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Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Eve--Carbonnade Flamande

     We were lucky enough to get to spend Christmas and Christmas Eve with my parents and sister this year, and it's the first time they've been down to Missouri to see us over the holidays.  Christmas Eve night we had the candlelight service at church at 4:30 and both Jess and I were involved with the music, so we needed something delicious, and a bit special, but that didn't need much attending to in the hours before dinner.  Our solution?  The Belgian beef-and-beer stew, carbonnade flamande. 
    

     Sure, it's not that pretty to look at, and it's not that complex or difficult to put together, but apart from being a Belgian classic, it's hearty, rustic, and absolutely delicious.  I'd made carbonnade once before, long ago, but it was overly rich, fatty, and honestly not all that good.  This year, I found an authentic Belgian recipe, used the correct type of beer, and the author's 'secret ingredient' and it came out just about perfect. 
     The recipe I used can be found here, and as there seems to be some family history behind it, I'm not going to reprint it here.  However, I can make a few notes.  First of all, we did the 'crock pot' method, and it worked absolutely beautifully.  We put this on low and slow for about 6-7 hours and it was just about perfect.  As I made an absolute shambles of what was supposed to be homemade French baguettes that day, we did indeed (against the author's advice) use plain old, off the supermarket shelf, honey-wheat bread, and it worked just fine, though I've no doubt a delicious, rustic French loaf would have been better.  In terms of mustard, I wasn't sure whether to use American yellow (ballpark-style) mustard or dijon, but I went with the former, and used about half to three-quarters of what the author suggests.  I really didn't want 'mustard' to jump out at me in the final stew, and it certainly didn't, and I'll probably do the same thing next time around.  I did have a bit of trouble getting the onions to caramelize slowly like the author suggests, and didn't end up heating mine for as long, but they still came out quite nicely.


For what it's worth, I also used double-smoked bacon, and might have put in just slightly more than the original recipe called for.  I used the double-smoked (and the slightly greater proportions) because a) c'mon, it's bacon, and b) I wanted a bit of additional richness in the stew.  It worked great, and thankfully this didn't taste at all like 'bacon stew'. 
     Finally, a word on the beer.   I can't remember what I used the first time I made this, but after reading the author's blog, I decided I was going to use the right stuff this time.  I've recently become fond of Flanders Red ales and Flemish Oud Bruin ales as well.  Both of these beers come from the Flemish region of Belgium (though there are American-made versions available as well) and are slightly tart/sour, almost winelike, and very 'wild', being aged in oak with both regular beer yeasts, wild yeasts (like Brettanomyces) and bacteria like Lactobacillus and Pediococcus.  Trust me, it's a whole lot tastier than it sounds.  The quintessential Flanders Red is Rodenbach Grand Cru (around $10.00 for a 750 ml bottle) and this would work well, as would Duchesse de Bourgogne (about the same price), or Petrus Oud Bruin (maybe a dollar cheaper). We, however, decided to use a new-to-Illinois brew, Samuel Adams Stony Brook Red, which is basically a higher-alcohol combination of the classic Flanders Red and Flemish Oud Bruin ales.  I wanted to try an American take on the style, and figured this would be a great opportunity to try something new (It also had a really cool bottle, but I accidentally deleted the picture).  By itself, the 9% abv of the beer overwhelmed the typical (and somewhat delicate) flavors of the best Flemish brews, but it worked quite nicely in this strew.  
      At any rate, we served this with potatoes lightly roasted in a bit of bacon grease and thyme (how good does that sound) and it made the perfect rustic, winter warmer of a meal.  Highly-recommended, and something we'll definitely return to in the future!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Grafton Village Maple Smoked Raw Milk Cheddar


Tag-Raw Milk, Lightly-Smoked Vermont Cheddar

Picked this up at Schnuck's (which I've been hitting up a lot more recently, looking for tasty/interesting cheeses).  I can't remember the exact price, but I think it was between $16-18 a pound; something great that both Schnuck's and HyVee have started doing is to slice up their wheels into increasingly smaller pieces, making it possible to try a variety of exotic cheeses without breaking the bank.  This is a pale butter color, and smells sweet and buttery, like a baby swiss, with a light, pleasant smokiness.  Very mild (much milder than your typical smoked Gouda, for example) with a smooth texture.  Light smoke flavor, along with complex, delicate flavors.  Not at all sharp. 
 
Overall, this is really nice.  Probably best to enjoy on its own or with butter crackers, as any full-flavored wine or beer might easily overpower it. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Quickes Oak Smoked Cheddar

 
 
Tag--English cheddar aged between 12-15 months, smoked naturally over oak chips. 
 
Dark butter hue, with some crystallization from the age. Light brown edges, from the smoke.  No artificial flavors.
 
Rich, pleasant cheddar and natural smoke aromas.  Dry, relatively heavy texture, much like an aged Parmesan, but without the crystalline mouthfeel.  Dry, natural smoke and wood flavors along with mellow, slightly sweet cheddar flavors.  Overall, this is quite pleasant, but more mellow than I anticipated from the aromas.  Definitely has a bit different smoke character than the smoked cheeses I’m used to (typically cheaper smoked Goudas).  This tastes more natural, earthy, and woody than any others. 
Around $19.99 a lb. at World Harvest.  We love English Cheddar and smoke cheeses, and so we had to try this.  This is fantastic on its own, and would likely pair well with mild breads and malty sweet beers (perhaps a milder Strong Scotch Ale) as well. 
 
 
At the price, it’d have to be a small piece, but I’d definitely buy this again. 


