Wednesday, December 30, 2009

2009 Wrap-Up

This week's blog is designed as a little grab-bag of minutia: A few thoughts that may not have enough content for a full post, but are still worth sharing.
When Heather and I exchanged Christmas presents this year, we discovered that each of our main event presents were suited to the over 21 crowd. I had purchased Heather a one-year membership to the New York Times wine club. Heather and I both love wine and because the wine club is run by the New York Times, we can be sure that each bottle will be erudite and elitist--just our style. Every two months she will be mailed a new bottle with food pairing suggestions and a corresponding review from the Times' dining section.
Heather got me a beer brewing kit! I'm sure I'll be blogging about that in more detail later, but suffice it to say, I'm very excited about it. She even got me ingredients to make an IPA and a book that helps me make sense of this whole process. Heather may regret her decision soon when she walks into a apartment filled with boiling wort and asks, "What smells in here?" and I respond, "That's the sweet scent of malted barley and hops. Get used to it." Hopefully I do it right and the fermenter bucket doesn't explode in our study and cover all our books in yeast. This marriage probably won't last long.
Speaking of my marriage partner, Heather poked me emphatically when she saw an article a couple of days ago in the New York Times singing the praises of Benedictine. I love to discover things before they become a craze so when I read the article, I smugly assumed that it was because they read my blog post about it. Let me tell you folks, self delusion is a real ego boost.
We used the holiday season as a weak excuse to replenish our somewhat depleted alcohol supply--Bourbon, Rye, Cognac, Vodka, Frangelico--as well as a few new things like Lillet and Peychaud's Bitters. This month our credit card bill included four bars, three liquor stores, two wine shops and a partridge in a pear tree. Admittedly the partridge was a frivolous purchase, but he has been great company so far. With all of the time consuming hectic-ness (if it's not a word, it should be) of the wedding and Christmas, we are determined to use our January to live as hermits. We will leave the apartment only to keep our jobs and forage for food. The liquor purchases serve that goal.
Hopefully our anti-social behavior for the month of January will give us some time to try new things in mixing and cooking, fail at those things and blog about them in a humorous manner. And in the end, isn't that what blogging is all about?

Monday, December 28, 2009

Warm Weather Decadence on a Cold Winter Night

I'm in love with lobster. It's a cliche, I know, the most typical luxury food out there, but I just don't care. Throw it in the pot, dip in in butter, make it a bisque, plunk it on a roll, I will eat that expensive crustacean and smile while doing it. Last winter I was in luck, a crazy lobster glut led to the NY Times telling me that I could get myself a cheap lobster, and I think I had one in the bag about five minutes later, at a cool $7.95 a pound. This winter there was no such wave of cheap lobsters, and my plans to splurge on some at Thanksgiving were thwarted when I realized I didn't know of a fish shop open that particular day. Storing them overnight without a giant saltwater tank on premises is generally frowned on. Apparently a bathtub and the Morton Salt Girl just wont do the trick.

This frustration over the unavailability of affordable lobster is compounded as I have recently discovered Luke's Lobster in the East Village, a new tiny "lobster shack" specializing in lobster rolls. They grill the buttered bread and slather on mayo and old bay and pack your roll full of a tantalizing amount of lobster, all for $14, and only $16 if you want chips and a soda. This is a tiny bit more then I would usually spend on a weeknight dinner, especially one I have to order at a counter and perch on a stool to eat, but they are heavenly, and according to everyone who knows NY lobster rolls $14 is "a deal" so I just bless my good fortune and fork over the cash. I've done this more then once. It's really good. And then I think, "I should prepare this at home, then I could eat it even more" and I realize even the most affordable fish shops wont go any lower then $9.99 a pound. Over the summer the July Gourmet magazine arrived with a gorgeous lobster roll right on the cover, and so it has been six months of torture, wanting to create this delectable dinner for myself.

Back in PA for Christmas I made a massive pork roast for a table full of people, the compromise I had made with my mother led to a promise that I wouldn't do anything "complicated" after a rather eventful year. Apparently I have a reputation of creating gastronomic labyrinths and getting lost in them. If you can think of a better way to meet David Bowie, I'd like to hear it.

On Boxing Day I went over to a neighbor's for brunch and enjoyed a delicious strata and made french toast and it was a delicious comfort food brunch, but not what I would call a culinary challenge. That night, however, my mother mentioned that across town at the market "Food Town" they were offering live lobster.... $5.99 a pound. Yes there was a tiny bit of a ridiculous rain storm. Yes some of the roads were more flooded then was strictly comfortable. But after months of eating one lobster roll for $14 and wishing I could have two, of staring at lovely pictures of cooked crustaceans heaped on a hot dog roll, of cursing the prices on tank after tank of lobsters that I wanted to go home with me, I was getting my Christmas wish. I was going to make and eat lobster rolls. For all of that desire, I am not difficult to please when it comes to prep and seasoning. For a future lobster adventure I may add some scallions and parsley and such, but this time I just wanted the basics.

Lobster Rolls
Adapted from Gourmet Magazine


4 - One and a quarter to one and a half pound live lobsters
1/2 cup mayo
1 tbsp lemon juice
6-8 Hotdog rolls
Old Bay
If you're feeling crazy, scallions, dill and chives all came up in my research. Go nuts.


