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Archive for December, 2007

In With the Old…

The motto this time of year seems to be, “Out with the old, in with the new.” Fair enough, but there are some “old things” worth holding on to, if you ask me. I mean, I think we’re all pretty pleased that the leisure suit died in the 1970s, never to return. But other innovations are timeless, no matter when they first appeared.

Choc velvet

I feel that way about recipes. Sure, there are some recipes so trendy, so gimmicky, and so overdone that after a year or two, the public smacks a huge “Out” stamp on it and christens a new dish as being “In” (helloooo molten chocolate cake…). It’s not that those dishes aren’t good; it’s just that they somehow seem to identify so strongly with the zeitgeist of a certain era that people see them as “passé.”

But there are other recipes that, no matter when they first appeared, are just good. Tarte Tatin dates back to 1889, but I would still stab someone with my fork for that last, caramelized bite. And I don’t even know who made the first chocolate layer cake and when, but I do know that the best old-fashioned chocolate cake recipe I’ve ever made appeared in Gourmet in 1999.

Slice of mousse

In my family, we have lots of those recipes, from various decades and sources. This chocolate mousse charlotte is one of them. My mother first made it in 1981, when it appeared in the October issue of Bon Appetit. That’s right. October — 1981. And since then, she and I, our aunts, friends and neighbors have all made it countless times. Why? Because it’s good. Really good.

Admittedly, in an earlier era, I had a much easier time finding soft ladyfingers, which made this an easy go-to dessert. Were French ladyfingers a trend of the past? Maybe. These days, I’ve found that I need to make the ladyfingers myself, making this less “no-fuss,” but no less delicious.

Ladyfingers

So as we move into 2008, I will gladly watch the world dispose of certain things (can we please, please be finished with Paris Hilton?). But I’ll always hold this recipe dear, no matter what year it is.

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Tap Tap Tapioca

Apparently I’m on a crusade to redeem the foods people love to hate. A few days ago I was singing the praises of the disrespected brussels sprout, and today I’m lauding the humble tapioca pudding, a dish many love and an equal number passionately detest.

Recruiting people for Team Brussels Sprout is, believe it or not, a lot easier than convincing people to embrace tapioca pudding. See, with brussels sprouts, you just need to cook them properly and get the flavor right. But with tapioca, you’re not up against flavor (tapioca doesn’t really have any); you’re up against texture.

Tapioca 1

I’m convinced there is a contingent of people out there who are “texture eaters.” Just like there are “supertasters,” who are acutely aware of flavors the average person cannot detect, these “supersensers” are extremely sensitive to a food’s texture. Most people I’ve met who would fall into this category don’t like oatmeal, oysters, sushi, or even yogurt — anything that might feel slippery, strange or lumpy on the tongue.

For these people, or ones approaching that level of sensitivity, tapioca pudding provides the ultimate ick factor: it’s slippery, lumpy and unusual. The tapioca balls, which are small balls of dried cassava starch, become jelly-like when cooked in the custard mixture. So not only do you have the slickness of the custard itself; you also have a bunch of slippery little buggers floating around in there.

So for the supersenser types out there…I’m sorry to say, there’s not much I can do to win you over. But for the rest of you, I’ll say this: tapioca pudding is often butchered by cafeterias and mess halls, whose cooks turn out gloppy, slimy, icky pots of so-called “tapioca pudding.” If this is your only experience with tapioca pudding, give it another chance.

This Regan Daley recipe dresses up tapioca pudding with a vanilla bean and is truly delicious — nothing like the jiggly mess my elementary school cafeteria used to throw at us. It’s sophisticated and yet totally comforting, a perfect winter treat. And if I haven’t won you over in my “scorned foods” crusade…all is I can say is, hey, I tried, right?

Tapioca 2

Note: This is my submission to this month’s Sugar High Friday — “The Proof is in the Pudding” — and my first SHF ever. Given the title of my blog, how could I not participate? If your interested in knowing the history of pudding…I have an oh-so-nerdy write-up here.

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I know what you’re thinking: “No post for a week, and then you give us brussels sprouts?” But I promise, this recipe is a winner. I’m not trying to compare it to a gianduia mousse cake, but don’t be discouraged by the main ingredient.

