Friday, January 30, 2009

In case of emergency, open box.

Any time cake mixes are on sale for 99 cents, I grab a box of spice cake mix to have on hand for my "go-to" emergency cookie recipe. I got the recipe from a friend many years ago, so I'm not sure of its origin.

These cookies have a texture of their own. They aren't as "oatmeal-y" as the usual oatmeal cookie recipe, but they are still nice and chewy.

The spice cake mix gives them a wonderful flavor. They taste great plain, but I think everything is better with a glaze or frosting, so I give them a drizzle of a glaze of confectioner's sugar and a little milk.

Oatmeal Spice Cookies

1 18.25-oz box spice cake mix
1 cup rolled oats (quick oats also work fine)
1/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 large egg
1/4 cup milk
1/2 cup soft butter (1 stick)
1 tsp vanilla

Optional glaze: confectioner's sugar and a little milk.

Preheat oven to 350.

Mix together cake mix, oats and brown sugar. Add egg, milk, butter and vanilla and blend until well combined.

Drop onto greased cookie sheet (I use the smallest Pampered Chef scoop). Bake 8-10 minutes.

If you'd like to glaze them, let cool completely. Mix together confectioner's sugar and just enough milk to make a glaze.

Makes 2 1/2 - 3 dozen

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Top Chef: Super Bowl

Let's get up to date on Top Chef, shall we?

In November, the cheftestants cooked Thanksgiving dinner for the Foo Fighters in Rochester, and the chefs were curiously cooking outside with their sleeves rolled up. Then it was Gail Simmons' bridal shower. Then a Christmas charity celebration. Then BOOM! -- they are at a farm where the sun is shining and the temperature is sweltering and the chefs play with cute animals, then cook them without actually having to slaughter them. Then restaurant wars, when Fabio says they could serve monkey ass in empty clam shells and his team would win. And they did. (This, by the way, was not the first monkey reference on Top Chef. Hung had a monkey that was a lot more talented than his fellow cheftestants.)

This week -- BOOM! -- Padma starts the show by saying, "AS YOU KNOW, the Super Bowl is just around the corner ..." WHAT? Only wild monkeys could come up with this sequence of events!

So now it's Super Bowl and they are doing football squares. I'm not an expert at football, but I know plenty about betting on football and this is messed up. Each chef put his name on one square, then they revealed which food group corresponded to the row on the grid. Then they reveal they are ALL cooking with oats. The whole convoluted thing bugged the heck out of me. Moving on to cooking...

The good thing about having seven chefs left is that we finally have a chance to get a good look at the food.

Jamie draws fruit, and instead of doing a dessert, she does coconut and oat crusted shrimp with a fruit salsa and a sauce that looked delicious.

Hosea makes weiner schnitzel, but pronounced it wrong. "Wiener," for the record, should be said like "VEE-ner." Maybe Hosea should have asked Stefan for the correct pronunciation.

Jeff does three different dishes with the oats -- still not getting the idea that he's better off doing one great dish than three OK ones.

"Jeff is a really good chef," says Carla, "but he can't quiet the creative monkeys. He just can't reign them in." I know people will be mocking out the creative monkeys thing, but it's perfect. I think I have a problem with creative monkeys too.

Stefan, who draws dairy, is doing a banana mousse with a couple of oaty things.

Leah is kind of doing, like, a crust on some fish. She uses some bacon because she likes bacon. What a talent she is.

Fabio gets "vegetable" and isn't happy about it. He makes eggplant crusted with a ton of oatmeal. I love him, but it looks weird.

Carla draws nuts and grains -- how perfect is that? She does a tofu thing that looks earthy crunchy.

The bottom: Leah, Fabio, and Jeff.

The top: Carla (YEAH!), Jamie (YEAH!), and Stefan. And Stefan wins. Groan.

The chefs go in the stew room for a surprise. There are chef coats with their names and "5" for season 5.

Then past season "all-stars" charge in to challenge them. Some of these supposed all-stars were knocked out very early in their seasons. I don't even remember Camille. Each season 5 player will compete with an all-star in a head-to-head cook-off. Whoever loses is up for elimination. What if only one chef loses? What if nobody loses? Seems like a risky format.

