Archive for February, 2009

Fresca Smoothie

One of my new favorite snacks to make are smoothies. They’re not very complicated, especially when you can find bags of frozen mixed berries at the grociery store. I usually don’t stray from my simple go-to recipe of frozen berries, a little yogurt, a little milk, and a banana if I have one around. I’m a HUGE ice cream fan, and if I had my way I think I would eat it with every meal, but this also means I would weigh about 300 pounds. Smoothies, especially in small batches, are a good way to split the difference: nice and cold and generally thick with yogurt, but comprised of more healthy ingredients.

Last night I made a smoothie before the gym and had a little left over for after my workout. Lazily, I was spooning out the remaining smoothie from the Breville hand-mixer container, and I couldn’t help but feel bad that I couldn’t reach everything or scrape every last bit of smoothie from the sides. I knew we had some black cherry Fresca in the fridge, and I wanted one anyway, so I poured it into the smoothie container in an attempt to “deglaze” the container of the rest of the good smoothie bits.

In the words of Borat, “Great success!” The fizziness of the Fresca really lightened up the smoothie taste, and it got me to thinking, what if I added Fresca to the original smoothie recipe?

I decided to test it out, and the result was great. Usually my smoothies come out really thick, too thick to drink actually, but the Fresca served as a great thinning agent without diluting the flavor of the smoothie. The carbonation and bitter-sweet citrus added a subtle complexity and a little extra kick–although a soft, nudging kick–to the berries and tang of the yogurt. I gave Jay a taste of the final product without telling him what was in it, and I could see him thinking, “Something’s different, but I don’t know what it is.” Jay prefers thinner smoothies, so he was very pleased with the consistency of this one. When I told him I had put a can of Fresca in it, he was pleasantly surprised. “Looks like your plan worked!”

Another great thing abotu adding Fresca: it greatly increases the amount of smoothie without (1) watering the flavors down (2) distorting the flavors, or (3) adding a lot of calories.

Serving suggestion: serve your smoothie in glasses that have been sitting in your freezer for a while. We usually keep glass beer mugs in the freezer, and I poured my smoothie into one of these. The mug keeps the smoothie nice and cold, and after you’ve sipped on all the smoothie that remains viscous, you can scoop out the part that’s frozen to the side of the glass as an extra treat and different texture.

Fresca Smoothie: Ingredients:
NOTE: this are approximations, to taste. I never measure, I just kind of eyeball and do what I feel like. This is the order I put mine in the hand-mixer container.

  • half a 12 ounce bag od unsweetened mixed frozen berries (leave frozen, don’t thaw; the mixes I use always have blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, and black berries)
  • 1 banana (I like mine with a little green on it)
  • 1 big spoonfull of sweetener or sugar
  • 1/2 cup plain nonfat yogurt
  • 1/3 to 1/2 cup skim milk
  • 1 can Black Cherry Citrus Fresca

black + blum

The Food Section is one of my favorite websites–and according to the London Times Online, is also one of the 50 best food blogs in the world–and one that I try to check up on every other day or so. Although the site generally caters to the NY foodie scene, there is always some useful information or interesting tidbit, not to mention write-ups on innovated products.

One of the most recently advertised products on TFS is this potato masher by black + blum, which resembles a ski pole. I’m not a skiier, but this thing is pretty damn cool. Impressed by the innovation and creativity of black + blum, I took a little tour around their website, and I’ve gotta say, their stuff is great. It reminds me of Alessi, but a little less weird and more accessible. One of my favorite products is this fruit bowl, simple yet elegant, and for a suggested retail price of $40, you can’t go wrong. Other great products include some great pendant lights and plant-like salad servers. Check it out if you want something fun and modern for your kitchen or apartment.

Improv Chicken Noodle

Today, I had to take a personal day. Some people may call is playing hookie from class or taking a sick day, but I wasn’t sick. Yeah, I was tired, bordering on the exhausted, and yeah, I took a 2 hour nap within an hour of waking up, but if I had really been the strong warrior who made it through 3 years of law school and a summer of studying for the Virginia Bar Exam–not to mention taking it after a day of spending my time next to the toilet–I would have been able to muster up the strength to make it to class. But I just couldn’t do it. Not today.