Tintern Cheese


Tag—Creamy, Welsh cheddar cheese with shallots and chives.  From Monmouthshire in eastern Wales. 
Ivory colored, bright green wax, small green flecks throughout

Creamy texture, but surprisingly sharp.  I guess from the combination of a cheddar-style cheese and shallots, I was expecting something savory and a bit sweet.  However, the chives bring a sharp, herbal edge here which, to me, just slightly overpowers the rich creaminess of the cheese. Don’t really get much of the shallots, and the actual chive flavor is fairly mild.   
Around $18.99 a lb. at World Harvest.  Was looking to try an herbed cheese, and decided to try this over the more familiar (and one of our favorites) Cotswold.  It’s (for me) a bit much on its own, but with a nice porter and some (just slightly sweet) rustic beer bread, it’s still pretty nice. 
Likely wouldn’t buy again.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Personal-Size English Meat Pies (seriously awesome)

     Jess and I made this a few weeks ago when her grandparents were here to visit, but I haven't had time to post until now.  Suffice it to say, this is one of our favorite things we've made in a long time.  It seems like I'm always longing to be back in North Yorkshire and Northumberland and nothing takes you back faster than a) a good English ale or b) good English pub food.  This recipe is an example of the latter, though it pairs wonderfully with the former!
 

     To begin, make up a recipe of the Cornish Pasty crust used here (though remember to note the changes to the ingredients listed in my directions).  Instead of making pasties, we rolled the dough out into small circles a bit larger than the diameter of the widest part of a large (i.e. 6 to a tray) muffin/cupcake pan.  Gently but firmly press the dough down the sides of the muffin tin and smooth out, so that an equal amount of pastry remains around the edge on all sides.
 
 
     Next, it's time to make the filling.  For six of these (really, with sides, you can serve one of these per person and be about right; they're pretty rich), you need:
 
     -8 oz. steak, chopped into small, equal-sized pieces (easier to do this if steak is partially frozen)
     -1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
     -1 tsp crushed garlic
     -1 tbsp olive oil (extra-virgin or regular)
     -6 to 8 oz. of Red Leicester or English Cheddar, chopped into same size pieces as the beef 
     -1 tsp dried thyme
     -1/2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
     -1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
 
Begin by gently sauteing the onion, crushed garlic, and thyme in the olive oil until soft and lightly golden.  remove from the heat, add your balsamic vinegar and Worcestershire sauce, and stir well to combine.  Add these ingredients to the steak and cheese, stiring well to combine.  Pile about 3/4 of a cup (so it just comes above the rim of the cup) into each muffin cup, and crimp the tops together lightly with a bit of water to help them stick. 
 
 
Oven times will vary a bit, but bake for about 20 minutes at 400 degrees, before lowering the heat to 350 and baking another 40 minutes.  You want the crust to be lightly golden to golden brown and, most importantly, the beef inside to be fully cooked.  Let sit for a few minutes before serving.  The result?
 
 
Serve with just a touch of horseradish cream and some balsamic glazed green beans with onion and bacon, and you've got a kockout meal.  Pair this with a slightly sweet, nutty, or caramelly English Real Ale for the perfect paring. 
 
 
Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that these hold over very well until the next day.  Simply fully cook them and let them cool for a bit before placing them in an airtight container in the fridge overnight.  The next day, heat them (lower heat, slowly) in the oven until warm through, and serve!
 
This is definitely something we'll come back to for special occasions!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Chocolate Zucchini Cake--Low Sugar (if high fat) Recipe

    
     Sure, it sounds gross...chocolate...zucchini...cake, but it's delicious, I promise.  This is something my mom made every summer when I was growing up, with fresh zucchini from my dad's garden.  It's sweet, but not overly sweet, and has a slightly rougher texture that gives it a certain rustic charm.  We made this cake this weekend for a church gathering, and decided to swap out the sugar for Splenda, since Jerry is a diabetic, and can't ever eat any of the desserts people bring.  I also decided to make it in loaf pans (1 regular and 2 small) instead of the usual angel food cake pan, so that I would have a couple of small loaves to take to school with me this week.  At any rate, here's the recipe. 
 
     -4 eggs
     -3 c. sugar (we subbed Splenda)
     -1.5 c. vegetable oil
     -3 oz. Chocobake unsweetened pre-melted chocolate
     -1.5 tsp. vanilla extract
     -0.5 tsp. almond extract
    
     -3 c. all-purpouse flour
     -1.25 tsp. baking soda
     -1.25 tsp. baking powder
     -1 tsp. salt
     -.25 tsp. cinnamon
 
     -3 c. finely shredded zuchinni
     -0.5 c. chopped dates
     -0.5 c. chopped pecans
     -0.5 c. semi-sweet chocolate chips
 
     To begin, beat the eggs until foamy and very light in color.  Gradually add the sugar until well blended, and then add the oil and mix well to combine.  Next, stir in the chocolate and the extracts.  Then, add the dry ingredients.  Note, the dough here will be very dense and friggin difficult to stir with a spoon.  I recommend using the dough-hook on your Kitchenaid-style mixer if you have one; it worked pretty well for me.  Add the remaining ingredients and mix well.  Pour into ungreased pan of your choice (10" angel food cake pan or large loaf pan works well) and bake at 350 for around 75 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.  These can be tricky to get out of the pan without them sticking, and I'd recommend running a knife or spatual around the outside to help get them out easily.  Cool completely, then slice.  *Note: this is awesome frozen or chilled*
 
 
 
     *Thoughts
         -While the Splenda version was good and cut way back on calories, I don't think the flavor was
           quite as robust as with regular sugar; next time I might use half sugar, half Splenda.
         -There is a ton of fat in this recipe; I'm going to play with it and see if I can't swap some of the
           vegetable oil out for applesauce or other ingredients (a nice rich stout, perhaps?)
         -I'm thinking this same basic cake, but with less oil, a rich, strong imperial stout (I'm thinking
          maybe Goose Island's Bourbon County?) and some holiday spices might. be. delicious.  I'll
          have to try that at some point!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