The represented football teams: Miami, Seattle, Green Bay, Dallas, New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. The chefs get a cooler of regional ingredients and two hours to plan their meals. The next day they will get 20 minutes to cook a football dish inspired by their city.

Stefan picks Andrea to cook against because he thinks she will be easy to beat - jerk.

Fabio's cooler contains venison for Green Bay. mom and stepmom are both from Wisconsin and are both Green Bay fans (my mom is a fair weather fan but still). I think of sports in Wisconsin as BRATWURST and BEER. And cheese is always big in Wisconsin. Then again, Green Bay is "up north" so what do I know. In any case, venison is a tough ingredient -- maybe more so for Fabio. I've never seen venison used in Italian cooking.

"The hard things is gonna be cook the venison (which sounds more appetizing the way he says "veni-zone") plus cooks something else in those 20 minutes ... that's not kooking, that's rushing," says Fabio. "But I'm a professional chef. There is nothing that can stress me out. If they gonna give me a monkey ass to fill with fried banana I'll come up with something anyway. It's not a problem."

Carla is planning gumbo, which sounds tough in 20 minutes -- but unless you're going to do grilled cheese, I guess anything is tough in 20 minutes.

Leah is going to keep it simple ... more brilliance from her.

"I'm 30 years old and I have to sleep in the bunky bed," Fabio says as he wakes up the next morning. He sure adds entertainment to this season. Then he says he wants to win the money for his mama. She's really sick and needs medical care. That puts a new spin on him, doesn't it?

The Super Bowl cook-off is held in front of cheering culinary students and eliminated contestants from this season.

Leah's strip steak narrowly beats Nikki's chicken liver bruchetta.

Hosea's salmon roll shuts out Miguel's cedar planked salmon.

Carla's gumbo beats Andrew's crayfish crudo. Carla says her husband and stepson love football. Andrew uses an annoying fake southern accent that by itself should make him lose.

Stefan's duo of meats and salads LOSES to Andrea Tex-Mex chili. YEAH!!! The most satisfying moment of the season thus far.

Jamie's cioppino squeaks by Camille's sweet potato and mustard and miso and crab thing. I still have no recollection of Camille.

Jeff and Josie both do strange versions of seviche and Jeff gets spanked.

Fabio does venison and beets and potatoes. Spike does venison and salad and a port reduction. "If your food is big like your mouth, you will win for sure," says Fabio to Spike during the competition. Great line! If only Fabio didn't overcook his venison. Fabio loses the judges vote but wins the student vote.

The chefs from Season 5 win the overall contest, but now the losers are Fabio, Stefan and Jeff -- all who have been doing pretty well thus far.

The winner: CARLA! YEAH! She wins two tickets to the Super Bowl, which I'm guessing will make her husband and stepson very happy. (Actually, I did a little Googling, and found this post that indicates that yes, they were happy -- and didn't know until that night.)

I hold my breath during judges table. Fabio doesn't do himself any favors by arguing with the judges. In the end, Jeff goes home. WHEW! Fabio thanks them for the second chance. I didn't like Jeff at the beginning, but I feel bad for him at the end.

Next week: Eric Ripert. Ooh la la! Love him -- can't wait!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Chocolatey-est Chocolate Crackle Cookies

These cookies, from Martha Stewart Holiday Cookies 2001, are intensely chocolatey and wonderfully chewy, even after they've been in the freezer a few weeks. They have to be the most delicious chocolate crackle cookie on record.

Even so, I think I'm over them -- the dough is a bitch to work with. It's very sticky, even after it's been refrigerated. To keep my hands from being covered in gooey dough, I use my smallest cookie/ice cream scoop and drop the dough directly into a bowl of powdered sugar. Even that isn't easy because the dough doesn't want to come out of the scoop. Once I've dropped a few scoops of dough into the powdered sugar, I jiggle the bowl around until the dough is coated. Then I take them out of the powdered sugar and roll them into neat little balls.