Bring large pot of salted water to a boil. Plunge two lobsters headfirst into the pot and cook, partially covered, over medium high heat for 8 minutes (if it's a bigger lobster go 9 minutes). Transfer with tongs to and ice bath and let stand until completely cooled. Return water to a boil and cook remaining two lobsters.

Remove meat from claws, joints, and tails. Carcasses and shells can be saved for lobster stock if you are so inclined. Coarsely chop the meat. try to keep some of the red claw meat in tact, as it is very pretty in the bun.

Whisk mayo and lemon juice in a small bowl (if you were adding herb, you would mix those in as well). Butter inside of rolls, then grill face down in a grill pan (regular skillet will do if you don't own crazy pans like I do. If it's summer and you don't live in an apartment, you could use an actual grill like the smug suburbanite you are). Once toasted, spread mayo/lemon juice mixture on the bun. The alternative is to toss the lobster meat itself with the mixture, but Will is not a mayo fan so I did not do this. Then stuff with lobster, and sprinkle on Old Bay to your own person taste. (For Will I sprinkled lemon juice right on the lobster, then sprinkled the Old Bay over that.)
The result is a decadent and yet casual dinner, and there's plenty of meat for seconds. On a rainy December evening, it held the allure of sitting on a dock in August, just the mini culinary vacation we needed after the stress of the holidays. Now my lobster craving is sated, which should last at least, oh, a week.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Olive or Twist

In the week or so leading up to the cocktail party we threw this past Saturday, we gradually picked up some essentials. As the bar master of the household, it was my job to decide what the loose drink menu is to be. The decision was martinis, gimlets and manhattans with battery of basic mixers and special requests invited.
As readers of past blogs may know, I likes me a good vodka martini. I find gin to be too floral and medicinal for my taste; it's like drinking aftershave. And who among us hasn't tried taking a swig of aftershave. We all get curious. Martini purists will argue that a vodka martini is not a martini, but these people drink aftershave--you can't trust people like that.
Another point of contention is the garnish. I go with a twist of lemon. Always have. I don't hang out with people who order martinis so I just kind of assumed that people do what I do and get martinis with twists. In my mind, the olive had fallen by the wayside--a forgotten relic of a simpler time.
When Heather and I were in Whole Foods buying supplies, she suggested that perhaps we buy olives if martinis are on the menu. I thought it was a fine idea. I didn't think people would want them but I thought it would lend our party some credibility. Since neither Heather nor myself drinks martinis with olives, we didn't know whether to get pitted or non-pitted green olives. We didn't even know if they should be stuffed with anything. We erred on the safe side and got the non-pitted ones. It was the wrong choice but easily correctable. Before the party, I spent a little time pitting olives and placing them in a ramekin as well as cut plenty of citrus.
One of the first cocktails I mixed was for myself. It was a vodka martini with an olive. I took the trouble to pit them, I'd be damned if they didn't get some use. Plus I'd get to feel cool--like Cary Grant or something. Well wouldn't you know it, every single one of my guests that ordered a martini from me took theirs with an olive. Without exception. Not one person took a twist. We were all like a gaggle of Cary Grants.
Midway though the evening, I had to suck it up, get out the pitter and pit more olives because of the demand. But the effort was well worth the knowledge I obtained. There is a grassroots clamor for olives that I was not aware of. People like their vodka slightly salty rather than slightly tart. It was like a crazy sociological experiment. The cost of my misapprehension is a fridge full of sliced lemon.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Christmas Cocktail Party

When Will and I moved to NY two years ago, we were thrilled with our luck at scoring a place with a large living room (though a tiny kitchen, but what can you do). How perfect, we thought, for parties, we'll be able to fit all of our friends in here! The master procrastinators that we are however, we never really got around to it. Despite my affection for feeding people and Will's skill with a cocktail shaker, we never quite got around to having a satisfying fête.We were busy, we thought. It's hard to get people to come out this far into Queens. Once planning the wedding took over my life, planning another party was the farthest thing from my mind. That is, until the wedding was over. Christmas was practically on top of us and I was married and ready to host my very first grown up cocktail party. Before I could change my mind I reached in my drawer and pulled out a set of party invites I had bought on sale at Target years ago, for the party I had been ready to have any minute. Will and I filled them out, addressed them, and plunked them in the mail before anyone could try to pull us into other plans for that evening. Fully committed, the party was on.

