Thursday, September 28, 2006

My Standby Restaurants

Fellow Rochester-area blogger, Rottenchester, recently said in a comment, “If you know of some mid-priced, interesting, locally-owned restaurants, I'd love to hear about it.” I’ve been mulling this over for a few days. In all honesty, it seems like the locally owned restaurants are at the two extremes. The middle range seems to be owned by chains like Olive Garden and the like. At any rate, I thought I’d come up with a list of the locally owned restaurants that are my standbys, though I don't know that they'd qualify as mid-priced or even interesting.

Because I need to pack and practice for my trip to Charleston for the Southern Living Contest, this will be my last post for several days. I’ll try to post from Charleston to keep friends and family posted on how I did.

Back to the restaurant list...

Casual/bar food/carry-out:

Timothy Patricks – This Penfield restaurant has been around forever and always seems to be busy. It has a great atmosphere – high-backed booths, lots of wood, stone fireplace, and colorful Irish coats of arms hanging from the rafters. It claims to be an authentic Irish pub. Well, I visited quite a number of pubs in Ireland and never saw one that was anything like it. No matter – the food is excellent. I almost always order the O’Reuben – a reuben that has coleslaw instead of sauerkraut – as well as their waffle cut fries. By the way, you’ve got to respect an Irish pub that closes on St. Patrick’s Day.

The Distillery – Talk about a place that’s been around forever. Now that they’ve reached the limit as to how many additions (up) they can add, I hear they have a new place in Greece. Anyway, the city location is a great sports bar, although my Marquette alumni group’s attempts to make this our home base were regretfully unsuccessful. Apparently they are too successful to deal with a fledgling group such as ours. Anyway, they are my husband’s and my favorite wings in Rochester (one of the few things related to food that we agree on). We especially love the cajun wings – although they changed their recipe so now we have to ask for them the “old way.”

Wegmans – I gripe that much of the prepared foods at Wegmans are expensive – particularly the Chinese and salad bars, which are priced by the pound – but I end up eating there all the time. I take the kids there – one will get pizza, the other Chinese, and I get whatever I’m in the mood for. The Chicken Pesto Panini is delicious. Their specials change frequently, and they are almost always very good. Today, for example, I got a piece of four-cheese quiche, with a side salad that contained pears, dried cranberries, and goat cheese, for $4.99 – which really wasn’t a bad price for lunch.

Nathan’s Soups & Salads
– This Park Avenue institution is carry-out only. Lots of great soups to choose from and the cheese bread is to die for. More on Nathan’s here.

Pizza:

Great Northern Pizza Kitchen – My husband and I like to meet at their Pittsford Village location for lunch – it’s quick, cheap, and the food is delicious. These are gourmet pizzas with crust that’s just the way I like it – thin and crisp. And the best part is that they serve it by the slice, with about a dozen to choose from every day. (One slice is plenty for my lunch.) I’ve enjoyed every kind I’ve tried, including the Barbecue Chicken Gourmet, Mediterranean, Grilled Veggie Pesto, and Gourmet Veggie Pesto. Plus, there’s plain old cheese and pepperoni for the rest of the family. Their Nutty Goat Salad is so good that I’ve had to recreate it in my own kitchen (although it’s always tastier when someone else cooks it for you).

Ethnic Food:

Aladdin’s Natural Eatery
. The food at Aladdin’s has Greek influences, but it’s not really Greek food. (For Greek food, I used to love Mykonos when it was in Village Gate. I haven’t been to the new location, though.) I usually go to the Aladdin's location in Pittsford. It sits right on the canal, so it has a great atmosphere. My usual orders are the chicken pita (chicken, tomatoes, onions and tahini-yogurt sauce), the fruit and nut salad, or the vegetarian chili.

Joy Luck Garden (Panorama Plaza) and Royal Dynasty (Baytown Plaza, which, by the way is actually in Penfield). These are my two favorite Chinese restaurants in the Rochester area. Unfortunately I don’t go out for Chinese all that often as my husband isn’t wild about it.

Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. I’ve only gone to the restaurant once, but the place was a blast and I plan to go back. I’ve also had their food at a catered event and at the New York State Fair. I’ve liked their messy, fall-off-the-bone ribs so much I haven’t tried anything else. Live music, too!

Breakfast:

James Browns Place. A friendly, slightly divey kind of place on Culver Road with great breakfast fare.

Highland Park Diner. An authentic 1940s diner, this is where I usually take out-of-town visitors for breakfast.

A little more upscale:

Phillips European Restaurant. This place is most famous for their desserts, because huge cases of them beckon as you walk in the door. Because I love desserts, I appreciate that there are several light menu items to choose from. I usually order a petite portion of the vegetable paella, which is loaded with veggies and is served on saffron rice. I’m not sure I could name a favorite dessert. If I want something that’s not too heavy, I get Lemon or Raspberry Mousse Torte. If I’m in the mood for something more decadent, I usually go for one of their cheesecakes. Don’t judge the food by the photos on the Web site – theirs are even more hideous than mine.

Legends Grill. This is a homey little restaurant on Route 441 in Penfield. Don't blink as you're driving 55 past it (even though you should be going 35) -- you may miss it. I like the Vegetable Wellington, which is one of the more reasonable entrees at $12. I’ve also gone there for a drink and the raspberry brie appetizer on the outdoor patio. (Note added in October 2007: Legends Grill closed for a few months in the summer, and reopened in the fall. I'm not sure whether or not it's the same restaurant it used to be.)

Agree? Disagree? Have a suggestion of a place for me to try? Leave a comment.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Julia Child & her Ratatouille

When I’m enjoying a book, I usually devour it in a couple of days. Well, it took me a couple of weeks to get through “My Life in France” by Julia Child (with Alex Prud’homme). I probably would have had an easier time reading it if I had been to France, knew about the dishes she describes (I wouldn’t know a galantine if it hit me over the head), and understood the French phrases she sprinkles without translation throughout the book.

I stuck with the book because the writing is good – it read as if Julia were telling the story – and there are many things to admire about her. She led an interesting life, having lived in Ceylon and Norway in addition to France. She had a wonderful intellectual curiosity, which is what led her to delve so much into French cooking. And it was interesting to read how her career progressed.

I personally found it gratifying that Julia was a relatively late bloomer. She started her culinary training at the age of 37. Her first book, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” was published when she was 49. Her TV career started a year later, at the age of 50. As a 43-year-old who is struggling to find my true calling, I found this encouraging.

After reading this book, I was inspired to try one of Julia’s recipes. I own “The Way to Cook,” one of her later works, although I haven't used it much. Since I had lots of veggies from my garden and a Porter Farms CSA bag, I decided I’d try her recipe for Ratatouille. Whenever I hear the name of the dish I think of a former coworker, John, who used to call it Rat-a-phooey. I was hoping to make a version that didn’t justify John’s name. Here’s my shorthand version of the recipe, along with how it went for me.