Yummy, if you don't mind the aggravation. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Martha Stewart's Chocolate Crackles

8 oz. bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped (I've used various combinations of semisweet, bittersweet and dark chocolate chips and all work well)
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick (1/4 pound) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/3 cups packed light brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/3 cup milk
1 cup confectioners’ sugar

Melt chocolate (I do this in the microwave, checking and stirring every 30 seconds, but I'm sure Martha does this in a double boiler). Set aside to cool.

In a medium bowl, sift together flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter and brown sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes. Add eggs and vanilla, and beat until well combined. Add melted chocolate. Add flour mixture alternately with milk. Mix on low speed until just combined. Shape dough into a flattened disk and wrap with plastic wrap. Chill in the refrigerator until firm, about 2 hours.

Preheat oven to 350. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper; set aside. Using 1 heaping teaspoon of dough apiece, shape 1-inch balls. Roll each in confectioners’ sugar until completely coated. If any cocoa-colored dough is visible, roll dough in confectioners’ sugar again. (Or, if this is making you nuts, use my method, above.) Place the cookies on prepared baking sheets, 2 inches apart. Bake until flat and the sugar coating splits, 12 to 15 minutes, rotating halfway through.

Transfer to a wire rack, and let cook completely. Store in an airtight container up to 1 week.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Top Chef: Restaurant Wars

I'm elbow deep in household projects and don't have a lot of time to blog. Six days later, here are a few random thoughts about Restaurant Wars:

- I was blown away at what those chefs could do in 30 minutes. In 30 minutes, I couldn't have even decided what to make. Radhika's dish looked wonderful and she did a great job explaining her concept. I wasn't surprised that she won. Leah was more of a surprise.
- Jamie wanted to do seasonal, local, sustainable ingredients, and then she cooked Chilean Sea Bass, which is a politically incorrect dish. Maybe she was serious that she didn't want to win the Quickfire?

The "Chemistry": The thing I noticed about the shots of the "snogging" between Leah and Hosea is that it looked like the video was shot around a wall. My hunch is that they didn't know they were on camera when they were on the couch. Then there are interviews with Hosea and Leah, who appeared to be genuinely guilty and regretful. I wonder if they didn't know they had been caught on camera, and once asked questions about it, were freaking out. Their behavior was not cool, but if that's the way it went down, it's also an uncool way to run a show.

Sunset Lounge:

- How is "Sunset Lounge" the name of an Asian restaurant?
- Would anyone think less about Bridgewater Restaurant knowing their freezers and ovens don't work well? Either way, Stefan coming up with a solution to the freezers without freaking out was badass. At least he has the skills to back up his ego.
- Fabio: "I run the front of the house. We can serve monkey ass in empty clam shell ... we gonna ween thees one." He is SO STINKING ADORABLE! He could probably sell me on monkey ass. As someone said, he was "Fabio-less!"
- The appetizers didn't appeal to me but the entrees looked good. The desserts were gorgeous, as were the mango and chocolate lollipops.
- In his interviews about the restaurant, Hosea seemed to distance himself from Leah. I'll bet he would have thrown Leah under the bus. I'm liking him less and less.

- Great name for a restaurant.
- Poor Radhika appeared to have had no leadership skills. She has done so well in the competition for her food, but didn't seem to put her vision into the restaurant. She was smart to lean on Jamie in the kitchen, but she should have told Jeff to do the front of the house.
- The appetizers and entrees looked wonderful. TOO BAD about Carla's desserts.
- "A train wreck is coming, Lord have mercy I know it is," said Carla about her desserts. "I wasn't happy with what I put out, but I had a good time," she says later. I so like her personality. Honest, funny, positive people are a treasure -- we could all use more Carlas around us. By contrast is the sneering judge from Britain -- I'm not going to bother remembering his name. As an example, about Carla's yogurt: "It reminded me of the career of Elvis Presley. It started off incredibly well..." "... and died on the toilet," finishes the other guest judge. HEY!!!! ELVIS PRESLEY IS AN AMERICAN ICON AND BELOVED DECADES AFTER HIS DEATH. SHUT THE HELL UP ABOUT ELVIS!!!!

In the end, a young woman who clearly has a ton of talent went home. Too bad. Me? I would have sent that British judge packing.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Catching up on two episodes of Top Chef

Last episode: The judges tasted the dishes blind, which, as Fabio told us, did not mean the judges were wearing blindfolds. It meant that the judges didn't know who cooked what. What would we do without Fabio clearing up these things for us?

