Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Wine and Cheese: 6 Tips for Building the Perfect Holiday Cheese Plate

I was sent products by Mary's Crackers and Mionetto free of charge. All opinions are my own and I am not affiliated with any of the companies mentioned in this post.

Forget the crudite, forget the charcuterie. If I show up to your holiday party and there is no cheese on your table, I'm leaving. And I brought a damn good White Elephant gift, which I am now keeping for myself. There is just nothing quite like a well curated cheese plate, and I'm not talking one of those pre-sliced, plastic wrapped deals that looks like they just dyed the same block of cheese product different colors. A good cheese plate needs variety, not just in flavor, but in texture. Hard cheese, soft cheese, fresh cheese, aged cheese. Like a wedding. "Something old, something new, something borrowed, something bleu."

I know, it can be intimidating to put together a really nice cheese plate yourself. But I have been doing it for years (I had a friend who once admitted mine was the only house he'd go to outside his own because he knew I'd always have good cheese on hand) and I am here to give you a few tips to help please all the cheese lovers at your next gathering.

1) Aged cheese, like Goudas, Parmesans, and Cheddars are the most common and approachable hard cheeses, but they do get pricey. Good news is, these cheeses are meant to be nibbled on in very small quantities, as they pack quite a punch, so you can get away with smaller wedges. Do not slice these cheeses! Break them into small hunks using a cheese spade. That way you don't destroy the crunchy calcium crystals that give aged cheeses their distinctive texture. Stay simple with something like a 5 year gouda or an authentic Parmesan (produced in Parma, Italy) and you can't go wrong.

2) Fresh cheeses are great for people who like cheese, but aren't fans of the funkier varieties. Fresh mozzarella and burrata are easy enough to find these days, but can be quite messy on a cheese board. I love putting out a bit of goat cheese, since it is sliceable and spreadable, but less of a mess.
Montchevre in particular makes a wide variety of sweet and savory flavors that are excellent. I highly recommend the Honey variety, as it's simple, yet effective. These are perfect for those who prefer to eat their cheese on crackers.

3) Speaking of crackers, CHOOSE CAREFULLY. A lot of flavored crackers will overpower your skillfully selected cheeses. You want something that will function both as a palate cleanser without drying out your mouth and as a vehicle for cheese without shattering into a million pieces after one bite. I recently tried a few varieties from Mary's Gone Crackers and I really appreciate how their extraordinary texture works with cheese. They are jam packed with seeds and whole grains, giving them a lovely crisp snap, but also the strength to not crumble to bits. They are also made with rice, making them gluten free! My money's on the Original flavor, the Black Pepper, the Classic Super Seed, or the Everything Super Seed. 

4) Back to the cheese; don't be afraid of the funk. No, I'm not talking about stinky cheeses. I'm talking about funky flavors. Cheese purists will turn their noses up at the thought of anything infiltrating their cheese's natural flavoring, but adding a bit of something something to a cheese can help make it more accessible to the cheese novices in the crowd. Instead of a simple brie, why not go with something like this Champignon Mushroom from Germany, which is a rinded soft cheese with mushroomy umami flavor. Or instead of a standard cheddar, how about on with truffles in it? Too many savory cheeses on your plate? Go for one of the many varieties of white stilton with fruit in it. I've seen everything from blueberry to mango to apricot, and I have adored them all.

5) Accompaniments are essential. If you really want to make it all about the cheese, I say skip any kind of cured meats all together. Same with nuts. If you want to also have meats or nuts, make those their own things and place them far away from the cheeses so people aren't as inclined to eat everything together. If you're lucky enough to have a decent cheese department at your local grocery store, you may find a variety of unique jams and spreads that will be great accessories to your cheese. Get at least one sweet, one savory, and acidic spread. I like to present things like slices of quince jelly, fig butter, and bacon jam. Just like the crackers, your accompaniments should not only work with the cheese, but function as palate cleansers between bites of cheese. 

