Thursday, December 30, 2010

All in the Family

***Author's Note: This post is about 3 days overdue because the internet and blizzards don't get along. At all.***

I mentioned that I made my brother Sticky Toffee Pudding for his birthday. 

Well, my dad's birthday is actually in the month of December, and so I made him a cheesecake. Boys are darn hard to shop for, so I go with the "the way to his heart his through his stomach" adage for gift inspiration. It has never been received with disappointment.
 He's not big on sweets but he loooves cheesecake, and so I dug up my grandmother (his mother)'s recipe and got to work, almost the minute I walked off the plane!
Not perfectly pretty, but damn was it good - and I am not a big fan of cheesecake! It was "iced" with a little nutella, microwaved to make it a little liquidy and scooped into a ziploc bag with the corner snipped off for perfect makeshift frosting purposes. This was the French style - about half as high as New York cheesecake, less cakey, and topped with a sour cream + sugar topping. I made a gingersnap crust instead of graham cracker, just for something different, and I highly recommend it! Dad had it for breakfast. Twice.

Yes, it is my grandmother's recipe, but I don't believe in withholding recipes because of family tradition or anything. The holidays are a time for sharing, after all!

For the crust:
8 oz gingersnaps
2 T sugar
1/2 stick (4 T) butter
sprinkle of cinnamon

Put the cookies between two sheets of wax paper (or use a fancy schmancy pulverizer) and a rolling pin to crush the snaps into crumbs. It's fine if there is some irregularity in the size of the crumbs and a couple bigger pieces here and there - just makes it rustic ;)
Melt the butter and mix it in with the crumbs, sugar, and a bit of cinnamon if you like.
Press the mixture into the bottom of a springform pie pan and set aside. (The crust is only on the bottom - not the sides.)

For the cake:
2 eggs
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 - 1 tsp vanilla
3/4 lb (12 oz) cream cheese

Beat the eggs and sugar. Add in the vanilla and cream cheese and beat 'til smooth.
Pour over the crust and sprinkle with cinnamon.
Bake for 20 minutes at 375 F. Let cool.

For the topping:
3/4 pint (12 oz, about a cup and a half) sour cream
2 T sugar
1/2 - 1 tsp vanilla

Beat all ingredients til smooth. Pour over the cooled pie. Bake at 450 F for 5 minutes. Chill very well before serving (several hours and overnight would be best).

In any recipe I use ever, when I see vanilla, I usually double it. I swear it makes it 10 times better. 

Alas, with great recipes comes great responsibility. So for the love of all things sweet and creamy, do not use lower fat cream cheese or sour cream. Just don't. Promise me.


Monday, December 27, 2010

A Backwards Christmas

Christmas is my favorite holiday ever. I even like it better than my birthday - and don't worry, I will get to that too.

But first - can we just talk about the blizzard that is currently covering every inch of Massachusetts?

 The dog loves it...

 ...even though she comes in every time shivering.
She loves when I wrap her up in a towel almost as much as when I take her picture.


 Our perty tree. (The bottom half of the lights just fizzled out...but you don't notice that at all. Not at all.)

Christmas morning was filled with presents, hiding from my dad's video camera, and monkey bread made with extra dough my mom used to make her grandmother's yeast rolls the night before.

Cinnamon-sugary, doughy goodness! The phrase "melt in your mouth" came to mind.

After presents and general Christmas lazing, my parents, brother and I set out in our three-year-old Christmas day tradition: we go to a movie and have an early dinner at Legal Seafoods. 

This year, we saw The King's Speech. MAN, it was good. It was wonderfully well acted and I fell in love with Colin Firth for the 12387654th time. Oh Mr. Dahcy!

We like going to the Park Plaza Legal's in downtown Boston for the ambience. I pretty much just go for the rolls. They have wonderful fish, of course, and the restaurant's been a favorite of mine, pretty much as long as remember. I was the six-year-old who drooled over lobster and shrimp cocktail - clearly, I've always had impeccable taste ;) Unfortunately, the menu seemed more boring than usual - they must have changed chefs recently. It really wasn't a problem for me; I barely slept the night before and was still suffering from a food hangover, so I just got an appetizer and stole bites from my generous fam.

