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. 

     -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
      -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


Image from
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, 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. 

     -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.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

It's 103 outside...what to eat??

    Unfortunately for our waistlines, my wife and I are both very, very into food.  So you know that when we don't feel like eating, something's up.  But we're now in our second week of 100-degree-plus temperatures, and it honestly can take your appetite away at times.  So, what to eat? 
     Well, thanks to Jerry S. from church, we have an abundance of fresh, locally-grown cucumbers in our fridge.  They're crisp, decidedly 'summery' and refreshing, so we'ev been trying to figure out tasty ways to use them.  Again, Sycamore comes to the rescue, in terms of inspiration.  Mike and his kitchen crew whip up a mean Greek Salad up there, and we decided we'd do a riff on this, adding warm pita bread and a bit of our favorite, homemade hummus
     Throw together some red onions, thinly sliced cucumbers, reduced-fat Feta cheese, (in my case) some kalamata olives, some of our hot peppers from the back garden, and a lemon viniagrette based on the one here, and you have a flavorful, refreshing, healthy meal for when the mercury spikes and the throught of eating anything heavy is repulsive.  Sidenote: we didn't have any sumac, and substituted dried oregano in the dressing.  It wasn't bad, but the acid was a bit overpowering for our tastes; we may play with this a bit in the future, but it was certainly a good starting point.  Eat this as a wrap:

or as a veggie platter, with hummus and pita on the side:

Either way, you won't be disappointed!

4th of July (Ultimate) BLTs

     Call me crotchety, un-American, or whatever you will, but Independence Day has never been high up on my list of favorite holidays.  Don't get me wrong, I'm thankful for the (many) liberties I enjoy as a citizen of this great nation, but I've become increasingly disillusioned by the political cluster/downward spiral/quagmire of the past decade or so and was was even less enthusiastic than usual for the Fourth this year.  Couple that with 103-degree temperatures, a fireworks ban thanks to extreme drought and wildfire danger, and the fact that I spent all day cleaning up a ruptured keglet of beer in my den (ripping up carpet, padding, cleaning rugs, etc) and it was pretty much just a Wednesday for me.  I'll honor my country's heroes on Veterans' and Memorial Day, thanks; you can keep the Fourth. 
     Curmudgeonry aside, we decided after a (very) long day that we ought to do something for the Fourth, since there were no fireworks (or anything else, for that matter).  So we started to think, what could we do that's quintessentially 'American'?  So much of what we cook is, if not technically-speaking authentic, it's at least largely inspired by European and Asian cuisine.  What could we do that was truly American?  I mean, we've got...I dunno, the hamburger?  The hot dog?  Twinkies?  Hmmm...
     As it has so many times in the past, local favorite Sycamore came to the rescue.  While Syc is one of our favorite places to stop in for a drink and a light bite during happy hour (they have a great draft/bottle menu, Jess loves their house merlot, and their small plates are delicious) we can't really afford to go out for an actual dinner there more than about once a year.  That being said, we have had a ton of fun recreating some of our favorite dishes that we've had there or seen on the menu.  Once again, they don't disappoint.  The idea? BLTs (undeniably an 'American' classic) but with lightly-battered, fried tomatoes. 
     Since I had 30-45 minutes in between each (and there were many) passes with the steam-vac we rented yesterday, I figured I had time to do a bit of 'slow-food' cooking.  I decided to make my own bread (cibatta, recipe below) and we would get as many of the ingredients as we could from right down the street at our tiny, local (largely organic) general store.  It's good food you can feel good about: made at home, with locally grown/raised/at the very minimum purchased ingredients.  We picked up a couple of beautiful, dense, ripe tomatoes, some small zucchinni and an onion for a side dish, and some thick-cut bacon at the general store.  I was going to pick up something from the local Patchwork Family Farms  but Tom up at the general store suggested that for this particular application, we might be better served by the product below: ultra-thick cut, applewood-smoked, and uncured. 