Will was in charge of figuring out how much alcohol we would need and purchasing it. My job was the menu. I decided I would need a selection of savory appetizers, but it being Christmas, a few sweets as well. Since I was one person working in an minuscule kitchen, I would need dishes that could be spaced out in their cooking, also a plus for my sanity. Cookies could be baked days ahead of time, and since I had gone through all the trouble of buying cookie cutters last year, a basic ginger cookie would work. I had a recipe for stuffed mushrooms that had killed at Christmas dinner last year (I mean that in a good way. No one actually died. And if they did, it would have been from deliciousness) so I decided to bring it back as my holiday "signature dish." Every girl should have one of those. It was a bonus that it could be prepared the night before and then baked just before the guests arrived. I had found the mushroom recipe on Epicurious, and noticed that they were part of a menu called "Make Ahead Dinner Party." Perfect. Perusing this list I also scored a recipe for 3 Cheese Fondue. A few years ago I had a contact at a vintage shop keeping an eye out for me for a 1970's fondue pot. When one became available she wrapped it and left it for me to pick up at the store, but the heating stand piece had broken and it wasn't realized until after it was in my possession. She refunded me for the purchase, but allowed me to keep the pot and picks. Since I hadn't had a party, however, I had never busted these out. Now I had the perfect excuse for a little retro snacking. It would be like Back to the Future, but instead of a DeLorean, there would be gooey cheese. (Note to Self: Write that screenplay)

Other unused cookware that inspired my menu planning were the two brand new springform pans given to me by Clare and Lucy respectively for the wedding. A cheesecake just seemed necessary and, it being Christmas, a peppermint one seemed most appropriate. Realizing I now had three dishes packed with cream cheese (I purchased and used 3 pounds), it seemed I need a more healthy dish. I briefly considered a bruschetta, but the typical fresh tomato and basil just seemed too summery for my purposes. I had a recipe for a baked tomato dish with allspice, cloves, and thyme--the perfect warm and wintry vegetarian dish that could be spread on baguette and devoured. Finally, I wanted something a bit fancy. I had been thinking about making Bacon Wrapped Scallops, and was even more encouraged on that dish as pre-wrapped ones went on sale that week. Normally I am against prepared foods, as it's cheaper just to do it myself, but the sale made it within reach and I was self catering a party with six dishes, I could use the help. Take out of package and throw under the broiler seemed like a good option. Of course I can't make anything simple, so I needed to do something unexpected with the dish. That's how I ended up with a Port Wine Reduction, and played with the first recipe I've ever done where one of the directions was "light on fire."The night approached, we shopped, I spent two days cooking, we cleaned the apartment top to bottom.... and a blizzard hit New York. Snow swirled past our window and we worried, but needlessly. Our friends are brave New Yorkers--people without cars who travel underground on subways and own a variety of boots and scarves. They would not be deterred when food and cocktails were involved! Our numbers might have suffered slightly, but the truly hardy prevailed.

We learned several things from this party. First, a dinner party might be good at 7, but no one is going to show up for a cocktail party that early. Oops. A few things need to be re-warmed, and the cheesecake re-chilled. I had planned to put the food out in batches, so that as one dish ran low I could replenish with hot food, instead of putting it all out at once and watching my precious scallops get cold and slimy. We learned that we need to purchase an ice bucket soon, as running back and forth to the kitchen is just damn inefficient. I learned not to try to pop ice out of a tray when your martini is sitting precariously on the edge of the counter, or it ends in an embarrassing crash. And I learned what awesome friends I have, as immediately Sean was in the room with a dust pan. Throwing your first cocktail party is infinitely easier when many of your friends have worked in food service. As I whisked fondue Sean cut bread and Matt and Brian ran food out. Will apparently got help as well, as someone appeared to request the half and half. Apparently a White Russian had been ordered.

I carefully considered what recipe to present you with this week, as offering up the complete menu just seemed a bit overwhelming. The cookies, which were very popular, are nothing you haven't seen in a ginger cookie before, nothing you couldn't get elsewhere. The fondue, which was completely devoured, and extremely easy to make and forgiving to multiple reheatings, will have to wait for a future blog. I am starting to look into the future at a possible fondue party. Stay tuned. In the end, I think those mushrooms are what you should really know about. The ability to make them ahead of time was divine, and since all I had to do that day was pop them in the oven for ten minutes I could put them out in batches, making them hot and melty upon serving. I had way more filling then mushrooms, but with the snow coming I thought 45 of them would be enough. When they disappeared I fell back on plan B, heating the leftover filling and serving it in a bowl with pita chips. It was plenty popular this way as well, so it's flexibility makes it a perfect party dish. If you really don't like mushrooms you don't even have to make them, just make the filling, but I think the mushrooms were classy looking and definitely added something to the dish. This also breaks one of my other rules of cooking: I usually won't go anywhere near a frozen vegetable. I think the freshness is compromised at the expense of taste, and there are all kinds of environmental issues about how much more carbon is used to get frozen vegetables to a store versus fresh. In this dish, however, there are so many flavors at work that the fact that the spinach isn't a dominant one isn't a problem. And again, with a six dish catering job ahead of me, my food morals became a bit flexible. I'll plant a tree or something...Maybe an douglas fir.
Roasted Mushrooms with Feta, Spinach, and Bacon
Adapted from Bon Appetit

8 ounces bacon slices
1 cup chopped onion
1 10-ounce package chopped frozen spinach, thawed, squeezed dry
4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled (about 3/4 cup)
4 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
2 3/4 pounds button mushrooms (about 48; each about 1 1/2 inches in diameter), stemmed

Preheat oven to 375°F. Cook bacon in heavy large skillet until crisp, about 8 minutes. Transfer bacon to paper towels to drain. Coarsely crumble bacon. Discard all but 1/4 cup plus 2 teaspoons bacon fat (adding olive oil if necessary to equal that amount).
Heat 2 teaspoons reserved bacon fat in heavy medium skillet over medium heat. Add chopped onion and sauté until tender, about 5 minutes. Transfer to medium bowl and cool; mix in bacon, spinach, feta, and cream cheese. Season filling to taste with salt and pepper.

