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. 

     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
   -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... 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! 

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