Sunday, August 29, 2010

How to Win Friends & Influence People: Cheesecake Version

While I'm not sure that this diagnosis exists in the DSM-IV yet, I am going to come out and state that I have a full blown baking disorder. It manifests in a wide variety of ways, most notable amongst them being a sort of Olympic Winter Holiday Season Cookie Bake-A-Thon (we atheists don't celebrate Christmas, but some of us adore the chance to overcompensate for our emotional shortcomings via fancy cookies), insomnia driven muffin creation, and, of course, the birthday cake of choice for friends and family.

Unfortunately, my complete and utter lack of any artistic skill whatsoever means that while these things will mostly turn out to be tasty (notable recent example of this NOT being the case), they will not necessarily be feasts for the eyes. After sufficient disastrous attempts to draw/write/connect-the-dots with a pastry bag and frosting, I have concluded that the best I'm going to be able to do to tart up a tart is a quick powder with icing sugar or dumping some chocolate shavings on top. In the event of an angel food cake, moderately aesthetic results can be achieved via chocolate glaze and stuffing some flowers in the hole in the middle of the cake. So, if what you're after are hot tips for the next Ace of Cakes-like creation, proceed to any variety of extremely anal retentive sites devoted to such matters. However, if you'd like a pretty decent cheesecake recipe that will improve your social standing, this is the place for you!

While she normally saves her special occasion manipulation resources for Frozen Lemon Cheesecake Squares (which I will post up here someday), this year my friend Val opted for an Espresso Chocolate Cheesecake. After the requisite website searching, I amalgamated a handful of recipes, added booze (because that is almost always the right choice!) and commenced. The result was pretty damn tasty...good coffee flavor, with a not overpowering hit of chocolate from the crust, mini chips, and a few chocolate shavings on top. While there were technical difficulties with the candles staying lit (damn outdoor celebrations), the damn thing did crack, and an initial misreading of the recipe yielded a basically pure sugar crust, requiring a re-do, it was a mocha-y, rich dessert. As with any cheesecake, you will need a good amount of advance warning. Typically, I bake them the day before, let them chill in the fridge overnight, and do my meager decorating the day of consumption.

Espresso Chocolate Cheesecake
(adapted from several recipes, mostly from



9 whole chocolate graham crackers, crushed
1/4 cup sugar
5 tbsp unsalted butter, melted


1/2 cup whipping cream
4 tsp espresso or instant coffee powder
1 1/2 tsps Kahlua or coffee liqueur
1 1/4 cups sugar
4 8-oz packages cream cheese (I use 1/3 less fat, with good results, and the illusion of health), at room temperature
4 large eggs
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 cup mini chocolate chips (regular sized ones sink to the bottom, while the little ones stay suspended in the batter)

bittersweet chocolate for shaving on the top (optional)

  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Mix crackers, butter and 1/4 cup sugar in medium bowl; press onto bottom of 9" spring form pan. Using a measuring cup to tamp this down firms up the crust nicely. Bake crust 10 minutes. Cool. Maintain oven temperature.
  • Combine cream, espresso powder and Kahlua in small bowl. The coffee powder won't dissolve fully, and will look weird. It'll be fine in the end, so ignore it and keep going.
  • In large bowl of stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat cream cheese until smooth.
  • Gradually beat in 1 1/4 cups sugar, then eggs 1 at a time.
  • Beat in flour.
  • Beat weirdly undissolved espresso mixture into cream cheese mixture. Stir in chocolate chips. Pour batter into prepared crust.
  • Bake cake until edges are puffed, the center is just set, and (unfortunately and rather uncontrollably) it begins to crack, about 1 hour and 5 minutes. Be careful here, as it may take longer. I think the one I made took another 15 minutes, but it's going to depend on your oven. Check early, check often.
  • Cool cake on rack 30-45 minutes; chill cake in fridge until cold, about 6 hours or overnight.
  • Cover; keep chilled up to 2 days.
  • Just before serving, shave some chocolate on top using a vegetable peeler.

