April 29, 2008

Final

I've hit a wall, a writer's block, if you will. I cannot concentrate any longer. I need focus, not Oreos. In my fit of nervousness, I believe that I've consumed 10,000 calories today, or was it 10,000 Whoppers? I finished off the orange juice and put a dent in the supply of shortdated milk. I ate a Koolickle and drank some Koolickle juice. I consumed bread. Also a pluot past its prime that had rolled to the back of the fridge. Yesterday it was some Blue Bell ice cream with too many flavor combinations. Chocolate Brownie Overload or some nonsense. Dad is right. The best ice cream flavors have short names. Chocolate. Vanilla. Why do I always go for "Super Premium Peanut Butter and Chocolate Passion" or the like? Ooh, speaking of ice cream, I just remembered that I have three cartons of Greek Gods Pagoto in the freezer. Baklava, Honey Pomegranate, and Chocolate Fig.

Just trying to come clean. I'm pretty sure I'll have to move up a clothes' size by the end of the semester, at which time the diet starts in earnest.

Better go turn in this paper.

April 26, 2008

You've Got Mail



This came in the mail today, so I'm pretty sure I'm not going to get anything done for the rest of the day. Plus, with the end of the semester coming, I've got two big papers due, so you know I'm avoiding that. The pre-wedding diet is not going well. This morning for breakfast I ate three Double Stuf Peanut Butter Creme Oreos.

The cakes in this book are so beautiful. It makes me want to quit my 1.5 jobs and be a wedding cake baker. I would tell the brides that hire me, "I just hope you're going to be as pretty as your cake." I wouldn't mind being the bride that was upstaged by her wedding cake, as long as I made it. If I ever marry, I would be the over-ambitious do-it-yourselfer bride who would think it was a good idea to make her own wedding cake and play the wedding march herself for her walk down the aisle.

If you can't stand the heat

Last night for dinner, I made something so spicy that it made my eyes water while it was on the stovetop. I literally started choking and my nose started running as the fumes wafted through the kitchen. I tolerated the heat much better when I actually tasted the dish than I did as I stirred the sauce. The offending dish was a new recipe to me, Scarpariello: Italian-Style Chicken with Sausage, Peppers, and Onions. It sounds like a dish to add to the Dinner and a Movie collection, paired with something Mafioso.

A couple of days ago, Chet and I were making our weekend plans, and I said I could make something for dinner Friday night. We began meal negotiations, and he said he wanted something spicy. Chet's love for extremely spicy foods is one of my favorite things about him. I pulled up the Food Network homepage, and they were promoting a link to a recipe collection of "Fiery Foods" and "Blazing Bites." Karma.

We ended up eating Scarpariello over polenta with a green salad and crusty bread on the side. I tried to make the Scarpariello spicier by using hot Italian sausage instead of sweet, and by adding a sliced habanero pepper to the vegetables. I wanted to use hot cherry peppers but could only find mild. I added some cayenne to the polenta, but it was still bland. Next time I'll not take shortcuts like using dried spices and making last minute substitutions. Everything was pretty thrown together, since we were trying to get out the door to the Tech Music Scholarship Concert. I drag Chet to the weirdest places.

I'll never forget a night a few months ago when Chet was making chicken fajitas for our dinner. He asked me how spicy I wanted the chicken to be, and I of course responded that he couldn't make it too hot for me. That started a bit of a sparring match, in which Chet seemed to pull out every spice and pepper he had on hand. I sampled a bit of the chicken in the pan, and it choked me up. We sat down to the table, and I was trying to say a prayer over it. "We are thankful for this food..." I tried to say, while my voice cracked and broke and I choked on my own breath. I finished one fajita, but my taste buds were screaming in pain. Chet turned very red and broke a sweat, so I know he didn't escape unscathed, either.

Chet is quite the cook. My favorite dishes he makes are spicy Asian entrées like curries and stir-fries. A couple of weeks ago, he surprised me by having a picnic dinner ready. He had packed sliced French bread, chicken breast, bleu cheese, lettuce, and tomato for sandwiches, plus habanero-stuffed olives, broccoli, carrots, grapes, and strawberries to snack on. We had chocolate chip cookies for dessert. After we finished, we packed up the food and blanket to make our way to the car. We walked past a couple sitting at a picnic table by the playa, and the man called out to us, "You two was made for each other."

