Friday, March 25, 2011

Stop 6: Connecticut Nutmeg Spice Cupcakes

So it turns out that people from Connecticut refer to themselves as "Nutmeggers."  That is at least, according to Warren Brown in the Connecticut part of the book.  Personally, I find this to be highly suspect and request anybody who is reading this who might be from Connecticut to please comment and tell me if it's true.

Brown states in the cookbook that while Connecticut is more commonly known as the Constitution State, it is also known as the Nutmeg State and that people down there really like their nutmeg.  They like it so much that they used to put an entire nutmeg into their traditional Election Cake recipe.  I guess the original recipe was a dense coffee-cake filled with dried fruits and, well, a whole nutmeg.  They used to make it around elections.  Maybe to have something substantial, but easy to eat while counting ballots late into the night?  Brown based the recipe he put in the book on the book American Cookery by Amelia Simmons which was published in 1796.  He altered it so that it wouldn't make enough to feed an entire church congregation and omitted the dried fruit to lighten the batter a bit.

For amusement, Brown left in one of the traditional recipes for election cake that he found.  He didn't state where he got it, but it's worth repeating here:

4 cups sugar
6 1/2 cups flour
4 eggs
1 pound each raisins, currants, 1/2 citron
1 teaspoonful salt
1 teaspoonful soda
Half yeast cake
2 gills Brandy
1 Nutmeg
2 cups Milk

I have no idea what a gill is, or where you would get a cake of yeast, but the real fun comes in the directions to put the cake together:

Make a sponge of the milk, add 4 cups of flour at 4 o'clock, at nine mix altogether, except the eggs, and Soda, that are put in, in morning.  Then put in pans let stand 20 minutes and bake.  

Brown points out that people must have spent a lot more time in the kitchen to know how to interpret such a skeletal set of instructions.  He didn't say whether this was a recipe from a book or something passed down in a family or among friends, which also might make a difference.  Either way, it seems recipe-writing has come a long way.

Old-timey amusement aside, Brown's updated recipe also had it's amusing quirks.  For example, you mix all the wet ingredients together (without beating the eggs) by putting them together in a container with a tight-fitting lid and shaking for about 15 seconds.  It worked really well.  He should really rename this recipe the 15-Second Cupcakes because first you mix the dry ingredients for 15 seconds, then shake the wet for 15 seconds and finish it all by adding the wet to the dry and whisking them together for, you guessed it, 15 seconds!

The icing was also something I had never heard of before called an Old-fashioned Milk Buttercream.  To make it you make a slurry of flour and milk (this took two tries) and heat it to thicken.  Then, when it's cooled, you add it to creamed butter, sugar and vanilla.  It makes quite a tasty, light, whipped topping.  I spread it on the cooled cupcakes and then sprinkled them with a little freshly grated nutmeg for aesthetics.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Side Trip: Sweden

So, I went to Sweden last night.  I mean, I went to Ikea last night.  Sometimes I get confused because of all the funny product names and that Dragon Tattoo girl buying Ikea furniture that they actually assembled for her (which was good because she was very tiny and not so stable).  Anyway, I went to Ikea to return a lamp that didn't match the lamp in my house at all (I am super perceptive) and then I had to buy a small jar to store tea in, so I figured I'd do that while I was there.  Unfortunately, I didn't really make it to the small jar section because I stopped in their little grocery store department and became intrigued by trying to figure out what Swedish words on packages of unfamiliar products meant.  Most people wouldn't have bought anything, what with the not knowing what the words meant, but I decided it would be an adventure.  (You can go ahead and read that as I have no idea what I bought.)