Children are taught to hate brussels sprouts before ever seeing what these mini cabbages even look like. I’m sure this stems from the days when we used to cook our vegetables for ungodly lengths of time, yielding green beans and asparagus so overcooked that you could turn them into bow ties.

This sort of merciless overcooking preordains a particularly dire fate for the brussels sprout. Brussels sprouts contain high levels of glucosinolates, which contain both sulfur and nitrogen. Brussels sprouts contain several types of these compounds, which makes cooking the sprouts properly a little tricky — one of the major glucosinolates is bitter, but produces a non-bitter product when heated…the other is non-bitter, but produces bitter products when cooked for a long time.

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So if you cook them too quickly, or too long, they’re still bitter — you always end up killing one bitter thing but producing another. The sulfur compounds end up forming trisulfides, which are stinky. So basically you feel like you’re eating a forkfull of rotten eggs. Ew.

So needless to say, after decades of cooking brussels sprouts to death, their reputation has been duly tarnished.

But come on folks. It’s almost 2008. We’re not wearing beehive hairstyles anymore either.

Cooked properly, brussels sprouts are wonderful. I’m hardly the first blogger to make this claim. But somehow, despite an abundance of praise throughout the blogosphere, the vegetable’s reputation is still in the dumps.

If they haven’t already won you over, maybe this brussels sprout hash will change your mind. I hope so. The poor vegetable has certainly paid its dues.

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No Knead 2.0

Baggett No Knead above

Edited to add: Okay, I didn’t realize Cook’s Illustrated *also* dubbed their version of no-knead “No Knead 2.0.” Whoops! FYI, this post does not describe the CI recipe, but rather the one printed in the Washington Post.

By now, most home cooks are familiar with “No Knead Bread,” at least in name or concept if not in practice. Mark Bittman’s 2006 article on Jim Lahey’s novel technique sent curious bakers and novice knead-a-phobes running to their kitchens to master the art of crusty, delicious, homemade bread, sans fuss.

I may be the only enthusiastic baker in America who has yet to try Mr. Lahey’s technique. I know, I know, what have I been doing, right? Well first I didn’t have the right pot…then I did…and then life sort of got in the way.

But then a few weeks back, two different articles appeared — one in the New York Times, one in the Washington Post — that attempted to best the original No Knead recipe, making the process even simpler, even “no kneadier.” Luisa at Wednesday Chef had iffy results with the Times recipe, so I ditched that one.

But Nancy Baggett’s recipe in the Post looked promising. Whereas the latest Times recipe claimed “No Knead” results could be accomplished in half the time, Baggett’s recipe didn’t cut the time much at all, but it cut out the need to touch the dough entirely. Even Jim Lahey’s recipe required a little futzing, just gently shaping the dough before the final rise. But the Post recipe required no kneading at all — none. I think she should have called it, “No Knead, for Reals.”

Baggett No Knead

Does that make it more clinical and sterile? Yes. Admittedly, sometimes I really like kneading dough. Rough week at work? Family giving you a hard time? Take it out on the dough. I also consider it a workout, justifying the copious quantities of bread I will soon eat.

But sometimes, you just want delicious bread without the cleanup. Although I’ve never made Lahey’s recipe (I will, I will, I promise!), his method does require a special pot and just a touch more “cleanup” than Baggett’s recipe. That said, Baggett’s method yields a rectangular loaf, not the rustic boule shape that makes the original No Knead Bread so beautiful. The Post recipe yields more of a sandwich bread or loaf for morning toast than something you’d make for guests.

So, compelled by my guilt for not trying this method the first time around, I gave Baggett’s whole wheat loaf a try for breakfast this weekend. The verdict? Very, very tasty, and I’ve been enjoying the loaf for breakfast all week. The texture is soft and the exterior has a wonderful crunch. Sadly I cannot compare it to the Lahey bread (the shame!), but I suspect it’s a very different type of bread prepared using a similar method.

Next time I have a dinner party, I will give Lahey’s method a try. And I have a delicious, old-fashioned, knead-to-your-heart’s-content bread recipe I will be sharing soon. But for an average morning after a tiring work week, this recipe does the trick.