Chet and Kimberly at Danshui

April 23, 2008

Wedding Jitters

The problem with wedding planning is that it usually causes fights among everyone involved. Check any Dear Abby-type column or listen to Dr. Laura's show, and I'll bet half of the people asking for advice are complaining about a wedding scenario. "My future sister-in-law wants to be a bridesmaid and I don't like the idea." "My mother said something nasty to me about the wedding invitations I picked." "My sister is a bridezilla and I won't put up with it any longer." Okay, I guess it just causes fights among the women involved.

Luckily, my sister is a gracious and easygoing bride-to-be, and so there have been no cat fights of which I'm aware. Katie even told me that I could be in charge of helping her choose the wedding cake for her reception. While I find much of wedding planning to be quite trivial, the food and cake follow only the bride and groom in importance, right? I have become a little obsessed with wedding cakes lately. Here I am with my Cake Lady ambitions, and the wedding cake is truly the ultimate cake to bake and decorate. It's presented as a centerpiece to reflect the happy couple's tastes and style. Hundreds of people will wait around just to partake. I've probably looked at hundreds of pictures of wedding cake by now, looking for inspiration.



I decided to deed all of my best wedding ideas to Katie, because I already got my Old Maid registration card in the mail. Like I'm in love with the idea (via Martha Stewart) of a dessert buffet at the reception in lieu of dinner or hors d'oeuvres. Katie and Porter already picked blue and brown as their wedding colors, and that color palette lends itself perfectly to flavors such as chocolate, coffee, vanilla, cream, white chocolate, coconut, meringue, and cream cheese.



I've decided that my responsibilities on the wedding day are first to the bride, making sure she has a happy day and everything she needs, including a perfect cake. Second, I've got to look as attractive as I'm capable of looking, hot enough to melt glass if possible. I fully expect that everyone that speaks to me will ask when I'm getting married, and I don't want look pitiful. I'll try to keep the snarky retorts to a minimum, too.

With my second goal in mind, I should probably pick up some new hobbies like daily jogging and Pilates. Those would do me more good than my current hobbies which include fantasizing about wedding cakes, menu planning, and eating the peanut butter swirl out of Baskin-Robbins Peanut Butter 'n Chocolate Ice Cream.

April 20, 2008

Monte Crisco

Today for lunch we had Monte Cristo sandwiches, sweet potato oven fries, and Koolickles, the prospect of which were met with much anticipation from me. Mixed reviews on the Koolickles, but I heard no complaints on the rest of the meal.

For the Monte Cristo, I headed to the deli counter at United, where I'm starting to feel that I know the people running the slicers. Like I noticed that the cute dark-haired guy who shaved his head (Why?!?) is growing his hair in again. I'm usually ordering cheese and meat in what I feel are huge quantities, so they probably remember me, too. Last night it was a couple dozen thin slices of Black Forest ham and turkey, plus forty-eight slices of smoked Gruyère cheese.

I was pretty peeved last night that my United didn't have a couple of items I felt I had to have for this sandwich, first, Pepperidge Farm Hearty White bread, and second, Robert Rothschild Farm Hot Pepper Raspberry Preserves. I was looking forward to making a dipping sauce with spicy raspberry jam. I could have improvised something with regular preserves, but why? So I had to go gallivanting across town to another United, and with gas prices what they are, I was none too happy. Speaking of prices, I noticed Ghiradelli semi-sweet baking bars went from their long established $2.29/bar to $2.49 in the past week. Disaster!

Back to the sandwich. We started with a slice of bread and spread a mixture of the pepper preserves and Dijon mustard on top. Next we layered cheese, ham, turkey, cheese, ham, turkey, and a final layer of cheese, topped off with another jellied slice of bread. This is dipped in an egg batter fairly similar to French Toast batter and pan fried. Out of the frying pan, the sandwich is dusted with powdered sugar and served with leftover raspberry spread.