One thing I am pretty sure I purchased was the dill mustard sauce they use in their restaurant (I was tipped off because it said that in English on the sign), and I bought some smoked salmon (I recognized that because a good Jewish girl recognized lox like it's air).  I also bought this rye bread that you just add water to, shake, pour, rise, bake and it becomes bread.  Supposedly.  Anyway, I got it into my head that I was going to make a potato salad with red potatoes, the dill mustard sauce, the smoked salmon, the random Swedish cheese I bought and the leftover watercress from my trip to England.  So I did.
This is a bad picture of a mystery cheese.  I am also now obsessed with this mystery cheese.  It's delicious.
According to Wikipedia, this cheese is actually called Prastost and it is usually cured in whiskey.  I am not sure if the one I bought was cured in whiskey, but it would explain a lot about last night.  It also translates into Priest cheese, which is a conversation topic on its own.  I did not put this in the potato salad
sauce with mustard and dill (look at me, I can read Swedish!!!)
These things are incredible.  I am inclined to say that the Swedish word for fried might be the same as their word for roasted because there is no way these things have not seen a deep fryer.  That being said, they're DELICIOUS.  I put them in the potato salad too.  
The potato salad!  It has the lox, potatoes, watercress and onions in it, and is tossed
with the mustard dill sauce.  Super Yummy!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Side Trip: English Tea

I made a side trip to England this weekend to visit the Queen and take tea with some friends.  Unfortunately, the Queen was not available (wedding plans and all), but the tea was lovely.

Actually, a friend and I decided that since March is such a long and painful month for anyone who works in a school, that we would break it up a little by having a ladies' tea to celebrate the first day of spring.  It ended up being a beautiful, but cold, day with lots of sunshine.  That, combined with some yummy treats and good friends, was the perfect cure to the March muddiness.

On the Menu:

with Devonshire cream, clotted cream, jam, honey and fresh whipped cream

Smoked Salmon Sandwiches & Cucumber and Watercress Sandwiches
with dill cream cheese and capers & butter (respectively)

Spiced Chocolate Mousse-stuffed Brownies
Victoria Sponge Cake 

Irish Breakfast Tea
Hibiscus Herbal Tea

I made the scones and the brownies.  The strawberry scones were from a recipe I used to make a lot which I like a lot because they have very little butter and call for non-fat yogurt.  I actually used non-fat honey Greek yogurt for half of it and they came out very well.  The currant scones were from a Martha Stewart recipe.  They were NOT low-fat.  They came together easily enough, but the dough was very dry and subsequently, the scones got hard.  We solved that problem by putting them back in the oven about 20 minutes before the tea was due to start, which also made the house smell amazing.

The brownies were a bit more of a potschke.  I made the mousse the night before and was never fully satisfied with how it set.  The brownies were from a no-pudge mix (why not start with something better for you?) which meant that they were very fudgy and therefore very sticky.  I eventually got them together though and dusted the tops and bottoms with a mixture of cocoa powder and powdered sugar so 
they wouldn't stick to finger as much.  Regardless of how they looked, they were very decadent.

I also made some mini Lime Earl Grey Tea Cakes for people to take home as little goody bags.  I used the same recipe that I tried out a few weeks ago, but in smaller form.  Then I topped each one with a caramel-filled chocolate wedge and put them in little bags tied with a red ribbon.  They came out very well, with a light, but delicious flavor.
The tea itself pretty much caused me apoplexy in the store because there were too many options and I couldn't smell them.  Without smelling them I had no idea what more smokey vs. less smokey vs. more rich vs. less rich flavor really meant.  I should take a tea tasting class the way other people take wine tasting classes.  

The event was lovely.  We decorated with gorgeous flowers, and had a wonderful time.  

Victoria Sponge Cake (SO yummy)
homemade lemon curd, brought by a guest
tea sandwiches

Now, one quick stop in Sweden and I promise, I'm heading back on the road to Connecticut!  

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Side Trip: Restaurant week dinner at Rialto

For restaurant week last Thursday, I was offered the chance as fill-in wife for my friend whose wife was out of town to complete a reservation for four at Rialto in the Charles Hotel in Harvard Square.  I took it.  

I had never been to Rialto before, and after seeing their normal menu prices, and normal prix fixe menu price of $70/pp, I understood why.  It was the perfect place at which to take advantage of the $33.11 restaurant week menu.  

I started with the Early spring minestrone… pesto, beans, toasted pine nuts.  It was light and hot and delicious.  Just what I needed for the sore-throat-that-just-won't-end.  The other options that were had at my table were Mozzarella… artichokes, tomatoes, anchovies, mint (sans the anchovies) and Quercia cured ham… asparagus, salsa verde, aged goat cheese.  Everybody raved.  

