first night of my Communication Strategy class, I wandered the aisles of Whole Foods, slightly dazed and unable to fully remember what I needed. Several impulse buys later (did I really need the Value Pack size of Emergen-C????) I was on my way home. By the time I walked through the door my body refused to measure flour or squeeze lemon juice or even open the cabinet where the food processor was. A night of sleep and then I'd get up early and make the tart in the morning.

At 6:30 the alarm went off. At 6:31 I threw the clock across the room. Finally, at 6:47 I dragged myself to the kitchen. Yowls from hungry felines filled the air but I knew I could not afford any delays. So I shoved the furry feeding machines aside and set to work. Measure one cup of flour, 1/3 cup powdered sugar, 1/8 tsp salt and give it a spin in the food processor. Add one stick cold cut up butter and pulse until it starts to form clumps. Press this into your tart pan and freeze for 15 minutes. Prick the bottom and bake at 425 for 14-15 minutes. While crust bakes take a perfectly timed shower (or as I did slightly overbake the crust).

When the crust is out of the oven and cooling and your all dried and dressed from the shower, combine 5 oz. cream cheese with 1/2 cup of white sugar in the food processor and process till combined. Add two eggs, one at a time and process well after each. Add 2/3 cup fresh lemon juice and 1 heaping tbsp grated lemon zest and process again. Pour into the prepared tart shell and bake at 350 for 28 minutes (or until custard is set).

Top with lightly sweetened whipped cream (this is even more fun if you whisk it fresh in the office before serving it to really show your coworkers how much you love them.) Serve cold.

Of course, by the time the tart was done I was running late so I pulled it out of the oven and put it by an open window to start cooling. I gave it about 3 minutes and then wrapped it in a towel so I could hold it (it was hot!) and headed out the door. On the subway I got a few looks as I knew you could smell the warm buttery crust and the sweet scent of lemon in the air. A cute little old man sitting next to me asked what I was carrying and when I said "a lemon tart" he suggested I let him hold it for a while. Thanks - thanks. :)

Happy 25th Alice!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Things that are difficult....

In increasing order, things that are difficult:

Walking in the snow.

Walking in the snow uphill.

Walking in the snow uphill with a knee injury.

Walking in the snow uphill with a knee injury carrying a cannoli cake roll.

It was difficult but the cake roll (and the ingredients for the whipped cream icing) made it successfully to the office. A light sponge cake rolled and filled with a cannoli cream and covered with orange scented whipped cream, chopped pistachios and mini chocolate chips.

And yes, it is as good as it sounds.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Mom's Birthday Dinner

It wasn't planned. I didn't sit poring over cookbooks for hours coming up with a menu. It just all came together as I was cooking. I was at my parents house in New Jersey and while sitting at the breakfast table at our favorite local diner after church, we were chatting about what to make for dinner. We stopped at the A&P on our way home and picked up pork tenderloins, new potatoes and fennel. What ended up on the table was quite possibly one of my most favorite meals I have ever put together.

It started with the potatoes. They were large so I quartered them before adding them to a pan with a large sliced yellow onion, sliced fennel (and also chopped up some of the fennel fronds for additional flavor), a load of chopped garlic, two apples cut to approximately the same size at the potatoes, and a good amount of chopped fresh parsley. I tossed all of it with salt, pepper and olive oil and set it to roast in a 400 degree oven.

Meanwhile, I cleaned up the pork tenderloins of their remaining silver skin, gave it a rub with a little extra virgin olive oil and a good sprinkle of salt and fresh cracked pepper. I seared it in a screaming hot oven safe pan and let it form a beautiful brown crust on all sides. While the pork browned, I prepared a mixture of crushed garlic, lots of fresh chopped parsley, spicy brown mustard, a touch of real maple syrup and a few slugs of olive oil. When the pork was brown all over I removed it from the pan and gave it a good slathering with the mix and then patted panko over the top for a crust. Into the oven (now up to 425 degrees) until the internal temperature reaches around 150 degrees. Make sure you allow the pork to rest for 5-10 minutes when it comes out of the oven before slicing.

While the pork and the potatoes were in the oven, I cleaned up a bunch of carrots that Mom had in the fridge and cut them into 2" pieces. A tablespoon of butter and olive oil went into a saute pan and then in went the carrots for just a quick saute. Then about 1/2 cup of water and cover (over mediumish heat - how's that for accurate measurements) for about 7 minutes. Remove the lid and let most of the water evaporate. Add 5-6 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar and bring to a fast and furious bubble. Toss the carrots in the vinegar mixture and add another pat (or two) of butter to form a glaze.

If you time it right (or get really lucky like I did) everything will be finished at the exact same moment and what you bring to the table will be piping hot and the aroma will have your mouth watering. Mustard crusted pork tenderloin with roasted potatoes, apples and fennel and cider vinegar glazed carrots made for a great meal on a cold Sunday evening!