What can I say?  The guy knows his bacon, and this served us very well. 
     Normally, we might have gone down the street to Ellis Bakery, a tiny (and I mean tiny) operation that's literally not much more than a stone's throw from our house but, as it was a holiday, they were closed.  Lacking Randy's killer ciabatta, I decided to take a crack at it myself.  Make no mistake, the bread came out nice; the outside was super chewy like I like, and the flavor was great, but it wasn't nearly as airy as a proper ciabatta should be, which I suspect has a lot to do with the fact that I rushed both the rising time on the biga (as I'd forgotten to start it the night before, thanks to our beer keg disaster) and the rising time of the dough itself.  I'm not going to repost any of either of these recipes, because we didn't change a thing (other than the rising time, which was highly-abbreviated).  Again, the flavor was perfect and the crust (the 'water-spritzing' trick really helps!) was awesome, but the bread was definitely a bit too dense.  Next time, I'll try for 7-9 hours raising time for the biga and the full raising time (both times) for the dough itself. 
    So we've got bacon, bread, lettuce (yeah, we had some regular old iceberg lettuce from HyVee), what about the tomatoes?  Well, we started with good, organic tomatoes from Tom and his wife.  In terms of a recipe for the crust and technique, we started here.  We didn't have any cornmeal, however, and not wanting to go into Columbia (or even Boonville) we just decided to do without.  Instead, we used 1 cup total of Panko breadcrumbs, rather than 1/2 cup breadcrumbs and 1/2 cup cornmeal, along with the flower.  To this, we added a bit of dried Italian Herb blend, some Emeril's Essence (Jessi's favorite general seasoning blend), and maybe 1/4 to 1/3 cup of grated Parmesan 'shake' cheese.  Coat with flour, into the eggwash, and then into the Panko mixture, and fry 'em up on medium-high heat in a bit of vegetable oil until golden brown, and you're done.
     Well, we're almost done, but we needed some kind of side dish.  Well, we'd bought small zucchinni squash and an onion at the general store, and we have a ton of yellow Hungarian Wax peppers in our garden.  Hey, ya know what?  We also have a bunch of bacon fat left over from frying up that bacon.  Betcha didn't know...veggies be much tastier with the addition of bacon fat!  Jessi sauteed up a nice mix of peppers, onion, and zuchinni, adding a bit of Emeril's and some Tastefully Simple Seasoned Salt and these were de-friggin-licious. 

     All in all, a delicious (if not particularly healthy) way to end what had been, for all intents and purposes, a rather crummy day.  Now, pretty sure I need to go spend some serious quality time with the treadmill...

Peach Walnut Cinnamon Cake

     Yup, the responsibility for the (unintended) transformation of this recipe from cinnamon rolls into coffee cake lies squarely with me.  Ask my wife, she'll tell ya!  That being said, I think it turned out pretty damn good nonetheless.  At her current job, the various employees take turns bringing in breakfast on Monday mornings.  Since Jess is leaving soon for her new job, she wanted to take in breakfast one more time before leaving.  When Jess first started out at her current job, she made her take on this recipe from the Oh She Glows vegan cooking blog.  She thought that, given their popularity, she might want to try a bit of a different take on that recipe. 
     Wanting to go with a more typically 'summer' fruit than pumpkins, she decided to use one (21 oz, I believe) can of HyVee peach pie filling.  Further modifications are as follows.  To begin with, we didn't use any vegan ingredients.  While neither Jess or I are vegans, the reason for not making this recipe vegan had more to do with the cost of vean ingredients (and the fact that we didn't have them on hand) than anything else.  And, while I am not currently (and never will be) vegan, one of Angela's recipes at Oh She Glows made me eat my words that 'vegan food, by its very definition, is crap'.  Thus, if you are vegan, or are making this for someone who is, I have every reason that Angela's original version is just as tasty as ours.  Anyway, on to the recipe changes!
     While we kept to the recipe and used almond milk (it's what we had around), we replaced the vegan butter in the original recipe (in all of the portions, i.e. the dough, the streusel, the frosting, and the pan sauce) with regular butter, replaced the egg replacement with one large cage-free egg, and used reduced-fat cream cheese for the vegan cream cheese in the frosting.  We also decided to use chopped (and lightly toasted) walnuts rather than pecans (again, they were what we had on hand) and they work well with peaches. 
     I have to say, this is one of the best sweet-roll doughs I've ever tasted; it takes me back to when my Grandma M. used to make sweet rolls for our family when we'd visit them out in Kansas.  Though she's been gone for over a decade now, my first taste of these rolls instantly transported me back there to that time and place.  Yeah, they're that good.  Anyway, the first thing we had to do was to mix up the dough.  For what it's worth, it's amazing what fresh, active yeast will do for a yeast bread, and our hyper-active yeast (along with the 100+ temps we've been having) certainly helped this dough to raise in near-record time.