6) This is the big one: Wine. What is a good cheese plate without a good bottle of wine to accompany it? Now, I am no wine expert by any means, but all I've ever heard from wine directors and sommeliers is that the most important rule is to drink what you like. The first thing I personally reach for when eating cheese is a sparkling wine. A bright, bubbly, slightly acidic wine really helps to cut through the fat of the cheese and prepare you for each new bite. I really like Mionetto Prosecco Extra Dry because it's affordable, but is still an excellent quality, not to mention completely organic, and it has a subtle floral flavor that I think works really well with most cheeses. If you would rather go all out, I would highly suggest visiting the nearest Wine Cellar location and having them help you pick out a variety of reds, whites, and blushes that will please a crowd. I recently stopped into the Schaumburg location and did a little in store tasting, where I fell in love with wonderful Chardonnay from La Voute and a red blend from Valcatrina that will both be served with my holiday cheese plate. Seriously, there are so many deals to be had at The Wine Cellar that I was actually able to buy 6 bottles of wine for under $75!

And that's it! Now go out there and celebrate Jesus with Cheesus!

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Thanksgiving Bacon Bourbon Burger Stuffing with White Castle Sliders

I have received monetary compensation from White Castle for the writing of this post. All opinions stated are my own and have not been influenced by or represent those of White Castle.

I've been doing "Friendsgiving" since before it was a buzzword. My very first Thanksgiving in Chicago was spent watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade with my roommates while preparing an epic feast for all our orphaned city friends. It was the first time I'd ever spent Thanksgiving away from my mom, but also the first time I'd ever cooked a turkey on my own. It was thrilling and sad and joyful and raucous all at once. After that, I started a tradition of doing an all day Thanksgiving potluck for anyone who needed or wanted a place to be. I would spend the whole day cooking various side dishes and desserts so that anyone who had to work that day (a lot of my friends were employed in the service industry) could stop by for a plate of food, a glass of wine, and a hug.

These days, I like to carry on that tradition of cooking up a storm of turkey and carbs with friends as well as practicing my newest tradition; doing a virtual Thanksgiving with my mom, where we FaceTime and eat our traditional meal together while watching Netflix. What can I say? I'm a modern kinda gal!

While I can get pretty protective about my Thanksgiving menu choices, I've always thought that Friendsgiving is my time to get a little weird. What better way to work out a new recipe than to experiment on your friends and either revel in the gastronomic success, or laugh about the failure for years to come (nary a year goes by that I am not reminded about the "Caramel Carrots" incident)? This sort of experimentation has brought great new things onto my Thanksgiving table, like loaded baked potato mashed potatoes, chestnut and butternut squash risotto, and crispy parmesan brussels sprouts. But the one thing I've never been able to create a satisfactory version of myself is stuffing/dressing.

Recently, a very interesting email landed in my inbox. White Castle, sovereigns of the Slider Kingdom, wrote to me with a challenge: turn their iconic sliders into Thanksgiving stuffing. At first, I shook my head in bewilderment, but as I started to mull it over, I realized it was actually pretty genius! People put sausage in stuffing, right? So how different would seasoned ground beef be? The buns obviously would serve as an excellent bread base. And the signature grilled onions that top White Castle's burgers would definitely not be out of place. Everyone I talked about this idea with had the same reaction as me; initial skepticism, and then a dawning realization of just how good it could be. A few herbs, some chicken stock, and boom! Slider Stuffing!

My homeland of Arizona only got their first White Castle last month, so my first experience with the slammable tiny burgers was fittingly during an East Coast college road trip with friends. I have such fond memories of snacking on burgers as we drove into New York City for a weekend of fun, and it was those memories that flooded back to me as I plotted out my stuffing recipe.

White Castle's base recipe is pretty simple: 10-12 sliders (fresh from the restaurant or the grocery store freezer isle), sage, thyme, pepper, celery, and chicken stock. Not being a big fan of celery, I decided to swap that out for some diced green apple. I also decided to add some crisped bacon in honor of my breaded bacon recipe, which I literally have to make for every celebration or party. And what goes with bacon and apples? Bourbon! Thus was born the Bacon Bourbon Burger Stuffing, my newest Friendsgiving success story and the best stuffing I've ever made that didn't involve a box or a canister!

Want to try making this stuffing for your own holiday? Keep an eye on my Instagram, because later this week I'll be giving away a White Castle gift card to one lucky follower!

You can find White Castle's stuffing recipe here, or scroll down for my version!