Yield: 10-12 servings

Happy birthday, Val! And yes, I'll make you the lemon cheesecake next time.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

All things porcine are good

My love of all things pig-related is well known in some (very small) circles, and it's high time it made an appearance on this blog. While I am prone to snobbery in a lot of things, I am 100% equal opportunity minded when it comes to pork. A friend of mine says that he likes it all, "from the rooter to the tooter!", and I whole heartedly share that opinion. A big, pink, salty eraser of a ham? Yum! Bacon? Better than... ahem, let's just say "chocolate" since my mother reads this blog. Pork tenderloin is the filet mignon of the pig (it's the same cut of meat, relative to the critter in question), and deserves a certain level of reverence. Roast, chops, sausage, and pig's feet are all heartily welcome on my plate.
The primary appeal of pork (to me, anyway), is its tremendous versatility. There's almost always a cheap cut of some sort in your deli counter, and it thrives under as great a variety of flavors and cooking techniques as chicken. And damn near ANY piece of pork will have a far greater depth of flavor than the ubiquitous boneless, skinless chicken boob. (There will doubtless be upcoming rants against that most bland, insipid piece of meat, and the people who insist on eating them, but that's neither here nor there.)
An ex of mine and I had a deeply seated disagreement when it came to pork, and I dare say it was at least a small part of our demise as a couple. He was of the mind that all pork was tough, rubbery, and accompanied by a side of runny applesauce. If that had been my sole experience, I would have likely shared his view, but alas, he was unable to ever come to the terms with the versatility of pig. I chalk that up to a character flaw on his part, and you'd better bet that the next man in line will love the stuff!
After grilling pizzas a couple weeks ago, I'd vowed to use my grill more this summer, and since I was having a friend over for dinner, it seemed the right time to trot out a tried and true recipe...Spice Rubbed Pork Tenderloin with Peach Salsa. With just a tiny bit of advance planning, this is the quickest "company dinner" you can imagine, and it's not just delicious, but colorful and lovely to look at. If you've never played with spice rubs, now's the time. They're a quick, easy and calorie-free way to add enormous flavor to meats, and when used in grilling, they become a tasty crust on the critter you're cooking. There are those of you who have an aversion to fruit served with meat...get over it! Pork and apples are a classic (if often poorly done) combination, but breaking out of that mold to add mangoes, peaches or nectarines will enliven even the most simply seasoned chop.
All that being we go!
Spice Rubbed Pork Tenderloin with Peach Lime Salsa
For the spice rub:
2 tbsp chile powder
1 tbsp garlic powder
1 tsp dried sage
1 1/2 tsp salt
Combine all rub ingredients in a small dish and set aside.
2 pork tenderloins
Olive oil
For the salsa:
2 ripe peaches (or mangoes, nectarines...I just had peaches on hand)
1 large diced tomato
1 diced red onion
1 minced, seeded jalapeno pepper
2 tbsp chopped parsley (mint's nice, too)
1 tbsp honey
juice of 1 lime
2 tsp salt
Combine all salsa ingredients in medium sized bowl, and set aside. Can be made up to 2 hours ahead.

  • Butterfly each tenderloin (this means cutting them down the middle, lengthwise, enough so that you can open the piece like a book, without cutting it in two).
  • Realize that cut like this, the tenderloin looks a bit, umm...phallic. Picture your last shitty relationship, and grab a mallet.
  • Place each tenderloin between 2 sheets of plastic wrap, and pound the ever loving crap out of them, until they're about evenly 1" thick. This is a good addition to your current anger management program!
  • Drizzle each piece with olive oil, and rub all over with your spice mixture. Place each tenderloin in a plastic zip-top bag, and pop in the fridge. This can be done the day before, and left in the fridge overnight, or two hours prior to grilling and left at room temp. If you do refrigerate them, bring them out 30 minutes prior to grilling to allow to come to room temp.
  • Prepare your grill for direct cookng over medium-high heat. Oil the grill rack.
  • Grill tenderloins directly over medium-high heat, turning once, until well browned, 4-5 minutes on each side. I refuse to cut into meat to check for doneness, and instead opt for poking at it with trepidation to see if it's reached an appropriate level of doneness. (For pork with a slightly pink interior, the finished meat should feel like muscle between your thumb and index finger...taut, with just a little spring to it.) If you have a thermometer, by all means, use it, and you should be reading 155 degrees F. If you don't, pray for the best, and hope to Christ you don't give your guests trichinosis.
  • Transfer pork to a platter, tent with foil, and let it rest for 5-10 minutes.

  • To serve, cut against the grain into diagonal slices and serve with the salsa. This is really nice with a side of basmati rice, too.
Makes 4 servings.
We had this with a decent rose of Malbec, which I really like with both pork and grilled fish.
*Thanks to Katie for the food photography!!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Apple Pecan Spice Cake-FAIL

It seemed like such a good idea at the time....