     First we rolled out the dough on the countertop and spread the can of peach pie filling evenly over the top, followed up by a layer of the cinnamon/sugar/walnut mixture. 

     After that, it was as simple as rolling it up like a jelly roll, and then cutting it neatly with dental floss into perfectly shaped rolls.  Well, it should have been that simple.  But then again, I was involved, and as Jess has always said, I'm a mean cook, but my knack for presentation has never been...well...all that great.  Therefore, I managed to royall eff up the cinnamon rolls.  It's ten-thirty PM.  The grocery store is at least a 45-minute round trip.  What to do? 
     In a moment of genius (or in desperation to save my marriage) I decide that we're now making a coffee cake (which I'd actually been wanting to do for some time) rather than cinnamon rolls.  Though it looks like trash before baking (see below) once baked, and especially once iced, it looked (and tasted) awesome. 

     In the end, we were really happy with the way that they came out.  Fresh out of the oven (and even reheated the next morning for work) they were awesome, but once they'd been refrigerated they seemed much denser and heavier.  The peach didn't come through quite as strongly as we thought it might, but they were still delicious.  Jess said that if she makes these with peaches again, she'll go a bit lighter on the cinnamon in the cinnamon/sugar mix to try to bring the fruit out a little bit more.  Also, cramming these into a 9x13 pan as a 'coffee cake' rather than cinnamon rolls worked really nicely, but if/when we do this again, we will definitely leave out the 'pan sauce/sticky bun sauce' from the recipe.  In cinnamon roll form it works well, but in cake form, where there's nowhere for the excess to run off, it has the potential to get sickeningly rich.  We used paper towells and dabbed a lot of this off prior to baking, and were definitely glad we did.  All in all, another baking success and a great way to say farewell to some great coworkers!

Grown-Up Mac 'n Cheese (v. 1)

     As many of you know, my wife has recently accepted an awesome new job, doing what she's wanted to do for so long (librarian/media specialist) at a local high school.  I asked her how she'd like to celebrate, and she answered, 'with Champagne, of course!' Neither of us are typically Champagne people, and the two that we truly love (Paul Bara Brut Reserve and Moet & Chandon Rose Imperial) are either nearly impossible to get in the US or prohibitively expensive.  When we got married, however, my boss at the time, Nimit, gave us a couple of bottles of what used to be known as Moet & Chandon 'White Star', but is now known as (I think) simply 'Imperial' or 'Nectar Imperial'.  It's quite tasty, is about as 'entry-level' in terms of price as authentic Champagne gets and, well...HyVee had it when we were there. 
     So now the question was, what to pair with it.  We looked around a bit online and saw (much to our amusement and horror) that some of the most highly-recommended pairings (and these were from Champagne geeks) were things like potato chips and popcorn.  Yup, that makes sense; blow $50.00 on a bottle of Champagne and eat it with Lays.  Anywho, there were the other, classic pairings (i.e. eggs, oysters, etc) but we wanted something different.  We came across one suggestion that a suitably adult variation on the classic mac 'n cheese made for an excellent pairing and, since we'd been thinking about putting together just such a recipie for some time, Jess figured that we should give it a whirl. 
     We took as inspiration this original recipe from Brooke at Cheeky Kitchen, but decided to tailor it a bit more to our tastes.  As it's been awhile since we made this, I can't remember the exact ratios of the various cheeses that we used, but this will get you in the ballpark and, for what it's worth, we decided we would have added a bit more cheese and changed up the recipe slightly anyway.  That being said, here goes!

