floral background

Sunday, February 27, 2011

February 2011 Daring Bakers - Panna Cotta with Florentines

I love being part of Daring Bakers, because every month what we're making is a surprise. When I logged in Feb 1, and saw the challenge was multi-part: panna cotta with gelee and Florentine cookies it was a definite surprise to me. I didn't know what any of them were! The February 2011 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Mallory from A Sofa in the Kitchen. She chose to challenge everyone to make Panna Cotta from a Giada De Laurentiis recipe and Nestle Florentine Cookies.

I made the vanilla panna cotta, fruit gelee, and sandwiched florentines. The directions are lengthy, so I'll just share the pdf to them here. The only change I made was in the florentine cookies, we try not to purchase corn syrup in our house, so I subbed brown sugar and water for the dark corn syrup.

I was a bit nervous about the amount of whole milk and cream in these recipes, two ingredients I try to avoid.

Making the gelee was a breeze. I used a frozen berry assortment from Trader Joe's (strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries). The gelee on its own tasted excellent, and I think I'll use this technique again. It was very pretty, the raspberries broke down into a deep red liquid, and then the strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries popped out.

The panna cotta wasn't difficult to make, I was worried I would have trouble. I like baking, but whisking milk makes me nervous. It came together pretty easily though. I only struggled with getting those pretty lines of panna cotta and gelee like everyone else. I ended up with fruit on the bottom gelee, and they still sort of swirled together in places.

The florentine dough came together well. When it came time to bake the cookies, I realized I'd caught myself without enough parchment paper for all the cookies. At a holiday cookie exchange in December, one girl said you could substitute wax paper for parchment paper when baking. I was skeptical, but figured this was a good moment to try. I grabbed my worst looking baking tray, in case it ended up with wax melted to it forever. The end result was that the tray was fine, but the cookies stuck to the wax paper, and there was no removing them. I ended up trashing one sheet of cookies.

When I went to sandwich the remaining florentines, they seemed so thin to sandwich. I think next time I'd try to put the chocolate into the dough, and have it bake away with the rest of the ingredients.

Once again, Daring Bakers challenged me to step out of my comfort zone. The end tasting results: the panna cotta with fruit gelee was good, but knowing how much fat and how many calories were in it from all the cream and whole milk - it kept me from going wild with enjoyment. I'll make the fruit gelee again, but never panna cotta with whole milk and heavy cream.

The florentine cookies were good, and I think it is a recipe I'll play around with in the future. Thanks for the challenge Daring Bakers!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

FFwD Pumpkin-Gorgonzola Flans

This week the FFwD group is doing short ribs in red wine and port. You can check their posts out here. Since I don’t eat beef, I’m making up one of the November recipes, and doing Pumpkin-Gorgonzola Flans. I went beef-free in 2001. It is sort of a long story, but it makes people curious, so I’ll tell the abridged version and say that beef upsets my stomach and so I choose not to consume beef. So I made the flans, knowing they had mixed results with FFwD.

The most exciting part of this recipe was that I had to go shopping for something new in the kitchen – yay! We were blessed with lots of shower/wedding presents from our generous friends and family, so we have more kitchen items than our tiny kitchen can store. But I always find I’m still missing things needed for FFwD. For some things I can do without, for example I have no tart pan, and no springform pan. But I didn’t have any ramekins, and I wanted to pick some up. Lucky me, I had a Home Goods gift card leftover from the holidays. They had some great options, like these rabbit crocks. But, with Mr. Hobby’s feelings in mind, I chose these practical little dishes from Anchor Hocking that can also be used to store leftovers. I was happy to see they were oven safe up to 425. Bonus: they’re made in America! Another bonus: I dropped one on our ceramic floor when I got home, and it didn’t break!

In the cookbook, Dorie comments that canned pumpkin doesn't exist in France. Let me just say that I can't imagine life without canned pumpkin. It is a staple in my pantry, I am loyal to Libby's brand - the canned pumpkin manufacturer of Illinois (and my neighbor state). In 2009, when there was a canned pumpkin shortage - I fully admit to hoarding cans of pumpkin. I bought the inconvenient 29 oz size (a regular can of pumpkin is 15 oz), as that was what was available. I finished off the last of my pumpkin stash this fall, and was happy to grab a 15 oz can from the pantry for this recipe.

I used a hand mixer, and the flans came together quickly. I ended up with 5 flans, the 4 I bought from Home Goods, and a Le Creuset crock I received for free last year.