Bacon Bourbon Burger Stuffing 

10-12 White Castle® Original Frozen Sliders, let to thaw for an hour before use (you can also use fresh, but make sure you ask for no pickles)
1 large green apple, cored and diced
6 strips thick cut bacon
1 1/4 teaspoons thyme, ground
1 1/2 teaspoons sage, ground
3/4 teaspoon black pepper, coarsely ground
3/4 cup chicken broth
1/4 cup bourbon
1/3 cup of halved pecans for garnish

Cut the bacon into small pieces and saute over medium high heat until crispy. Remove the pieces and drain them on a paper towel. In a large mixing bowl, tear the Sliders into small pieces and add the diced apple, crisped bacon, and seasonings. Add the chicken broth and bourbon slowly while tossing the ingredients. Add everything to a casserole dish and bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes. Top with pecans and serve.

To stuff the ingredients into the cavity of the turkey, prepare ingredients as noted above, but reduce chicken broth to 1/4 cup and the bourbon to 1 tablespoon, then cook as you normally would. 

Makes about 9 cups (enough for a 10-to-12-pound turkey). Note: Allow 1 Slider for each pound of turkey, which will be equal to 3/4 cup of stuffing per pound.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Raw Spice Bar Re-vamp Review

Some products mentioned in this post were provided by Raw Spice Bar for free in exchange for an honest review.

A few years ago, I was contacted by a wonderful subscription service called Raw Spice Bar. I was so impressed with the quality they offered that after sampling one month's worth of their spices and recipes, I purchased a year's subscription for my mom as a Christmas present. Now, with the holidays fast approaching, I was excited to hear that they had recently revamped their service and custom spice blends.

Previously, Raw Spice Bar would send subscribers mystery spice blends in small portions along with recipes that showcased the spices. The only problem was that the spices generally came packaged in small resealable bags, which weren't the most convenient way to store them for later use.

Raw Spice Bar has now re-vamped their service and packaging to be more user friendly and customizable. Customers will be prompted to take a culinary personality test of sorts, and from there will be recommended various spice blends that would be most useful to them from the 150+ varieties they carry. Then, there are options for how frequently you would like to receive the spices (once a month all the way up to once a year). The spices now come flat tins that are easy to open, close, and store, which are clearly labeled, and have clear lids so as to see the contents. Don't want to commit to a subscription? You can also buy the spices a la carte from their shop! You can pick up any number of spices, herbs, or blends in sizes ranging from 1 oz to 10 lbs.

I was lucky enough to try three of Raw Spice Bar's most popular spice blends: the Apple Pie Spice, the BBQ Pork Rib Dry Rub, and the Taco Seasoning. Of course, I had to experiment with these blends using some classic brunch dishes.

For the Apple Pie Spice, I decided I wanted to do some stuffed pancakes. I used an English style pancake (a recipe for which you can find in one of the oldest Bunny and Brandy posts) and then set about making my filling. I peeled and cut 4 Honeycrisp apples into one inch chunks and the tossed them in a generous amount of the spice blend. One unique thing about this spice blend is the addition of grains of paradise, a small peppercorn-like spice that not only added flavor, but texture to my apples. I sauted the apples in some butter until they were soft all the way through. My apples were particularly sweet, so I didn't need to add any sugar to the mix. I then took a block of room temperature cream cheese and whipped it with a little vanilla extract and sugar to make a topping for the pancakes. Since English pancakes are pretty pliable, I was able to stuff them with the spiced apples very easily. I really enjoyed this spice blend because it gave the very sweet apples an almost savory quality, and was definitely more complex than adding just standard cinnamon and nutmeg.

For the Pork BBQ Dry Rib Rub, I wanted to re-create a dish I made when I first tested out Raw Spice Bar's products; spice roasted root veggies. I cut up some small yellow potatoes, rainbow carrots, cremini mushrooms, and a red onion, then coated them in vegetable oil and the BBQ spice blend, then I roasted them for about 45 minutes at 450. The result was outstanding. This particular spice blend has a nice subtle heat that really worked well with the hearty veggies, but it also had a sweetness that was complimented by the onions and carrots. Again, very complex and not your average BBQ seasoning.