The main course options were Floppy tomato lasagna… farro pasta, ricotta, basil, Char… avocado, quinoa, crème fraiche (which I had)Smoked and roasted chicken… chorizo, chick peas, peppers, and Roast lamb leg… potatoes, peas, pancetta, grains of paradise.  Two people at the table got the lamb, and one shared, so I got a bite or two.  I thought it was outstanding and the original reason I hadn't gotten it was because I don't normally like lamb.  I'm beginning to realize that maybe I do like lamb if it's prepared the right way.  I though the char was prepared well, but the fish itself didn't have a ton of a flavor.  I originally avoided the lasagna, because who wants to get lasagna at restaurant week?, but after seeing the recipe (it's one of the ones they post on their website), I kind of regret it.  It sounds very interesting.  One person in my party also had the chicken and was quite pleased.

Dessert options were a Chocolate torta with espresso custard filled bomboliniPineapple coconut sorbet,  toasted coconut, chocolate mint sauce, and Caramel macadamia cornmeal crust tart with banana rum sauce.  I was afraid that the chocolate would be too rich and a macadamia tart did nothing for me.  I got the sorbet, which was just what I needed because it was delicious, but not overly filling.  And it came with this cookie that I haven't been able to stop thinking about since I ate it.  It was like being in the tropics with every bite.  (I asked for the recipe and respectfully told they weren't giving it out at this time, but I'm going to keep at it.)

All in all, I was very impressed; I found the food to be incredible and service to be delightful.  If anybody has a rich uncle coming in from out of town, this is definitely a place worthwhile of letting him take you.

Since eating there, I have also become slightly obsessed with their website on which they offer a variety of recipes which I will get around to trying just as soon as I finish this road trip (so in 2013 maybe).  I also saw that they offer cooking classes with the chef, which I think would be something definitely worth doing.  Anyone want to come along? Unfortunately, the next one is 4/16 and I'm already taking a class that day - in chocolate making :-)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Stop 5b: Massachusetts Chocolate Chip Cookie Cake - Take 2

It seems that regardless of how old and practiced you get at something, sometimes you just need your mother to make it come out right.

I went to my parents' house to bake the chocolate chip cookie cake again.  I did this for two reasons.  The first being that they have a better oven than I do (it stays on by itself and you can set a specific temperature as opposed to mine which shuts off whenever it wants and you kind of have to guess between 300 and 350), and second that I wanted another set of eyes on the recipe.  They also have a kitchen scale and since ingredients are given mostly in weight measurements with a cup measure as a secondary, I was able to measure more precisely. 

I don't know if it was one of those things that was the difference between yesterday and today, or if I left something out accidentally yesterday, but the cakes today came out perfectly.  The batter was much wetter and more smooth and spread while baking like it was supposed to.  The result was cookies that looked like cakes rather than cookies that looked really big and are hard to cut.  With the remainder of the icing that finally set enough over night, the cake came together perfectly.

So, in the end, the chocolate chip cookie cake came out spectacularly.

I offer big thanks to my mother and her kitchen.

Now, what to do with the enormous hard cookies that are in pieces all over my counter top - I guess the coworkers are getting an extra treat tomorrow!

As for the road trip.  Vermont is being skipped at the moment because it is the only Passover-friendly recipe in the book, so I figure I might as well wait it out.  And the Boston Creme Pie will be done in May for my grandmother's birthday, since BCP is her favorite.

Next stop: Connecticut Hartford Election Cake (Nutmeg spice cupcakes) 

Stop 5. Massachusetts Chocolate Chip Cookie Cake - the first disaster?

While Massachusetts is typically known for desserts involving cranberries and Boston Creme Pie, Brown decided to honor the home of the original chocolate chip cookie by making it into a cake.  The story of the chocolate chip cookie is that back in the day, Ruth Wakefield, proprietress of the Toll House Bed and Breakfast in Whitman, Mass., ran out of Baker's chocolate when preparing dessert for her guests and substituted it with chunks of semisweet chocolate, I assume thinking they would melt into the cookies.  When they were baked, they hadn't melted completely, but maintained their chocolate blob shape in the cookie.  Boom, chocolate chip cookies were born and the world would never be the same.