Line 2 large rimmed baking sheets with foil. Toss mushrooms and reserved 1/4 cup bacon fat in large bowl to coat. Sprinkle mushrooms with salt and pepper. Place mushrooms, rounded side down, in single layer on prepared baking sheets. Bake mushrooms until centers fill with liquid, about 25 minutes. Turn mushrooms over. Bake mushrooms until brown and liquid evaporates, about 20 minutes longer. Turn mushrooms over again. Spoon 1 heaping teaspoon filling into each mushroom cavity. (Filled mushrooms can be prepared 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate.
Preheat oven to 375°F. Bake mushrooms until heated through, about 10 minutes. Transfer mushrooms to platter and serve warm.
One more benefit of this recipe. As I said, I made most of it the night before, after which I jaunted off to my friend Becky's party, and enjoyed wine and her fiance's Rum and Cokes. And by that I mean rum, the passing thought of coke and then more rum. The day of my party, therefore, I woke up feeling a bit less then perfect. I was sad, until I remembered that leftover bacon in my fridge. A fried egg, some toast, and some grated cheese later, I had a lovely Bacon Egg and Cheese, otherwise known as the Hangover Killer. This provided me with the carbs, fats and essential greases to tackle the long road ahead.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Rum TV

It's time for another drink recipe and demonstration. This one comes to us from the New York Times in an article about rum. The title of the article was "Staging a Rum Rebellion" and its theme was that while recently rum has taken a back seat to gin and whiskey in serious cocktail culture, there are bars out there doing innovative things with different kinds of rum. This drink in particular caught our fancy--partly because it looked delicious and partly because all of the ingredients are things I've gotten excited enough to write about in entries past. It's called a Carlo Sud.

1/2 oz. Benedictine
2 oz. Amber Rum (We used Dogfish Head Brown Honey Rum)
1 or 2 dashes Angostura Bitters
1 strip lemon peel, for garnish
Combine all ingredients except lemon peel in a shaker half filled with ice (yes, I've written a post about ice too) and stir until well chilled. Strain into a cocktail glass. Run lemon twist around rim and drop into drink.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Taco in Winter

Maybe it was frigid weather that just showed up in NY one day that made me crave a summery, Californian type food. Maybe it was the fact that both Catfish and Avocados were on sale at Whole Foods. There is even a slight chance that the 11 tablespoons of butter in the Pear Upside-Down Cake had me going to the gym every day last week that made this healthy recipe so very attractive. Whatever it was, a cold Tuesday night last week put me onto the task of Catfish Tacos.

I am not a huge fan of spiciness, so I have not extensivly experimented with Mexican food. Fish tacos are really a product of the American West Coast, influenced heavily by the hispanic community there. Being a hardcore East Coast girl, suspicious of anyone too blonde or who thinks a convertible is a good idea, this is not the type of cuisine I had growing up, nor have I been exposed to it much, so the entire idea of a "taco" is new in my kitchen. I believe my mother made "tacos" when I was young, which consisted of ground beef, a McCormick mix (cause who knows tacos better then the Irish), and some store bought shells. Not exactly authentic cuisine. I was embarking on new ground, but as I was very new at this and it was a weeknight, my sense of adventure carried only so far. I stuck with my mother on the idea of the store bought shell, and ignored the original recipes directions on dealing with corn tortillas. If you have your own favorite taco shell recipe or method, go with that. I went with "Open package, toast for 3 minutes, stuff." Sue me.

I subbed another type of pepper for the jalapeno when the store was out of them, something a little less spicy, and I kind of wish I hadn't. With the cooling properties of the fresh avocado and the tomato, it could have used a little more heat. Next time I'd try another store before subbing again. The original recipe calls for feta cheese, but I was on a Southern California path and didn't want to take a right turn at the Mediterranean, so I just used a Colby mix, more typical taco stuff. I leave it to your sensibilities of how you want your queso, and simply have it listed as "cheese" in the recipe

This is very lean and healthy food, the fish is broiled instead of fried and there are a lot of fresh vegetables involved. Mixing all the vegetables in a bowl, the color was vibrant and the smell of the lime juice was very vivid. The salsa adds a juiciness that makes up for the fact that no oil is used on the fish. This would be a great thing to eat next summer by the pool and be very impressive to your guests, but it's also a great January recipe, when all those cookies start to haunt you and your looking for something delicious to eat without feeling guilty. It also is a nice, colorful alternative to the roasts I tend to default to in the chilly months. In the end the results sated not only my hunger but my emotional need for a sunny meal, nourishing with its bright, juicy filing and its salty crunch. Will was a big fan, going back for seconds and thirds and grabbing napkins for the juice that would run out after a big satisfying bite. Now if someone could just get me a giant margarita, I might forget about that chilly wind outside altogether.