I had recently read an article in Best Food Writing of 2008 about making a chicken for two with the flu, and I knew what I wanted to do. Rather than sending Jay out for ingredients, I would scour the kitchen for whatever we had and push it all in a pot. I knew we had some baby carrots, baby spinach, and some kind of noodles purchased at the oriental food store back in Little Rock, and frozen chicken breasts, so I knew I had the essential ingredients. Everything else would be sort of an improv.

I loosely based my soup on a few recipes I found on, one of them an old-school type recipe, the other more of a chinese inspired type. Rather than giving a formal recipe here, I’m just going to outline my steps as best as I can remember.

You might be skeptical. You might be thinking, there’s no way this can be good, some overly-tired girl’s improvisation of a classic. You might especially think this when you read some of the ingredients I used (i.e. turkey broth concentrate). Nevertheless, trust me, the flavors in this soup were deep, complex, and really friggin good. I greedly slurped up two bowls of it, not caring that the temparture of the soup was burning the inside of my mouth the day before an extravegant birthday dinner. At one point I looked at my husband, noodles hanging off of my chin and sauce all over my shirt and face. We both smiled. This was really good.

First I cut the chicken into small bite-size chunks and salted and peppered them. At the bottom of my pot that I cook spaghetti in, I poured a little olive oil and heated it over a high flame. When I could start to smell the olive oil and there was a nice sheen. Then I browned the chicken a few minutes on each side, using a large slotted spoon (NOT THONGS as I learned from Anthony Bourdain) to flip and then remove the chicken.

For stock (which we didn’t have), I poured 16 cups of water into the pot I cooked the chicken in. (After the first 4 cups, I used a wooden spatula to scrape off all of the chicken bits.) We had some turkey stock concentrate left over from Thanksgiving, and I poured the remaining 8  small bags into the pot, which I followed by 2 cubes of chicken boullion.

After bringing the stock mixture up to a boil, I added the chicken back into the pot along with a couple of cups of diced baby carrots (really just cut into small pieces) and about 4 or 5 cloves of diced and sliced garlic. Remembering that we had some frozen edemame in the freezer, I threw in a couple of handfulls of that as well, and then added a turkish bayleaf.

I let all of this simmer for about 15 minutes maybe while I trimmed the stems off of baby spinach and sliced a small package of button mushrooms. Rather than just dumping the mushrooms into the soup, I melted two tablespoons of butter in a medium sized pan, then sauteed the mushrooms for about 5 minutes. I didn’t have any lemon juice like the old school recipe called for, so I poured a couple of teaspoons of apple cider vinegar into the pan with the mushrooms. After a quick stir, the mushrooms went into the soup pot.

I followed up the mushrooms with most of the package of some clear, thin rice noodles. I covered the pot and let the noodles soften for about 8 minutes. Then I stirred in the spinach, maybe about 4 cups, and covered the pot again for about 3 minutes. After everything had simmered together, I added a generous amount of salt and pepper, a few shakes of of red pepper flakes, and a good squirt of hot pepper sauce.

The heat from the red pepper flakes and sauce was unexpected and initially somewhat abrasive, especially with the hot temperature of the broth itself, but after more and more spoonfulls, the heat was comforting and welcoming. If you don’t like spicy food, I would leave out the chili sauce.

Proof Valentine’s Tasting Menu

Usually when ordering from a tasting menu or when given limited choices, I order according to my omnivore preference: when I’m choosing between meat and a dish without meat, the meat dish gets the vote, generally with only a cursory glance at the vegetarian dish. Usually, this ordering preference serves me well. With meat comes fat, and with fat comes flavor. Like Anthony Bourdain, I find a special, guilty pleasure in savoring fat and guts. Vegetarians and shy eaters really don’t know what their missing.