Continuing the holiday journey backwards, Christmas Eve is probably my favorite day of the year. Good moods are in abundance, and I get to bake my happy little hands off! My mom has always hosted a party on Christmas Eve and we have a Honey-Baked Ham, her sweet potatoes (the droolworthiness of which was previously discussed here), and the party-goers bring their favorites. This year the spread involved baked beans, hot chicken salad, scalloped potatoes, roasted brussel sprouts (one of my faves!), and green beans. Unfortunately, no pictures are to be had...because I was a little distracted.

By this:
 Pumpkin Gingerbread Trifle.

And Sticky Toffee Pudding (so good, it has to be capitalized).

Yes, I made both. From scratch. I baked for two days. And I was happy as could be.

The trifle was something I had years ago at a friend's Thanksgiving and became obsessed. It is one of the best things I've ever put in my mouth. I usually make the pumpkin mousse part with sugar-free, fat-free pudding mix and cool whip, and the gingerbread out of a box mix. But this year, I made it my mission to make my dessert as real-food-full as possible. It tastes better, costs less, and really is better for you.
For the pumpkin mousse layer, I used Kath's Pumpkin Chiffon Pie recipe, just making the filling. It was perfectly spicy and thickened up beautifully overnight in the fridge. 2 things to keep in mind - 1) it is a good idea to make this well-beforehand, and 2) the mix will seem soupy before you add in the beaten egg whites, but don't fear! It will set!
For the gingerbread, I used a recipe out of a (gasp!) Weight Watchers cookbook! [This one.] They actually have some really good recipes, regardless of whether you are on the WW plan or not. Their turkey chili is to live for. And, the gingerbread recipe called for 6 tablespoons of real butter and all real food ingredients, so I wasn't worried. It was delicious!
I did not, however, use real whipping cream. I really didn't want to use Cool Whip, because it does seem like a bunch of crap I really don't want in my body, but I still wanted to make the dish a little on the lighter side (sticky toffee pudding is, um, NOT), so I used truwhip. It actually worked really well and tasted delicious and  quite frankly, I really like how those whipped toppings taste - and I know I'm not alone!

As for the Sticky Toffee Pudding, you may remember my first encounter with this dish that redefines delectable? It was the restaurant that I am going to work at this summer just 3 minutes from my aunt & uncles' house in Georgia. It was a gooey, caramelly, thick plate of goodness, the likes of which my tastebuds had never before experienced. I decided right then and there that it would be the perfect birthday present for my brother. His birthday is in October and I am 1) never at home for it and 2) never sure what to get him, so I always bake him something, and this was definitely a good belated birthday present. The sauce, however, calls for 2 cups of heavy cream, and that was a bit much to keep just for the 4 of us alone, so the Christmas Eve dinner was the perfect occasion. It took most of a day to prepare, but damned if it wasn't worth it. And, I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy spending most of my day toiling over a cake to be enjoyed by others. It's kind of my favorite thing to do. Ever.
It's basically a super-moist cake made with dates and heavy on the molasses, which is then drenched in a bath of rich toffee and served very warm.

Good as it sounds? Nope. Better.

On with the rewinding!

Wednesday night, the fam and I ventured into Boston to see an improv show - anyone familiar with Sassy Gay Friend? If you're not, you really should be. He is absolutely hilarious and I desperately want Saturday Night Live to create a sketch just for him. His YouTube videos are addicting - you just never get sick of watching them! I have them memorized and I still crack up when I watch them. Anyway, the actor is a Boston native and was doing a live show at a small improv company where he got his start (he's actually from my hometown - one of Dedham's finest!) The show made me cry with laughter multiple times, and I really wish he was my Sassy Gay Friend.

The theatre is right in Boston's North End, which is our Little Italy. Italian restaurants (authentic ones - Olive Garden is a swear down there) line the streets from all sides, and you only have to choose one. That's actually more difficult than it sounds - eenie meenie miney moe would serve you well. We chose Ristorante Fiore, mostly because we were getting cold and hungry and it was on the same side of the street as the theatre. We didn't regret our choice.