     Since I've provided the link to Brooke's original recipe above, I won't reprint it all here, but rather only the changes we made.   In the pictures directly above and below are the three cheeses we used (in addition to the cream cheese in the original recipe) in our version.  We chose the Uniekaas smoked Gouda because we needed a decent amount, it melts wonderfully, the flavor is generally pretty good, and it's quite affordable at HyVee.  The other two cheeses, we went with smaller amounts, and I had to purchase them specially at World Harvest (which we love) here in Columbia.  In addition to the smoked Gouda (about 1 cup shredded and loosely packed) we used Old Amsterdam aged gouda and a delicious Irish Cheddar whose name I unfortunately can't remember).  Here's where my memory gets fuzzy; I think we used ratios of around 1:1/2:3/4 for the cheeses here but I honestly can't remember. 

     If you're trying to make a mac 'n cheese dish based on this recipe, what's important to note is that (at least by amount) the smoked Gouda should be the dominant cheese here, with the Irish Cheddar next in line and a somewhat smaller amount of the stronger, tangier Old Amsterdam.  After tasting the dish, I thought it needed a little more cheese (it was surprisingly restrained and light-tasting considering the ingredients), but I would keep ratios similar to those above, although I might even up the amounts of Cheddar and Gouda. 
     We left out the blue cheese in the original recipe, along with the pears.  We love the combination of pears and Gorgonzola, but it wasn't really what we were going for here.  As far as other changes, we used curly egg noodles rather than traditional macaroni because 1) we had a ton of them in our pantry and 2) we wanted something a bit lighter.  They worked wonderfully, and kept the dish nice and light.  Finally, instead of crushing up Club crackers and making buttered cracker crumbs, we simply mixed a tiny bit of melted butter and Panko breadcrumbs (dirt-cheap at HyVee) for our topping.  Into the oven it went, until nice and golden-brown on top.  Other than being a bit lighter in intensity than I would have liked (Jess didn't seem to share my complaint) this was really tasty.  Oh, and it complemented the Champagne nicely!

Chocolate Stout Cake (sort of)

    I say 'sort of' because we did a little bit of a riff on the original recipe (and what we typically do) this time, but it came out amazing!  Years ago, back when my wife and I were first dating, we were out shopping and she had wanted to swing by somewhere like Hobby Lobby, Michaels, etc to pick up scrapbooking materials.  Deciding to grin and bear it, I went along and, years later, I'm glad I did.  That day we picked up what has proven to be a gold mine of dessert recipes (all of a chocolatey nature): "Chocolate", a one-off issue of Fine Cooking magazine.  Actually, after doing a little internet research, it looks like it was rereleased in 2012, and you might even be able to snag it off store shelves if you're lucky.  If not, there are a few for sale on Amazon.  If you're just interested in this recipe and would like more detail than I give here, the original version by Nicole Rees can be found on the Fine Cooking website, here.  At any rate, for those of you that love chocolate (and beer) like we do, this one is definitely a keeper. 

