Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sausage Bread!!!

It's hard to believe, but Jessi and I have now been together for over seven years, and our two-year wedding anniversary is tomorrow, August 1st.  We went out for dinner at Sycamore on Friday evening (that's a separate post, coming soon), and since she's helping with VBS tomorrow evening, we're doing our special meal tonight.  And, instead of going for something crazy-fancy that will break the bank and necessitate us cooking all day, we went with an old, long-time favorite. 

We had sausage bread for the first time at Johnny's near the beginning of our relationship and were immediately struck by the idea.  Delicious, homemade Italian sausage stuffed inside crispy Italian/French bread, with cheese, herbs, et al.  Simple concept, delicious result.  Since Johnny's wasn't exactly cheap either, we attempted to make this at home.  It worked wonderfully, and while I still don't agree with Jess that mine's better than the restaurant version, it's definitely something we come back to as a standby when we need something 'special' for dinner.

The recipe I use for the sausage stuffing is based on Emeril's recipe for mild italian sausage.  Our version is really close to Emeril's, with a couple important changes.  Here's our recipe. 

   -1 lb. ground beef, as lean as you can get (we usually use 93/7, but 95/5 is even better)
   -2 tbsp. crushed garlic
   -1 tbsp. paprika
   -1 1/2 tsp. fennel seeds (you can toast/crush them, but I usually get lazy and don't)
   -1/2 tbsp. salt
   -1/2 tbsp. black pepper
   -1 tsp. cayenne (or substitute 1/2 tsp. cayenne and 1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes)
   -1/2 tsp. anise seeds
   -2 or 3 tbsp. dried parsley flakes
   -3 tbsp. dry red wine (whatever's left over in the fridge, but Chianti or Cab. Sauv. is best)

Ok, so here are the differences.  Emeril's recipe uses 3 lbs of pork butt in his recipe.  We use a much leaner cut of meat, and only a third as much.  Thus, what we end up with can't really be called 'mild Italian sausage'; it's definitely got a bit of a kick to it.  If you want to back off on the spice, halve the cayenne and/or red pepper flakes.  We also halve the amount of salt and pepper he uses in his recipe, as with only a third the amount of meat, 1 tbsp. of each becomes overpowering. 

Mix the meat and the other ingredients together by hand (only way to get this right, IMO) and then ball it up in a bowl and let it sit, covered lightly, in the fridge for at least 2 and up to 8 hours, or even over-night if you have the time.  When you're ready to assemble the sausage bread, fry this up in a non-stick skillet with a bit of non-stick cooking spray and then transfer to a plate/bowl to let cool for 10-20 minutes.

When I said this recipe was easy, I meant it.  For the bread, we go very simple, and buy Pillsbury Pizza Crust--Thin Crust style.  Yup, that's right.  The stuff in the blue can.  We've also used the French Bread (also from the can) but find that the thin crust works much better.  Lay out some parchment paper (or tinfoil, if you don't have parchment paper) on a large cookie sheet and dust lightly with flour.  Remove the dough from the container.  You'll notice that there's a seam all along one side.  Gently unroll the dough along this seam until you have a flat rectangle on your cookie sheet. 

Here's where budget and relative ease of task come into play.  If you want to take the flavors up a notch, by all means, go out and get a block of Parmigiano-Reggiano and a bit of Pecorino Romano to mix in with your garden variety shredded mozzarella.   If you're not feeling particularly flush in a given week (unless you get it at somewhere like Sam's Club, Parm-Regg runs something like $15 a pound) you can easily just substitute a garden-variety 'Italian Blend' shredded cheese mixture from the grocery store (We especially like HyVee's).  Are the specialty cheeses worth it?  Yes and no.  If you mix in the Parmigianno-Reggiano and Pecorino Romano (the Pecorino especially is tangy and salty) your flavors will have a bit more depth, but then again, you have to shell out the cash for the cheese and then spend time grating it with a box grater or the like.  In the end, it works either way.

Once the dough's rolled out in a rectangle, put about half of your cheese mixture down on the dough, leaving about 2" free around all four edges.  Then load on the sausage, in sort of a ridge, running horizontally along the dough (the dough should be laid out w/the long edges on the top and bottom, the short edges on the two sides).  Place the remaining cheese on top.  If we're using 'bagged' cheese, we typically use between 3/4 of an 8oz package and the whole thing.  Just don't use so much that you won't be able to get the crust sealed up.  After the meat and cheese are laid out, carefully (it really helps to have two people to do this) bring the short edges together up to the middle.  Do the same with the remaining two edges until a seam is made along the top.  Wet your fingertips and press the dough of this seam together.  If the dough doesn't stick perfectly, don't worry, you just want it sealed enough so all the tastiness inside doesn't come out. 