So, Brown devised a recipe that makes two large cake-like cookies and fills them with chocolate icing.  Nothing wrong with that at all.  

This stop on the trip was a bit of an extra adventure for me because I've been sick all week with a combination of tuberculosis, pneumonia, the black plague, and whooping cough (I am very rational when I get sick; I get it from my dad), so this is the first thing I've done that has actually involved my getting off the couch (I walked all the way to the grocery store!  All 30 feet!).  It also was an experience in hand-washing.  My hands are VERY clean.  And VERY dry...

To begin I am going to say that my cookie cakes do not look like Warren Brown's cookie cakes.  His look like cakes, with chocolate chips in them.  Mine look like really big cookies.  I'm not complaining; who would complain about really big cookies?  

So, to start I made the batter, which was a pretty basic chocolate chip cookie recipe, though with very little liquid.  The batter came up very crumbly, which I guess was expected.  Before folding the chocolate chips into the batter, I was supposed to toss them in two tablespoons of the liquid mixture and then 1/4 cup of the dry mixture.  I assume this was to coat the chips to keep them from sinking, or melting too much, or really I have no idea what the purpose was, but I did it.  This recipe also called for shortening, which I hardly ever use because of my love for my arteries, but I'm trying to learn how to follow directions.  I imagine the shortening helps the cookie keep its shape rather than all butter which would spread too fast and cook too quickly.  Again, I'm making things up here.

The icing is also much more like a ganache than I expected.  Cream and sugar are brought to a simmer and then poured over bittersweet chocolate, butter and vanilla.  Then you whisk it until smooth and wait for it to thicken.  From the picture in the book, I was expecting something a lot lighter.  Regardless, chocolate, cream and butter, again - who's complaining?  Brown also said to set it aside until it thickens, but he didn't say how long it would take.  I literally had to leave it all day until it got thick enough to even spread and mildly stay in place and it wasn't until I put it in the fridge that it really solidified (the recipe said specifically not to put it in the refrigerator, I was packing the leftovers away.)  After a night in the fridge it definitely has the right consistency and tastes good.

Unfortunately, my cakes really just came out like really big cookies (as I mentioned above), which is fine, but they don't have the least bit of a cake-like consistency and are really hard to cut.  They didn't spread as much as they should and I had to cook them for much longer than it said.  Maybe I should have pulled them out after 24 minutes, but they were barely cooked...

What mine looked like.
What it looked like in the picture in the book.

I think this is going down as the first mishap on the road trip.  I will try it again and see what different results I get. 

Friday, March 11, 2011

Side Trip: Restaurant week dinner at Meritage

I've decided to do a short post about my restaurant week dinner at Meritage after all.  For non-locals, Meritage is a fancy schmancy restaurant in the Boston Harbor Hotel, which is one of the ritzier hotels on the Boston waterfront.  The location earns a super A+, as does the hotel providing free valet to restaurant guests, which kept me from having to T it in my delicate and plague-stricken state.  

We showed up just about on time, I drove right by the valet entrance, pulled over by a couple of fire hydrants and tracked down the valet attendant.  He didn't seem super thrilled, but he took my key.  It was very Boston (A+ for valet guy). I couldn't find the restaurant at first because it is discreetly located at the back of the hotel and up a flight of stairs.  The only distinguishing identifiers being a small brass sign next to the stair case (A+ for concierge who not only told me where the restaurant was, but walked me there  - I was wearing my cute coat though...).

I checked the aforementioned cute coat and the poor coat check girl didn't get a tip because I couldn't figure out where to put it.  I've never been very good at tipping non-waitstaff.  The whole concept confuses me and I'm always convinced I'm doing it wrong, which I suppose is better than not doing it at all...  Oh well.