Seriously, I don't know why they do so few tastings blind. That's the way most cooking contests are done, because it's the most fair. Although it's reality TV, so maybe fairness is not a big priority.

Anyhoo ... Eugene and the blonde chick with the bangs -- Melissa? -- went home. Carla, to my relief, stuck around. She's kind of out there, but I like Carla.

Oh yeah, and they got a new judge, a Brit who seemed to be cut from the same cloth as Simon Cowell. Except Simon Cowell is smart and often right. This guy seems to like the sound of his own voice, but doesn't say much. But we'll see.

On to this episode...

They show Stefan acting like a jerk. Then lo and behold, they showed Hung, who was known as being a jerk in his season. At least he was a funny jerk, though. "I love food. I grew up eating food," he said once. "My monkey could cook ..." was another favorite. Hung is there to judge the QuickFire, which is to create a dish without fresh ingredients. They reveal a whole lot of canned stuff, and tell the chefs they have 15 minutes to cook. Top Chef has to have at least one QuickFire like this each season. Hung's was getting an aisle of the supermarket to cook from, and he created a kooky sculpture out of fruity cereal, and presented it with deadpan seriousness. I miss Hung. Carla is the only entertaining character this year. Oh, and Fabio.

The QuickFire winner: Stefan. Booo!!!!

And whaddya know, Hung wasn't there to plug anything! No cookbook, no restaurant ... gotta love him.

Next the cheftestants draw knives -- pig, lamb, and chicken. And knowing that we saw live animals in the previews, I worry that we're going to see some bloodshed. The challenge is simple -- to create a seasonal lunch including dessert for 16 people -- and if I were the chefs, I'd wonder what the twist was.

The next morning comes the twist...

"We are driving now and we see booshes and trees everywhere and I'm like, it doesn't look like we're going to the Whole Food Market," says Fabio. I know I shouldn't keep quoting him like this but him talking is often the most entertaining part of some of these episodes.

They are at the Stone Barn Center for Food and Agriculture, home to people who look like they are from Ithaca and could sing in the Sim Redmond Band. (A lot of my fellow Rochesterians will get those references.) Then the chefs will cook in Dan Barber's restaurant and serve lunch to more Ithaca types, I'm guessing.

And now I have a terrible feeling they'll be doing some killing. It will be like an episode of No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain. They are all playing around with the animals and I'm just waiting for a farmer to say, "go ahead, kill one."

The chefs wind up in the kitchen and there are sheet pans with the proteins on them. Whew. No killing.

The food we see coming out of the kitchen doesn't blow me away, the way it did in previous seasons, but I think the point of challenge was seasonal and fresh. On the pork team, they show Fabio's ravioli with a major mound of pesto on top. Holy cow, does that look like a ton of pesto. The chicken team is criticized for cooking soup on an 85 degree day, which I don't understand. Didn't they just celebrate Thanksgiving in Rochester and Christmas at the charity event? Maybe this farm is like Camelot, where the weather is always perfect.

The British judge seems to wait for others to comment and then chimes in with an inane comment. As an example, Padma comments that Fabio's pesto overwhelms the pork filling. "The pesto is the big bad wolf that blows this pig's house down," the Brit says. Can someone please send that guy back where he came from?

Carla, Jamie and Stefan won. Two of those people are on my Top Chef team, but by now I've given up on winning a cookbook. And for winning they get ... nothing. This doesn't make any sense ... for winning a QuickFire they get immunity, and for winning an elimination challenge they get nothing, unless a guest judge is plugging something. At least this guest judge didn't send them home with a live animal from the farm.

Then the Brit judge talks about how he wants to have unprotected sex with a piece of meat, which conjures visions of him doing nasty things to farm animals. Please, please, can we send him home?

The elimination came down to team lamb: Leah, Hosea, and Ariane. What did I say about fairness not being a priority? I think Leah should have gone home. I never expected Ariane to stay to the end, but I thought her being chopped was a bummer this time.