World-Class Baked Steak Fries

 
     If you say something is 'world class', you better bring your A game, but we've made these several times now, and have finally perfected the recipe!  Baked fries, while not exactly good for you, are far better health-wise than their deep-fried counterparts, and they're much easier to make in the average kitchen as well.  Simply take 2-3 medium-large white potatoes, scrubbed briefly under cold water, and cut them up into steak-fries.  In a large bowl, pour 1-2 tablespoons of canola oil over the potato wedges and toss well with a long-handled spoon of some sort.  This recipe serves two, and so one tablespoon of canola oil is not too bad at all, with only 14 grams of fat; split two ways, that's not much at all.  The thing is, sometimes, 1 tbsp isn't quite enough to get the fries good and crispy, so my suggestion is to go with 1.5-2 tbsp and just make the rest of your day a little bit healthier in other areas.    After the wedges are coated well with oil, sprinkle liberally with Emeril's ESSENCE, which can be picked up at any grocery store, or made at home with the recipe here, and a touch of cayenne for a kick if you so desire. 
 
Fries prior to baking
Place on a large cookie sheet in a single layer, and bake at 480 for approximately 30-35 minutes, shaking the pan and tossing the fries every 8-10 minutes or so.  After 30-35 minutes, cut the heat, and let them coast just a bit longer.  These bake up nice and crispy on the outside, but just slightly firm on the inside, just like the fries you might get at a high-end steakhouse!  Sprinkle with a bit of grated parmesan or parmesan blend (we used HyVee's Parmesan/Romano blend and it was awesome).  Serve with whatever dipping sauce you prefer, and enjoy.  We may never eat steak with baked potatos again!   
 
 

Pumpkin Ale Beer Bread (with a twist)

     Today was another church potluck and, since the weather was so amazing this weekend, we decided to try to do it outside at Nancy's house.  Jessi and I wanted to do something new, but something that was also suitably fall-ish.   Oh, and I had some leftover Schlafly Pumpkin Ale from last year which, while still good, needed to be used up so's I can get a sixer of the fresh stuff from down the street at Prairie Home General Store (who now stocks a small amount of good beer and wine)!  At any rate, these factors conspired together to produce today's treat: Pumpkin Beer Bread!
 
Possibly the best pumpkin ale out there!
     The original recipe upon which mine is closely based, is found here.  To be honest, I had planned to make this recipe exactly as is (except to possibly add chopped pecans or walnuts), because it looks just about perfect, but in my rushed state I overlooked the fact that we didn't have any whole-wheat flour.  Come to find out, we also didn't have any nuts (at least other than peanuts, which would not make a very good pumpkin bread), since I used the last of the walnuts in the bacon-banana bread.  Well, church was in a little over an hour, so I improvised.  I'd heard that chocolate makes a good companion to pumpkin and (after having tried this combination in a martini...more on that later) I decided I'd try it here as well. 
 
The finished product...
     In the end, I followed the original recipe, but with a couple of changes.  First off, I used all all-purpose flour, because it's all we had.  Also, I added 3/4 cup of semi-sweet chocolate chips to the batter.  The original recipe called for baking at 350 for around 60 minutes.  I upped this to 360 (I was, as per usual, late for church) and it finished perfectly in about 57 minutes.  Flipped right out of the pan (greased with cooking spray) and people really seemed to enjoy it. 
 
Good, but that's a whole lotta chocolate...
     We'll likely make this again.  I'm dead sold on using Schlafly Pumpkin Ale for this.  After all, it's one of if not the best pumpkin ales out there, is local, and is readily available.  Also, since it's slightly stronger than the average pumpkin ale (8% abv) it lent a slightly alcohol/fruity/molasses flavor to the finished product that was very nice.  If we make this again with the chocolate chips, we'll probably drop the amount down to 1/2 a cup or maybe even a touch less.  I was going for pumpkin bread with a hint of chocolate; this came out as a chocolate/pumpkin bread.  If that's what you're going for, keep the 3/4 cup of chocolate chips, but it was a bit much for us.  Also, next time around, we might try the original recipe (i.e. w/some whole-wheat, or maybe even barley flour), but add some toasted pecans or walnuts.  At any rate, this was a solid recipe that we'll definitely be returning to!
 
   

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Bacon Banana Bread (Yup, you read that right...)

     So today was our monthly church potluck and Jessi actually had this Sunday off for once so we could both go.  After our first week back (Jess at her new stressful, but crazy job, and with me at school) we were going to be fairly lazy and take pecan shortbread cookies from a signature mix made up by the Prairie Home General Store.  But when I opened up the bag this morning and looked at the mix, there was no way it was going to be enough for all the people at the potluck.  Two hours until church, and no ingredients in the house to make much of anything.  Time for an emergency Wal-Mart run... 



     I'd been toying around with trying this recipe (by the sister of one of the guys that owns/runs Beer Advocate) but a.) it sounded a bit strange and b) we didn't want it sitting around in case it was any good.  In retrospect, maybe I shouldn't have tried it out on an innocent and unspecting crowd but in the end it worked just fine.  I won't repost the recipe, as it's available here, but I will mention a couple of deviations. 