Ratatouille
Adapted from Julia Child, “The Way to Cook
6-8 servings

1 pound fresh shiny firm eggplant
Salt, as needed
1 pound zucchini
¼ to 1/3 cup olive oil, as needed
Thyme, oregano, or a bottled herb blend
1 pound (3 ½ cups, sliced) onions
2 or 3 large green bell peppers (2 cups sliced) – I used a variety of peppers I had received in my Porter Farms CSA bag
3 large cloves of garlic, pureed – I used jarred minced garlic
3 cups tomato pulp (fresh tomatoes peeled, seeded & juiced)

Cut unpeeled eggplant into crosswise slices 3/8 inch thick. Salt lightly on each side and spred on paper towels. Cut zucchini lengthwise into 2-inch slices 3/8 inch thick (I sliced crosswise). Salt the zucchini slices, as for the eggplant. Let both stand 20 minutes; pat dry in paper towels.

Preheat oven to 400 F. Arrange the eggplant in 1 or 2 lightly oiled jelly roll pans. Paint lightly with oil and sprinkle with herbs. Cover with fil and bake 15 to 20 minutes, until just tender, but do not overcook; the slices must hold their shape.

Film the frying pan with 1 1/6 inch of olive oil. Dry the zucchini slices and brown lightly on each side; remove to paper towels. Adding a little more oil if necessary, saute the onions until tender but not browned. Stir in the peppers and garlic; fold and toss over moderately high heat for several minutes, until fairly tender. Set aside ½ cup of the tomatoes. Fold the rest into the onions and peppers; toss, adding salt and herbs to taste, until the tomatoes have rendered their juice; continue for several minutes until the juices have almost boiled off.

(All this went fine and things seemed to be shaping up nicely. I ran into trouble during the next step, which the recipe said should take about 30 minutes.)

Set aside 4 of the best-looking slices of eggplant for final decoration. Arrange the rest of the vegetables in several layers in the casserole, starting and ending with the onion mixture. Arrange the reserved tomato and eggplant decoratively over the top. Cover and bring to the simmer over moderate heat, either on top of the stove or in a 325 F oven. When bubbling gently, uncover, tip the casserole, and baste with the juices rendered; repeat several times until the juices have almost evaporated. Serve hot, warm or cold.

Well, after about 30 minutes at 325, my ratatouille was not bubbling at all, but it had a lot of liquid. The rest of the dinner was close to being ready, so I turned the heat up to 375 and uncovered the casserole. I tried basting with the juices, but it was awkward to tip my heavy Emile Henry casserole with one hand while trying to spoon the juices with the other, and I felt like its contents would come spilling out. About 15 minutes later I served it, even though the juices hadn't evaporated very much.

The flavor of the ratatouille was pretty good, but I didn’t like the super soft texture of the veggies. If it had been in smaller pieces, it might have been good as a chunky pasta sauce. My son with the adventurous palate took a bite and didn’t like it. Tom forced down a serving, but probably would agree with John’s moniker of “Rat-a-phooey.” Sorry, Julia...

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Everyday (Light) Macaroni and Cheese

I’m a big fan of “Cooks Illustrated” magazine. I have every annual bound volume since it began publishing in 1993, as well as number of their cookbooks. I don’t always agree with their assessment of what “the best” is, but their recipes are dependably good.

When I saw the company had put out a book called “The Best Light Recipe,” I knew I wanted the book. I am always looking to cut calories and fat from my diet, but I just can’t hack some of the “light” fare that’s out there. I had a feeling the Cooks Illustrated book would strike the right balance between taste and calories, and use only convenience foods that actually taste good. At first glance, my assumptions appeared to be correct.

I made my first recipe from the book -- Everyday Macaroni and Cheese. It was very creamy, kind of like the frozen Stouffers stuff, but with a sharper flavor. I prefer a baked macaroni and cheese, but this was good for weeknights. My kids even liked it.

Everyday Macaroni and Cheese

From “The Best Light Recipe”

Salt
1/2 pound elbow macaroni (about 2 cups)
1 (12-ounce) can reduced-fat evaporated milk
3/4 cup 2 percent milk, divided (I used 1 percent because that’s what I had)
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
1/8 teaspoon garlic powder or celery salt (optional) (I didn’t use)
Pinch cayenne (I didn’t use – I was out)
2 teaspoons cornstarch
8 ounces 50 percent light cheddar cheese, grated (about 2 cups) (I used Cabot brand, which was recommended. Don’t use preshredded or nonfat.)

Bring 2 1/2 quarts water to boil in a large saucepan. Stir in 2 teaspoons salt and the macaroni; cook until the pasta is completely cooked and tender, about 5 minutes. Drain pasta and leave it in the colander; set aside.

Add the evaporated milk, ½ cup of the milk, mustard, other seasonings (if using), and ½ teaspoon salt to the now-empty pan. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Whisk the cornstarch and remaining 1/4 cup milk together, then whisk it into the simmering mixture. Continue to simmer, whisking constantly, until the sauce has thickened and is smooth, about 2 minutes.

Off the heat, gradually whisk in the cheddar until melted and smooth. Stir in the macaroni, and let the macaroni and cheese sit off the heat until the sauce has thickened slightly, 2 to 5 minutes, before serving.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Bazil Italian Restaurant

My mom and stepdad, Bill, visited in late August, right before school started. With all the hustle bustle of school starting (and sick kids that week), I didn’t get a chance to post a review of the restaurant we went to – Bazil.

Because Mom puts a high value on a restaurant’s atmosphere, I was leaning toward a restaurant on the water. And since we were bringing the boys, I wanted to find a place that had food and atmosphere appropriate for kids.

I chose Bazil because it’s right on Irondequoit Bay, and it has a big deck that overlooks the water. Although I hadn’t been there, I looked at the menu online, and it looked like it had something that everyone in our group would like. As it turned out, we were seated inside at a table with no view of the water, but the atmosphere was fine. It had that Tuscan terra cotta look that’s popular in Italian restaurants these days.

If you’re going to Bazil on a weekend, it’s helpful to know that while they don’t accept reservations, you can call ahead to get your name on the list of people waiting to be seated. We did that, and waited about 15 minutes for our table. While we waited, my husband took the boys to watch the ducks and swans swim in the bay. Mom, Bill and I had a drink at the bar.

When the waitress came to take our order, my mom asked, “what do you suggest?” This is her usual strategy for ordering in a new restaurant. I understand why she does this, as the staff is likely to know what’s good. On the other hand, it seems to put the waitress in a predicament, because if she recommends something the diner doesn’t end up liking, her tip could suffer as a consequence.

The waitress mentioned that the Marsala and Pomodoro sauces were especially good. Mom asked about Veal Marsala, and the waitress said it was good “if you like mushrooms.” I asked about the alfredo sauce and she said it was “rich.” Well, alfredo sauce is, by definition, rich – so I didn’t really give it much thought, and stuck with my original choice.

The food started with warm, garlicky, soft breadsticks. (That's Bill with one above.) Our table devoured them quickly.