If you've ever eaten this sandwich at a restaurant, especially around here, it was probably deep fried. The combination of an eggy batter, ham, turkey, at least one cheese variety, and frying oil earned this sandwich the moniker Monte Crisco in our family. Alongside sweet potato fries and decadent dessert, this was no low-cal meal. I'm not sure what it is with me and diner fare, but it seems like I make quite a bit of it. The folks at United's deli just make it so easy.

Monte Cristo Sandwich & Sweet Potato Fries

As for the Koolickles, most of the family liked them, but the Kool Aid flavor wasn't as strong as I expected it to be, and the pickles certainly aren't red red red either. Verdict: let them marinate for a couple more days. I bought two more gallons of pickles in preparation for the next batch, and I might try using three Kool Aid packs instead of two for more flavor.

Daddy's Pie

Daddy's Pie

In the latest edition of Many Pies, a recipe from Feasting on Asphalt: the River Run, for Nana Deane's Pecan Coconut Pie, billed as "the pie coconut was created for." The recipe comes courtesy of Ray's Dairy Maid in Barton, Arkansas. It has everything we like in our treats: sugar, butter, vanilla, coconut, and pecans. What else do you need?

Nana Deane's Coconut PieNana Deane's Coconut Pie: my handwriting isn't usually that psychotic
*a more legible copy of Nana Deane's recipe here

I transcribed the recipe hurriedly. I hope my handwriting is not usually so erratic. This is one of the easiest pie recipes I've ever seen, but it was quite good nonetheless. I cheated and used Pillsbury Just Unroll! Pie Crusts - in the refrigerated section of your local grocery store - and that made it even easier. Making a pastry pie crust is a real labor of love, in my opinion. It adds a good hour of prep time to any pie recipe, and that doesn't even include the time the dough spends in the refrigerator before rolling or the time in the freezer before the crust goes into the oven for blind-baking. Then you've got to cool the crust before adding the filling. And THEN you usually have to cook or chill the filled pie and wait and wait and ...

That is why I want to be the cake lady. I've only made a handful of pie crusts from scratch, and I don't know that anyone notices when I substitute the Pillsbury crusts instead. I haven't bought frozen pie crusts, but I've read that the flavor is off in those. The problem with the crust today was that the Pillsbury crusts are for 9" pies, but I ordered a pie pan that says "Daddy's Pie" (see above), and it's a 10" pan. There was no way to use one pre-shaped dough round and have sufficient dough for fluting the edge. I cut some dough from a second round and pressed it against the first so I'd have some dough to crimp. I also cut a couple of dough scraps for Daddy and Wendy to eat. Daddy has wonderful memories of eating my grandmother's pie dough as a boy. A small bite of this Pillsbury dough was enough for both of them, so I know this convenience food is missing something!

I rushed the pie's cooling time quite a bit by sticking it in the freezer after it came out of the oven. When it was time to cut the pie, I pulled it and some homemade vanilla ice cream out of the freezer. Good eats -

Nana Deane's Coconut Pie & Vanilla Ice Cream

April 15, 2008

Xue Hua Bing

One yummy new treat I tried in Taiwan was Xue Hua Bing, translated "snowflake ice" or something close to that. Its closest American relative is shaved ice, but xue hua bing is so much more. First, the texture of the ice is different. It's powdery, with much less crunch than a sno-cone or slush. I believe xue hua bing ice is shaved off a block of frozen sweetened milk, instead of just plain ice which then has a sugary colored syrup poured over it. It's served in huge mounds on a plate and covered with thick syrups and/or toppings like fresh fruits, sorbets, jellies, or mung beans if you want to get crazy.

I first tried xue hua bing at the Shilin Night Market in Taipei (more on the street markets later). I would compare it to the county fair, in that you just see dozens of stands selling bizarre foods and wares.

Shilin Night Market

One of the funniest things I saw in Taiwan was at the Shilin market. We all sat down at a table to order our xue hua bing, and our table was directly against the backside of another booth and its dishwashing sink. The female employee that was washing dishes at the sink was also brushing her teeth. She just brushed away and then put her toothbrush in the cannister with the silverware and, gulp, the other toothbrushes.