A really tasty bottle of wine was ordered (because I can drink in public now - amen!), although the olive oil didn't taste as "fresh off the boat" as I would have liked. I think Italy ruined olive oil here for me. Damn.

I ordered the bombolotti al forno, which was housemade pasta (an absolute must - any Italian restaurant that doesn't make their own pasta should be embarassed, in my very snobby opinion) with a simple marinara sauce and housemade sausage topped with regiano and goat cheeses. Oh dear pasta gods.

The goat cheese just put this over the edge of delirious deliciousness. I actually asked if I could have it without the sausage, mostly because I just can't eat much meat anymore and it doesn't appeal to me much - but the waiter was mildly horrified and convinced me. I was happy he did; it added a ton of flavor and had the perfect sausage texture - tender and juuust crumbly enough with a slight kick of spice. I was so distracted by the wonderful homemade pasta that I didn't think to take a picture of it, which I regretted sorely after I realized it, because it was beautiful! Bombolotti is very, very wide and thick tubes of pasta but this restaurant made several little tubes inside each piece - it kind of looks like the wheel-shaped pasta before it's cut into individual wheels. A wheel log, if you will. 
That probably makes no sense, so obviously you must go as soon as possible and try it for yourself. Hanover Street, on the left side. Trust me.

What is it about homemade pasta? I hate to say it, but I think it's just something you have to experience. It has a different density, a different's just so much more satisfying

Anyway, where was I? Pasta gets me so very sidetracked. Oh yes, the Christmas break rewind. Well, I flew from Atlanta to home on Saturday, cutting my Christmas vacation at home to a mere 2 weeks instead of a blissful 3. But there is a method to my madness.

That restaurant that I mentioned I will be working at this summer? Well, it's more of an internship than work. To attend the CIA, I have to have 6 months of hands-on food prep experience - read:I have to chop vegetables for 12-15 hours a week. Which I am totally fine with - the trick was finding a place that would have me! I found my "in" at this restaurant that is a couple miles down the road from my aunt & uncle's house in Lilburn, Georgia called Three Blind Mice. It's a really cool restaurant and the chef is super nice and was very accommodating for my situation - and every one on the kitchen is very supportive of my goal o be a food writer! I'm always a little apprehensive to tell chefs that I want to be a food writer; I expect the "oh, so you want to tell me what's bad about my food for a living?" response. Thankfully, food writing is really becoming an established literary genre and the immediate thought was that I would write a book - that's more than a career goal, that's kind of a life dream of mine. But they made it sound a lot more possible than I believe[d] it to be, so yay!

So, last week I worked a 9-hour and 7-hour shift, two days in a row, followed by a 4-hour shift (Thursday was totally dead for the dinner hour and I was pretty much useless). I peeled and deveined shrimp for 2 hours straight. I took over the salad station. I made enough hummus to fill the biggest stainless steel bowl I have ever laid eyes on. Oh, and I learned how to use the torch that caramelizes the sugar on creme brulees. That was pretty cool. And I learned all that after just 3 days - get excited for this summer, when I will impart all my new knowledge to y'all!

[And I do expect to have enough material for a book after this summer. I've started taking notes. Definitely have a good cast of characters.]

Before that was finals and the presentation of my senior thesis. You know, the 20-page paper that determined whether or not I would graduate with the degree I've spent the past 3 years of my life working for? Yeah, that one. It owned my soul for the past 3 months. It felt like I gave birth to a child when the last copy was printed. But, it also kicked ass and I am now the proud owner of an intense amount of knowledge surrounding food writing and food in World War II America. If I ever got to write a longer thesis or a research book, I would totally devote it to examining how food in the 1940s helped shape American cuisine & food attitudes as they are today. It's completely fascinating.