Catfish Tacos with Tomato and Avocado Salsa
Adapted from Bon Appetit


  • 1 cup chopped plum tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup chopped peeled avocado
  • 5 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 3 tablespoons chopped green onion
  • 3 teaspoons minced jalapeño chilies with seeds

  • 1 pound catfish fillets
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced

  • 4 taco shells

  • 2 cups thinly sliced curly leaf lettuce
  • 1/4 cup shredded cheese


Preheat oven to 350°F. Mix tomatoes, avocado, 2 tablespoons lime juice, onion, and 2 teaspoons jalapeños in small bowl. Season with salt and pepper.
Place fish in single layer on small rimmed baking sheet. Mix garlic, 3 tablespoons lime juice, and 1 teaspoon jalapeños in another small bowl. Drizzle half of lime juice mixture over fish; reserve remainder. Sprinkle fish with salt and pepper; let stand 15 minutes.

Preheat broiler. Broil fish just until opaque in center, about 6 minutes. Cut fish into 1-inch pieces. Top each taco shell with 1/2 cup lettuce, then fish pieces. Drizzle with reserved lime juice mixture. Spoon salsa over; sprinkle with cheese.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


Welcome to the Ireland Series Part 3. At the end of part 2, our heros were leaving the Old Jameson Distillery and once again heading out into the rainy streets of Dublin.
In an attempt to drink beer in Ireland that wasn't Guinness (a strange concept, I know,) Heather and I found a place in the Temple bar area called The Porterhouse. This is a microbrewery with a few locations throughout Dublin. I'm a huge fan of microbrews. I like when beer making is treated with care--like an art rather than an industry. So a couple of blocks and over the Grattan Bridge we went, certificates in tow. (I'm sure local bars in Dublin are very impressed with certificates tourists like us get from Guinness and Jameson.) We take a look at the menu and decide that there are things on the menu we can both eat, so we go inside and get a table.
Looking back, I should have asked if they offered a sampler or flight of beers, but it didn't occur to me. I had a pint of the Wrasslers Stout while Heather went with a glass of the Plain Porter. One of the reasons Heather liked Ireland is that they offer beer in a glass--or half pint size. I suppose there are some place in the U.S. that will do that for you but not without a weird look. My Wrasslers was good. Distinct from Guinness insofar as it was hoppier and a tad less malty. It had more in common with the Guinness Foreign Extra that we brought home.
For our next round, I got the exact same thing. I figured I had hit upon a good thing so why change it. Also I was too drunk to form words so all I could do was gesture for another (kidding, mom.) Heather decided to switch it up and get a glass of the Temple Brau. It was clean and a tad on the bitter side. Exactly what you would expect from a German sounding beer.
The drinks paired well with our food. I got a burger and Heather got and Irish stew. I'd comment more on the food but that's really more Heather's department. Some of the staff had t-shirts that said something to the effect of "Food Runner: Don't Ask Me For Anything." I wish I could get away with something like that for my restaurant--a shirt that basically says, "Leave Me Alone."
When we left that night, we were a little alcohol soaked from the sampling we did at Guinness and Jameson plus the couple of rounds we had at Porterhouse. So we stumbled wearily onto the bus that took us home and then stumbled wearily into our hotel room. Thus ended our epic day in which we experienced the mighty triumvirate of Dublin-specific alcohol.
The following day, we met up with our friend Colleen who's in the middle of a graduate program near Dublin. When none of us could decide where to eat, we suggested we go back to Porterhouse. Good beer at reasonable prices. Colleen said she'd never been there before but then she recognized it once we got inside. "Oh yeah, I love this place!" Can Heather pick 'em or what? Heather loves going to cities and finding the insider stuff. In New York she's better then the Not For Tourists guide. She was quite proud of this Dublin find.
This time I got the Brainblasta Ale and Heather and Colleen both got pint bottles of Bulmers Pear Cider. Colleen filled us in on some controversy surrounding Bulmers Pear Cider. Apparently the original recipe contained certain laxative properties that caused people to shy away from it. Colleen assured us that the matter was addressed and that the new formula would not cause that reaction. Perhaps they should keep the old recipe in stores and market it as a laxative. "Bulmers Pear Cider: Provides Essential Roughage" or, "Bulmers Pear Cider: Better Than Metamucil!" It's a goldmine, but I digress.
The Brainblasta was very hoppy and floral--not unlike an IPA. At a lofty 7% alcohol by volume, the tag line on the website is, "Use it. Don't abuse it." The Bulmers was sweet and fruity but not my cup of tea. I prefer a standard cider. It was on this occasion that I had my first order of fish and chips. I thought it would make for nice pub fare to go with my beer and I was right. I suppose anything battered and fried pairs really well with beer. Who knew? Overall, this bar was a great way to end the alcohol themed day of our trip and when we decide to come back to Dublin, we definitely plan to return.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Upside-Down Heirloom

Planning ahead for the many vacation days I would need to use for the wedding this year, I never took a summer vacation. Planning for the expense of Ireland, I never even took a weekend shore trip or a few days in the Poconos. And so I baked in my air condition-less apartment, sipping rum drinks Will concocted and reading the New York Times food section as it went on and on about how lovely it was to take a jaunt down to "The Cape" and cook sea food and walk on the beach. One article in particular caught my eye, talking about the limited kitchen resources in a rental, but how one place she had stayed at had big cast iron pans hanging on the wall. She went on and on about how the pans were so very useful, handling everything from fried potatoes to a baked peach crisp. I was enchanted, and decided it was absolutely necessary to add a cast iron pan to my arsenal.