Bake at 350 for approximately 30 minutes, and check for doneness.  The bread should be golden brown on top.  If it's still a bit doughy in parts, give it another 15 minutes or so.  If, on the other hand, the top is getting a bit too brown and the rest of the dough doesn't look quite cooked enough, place a sheet of aluminum foil over the top of the loaf.  This will slow down/stop any burning.  And, if you're lucky (it took us several tries to get this all to work correctly) you'll have something like this...

And the deliciousness inside...

Grasshopper Cake!

(Vegan) Grasshopper Cake
adapted from Vegan Desserts by Hannah Kaminsky
© 2011 from Skyhorse Publishing

As some people might know, Dan once told me that vegan food can't taste good.  If you know me, then you'll guess at once that meant CHALLENGE.  I'm not a vegan--I'm not even a vegetarian...but I have definitely been on a mission to make delicious vegan food! (Just to prove Dan wrong).  So, without further ado, here's the latest addition to the challenge--vegan grasshopper cake.  I will put a disclaimer on this recipe, however, because I don't think too hard about actually ensuring that I'm using 100% vegan ingredients.  I generally just use what I have on hand.  That being said--I'll give you the cookbook recipe and let you know if/when I made substitutions. Sound fair?

Pre-heat the over to 350°F and lightly grease 3 8-inch round pans or 2 9-inch round pans (or, you can do like me, and do 2 6-inch pans and 12 cupcakes!)

Devil's Food Chocolate Cake

  • 2 1/2 cups plain non-dairy milk (I used Unsweetened Almond Milk)
  • 1 TBSP apple cider vinegar
  • 2/3 cup canola oil (I used the regular vegetable oil I had on hand)
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 1/2 tsp instant coffee powder (I actually used instant espresso granules)
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour (I used Softasilk Cake Flour)
  • 1 cup natural cocoa powder (I just used by regular Nestle cocoa powder. Natural?)
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
Combine the milk and vinegar and let sit for ~5 minutes.  Pour this mixture into your stand mixer and add oil, sugar, and instant coffee. Mix well (until slightly frothy).

In a separate bowl, combine flour, cocoa, baking powder and soda, and salt. Whisk briefly and then add to stand mixture in 3 additions, allowing the mixture to combine well between each addition. Once you've added all the dry goods, add the vanilla and mix just until incorporated.

Distribute the batter between your prepared pans and use a spatula to smooth down the tops. Bake for 24-28 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Let cool in the pans.

Creme de Menthe Frosting

  • 2 medium sized ripe avocados
  • 2 tsp lemon juice
  • 7-9 cups confectioner's sugar
  • 1 cup non-dairy margarine (I actually didn't even have regular butter or margarine on I used 1/2 cup of Vegetable Crisco...)
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 TBSP Creme de Menthe
  • 1/2 tsp peppermint extract
Prep the avocado and puree in a food processor or stand mixer, adding in the lemon juice immediately and pulsing to combine.

Toss in the margarine (or Crisco) and mix.  Scrape down the sides as needed to make sure the mixture is homogenous before continuing. Slowly add the sugar in three separate additions.  Add the salt, vanilla, creme de menthe, and peppermint.  Allow the food processor or mixer to run, mixing and whipping the frosting for about 5 minutes until light and fluffy.  Frost your cooled cake!

Quick Chocolate Drizzle
  • 5 ounces semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
  • 1/4 cup plain non-dairy milk (I used Unsweetened Almond Milk)
This is totally an optional adornment for your cake, but it's absolutely delicious!

Place the chocolate and milk in a microwave-safe dish and heat for 30-60 seconds in the microwave, until the chocolate is mostly melted.  Stir thoroughly with a spatula until completely smooth, and voila, instant ganache! Drizzle to your heart's content!

(I actually put my ganache in a small plastic baggie and then cut the corner off to do the drizzle.  Just my little trick!)