Smashed Bananas...um...yum? 
     Unsurprisingly, I couldn't find any super-ripe bananas at Wal-Mart and had to settle for some that were at least almost entirely yellow.  I debated using a touch more sugar to compensate for lost sweetness, but in the end, decided against it.  Also, I used light sour cream, rather than full fat, and used regular light brown sugar (we had tons, and brown sugar is expensive) rather than the dark brown sugar that the recipe calls for.  Also (again because of cost) I also substituted walnuts for the pecans, but Jessi said she liked that better anyway, thinking banana/walnut is a better combination than banana/pecan. 
     We didn't have quite enough bacon either.  What we had was from Trader Joes (again, bought at the Prairie Home General Store) and I decided to use that, rather than buying extra bacon.  It worked fairly well in the end.  It's ultra thick-cut and uncured.  I'm guessing maybe we had half to three-quarters of a pound.  The result was a very subtle bacon flavor whenever you got some in a bite...for future reference, I might use a slightly sharper, smokier bacon, but probably wouldn't increase the amount used at all.  The bacon we just pan fried (slowly, over medium heat, turning often) then drained, dried, and pulverized in a food chopper.

Bacon = yum
      Even using the light brown sugar, the praline topping came out really well.  It's just brown sugar, butter, honey, with a couple good pinches of fleur de sel and a handfull of chopped walnuts thrown in after it boils and the sugar dissolves.  All in all, this was a really tasty recipe, and after we'd gotten a few odd looks, people really seemed to enjoy it.  We saw a couple people go back for seconds, and we only brought a small piece home.  In the end, we'll chalk this up as a win, although it's likely not something we'll make very often. 

 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Tarte Aux Pommes (Happy 100th, Julia!)

The finished product
      I saw online that today would have been Julia Child's 100th birthday, and so I figured I oughta bust out one of her books and make something in her honor.  The wife didn't seem to mind the idea of a bit of French cooking, either.  I decided to go with an apple tart that I've made a couple of times before, but with a couple of minor modifications.  I won't post the whole recipe here, but the ingredients are as follows.

Crust in the making...

   -Pâte Brisée Fine ( Julia's recipe for slightly sweet pastry dough)
   -Unsweetened applesauce, preferably home-made
   -granulated sugar
   -3 TBSP Grand Marnier
   -Grated lemon peel
   -Butter
   -Apples
   -Apricot-pineapple jam


     After partially baking the crust, you mix together and cook down the sugar, liqueur, sugar, lemon peel, and a bit of butter until it thickens (I had to use a bit of cornstarch as well).  You pour that into the crust, and bake for about a half an hour.  After it cools, boil the jam, a bit of sugar, and a touch more Grand Marnier and glaze the top of the tart.  It's not exactly health, but pretty freakin' tasty.  We deviated from the original recipe in using Grand Marnier instead of straight up cognac or rum, as the flavors meld nicely and my parents were nice enough to snag a small bottle for my wife for Christmas.  Also, the original recipe calls for plain apricot jam, but we had apricot-pineapple, so that's what we used.  All in all, this turned out pretty well.

The full recipe can be found in Julia Child's The French Chef Cookbook, p. 181-184.  Not a bad little book if you're looking for a bit of French inspiration!  

Friday, August 3, 2012

A Brief Thank-You...

...to my parents for sending my wife and I out to dinner for our three-year anniversary tonight!  Since we've already done a review of Sycamore before, I won't do another, but since it was one of the best meals either of us had ever eaten, I figured Syc deserved a quick shout-out here. 
     First, I should say that, as usual, Sanford (half-owner and beer/wine/front-of-the-house guy) was awesome.  I mentioned on a local beer website how much I was looking forward to trying Prussia Berlinerweiss again, as it had blown my mind the first time I had it.  He wrote me back within an hour and said that they had so little left that he was going to pull the keg before dinner service, but that he'd save some back.  When we got there, he'd saved a growler, just for us.  On the house.  Happy anniversary!  Any time our glasses got low, the waitress swung by and topped us off.  At only 3.5%, we could easily drink 2-3 of these without any effect and it was one of the most flavorful, refreshing summer beers I've ever had. 
     Alright, enough about the beer.  The food was phenomenal.  Usually when we go, we order a couple of small plates each, rather than the large plates/entrees.  Syc is one of those places where the ingredients and the attention to detail (in the food, the service, the atmosphere, etc) are top-notch, so expect to pay $7-16 for the small plates and between $22-27 for the large plates.  Also, the portions are reasonable, meaning much smaller than the "1,900-calorie chicken covered in cheese, topped with a half pound of bacon and sour cream, along with a side of fries, oh, and you wanted an appetizer and dessert with that to, right?" that you get at the big chain 'American dining' establishments.  We typically figure that if you're going to spend $20-25 a piece, you may as well get a variety of textures/flavors, rather than just one thing, and thus usually go for the small plates.
     But last night they had chicken on special.  Syc almost never has chicken (usually they have 2-3 beef entrees, scallops, trout, sometimes pork, and often something fun like rabbit, duck, etc).  Jess loves chicken, and last night's special looked too good to pass up.  We started by splitting a cheese platter from Goatsbeard Farm right here in Missouri.  There was a blue cheese which was super earthy and a bit different from any blue we'd ever tried, their Brie-style Prairie Bloom, a plain, creamy, chevre-style cheese, something called Missouri Moon which was almost like a Camembert but with a very 'blue-cheese' tasting rind, and one of their delicious raw-milk hard cheeses.  All this was served up with house-made crackers with (we think) black onion seed (a popular Indian spice), pressed-date cake, and sesame brittle.  Paired with the tart, fruity, light wheat bread flavors of the Berlinerweiss, this was a perfect appetizer. 
     For her dinner, Jessi got the chicken, which was a pan-seared breast (with the skin on), finished with tomatos, lemon, garlic cloves, kalamatas, and herbs.  It. Was. Amazing.  The skin was crispy, the chicken super-juicy, and the flavors from these simple ingredients were outstanding.  Jess was glad that they brought extra bread to the table, because the sauce was too good to leave on the plate.  For my entree, I stepped outside my comfort zone a bit and ordered the charcuterie plate.  For what it's worth, I think most, and likely all, of these meats were cured in-house.  The plate included mortadella (authentic Italian 'bologna'), a delicate hard salami-style sausage with black peppercorns, a slightly smoky sausage they characterized as 'German ham sausage', a toasted baguette topped with some kind of spread that tasted of rendered duck fat (SO much tastier than it sounds), and my new favorite that I'd never even heard of, 'nduja.  'Nduja is a spicy, spreadable sausage with Calabrian roots, and it came spread on a toasted baguette.  It's dark red and fiery.  I took one bite and saved the rest until I'd eaten everything else on the plate because it would have overpowered just about everyting else on the plate.  Hot, but incredible!  All of this was served with a side of mincemeat, pickled red onions, jalapenos, and house-made brown mustard. 
     We've never been disappointed at Sycamore before, but this was probably the best meal we've had there to date.  We considered going somewhere new for our anniversary, but decided to stay with what we knew we liked and are glad that we did.  We usually leave satisfied, if not overly full, but last night we left stuffed and sleepy.  The dessert menu looked awesome, but we had to pass, though I did enjoy a small bottle of Castelain Blonde Biere de Garde as a sort of palate cleanser and end to the meal.  I'm not sure I've ever had an authentic French biere de garde, and it was really interesting with a combination of lightly toasted malt, white grape juice, hard candy, and floral flavors. 
    At any rate, especially with me out of work for the summer, we could never have afforded this on our own, so thanks much to my mom and pops, as this was one of the best dining experiences we've had, and was a great way to celebrate 3 years of marriage (and 8 years total) together!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Three-Year Wedding Anniversary, pt. I