Shilin Night MarketWe didn't run into many English speakers at the restaurants and food stands in Taiwan, but people serving us were friendly and helpful. The lady taking our order pointed to several things on the menu and said what she could in English. When she found out Katie spoke Chinese, she really started talking about all the choices. We shared two orders between the seven of us, a Peanut Butter variety with chocolate syrup, and a mango ice with syrup and huge mango cubes on top.

Shilin Night Market

To me, the texture of this ice even looks completely different than anything I've ever seen here. It was wonderful, and I imagine that the demand really spikes when Taiwan's weather gets hot and humid and intolerable. The xue hua bing was so delicious that when I dropped a spoonful on the table, even though the cleanliness standards of the place were obviously in question (see above), I scooped it right back up and ate it. My justification was that my spoon probably wasn't much cleaner the table anyway.

We had Xue Hua Bing again at Ice Monster, another little restaurant in Taipei. Well, restaurant is probably the wrong term to use. There are a lot of restaurants or food stands in Taiwan with three (or fewer) walls. They don't have a front door, per se, but instead the street side of the establishment is completely open. The effect of this is you can walk down any city sidewalk and smell the most incredible odors and aromas from the restaurants, which combine with urban pollution to make for a unique smell indeed.

Xue Hua Bing

At Ice Monster, we tried an order with fresh strawberries and a scoop of mango sorbet. It was very good. I still preferred our other selection, which had wheat grass jellies and mung beans on top. I've had boba drinks with jelly in Las Vegas and Utah, but I don't think I'd had ever eaten mung beans before, let alone in my dessert.

Xue Hua Bing

My latest business idea is selling Koolickles for $1 a pop. In the process of making Koolickles, you have a leftover solution of pickle juice, Kool Aid, and sugar. Wouldn't it be good to freeze that stuff and make shaved ice with it? Kids would love it. I could chop up Koolickles to top it off, and it would look like xue hua bing.

April 13, 2008

One year older and wiser

Daddy's Birthday DinnerFor Daddy's birthday dinner, Chet perfectly grilled rib eye steaks, which had been marinated in a Stubb's beef marinade overnight. Mom brought roasted potatoes and dinner rolls. I did a tried and tested recipe, a green salad with a bleu cheese vinaigrette, toasted pecans, and crumbled bleu cheese. This particular recipe is supposed to be a knockoff of Outback's chopped house salad. I don't know where I originally found the recipe I used today, but it is here. The dressing proportions aren't quite right to make it taste like Outback's, but I love bleu cheese and this salad quells that craving. This recipe is reputed to serve only two people, yet I always have a good amount of dressing left over after serving my whole family a large side salad portion.

German Chocolate CakeI was very proud of my German Chocolate birthday cake. I tried a couple of new things this go-around, some of them unintentionally. The biggest difference with this cake was using Dutch-process cocoa instead of natural. The Dutch cocoa made the cake look so much darker and more beautiful, as my previous cakes had a rather reddish hue when I've used regular unsweetened Hershey's Cocoa.

I also made a paste of butter and Dutch cocoa and painted the cake pans before I added the batter. I saw this Cook's Illustrated suggestion on another chocolate cake recipe. The cocoa and butter make for a great cake release, and using cocoa doesn't leave a white film on the outside of the cake like flour does.

The unintentional recipe changes came from using an extra egg in the batter, just because it was early early and my brain wasn't registering the difference between big numbers like 4 eggs vs. 5 this morning. I always use extra large eggs instead of large anyway, and the additional egg didn't seem to make much difference, though the batter was especially thick. I also forgot to pick up some good semi-sweet chocolate at the store yesterday, so I had to use some cheap Nestle baking chocolate that I had purchased many moons ago. I do believe the intensity of the chocolate flavor was lacking as a result.

German Chocolate Cake

Don't bake with chocolate that isn't suitable for solo consumption. That Nestle chocolate, for example was flaky, dry, and crumbly, not melt in your mouth; the balance of chocolate, sugar, and dairy was off, too. You can often pay quite a premium for good ingredients, even common ones. I don't flinch at the prices at decent bakeries. A slice of the Gianduia cake at Extraordinary Desserts cost over $7, but it was almost (just almost) more than I could eat in a sitting; it took me a weekend to try to recreate that cake, not to mention plunking down the cash for chocolate, heavy cream, rum, Frangelico, etc. I think it's wonderful to bake things from scratch in a world where baking requires the aid of a Betty Crocker mix if it's done at all. Making a birthday cake is never a burden. Blowing out the candles is a little more stressful, eh, Wendy?