Entrees at Bazil come with a colorful salad that is served family style. It included carrots, chickpeas, croutons, grape tomatoes, and a few other things. To my taste, the salad was underdressed. I don’t like a salad drowning in salad dressing, but I didn’t taste any dressing at all. This may have been more Mom’s fault than the restaurant’s. When we ordered, she had asked for the dressing “on the side.” This isn’t easily accommodated with the way Bazil serves the salad, so she told the waitress she didn’t like a lot of salad dressing. As a result, they may have used less salad dressing than usual.

I was in the mood for pasta and seafood, so I ordered Shrimp & Garlic Ravioli ($14.79). The menu said that it came with a half dozen shrimp, but I really had to sift through the thick alfredo sauce to find them. These weren’t jumbo shrimp – you could easily fit each shrimp on a quarter. The sauce was super thick, not especially garlicky, and studded with bits of something that gave it an off taste. I still can’t quite figure out those bits were – they tasted kind of like a sun-dried tomatoes, but with the crumbly texture of fake bacon bits. At any rate, it wasn’t a dish I’d order again.

Mom’s entree, in contrast, looked excellent. The Veal Marsala ($14.79) had a generous portion of sauteed veal that was served over pasta. It was smothered with fresh mushrooms and covered with a marsala wine sauce that smelled wonderful. I had a bite, and it was as good as it smelled.

Bill selected a pizza, which had a thin and crispy crust, and said he liked it. Tom had Meat Ravioli Marinara ($11.88 -- what is with the weird pricing?). He enjoyed it enough to have his plate refilled (the stuffed pastas are all you can eat). I don’t recall what the kids ordered, but there were no complaints.

Had I been there without Mom and Bill, who are not dessert eaters, I probably would have suggested that we split the restaurant’s special dessert – the funnel cake. The menu says the carnival-style funnel cake is topped with vanilla bean ice cream, caramel topping, chocolate shavings and whipped cream. It sounds like heaven on a plate to me. I may have to go back, if only to try that.

Have you been to Bazil? If so, what did you think of it?
When you are dining out, do you ask the wait staff for recommendations? Leave a comment!

Bazil on Urbanspoon

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Caramel apples from a mix

My younger son has been after me to make caramel apples with the apples we picked last weekend. I spotted a box that said "Make 12 Caramel Apples!" in the produce department at Tops, so I thought this would be an easy way to get the job done. I looked at the first step in the directions, which called for milk, so I assumed that was all I'd need. Turns out, I was wrong about a couple of things -- one, it wasn't an easy way to make caramel apples, and two, milk wasn't all I needed.

Before I recount the process, let me just say that I've got some experience in the art of making caramel apples. In my high school and college days, I worked at Six Flags Great America, a theme park north of Chicago. Most of my time there was in the merchandise department, selling souvenirs and other items in themed shops. One popular item was caramel apples, which were usually delivered from outside the park. Once in a while, however, we didn't get a caramel apple delivery, and I had to go to one of the park restaurants to make some. I'd dip each apple in a giant vat of molten caramel, then roll it around and around the side of the vat to get just the right thickness -- too much caramel and it ends up in a pool under the apple. The process took place in the front window of the restaurant, so everyone could watch me at work. If they weren't interested in the caramel dipping, the could have gotten some amusement watching my hair. Standing over that steamy vat made my hair frizz so much that I practically had a 'fro. Imagine that, along with the thick plastic-rimmed glasses that covered half of my face -- I was quite a fox!

Back to the present ... I did the first step -- mixing the mix with 8 ounces of milk. But step number two called for me to add 2 1/2 cups of sugar! I didn't have that much sugar, so I took the mixture off the heat and my husband amiably went to the store to get some. While he was gone, I stewed about the product's poor packaging -- it should say "just add milk and sugar" right on the front. When he returned, I put the mixture back on the heat, boiled it for two minutes, and then added all that sugar. It instructed me to bring the mixture to a boil, then boil until the candy reached the soft ball stage, stirring occasionally.

When I see "candy thermometer" and "soft ball stage" on directions, I always get a little nervous. This kind of candy making just isn't my strength. Well, the mixture boiled and boiled, and I stirred and stirred, but the candy temperature wasn't going up very quickly. I did get a chance to show my son the concept of the stages of candy making, dripping some of the liquid into ice water and forming it into a little ball. Hmmm ... how soft should that ball be? Could my thermometer be wrong? Finally I remembered a recipe I had seen that instructed you NOT to stir, and I stopped. Voila! The temperature went up quickly to to 242 degrees, and I removed it from the heat and allowed it to cool for 10 minutes (per the instructions).

When we started dipping the apple in the caramel, it was apparent that the mixture wasn't deep enough for dipping, so we rolled the apple in the caramel mixture. After a few apples, the mixture became too stiff, so I spread the caramel on the apples with a knife. Then the mixture became too thick for even a knife, and the stuff left in the pan looked like pralines.


The apples look pretty awful -- not nearly as beautiful as the ones I made in my Six Flags days -- and the caramel is so hard that it could pull your fillings out. I hate to let those apples go to waste, so I'm devising a strategy for getting the hard caramel off of them. I'm thinking of microwaving them, scraping the caramel off, then using the apples for applesauce.

If my son talks me into trying this again, I'm going to go my usual route of buying a package of caramels and melting them with a tablespoon or so of water. I always thought unwrapping the caramels was a big pain, but it's nothing compared to the process we went through today.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Benucci's Contemporary Italian Cuisine

My friend, Marie, and I went out for dinner and a movie (Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont) last night. We decided on Benucci’s for dinner.

We’ve eaten at Benucci’s several times. It’s conveniently located in the same strip mall as the Pittsford Plaza theater, is reasonably priced, and the Italian food has been dependably good.

Our dinner started with bread and garlic butter, which is complimentary with every meal. The bread, which is usually served warm, was cold. The butter, redolent with garlic, was delicious as usual.

Marie ordered her favorite dish, Pasta Bolognese ($8.95). When it arrived, I took one look at the dish and asked her, “does that look like Bolognese sauce to you?” It looked like a thin red marinara sauce with bits of meat in it – which is NOT a Bolognese sauce. Bolognese sauce is a thick meat sauce that sometimes contains tomatoes, but does not look like a red sauce. Marie agreed that it didn’t look like a Bolognese sauce, and when she tasted it, she said it was bland and very different from the Bolognese sauce she’s had at Benucci’s before.

We asked the waitress if she was sure the cook got the order correct, and she said that Marie had, in fact, received Bolognese sauce. When Marie explained she had had the Bolognese sauce there before and it wasn’t like this, she explained they had new cooks, and that may be why it was different. She didn’t ask whether Marie was happy with it, or offer to bring something else. Marie didn’t push it, but she was disappointed with her meal.