     Today it's been exactly three years since I married my best friend and my other half, Jessica Cori Spinder.  As of last week, it's been eight years since we've been together, and we're looking forward to a lot more.  While my parents graciously offered to send us out to dinner for our anniversary, we decided to take them up on that offer this weekend and just stay in and relax tonight. 

Baked Goat Cheese w/ Zesty Marinara-      (paired with Rodenbach Grand Cru sour ale)


     For the marinara sauce:

       -1 (28oz) can HyVee tomato sauce
       -3 small tomatoes, cored and finely chopped (thanks to Jerry S. for the tomatoes!)
       -1/2 tsp salt*
       -1/2 tsp black pepper
       -2 TBSP crushed garlic
       -small onion (white/yellow), finely diced
       -2 TBSP dry red wine (we used a Bordeaux that we had leftover)
       -1/2 TBSP dried basil
       -1/2 tsp. dried oregano
       -1/4 tsp. dried thyme
       -2 Hungarian wax peppers, veined and seeded, and very finely diced


     Simply mix the above ingredients in a medium saucepan and simmer until somewhat reduced and thickened.  *I just threw this recipe together off the top of my head, and after tasting it, I might cut back on the salt a little bit if you're just using this as a pasta sauce.  With the tang of the goat cheese, however, the salt levels are just about right.  This one's pretty easy. I made the sauce up last night, so it could flavor through a bit better.  Before baking, let the sauce come up to temp a bit, so you don't have to leave it in the oven for as long.  Then slice up your preferred variety of soft goat's-milk cheese (we had to go with something from Wal-Mart, because the Prairie Home General Store, and everyone else, it seems, was out of Goatsbeard Farms cheeses), place in gratin dishes along with the sauce, and bake or bake and broil, until everything is warmed through and the cheese is beginning to melt.  Serve with crusty French bread or chewy ciabatta, lightly toasted with olive oil.  We paired this with a wonderful Flemish ale, Rodenbach Grand Cru.  This beer's crisp acidity, high carbonation, and flavors of sour cherry, oak, and a hint of balsamic vinegar worked perfectly with the richness and the slight spice of the goat cheese dish.  The marinara, while decent on its own, was awesome with the cheese, and the beer was a perfect companion.  We'll definitely be makin this again.


Wedding Cake, 2.0-
     The idea here was to (loosely) recreate the cake we had at our wedding from the amazing Trefzger's Bakery in Peoria, IL.  While I generally stand behind my ability to cook, Jessi is, and has always been, the baker in the family.  I make a mean creme brulee (but that's pretty easy) and a killer baklava (again, not so hard) but when it comes to cakes and pies, I'm a bit out of my element.  Yesterday I was told 'hey, anyone can do it', so I figured I'd give it a go.  The idea here was to make a layered white 'wedding-style' cake, with vanilla buttercream and alternating layers of raspberry frosting and chocolate ganache for filling, to mirror our wedding cake.  Challenge: accepted. 
     I don't think I've ever made a cake from scratch, so I was kind of flying blind in selecting a recipe.  I decided to go with the recipe found here, but scaled it up 1.5x, since I was making a three-tiered cake.  Or so I thought.  A couple of notes.  I followed the instructions to the letter, and was overall pretty proud of myself, especially since I only managed to break one egg yolk out of six...
                                   
                                
There's no doubt that this makes good cake, but it doesn't strike me as 'wedding cake', in that it's not that pure snow white color that most of the professional cakes are.  I'm guessing this might have something to do with the egg yolks and/or butter in the recipe.  Either way, it's really tasty cake, but almost tastes a bit closer to a lighter (does that even make sense?) pound cake than the super light, fluffy 'wedding cake' I had in mind. 

     Things were going quite smoothly, and I actually was feeling pretty good about this whole baking thing, but my top tier stuck to the pan (yes, I greased it, yes I ran a knife around the edge, I dunno what happened) and when it finally gave way it came out in several pieces.  Hmm, looks like we'll be having a two-tiered cake. I should also note that the baking times listed on the website were way off for my three cake pans (one double-depth 8", one 6", and one 4"). Baking at 350, the smallest one was done in 40 minutes, the medium in 45 minutes, and the largest in 70 minutes.