When I got home from work last night, I was in the mood to make something that hinted of autumn. It was cool out, a bit drizzly and gray, and I had an itch to bake something suitable. Since I live in the Hudson Valley of NY, nothing screeches fall here more than apples, so I flipped through cookbooks and found a recipe for an Applesauce Pecan Spice Cake, and thought that sounded about right.

I dutifully sifted, blended, folded, toasted pecans and so on. Lots of great spices went in (nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice), so I had high hopes for good flavor. Batter was dumped into a generously buttered Bundt pan (I'm always looking for a reason to use mine, but really, they're kind of useless, aren't they?), and into the oven it went. And it smelled divine. Warm and spicy and rich...I half expected the whole cast of Little House on the Prairie to step into my house and start playing the fiddle.

That, my friends, is where the success ends. When time was up, I pulled the cake out and set it down to cool. Initial disaster struck when I attempted to get the cooled cake out of its pan. It had either bonded with it a la Stockholm Syndrome, and decided they could never, ever be parted from each other, or I hadn't buttered the pan adequately. Whichever of those you choose to believe (and I lubed the HELL out of that pan), only half the damn thing came out onto the cooling rack, while the bottom half clung codependently to the "non-stick" (BULLSHIT, I say) pan. Prying the remaining clumps out of the pan, I sorted of puzzle pieced the whole mess together, figuring that while it didn't look so hot, surely it would taste fine.

At this point, it was well past 10 pm, so I decided to drape a towel over the whole thing, and let it think about what it had done overnight. (There is nothing a bit weird about punishing cakes, I tell you.) Come morning I would glaze it, and all would be right with the world.

Umm...well.... If there are any of you out there who believe I am without fault in the kitchen, allow me to shatter your illusions. Because thankfully I had the foresight to try a piece of this abomination before bothering to glaze it. And it sucks. It's heavy, dry, and magically flavorless, despite all the additions from my spice rack. So, no, I am not going to include the recipe here. However, if you'd like to know how to make the best smelling, least tasty cake in all the land, let me know.

I suppose it's for the best...we're back to hot and humid today, and an autumnal dessert just wouldn't do. And I suppose I've re-learned that there's just no point in making a dessert that doesn't involve chocolate. But still. Damn.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Lemon Roast Chicken with a side of Pesto Potatoes and sublimated rage

There's a terribly Donna Reed-ish image of cooking for others...that it's always a lovely, altruistic effort, whereby the resulting plate of food comforts, brings joy to, or heals the diners. And while this has on occasion been true for me, there's something you (as potential dinner guests) should for others can be a covert act of aggression, or subtle manipulation of emotions. You think I'm just sauteeing and roasting? Oh, honey. A smart cook in the kitchen may be screwing with your head in ways you are blissfully unaware of.

I have cooked and baked for any myriad of reasons and people over the years...for celebration, mourning, sickness, seduction and reconciliation. For those of us who eschew actual verbal communication, food can be an exceptionally deft mechanism for expressing emotion, inducing affection, and just plain old fucking with your head. As the diner, you are so very, very vulnerable. Good manners handcuff your responses, as who in their right mind will bitch about anything made in their honor? And that, my friend, is where you are utterly at the mercy of She Who Wields the Chef's Knife.

Even when it's with the very best, most benevolent of motivations, my actions in the kitchen are almost always intended to elicit a response from the recepients. That can be great, when it's your birthday, and quite frankly, everyone wants cake. Or if you're an oozing, wheezing sack of sickness, and soup is all the stands between you and an untimely demise. I can't believe, however, that I'm the only cook who has ever stood over a sautee pan and thought something along the lines of, "Go fuck yourself, you doughy, pretentious asshole!". Or maybe that really is just me. If for mysterious reasons (so mysterious, in fact, that you may have no awareness of them whatsovever) I have put you on my shit list, you should really look closely at your plate. I would never (I don't think) include something that would induce anaphylactic shock, but I will include those olives you hate, or make that Turkey Tamale Pot Pie you are thoroughly sick of, and do so with a well acted, happy oblivion.

You may ask yourself why the hell any sane person would elect to be so passively aggressively bitchy with an entree. To which I will respond that A) never presume sanity, and B) I'm a WASP, and we tend to prefer to bury our rage behind broccoli rabe whenever possible.