The situation brought to mind the book “Taste” by Bill Buford, which I read a few weeks ago. The book discussed chef Mario Batali’s restaurants, and the fact that Batali is a fanatic with the consistency of the dishes served at them. His belief was that people who order a given dish want it to be exactly the same each time they eat it, regardless of who’s cooking it. I didn’t give that much thought when I read the book, but now I’ve realized that Batali is exactly right in this philosophy.

Admittedly, Benucci’s doesn’t charge anywhere near the prices that Batali charges at his restaurants, so I wouldn’t expect the same level of perfection from them. I would think, however, that restaurants have a series of recipes that all the cooks work from. I can’t imagine how a recipe for the Bolognese sauce Marie had eaten in the past would result in the sauce that was served last night.

I ordered a wood-fired pizza called Pizza Rustica ($8.95). It was a tomato sauce-based pizza topped with Italian sausage, artichoke hearts, garlic, roasted red peppers, and caramelized onions. The combination of ingredients was tasty enough (although the onions weren’t caramelized), but I was disappointed with the crust. I expect a wood-fired pizza to have a crisp, cracker-like crust. This one sagged when I picked it up, so I had to eat it with a knife and fork. The only part of the crust that was crisp was the outside edges.

All in all, it was a disappointing evening from a usually dependable restaurant.

Have you recently eaten at Benucci’s? If so, do you think they were just having an off night? Please feel free to leave a comment.

Benuccis on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Wegmans Ultimate Chocolate Cake (and my teeny tiny role in it)

More than a year ago, I got a call from Mary Ellen Burris, senior vice president of consumer affairs at Wegmans Food Markets. (I enjoyed meeting Mary Ellen at the Pillsbury Bake-off contest in 2004.) She asked if I would be interested in being a judge for an internal chocolate cake contest at Wegmans – and Danny Wegman (Wegmans CEO) and Gale Gand would be among the judges.

Suffice it to say I was thrilled at the invitation.

Once the excitement of the invitation wore off, however, my nerves set in. I had no idea about what the judging process would be like. And since I’ve almost never had a chocolate cake I didn’t like, I was worried I wouldn’t have much to contribute to the judging – especially in a room with the likes of Gale Gand and Danny Wegman.

As it turned out, I didn’t have reason to be nervous. Danny, Gale and the other Wegmans executives were all very pleasant. And I found, to my surprise, that there were significant differences among the chocolate cakes.

This was more than a year ago and I didn’t take notes, but I’ll describe the judging to the best of my recollection. The judging happened in two groups of eight cakes, each of which had won a regional competition. We were given a sheet for rating each cake and we quietly tasted the cakes and recorded our marks.

During the judging, I was seated between Joe McKenna, Wegmans executive chef, and Jack DePeters, a VP. I watched Joe McKenna out of the corner of my eye to see how he approached the task. He slowly and methodically took a bite of the cake, then a bite of the frosting, then a bite of cake and frosting together, and then marked his scores. I had Googled Joe McKenna before the contest, so I knew Joe knew his stuff. He used to teach at the Culinary Institute of America and has won many culinary competitions and awards. I decide to imitate his method, tasting the cake and frosting separately, then together. This in itself was interesting, because there were instances where I wasn’t wild about one of the elements, but thought the combination of the two were very good.

After tasting a number of cakes, I noticed that the majority of the cakes had a good moist texture, but few had a pronounced chocolate flavor. Finally, my curiosity got the best of me (not to mention that I’m exquisitely uncomfortable not talking for a long period of time). I said to Joe, “is it my imagination, or are most of these cakes not very chocolatey?” He explained that working with chocolate is tricky because too much sweetness mutes the chocolate flavor.

Some of the cakes had different flavors in them. One had raspberry, and my take was that a chocolate-raspberry cake was a different animal than “the ultimate chocolate cake.” Several had a pronounced coffee flavor. Adding coffee wasn’t a bad idea, because coffee can intensify the flavor of chocolate, but some tasted like more like mocha than like chocolate. Some cakes had a very dark, almost black color. Gale explained that the color came from the kind of cocoa powder that was used. Those cakes would be great for Halloween but struck me as somewhat unappealing.

We took a break after the first eight cakes, and Wegmans served us lunch – sandwiches and the like. I found myself, however, craving protein. All I wanted was a chicken breast with no carbs whatsoever. This is a rare state for me, as I love sweets, pastas, and so on. But the combination of the caffeine and sugar in the chocolate cakes gave me a case of the jitters.

About midway through the judging, Jack, who sat to the left of me, grew tired of silently tabulating our scores, and started chatting with me. We compared notes on the cakes (after recording our scores), but we mostly talked about such things as boating on the Great Lakes. I remember a lot of chuckling, as he had a quick wit. Joe, on the other side of me, kept up his serious, silent, methodical process of tasting first the cake, then the frosting, then both. His seriousness was understandable, as he’d have a large role in bringing the cake to market.

During the second group of cakes, I found I had a stronger opinion about them. A couple stood out as being exceptionally chocolatey and moist, and others I didn’t like at all. I don’t know whether the cakes in that group were that much better or worse, or if I had developed a stronger opinion of what I did and didn’t like. Each time I wrote down my scores, I’d jot down little notes about each cake, assuming that we’d discuss the scores at the end to come to an agreement on the winner.

Once the tasting was done, we handed in our score sheets and Joe told us we could take a break while he tallied the scores. After the break, he told us which cake won. I was surprised, as I thought there would be some discussion, but evidently the winners were pretty clear cut.

The awards ceremony was held in an atrium in the Wegmans headquarters. As the contestants and Wegmans employees gathered, I got a chance to chat with Gale Gand. She was friendly and approachable – she struck me as someone I’d enjoy palling around with. We chatted a little bit about the Pillsbury Bake-off contest, and I grilled her about her show (“Sweet Dreams” on the TV Food Network). I learned that they film all the episodes in a few days, one right after the other. She said it’s a melancholy feeling as they are doing the last episode, because burly union guys hover around, ready to break down the set.

The ceremony was fun, because we got to see the people behind the winning cakes. The woman who won received a class at the Culinary Institute of America – I was envious!

I went home with an autographed Gale Gand cookbook, which was a gift from Wegmans, as well as (believe it or not) some chocolate cake. During the judging, I had mentioned that my sons were desperately interested in the contest, so one of the Wegmans employees set aside a small piece of each cake for me. He put them all together to form a cake out of 16 different pieces. It was very thoughtful -- I appreciated it.

You would think that after tasting 16 chocolate cakes that I’d swear off chocolate cake for a long while. By the end of the judging, I thought I wouldn't have any for awhile. But I actually had some the next day. I was curious to taste the winner to confirm that it was really “the ultimate chocolate cake.” I honestly believed the group made a very good choice. And both sons enjoyed tasting the other cakes and telling me their critiques.

Turn the calendar to more than a year later ... a week or so ago, I went to Wegmans, and there was a display of “The Ultimate Chocolate Cake.” At last! I bought the mini cake – put the tips of your fingers and thumbs together to make a circle, and it’s roughly that size – for $7. I cut it into quarters.