Lastly, I decided to use the Taco Seasoning somewhat conventionally by adding it to some ground beef. One thing of note is that these spice blends are salt free so that you can add salt to your own taste. I cooked up a quick omelette and sprinkled it with a Mexican cheese blend. I then topped it off with the seasoned beef, some fresh tomato, and diced white onion to create what I call a White People Taco Omelette, a loving tribute to the Tex Mex style tacos, covered in orange cheese, sour cream, and shredded lettuce that I grew up around in Arizona. I was surprised with how subtle this spice blend was and actually wished I'd added a bit more to the meat. But the flavor was definitely much better tasting than the chemical tasting taco seasoning one can buy at the grocery store. I tasted mostly the coriander, but the addition of several different kinds of chilies gave it a really well rounded flavor over all.

For me, Raw Spice Bar is still killing the spice game, and I really appreciate their new stackable storage containers. The thing I love most about this kind of service is that it really encourages me to step outside my flavor box and start thinking creatively. And for someone like me, who gets nervous about how to properly season their food, that's really saying something!

Monday, October 14, 2019

Chicago Gourmet 2019 Recap: A Glutenous Timeline

Another year, another fabulous Chicago Gourmet. In the past I've come at this recap in a number of ways; giving you my best of, giving helpful tips of how to navigate the festival, demonstrating food trends based on the dishes being served, etc. This year, I figured I'd try something a little different and give you as much of a behind the scenes peek into what my day covering the biggest food festival of the year is really like. So, got your walking shoes on? Good, because it's pretty darn damp out here from all the rain. Let's go!

12:00 pm- The festival is officially open! While everyone else gets their barrings/heads for the Supreme Lobster tent, I spot the return of an old friend: the Four Corner's tent. In years past, they've been my go-to first stop because they are always ready and raring to go while other tents are still plating. This year they were featuring Carnitas Tacos and customizable mini margaritas from Federales.

12:15 pm- After wandering around for a bit and taking some atmosphere shots, I spotted Christina from Chritiques and we sauntered over to the Mariano's Tasting Pavilion to get our first loaded plates of the day. Best of the Tent: Brian Jupiter's (Ina Mae/Frontier) Smoked Boar Tacos and Michael Galen (Dusek's/Punch House) Spice Roasted Cauliflower with lemon tahini, walnut and pomegranate. This tent also showcased two odd, but fun brand features. Murray's Cheese handed out tiny curated cheese plates with tasting cards, while Fanny May had some of their signature chocolates. At least Fanny May's goodies I could shove in my bag for later, but I'm not gonna lie... the tiny cheese plate was an odd choice for an event like this.

12:30 pm- The decision was made between Christina and I to hit up the Keeping Up with the Konfections dessert tent while the line was short. Eli's Cheesecake really surprised me with their feature of a new product: tiny goat's milk cheese cake bites, called Cubies (because they're tiny cubes!) drizzled with honey. I would have eaten the entire bag if I hadn't been pacing myself!

12:45 pm- The US Foods tent was in full swing by this point, so we joined the growing line. The standout here was Giancarlo Valera's (Tanta) shrimp cebiche, a dish I'd actually had the opportunity to learn how to make a few weeks ago. Funnily enough, raw seafood dishes used to be an overwhelmingly common sight at Chicago Gourmet, but this was the only one I encountered this year!

1:00 pm- Christina and I bid our farewells as she headed off to meet some friends, and I popped over to the Thai Select tent. Wipavadee Iamsakul from Kinnaree Thai Kitchen served my favorite dish here: some skewered pork with a fresh salad on the side. The gals at Siam Rice Thai Cuisine were NOT kidding around when they said their Thai Basil Chicken was a LITTLE spicy, so I immediately headed off to some of the smaller tents in search of liquid refreshment.

1:15 pm- Fever Tree bottled mixers had some lovely, refreshing cocktails at their table. Absolute Vodka was featuring their new line, Absolute Juice, mixed with sparkling water. Sparkling cocktails seemed to be all over the place. I'm sure it had nothing to do with the country's obsession with White Claw this past summer...

1:30 pm Quick stop at Tao's tend to sample their Peking Duck Rolls was totally worth it. Then I headed over to the Gardens of the Galaxy Veggie tent, because the amount of heavy meat dishes I'd been given to far was already starting to wear me down. Sandy Chen (Koi/Le Sud/Club 77) had some adorable veggie sushi rolls with the different colored wrappings denoting different flavors.