Friday, January 16, 2009

"No Snow Day" Chocolate Chip Cookies

My kids SO wanted a snow day yesterday. They did kooky superstitious things, like putting ice cubes in the toilets, wearing their jammies inside out, and putting wooden spoons under their pillows. (I grew up in the Chicago area, which is plenty snowy, but I don't remember any of these superstitions. Am I the only one?) Anyway, there wasn't a snow day. It must be tough being superintendent and having to make the call that dashes the hopes of all those kids.

I thought I'd make an after-school snack that would take their minds off of their disappointment -- great big chocolate chip cookies and hot cocoa. I remembered that my friend Anna, from Cookie Madness, went through a streak of making lots of different big chocolate chip cookies in the hopes of duplicating the cookies from Levain, in New York City, so I turned to her blog for a recipe. Since I've never been to Levain, I didn't care if the recipe was a copycat. I just wanted yummy cookies that didn't require me to leave the house to get an ingredient (the kids may have had to venture out in that cold, but I'm no dummy). I settled on this recipe and were they ever delicious. Once the kids had these, and we agreed that we'd rather have the day off in the summer than in the winter, the disappointment of not having a snow day was a distant memory.

Big Fat Chocolate Chip Cookies

Adapted (with minor changes) from this recipe on Cookie Madness

8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cold – cut into little chunks (if they are too big, they may fly out of the mixer)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 1/2 cups chocolate chips (I used a combo of semisweet and Hershey's Special Dark)
Nuts, if you like -- we don't use

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In a mixing bowl, using an electric mixer, beat butter and both sugars until creamy. Add the egg and vanilla and beat until incorporated.

Stir together flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Add to batter and stir just until blended. Stir in chips.

Divide dough into big 4 oz lumps. Bake on ungreased cookies sheets for 18-22 minutes or until cookies appear set -- they will not get very brown but they shouldn't look wet or raw in the middle. Makes about a dozen.

New Year's Resolution


For a week or so, I've been keeping this bowl of fruit out and telling my boys that it was the "never have to ask" bowl. If you are hungry, you can eat from it at any time, without asking.

My 14-year-old loves this, and surprised me by grabbing an orange the other day. I've never been able to get my sons to eat whole oranges. They haven't liked the "stringy" texture. Now my son has decided he LOVES oranges, and is eating at least one a day. Hooray!

So Moms, keep at it. Make the good stuff available. Encourage them to taste, but don't nag. Do not make them finish it if they don't like it. It may take 14 years or longer, but they just may come around!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Dried Cherry Almond Scones

I like Ann Burrell's Food Network show, Secrets of a Restaurant Chef, but sometimes I wish she'd do more to live up to the title.

Take these scones, for example, which appeared on her "Secrets of Brunch" episode. She tells us that her pastry chef makes the dough for scones ahead of time, then freezes it. At brunch time at the restaurant, they pop the scone dough in the oven and bake them -- which is a great do-ahead secret. The only problem: she doesn't tell us the time or temperature for baking them from frozen. But I did make her dough, cut out the scones, froze them, and then baked them. They were really delicious, so that was a good secret. I had every intention of noting how long they took to bake, but because I was baking them for company and had other stuff going on, I forgot to make a note of it. Next time, maybe.

I make scones fairly often -- in my experience, they are much more forgiving than muffins -- so I'm going to share with you a couple of my own secrets for these scones:

1. This recipe calls for toasted almonds. You can toast the almonds in the oven while it is preheating. Use your nose -- when you smell them, they probably are close to being done.

2. If you like digging in dough with your hands, do it the way Burrell does. I almost always make scones in the food processor. As a result, I've revised Chef Burrell's recipe to do it in the food processor, and here it is...

Dried Cherry Almond Scones
Adapted from this recipe by Ann Burrell

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup white whole wheat flour (you can use all-purpose flour, if you prefer)
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
The zest of 1 lemon
Pinch salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 1/2 sticks cold butter, cut into small cubes
1 cup dried cherries
1/2 cup toasted sliced almonds
1/2 cup heavy cream
Turbinado sugar, for garnishing (also sold as Sugar in the Raw)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

In the bowl of a food processor, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, lemon zest, salt and cinnamon. Pulse a few times to combine. Add in the butter and pulse until a coarse meal forms. Add in the cherries and almonds and pulse a few times (this process will give you smaller pieces of nuts and dried cherries, which I prefer). Add the heavy cream and process until the dough comes together -- do not overmix.