The cake was very moist and intensely chocolaty. A quarter of that little cake completely satiated my need for chocolate – for a day, that is. I suspect that the fudgy frosting is even more chocolaty (less sweet) than the frosting on the original winning cake. In any case, I’m pleased to say that I had a teeny tiny role in that cake!

If you want to read about the contest, here’s a link to the Wegmans press release.

(P.S. No, Wegmans did not share the recipe.)

Sunday, September 17, 2006

It's apple picking time!


One of our family’s fall traditions is to go apple picking. New York is second only to Washington in apple growing in the U.S., and there are several places in the Rochester area to choose from.

Our favorite is Green Acres, which is west of the city in the suburb of Greece. Green Acres grows many varieties of apples, including several you don’t commonly see at the grocery store. The prices are very reasonable – 40 cents per pound for most varieties and 80 cents per pound for Honeycrisp.

Last year, we went in October and I was dismayed to have missed my two favorite varieties – Honeycrisp for eating and 20-Ounce for baking. As a result, I’ve been calling the Green Acres U-Pick line for a couple of weeks now to make sure I didn’t miss out again. I finally got the recording I was waiting for -- it’s Honeycrisp time!

If you haven’t had a Honeycrisp, be sure to try one if you have a chance. They are shown in the picture above. They are very crisp and have a sweet flavor with a touch of tartness. Because they are not as plentiful as some of the other varieties, they are more expensive – but they are worth it!

For baking, 20-ounce apples are a local favorite. They are really large (although not as large this year as I’ve seen in previous years) so you have to peel and slice fewer apples. They aren't as pretty as some of the other varieties -- they often have a bumpy surface -- but they make great pies and applesauce. That’s our bag of 20-ounce apples at right.


We also picked some Arlets and Galas. Both were smallish but great for eating. I think the Arlets (left) have an especially pretty color.

I’ll really enjoy eating and cooking with these apples. We’ll probably use them up in a few weeks, and go back in October to try some different varieties.

What's your favorite Rochester-area apple orchard? What's your favorite New York State apple? Leave a comment!

Friday, September 15, 2006

Comfort Me with Nathan's


Yesterday was rainy and gloomy, and to top it off, it was mammogram day. After my appointment, I was in need of some serious comfort food, and specifically wanted a good bowl of soup. And the best place for soup in the Rochester area is Nathan’s Soup & Salad on Park Avenue.

Or at least, I thought it was.

I used to go to Nathan’s fairly often when I was working at Buck & Pulleyn, back when the agency was located in a former school in Irondequoit. Nathan’s was inexpensive, dependably delicious, and not too far away from the office. But I haven’t been to Nathan’s since I left the agency business after my younger son was born – and that was almost 10 years ago.

I drove through the rain toward the city and tried to remember whether I had heard if Nathan’s still was open. I may have read a review of it in the newspaper, I thought hopefully. Oh, please let it still be there, I mentally pleaded, and please let it still have cheesy tomato bisque and that soft, warm, chewy cheese bread.

As I made my way down tree-lined Park Avenue, I struggled to get a glimpse of the tiny storefront. I didn’t see it at first, but then I spotted a line of people extending out a doorway. Yes! Nathans!

The next task was finding a parking spot. Nathan’s is situated in the middle of a brick building that houses several businesses. At the end of the building sits a CVS pharmacy that has a roomy parking lot. And on every parking spot – lots of empty ones – is a sign that reads something like, “Parking for CVS only. Violators will be shot on the spot.” Back in the ‘90s, CVS used to have a guy that would patrol the lot to make sure the people who parked there actually went into CVS, and yell at you if you dared to go anywhere else while you were parked there. I’ve hated CVS ever since.

It didn’t take long, though, for me to find an open parking space on a nearby side street. As I walked past that unfriendly CVS, I caught a whiff of the Nathan’s aroma. Hooray! It smelled just as I remembered.

I entered the door and saw that very little had changed. The menu was still written on two chalkboards – one board for the soups, which change daily, and the other for salads, which I’ve never tried. But woe of woes, all but two of the nine soups had been erased! In other words, they had sold out of the other seven. All that remained was chili con carne and vegetarian vegetable. I would have been disappointed, but people were successfully ordering cheese bread, and I’m happy to eat any kind of soup as long as I eat it with their cheese bread.

As I waited, I recognized two of the three guys behind the counter from a decade ago. They both knew many of their customers and remembered their usual orders. People still moved in a quick and orderly oval – they lined up along the wall to the right, turned left at the beverage cooler at the end of the narrow room, placed their order in front of the steaming containers of soup, then moved down to the cash registers next to the door.

When it was my turn to order, however, I froze with indecision.

“I’ll have the vegetable ... no, the chili ... no, how about a cup of both,” I said, feeling foolish.

“That’s a good choice,” the guy said. “Both soups are really good.”

So I got the two cups of soup, along with the cheese bread, for a total of $4.75. There are no chairs at Nathan’s; it’s carry out only.

At home, I paused to take a quick picture of the food. Looking at the shot now, I should have cleaned up the bowl of chili, but I was really hungry.

I ate the chili first, along with the cheese bread. Nathan's breads are soft and chewy - I'm glad they didn't feel the need to switch to the crusty artisan breads that are so trendy now. The breads are baked in individual loaf pans and have three different fillings – onion, garlic, and cheese. The onion is pretty good, but I prefer the cheese, which has a cheddar ribbon through the middle. I’d love to be able to replicate it at home, but I haven’t found a recipe that’s anything like it.

The cheese bread was just as I remembered, and along with the chili, satisfied my need for comfort food. I saved the vegetarian vegetable for today's lunch. But Nathan’s soup just wouldn’t be right without cheese bread. I may have to go back for another loaf.

Have you eaten at Nathan's? If so, what's your favorite soup there?

Nathan's Old Fashioned Soups on Urbanspoon

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Etna Italian Pastry Shop



The Etna location in East Rochester is no more -- there's still one on Lyell Avenue. Here's what the East Rochester location was like...

My friend and I go out for coffee almost every Wednesday morning during the school year. It’s for an hour or less, just to catch up. Our usual spot is Dunkin Donuts because it’s close and quick, but we’re both pretty tired of it.

I saw an article on Etna Italian Pastry Shop in nearby East Rochester. It quoted a woman who went there for breakfast, so I persuaded Diane to give it a try.

The shop was gleaming, spotless, and attractively decorated. It has two large cases of Italian cookies, cakes and pastries. A third case holds gelatos that look creamy and delicious.

For breakfast, though, it was slim pickings. They had a few choices of coffees from Finger Lakes Coffee Roasters in thermal pots, including my favorite, Jamaican Me Crazy. There were a few bagels and muffins, none of which were baked there. In fact, the muffins look suspiciously like Wegmans muffins (which are one of the very few baked goods from Wegmans that I’m not thrilled with). I don’t get it. They can bake all those beautiful pastries, cakes, and cookies, and they can’t bake up a few muffins or scones?