So when Jay and I sat down in Proof for Valentine’s Day, seated beside a wall of wine bottles in the darkly and romantically lit dining room, I was tempted to order from the main menu instead. Although Jay and I have visited Proof before, it has never been for dinner, only wine, and when I laid eyes on such favorites as seared fois gras and pork belly on the main menu, the tasting menu didn’t look as adventurous. Nevertheless, we had made reservations at Proof for the sole purpose of having the Valentine’s Tasting Menu and wine pairing, and Jay reassured me that we would return soon, so I closed the main menu with difficulty, secretly lusting for a perfectly seared goose liver.

The first few courses of the tasting menu dilineated between a vegetarian and fish choice. Salad with endive? No thanks, I think I’ll have seared scallops instead. Gnocchi with mushrooms? Thanks, but no thanks, I think I’ll go with the tilefish. Third course was easy, beef tenderloin over another fish. With every selection, the waitress assured me that I was making good choices, that they were excellent, and when Jay ordered the other choices (except for the beef), I felt assured that I would get the better dishes of the two of us. Sinking back into my chair, drinking my sparklign blanc de blanc, I smiled a secret smile that my meal would be better.

First course: seared scallops with chile sauce. The scallops were cooked perfectly, with a nice brown sear and good texture, but the rest of the dish was pretty watery, almost a bore, with the chile sauce adding more color than flavor. My wine pairing, furthermore, was the most subtle, nearly tasteless wine I think I’ve ever had. I was a little disappointed. And Jay’s dish of endive and bleu cheese, paired with a sweet reisling? Absolutely delishious. Furthermore, his wine pairing was more playful, with the reisling singing after a rich and creamy bite of the bleu cheese.

Second course: tilefish, over what looked to be some kind of vegetable stew. This, again, was a little disappointing, and I found myself adding salt an pepper to the dish after a few bites, something I don’t remember ever doing at a restaurant before. Jay’s dish of gnocchi again outmatched mine. The gnocchi was so pillowy and creamy, almost etherial, that I decided the cook had made a deal with the devil. The one good thing about my dish was the wine pairing, a pinot noir from the Russian River Valley that thankfully was not too sour like most pinots I’ve had recently.

Third dish I finally landed a good choice, with the first truely rare stead I’ve had in a long time. The sides of spinach and mashed potatoes were wonderful, and I was a little sad the the steak was as small as it was.

For dessert I chose a trio of sorbets, pineapple, coconut, and strawberry. I was a little apprehensive when the waitress told me about the tropical flavors, but each was exquisite, and the slightly bubbly wine pairing was an exceptional match to the sorbets. Jay got the cheese plate, again a trio, a blue cheese, manchego, and another creamy cheese, accompanied with dates, homemade apple sauce, and the best honey I have ever tasted. Jay and I each shared our desserts, and it was a lovely way to finish off the meal. We loved the cheese so much that we decided that the next time we come to proof, we will each get an appetizer and share a cheese and charcuterie plate. No watery or boring dishes.

Twelve-Layer Mocha Cake


“We’re just outside of Knoxville right now, so we won’t be home for another 8 hours probably. Like 2am?”

I was crammed into the passenger seat of my small car, sharing the space with magazines, one of my coats, my laptop and lawschool books under my legs, and dog treats shoved in between me and the door. We were making the long drive from DC to Arkansas for Christmas.

“Oh well we’ll probably be asleep by then. Is it ok if you make dessert for Christmas?”

Since junior highschool, I’ve been the unofficially designated dessert maker for all family gatherings. Traditionally I try to find creative and interesting desserts, things with kind of a “wow” factor. The year of a terrible ice storm I made snowmen out of ice cream. At one point I came across two different pumpkin bread pudding recipes, and not being pleased with either one, I combined both of the recipes into my own version, and the resulting dessert was a staple that showed up at both Thanksgiving and Christmas for years.

My mom didn’t really need to ask me to make dessert–the magazines in the car were all food magazines from which I was trying to chose this year’s Christmas dessert–because I already knew I had the job, but she just wanted to make sure, in case, for some reason, I would forget.

For some reason this year’s new dessert offerings left me a little disappointed. Nevertheless, when I first laid eyes on the twelve-layer mocha cake from Gormet, I knew I had found a winner. All those layers, all those different flavors, all those different textures. It sounded right up my alley.