I got a little nervous when I used the water bath on glass containers, had I made a mistake in my purchase? But I think since the containers were at 350, and the water was boiling from my kettle, it wasn’t a problem.

These came out pretty, but I found the flavor to be bland. I tried stirring the Gorgonzola and walnuts in, but it mostly just sort of tasted like unseasoned fluffy eggs to me. I swallowed one down. Mr. Hobby disagreed, he loved them and ate 2 for dinner.

Next week I join back up with the FFwD group, when we do savory cheese and chive bread. This looks so good, I can’t wait!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Travel Tuesdays - Costa Rica

I went to Costa Rica in 2007. It was a very exciting trip for me. I had just graduated with my M.A. and I used a piece of my savings to book the trip. Mr. Hobby, who was my boyfriend back then, had gone down there for school. I joined him at the end of his classes, and spent a wonderful time in the Manuel Antonio region of Costa Rica. It was so beautiful! This picture is from inside the Manuel Antonio National Park. About 45 minutes before the park closed the capuchin monkeys came to hang out by the park beach. They got pretty close to the people on the beach, and it made for some great photos. I was so excited after taking these photos. I saw monkeys, in their natural habitat! The endangered mono titi monkeys also live in the Manuel Antonio area. While we were there, we learned about some amazing kids who started a foundation to save these monkeys and the rainforest in the region. The website is called Kids Saving the Rainforest and it is great for both children and adults to explore.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

FFwD Pancetta Green Beans

I have never loved green beans more in my life than I did with this recipe. I made them with the FFwD tortilla on 2/4/11, but I think this dish would be great with anything!

I will always be thankful to this recipe for introducing me to a love at first bite, cooked pancetta.

I purchased Volpi pancetta. Volpi is a local Italian meat manufacturer; their headquarters is in my neighborhood. According to their website, they are America’s oldest manufacturer of hand-crafted Italian meats. I’ve never had something from Volpi that I didn’t love. Since I was buying pancetta, a cut of meat I’d never purchased before, I knew that whatever was in the Volpi package would be a quality product. If they’re in your supermarket I’d recommend trying them out sometime.

The green beans were lightly cooked, then chilled to stop the cooking.

I cut the pancetta into smaller pieces with kitchen shears before tossing them into the skillet. The pancetta fried up so light and crisp. It was so fragrant when cooking, it made me want to sit down and eat the entire skillet right then forgetting about the green beans. I had very little fat to drain off when done cooking. There was the 1 tablespoon Dorie said to retain, and then I drained out maybe 1 teaspoon.

I had started out with a 4 ounce package, so I put half in with the green beans, and the other half in the tortilla. The green beans cooked up wonderfully, and I don’t think the butter was even needed; the pancetta grease would’ve done the trick.

Before serving I put the pancetta green beans on a paper towel to catch a little of the fat and grease. I loved the finished green beans!

I also cooked up some pancetta for breakfast on Valentine's day, because we loved this in our house!

Be sure to visit the other bloggers at French Fridays with Dorie!

Sisterhood of the World Bloggers

Wow, this has been such a busy week for me personally, I didn't have much time for blogs. It was a great surprise to see this award. The lovely Allison from French Whisk nominated me for this award. Allison and I both enjoy the fun of French Fridays with Dorie. Thank you Allison!

The rule of the award is to pass it on, and so I will!
I'd like to pass it on to some of the other French Friday with Dorie ladies. There are so many great bloggers as part of the FFwD group, I picked three.

Steph from Jumping off the Cliff
Lizzy from That skinny chick can bake
Cher from The not so exciting adventures of a dabbler

Congrats ladies, keep up the good blogging!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Travel Tuesdays

It is still Tuesday in St. Louis, even if I am posting late. We spent the evening at my sister's house, helping her get a used (but new to her) laptop set up, a wireless network, and all of her photos and files off of her crashing old computer. This will be great for when she has her surgery later this month. I'm very thankful to Mr. Hobby who made it all possible.