Koolickles

Koolickles

After coming upon the Koolickles recipe yesterday, I decided that I needed to make a jar of those part of Dad's birthday present. On my United excursion, I looked for a gallon size jar of dill pickles, but the biggest jar they carried was a 46 oz. jar. This would never do.

I decided to go somewhere where you can buy the kind of junk that no one needs, like a gallon size jar of dill pickles, and where else would you find that but Wal-Mart? My employer seems to be especially fond of incentivizing its employees by doling out gift cards for Wal-Mart, and so I had an old one in my wallet that I hadn't given away or cut into small pieces. A free gallon jar of pickles? That's gold!

So I moseyed about Wal-Mart, hoping no one I know would spot me, which would be bad for my Wal-Mart boycotting-rep. I passed a trio of young adults in Tech garb. A guy in the group said, "Sweet Home Alabama is really a good movie." It was all just as I imagined it would be.

I wandered around a few extra minutes looking to see if Wal-Mart had any obscure foodstuffs that I can't find at United. I wondered how much of America's retail grocery space consists of Wal-Mart shelves. It must be a staggering number. Then I found my gallon jar of pickles and proceeded to the register. $3.49 for a gallon of pickles. My gift card didn't work when I swiped it. I handed it to the cashier, who swiped it herself and also tried entering the gift card number manually. I decided I could spring for the pickles, but I paid in cash so the evil empire couldn't trail me.

By the way, pickle juice + cherry Kool-Aid mix + sugar is delicious. I'll let you know in a week how the Koolickles turn out. Then we'll have to start experimenting with flavors. I might open a roadside stand as long as Wal-Mart is around to supply the pickles. As I like to say, keep Lubbock boring: support big box stores and chain restaurants.*

April 12, 2008

¡Feliz Cumpleaños!

I'm spending a second consecutive Saturday avoiding homework by scouring cookbooks and the Internet for recipes for a birthday dinner. This week it's for Dad's birthday. Chet already very graciously offered to grill up some steaks, and I plan to make another prize-winning German Chocolate Cake for Dad's cake, so that much is set. I'm trying to think of some great accompaniments to wow and please everyone.

One of Dad's gifts is Feasting on Asphalt - the River Run, the book accompanying the TV series. It has 40 recipes in it, so I'm looking there for steak sides. Good recipes, but nothing with potential for this menu. One gem I found was a recipe for Koolickles. If you missed the series, you might not know about this Delta food with a cult following. Koolickles are dill pickles marinated in Kool-Aid for a week, taking on a new color and sweet and sour flavor. They'd be fun to have ready for Dad's birthday, but they have to sit for a week. Recipe below.

Last night I ate Mexican food at Rosa's and watched the Spanish-language film La Misma Luna. The goofy theater employees never dimmed the theater lights, and I wasn't going to miss any of the movie to go complain. The best seat in town is the only seat in town around Lubbock. Anyway, the movie was cute and made me long for the days when I actually spoke Spanish worth a flip. Feliz cumpleaños, papi.



Koolickles
Road inspired recipe from Feasting on Asphalt - the River Run

1 gallon jar kosher dill pickles
2 packages unsweetened cherry Kool-Aid
1 pound sugar

Drain the liquid from the pickles into a large container. Add the Kool-Aid mix and the sugar to the liquid and stir until the sugar is completely dissolved. Remove the pickles from the jar, slice in the half lengthwise, and return them to the jar. Return the liquid to the jar of pickles. Not all of the liquid will fit, but make sure the pickles are completely covered. Place in the refrigerator and let sit for 1 week before eating.

Yield: 1 gallon Koolickles

*I'm wondering if it might not be a good idea to add some heat to this recipe, maybe kick it up with some jalapeño juice or ground spices. Why not make it sweet, sour, and spicy?