Friday, July 29, 2011

Restaurant Review: Sycamore

  Jess and I were looking for some place special to celebrate our two-year wedding anniversary and, as we'd had really good experiences at Sycamore before, we figured we'd give the place another shot.  Sycamore is classy, upscale local dining establishment, whose 'mission is to provide seasonal, market-driven fare at affordable prices.'  I'm not exactly sure how to classify the style of their food; if forced to describe it, I'd say it's something of a mix of continental European and contemporary American cuisine.  The menu changes weekly (and sometimes more frequently) and features a nice mix of salads, appetizers/small plates, and entrees.  I should mention that, although we've been there 2-3 times now, we've never actually ordered the large plates.  Instead, we prefer to each get a couple of small plates or a small plate and a salad, to share them around, and get a bit more diversity for our dollar.  The wine and beer menus (esp. the beer menu) are phenomenal.  Sanford (one of the owners, and in charge of the bar) loves craft beer and fine wine, and there is literally something on their extensive drink menus to please just about anyone.  These menus, like the food menu, change fairly frequently. 
    Jess started off with a glass of the house merlot ($4), which we've found to be quite affordable and easy to pair with a variety of dishes, while I had a goblet of Goose Island's Fleur on tap ($5).  Our waitress was really attentive, and showed up to take our drink orders almost as soon as we'd sat down.  She was friendly, helpful, and knew the extensive drink and food menus well enough that she didn't write a single thing down the entire night (service at Syc is pretty much second-to-none around here).  While sipping our drinks and munching on the complimentary house bread and sun-dried tomato butter, we picked out our dinner.  For starters, Jess ordered the Greek salad ($9, slices of cucumber, tomato, calamata olives, red onion, and local feta, with olive oil and lemon juice) while I chose the brandade ($7, salt-cod and potato cake, breaded with crushed potato chips and fried crisp, served with artichoke remoulade, capers, and fried lemon).  The Greek salad was fantastic, with lots of fresh, vibrant flavors.  The only downside was that the cucumbers were just a touch on the bitter side.  The brandade was quite tasty as well, though just slightly softer/moister in texture than the last time I'd had it.  The artichoke remoulade and fried lemon slices were to die for.  For our dinner, Jess ordered the gnocci ($9, house-made potato Gnocchi, sauteed shiitakes, Swiss chard, and Parmigiano-Reggiano) while I opted for the duck pate ($8, duck livers and sherry mousse, pickled red onion, cornichons, and buttermilk crackers).  Jess loved the gnocchi, the pasta was rich and decadent, and the only thing she didn't like was the mushrooms (she's not a mushroom girl).  The duck pate, while quite good, didn't impress me quite as much as the country pate they sometimes serve that comes in its own small terrine (as opposed to sliced on the plate).  The duck version was slightly firmer in texture, and so rich that the two small slices was the perfect amount.  The crackers were spiced with a wonderful Indian spice (I'm not sure what it is, small black seeds, that we've often had at Indian restaurants on their appetizers), and the stone-ground brown mustard and pickled onions went wonderfully with the pate.  I ordered a second beer ($3.50), Tallgrass' new Halcyon wheat; it was the only disappointing thing of the entire evening.
   We weren't planning on getting dessert, but then our waitress brought out the menu.  We opted to split a slice of flourless chocolate cake with vanilla bean ice cream ($6) and some espresso ($2).  Absolutely fantastic, on both accounts.
   All in all, it was a great dinner.  Sycamore has never disappointed us (except once for lunch with friends when a waiter got a friend's order wrong and didn't offer her a discount, free dessert, etc, as restaurants will often do) and this time was no exception.  The atmosphere is warm, cozy, and upscale without ever hinting at pretension.  The wait-staff and bar-tenders are absolutely top-class as well.  While it's certainly not a cheap venue, there's also nothing on the menu over $27, and most of  the large plates are in the low-mid twenties.  When you think of it, you can pay nearly this much for steak or seafood entrees at crummy chain restaurants, and the prices have always struck us as quite fair.  If you go there expecting to pay $18 for mounds and mounds of food (increasingly rare even at the big chains these days) you will be disappointed.  The portions are just right, and considering the wide and ever-changing variety of flavors offered, it's easy to forgo the large plates and just share several apps or small plates amongst the table.  (For the record, from what I've heard, their large plates are fantastic as well).  Though we can't swing the cash to go very often (though they do have wonderful happy hour specials on drinks and appetizers), whenever we go to Sycamore, we know it will be a memorable night.
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