In fact, I actually enjoyed the research involved. Even though at one point I had over 30 post-it notes covering my desk and over 30 (yes, 30) library books on food covering my floor, printer top and window sill. It was so interesting, and it let me learn all there is to know about M.F.K. Fisher, the woman who basically founded American food writing as a genre. But she is more than a food writer - and you don't have to subscribe to Bon Appetit or have an entire bookcase of cookbooks or even watch Paula Deen to fall in love with her writing. Her books apply to everyone. If you are in need of a New Year's resolution, let me help you: read The Art of Eating. At the very least, The Gastronomical Me. If she doesn't capture your heart, she will at least arouse your tastebuds.

And the week before that...I turned 21! I would say that all the responsibility and freedom that comes with being able to drink makes me feel different,, I kind of spent the first half on my 20th year in Italy, going to wine tastings and aperitivo. But, I do not drink to get drunk, because I think that's stupid and disrespectful to the drink - especially with wine, it's someone's career to craft every ounce that goes into that bottle. It's not made to be chugged, thankyouverymuch.
Ok, off my soapbox.

Well, that's my recap for the month. Miss me?

I know I was a bad, bad blogger during this semester. But please understand, I took 5 classes - 3 literature classes, 1 senior thesis, and chemistry - and balanced [barely] 4 jobs on the side (I blog for my school, I do some study abroad work for my awesome study abroad company, API, I work at the Writing Center on campus, and I'm the Italian tutor). It might sound like I'm blowing my own horn...and, well, I kind of am. I'm actually a little proud that I made it through in one piece, with all limbs and GPA in tact. But, I am definitely not proud of the neglect this blog felt, and hope to remedy that immediately and into the new year. I will be moving into the senior apartments for the Spring semester which means that I will actually HAVE A KITCHEN! It is very difficult to put my excitement about that into words - but I promise to try. I also don't have classes on Monday or Friday, which is a first (and last!) for me. I really feel like I've lost my blogging mojo, and have every intention of getting it back.

That said, I will return tomorrow with a super easy and tasty one-pot, quick and warming dinner for all of my fellow blizzard shit-ins!


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Blog's First Thanksgiving


Did you hear that?


What is that????

Why, it's Lulu, begging me to use the photos of Thanksgiving she still has in a blog post!

Sheesh. Even my camera gives me grief.

My blog's 1st Thanksgiving - this calls for celebration!

And hors d'ouvres, of course.

We had a very small gathering, which was really really nice - made for a very fun and relaxed holiday.

They brought crostini (in my honor :), which is just good toasted bread with a topping.
They made an herbed ricotta to go with!

 It had scallions, dill, and other herby goodness. I had to remind myself not to eat to much before the main event - but it was hard!
 They also brought these amazing spiced nuts - recipe to come! I know there was orange juice and maple syrup involved. They totally had that sweet-salty-crunchy thing going on. I was very happy to see these leftover the next day.

While the master carver was at his station...
with the ever-faithful turkey lurker never far from the action...
*must. get. turkey.*

...we brought out the side dishes.
 Some holiday greenery, simply steamed.

 Mom's spoonbread.
It's basically a cornbread souffle, and tasted, cornbread! I really liked it, and Mom hadn't made it for Thanksgiving before. A welcome addition!

You know that dish that is so darn good that you wait all year long for, but know better than to request it earlier in the year because then it would lose some specialness? That is my mother's sweet potatoes for me. I don't remember a single year I haven't had them and loved every buttery, brown-sugary bite. She always makes one section without nuts for my brother and I - but in the last few years, I've come around to the bourbon-praline-pecan topping too. 
It's even better than it sounds.

[There were also mashed potatoes that apparently went unphotographed. The sweet potatoes usually distract me. You understand.]
And finally, the bird was ready.
And so was my stomach! 

 The evening was capped off with a classic:
Pumpkin pie, made from scratch. Oh yes, I was one happy foodie.

I'm all for going all out and making crazy experimental dishes, but there is something to be said for sticking to tradition. And sweet potatoes. Man, those things are good.

I will return soon to celebrate vacation, sleep, the end of my ridiculous semester...and food, of course.
 In the spirit of this post, I wish you all happy holidays...and good digestion!