Entries tagged with “Perfect things”.
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Sat 31 Jul 2010
A bedtime tale: Once upon a time, there was a girl who published a lovely little food blog and had many delightful conversations with readers about incorporating good food into their busy lives. Then the girl’s job kicked into extreme overdrive, ratcheting from ridiculously busy up to holy-hyper-insanity-what-do-you-mean-it’s-already-June-July-August busy. It was so busy that the girl could barely manage to cook food every night, let alone photograph it and write about it. Then the girl’s grandma died. Then her job got even busier. One day, the girl decided she really missed blogging and decided to come back to it with a recipe for absolutely perfect chocolate chip cookies. The end.
Or something like that. Thank you for bearing with me during my unplanned hiatus. I missed you guys - I hope you missed me, too. The past few months have been absolutely breathless; as it turns out, there is a monumental amount of work involved in being debtors’ counsel in a large chapter 11 bankruptcy case. Who knew?
To atone for my absence, I present to you my very favorite cookie. As I have mentioned, I grew up making a scrumptious snuggle of an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie known in my family as a Cowboy Cookie. For the better part of three decades, I considered Cowboy Cookies to be the Mary Poppins of chocolate chip cookies: practically perfect in every way.
And then, one day, I cheated on my Cowboy Cookies with another recipe involving brown butter. For the uninitiated, brown butter is the result of heating regular butter in a skillet until the water has boiled off and the milk solids brown. It is rich, nutty, and capable of becoming an absolute scene-stealer in otherwise predictable dishes. Jeffrey Steingarten wrote about brown butter in the June issue of Vogue last year. (Wherein he had the bizarre nerve to present an utterly pedestrian oatmeal shortbread recipe as the end-all, be-all oatmeal cookie whilst neglecting to include the baking temperature. Jeffrey, I expected better on both counts.) My quibbles with the recipe notwithstanding, the story reminded me how beautifully brown butter enhances certain cookies. Unsatisfied with my underlying recipe, I filed the brown butter idea away in a special section of my memory I reserve for Thoughts About Cookies. A few months later, I was intrigued by the idea of putting grey salt on chocolate chip cookies. A few months after that, I received The Grand Central Baking Book for Chanukah and the stars were suddenly aligned for cookie nirvana.
The six-year-old in me thought this departure from Cowboy Cookies was utter heresy, but the 30-year-old who occupies the majority of my me-real estate told the kid to simmer down and have a nap. And then promptly set about combining all of these recipes into one perfect cookie. A soft, chewy, perfect cookie that is both loaded with chocolate and tastes faintly of toffee. Robust with oatmeal and very grown up with a smattering of grey salt, it is a moment of baked perfection in even the most hectic life.
(Continue reading Salted Chocolate Chip Cookies…)
Fri 12 Feb 2010
Can we talk for a moment about the irresistible scent that apples and cinnamon drape across a kitchen as they cook together? It’s unbeatable. The sweet, tart brightness of a good apple and the nose-tingling cha-cha-cha of potent cinnamon cradle each other carefully, gently. I can understand why Glade and its ilk are constantly trying to make scents that go by the name apples and cinnamon, though we all know they are, in fact, kidding themselves.
I used to make myself the most ridiculously pared-down versions of an apple crisp as afternoon snacks in law school. No measuring, just a heap of apple slices, oatmeal, brown sugar, cinnamon and butter in a little dish in the microwave. It’s especially silly for me to call them apple crisps, because there was nothing crisp about them. Just sweet, soggy oats and squishy apples. Apple soggies. But the smell, oh, the smell. Once, when my apartment was being shown to a prospective tenant for the following year, I managed to time one of these little bowls to come out of the microwave just as the landlord was knocking on the door. The prospective tenant ended up not taking the apartment, but I think she seriously contemplated asking if she could come back for a snack the next day.