Mom did not have three 15×10 cake pans, so Jay and I went in search of some extras. In a rush, I forgot to look at the exact pan measurements, so when we returned home with three 17×12 cake pans, I was a little concerned. Rather than take away from the flavor, the larger cake pans made every layer thinner, at times a little crisper. The cake layer was not as spongy is I would have wanted, the soufle layer didn’t have a chance to rise in order to have a chance to fall (as the recipe dictates), and the meringue layer was a little chewy. All these minor faults aside, I think the total combination was better than a sum of its parts, and it still won praise from around the table.

Despite the multitude of layers, this cake was pretty easy to make, and each layer required only a short amount of cooking time. The hardest element was the buttercream frosting, which required 30 minutes of beating time. Given the fact that I had left my standing mixer at home, this required a lot of arm strength and a couple of substitutions of pastry chefs in order to beat the mixture for the allotted time using a hand mixer. Even still, the buttercream managed to curdle, which required placing the bowl within another bowl of ice to finish it off.

This dessert is incredibly rich, and after eating the small rectangular slice at Christmas dinner, I honestly wasn’t ever in the mood for another piece. Luckily, my husband loves desserts like this, and he did an excellent job of finishing it off over the next couple of weeks.

All of the flavors in the cake play well off of each other and compliment each other, and you can really taste each layer separately with each bite. Not only did I note the difference in the layers, but everyone at the table mentioned that you could really taste all of the different components, one after the other. This kind of flavor waterfall is always a treat, a fun little theater for your tongue. The textures of each layer are also noticeable, with the meringue haveing a springy sort of chewiness.

Oh, and it looks pretty cool too.


Twelve-Layer Mocha Cake
( Gourmet December 2008 )

For cake layers:
4 large egg yolks at room temperature 30 minutes
2 tablespoons whole milk
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup sugar, divided
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 large egg whites at room temperature 30 minutes

For soufflélayers:
6 ounces fine-quality 60%-cacao bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1/4 cup water
5 large eggs, separated, at room temperature 30 minutes
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar, divided
1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder

For meringue layers:
2/3 cup hazelnuts (3 1/2 ounces)
3 large egg whites at room temperature 30 minutes
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 cup sugar

For syrup:
1/3 cup water
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon instant-espresso powder

For filling:
Coffee and mocha buttercreams (recipe follows)

Equipment: 3 (15-by 10-inch) 4-sided sheet pans (1/2 inch deep)


Make cake layers:
Preheat oven to 350°F with rack in middle. Butter 1 sheet pan and line bottom with parchment paper, then butter parchment. Dust with flour, knocking out excess.

Whisk together yolks, milk, vanilla, and 1/2 cup sugar in a large bowl until combined well, then whisk in flour and salt until smooth. (Batter will be thick.)

Beat whites with an electric mixer until they just hold soft peaks. Beat in remaining 1/4 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, and beat until whites just hold stiff peaks.

Fold one third of whites into batter to lighten, then fold in remainder gently but thoroughly.

Spread batter evenly in pan and rap against counter to release any air bubbles. Bake until cake is dry to the touch and pale golden, 10 to 11 minutes. (Leave oven on.) Cool completely in pan on a rack.

Halve cake crosswise, cutting through parchment, to form 2 (10-by 7 1/2-inch) layers.

Prepare soufflé layers while cake bakes:
Line second sheet pan with parchment paper.

Melt chocolate with water [i.e. double boiler], then cool to lukewarm.

Beat yolks, salt, and 1/4 cup sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at high speed until thick and pale, about 5 minutes with a stand mixer or 8 minutes with a handheld. Fold in melted chocolate.

Beat whites with cleaned beaters until they hold soft peaks. Beat in remaining 1/4 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, and beat until whites just hold stiff peaks, about 5 minutes.

Fold one third of whites into chocolate mixture to lighten, then fold in remainder gently but thoroughly. Spread batter evenly in lined sheet pan.