Man Down...
What's that, you say?  There appears to be a cat hair on that piece of cake?  I dunno about all that, but it might have something to do with the kitchen staff...

That's my (fat) boy...
     I used Jessi's cake cutter (this thing's actually pretty cool) and sliced the two cakes into a total of five layers.  After you make a couple of icing 'dams' around the outside of each layer, you can add your filling of choice, and then add your next layer of cake.  Speaking of fillings, we used some freshly squeezed raspberry juice (we just used thawed frozen berries), mixed with one of Jessi's favorite buttercream  recipes, and added a bit of powdered sugar until the consitency and flavor were right.  It's incredibly natural tasting, and even with all the sugar it's still a bit tart.  The other filling was chocolate ganache.  We took 6oz of bittersweet bakers chocolate, finely chopped, and added that to a half cup of half-and-half.  Bring the half-and-half to a boil, remove immediately from the heat, and whisk the chocolate in as fast as you can, until it's shiny, smooth, and completely incorporated.  We based this recipe on the one found here, but after finding out that half-and-half works (it's all we had in the house and I forgot to buy heavy cream) we'll never use heavy cream again.  Here's what the first layer looks like at the start; use a pastry bag with a wide decorating tip to make a double wall of icing around the outside of the cake, to keep the filling inside.

 The first layer is raspberry cream...


The second layer is chocolate ganache...

                                                                         
     And below you can see the final product. 



The top, smaller cake, had only two layers, and thus only had the raspberry frosting.  I had originally planned to make both cakes three layers, but I sort of mangled the small one taking it out of the pan as well.  Oh well.  The bottom cake, however, had three layers, with one band of ganache and one band of raspberry cream.  Exactly like our wedding cake? Well, no. I followed this recipe exactly, but this didn't really turn out to be a wedding cake style cake.  It's the palest shade of yellow and really, really dense and buttery.  Yup, we have a three-layer, multiple-frosted, poundcake.


     The result?  It's delicious, but a small piece is more than enough.  Other than that, though, the only thing I was really disappointed in here is my lack of presentation skill.  We'll try this cake over for future anniversaries...methinks I might have to master rolled buttercream or fondant at some point in my life.  Next year, we'll stick with the buttercream, ganache, and raspberry filling, but look for a new cake recipe.  Ace of Cakes I am not, but it's good cake, and the house is still standing, so I guess we'll call that a win! 



Monday, July 30, 2012

Greek Salad

     Um, it's getting to be pretty sad, but here's another one inspired by Sycamore.  Nevertheless, we had a ton of fresh cucumbers (thanks, Jerry S!) and some red onions, so this seemed like a no-brainer. The following recipe makes two big servings. 

   Dressing-
     -2 TBSP extra-virgin olive oil
     -2 TBSP lemon juice (the stuff from the plastic lemon, or fresh)
     -Dash of salt
     -Dash of pepper
     -1/2 tsp dried oregano
   
    Salad-
      -2 large cucumbers, seeded and sliced
      -1 medium to medium large red onion
      -1 (3.5oz) package crumbled reduced-fat feta
      -1 Hungarian was pepper, thinly sliced (removing seeds/veins optional)
      -Kalamata olives (optional)


     This one couldn't be simpler.  Toss the veggies together, and drizzle the dressing (after shaking vigorously) over the top.  Add the cheese and olives, toss once more, and serve.  Though not quite as good as Syc's, this was delicious!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Beer and Honey Chicken with Balsamic Green Beans

     Almost three years ago, we went on our honeymoon to Galena, IL.  When we were planning it, I honestly wasn't sure about the place, but it was close and we were short on time/money, so I figured what the heck.  Turns out, if you're into wine, beer, food, and local history, it's a great place to go.  One of the best things about it is the number of little shops in the main downtown area, among them the Galena Garlic Company.  Remembering how much we loved some of their spice mixes (this is one of our all-time favorites), Jess got me a mixed pack for Valentine's Day.  Beer and honey rub?  Sounds interesting, for sure, and like something that I'd be down with.  C'mon, it even includes hops and yeast.  Bring it on!


     We honestly weren't really sure what to do with this, but since we had some awesome chicken breasts from Just Bare Chicken, we decided to sprinkle on a little of the rub, let it sit for several hours in the fridge, and grill it up.  Just before I turned the flame off, I drizzled just a bit of honey over both pieces, which added a little sweetness.  We wanted something healthy and delicious to go with this, and so we figured it was about time to write down our favorite green bean recipe (thanks to my dad and his garden for the awesome green beans!). 
     I use the term 'recipe' only in the loosest possible sense, as we have long since ceased to measure how much we actually use of each ingredient; the idea is to keep it healthy, so use minimal oil/butter, and not much bacon.  For you vegetarians out there, imitation bacon bits work as well.  Basically, heat a bit of olive oil or butter in a skillet and sautee some onions (white or yellow) over medium-low to medium heat until they start to turn translucent.  Add in your bacon pieces and sautee a little longer.  Throw in a dash of salt, a dash of pepper, and a bit of minced garlic.  Throw in your green beans (ours come frozen from IL, and frozen beans work really well here) and turn up the heat.  When little bits of the onions/garlic/bacon start to look like they might be crisping up, deglaze with a splash of balsamic vinegar.  Throw in a dash of Emeril's Essence, stir well, and keep stirring until the beans are warmed through, and any liquid has been absorbed, but stop before anything starts to truly burn.  Keep in mind that these will look a lot darker/more burnt than they actually are, but after doing this a time or two, you figure out when to stop cooking. 


   I know it sounds like a weird combination of flavors, but it everything comes together to be incredibly mellow and delicious.  Ever since we pegged this recipe, this is about the only way we eat green beans any more, and they are delicious!   