My little apple soggies weren’t perfect, but they fit a special kind of dessert bill. They were quick, delicious, and brought a minimal assault against any ideas I might have had about eating healthfully. Since then, I have graduated to the glorious realm of the diminutive apple brown betty. I love their simplicity. Nothing too fancy or trussed up, just lightly seasoned apples in a crisp, buttery crust. You can take them from pantry to oven in less than 15 minutes (depending on your apple peeling skills). Best of all, they will fill your kitchen and any adjoining rooms with that tremendous apple cinnamon scent. Use your best cinnamon, a few good apples, and you’ll be in business.
(Keep reading Baby Brown Bettys…)
Tue 5 Jan 2010
Posted by Bria under Beverages
It took me weeks to figure out why I am almost always somewhat disappointed by fresh, hot apple cider. Months, even. I greedily snap up jugs of the stuff as soon as it shows up in our grocery store. One jug lives in the fridge (sometimes a depressingly short life, truth be told) while its backup dancers keep a juicy vigil over the rest of the dry storage in the laundry room. It’s not that I don’t end up drinking it; I can polish off a half gallon during an episode of House if I put my mind to it. I just prefer it cold.
And yet I want to love it as a hot beverage. Is there anything more intrinsically blessed with your mind’s perfect image of fall? Hot apple cider screams fall and winter, the very words on a page conjure images of orchard donuts and bales of hay, or Dickensian Christmas scenes with cherry-cheeked children scampering around a cozy living room in their socks while the dog barks with joy. Right?
So every year, I approach my first mug of hot cider with unforgivably poetic expectations. Like, over the top. The kind that would make Norman Rockwell roll his eyes and say “girl, pull yourself together and drink the damned apple juice.” And every year I am slightly disappointed. Every year, that is, until this one.
My friend Josh was kind enough to share his favorite wassail recipe on his blog, and at the very mention I knew what was missing from my cider. I didn’t want hot cider at all. When fall clicks its heels on my doorstep and ushers a biting crispness into the air, I want wassail. The sweet acidity of the orange juice and lemon juice bring something lively to the cup. And oh, the spices. As they mull together with each other, the juices, the maple syrup, they reach the perfect storm of spicy complexity that I’ve been missing in all those mugs of plain hot cider. Beautiful.
It’s a rather Christmassy drink, I’ll give you that. But I maintain that it’s never too late to indulge yourself in something so wonderful. Enjoy yourself; it’s a brand new year.
(Keep reading Wintry Wassail…)
Sun 13 Dec 2009
About a year ago, I blew out a candle on a piece of white cake with pink frosting, my standard birthday fare. I made a wish. I wished that I would have the inspiration, time, and wherewithal over the coming year to figure out a way to bring my writing and cooking together into a big, lovely project. I wished for a way to begin building an audience of readers with whom I could share my love of food, cooking, and a few stories along the way. In effect, I wished for all of you.
We have just finished off another white cake with pink frosting. Why so simple, you ask? Though I like to think of myself as a reasonably seasoned baker, I never go with anything fancy or new or complicated for my own birthday. The white and pink combination is something I fell in love with when I was very small - somewhere in that post-toddler epoch that finds so many little girls swaddling themselves in billows of pink everything. I think it also has something to do with having a December birthday. Once Thanksgiving comes and goes, the default thinking behind every decorated cake seems to begin and end with wintry/Christmas things until February comes along with its shower of red and pink clashiness. Somewhere along the way, I came to prefer a cake that didn’t have anything to do with the season. To me, a stripe of pink frosting between layers of fluffy white cake just screams BIRTHDAY and nothing else. Though I have been known to take my birthday cake in a chocolate direction (the recipe for which I must share with you soon, because it’s a real charmer), more often than not I find myself coming back to my favorite pink and white number.