We were seated at a four-top with three place settings right next to the bar on the opposite side of the restaurant from the windows.  Now, I understand that not everyone can have a table with a view, but I have to admit that I was disappointed.  It was pretty much like being at any other restaurant, and being next to the bar meant much more noticeable waitstaff as well.  Speaking of the waitstaff, the guy was good, but not really around.  He came by and told us about the special menu and wine flight and then disappeared for a noticeable amount of time.  We all knew what we wanted before we even got there, so that was a bit annoying.  

We all ordered the lobster tail appetizer, short ribs main course and then the two of them got the chocolate tasting plate dessert and I got the cheese plate.  Yes, the girl who likes the bake opted for the cheese plate.  I'm one of those...

Everything was fine, tasty even, though I wasn't blown away.  They offered three little bread selections, which were good, and the butter was softened perfectly (these are things I notice).   I am a recent lobster-convert, so I don't have much to compare it to, but it was very good.  The best of the three courses I'd say.  The short ribs were prepared and presented well, but I found the sauce to be a little unflavorful and over-salted.  I was also stricken with the black plague at the point of ingestion though, so might not have had the full use of all of my taste buds.  The cheese plate hit the spot, though the little salad that accompanied it seemed unnecessary, and the tastes of the chocolate taster that I sneaked were quite tasty.  

What I notices the most though, beside the food and the large party of girls seated next to us, was the awkwardness of the waitstaff.  They kept coming by to give us new silverware for each course, but because of the way the table was situated (two on the booth, one in a chair across), there was a lot of reaching.  Now, I don't eat fancy a lot, and I was certainly not raised going to places like this, but there's something to be said for serving from the left and collecting from the right.  It wasn't completely possible because of the situation of the table.  I just felt like I saw more hands than I needed to that night.

All in all, it was good.  The food was good and company lovely.  I doubt I'll ever return of my own fruition, but I wouldn't pass up a chance to accompany someone there, especially to a window table and non-restaurant week menu.  I would, though, love to go back to the hotel in better weather and take advantage of the beautiful views.

I didn't take any pictures of the food because it just seemed tacky :-)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Stop 4. Louisiana King Cake

I decided to take a slight detour away from New England in honor of Fat Tuesday and make the Louisiana King Cake.  This is a cake that is traditionally eaten during Mardi Gras.  There is lots of religious significance and there is supposed to be a little baby Jesus baked in there, but most of that freaked me out, so I just went for the cake.

This cake, it turns out, is not a cake at all.  It's really a filled sweet bread.  You make the dough, let it rise, fill it with a mixture of pecans, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and rum, roll it up, shape it, let it rise again, brush it with an egg-sugar wash, bake it and then top it with a sugar glaze and more decorative sugar.  Are you noticing a trend here?

Filling of pecans, spices and rum
The dough is then rolled out, the filling is spread in and then you fold the dough in half and roll it up.
Here it has been filled, rolled and formed into an oval, which is the traditional shape for a King Cake.
Here it has risen for the second time, been egg-washed and baked.

And here it has been glazed and is ready for the application of the decorative sugars.
The application of the decorative sugars are what has allowed this cake to be the thing most likely to be featured on the Cake Wrecks website more than anything else that has ever come out of my kitchen.  I'm mildly ashamed, but if you Google King Cake online, they all kind of look like this, so I guess it's not all bad...

This will be eaten at work, assuming anybody's brave enough to go near it.  Let alone cut it...  I'll post  results in the update.

Next stop: Massachusetts Chocolate Chip Cookie Pie.  Who wants in?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Stops 2 and 3. New Hampshire and Rhode Island: Pumpkin Pancakes and Johnnycakes

Since the recipes from New Hampshire and Rhode Island are both breakfast foods, I decided to throw a pancake breakfast for the family.  I am not much of a pancake person, so I had to enlist them for tasting troops.

For those of you who haven't had johnnycakes, they're actually more than just a reference to The Sopranos.  Johnnycakes are basically pancakes made with cornmeal instead of flour.  They go way back to the original European settlers who basically made everything out of cornmeal, which, when you think about the fact that they had to hand grind the corn, was pretty impressive.  Brown says in the book that the theory is that the name actually came from the name journeycakes, which makes sense since they can also be cooled and eaten at room temperature and therefore would have made a hearty cake to take on a journey.  I've found that modern johnnycakes vary greatly depending on where you get them (the ones at the Town Deluxe Diner in Watertown are to die for).  Brown's recipe is pretty standard, cornmeal, water, milk.