Form the dough into a 1-inch thick disk. Sprinkle the dough generously with the turbinado sugar and press lightly so the sugar adheres. Cut into 8 wedges. Transfer the wedges to a parchment-lined sheet pan. Space them several inches apart -- they will spread! Bake in the preheated oven for 15 to 18 minutes, turning the pan halfway through.

Ann Burrell serves them with honey butter, but I think they are perfect on their own.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Top Chef? Nah, Top Band

I haven't have time to blog about this week's Top Chef yet, but in short, I'm glad Carla didn't get cut and I still love Fabio ... but what's with the goofy Italian music they play behind him every time they show him? Maybe I'll post more later, maybe not. On to bigger stuff (for me) ...

One reason I didn't have time to post is that my son's band, 441, was in the finals of the local Battle of the Bands (and I was cooking & cleaning for the after-party). The competition was for local high school bands, and my son's band was the youngest of the bands that competed (my son is the "old man" of the group -- he just turned 14). There were two preliminary rounds, and the top eight from each round met in the finals. The "munchkins" (as one of the judges called them) took second place! They won $400! Here's video of their final song of the night -- my son is the tall kid playing bass and singing lead.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

A favorite brie appetizer

I made this appetizer for New Year's Eve because it's one of my favorites. I just realized I blogged about it a couple of years ago, but oh well, I like it! Since I've made it many times, I've got a bunch of tips:
- If your dried cranberries seem a little dry or shriveled, put them in a bowl and pour some boiling water on top. Let them sit for three minutes or so and drain. They'll soften right up.
- If you want to make this ahead, put the onion mixture in a bowl and refrigerate until ready to serve. Bake the Brie for 8 minutes, put on the topping, then bake for another 3 minutes or so. I once put the brie and topping in the oven at the same time. The cranberries became hard, black little turds -- which is why I've started soaking them as insurance.
- You can heat it in the microwave. First heat the brie for a couple of minutes, then the topping for about 30 seconds, then put the topping on top of the brie.

Brie with Caramelized Onions, Pistachio and Cranberry

2 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, cut into fourths and thinly sliced
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
Vegetable oil or cooking spray
1 round (15 ounces) brie
1/4 cup coarsely chopped pistachio nuts
Crackers and/or sliced Italian bread

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Melt butter in 10-inch skillet over medium heat. Cook onion in butter for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in cranberries, brown sugar, and vinegar. Cook about 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until mixture is thickened, brown, and caramelized.

Scrape the top rind off of the brie. Lightly brush oven-proof plate with oil (or spray with cooking spray) and place cheese in the center. Bake uncovered 8 to 10 minutes or until cheese is soft and partly melted. Spoon onion topping over cheese. Sprinkle with nuts. Serve with crackers.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Watch Ultimate Recipe Showdown!

I just caught this season's first Ultimate Recipe Showdown on the Food Network. It is VASTLY better than the show was last year. Whereas last year there was inane banter between two hosts, this year has Guy Fieri is the only host, and he's perfect for the role. Not only does he have a fun personality, he also probably helped the contestants feel at ease. Last year's show featured 12 cooks, where this year's features only four. That makes you "get to know" the contestants, which makes the show more interesting and dramatic.

The episode running this week is Comfort Foods, and I "know" two of the four contestants. By "know," I mean I've conversed with them online, so I haven't actually met them. One is Michaela Rosenthal, who's a force to be reckoned with in the world of cooking contests. The other is Emily -- oh gosh, I forgot her last name -- but she's known for her blog, Sugar Plum.

I'm not going to tell you who won, but I thought both ladies made food that looked delectable.

Maybe this show will motivate me to develop some more contest-worthy recipes. I hope so!

Congrats to Michaela and Emily. I'll be interested to see who else pops up in future episodes!

Friday, January 02, 2009

2008 Hall of Fame

A couple of days ago I posted my Recipe Hall of Shame from 2008. Now I've picked my Top 10 recipes in my Hall of Fame. They are not necessarily the most delicious recipes I've made, and they certainly aren't the ones that have the best photos. Rather, they are the ones that became go-to recipes during the year.