The cake itself is just plain perfect. Not only does it turn out beautifully every time I make it, you cannot find an easier recipe to execute. Dump, mix, dump in the eggs, mix again. I can barely justify a rundown for this one because it’s so incredibly simple. Several years ago I looked and looked for a recipe that would give me a simple white cake with a tiny, moist crumb. A few mediocre misfires lead me back to the Betty Crocker Cookbook, one of my kitchen’s secret weapons. Straightforward, comprehensive, and full of helpful tables and asides, it is an invaluable resource for understanding cooking basics. Plus, it’s ring-bound, which allows it to lie flat on your counter. If you are ever looking for a cookbook that can act as a starting place for someone new to cooking, this is it. My mom gave me a copy when I moved into my first apartment, and I refer to it at least once a week. My copy is visibly well-loved and some of the pages have acquired dribs and drabs of their recipes, not the least of which is the page facing the recipe for this cake.
Back to that wish. Tonight, my lovelies, I want to take a moment to thank you for being a part of this little blog of mine. Over the past several months I have had the wonderful privilege of sharing my recipes, photos, and ramblings with you. It has been a pleasure to read your comments, your emails, and share this wonderful journey through our kitchens together - over 7,000 kitchens to-date. I can’t begin to tell you how honored I am to be part of your virtual food milieu. Your willingness to return week after week is one of the best, most exhilarating gifts I have ever received. Thank you.
(Keep reading White Birthday Cake…)
Tue 24 Nov 2009
I’m not sure why I decided cinnamon rolls would be my Everest during the three weeks between graduating from college and starting my first real job, but I did. It was one of several projects I took on when faced with twenty empty days (the others being unpacking, sleeping in, and adopting a kitten previously rejected by Satan as being “too evil”). I wanted to find a recipe for really excellent cinnamon rolls. It had to deliver reliable, wonderful rolls every time, the kind of baked treasure that stops people in their tracks, wide-eyed and momentarily overwhelmed, before they exclaim WOW.
The first three recipes were unremarkable. They were too tough, too sweet, too boring. Something was fatally wrong with each one, and I began to get discouraged. I came upon a fourth recipe. Despite my skepticism, I dove in, pausing to figure out what it meant to scald the milk. The dough was smooth and satiny. It filled my tiny kitchen with a sweet, yeasty penumbra that sent little jolts of hopeful electricity into my dwindling expectations. I briefly lamented my lack of a rolling pin as I coaxed the dough into a large rectangle with a wine bottle covered in plastic wrap. It scarcely mattered that I couldn’t get it very even. The dough welcomed its thick mat of butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon with aplomb. I rolled it into a drippy, burgeoning tube, slicing it into a dozen syrupy disks that made their way into a cake pan.
After the second rise, I was astounded to see that the rolls had truly doubled in size. What had once come close to loosely filling the pan was now threatening to rise up and leave altogether. Surely, this was a sign of good things to come.
At the risk of sounding hopelessly twee, I will admit that I cried when I took my first bite of one of the rolls. Piping hot, silky, and feather-soft, it was like biting into a cloud in the version of heaven where everything is made of pastry (don’t tell me I’m the only one who has had that awesome dream, right?). After regaining my composure, I loaded up a plate with a few more rolls and settled down on my futon to watch an old favorite, Green Card. It occurred to me, as Andie McDowell and Gerard Depardieu acted out the lighter side of immigration fraud to the sounds of Enya, that I had something truly wonderful in my possession. It remains among my very favorite recipes, both to make and to share.
I have made these rolls in good times and bad. I have made them for coworkers, for friends, for family, and for strangers. I have made them with the full arsenal of a commercial kitchen and, most humbly, with a wooden spoon and a large pot. Because they are a sure-fire crowd pleaser and require absolutely minimal equipment, I highly recommend taking the recipe with you when you travel. You will be the houseguest who always gets invited back.
(Keep reading Cinnamon Rolls…)
Thu 8 Oct 2009
I learned to arm wrestle really, really well working at the Olive Garden. It had almost nothing to do with being a hostess there, but the arm wrestling champion of Butte, Montana taught me herself. Her name was Mary, and she was a great teacher.
The key to winning at arm wrestling, according to Mary, is two-fold. Getting the knot of forearms, hands, and elbows into a configuration that allows you to pull with your bicep is of paramount importance. Getting there quickly, to the abject shock of your opponent, is equally critical. Done correctly, you’ll leave them painfully mumbling in your dust as you swagger away, heady with the pride of your win. Though the expression is woefully time-worn, it really is all in the wrist.