****Food is something that many of us take for granted. It occured to me both while I was cooking this meal and writing this blog post that while I sit in the comfort of my home, millions are starving in the streets after the earthquake in Haiti. I would encourage you to take a moment and make a donation to an organization like American Jewish World Service, Doctors Without Borders, the International Rescue Committee or Partners in Health to help provide aid where it is so needed. For those of you who prefer the ease of a text message, you can text "AJWS" to 25383 and make a $10 donation to American Jewish World Service's Rapid Relif Fund for Haiti. Remember, there but for the grace of God go we. Thank you.*****

Monday, January 11, 2010

What you crave?

Is it possible to crave something you've never had? Can the brain combine flavors and textures that it knows into something brand new and tell your stomach that this is what it wants? I'd have to say yes. Yesterday I woke up thinking about lamb stew. I have never made nor eaten lamb stew but I've had plenty of lamb and plenty of stews. I couldn't get the thought out of my head. Whether I was having coffee and donuts with friends, wandering the aisles of the new Costco in Harlem or chowing down on a Big Mac while parked in a bus stop in my friends SUV the thought of lamb stayed with me. I flipped through a few cookbooks and searched the standard cooking websites but I couldn't find anything that appealed to me. The Irish lamb stew recipes seemed too bland and the Moroccan style, while delicious seemed more complex than my comfort food seeking brain was looking for.

So I made it up. I knew in my head what I wanted to create. A rich stew with chunks of lamb, loaded with vegetables in a rich broth. For some reason I wanted it to have a Guinness base. On my way home I stopped at my favorite overpriced market in the neighborhood and picked up lamb stew meat, multi-colored fingerling potatoes and a large white onion. Using a tried and true method for beef stew I seasoned the lamb with salt and pepper and gave it a light dredge in flour. I browned the lamb on all sides in vegetable oil. When the lamb was browned I wiped out the pot, added a little olive oil and gave a quick saute of my veggies (carrots, potatoes, onion, celery and a smashed garlic clove). The lamb went back into the pot along with a little tomato puree, beef broth and of course, a half bottle of Guinness stout. I added a few sprigs of fresh thyme, brought the whole thing up to a boil and then lowered the gas and let it simmer for 45 minutes. After 45 minutes had passed I took the cover off and let the liquid boil down into a dense rich broth.

A dip of my tasting spoon told me this flavor combination that was so new to me was in fact what I had been craving. The lamb was tender, the vegetables soft and the broth was rich and complex with the Guinness providing an earthiness to the dish that I was looking for.

My Mom has always been an amazing cook but what amazed me the most was when she would put something together that she had never had before but that she just thought sounded "so good". She be in the kitchen adding a little of this and some of that and next thing we knew we had a new family favorite (that most likely would never be created in its exact likeness again). It was this spirit of adventure that gives me the courage to put lamb to stew and experiment on my own! Thanks, Mom :-)

Sunday, January 10, 2010


My theory of food is make it taste good first, make it look good second. I know they say we eat with our eyes first - but no matter how beautiful a plate looks, if it doesn't have the flavor to match then it's just a huge disappointment. This week however, I had the opposite experience. I was asked to do some baking for a baby shower that we were throwing for a coworker. I was originally just going to make my version of tiramisu but then someone noticed a Christmas gift that I had been carrying around with me that day called "Hello Cupcake" and the next thing I knew I was going home that night to make babies!

I should throw the caveat out there that I am NOT a cake decorator. My icing skills are far from perfect and I think I only recently discovered how to twist a piping bag shut so it doesn't leak out the back. So why I agreed to do this was beyond me. Even though the book said it would be simple - I was still nervous. No fondant, no sugar paste - just regular icing (from a can even), some marshmallows and fruit chew candies. Still - I had images in my head of creating something that would come out more like monsters rather than babies.

I started out by baking box-mix cupcakes. These were going to be more about appearance rather than taste - and really - who doesn't like a good Duncan Heinz every now and then? When the cupcakes were baked and cooled (standard for the base and mini for the head) I frosted them as smooth as I could with a vanilla frosting tinted light pink (I did have to ditch one batch that came out too neon - as I said...alien monsters). Using a Ziploc baggie filled with chocolate frosting I piped eyelids onto the minis and belly buttons onto the standards. The book said to pipe eyelashes but that just wasn't happening. I cut up mini marshmallows and stuck them to the heads as bonnets and even tried making safety pins out of white chocolate (there were a few successes here but most of them just broke when I tried to peel them from the waxed paper). Each standard cupcake had a pretty border piped around it - I did some white as the book called but also did a few with chocolate figuring we could tell the mommy-to-be they needed to be changed (Yes, I know...ew).

The hard part came when I had to attach the heads to the bodies. According to the book you just set the mini cupcake on its side on the standard cupcake and poof! You have a baby. Only I kept ending up with headless babies - kind of scary dark for a baby shower! So I did what any good mother would do and stuck a sharp object through the baby head (in this case - a toothpick) to make it stick to the body! Worked like a charm. A few finishing touches of fruit loop mouths, baby bottles and teddy bears (teddy grahams) and voila! A basket full of babies to help welcome our newest coworker into the world!