1:45 pm- Started to hit a wall, so I grabbed cold brew from La Colombe's tent and headed to the Gordon Food Service tent for last round from the heavy hitters. God bless the volunteer working this tent who briefed everyone waiting in line on what dishes were inside with the detail of a fine dining server. After skirt steak, octopus, beef cheek, and smoked salmon mousse, It was the Jackfruit and Papaya Noodle Salad from Jonathan Meyer at Flora and Fauna that I found most delicious, if only because it wasn't meat or bread.

2:00 pm- Time to stop into the Choose Chicago media tent for a quick break. Unfortunately for me, the media tent had a table full of delicious looking food! I was in such a daze at that point (from all I'd eaten and drunk, but also because the humidity had drastically risen), so I don't seem to have made a note about what the food was or who made it... but I did take pictures. Because that's just muscle memory for me at this point. See pretty food, take pictures of it. Done.

2:30 pm- This is always the time I head to the mainstage to take in a few demos while the tasting tents change over for the afternoon session. Sarah Grueneberg and Fabio Viviani made for a delighful pair of pasta making Top Chefs, and it was a total thrill to get to see Masaharu Morimoto expertly butcher a 130 pound tuna like it was something he does every day. Actually, he probably does do that every day.

3:30 pm- Time to get back to eating! First stop was the hidden gem S Rosen's Sandwich tent, where Julius Russell (A Tale of Two Chefs) had the fanciest grilled cheese sandwich I've ever seen, packed with slow roasted short rib, truffle oil, and caramelized shallots.

3:45 pm- Back over to the Mariano's tent. This time, it was the Duck Fat Hot Dogs from Kevin Hickey (The Duck Inn) that caught my attention. Also catching my attention was my good friend Mihaela from Chicago Loves Panini, who tagged along with me for the final rounds of the festival.

4:00 pm- Another trip to the US Foods tent. Two things here had people talking; Brian Jupiter's Gator Sausage sandwich, which initiated many Chance the Snapper comments, and Carlos Gaytan's Chicken Mole Tacos. This was the first taste many of us had had of Carlos's food from his new restaurant Tzuco, a tribute to the cuisine of his home town.

4:15 pm- Last big tent of the day; a return to the Gordon Food Service pavillion, where the amazing volunteer lady was still giving detailed menu spiels to the waiting crowd. Though I was full, I was so happy to get a taste of the Pork Belly and pork shoulder with arugula slaw and grape must from Louie Alexakis at Avli Tavern, because he has always brought such stellar dishes in previous years.

4:30 pm- A few more walk abouts before the whole festival started to shut down resulted in an adorable souvenir mug from the Iichiko Sochu tent, a bite of a stellar Japanese egg salad sandwich topped with caviar from Guy Meikle at Heritage Restaurant and Caviar Bar, and some much needed Resilient juice from Natalie's Cold Pressed Juices.

And thus ended another stellar, ridiculous, glutinous, entertaining, and exhausting year at Chicago Gourmet! Check out my Facebook page for all the photographic proof of my hunger. Until next year!

Friday, September 27, 2019

DIY Egg Bites: Instant Pot vs. Sous Vide with Nando's Peri Peri

I was sent products from Nando's free of charge in exchange for an honest review.

It is a universal fact at this point that the sous vide egg bites are the single best item on the Starbucks food menu. I've personally been obsessed with them even since they first premiered. There is just something so pleasing about their unique velvety smooth texture. As far as fast food breakfast options, there really is nothing like them out there at the moment.

This is perhaps why the internet has been positively flooded with recipes for these darn things. The most common form they seem to take are the versions made in specifically designed silicon molds in an Instant Pot. I actually had received one of these molds for Christmas last year because my mother had remembered me raving about the dynamic little protein bombs. But ever since I got a sous vide machine that actually fits inside my Instant Pot, I've been curious about whether you actually needed to use a sous vide to achieve that distinctive texture. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what I set out to test one morning.

First, I started out by making one egg mixture base to be used in both tests. I scrambled 6 eggs, then added 1/4 a cup of softened cream cheese (many recipes use cottage cheese, and reportedly, so does the original Starbucks recipe) and some salt. I then divided the base into two batches; to the first batch I added some crisped and crumbled bacon and some shredded cheddar cheese, and to the second batch I added some Swiss cheese and spinach I had sauted and squeezed the moisture out of. Then, wanting to kick things up a notch, I grabbed some Nando's Peri-Peri Sauce.