     Ingredients for Cake-
       -10 oz. good stout
       -1/3 cup dark molasses (the original recipe says not black strap, but we've used all dift. types)
       -1 and 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
       -3/4 cup unsweetened natural cocoa powder (not Dutch-processed)
       -1 and 1/2 tsp. baking powder
       -1/2 tsp. baking soda. 
       -1/2 tsp. salt
       -1 and 1/4 cups unsalted butter, softened at room temp (plus more for the pan)
       -1 and 1/2 cups brown sugar (light, dark, or mixed)
       -3 large eggs, room temp
       -6 oz. semisweet choolate, chopped very fine

     Ingredients for Optional Glaze-
       -3/4 cups heavy cream
       -6 oz. semisweet chocolate, chopped

    The cake itself is easy to make.  Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.  Butter a large bunt pan (or about 12 of the mini-bunt pans) and coat the inside with either sugar (which we prefer, for a slightly crunchy outer layer) or cocoa powder.  Tap out excess.  Alternatively, you can use non-stick cooking spray to prepare the pan, but if you do this, don't dust the inside with either of the aforementioned ingredients.  On high heat, bring the molasses and the stout to a simmer; remove from heat and let stand. 
     At this point, I need to say a bit about the beer you should use.  We've experimented with several different beers over the years, and have learned a couple of things.  First, most stouts will work nicely in this cake, but don't use one that's overly hoppy (ex. Victory's Storm King), as these flavors will not work well in the finished cake.  You can also use most porters with excellent results, but again, avoid highly-hopped examples, like those brewed by Boulevard or Founders.  These are all great beers, but drink them with the cake rather than using them in it.  In general, rich, chocolatey, or coffee-stouts (if you like a little coffee with your chocolate) work best.  If using Guinness, I'd go for the malty Extra Stout (especially nice with its molasses notes) over the weak, thin-bodied Guinness Draught.  We mixed things up a bit this time, however, and used a leftover bottle of Bell's Batch 9000.  This was an odd beer, in that it blurred the lines between American Stout, Old Ale, and Strong Ale.  I didn't particularly care for the beer originally, and as I still had a couple in the cellar, I figured it might work for cooking.  Looking at the label, I noticed it was brewed with molasses.  Molasses in the cake, molasses in the beer...hmmm.  So we went for it.  More on that later.
     Beer excursus: complete.  Sift together the flour, cocoa, baking powder and soda, and salt.  Cream the butter until smooth, and then add the brown sugar and beat for about three minutes.  Add the eggs one at a time, and then alternately add (small portions at a time) the stout mixture and flour.  Finally, stir in the finely (and I do mean finely) chopped chocolate.  According to the original recipe, this is to be baked 45-50 minutes, or 35 for the mini-bunt pans.  We have observed, however, that the large bunt pans can take a bit longer, and that the mini ones are usually done in about 20 minutes. 
     Bunt cakes are a pain in the butt to get out of the pan (maybe it's just us, but we can never seem to accomplish it without tearing up the cake a bit) and you need to get them out before they're fully cooled.  The recipe suggests 20 minutes, but we usually take them out after 10-15.  For the glaze, simply bring the cream to a boil, take it off the heat, add the chopped (fairly finely) chocolate, and whisk until blended.  Don

     Notes: This makes one seriously dense, decadent chocolate cake.  This time around, the use of the Bell's Batch 9000 (sadly long since unavailable for purchase) was awesome; the entire cake was full of rum/brandy and molasses notes.  These actually almost overpowered the chocolate, but it was delicious, and for some reason reminded me of something that would be absolutely perfect in the winter served with gingerbread ice-cream or the like.  One of the great things about this recipe is that it just begs to be riffed on.  For example, add a touch of espresso powder and use a great coffee stout (especially Redband by Great River or Breakfast Stout by Founders) if you like coffee with your chocolate.  Perhaps add a bit of cinnamon instead, and use milk chocolate in the glaze for a 'Mexican Hot Chocolate' cake.  If you prefer a bit of fruit, make up a simple raspberry or blackberry coulis to drizzle over the top, along with the chocolate sauce.  Or, you can do what we did, and just serve it alongside some fresh strawberries and vanilla bean ice-cream.  For what it's worth, the cake is great fresh, reheated, or refrigerated (and even freezes well), but the chocolate sauce should be made up fresh and not reheated, as it gets a bit funny in terms of texture (as seen in the picture below). 

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