The case of the Italian cookies brought to mind the first Italian wedding I attended here – Vince and Stephanie’s. Now, I couldn’t tell you what music they danced to or what flowers they had, but I can tell you all about the desserts!

First we had the wedding cake – a moist, delicious carrot cake. Then we were served Irish Cream in little chocolate cups. Then two enormous trays of colorful cookies were brought out. As I was reflecting that the Italians sure do know how to eat, a bunch of older ladies went up to the trays of cookies, piled the cookies in napkins, and put the napkins in their purses! I remarked on this to my friend, Marie, who explained that this is a tradition at Italian weddings around here, and followed suit. When in Rome, they say, so I took a few with chocolate frosting and put them in my purse.

I thought it was an odd tradition, but maybe they’d think the same about my family weddings. These usually include people dancing -- the women with their shoes off -- until sweat is pouring off their bodies. And heavy drinking, with beer often being the beverage of choice. On my Dad’s side of the family, my cousins have been known to do shots – one that involves setting two of your fingers on fire. (I’m not kidding.)

But back to Etna. We won’t be going back there for breakfast, but I know I’ll return for some gelato. While I’m there, maybe I’ll buy a couple of cookies and stuff them in my purse for later. They just wouldn’t taste right without the funky aroma of my purse.

Monday, September 11, 2006

"They Didn't Start the Fire"

I'm doing some noodling, so to speak, for the National Chicken Cooking Contest. I haven't come up with anything worth entering yet, but I hope that will change by the October 15 deadline.

While I'm up to my elbows in chicken, I thought I'd post a link to a funny posting on another blog. You will be amused if:
1. You remember Billy Joel's song, "We Didn't Start the Fire" (I like Billy Joel, saw him in concert twice, but that wasn't his best song) AND
2. If you've spent too much time watching Food TV (as I did this summer).

It's a spoof on the Billy Joel song, only it's called They Didn't Start the Fire. Hope you laugh as much as I did.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Michael Chiarello's Roasted Tomato Soup

We went to a football party today and I thought I’d use some more tomatoes from our garden. I originally was going to take bruschetta, but since our weather is a little cool, I thought I’d make soup instead. I used a recipe that I had seen Michael Chiarello make on the TV Food Network. It was easy to make -- I was glad I didn’t need to seed and peel 12 tomatoes! It was smooth, thick, and hearty, and people were surprised that it’s also healthy. I made a few minor changes. Here’s the way I made it:

Roasted Tomato Soup with Bruschetta Croutons

Yield: 8 one-cup servings

For the soup:
12 large (about 4 pounds) tomatoes, stemmed and quartered
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1/4 cup good-quality balsamic vinegar
12 large garlic cloves, peeled
Salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup chopped yellow onions
2 cups lightly packed fresh basil leaves
2 cups cold water

For the bruschetta:
1 loaf country-style bread (I used a Wegmans’ batard)
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt (I used roasted garlic gray sea salt)

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.

Prepare the tomatoes. In a large bowl, mix the tomatoes, 1/4 cup of the oil, the vinegar, garlic, salt, and pepper. Spread the tomatoes on a nonreactive* baking sheet. Roast the tomatoes in the oven until very dark in spots, 40 to 45 minutes. Remove and allow to cool.

Prepare the bruschetta. Cut the bread crosswise into slices about 1-inch thick. Lightly brush the slices on both sides with oil and season with salt. Place the slices on a baking sheet and toast in the oven until the bruschetta are golden brown and just beginning to crisp, about 7 minutes.

In a large saucepan over medium heat, combine remaining 2 tablespoons oil, the onions, and a pinch of salt. Cook until the onions are very soft, 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the 2 cups basil leaves and saute with the onions for about 1 minute.

Add the roasted tomatoes and water to the saucepan. Bring the mixture to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes. Puree the tomato mixture in a blender (start at slow speed and increase gradually) or use an immersion blender right in the pot (that’s what I did). The mixture should be smooth. Taste and adjust seasonings.

You can prepare the soup to this point and refrigerate it. When ready to serve, pour the soup into a medium saucepan and warm it over medium heat. I served it in a crock pot. Heat it on high, then turn it down to low. Because it is thick, it can burn in the crock pot, so keep checking it and stirring it. I’m also going to try freezing it – I don’t see why it wouldn’t work.

I served the soup with bruschetta on the side. People dipped the bruschetta into the soup. The original recipe called for the bruschetta to be put in the center of a shallow soup bowl, with the soup poured around it.

* Do not use aluminum or cast iron when cooking with tomatoes or wine. Stick with non-reactive cookware such as enamel, Pyrex, or stainless steel. I know this is a rule, but I don't really know why...

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The “Heat” of the Moment

I’m still under the weather, so I polished off “Heat,” by Bill Buford, in the past day or so.

The first part of the book was about Buford’s experience as a "slave" in Mario Batali’s kitchen. He paints a vivid portrait of Chef Batali in all his debauched glory. That part of the book is a riot (and confirmed to me, once again, that I have no desire to cook in a restaurant).

Then Buford decides he needs to go to Italy to study the real Italian way of cooking – and the tone turns ultra serious. First he details his efforts at learning the mysteries of pasta. As an example, he doggedly digs through ancient cookbooks to discover the year Italians started using egg in their pasta instead of water (I never got interested enough to care).

Then it’s on to butchering, where he describes in great detail the various cuts of meats he learned about at an Italian butcher shop. He cuts along the bone, using the knife as an extension of his hand, and extracts a beautiful cut of meat called the whatchamajigger, and he looked in lots of books to figure out what the whatchamajigger is called in America and, wonder of wonders, the cuts and terms in each country are different! You get the idea. Now, my grandfather and great-grandfather were butchers. Surely Buford could interest me in a topic that is an integral part of my family history. Nope. I actually started skipping pages.

When I reserve books at the library, it never fails that two come at once. Sure enough, when I picked up “Heat,” there was “My Life in Paris” by Julia Child.

After I’m done with that, I hope I’m finally well enough to get my nose out of books and into the kitchen.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

A few notes on books & TV

I (along with the rest of my family) have been under the weather for a few days now, so I’ve caught up on some reading and TV watching.

I finished the two books I took to Birmingham – “Fat Girl” by Judith Moore and “The Soul of a Chef” by Michael Ruhlman. Lordy, but both of these authors take their subjects seriously. I haven’t done a book review since college, but I'll give you my two cents.

On the back cover of “Fat Girl,” three of the quoted reviewers use the word “funny.” I wish someone could point out the funny parts of this book to me. I found the book to be sad, sad, sad. As a young girl, the author bounced from place to place, with a mom who came and went and no dad in her life. Her mother, when she was around, was physically and mentally abusive. No wonder the woman was fat – food was one thing that gave her a tiny bit of comfort and pleasure. If you don’t have an empathetic place in your heart for fat people, particularly fat kids, please read this book. If you’re looking for funny – even darkly funny – this isn’t the book for you.