April 5, 2008

The Most Important Meal of the Day

I definitely have the cooking bug this weekend. I literally dreamed about making chocolate chip cookies this morning. I was precisely measuring out the batter for each cookie when I woke up, at which point I quickly made a mental checklist of recipe ingredients to see whether I could have cookies for breakfast.

Breakfast for Dinner

For Thursday dinner we had breakfast fare: buttermilk pancakes with blueberries, ham steak, home fries, and fruit salad. I love breakfast food. You want cake for breakfast? No problem, just ask for a "muffin." I'm not a fan of hyper-sweet cereals, but there's plenty of that available, plus the good stuff like oatmeal and muesli. There's the wonderfulness of pancakes, waffles, French toast, potatoes, fruit, eggs, omelets, frittatas, ham, bacon, fruit juices, yogurt. It's the best.

One of the best parts of our Taiwan trip was having a great breakfast every day at the Grand Hotel. I'm terrible about skipping breakfast, but it's a habit I determined to stop after returning from the trip. The hotel buffet had plenty of things you'd see at a traditional American breakfast: cereals, eggs, French toast, ham, muffins. There were plenty of dishes I'd never seen or tried before, too.

Grand HotelHairy MeatOn the first morning, for example, I tried "hairy meat," which is understandably hard to explain. Katie will have to tell us exactly what that is, but it's a pork product of some type, and it looks like little brownish shavings. I don't remember liking it particularly, but it's a common food there. I also saw the "hairy meat" on rolls at several bakeries, for example.

Grand HotelThere was a good selection of noodles and fish every day. Other than that, I liked turnip cake, which is a dim sum dish made with an Asian radish and rice flour, so I'm not sure why it's translated turnip cake. There were some other good dim sum choices, like dumplings and rice cakes - not American rice cakes, but little steamed rice flour balls filled with bean pastes. I also ate red bean pancakes. Once I had congee for breakfast. It's a rice porridge with pork or another meat in it. I could definitely go back to having fried rice and cabbage at every breakfast.

The fruit and salad buffet tables were great. Wendy and I started joking about how Mom and Katie said the watermelon was the 'world's best' every morning. We ate a lot of lychee, papaya, and melons. There was a passion fruit jelly that I ate on my French Toast that I really loved. I wish I could find something like that at the store. There was a drink called Calpis available. I googled it and it looks like it's a Japanese drink similar to yogurt. That was pretty good, too.

There was a platter of duck eggs at the buffet, and I wish I had taken a picture of that. Each egg was various shades of green from the outer to inner layers. I was the only one that would try it, and yeah, I didn't finish mine. The only thing on the buffet that I detested and couldn't even force myself to swallow was the cured tofu with mung beans. It tasted incredibly salty with a slightly sour and bitter flavor as well. Truly awful!

From the Marco Polo HongKong Hotel, the buffet item I remember was Bircher Muesli. Not very Chinese, I know, but I think that hotel caters to white tourists anyway, and so the food selection was very boring. The first time I ever tried muesli was at the Bellagio Buffet, and I thought it was one of the best things I've ever eaten. I'm still googling like mad trying to find a recipe for that stuff that looks right. The recipes I've tried thus far have been too heavy on the nonfat yogurt. I'm looking for something more indulgent!

Now I'm planning the menu for Wendy's birthday dinner. So far, Giada's Stuffed Mushrooms have made the list. Wendy loves mushrooms and this is an easy recipe. I'm thinking about doing roast beef for the main course, but I'm also considering chicken entrées. For vegetables, I'm trying to branch out beyond potatoes or asparagus. They're so played. What are the odds of my finding haricots verts at United? I'll settle for green beans with a compound butter. Hmmm, we'll need some bread. The birthday cake is the Chocolate Blackout Cake with Coconut Buttercream which seems to be everyone's favorite.

Moo-less Chocolate PieLast week in honor of April Fool's Day I made two versions of Alton's Moo-Less Chocolate Pie. I thought it apropos, since the pie's base is tofu. Surprise! Why do people have such strong opinions about tofu when it doesn't have any flavor on its own? I made a pie for the fam with milk chocolate chips, instead of semi-sweet, and sans Kahlua. I hear Scott took a bite and liked it, but refused to finish his pie slice after Wendy told him it had tofu in it. "I thought it tasted funny," he said.