Conventional wisdom holds that the ideal cast iron pan is handed down from your grandmother, has cooked 800 meals, and has never seen a drip of soap. By cleaning only with hot water and a stiff brush the flavor and essence of those 800 meals clings to the metal and infuses itself into every new dish. In serious culinary families severe divides have been created amongst siblings gunning to inherit such a pan. My family has no such pan, as far as I know (insert suspicious glares at my cousins here). This being New York City, lineage can be purchased if the price is right. I know for a fact that The Brooklyn Kitchen--where I took my knife skills class--sells refurbished antique cast irons, but they were a bit out of my price range. Onto my registry went a 9" cast iron pan, and every few weeks I would peek at it, dreaming of the family heirloom I was about to start. Well big thank you to childhood friend Lucy (spoiler alert: she's a soon to be mommy! yay!), cause this week it arrived, heavy, black and ready to go.

I have heard that if you aren't a cast iron heiress then the first order of business for the new pan is to cook up a big batch of bacon to get the flavor absorption started. Bacon, it seems, is wonderful and has many uses. Every now and again, I catch Will trying to pour bacon grease on his cereal instead of milk--an eerily attractive concept. Unfortunately, I had no bacon on hand, but I did have the leftover panchetta from last week's stuffing. Into the pan it went, fried up beautifully and an heirloom was born. Carefully studying the care instructions I cleaned with hot water and a brush, sprayed with vegetable oil while still warm, and put in a cool dry place.

Now that I had started the seasoning, I needed the first real recipe to break in the new pan. The article that had first piqued my interest was all beach focused, and the snow swirling past my window Saturday night did not put me in the mood for such fare. I needed something built for cold weather, something with a winter comfort food feel. Searching a bit more on the NY Times website turned up an article I had seen last month from Mark Bittman about a Pear Upside-Down Cake. That's right, not only was I going to bake, I was going to invert it. Fuck you Isaac Newton.

The video included in his blog told me that I had found a kindred baking spirit. He gets frustrated at having to complete two steps at once, and really doesn't feel that making things pretty when baking is an absolute necessity. Also hysterical is when he decides that if a little egg shell gets in, well that just adds "crunch." Brilliant. He doesn't actually use a cast iron when he makes it, but it turned up in the search because someone in the comments suggests it. Searching the website of Lodge Cast Iron, the company that made my pan, turned up a recipe for Pineapple Upside-Down Cake, and a confirmation that upside cake is really meant for a cast iron. That was all the prodding I needed, so I plunged in.

Maple Pear Upside-Down Cake

Adapted from the NY Times


11 tablespoons butter

3/4 cup maple syrup

1/4 cup packed brown sugar

3 to 4 pears, peeled, cored and thinly sliced

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 large eggs

1 1/2 cups flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup milk.


1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Melt 3 tablespoons butter in a 9" cast iron pan over medium heat; add maple syrup and brown sugar and cook, stirring, until sugar dissolves. Bring to a boil and cook for another 2 minutes; remove from heat and set aside. When mixture has cooled a bit, arrange pear slices in an overlapping circle on top.

2. With a handheld or standing mixer, beat remaining 8 tablespoons butter and the sugar until light and fluffy. Add vanilla and eggs, one egg at a time, continuing to mix until smooth. In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt.

3. Add flour mixture to butter mixture in three batches, alternating with milk; do not overmix. Carefully spread batter over pears, using a spatula to make sure it is evenly distributed. Bake until top of cake is golden brown and edges begin to pull away from sides of pan, about 45 to 50 minutes; a toothpick inserted into center should come out clean. Let cake cool for 5 minutes.

4. Run a knife around edge of pan; put a plate on top of cake and carefully flip it so plate is on bottom and pan is on top. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Will's UK Candy Round-Up