When I was all done I sent a photo of the little darlings to my mother with the subject line "Look! I made you grandbabies!" Probably not what she was expecting but I think they turned out pretty cute. :) I have to say that for my first foray into decorating this wasn't a bad experience. Five hours later I had 15 little cupcake babies, a kitchen that was covered in pink frosting and I had probably eaten my weight in mini marshmallows and starburst - but it was worth it. The hard part came on the day of the shower when everyone began to eat them....head first as was my fear! My poor little babies...I had gotten quite attached to them - but its OK. I can just go make more :-).

Happy Eating!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

I'd rather be in the kitchen....

Cooking is my passion. It takes me out of my normally overcrowded head and puts me in a place of focus. When I cook I don't think about the paper that I should be writing or the backlog of work that I need to catch up on or the potential relationship that may be spiraling rapidly down the tubes. All I think about is the culinary masterpiece that is coming together in front of me. Yesterday was one of those days. There were a number of things I could have been doing including cleaning my apartment, catching up on a few overdue work projects, piles of laundry....but instead I chose to spend the day in the kitchen. All of these other things can wait just one more day can't they?

It started with a pint of kumquats that had been staring at me from the kitchen counter for the past 48 hours. I don't even know if I've ever had a kumquat - but there they were in the produce aisle of my local Key Food. And since I can barely get ripe bananas and lettuce there I was struck by the exotic potential of these little citrus fruits. "Sweet edible skin with sweet-tart pulp" the package stated. Into my basket they went. When I got home I tasted one of the little buggers - sweet skin and VERY tart pulp. Can't say I enjoyed the experience but it wasn't exactly a negative one either. For two days I researched recipes and finally found one for a chutney that would work well with roasted meats. Quarter and seed the kumquats and boil together with orange juice and zest, a tiny bit of sugar, shallots, cinnamon, star anise, pepper corns and cloves. It's almost like a spicy marmalade and I have a feeling would go well with some strong cheese and crusty bread. I canned the chutney as I wasn't sure when I would actually have a chance to use it. Yes - I said I canned. I sterilized my glass jar and then sealed it once it was filled with the glistening chutney. Ain't I just little Suzie Freakin Homemaker.

Well - that wasn't enough to distract me. So I decided to start the New Year off with a big pot of soup. I picked up some dark meat chicken quarters that I skinned and tossed them in a soup pot with onions, carrots, celery, garlic and zucchini. Then covered it with water and added a porcini mushroom bouillon cube and a large handful of fresh parsley. While that simmered away I looked for my next project.

Baked goods! I needed to bake something. Its the start of a New Year which means that I have to give up the indulgence of the last month and the excuse of "it's the holidays" and get back to some healthy eating. So what could I find that was healthy and would still be delicious. I put together a batch of carrot-ginger muffins that are just subtly sweet with the spice of ginger and the freshness of the grated carrots. They're made with whole wheat flour, only 2 tablespoons of butter and low fat sour cream to keep them moist. They come together pretty quickly (especially if you have a food processor to grate the carrots) and will be a perfect breakfast treat. I think I might toast them lightly and spread a little low fat cream cheese in the middle. A change from my standard breakfast of multi-grain english muffins with peanut butter and banana (although that is mighty tasty).

As I pulled the muffins out of the oven, I felt that familiar ache in my lower legs and back that said I had been in the kitchen too long. My left knee which is still sore and slightly swollen after a recent fall was softly starting to beg for mercy. But I wasn't done just yet. One more project and then I'd give my body the rest it had earned. Earlier that day I had taken out some turkey drumsticks out to defrost that I had picked up for cheap at Stew Leonard's at a post-Thanksgiving sale. (Side note - if you've never been to Stew Leonard's I highly recommend it. It is more than just a great store - its an experience with loads of free samples and fun stuff for the kids!) I was originally just going to roast them for dinner but then was struck with inspiration. I dredged them in flour and browned them in my heavy dutch oven. Then I sauteed up a bit of carrot, onion, celery and garlic and added the drumsticks back in. I covered it with red wine, a mixture of beef and chicken stock and about a cup or so of crushed tomatoes. Some dried herbs of sage, oregano and thyme (I would have preferred fresh but didn't have any on hand) and some grated lemon zest and the whole thing went into a low the oven for about 2.5 hours. Voila! Turkey Leg Osso Bucco!

Granted by the time it got in the oven it was nearly 6 and there was no way I was going to be able to wait until 8:30 for dinner. So while the osso bucco braised away I shredded the chicken from the soup off the bones and cooked up some tubetti pasta - the perfect accompaniment. As I stretched out on the couch with my soup and the latest Harry Potter movie On Demand, I felt an extreme sense of satisfaction wash over me. It had been a long day in kitchen, a hard day at times, but it was worth it. I had successfully managed to avoid doing all the stuff I didn't want to do, and didn't think about the stuff I didn't want to think about, and yet felt fully accomplished at the same time.

Yes my friends, procrastination is truly a dish best served hot!