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Mmm...Cupackes

Image from BettyCrocker.com
Digging around in the pantry last night, I stumbled across a box mix of Confetti Angel Food cake mix.  SCORE! Promptly deciding that I wanted to make it into cupcakes, I started the oven, dumped the mix into the bowl, added the water and got to mixing.  Well....then I took a moment to glance at the box and found that it expired...well a long time ago. (READ: 01SEPT07...does that mean what I THINK it means?!)  I took a small taste of the batter, which wasn't mixing up well for some reason, and it was SOUR.  Now, if I had baked it, maybe it would have been okay.  MAYBE.  But after tasting it, I couldn't bring myself to finish the process so down the garbage disposal it went.


Then I had a conundrum: I'd already started the oven and greased the pan.  What was I now supposed to do with this?!  Instead of doing the perhaps logical thing and cleaning up and turning off the oven, I took to the Google-machine and found myself a recipe for angel food cupcakes from scratch.  Easy.


I found a good-looking recipe at How Sweet It Is and decided to go for it.  I halved the recipe (because (a) I was making the BIG cupcakes, (b) Dan and I alone did NOT need a whole recipe, and (c) well, I only had 6 eggs) and got to work. I did not have cake flour and another quick visit to the Google-machine informed me that I could "make" my own with a little cornstarch. :)  To make them "confetti" cupcakes, I dumped in some sprinkles.  Overall, they turned out pretty darn good, if I do say so myself.


I had my share of problems along the way, the biggest thing being that I couldn't seem to beat my egg whites into submission.  They never did form the "stiff droopy peaks" that they were supposed to but I used them anyway.  The result was a slightly denser cake than angel food normally is, but it still tastes good!


Dan and I ate two of the cupcakes plain last night and they were delicious! The outside had that slightly sweeter "crust" that I love about angel food cake.  We could have easily eaten all 6 of our big cupcakes but decided instead to make some frosting the next day (today) and add that. (Because really, is it a cupcake without frosting?)


This morning I went looking for a frosting recipe because the buttercream that I generally make is a heavier one that's good for piping.  I wanted something a bit lighter, so with my mad librarian skills, I once again took to the Google-machine and searched "fluffy buttercream frosting." (Yes, very professional, I know.) I went for the first result, which was Fluffy Vanilla Buttercream from Martha Stewart. It was super simple.  I actually only made 1/4 of the recipe, so my recipe looked like this:


  • 1 stick of unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 1/4 cups powdered sugar, sifted
  • 1/8 tsp vanilla
  • Pinch of salt


Then, because I was feeling whimsical, I topped the cupcakes off with the rest of my sprinkles and some of the mini chewy sweet tarts that we bought at the fair last night. 


Ta-da! Delicious and fun to look at! :)

Friday, July 13, 2012

Prairie Home Fair Food

     It's Americana.  It's horrible for you.  It only comes once a year.  And we love it! 



     After volunteering in the food tent from 8-midnight last night, and smelling all that delicious food, we finally snagged some for ourselves tonight! 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Gnocci with Roasted Butternut Squash in a Sage-Brown Butter Sauce

     Yet again, we have Sycamore to thank for culinary inspiration.  Once in a great while, when we can spend just a bit more than usual, we go up to Syc and get a couple of small plates and a drink for a light dinner.  Last year when we were there, Jess tried their gnocci with butternut squash and loved it, so we figured we'd try to come up with something in the same ballpark.  Neither of us could remember what exactly it was like, but regardless, the following recipe turned out to be delicious! 

Squash--And one of my sweetest kitchen gadgets...thanks Grandma, we miss you!
    Start by peeling and chopping a butternut squash that's somewhere in the neighborhood of 3-3.5 lbs.  We used mostly the neck from ours, so that we could cut even pieces and didn't have to mess with the seeds and the guts much.  Dice into fairly even squares around 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch.  Don't worry about getting them perfect; you just want them to cook evenly, and the even cut makes the dish look really nice too.



Use approximately 1oz of extra-virgin olive oil and toss well to coat.  Sprinkle with 2 generous pinches of sea salt, and a few turns of freshly-cracked black pepper and mix well.  Spread out evenly on a baking sheet and roast for around 30 minutes at 375.  When they have about 10 minutes to go, start working on the butter sauce and gnocci. 


How you like your squash determines how long you cook them.  We like ours fork-tender, but not mushy.  We cooked them for 23-25 minutes, and decided that the slightly larger pieces weren't quite as done as we'd like.  Thirty minutes would probably get them to just about where we like them.  When the squash come out of the oven, they can be starting to turn light golden-brown, but you don't want them burnt at all. 


    
   The gnocci themselves only take about 2 minutes of boiling to cook and need to be sauced pretty much immediately, so save them until last.  Chop 1/4 of a large onion into strips about 1-1.5 inches long, and thinly slice about 20 sage leaves (note: we would prefer a bit more sage flavor, so maybe make this 30 if you like sage).  Place 4 TBSP butter (hey, I never said this was healthy) into a medium frying-pan on low-medium heat until just melted.  Add 1 TBSP crushed garlic and the onions, and cook on medium heat for a couple of minutes.  Turn to medium-high, until the butter just starts to brown.  Throw in the sage, kill the heat, and stir to brown the butter, making sure not to burn it.  When you start browning the butter, throw your gnocci into boiling water.  Our brand took about 2 minutes to finish; you can tell they're done when they float to the top. Add the diced squash and the gnocci to a large bowl, pour the butter sauce over the top, and mix well.  Plate, dust with some Parmigiano Reggiano, and you're good to go!


