Archive | December, 2014

The Best Things I Ate in 2014

30 Dec

As 2014 comes to a screeching halt, social media is inundated with cliched “Best Of” lists and “Top 10” countdowns. These compilations can be trite, but they can also be a great way to reflect back on a year, on the people who you shared it with, and where you spent time. What is the best thing you ate in 2014? Who were you with, and where were you?

Here’s my list, in homage to a very good year.

1. Vigorón street vendor in El Parque Central; Granada, Nicaragua

Vigorón is a traditional Nicaraguan street food. Tender slabs of boiled yucca (AKA cassava) are covered in thick, crunchy chicharrón (fresh pork rinds) and then smothered in a very tangy cabbage, onion, and tomato slaw. It was my first meal in the country and a perfect introduction to it’s simple cuisine. What is even more memorable than the food though, is the setting. I bought lunch from a street vendor and sat at a picnic table in El Parque Central, the large public square in the center of town. The square is docked on one side by an enormous, bright yellow cathedral, and on another side by a similarly-colored Spanish Colonial hotel with beautiful balconies. Peddlers hawking knickknacks, perfect for vacation remembrances, line the perimeter. Freshly rolled tobacco wafted from a small cigar shop.  Horse-drawn carriages click-clacked down the streets. An impromptu concert of lively music drew a crowd. A man kept the  mid-afternoon dusty haze at bay by continuously wetting the ground with a garden hose, Women tempted us with homemade peanut candies and rich chewy caramels. When I think of eating salty and sour vigorón, I’ll always remember my first day in Nicaragua.

2. Spicy Seafood Chulpan Sik Gaek, Flushing, NY

This place is best known for live octopus, but the real star of this meal was the chulpan. An enormous pot was full of steaming seafood broth flavored with gochujang and teeming with all manners of crustaceans and mollusks. Underneath that big red lobster lay razor clams, squid, conch, shrimp, crab legs, and abalone resting in a nest of long rice noodles. We cracked shells and slurped soup to the beat of loud Korean techno music. A good time was had by all.

And about that live octopus…I ate that too, but it didn’t make this list. Those little suckers (literally) hang on to your tongue, the roof of your mouth, or the insides of your cheeks just as long as they possibly can. If that sounds fun to you, and you enjoy the deeply salty and mineral taste that is overly described as “of the ocean” give it a try next time you’re in Queens.

3. Pineapple Upside Down Cake Buttermilk Frozen Yogurt Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, Chicago

If I could pull a “Freaky Friday” with anyone in the food industry for a few days, I’d do the ol’ switcheroo with Jeni Britton Bauer of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. Ice cream, in all of its frozen incarnations, is my very favorite food, and Jeni’s flavor pairings are modern and innovative. Her cookbooks are drool-inducing, and she’s running an expanding chain of the coolest retail scoop shops in the country. She’s my hero!

Pineapple Upside Down Cake Buttermilk Frozen Yogurt is a mouth full for sure, but the mellow, roasted, tangy flavor more than makes up for the tongue-cramping name. Just look at how happy I am to be eating this on a warm summer evening. Don’t think I could even be any happier.

Ice Cream Super Nerd

4. Stamped Cinnamon Biscuit (Cookie), The Cinnamon Tree Bakery stall at Borough Market, London

Tell me that isn’t THE COOLEST cookie you’ve ever seen in your life. I was completely taken with its imperfections – the slight cracking at the edges and the uneven white outline of the off-centered elephant. Now imagine that it tastes just as interesting as it looks. Pure cinnamon in the form of a crisp, buttery cookie. No other “fall baking spices” muddying things up. Just cinnamon, in all of it’s spicy and warm glory, and tasting exactly the way it looks.

Elephant Stamped Cinnamon Cookie. I mean biscuit.

5. Basque Cake MFK, Chicago

There’s only one dessert on the menu at MFK, one of the city’s most-lauded new restaurants of 2014. In my mind, the Basque cake rides solo because nothing else could come close to being as good. It’s a rich, tender cake with a faint almond flavor underneath a darker, caramelized crust. As someone who eats cake nearly every day, I can say without a doubt, that this was the best cake I ate in 2014 (including my own). Congratulations to Chef Nick Lacasse and Sous Chef Joey Schwab, both of whom I have had the pleasure of working with. (Now give me the recipe for the cake, pretty please!)

6. The Eastman Eastman Egg Company Food Truck, Chicago

You know that overused phrase that simple food prepared simply is the best tasting food? That’s what is happening here. I would never have thought to pair cucumbers with scrambled eggs, but why not? I would never have thought to put sweet chili sauce on eggs either. Add a slab of ham, a bit of cheese, and sandwich it all together on a fresh ciabatta roll.

After I ate my first Eastman, I started putting cukes and sweet chili sauce on my homemade egg sammies, too. Easy like Sunday morning. Tastes like Sunday morning, too.

The Eastman Egg Sandwich

7. Yo Amigo Taco Salad, Native Foods, Chicago

This is the perfect salad for salad haters, like myself. It’s beautiful to look at and has a lots of different textures, from crunchy to creamy, which means it doesn’t get boring after 5 bites. And surprise! Native Taco Meat isn’t really meat at all! It’s seitan (sounds like the dark lord of the underworld, but it’s less scary), a vegetarian protein made of wheat gluten that cooks up and tastes just like the real deal. Toss in some crispy tortilla strips and add avocado for a very large, very summery meal.

The Yo! Amigo Salad, with avocado.