Bake soufflé layers:
Bake until puffed and a wooden pick inserted into center comes out with a few crumbs adhering, 25 to 30 minutes. Transfer pan to a rack, then cover top of soufflé with 2 layers of damp paper towels. Let stand 5 minutes. Remove towels and cool soufflé completely in pan (soufflé will deflate as it cools). Sift cocoa over soufflé, then loosen edges with a sharp knife.

Halve soufflécrosswise, cutting through parchment, to form 2 (10-by 7 1/2-inch) layers.

Make meringue layers:
Toast hazelnuts, then cool, wrapped in a kitchen towel, and rub off any loose skins.

Reduce oven to 250°F.

Finely chop nuts.

Beat whites with salt and cream of tartar using electric mixer until they just hold soft peaks. Beat in sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, and beat until meringue is stiff but still glossy.

Line bottom of third sheet pan with parchment. Put small dabs of meringue under corners of parchment to secure to baking sheets.

Fold nuts into meringue and spread evenly in pan. Bake until set and pale golden, 25 to 30 minutes.

Halve meringue crosswise, cutting through parchment, to form 2 (10-by 7 1/2-inch) layers. Return to oven and bake until crisp, 45 minutes to 1 hour more. Cool in pan, then peel off parchment.

Make syrup and assemble cake:
Bring water, sugar, and espresso powder to a boil, stirring until sugar has dissolved. Cool.

Loosen edges of 1 cake layer with a knife and invert onto a flat platter. Carefully peel parchment from cake and brush with some of syrup. Spread with 1 1/4 cups mocha buttercream.

Top with 1 meringue layer and spread with 1 1/4 cups coffee buttercream.

Carefully invert 1 soufflé layer onto buttercream and peel off parchment, then gently spread with 1 1/4 cups coffee buttercream.

Repeat layering, ending with coffee buttercream (there will be some left over). Chill at least 1 hour (after that, wrap in plastic wrap). Trim all around cake with a long sharp knife to neaten edges. [Note: I didn’t do this last step.] Bring to room temperature (about 1 hour) before serving.

Coffee and Mocha Buttercreams
(Gourmet December 2008)

2 cups sugar, divided
3/4 cup water
6 large egg whites at room temperature 30 minutes
2 tablspoons plus 1 teaspoon instant-espresso powder
1 tablspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 sticks (1 1/2 pounds) unsalted butter, cut into tablspoon pieces and softened
6 ounces fine-quality 60%-cacao bittersweet chocolate, melted and cooled to lukewarm

Equipment: a candy thermometer; a stand mixer fitted with whisk attachment


Bring 1 3/4 cups sugar and water to a boil in a 3-quart heavy saucepan over medium heat, stirring until sugar has dissolved, then wash down any sugar crystals from side of pan with a pastry brush dipped in cold water. Boil, without stirring, until it registers 220 to 225°F, 15 to 20 minutes.

At this point, while continuing to boil syrup, beat whites with espresso powder, vanilla, cream of tartar, and salt in mixer at medium speed until they just hold soft peaks. Add remaining 1/4 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, beating, and beat until whites just hold stiff peaks.

When syrup reaches soft-ball stage (238 to 242°F), immediately pour syrup in a slow stream down side of bowl into whites (avoid beaters) while beating at high speed. Beat until completely cool, 25 to 30 minutes. With mixer at medium speed, add butter 1 tablespoon at a time, beating well after each addition (see cooks’ note, below) and until buttercream is smooth. (Mixture may look curdled before all butter is added but will come together at end.)

Transfer 2 cups buttercream to a small bowl and stir in chocolate. If buttercreams are too soft to spread, chill, stirring occasionally.

Cooks’ notes:
If buttercream looks soupy after some butter is added, meringue is too warm: Chill bottom of bowl in an ice bath for a few seconds before continuing to beat in remaining butter.
Buttercreams can be made 1 week ahead and chilled or 1 month ahead and frozen. Bring to room temperature (do not use a microwave), about 2 hours, and beat with an electric mixer until spreadable.
The egg whites in this recipe are not fully cooked.



February 2009
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