Now, if you've been around here for any length of time, you'll know that I am a bit of a wuss when it comes to spice. However, I make an exception for Nando's Peri-Peri. Ever since they came to Chicago, I have been obsessed with their range of sauces, all made with African bird's eye chilies, AKA peri-peri. They do have heat, don't get me wrong, but they also have a bright vinegary base that gives them a really well rounded flavor, especially when slathered all over Nando's famous South African chicken. The sauces have recently become available in grocery stores all across Chicago, but they are also available through Amazon.

Since I am a spice wuss at heart, I opted to use two of the sauces from the medium range to kick up my egg bites. For the spinach and Swiss, I added the regular Medium Peri-Peri sauce, and for the bacon and cheddar, I added the Garlic Medium, (my personal fav). For the Instant Pot version, I poured the mixtures into the individual cavities of the silicon mold, about 3/4 of the way full, put on the lid, and set it inside the Instant Pot on top of the trivet with 1 cup of water in the bottom. I then set the Instant Pot for 10 minutes. For the sous vide, I poured the mixtures into some jam jars and made sure they were sealed tight. I then put them in the water bath and set my circulator to 172 degrees for an hour.

The Results:

Instant Pot Version: The eggs ended up expanding more than I thought they would and popped the lid off the mold. Next time, I might try sealing it with some tin foil. The flavor of these egg bites was great. Lots of vinegar and spice from the Nando's sauce coming through, saltiness from the cheeses, etc. The texture was good... but not like the originals. They just didn't have that same silky, velvety, luxurious mouthfeel. They were more along the lines of a steamed or baked egg... which is pretty much what they were. Still, using the mold made them very easy to pick up and eat as well as pack for on the go.

The Sous Vide Version
: This cooking method ended up dulling the flavors just a tinsy bit, so next time I try this, I probably would add a bit more of the Nando's sauce. The texture was almost spot on, though because of the amount of fillings I had added, the eggs didn't quite hold together like the Starbucks ones. It ended up being easier to scoop them out of the jar with a spoon. Still portable, but maybe not ideal for everyone to have to carry their breakfast in a glass jar with a metal lid. Still, the eggs were perfectly silky and pleasing. It was also a pain in the butt to clean the jars afterwards, even though I had oiled them to try and avoid the eggs sticking to the glass. But this might have happened because my jars were textured on the inside, and I only filled them about half way.

Verdict: The Instant Pot version was definitely quicker to do and tasted fine, but if I were to do these again, which I probably will, I would try to perfect the sous vide version, because the texture was just so close. A few less add-ins, perhaps, smaller jars, and using cottage cheese instead of cream cheese would be my next experiment. I'd also like to try a shredded chicken and sweet onion version with the Nando's Lemon and Herb sauce.

So what do you think? Would you go through the hassle of sous vide just to get that addictive texture at home? Or would you opt for the convenience of the Instant Pot method? Let me know in the comments below!

Friday, August 2, 2019

Peach Bourbon Brown Butter Cake with Nielsen-Massey Vanillas

I was sent products from Nielsen-Massey Vanillas in order to facilitate the writing of this post. All opinions are my own.

It's odd that some people think of baking as a winter time activity. I mean, I get it; no one wants to unnecessarily warm up their house in the middle of a heat wave by having the oven on.  But it's a real shame, because there's so many flavors that are only available during the summer that work so well in baked goods, not to mention we can all use a little stress relief at all times of the year.

You've seen the title of this post, so you know what I'm going to say next: peaches. Baked goods with peaches are absolutely fantastic. In general, I find that stone fruits are some of my favorite things to bake with, because their flavors are so complex and vivid when the fruits are fresh, but even more so when cooked. And you can't exactly cook with fresh peaches in the dead of winter, so making a delicious summertime treat is really your only option if you don't want to use frozen or canned fruits.

Recently my friends at Nielsen-Massey Vanillas released two limited edition vanilla extracts and asked if I'd like to try one of them out. I opted for the Indonesian Vanilla because it was purported to have woody, smokey notes, and that it worked well in high heat/slow bake recipes. The woody/smokey notes immediately made me think of grilling peaches, which was just the thing to compliment the recipe I had in mind.