Here they are, as they say on Dancing with the Stars, in no particular order...

Thursday, January 01, 2009

2008 Hall of Shame

Happy New Year!

I decided my first post of 2009 would be a look back at 2008 ... at the dishes that didn't work. I suppose that seems negative, but each recipe was a lesson learned, and hopefully helped me become a better cook. Maybe posting these will help you avoid the mistakes I made!

1. Basic (blah) Brownies -- These weren't inedible, just blah. Luckily they had a texture that was chewy enough that I could use them in mini trifles, which were a hit with friends who came over for dinner. My photo was picked up by Tastespotting, and the post was also featured on YumSugar, so the post was one of the most popular posts of 2008. Go figure.

2. Anne Burrell’s Fregula with Braised Butternut Squash -- I'm sure this is a good recipe. I just killed it by having a heavy hand with red pepper flakes. Lesson learned: go easy on these little flakes, and TASTE before you add more!

3. Butterfinger Bars – I found this recipe on the Cooking Light bulletin board, posted by a friend who is known for being a great source of recipes. It looked like a good use of candy corn, which I don't care for, plus it was really easy -- melt candy corn, stir in peanut butter, refrigerate, then dip in chocolate. Well, my candy corn never fully melted -- maybe it was a tad stale? When I mixed it with the peanut butter, there were little bits of candy corn suspended in the peanut butter. I tried microwaving the two together, to no avail. I ended up dumping the whole mess.

4. Baked Butternut Squash Fries (right) – These sounded like a good idea but I think the picture sums up the problem. They were limp and yucky. You can cut something the shape of a french fry, but that doesn't make it taste good.

5. French Onion Soup, Cooks Illustrated 2008 – I didn't get any photos, but the recipe was an involved process and none of it went as described. First, you cook the onions in the oven. The result was supposed to be onions in a lot of liquid, but mine went completely dry. Then you put the pan on the stove and sautee the onions, deglazing them three times. All it took was for me to turn my back on the pan for a minute and the bottom of the pan became a burnt mess. I remedied the situation by dumping the onions into a separate pot, but all the flavor that would have come from the deglazing process was lost in the burnt crud. The result, of course, was so-so. The disaster was my doing … but in any case, it’s an involved recipe that calls for a lot of attention.

6. Roasted Delicata Squash with Spinach – This was a Wegmans recipe that I tasted at the store. The problem was me (again). The cauliflower was cut bigger than the delicata squash, so the cauliflower barely roasted, while the delicata was mushy. See those little black things in the photo? Those are my burnt onions. Lesson learned: when you are roasting veggies in the oven, cut them about the same size.

7. Rocky Road – This was based on a combination of chocolate and peanut butter, with marshmallows mixed in. I added peanuts, which isn't what caused the problem with the recipe. The chocolate mixture was solid only when it was refrigerated. Even then, when you picked it up, it melted immediately upon contact with your hands. Never again.

8. Stephanie Izard's Banana Bread -- This time, the fault wasn't mine. It was definitely the recipe, from last year's winner of Top Chef. It called for 1 teaspoon of salt, which gave the bread a pronounced salty flavor. I've wondered if the recipe might be the result of sloppy editing on the Bravo site, but I checked, and the recipe is still the same. Either way, it's not my cup of tea. Charlie would have eaten it, though.

9. Roasted Red Pepper Remoulade Sauce from The Southern Living Cookbook – This recipe called for 1/4 cup of chopped fresh parsley, and that amount overwhelmed the whole recipe. I tried adding various things to perk it up but the sauce was just blah. I served it to company with crab cakes, because I didn't have an alternative. The rest (and wouldn't you know, it made tons) went down the drain.

10. French Onion Burgers from Cuisine at Home Magazine -- I saw this recipe in a sample issue the magazine sent me. Our family is a big fan of French Onion Soup, so I thought I'd give the recipe a try. It wasn't a hit with us. It was bland and didn't evoke the flavors of the soup at all. If this is a good example of their recipes, I wouldn't subscribe.

Coming up next: my Top 10 of 2008!
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