“The Soul of a Chef” chronicles the author’s search for perfection in food. It’s in three parts. The first recounts the Certified Master Chef exam at the Culinary Institute of America. The second and third are about two chefs – Michael Symon and Thomas Keller. All of this is worlds away from what I do in my kitchen, but it was interesting in an esoteric sort of way.

Moving on to TV, in the summer, when there’s nothing else to watch, I Tivo a whole bunch of food programs, mostly stuff from the TV Food Network. Now, I know a lot of people interested in food bemoan the fact that the TV Food Network is moving away from a “how-to” format in many of its shows. After watching several of those kinds of shows in a row, though, I can see why they are doing it. These shows get monotonous – even with a stooped-over troll of a guy yelling “BAM!” I mean really, the host tells you what wonderful food he/she is going to cook, then he/she cooks it, then he/she raves or moans about how wonderful it is. Where’s the drama in that? Give me “Iron Chef America” any day. I want to see burnt stuff tossed in the garbage. I want to see people burning or cutting themselves. I want to see people say “blech” when they taste the food. That’s drama. That’s real cooking. That’s entertainment!

Monday, September 04, 2006

Tomato sauce from fresh tomatoes

It’s Labor Day weekend, which is usually our time for doing a few things we haven’t done yet. I had been thinking of the Seneca Park Zoo and/or Seabreeze, as well as doing some grilling.

But noooo ... we’re all battling bugs, one with a crusty eye, another with a sore throat, and another with a chesty cough. The weather hasn’t cooperated either – Saturday and Sunday were gloomy and rainy, and today is a little better with the sun occasionally peeking from behind the clouds.

I had planned to make spiedies -- a local grilled specialty that I’ll write about another time. Instead, I decided to figure out what to do with the tomatoes from my garden and CSA bag. I decided on tomato sauce.

I found in my files a recipe called Classic Tomato Sauce from Donna Hay, who’s a cookbook author from Australia. I don’t have any of her cookbooks, but they look really nice.

My only problem with recipe was that it called for 12 tomatoes or 4 (14 oz) cans. I had 10 tomatoes – some really large, and a couple really small – and it would have been helpful if the recipe indicated how much the tomatoes should weigh. So I peeled, seeded, and chopped the tomatoes and weighed them. They were around three pounds. Because the four cans of tomatoes added up to a little more than that, I added one can of chopped tomatoes.

In the end, the results were pretty good. Next time, I’d leave out the red wine, because I really wanted to highlight the tomato flavor. If I decide I want a red wine flavor, I can add it in when I’m using the sauce. Here’s a paraphrase of the recipe, with my notes:

Classic Tomato Sauce

From “New Food Fast” by Donna Hay

12 tomatoes or 4 (14 oz) cans peeled tomatoes, lightly crushed
1 tablespoon oil (I used extra-virgin olive oil)
1 clove garlic, crushed (I chopped it)
2 small onions, chopped (mine were really small)
1 cup (8 fl oz) red wine (I used a California Merlot. As I said, I wouldn’t use it again.)
2 Tablespoons chopped oregano, basil, or marjoram leaves (I used oregano and basil from my garden)
Cracked black pepper and sea salt

If using fresh tomatoes, peel and chop them. (I also seeded them.)

Heat the oil in a deep frying pan (I used a dutch oven) over medium to high heat. Add the garlic and onion and cook until soft, about 4 minutes.

Add the tomatoes, wine, herbs, pepper and salt and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes if using canned tomatoes and 35 minutes if using fresh. (Because my family likes a smooth sauce, I cooled and used a stick blender to puree.)

Refrigerate for up to 3 days or freeze for up to 4-5 months.

Happy Labor Day!

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Zucchini-roni Pizza

One of our family traditions is “make your own pizza night.” I usually make my own pizza crust, but I didn’t have time tonight, so we used Boboli crusts. The rest of my family generally goes for cheese and pepperoni on their pizzas; one son adds feta cheese, the other, olives. I usually try something more unusual.

Because I had a red pepper and several zucchini from my CSA bag (which I’ll write about another time), I decided to try a recipe from Rachael Ray’s 30 Minute Meals 2. I haven’t had a lot of success with her recipes, mostly because she has an “eyeball it” kind of approach and I’m not an “eyeball it” kind of cook. Each time I make a recipe, I make notes as to whether or not I like the recipe and what I’d change.

This recipe was called “Zucchini-Roni Pizza” because the thin rounds of zucchini are flavored to taste a little like pepperoni. It came out like most of the recipes of hers I’ve tried – pretty good but in need of tinkering. The biggest problem was that it was too heavily seasoned with red pepper flakes, which overpowered the other flavors and left a burning feeling on my lips. I did measure the red pepper flakes when she said to eyeball them – maybe my measuring spoon is more generous than her eyeball. Anyway, here’s my paraphrase and notes of her recipe.

Zucchini-Roni Pizza
Rachael Ray, with my notes and paraphrasing
Makes 1 12-inch pizza (I made an 8-inch pizza and adjusted amounts accordingly)

½ medium zucchini, very thinly sliced (She says to think of pepperoni slices. This is a problem for me because we have a variety of pepperoni slices sold around here. I cut them about 1/8” thick – thicker than a potato chip.)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil (she says a drizzle)
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (she says to eyeball it – I say to measure it, and use more like ½ teaspoon so they don’t overpower everything else)
1 teaspoon dried Italian seasoning (eyeball it, she says again – I measured)
Coarse salt, to taste (I used my new gray salt and probably used a little too much – it may have a stronger flavor than Kosher salt)
2 roasted red peppers, pureed in a food processor
½ pound refrigerated pizza dough (used a Boboli shell)
1 tablespoon flour or corn meal (didn’t use)
½ pound smoked fresh mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced

Preheat oven to 400 degrees, along with a pizza stone if you have one.

Combine the zucchini, garlic, olive oil, red pepper flakes, Italian seasoning and salt in a small bowl. Use your fingers to coat the zucchini with the olive oil and spices. This, she says, is your zucchini-roni. Pause to think about how cute and clever Racheal Ray's recipe names are. Set aside.

Roll out your dough if you’re not using Boboli. Spread the red pepper puree onto the dough/Boboli. Top with slices of the smoked mozzarella. Place the desired amount of zucchini slices on the pizza; do not overlap.

Bake 10 minutes on the middle rack (Halfway through, I tipped the pan to pour off the wetness from the zucchini.) Cheese should be bubbly and golden.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Cooking Light Contest, Day 2

Here’s more on the Cooking Light contest. If you want to read it in order, you may want to read day 1 first.

I never sleep well when I know I have to be up early in the morning. On Tuesday, I was scheduled to catch a van to the contest at 6:45 a.m. I didn’t need an alarm clock. I woke up at 12:30, 2:30, then at 5:30.