For two summers and a winter break in college, I was part of the front of the house “A team” at the Olive Garden in Billings. I had applied for work at several restaurants in town, and the Olive Garden was one of my last stops because it was the furthest strip mall from my house. It shared a parking lot with Red Lobster, where I failed the 300-question personality test prior to my interview. By the time I received a Dear Bria letter informing me that my immediate future did not include reciting pithy witticisms about a menu filled with shellfish, it was the OG or nothing.
My arm wrestling lesson came around the same time gnocchi were added to the menu, during my second summer. New additions to the menu meant team meetings at the restaurant on Saturday mornings, where we put the “know your food” OG principal into practice (the other four principals being hot food hot, cold food cold, money to the bank, and clean restrooms). I don’t remember anything else from the tasting that day, nor do I really remember whether or not the gnocchi were any good. I can only recall the moment that marked what would prove to be a weeks-long process in fighting about the pronunciation of “gnocchi.” It was not, as I emphatically argued, acceptable to refer to it as “nookie.”
It’s a good thing none of us are 19 for more than, say, a year. It’s just so difficult to know Everything and struggle to communicate it to the rest of the world given a paltry allotment of only 24 hours per day. I believe Mary was neutral on the pronunciation debate, but favored some sort of object lesson that would shut me up for the sake of keeping the peace. Somewhere between hearing her credentials and that first, brutal loss, I managed to forget about the pedantry of the matter.
Today, I don’t care if you call them gnocchi, nookie, or Wondrous Pillows of Carbtastic Splendor. Just make them, and soon.
The ricotta quantity is stated in ounces, rather than cups. If you buy your ricotta, it should make a difference to you as 15 to 16 oz is a standard size. If you made whole-milk ricotta with me and are staring at a giant wad of cheese, wondering how much to use, get thee to the store and pick up a food scale. It’s an excellent way to maintain consistency and accuracy in the kitchen. Fundamental recipes are ratios based on weight, not volume, and you will open many doors for yourself with the ability to scale recipes up or down based on weight. Get one.
Regarding the bread crumbs: I cheat. If you happen to have a few slices of white sandwich bread laying around, remove the crusts and blitz them in a food processor. Toast the resulting crumbs in a 300 degree oven for 10 minutes until they are golden and use them here. Despite my bread-making proclivities, honey-oat whole wheat bread is the only kind we (almost) always have readily on hand. It doesn’t make for very good bread crumbs, so I cheat with the kind in the little cardboard can.
(Keep reading Ricotta Gnocchi…)
Wed 30 Sep 2009
I lost my mind while studying for the bar. Sort of. For the uninitiated, bar study is a long, lonely process that readies you, in part, for the actual exam by making you so vomitously tired of the studying that you arrive on test day with a head so swimming with “let’s just do this thing” that you forget to be nervous.
One of the few unscripted days in our agenda that summer was July 4. Overwhelmed by the promise of an utterly free day, I decided to make things. Two things, to be exact. I made the chuppah for my wedding, and I made a fruit buckle. The former took about 14 hours that day, and another 20 hours the week before the wedding; the latter took about an hour and made for a lovely breakfast.
Even today, I can’t quite explain why I found it important, nay, necessary to make the canopy for our chuppah. Nor can I explain why I thought it would be a good way to learn to quilt. And, even when pressed, I come up completely empty-handed when it comes to explaining how my calculations that day resulted in a chuppah canopy that is substantially larger than a king-sized bed. Apparently, I wanted to make sure we had room to both get married and do the Highland Fling underneath its gentle, convex arc.
The ladies at the quilt shop were not particularly convinced that this project was going to be a success. I think I explained the whole venture about 8 times, though several of those iterations were spent describing How a Jewish Wedding Works to these septuagenarian Protestant women. In the end, we figured it out. They sent me on my way with a bag full of quilting tools, a bundle of gorgeous fabric, and good wishes underscored by a Germanic skepticism that’s undetectable to those who haven’t spent quality time in the Midwest. I still owe them a picture.