     In the end, we really couldn't remember what Syc's version tasted like, or even if it had brown butter and sage, for that matter, but we must have gotten the idea from somewhere.  At any rate, this turned out really nice.  It's rustic, yet somewhat elegant, and is filling without being heavy.  We wouldn't change much for next time, except maybe to cook our squash a bit longer, use a touch more sage (this was really aromatic but the sage flavor wasn't very strong), and perhaps garnish with a few toasted walnuts.  Either way, we can call this one a success.

Serve with a crisp, dry white wine


Saturday, July 7, 2012

Three-Alarm Venison Chili

   

  I wasn't really that fond of chili growing up (beans are gross when you're a kid, after all) but it's something I've really come to love in the past couple of years.  While my mom's "chili" is killer, it's not exactly traditional, and is really more of a kick-A beef and tomato stew with beans, rather than a classic chili.  I know you're saying, "hmmm, beef/tomato stew with beans...um, that'd be chili...) but just go with me on this one.  I'm wondering if maybe she doesn't use as much chili powder or perhaps uses kidney beans instead of beans in chili gravy.  At any rate, the taste, while delicious, isn't typical.  Anyway, I've been playing around with ingredients looking for a classic, fairly traditional chili recipe, and yesterday I came up with the following.  Thanks to Kris M., I had several packages of ground venison in the freezer, and I used one of these as my base. 

Ingredients
     -1.5 lbs ground venison
     -2 (28oz) cans HyVee diced tomatoes
     -4 (15.5oz) cans HyVee chili-style beans in chili gravy
     -19 Hungarian Wax peppers (between 2,500-8000 Scoville), incl. seeds and veins, sliced
     -5 TBSP chili powder
     -1 TBSP Plochmans mustard
     -1/2 TBSP horseradish
     -2 TBSP Garlic
     -1 large red onion, chopped
     -1/2 TBSP Cumin

     Technique doesn't get much easier than this.  Brown the beef if frozen (otherwise, just cook it along with the other ingredients) and then add the other ingredients.  Simmer over low heat for a couple of hours, and you're done.  The mustard and horseradish may seem like strange ingredients, but you can't pick them out in the final product.  I like them and think they add a bit of extra depth of flavor.  This chili came out spicy, but in no way overpowering.  I would call it medium in intensity.  This was a great way to use some of the (many) Hungarian Wax peppers we're harvesting from our garden this year.  Overall, quite tasty!

Perfect Beer Bread!

  

  This recipe is the result of a lot (and I do mean a lot) of trial and error.  A couple of years ago, Jessi's aunt and uncle started getting us baking and seasoning mixes from Tastefully Simple.  Now, we're generally not box-mix people, but this brand has some awesome products.  Some of our favorites are the Key Lime Cheese Ball mix (awesome with graham crackers), the Almond Pound Cake mix (great with a bit of homemade, sweetened whipped cream), and their trio of dip mixers.  Our absolute favorite, however, is their Bountiful Beer Bread.  It's a dense, hearty bread with a rustic charm that goes with everything from cheeses, to spreads, to dips. 
     We went through this stuff like water, however, and it started to get a bit expensive.  We decided, based on the ingredients, that it shouldn't be too hard to 'clone'.  Yeah, we were wrong.  About a year (and several failed attempts) later, we've finally got something that, while not exactly a clone, is pretty close and something that we love almost as much as the original.  For four mini loaves or one standard-sized loaf:

     -2 cups all-purpose flour
     -1 cup organic barley flour (we get ours in the bulk section at HyVee)
     -1 tsp. baking soda
     -1 tsp. baking powder
     -1/4 cup white sugar  *(brown sugar can be substituted; see note below)
     -a dash of salt
     -12 oz beer **(see note below)
     -about 1-2 tablespoons of butter, melted (optional)

     Combine all of the dry ingredients and the beer and blend with a kitchen spoon until combined.  The dough will be very thick, so don't worry.  Divide into four mini loaf pans or one regular loaf pan.  The dough will be lumpy and rustic-looking; don't worry, when baked, this only adds to its charm.  Melt the butter (if desired) and pour evenly over the top of each loaf.  This will help the top to crisp up nicely in the oven.  For mini-loaves, bake at 350 for 35 minutes.  For one large loaf, bake at 350 for about 50-55 minutes.  It's hard to over-bake this bread (its density keeps it from drying out) but be careful not to burn the crust.  When cutting, use a razor sharp, serrated bread knife.  The crust is kind of crumbly, and the bread doesn't always cut clearly, but it tastes amazing.  Simple, rustic, and satisfying.  This is awesome served with beer (of course) and hearty cheeses, honeyed butter (that's a recipe for another time), or a variety of dips/spreads.  In the future, we're hoping to do some riffs on this recipe, but a couple of notes below will give you an idea of where to start. 

*while white sugar is best with lighter beers, light or dark brown sugar may be used with darker, sweeter beers for a little bit darker, richer bread.  You can experiment with different kinds of semi-refined sugars as well.

**a word on beer in this recipe; you can play around with the types of beer you use in this bread, with a couple of exceptions.  DO NOT use anything hoppy (i.e. American Pale Ale or IPA), or anything with a particularly strong or unusual flavor.  Some of these can come off as a bit funny in the bread.  We typically use either a crummy light lager (anything from Budweiser to St. Pauli Girl), a German-style weissbier (Paulaner, similar), or an American wheat beer. Boulevard Wheat is our go-to for this recipe.  These types of beers lend nice, grainy flavors to the bread but have a low level of hoppiness.  We've also found that Scotch Ales (ex. Belhaven Wee Heavy, Great Divide Claymore, etc), used alongside light or dark brown sugar, make a nice, rich beer bread as well.  Again, just make sure you don't overdo it in terms of alcohol or hop rate or, in the case of some Scotch- or Scotch-style ales, smoke character.
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