I started with the pumpkin pancakes and found that they really did yield nine, which is what it said in the recipe.  It wasn't really enough, but I had run out of potato starch, so after that we moved on to the johnnycakes.

I made the pancakes on the griddle with cooking spray and they worked fine.  The johnnycakes were done in the frying pan and needed a LOT of butter.  I also did one batch of johnnycakes with the optional egg and one without.  The batch with the egg came together a lot better as a batter, cooked more evenly and were a lot easier to flip.

Unfortunately, I made this at my parents' house and I forgot my camera, so the pictures are sparse.

Pumpkin pancake batter resting
Pumpkin pancakes served
Johnnycakes in the pan

Johnnycakes on the plate with a pitcher of maple syrup
My most discerning customer munching away on a
pumpkin pancake.  Turns out they make good finger food...
Next stop: we're making a side trip to Louisiana to celebrate Mardi Gras with a King Cake

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Stop 1. Maine Whoopie Pies

Ladies and Gentlemen, the road trip has begun.  Thanks to my parents, I have the perfect shirt to wear on this adventure (one that I have chopped up and re-sewn, but nonetheless), and there is a department meeting tomorrow, so what better way to kick off this road trip than feeding whoopie pies to a bunch of disgruntled librarians?

And so, we begin our trip in the far northeastern state of Maine where they are known for blueberries, snow and whoopie pies.

Now, in the book, Warren Brown acknowledges that it is true that the whoopie pie most likely originated in Pennsylvania Dutch country, so all you Pennsylvanians, don't get in a huff.  He states though, that regardless of this fact, at this point they are ubiquitously MAINE.

I followed the recipe to a T, and these babies came out perfectly.  They're all even almost the same size, thanks to my "trigger-release food scooper" (his words, not mine.  He also referred to a toothpick as a wooden skewer, but we'll let that go).  The cakes are fluffy and moist and the icing is incredible.  Like fresh, warm, homemade marshmallow fluff.  And now that I know how to make it, I fear for my waist line.

From this first stop on my road trip, I did learn a number of things.  1. Superfine sugar really is SUPERFINE, which means it's even more difficult to clean up when you dump it all over yourself.  2. Shower AFTER baking next time.  3. Cream of Tartar isn't really all that necessary (OK, I lied earlier when I said I followed the recipe to a T.  I didn't have cream of tartar, so I left it out and I left out the amaretto cause I think it's gross) if you're willing to put in the extra arm work.  4. Following the baker's notes really pays off.  In this case, Warren Brown pointed out that this frosting recipe, which involves whipping egg whites and sugar over a pot of simmering water, needs to be done with a handheld mixer and that if you don't have one, you should be prepared to whisk straight for five minutes.  My arm muscles not being what they used to be (?), I borrowed a handheld mixer from our home ec teacher at school.  What a difference it made!  They're great little gadgets, I might just have to get myself one.

Ingredients ready to go for the cakes.

cakes ready to go into the oven

batch one out of the oven

Ingredients for the frosting.  Note here how I used my double boiler.  Most of America seems to think it's as good to float a bowl precariously on top of a pot of simmering water, but I say, if you've got a handle, you might as well use it!

I didn't realize how well this picture would come out. 

Marshmallow-y goodness!

Cakes waiting to be frosted and sandwiched



And all packed up and ready for school!
So far, the road trip is off to a great start.  I'm glad you all are coming along and happy for those of you who get to taste these gems tomorrow.  

Next stop: New Hampshire Pumpkin Pancakes and Rhode Island Johnnycakes

*I am happy to say that the whoopie pies were a grand success.  They participated at a librarians meeting, social studies department meeting and afternoon snack at my parents'.  I think the greatest compliment I received was when my 2 1/2 year old niece turned to me (after going in for her second piece) and said, "I LIKE this!"  Grammy spent a good few minutes wiping marshmallow off her face that afternoon... (I wish I had a picture - I'll have to make them again!)