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The Hottest Gingerbread Boy

21 Dec

D.J.’s favorite Christmas cookie is gingerbread, and I thought that we could have a little holiday fun with it. Can you guess who’s is who’s?

Beth and DJ as Gingerbread People

I baked out a couple of giant gingerbread cookies using Wilton’s Grandma’s Gingerbread Cookies recipe.

Nudie Gingerbread Peeps

The regular-sized gingerbread boy is there for size reference, and as a snack to bolster our energy and merriment during the decorating process. They were made from the same gingerbread dough, which rolls out like a dream and has a great blend of spicy flavor with a strong molasses background.

I pulled out my aresnal of icings, gels, and chocolate, and we got busy. Sprinkles were spilled. Tongues stained blue.  For a few minutes, we got to be kids, except for the bourbon that was mixed into my eggnog. We laughed a lot, and it was fun.

Check out that sparkly grill!

D.J. nailed it, don’t you think? The resemblance is uncanny, right down to the rainbow-starred shirt and unfortunate sixth toe. Ok, maybe the extra toes are not true-to-life, but they are good for a chuckle. Either way, that is the hottest gingerbread boy I’ve ever seen.

Twin Blondes!

Wishing you and yours a joyous Christmas with lots of opportunities to reconnect with your inner child!

 

Browned Butter and Smoked Cinnamon Snickerdoodle Cookies

13 Dec

I’ve been invited to a cookie exchange this weekend, and I’m fantastically excited because:

  1. It’s being held in a bar that doubles as an arcade. You’ll find me by the pinball machines,  cocktail in hand.
  2. There are hundreds of people invited, which means thousands of cookies. If the words “thousands of cookies” don’t get you excited, you might be reading the wrong blog.

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It takes me forever to decide what foods to bring to share at parties. As a professional baker and an overly-competitive person, I feel a weird, self-inflicted pressure to over-perform. Mediocre cookies will not be tolerated. My struggle is real.

This holiday cookie exchange is no different. I waffled for too long, sifting through tried-and-true recipes only to shun even the best ones. I racked my brain trying to invent brand new cookies with never-heard-before flavor combinations.

And then I realized that I was trying way too hard.

You’ve heard it a million times before, and it’s true: The best food is made from a few great ingredients and really simple techniques. Christmas cookies are no different. So why not take a classic cookie and up its “cool factor” with a couple of easy tweaks?

Helloooooooo, Browned Butter and Smoked Cinnamon Snickerdoodles. You are the current apple of my eye.

Who doesn’t love a snickerdoodle cookie with its crisped edges leading to  crackled, chewy centers, all encrusted in a fragrant coat of cinnamon and glimmering sugar? They are beloved and delicious just as they are. But browning the butter first gives a toasty complexity, and using smoked cinnamon enforces that.  The traditional vanilla is purposefully omitted to let the caramelized, nutty, and smokey notes shine on their own.  These changes are subtle but worthwhile, taking the humble snickerdoodles of your youth and classing them up a notch. Yup, these cookies are totally “exchangable.”

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Browned Butter and Smoked Cinnamon Snickerdoodle Cookies

2 sticks unsalted butter
2-3/4 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup solid vegetable shortening*
1-3/4 cups granulated sugar, divided
2 eggs at room temperature
2 teaspoons smoked cinnamon**

Fill a large bowl with ice cubes and place a smaller bowl inside, resting on the ice. In a small saucepan, cook butter over medium heat until it is very brown and smells like roasted nuts. Expect the butter to bubble and spatter audibly for a while as it cooks. When it quiets down, start watching the pot so that it doesn’t burn, but the butter should get quiet dark, like really good caramel. Pour the butter into the small bowl over the ice, stirring every few minutes to cool it to room temperature. Don’t let the butter get so cold that it hardens completely. It needs to be soft, but not liquid, to make the cookies.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line a couple of cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Sift together the flour, cream of tartar, baking soda, and salt.

Measure out 3/4 cup of browned butter; reserve the rest for another use.***

In a large bowl, use an electric mixer to beat the browned butter and shortening until it is smooth and creamy. Add 1-1/2 cups of granulated sugar and beat on medium speed until it is light in color and very fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, scraping the bottom and sides of the bowl very well after each egg to get everything well combined.

Add the dry flour mixture in 2 parts, beating on low speed and scraping the bottom and sides of the bowl often. Beat just until a dough is formed.

In a bowl, combine the remaining 1/4 cup of granulated sugar with the smoked cinnamon Roll cookie dough into 1-1/2 inch balls and roll in the cinnamon sugar mixture to coat completely on all sides. Place on parchment-lined cookies sheets 2 inches apart.

Bake for 8-10 minutes until until centers of cookies are set. Remove from the hot pan to the cooling grid immediately.

Makes about 3 dozen cookies.
*Oh, you’re opposed to vegetable shortening, huh? Well, good for you. Feel free to substitute for all browned butter, but you need to know that your cookies will be much crunchier as a result. The shortening keep the cookies moist and soft, especially at days 2 and 3, if they last that long.

**Looking for smoked cinnamon, or any other delicious spices in the Chicago area? Check out Epic Spices at 1725 W. Chicago Ave. You’ll never meet a more friendly, knowledgable, or accomodating spice guy than Stephen, the shop owner.

***Awesome on pasta, fish, chicken, bread…Actually, I can’t think of a single thing that wouldn’t be better with a little bit of browned butter. Make it your new refrigerator staple.

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