I think the fact that I stuck with the quilting until the end really illustrates the insanity that flourishes during bar study; when faced with a free day, I shunned the temptation of naps and television in order to work my fingers to the bone and give myself a neck cramp that lasted for the ensuing two months. Still, 14 episodes of Law & Order later (I studied for evidence by shouting out objections throughout the trial scenes), I had made enough progress in piecing together the quilt squares that turning back was impossible. It was a devil’s bargain, bound up in fat quarters of gold calico.
The buckle, on the other hand, was a no-brainer. As I have mentioned here before, my mom is an excellent cook. So when she calls me and says “I’m sending you a recipe; I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever eaten,” I listen.
A buckle is characterized by a rich cake batter mixed with fruit, topped by more fruit and a crunchy streusel topping. Some variations involve spreading the cake batter over a layer of fruit at the bottom of the pan, but I prefer to fold the fruit into the cake. Blueberries are the classic buckle accompaniment, but wonderful things can come from using raspberries, huckleberries, blackberries - whatever suits you that happens to be fresh and in season. Somewhere, between the jammy layers of berries and the brown sugar splendor of the crumb topping, you’ll find a moment where you can’t help but furrow your brow and exclaim “Mmm! That is good.”
(Keep reading Berry Buckle…)
Tue 28 Apr 2009
The first time I roasted a chicken, my dad talked me through it over the phone. The conversation went something like this:
Dad: Is the oven hot?
Dad: Okay, put the bird in the roasting pan.
Me: Mmhmm, done.
Dad: Now spray it with Pam.
Me: The pan, or the bird?
Dad: The bird - just give it a good spray all over.
Me: Got it. Now what?
Dad: Peel an onion, and just shove the whole thing inside.
Dad: The bird.
Me: In its butt?
Dad: We generally call that the cavity, but yes. Pop it in.
Me: Are you serious?
Dad: Yes! It will taste good.
Me: Okay, one onion in the butt coming up.
Dad: I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that.
Me: Go on.
Dad: Shake a little salt and pepper over the outside and stick it in the oven. Check it in an hour.
Me: That’s it?
Dad: That’s it.
And that really is it. You can get a delicious roast chicken with almost zero work. If you’ve never cooked a chicken before, and if you break out in hives of OH MY G-D THIS IS SO COMPLICATED when you read the rest of this recipe, go ahead and try the Butt Onion method. But if you are feeling at all adventurous (and by “at all” I mean on a “dimes in your penny loafers” level), try your hand at the brine and paste method I describe below. It’s really, really delicious. And the smells that will fill your kitchen will blow your mind.
This recipe is an absolute stunner if you are trying to impress someone with your cooking skills. It comes out looking like a million bucks, and your guests will be rendered speechless when they take a bite of the moistest, tastiest chicken they have ever had. The brining will assure you very moist meat (heh) - just don’t overcook it. I know the spectre of undercooked chicken and all its various evils can keep the best of us up at night, but a meat thermometer or instant-read thermometer is all the backup you need. I highly recommend an instant-read for its speed, accuracy, and overall niftiness. I came upon this one by way of Cooks Illustrated, and was impressed that it was both extremely functional and highly affordable. Though not absolutely critical, it’s one of those pieces of equipment that can really streamline your cooking process.
Sun 12 Apr 2009
I have to tell you about a love affair I have with a spatula. It would be criminal of me to share my recipes and cooking insights with you without sharing the good news about the Norpro Silicone Spatula. Sinful, in fact – a sin of omission.
My mom gave me a set of these when I was moving into my first apartment and setting up my first kitchen. The spatula and the spoonula are an invaluable pair, and every time you see me refer to a silicone spatula, I’m talking about one of them. Perfectly shaped and sized, they are durable, flexible, gentle on non-stick surfaces, and tough enough to handle tough deglazing. In short, they are perfect. And you should go order one.