A little backstory: Heather and I have been to the UK twice--London in 2005 and Dublin just recently. On both occasions, I marvel at the candy available at convenience stores and share my thoughts with Heather. This time around, she told me to write a blog about it so I would stop pestering her. We selected what I thought was a nice cross section of the candy available and without further ado: Will's UK Candy Round-Up.
Time Out - It's helpful to think of this bar as kind of like a big Kit Kat. It's got a nice crunch to it which is somewhat unique compared to it's UK competition.
Moro - At the heart of Cadbury's Moro bar is what seems to be a chocolate nougat along the lines of a Three Musketeers Bar only darker. It has some crunch to it but rather that a solid cookie backbone, there are bits of cookie--or "biscuit"--scattered throughout. An aspect I thought was unique was that there is a layer of caramel that surounds the entire nougat/cookie nucleus. A membrane, if you will. It's kind of like eating a science project. A delicious science project. On top of this membrane is a coating of chocolate. The bar is kind of big so you really get your money's worth. I would definitely buy this one again.
Aero and Mint Aero - There was a serious ad campaign for Aero going on when we were in Dublin. It seemed like every other bus was plastered with Aero posters. The slogan for Aero is "Feel the Bubbles," which is fun, but tells you nothing about the taste. The bubbles aren't liquid bubbles or anything like that. They're suspended throughout the bar like styrofoam, but tastier. I wouldn't have used the bubbles as a selling point. I've never been eating a candy bar and thought to myself, "This candy bar is good but it could use more bubbles." Nevertheless Aero is an intriguing bar. I think the bubbles help the chocolate melt a little in your mouth, giving the texture a smoothness it might not otherwise have. Both the chocolate and mint flavors are very good. but I prefer the mint.
Crunchie - Heather and I didn't particularly care for this one. At its core there is a honey flavored wafer of some sort--like a weird caramelized cookie. For me, honey and chocolate don't go together particularly well. It's an interesting experience to be sure, but one that I don't have a strong desire to repeat.
Yorkie - I've known about the Yorkie since 2005 but it was only on the Dublin trip that I got around to trying one. The slogan is, "It's Not For Girls." The O in Yorkie contains a depiction of a woman that you might find on a ladies room door. The figure is holding a purse and it has a giant red slash through it. I suppose the marketing relies on reverse psychology to reach out to women. A female might pass a Yorkie on a candy stand and think, "I'll show them." The bar is nothing more than solid milk chocolate perforated into big hunks. I suppose it is pretty intense. Having a giant wad of chocolate in one's mouth is not the most ladylike thing one can do. Perhaps Nestle sees the slogan as nothing more than fair warning.
Starbar - When I picked up a Starbar at the convenience store, I thought for some reason that it would be like a 100 Grand Bar or a giant Ferraro Rocher. The slogan is, "Shot through with Peanuts and Caramel." I was surprised to find that it was actually more like a Reese's Fast Break or a Funny Bone. It has a sort of peanut butter creme filling with the peanuts and caramel under the chocolate coating. Not really my cup of tea but if you like Fast Breaks, you'll probably like Starbar.
Galaxy - No scam here. Just really good chocolate. They're packaged a lot like Dove chocolate is here in the States and with good reason. Very smooth, very rich milk chocolate. We also tried one with a cookie crunch to it which was also very good. Heather also bought a package of Galaxy Mistletoe Kisses--little bite size pieces of Galaxy--for us to enjoy closer to Christmas.
Twirl - A Twirl comes with two little bars about the size of Twix Bars. The filling might be hard to explain. It's just chocolate, but little ribbons of chocolate. Like somebody took a sheet of chocolate and crumpled it up into a cylinder. Not rolled but crumpled. And once it's in cylinder form, they coat it in chocolate. It's good, but I got kind of bored with it. I don't know that there's a need to put two in the same package.
Flake - A Flake Bar is like a Twirl Bar except it's bigger, there's only one of them and it has no chocolate coating. It's just the crumpled up chocolate ribbon. Interesting but brittle. Little flakes of chocolate were getting away from me and landing on the table. I'm fairly surprised that they are able to manufacture and ship these without the chocolate coming apart.
Those are all the candies we tried. We would have tried more but this is how Heather gets me to go on European vacations in the first place. She bribes me with candy. Maybe next time I can buy a whole box of something. I'll be saving up my Euros.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Old Jameson Distillery