All of this being there any "safe" dish? What IS the Switzerland of dinners? For me, I suppose it would have to be some permutation of roast chicken. It's delightfully easy to prepare, cheap, makes your house smell wonderful, and is almost universally enjoyed. (Ok, if you have a known vegetarian coming over and you make it anyway, you probably ought to bring up your anger issues in therapy, but that's your choice.) It was the first thing I ever made in my house while there were still cardboard boxes strewn all over, because I could not, for one more minute, stand eating take out. It takes the barest amount of utensils, zero skill, and is pretty hard to screw up. It soothes me, makes enough leftovers for at least two meals, and if one is especially militant, can be made into stock at the very end. Or, more likely, it will result in a carcass entombed in foil in the back of your fridge until you finally give up on your dreams of home made stock. Whatever. Sally forth, I say!

Lemon Roast Chicken


1 (4-5 lb) whole chicken

3 small or 2 medium yellow onions, sliced

Olive oil

Salt and pepper

2 lemons, quartered

  • Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

  • Take the bag of mystery innards out of the chicken and wash it inside and out.

  • Toss the onions with a little olive oil in a roasting pan. Place the chicken on top of the onions. Pat the outside of the chicken dry with paper towels, brush it with a little olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Tuck the wing tips under the body of the chicken. Stuff the lemon quarters into indelicate regions of the chicken, and scatter the rest amidst the onions.

  • Roast for 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours, or until the juices run clear when you cut between the leg and the thigh. Cover with foil and allow to rest at room temperature for 15 minutes. (The onions will likely burn, but I promise you, they'll be delicious, and if you mop them up with some decent bread, you'll be very happy.)

Tonight, I made this with mashed potatoes, for which I think you may not need a recipe. (If you do, let me know, otherwise, just make mashed potatoes as you normally would.) I glopped in about a half cup of leftover pesto into the finished potatoes, just to liven them up a bit.

3-4 servings.

So there you have it...just about the most neutral dinner I know how to make. Look carefully at your wine pairings, never know the troubles that could lie in your glass...

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Grilled Pizzas

While you will doubtless hear me wax poetic on the joys of doing everything from scratch, there are some days when kitchen shortcuts are the only thing standing between me and the second window. If, for instance, you have been out the night before drinking and square-dancing, as I'm SURE you just were (I knew I saw you there...loved how your hair came out, by the way!), and then worked all day, you are probably unlikely to want to start proofing yeast for pizza dough. And if you DO want to do that in such a situation, more power to you, but frankly, you have a disorder, and I fear that you will shortly come after me with a hot glue gun and the word "decoupage" on your lips.

Soo...grilled pizza it is, then! No oven to crank up and heat up your summer kitchen, toppings of whatever the hell you fancy, and no pimply teenager to tip when it's win.

Since we've already ruled out making your own dough, you are going to march yourself to the deli section of your grocery store and buy a blob of pizza dough. It's well worth the $1.50 it's going to cost you in saved effort and dough-y counter tops. While there, figure out what you want on your pizza(s), and stuff those in your cart.

As with any pizza, you can put on it whatever you want....the following recipe is what I opted for this time out, and it was damn tasty. It is key to have all your toppings ready to go before you start grilling the dough...the difference between delicious grilled pizza and briquette with toppings is about 2 minutes.

Pesto, Red Onion & Goat Cheese Grilled Pizzas


1 lb bag pre-made pizza dough

Olive oil

1/2 cup basil pesto (Again, as with the dough, you can be frighteningly anal and make this from scratch, or you can buy it all done for you. Since the goal of this recipe is drive-thru avoidance, I was NOT about to toast pine nuts and puree bail.)

1 large red onion, peeled and sliced thinly

about 4 0z goat cheese, crumbled

  • Prise dough glob out of plastic bag, and plop into a large bowl that you've sloshed some olive oil in. Flip the dough about so it's all oily, cover with a tea towel, and walk away. You're going to let it rise for about 45 minutes.

  • In a medium-sized sautee pan, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add sliced red onions, and cooking, stirring frequently, until translucent with some brownish edges, about 6 minutes. Set aside and let cool.

  • Fire up your grill and preheat. Scrub the rust off the grill rack and vow to actually use the damn thing more than twice a year. Once the dough has risen, turn the grill heat down to low.

  • Uncover dough, assume it's doubled in size, and gleefully punch it down. Divide dough into two equal sized pieces, and stretch, squish, roll and pat each into about 8-10" circles. (I think I didn't flatten mine out enough, and it ended up a bit doughy, so really try like hell to make it nice and thin.)

  • Place each round on a cookie sheet, and brush the tops with a little olive oil.