Baggett No Knead Slice

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Do you like Nutella? Oh, good. You’re human.

I can honestly say that, with the exception of people with nut allergies, I have never met a person who dislikes Nutella. Sure, not everyone loses his or her mind over its chocolatey hazelnut goodness, but I can’t think of a single person who has tasted it and said, “Ew.”

Gianduia mousse cake 3

I, for one, do go crazy for the stuff, and my boyfriend loves Nutella even more than I do. In fact, when I need a jar of it for baking, I’ve considered hiding it from him. He’s a big boy, but even the mighty Odysseus had trouble resisting the Sirens… And as it turns out, the man responsible for this addictive spread that my boyfriend and I adore may be none other than Mr. Napoleon Bonaparte.

Chocolate hazelnut paste, historically called gianduia and today marketed as Nutella, dates back to the mid-1800s in Piedmont, when chocolate had become a rare commodity in Europe. Napoleon had imposed a continental block in 1806, which made it impossible to import chocolate from South America and made local chocolate extremely expensive. So a man named Michele Prochet came up with the idea to make chocolate go further by adding chopped hazelnuts, grinding the hazelnuts into the cocoa to form a paste. The confection was officially given a name in 1865 at a carnival in Turin, taking the name of Gianduia after a carnival character representing the archetypal Piedmontese.

Gianduia mousse cake 2

And, man, something about that combination of chocolate and hazelnuts is completely irresistible. Mr. Prochet, I lust after your creation.

Consequently, I’ve been on a quest to find a dessert that tastes like a big slice of Nutella. With an entire jar of Nutella and almost a cup of hazelnut butter, this Gianduia Mousse Cake nearly does it. The cake is d-e-l-i-c-i-o-u-s. But I still want a more pronounced hazelnut flavor, so next time I will probably add some Frangelico to the cake and use hazelnut oil when making the hazelnut butter.

So merci, Monsieur Bonaparte. Without your obstructions, who knows when we would have perfected the chocolate hazelnut confection that makes this dessert possible.

Gianduia mousse cake

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Call me a stereotype of holiday cheer, but lately I’ve had an overwhelming craving for gingerbread anything — cookies, cakes, lattes, pretty much anything I can ingest. It’s like I’ve become the insatiable gingerbread woman. I’m a little worried that soon I will sprout raisin buttons and rock sugar freckles. I just can’t get enough.

Gingerbread man 1

Surely I’m not alone in my gingerbread fixation. This time of year, kitchens around the world bust out the ginger and cloves and turn up the spice. When it comes to spiced cookies, the Germans have lebkuchen, the Danish have honningkager, and in the States we have, among many kinds of ginger cookies, gingerbread men.

Gingerbread men will always hold a special place in my heart. When I was little, my mother used them as part of her carrot and stick approach to make my brother and I behave while she ran errands.

See, the Bloomingdale’s in the mall by our house had a little bakery in its kitchen section, and they sold the most wonderfully chewy and delicious gingerbread men. So she struck a deal: if my brother and I behaved and didn’t cause any trouble, we could each get our own gingerbread man when she finished her errands.

Parents around the world take note: her plan worked like a charm. In fact, not only would I be on my best behavior, but I’d also make sure my brother stayed in line so he wouldn’t spoil it for the both of us. She’s a crafty one, that mother of mine.

Gingerbread man 2

Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to recapture the same chewy, thick gingerbread sold at our Bloomingdale’s. I thought the recipe below might do it, but although the recipe yields delicious spice cookies (and is definitely worth making), the gingerbread men are not the same as the cookies from my youth.

These cookies, based on a Dorie Greenspan recipe in this month’s Bon Appetit, are crisp around the edges, with just a slight chew in the middle and are deliciously spiced. They are the perfect cookie with a cup of tea in the afternoon, or with a bowl of vanilla ice cream for dessert. But they aren’t the thick and cakey gingerbread men I remember.

So, alas, my quest continues. But in the meantime, I’ll have another one of these cookies. Cakey or not, they are still delicious.

[Edited to add: I have submitted these cookies to Food Blogga’s “Eat Christmas Cookies” event :).]

Gingerbread man 3

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