Anna and Erin, my two buddies from the 2004 Pillsbury Bake-off, were the other two “early birds.” When we arrived at the Cooking Light test kitchens, we headed to our “fluff and puff” sessions with Celine, a hair and makeup artist. Cooking Light is the first contest I’ve been to that pretties up their contestants. This was a concern for one contestant, who said she was particular with her hair and makeup, but I thought it was “the nuts.” I've always wanted to appear on "What Not To Wear," but I hope I don't look and dress that terribly.

Erin went first, and I hunted down some coffee. When I returned to the “fluff and puff” area, Erin was done. She's very attractive, with long black curls and an olive complexion, and had needed just a few touch-ups.

Anna was next, and Celine styled her hair in a sleek bun. When her hair and makeup was done, Anna looked quite sophisticated.

I was next, and Celine said something like, “this is going to be fun, like a makeover show.” In other words, I needed a LOT of help! She did quite a bit of makeup application and did my hair in kind of a straighter but flippy style. In the end, I thought I looked a little like Steven Cojocaru after his kidney transplant. (He’s the flamboyant guy who talks about fashion on TV ... used to be with the Today show.) But now that I see the pictures from the contest, I think she did a great job. Our finishing looks are at right-- Erin, me, and Anna -- in the pose that Celine said is the most flattering. (I find it more flattering to stand behind things.)

Then it was time to get cooking. It was very comfortable with Anna and Erin cooking right near my kitchen; we chatted as we cooked.

One step of my recipe was browning butter. This is a simple technique that gives the butter a nutty flavor, and I suspect it was the reason I was selected as a finalist. The problem was, I was using a black pan to brown the butter, and it was hard to see the color of the butter. At home, I use a stainless steel pan, and didn’t think to specify the interior color of my pan. I kept pouring the melted butter into a clear bowl to check the color, but I was worried that I was losing butter in the process. I finally took the butter off the heat, but it wasn’t as brown as I do it at home, so it didn’t have the nutty aroma I was going for. The remainder of preparing the dough went smoothly.

As I was preparing my dough, Anna’s pound cake was cooking. It smelled fantastic, just like Bailey’s Irish Cream. I had expected she’d be the one to beat, as she’s done very well in cooking contests, including win the Cooking Light desserts category last year.

I then left the kitchen for a few hours as my dough refrigerated. Cooking Light thoughtfully had set up a break area where we could hang out when we weren’t in the test kitchens. After a few minutes, Anna joined me, followed by Abi, a pleasant, soft-spoken woman from the Los Angeles area. Abi was a finalist in the starters category, with a dish called Mini Dubliner Twice-Baked Potatoes. (When I saw the name of her recipe, my reaction was, “duh, why didn’t I think of that?”) Anna, Abi and I had a pleasant lunch together.

Then it was back to the test kitchen to finish the cookies. My dough is very easy to work with, so rolling out the cookies wasn’t hard at all. But maybe it was the lack of sleep setting in, but I didn’t use my time well. I had hoped to have two trays of cookies out of the oven when it was time to plate the cookies. The plan was to choose the best-looking cookies from the two trays. But when Anna and Gloria’s desserts were done, my second trays of cookies were still in the oven. Because the expectation was that all three entries would go to the judges at once, and I didn’t have a good reason for not being finished, I ended up plating the whole first tray of cookies for the judges.
I placed them in three neat rows on the square platter, then sprinkled the platter with some of the walnut mixture I had used as the topping for my cookies. Then I decided the platter looked too messy, so I took everything off the platter and washed it, putting the cookies back on the platter in three neat rows. Then that looked too plain, so I sprinkled the walnut mixture on the platter again.

I wasn’t the only one who seemed out of sorts. Melissa, who was making a grilled steak entree in the kitchen area with Anna, wasn’t happy with the way her steak was done. When she came in from grilling her steak, she thought it might be overdone. When she cut into it, however, it was rarer than she wanted it to be. I found out later that she’s used to grilling on coals -- she used gas at the contest -- and her dish didn't come out as good as it did at home.

April, who was making an entree called Beef with Spicy Cocoa Gravy, worked in the kitchen with me. She didn’t seem nervous at all, even though this was her first contest. She plated her dish in a large, shallow bowl, with egg noodles on one side, and her stew-like beef dish on the other side. It smelled good, but I didn’t expect it to win that category, because the other two recipes had trendier flavors -- Melissa’s entree having a Miso dressing and Teri’s entree with a pineapple, mango, and red pepper relish.

A cameraman from the local CBS TV station arrived as I was finishing up the cookies. He filmed me getting my cookies out of the oven, as I was the last person to finish cooking. If I was on Birmingham TV, though, I didn’t see it.

When I put my plate of cookies on the tray to go to the judges, I sized up my competition in the dessert category. Anna’s pound cake, which had that wonderful aroma of Irish Cream, was studded with chocolate chips. Even though her cake didn’t bear a frosting, it’s hard to beat something with chocolate in it. Gloria’s lemon-scented blueberry cupcakes were frosted and attractively garnished with blueberries, lemon zest, and fresh mint leaves. I realized I faced not one, but two, stiff competitors in my category.

It’s after cooking at a contest and before the winners are announced that my insecurities get to a fever pitch. After I saw the two other entries in my category, I didn’t like my chances.

The Cooking Light contest was scored on four criteria – taste, use of the sponsor’s product, appearance, and creativity – with taste being weighted most heavily. I thought I might have the edge on creativity and use of the product, because I browned the butter. But I thought Gloria’s pretty cupcakes had the edge on appearance. And I thought both of the others could beat me on taste. My cookies taste good, if you like crispy cookies that aren’t too sweet, but I wouldn’t say they have a “wow” flavor.

Anna, her daughter, and I spent some time shopping in the Homewood area of Birmingham that afternoon. While we drove, Anna echoed my thoughts about Gloria’s cupcakes.

“They looked really nice,” she said, “and it’s hard to beat something with frosting.”

The awards dinner was held at the Cafe DuPont, a gourmet restaurant in downtown Birmingham. It was quite an upscale menu, and I got my first taste of quail and rabbit.

The winners were announced during dessert. The category winners were:
Starters and Drinks: Erin’s Argentine Black Bean Flatbread with Chimichurri Drizzle (I was happy my early-morning buddy won.)
Entrees: April’s Beef with Spicy Cocoa Gravy (I was completely wrong in my assessment of that category.)
Side Salads and Side Dishes: Kelly’s New Fashioned Apple and Raisin Slaw (I didn’t see any of these dishes, but Kelly says it’s very quick and easy to make.)
Desserts: Gloria’s cupcakes

And the grand-prize winner ($10,000 and a $5,000 vacation) was ... Gloria’s cupcakes.

I was very happy for Gloria. Plus, if I’m going to lose, I’d prefer to lose to the thing that wins it all.

Whether I won or lost, it was an excellent contest. I intend to work very hard to get back to it next year.

Look for this year’s winning recipes in the January issue of Cooking Light.
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