When we last left our heros, they were leaving the Guinness storehouse and thrust onto the rainy streets of Dublin. Since we heard their exciting adventure, they trudged two blocks and hailed a cab. This cab sped off across the Liffey River to arrive at the front door of The Old Jameson Distillery.
The Old Jameson Distillery tour starts with a small educational video that demonstrates the long history of Jameson Whiskey and celebrates the care that goes into each batch. Like Guinness, Jameson came about at around the time of the American revolution, so all of the imagery seems downright patriotic. The ships in the movie look like eighteenth century naval ships. Jameson takes their hooch delivery very seriously. They portray John Jameson as a mythic hero--taking his time to make sure the ingredients are measured right, paying more for only the finest barley, heroically waving away salesmen who offer false aging additives for his whiskey. According to the people at Jameson, John Jameson was a hell of a guy--on a par with Superman perhaps. All he needed was a cape. The Jameson website refers to him as a legend. I don't know about that but I did hear that he once fought the sasquatch.
After the video, we were all itching to get on with the tour so that we could get our shot of Jameson we were promised. But first a few matters of business. Everyone on the tour gets a free shot of Jameson with their admission, but from each tour group, eight lucky people are selected to be part of a free additional whiskey tasting. Normally there are about forty people in a tour group, but we had about twelve. So our odds were good. Our tour guide, Erin, had eight batons to give out. She asked if there were any women who wanted to participate. Heather's hand flew up. She's in. Now the gentlemen. Erin saw my hand but walked past me because she didn't want two people from the same group. Bummer. Heather took pity on me and blurted out, "It's our honeymoon." It was pretty shameless and underhanded, but what can I say? Those are the qualities I look for in a woman. Her ploy worked though and we both set out on our tour, batons in hand.
This tour was considerably shorter than the Guinness storehouse. We got to see displays with miniature versions of all the equipment used to make whiskey. There were mannequins of all the people who worked in the distillery. And Erin was there to field any questions that we had. I'll say that as much as I enjoy the freedom of a self guided tour, sometimes it's nice to have a guide lead you and tell you what's important to look at. At one point, we realized someone in our group spoke only French. Then Erin started speaking French back. Jameson employs only the most talented of the Irish citizenry to lead booze seeking tourists around.
One of the parts on the tour that I thought was particularly neat was a display in which a bunch of barrels were stacked horizontally with glass bottoms. They contained whiskeys at different stages of aging. The one on the left was clear and had barely been aged at all. I think the final one had been aged eighteen years and had a considerably darker color due to the wood barrels. Also there was far less liquid in this barrel, due to evaporation, which is known as "The Angel's Share." Those are some drunk angels.
Then the tour moved into the Jameson Distillery bar. The eight golden ticket holders (or green baton holders) sat around a big table with green place mats. On those place mats were three shots of whiskey: Jack Daniels (American), Johnny Walker Black (Scotch), and Jameson (Irish). We were given a brief tutorial about each. Irish whiskeys like Jameson are triple distilled, giving it a smooth clean finish. Scotches tend to be distilled twice and American whiskey only once. We tried the other two. They were good. I'm not the biggest fan of blended scotch but the Johnny Walker Black was okay. It had a very smokey from the particular type of oak barrels it's aged in. Erin joked that when in Ireland, the traditional thing to do with a shot of scotch is to hurl it over your shoulder and onto the ground. The Jack Daniels is made from corn so it has a sweeter more syrupy taste.
Finally we got to the Jameson and it was good. Of course it was good, it's Jameson. I didn't need to go to Ireland to figure that out. To cap off the tasting Erin went around the table and asked each of us which one was our favorite, keeping in mind that we were sitting in the middle of the old Jameson distillery in Ireland. She started with me and when I answered, "Jameson Irish Whiskey" she responded with, "Good man." Everyone else at the table followed suit and we were rewarded with a shot of Jameson. As an added bonus, we all got a certificate saying we completed the tasting. The batons that we received at the beginning of the tour were actually tubes we could hose our certificates in. Between this and the perfect pint diploma, I'm getting certification left and right. I'm looking forward to impressing people in conversation with my drinking credentials. I suppose my next step is a drinking masters program.
We ended the tour with the obligatory stroll through the gift shop where we purchased a small bottle of their twelve year old whiskey. (We learned on the tour that the age of their non-premium whiskey is typically five to seven years.) We haven't tried it yet but we look forward to it. Between the Guinness storehouse and the Jameson Distillery we had had a pretty full day. But there was one more stop on our Dublin drinking tour that we needed to make. Stay tuned next week for part three of the Ireland series.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


As yesterday's blog was getting a bit lengthy, I decided to cut the pie stuff. But as you have all hung in there with me as I suffered through the challenge that baking presents, I couldn't deprive you of a great recipe that resulted in a (nearly) perfect pie.

I made the pie the day before Thanksgiving, as I didn't want to pile the entire feast on one day and then kill myself. Taking a deep breath, I did something I have never done successfully before. I made my own crust. I have rolling issues every time I try something like this, I always end up thin on one side and thick on the other, with an oval instead of a rectangle, with the dough either cracking like crazy for being too dry, or gluing itself to my rolling pin for being too moist. Frustration mounts, curse words fly, and a frozen crust comes out of my freezer...then possibly more curse words.

Bracing myself I found a simple butter crust recipe, one that involved the usual suspects of flour, water, sugar and salt, and threw them in my food processor. (Side note: if I didn't own a processor I would probably never try this. Hand mixing dough looks like the worst idea ever, and I am far too lazy for that) The ingredients mixed just like the recipe said they should, I refrigerated the disk for an hour, and then got rolling. Okay, it wasn't the prettiest crust in all of human history, but for right now I was happy it didn't end up in a gooey mess in my trash can. If it tastes good, awesome. I'll work on my baking aesthetics later. Since the filling recipe I used calls for a frozen crust, I stuck the pie plate with the homemade crust into the freezer to chill it. The pie filling is super easy. The original recipe calls for light molasses, but I had dark and it worked just fine. Either will probably do. Also, I did end up with extra filling. If you have a deep dish pie plate I would use it, or if you have little tart pans you could make smaller pies. I may or may not have thrown out the extra, like a lazy, wasteful, worthless American. God bless this holiday.

Spiced Pumpkin Pie
Adapted from Bon Appetit

  • 2/3 cup (packed) golden brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons all purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 1/2 cups canned solid pack pumpkin
  • 2 tablespoons molasses
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 cup whipping cream


Place baking sheet in oven and preheat to 450°F. Whisk first 8 ingredients together in large bowl to blend. Whisk in pumpkin, molasses and eggs, then cream. Pour mixture into crust.

Place pie on preheated baking sheet in oven. Bake 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 325°F and bake until sides puff and center is just set, about 40 minutes. Cool. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and re-frigerate.) Serve at room temperature.

The pie was like 90% perfect, or some such percentage. It looked all nice and set and puffed when I took it out of the oven, but ten minutes later the center fell and I ended up with quite the dent in my pie. Probably could have left it in the oven a tiny bit longer. It's an extremely tasty pie, however, with more spice then pumpkin on the palate. See above note for my feelings about taste over aesthetics. I felt my dented pie had character.