What did I have in mind you ask? Again... it's right there in the title of the post, so you pretty much know already. Basically, I wanted to try making a take on the Midwest favorite; Gooey Butter Cake. I'd never had this finger-licking treat before I moved to Chicago, but now I've been well educated on this bake sale classic, and it is well loved for a reason. The reason, of course, is BUTTER. But even classics can stand to be improved a little.

The only thing  that has always bothered me about gooey butter caked was that typically, a boxed yellow cake mix is used to make the crust. Why not make it from scratch? It's just as easy as using the box, and you can have more control over the quality of the ingredients. 

I also decided to use brown butter in all elements of this cake to give it a nuttier, more toasty flavor, that I thought would really compliment the Indonesian vanilla. This step by step guide from Nielsen-Massey Vanillas's Better Your Bake series perfectly demonstrates how to achieve brown butter without burning it, which is something I used to struggle with. 

Lastly, I decided that I wanted to top my cake with a richly flavored, slightly tart peach puree in order to off-set the sometimes cloying sweetness of the cake and filing. The addition of some good bourbon and roasted cinnamon is absolutely gilding the lily with even more deliciousness, pushing this cake into a more adult-centric flavor profile. If I wanted to sound pretentious, I might call it "elevated nostalgia."

Peach Bourbon Brown Butter Cake

For the Crust:
1/2 cup (8 tablespoons or 1 stick) of butter, melted and browned
1 cup sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
2 large eggs
3 cups cake flour
a pinch of salt

For the Filing: 
1 package of softened cream cheese (8 oz)
1/2 cup (8 tablespoons or 1 stick) of butter, melted and browned
2 large eggs
1 cup sugar
a pinch of salt

For the topping:
1/2 cup (8 tablespoons or 1 stick) of butter, melted and browned
4 large peaches, pitted and cut into slices
1/2 cup good bourbon
1 teaspoon roasted cinnamon
a pinch of salt
sugar to taste
4 sheets of gelatin, bloomed in warm water

Pre-heat oven to 375. 

First, make the crust: In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, vanilla, eggs, and brown butter. Mix until it forms a dough (you may need to kneed it with your hands. If it's too dry and not coming together, add a tiny bit of milk or water until it becomes a cohesive dough). Press the dough into a non stick or greased 9x13 pan, forming an even base and bringing the dough up half way on the sides of the pan.

Next, make the filling: In a medium bowl, add the cream cheese, butter, eggs, vanilla, sugar, and salt, and mix with a hand mixer until everything is combined and smooth. Pour the filling over the crust and smooth out the top. Bake for about an hour, or until the edges of the crust are just starting to brown and the filing is set but still slightly jiggly. Set aside to cool.

For the topping: Add the peaches to the butter in a medium sauce pan over medium high heat and cook until the peaches have become extremely soft and rendered out most of the juice, about 15 minutes. Add in the bourbon, vanilla, cinnamon, and salt and let cook an additional 10 minutes. Take the mixture off the heat and using an immersion blender, puree the peaches completely. Taste the mixture and add sugar as needed (it's best to keep the puree a little on the tart side). Put the mixture back on the heat and add the gelatin sheets, then stir until they have completely dissolved. Pour the puree mixture over the top of the cooled cake and make sure to smooth it out into an even layer. Refrigerate for a few hours or over night to set the topping, cut into squares, and serve.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Cookbook Review: Mark Bittman's Dinner for Everyone and Collaboration with Peapod (Discount Code!)

I was given a copy of Dinner for Everyone as well as provided with ingredients from Peapopd free of charge in exchange for an honest review of my experience with the book. Use the code BUNNY20 to get $20 off any Peapod order of $75 or more and 60 days free delivery.

My mother has an extensive cookbook collection. As a child, I remember marveling at her cabinet full of huge and classic tomes , full of delicious things. She loves to flip through them like they're coffee table photography books, searching for dinner ideas. I've sort of inherited her love for cookbooks, but my cooking style is a little different; where as my mom will follow a recipe to a T at least three times before even thinking of altering it, I tend to look at cookbooks more as outlines for experimentation rather than strict instructions. My rule of thumb is, "I see what you're saying, but..."