  • Put dough rounds on greased grill, oiled sides down. Allow to brown up about 3-4 minutes on the first side. Dough will puff up considerably. Brush oil on the tops. (I know this all seems like a lot of oil...just trust me that dough sticks very easily to the grill, and that is to be avoided.)

  • Flip rounds. Bottom side should have nice grill marks and be lightly browned. Grill about 2-3 minutes. Your goal here is to have the dough ALMOST done, but not quite, before you add your toppings. I use the "poke at it and guess" technique, which while not 100% effective, is certainly easy enough.

  • Now's the time to add your toppings. I slathered each round with some pesto, and then scattered some onions and goat cheese on top. Grill about 2 more minutes over a low flame.

  • Turn flame off, close the lid, and let the pizzas sit in their toasty warmth for a couple minutes...this will allow the cheese to get gooey without burning the hell out the crust.

  • Remove from grill. Eat. This particular combo would have been very nice with a bottle of Vouvray, but someone who shall remain nameless is still trying to work their way through a case of very, very bad beer. Next time.

Makes 2 approximately 8" pizzas.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


The first time I ever made marshmallows from scratch, my sister-in-law said, "You can MAKE those? I thought they were manufactured at some industrial Stay-Puft factory in the midwest somewhere." And to be honest, I did, too. They have that odd texture, aren't really a food in any nutritional sense of the word, and the process of actually creating them bore very strong resemblance to my polymer labs in Organic Chemistry.

Of course, for such a ridiculous kitchen experiment, I can only blame the influence of Martha Stewart, and some long-gone Christmas issue of her overly fastidious magazine. Well, Martha, insomnia, and I dare say a glass or two of wine. (Honestly, never, ever combine all those. It's like the trifecta of insanity.)

Anyway, all liquored up, candy thermometer firmly in hand, and nary a care for the volume of dishes about to be created, I did it. I made homemade marshmallows. And you know what? You should, too. Soon. Now. It's always the season for them... You either need to make them to toast over summer campfires, dip in an Irish Cream Chocolate Fondue, or to float in hot chocolate on a winter day.

You will absolutely need two is a candy thermometer (guessing the temperature of molten sugar is not something I recommend) and the other is a stand mixer. Beg for one, steal one, or get married so you can register for it. A divorce is totally worth a Kitchen-Aid.

Following is the basic recipe for straight up, unadulterated marshmallows. You can, and should, try adding flavors (peppermint, almond), booze, and rolling them in powdered cocoa or toasted coconut.

Marshmallows from Scratch
Bastardized from Martha Stewart and Ina Garten


1 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
3 packages (1/4 oz each) unflavored gelatin
3/4 tsp vanilla extract (swap out peppermint, etc for flavors)
1/4 tsp salt
Confectioner's sugar, for dusting

-Combine the gelatin and 1/2 cup of cold water in the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and allow to sit while you make the syrup.

-Meanwhile, combine the sugar, corn syrup, salt and 1/2 cup water in a small saucepan and cook over medium heat until the sugar dissolves. Raise the heat to high and cook until the syrup reaches 240 degrees on a candy thermometer. Remove from heat.

-With stand mixer on low speed, slowly (and very, very carefully) pour the sugar syrup into the dissolved gelatin. Put the mixer on high speed and whip until the mixture is very thick, about 15 minutes. (At this point, I stood over the mixer, mesmerized, as a clear liquid slowly turned into, well...marshmallow. Alchemy, I tell you!) Add vanilla and mix thoroughly.

-With a sieve, generously dust an 8 X 12 inch glass baking dish with confectioner's sugar. Lots and lots of the stuff, as this is what's going to enable you to pry the gooey beasts out later. Pour the marshmallow mixture into the pan, smooth the top, and dust with more confectioner's sugar. Allow to stand overnight until it dries out. Marvel at your domestic accomplishments, put the dishes to soak, and go to bed.

-Attempt to tidily turn marshmallows out onto a board. Fail. Take a bench scraper or large knife, lube it up with butter, and wiggle the big jiggly beast out. With the same bench scraper or knife, keeping it well lubed, cut the block o' mallow into squares the size of your choosing. Dust with yet more confectioner's sugar. Call in your insulin refill.

Makes 20-40 marshamallows, depending on greed

Ta dah! You've made them! And you've got lots and lots of sticky crap all over your kitchen to prove it! However, the second you put one in your mouth and realize what they're SUPPOSED to taste like, you won't care about the goo nearly as much.