The problem with my style is that sometimes things go awry, and the tendency is to blame the recipe. "How dare you not turn out as expected after I altered your delicate ecosystem!" The thing about recipe creators is they tend to test their recipes rigorously to make sure the result is consistent time and time again. Sometimes I change things because I like a bit more garlic, or because I'm not a huge fan of herbacious flavors, but sometimes I try to make a thing vegan or gluten free when it is clearly not meant to be, and that is where things tend to go wrong.

This is why a cookbook like Mark Bittman's Dinner for Everyone and expertly crafted meal kits by Peapod are great for not only culinary jerks like me, but for traditional recipe followers. Peapod, the number one home grocery delivery service, has partnered with Mark Bittman to create two shopable recipes from his book, as well as a meal kit for one of his recipes. The meal kit was created to give customers everything they need to prepare Mark's Pho with Black Tea Broth, all perfectly portioned and prepped. At only $25 for four servings, I was a little skeptical at just how much food this kit would produce, but the moment I started pulling fresh ingredients out of the bag, I got very excited. You don't even need the cookbook to make the pho, since the meal kit comes with a laminated recipe sheet!

The two shoppable recipes are for Mark's Oven Roasted Salmon and a Veggie Paella. These two recipes show up on the Peapod website, followed by a list of ingredients available on the site for easy delivery to your door step. This way, shoppers can make sure they have everything they need in one convenient spot in order to prepare the recipes, but also are able to choose ingredients according to their tastes, dietary restrictions, or budget. This was such a cool feature! I really hope Peapod does even more of these shoppable recipes in the future, even though it did sort of enable my culinary jerk inclinations (I ended up subing out the red peppers and eggplant in the veggie paella with zucchini and mushrooms, but the resulting dish was still very tasty).

Now, let's talk about the book, which features 100 classic dishes, all prepared 3 different ways; an easy preparation version, a vegan version, and a no holds barred luxury version, meant for company. I absolutely loved being able to not only pick a dish that sounded interesting, but to pick how I wanted to prepare it! Cooking for myself for the weekend? The easy prep is ideal. Ate too many cupcakes last week and now having guilt issues? Time to try some vegan meals. Unexpected visit from a blogger friend? Time to pull out all the stops with a real show stopper.

When I first received the book, I immediately gravitated towards the "Breakfast for Dinner" section... for obvious reasons. The best part was that Mr. Bittman had split that section into two: savory and sweet. I picked three different dishes from these two sections and challenged myself to prepare them all EXACTLY as they had been written so that I could get an idea of how good these recipes really were. First up, I tried the easy prep savory recipe: a take on a Welsh Rarebit. This was a very simple recipe that really was very quick and easy to prepare, and resulted in a pretty darn delicious dish (though I may have eaten it for actual breakfast and not dinner, but shhhh, don't tell anyone).

Next, I moved on to the sweet vegan recipe: Quinoa and Blueberry Griddle Cakes. Sadly, I had less success with this recipe. The prep was very simple, but try as I might, I just could not get the quinoa to the texture Mark described (he said it should resemble mashed potatoes). I tried everything: cooking it for double the time, cooking it with double the water, letting it sit over night, but the grains refused to burst. It must have just been a particularly resilient type of quinoa! I forged ahead and tried to make the griddle cakes anyway, but once I tried to flip them, they just refused to stay together. I ended up with a pretty tasty hash, but no solid griddle cakes.

Finally, I choose the showstopper sweet recipe: Mascarpone French Toast with Sweet Dark Cherries. The prep for this dish was actually extremely easy, but it did require quite a bit of a time commitment; first to dry out the bread (either by leaving it in the open air for a day, or by drying it in the oven), then to give the bread time to soak up the custard mix, and finally to bake the dish. The result was pretty good, though I can't quite imagine going through all that trouble to serve it for dinner. A spectacular Sunday morning brunch dish? For sure. But it didn't quite seem like the best option for dinner.

In summation; Dinner for Everyone and the collaboration with Peapod are a pretty awesome pairing. You can pick up Dinner for Everyone online or where ever cookbooks are sold. You can also get $20 off an order of $75 or more (that's pretty much the cost of the Pho meal kit, hint hint) and 60 days free delivery from Peapod by using the code BUNNY20 at check out. Make sure to leave me a comment below if you try any of Mark's recipes on Peapod!