With fashion week being around now, I can't help but think of the show Project Runway. I just loved the first few seasons. The winner gets to show their work in Bryant Park. I wasn't in NYC during fashion week, but we did walk by Bryant Park (without the tents). I kept looking around hoping to see Tim Gunn. Make it work!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

FFwD Orange-Almond Tart and Frosting for the Cause

Wow, this is a big Friday for me. French Fridays with Dorie, and Frosting for the Cause in the same day. I’ll start with Frosting for the Cause. Back in January, I started noticing this lovely frosting for the cause button on some of the blogs I follow. You can find the button on my blog, on the right hand side. I loved the concept, and decided to sign up. This is how the program works: the site features 1 new blogger each day, for 365 days in 2011. Each blogger shares a recipe for a frosted cookie or cupcake. They also share a story about cancer, and how it has made a difference in their lives. The blogger bakes up a batch of their recipe and shares it was a local agency (women’s hospice center, cancer center, etc.) and many bloggers (like me) are also sharing a batch with their tribute person. Then, each blogger is donating $25 to the cancer agency of their choice. When 2011 ends, the website will have donated at least $9,125 to cancer research, and hopefully touched the lives of many in a positive way.

So today is my day, and you can check out my post. I chose to make gluten-free cookies with egg free/gluten free royal icing for my sister Jackie, who has Celiac disease and breast cancer. This was a challenge for my gluten-heavy kitchen, but very rewarding, because I knew every moment I was doing it out of love.

I also dedicated my blog post to the women of Peoria, IL – who taught me what it meant to live the fight against breast cancer year round. I went to college in Peoria, and I’ve traveled back several times since graduation to be a part of their amazing Race for the Cure event each year.

I encourage everyone visiting my blog today to please visit this wonderful site, and consider signing up; I know they’re still recruiting bakers.

French Fridays with Dorie is a group of bloggers that makes the same recipe each week out of Dorie Greenspan's Around My French Table: More Than 300 Recipes from My Home to Yours
We don’t share the recipe, to encourage use of the printed word. But Amazon sells the cookbook at an affordable price, or you can always do what I do with many new cookbooks – check it out at the library first to see if you like the recipes.

This week’s recipe was the Orange-Almond Tart. I simply drooled over the photo from the cookbook; you can see it on the FFwD site.

The first step was to make the sweet tart dough. The dough came together easily, thanks to the food processor. I don’t have a tart pan, so I chose to use a glass pie pan. I blind baked it as directed.

The almond cream also came together with the help of my food processor. I used almond meal that I picked up at Trader Joe’s for less than $4. There was a second when this was going to become a hazelnut tart, because I had leftover hazelnut flour, and didn’t want to pay the $12 for a tiny bag of almond flour from my local grocer. TJ’s saves the day again! When the almond cream was done I gave it a taste (I know, raw eggs, but I live on the wild side when it comes to baking) and the almond cream tasted great. If it wasn’t for the raw egg, I would’ve taken a spoon to it right then.

I only let the cream chill for about an hour, when Dorie recommends 2 hours. It filled the pan fairly well. I had cut my oranges hours before, leaving them plenty of time to dry out. I arranged them in a simple sunburst pattern, and popped the tart into the oven.

The book said to bake 50-60 minutes, so I turned the timer on for 45 and left my kitchen to watch some TV. About 30 minutes later I smelled burning and rushed to my oven. The tart was done, the crust a dark brown, the almond cream puffed up and also a dark brown. I think the cook time was way too long for the pre-baked shell, in my climate, in a glass pan. I put the pan on a cooling rack where it would have plenty of air to help cool it, but I could hear the cream crackling as it cooked from the heat still contained in the tart.

When it had finally cooled, I was able to salvage all of the insides; it was just the outer crust that was inedible. I’m glad I hadn’t planned to serve this for company, as it wasn’t pretty to eat. But it tasted amazing!

When I first tried it, I couldn’t put my finger on the taste. When I had a serving the next day, I figured out what it reminded me of – St. Louis gooey butter cake. With a prebaked bottom layer, a gooey middle layer, and a crunchy sugar top, it was just like the classic St. Louis dessert, gooey butter cake. My husband agreed, it tasted like gooey butter cake. So I’m definitely going to make this again. I want to try to do it without burning it, and to confirm that a french almond tart and gooey butter cake have a lot in common in the taste arena.

To see more versions of this tart, check out French Fridays with Dorie, and consider joining in the fun.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Travel Tuesdays - Santorini

Today's Travel Tuesday photo is one of my favorite photos I've ever taken. It was taken from my table at a restaurant on the Island of Santorini in Greece. The town of Oia on Santorini is one of the most beautiful places I've ever been. We were so lucky to go there on our honeymoon. Sitting there at the restaurant table, with my husband, and looking out on the caldera, the white washed buildings, blue domes, and blooming flowers, I was at peace.

FFwD basque tortilla

This week's French Fridays with Dorie was basque tortilla. When the February recipes were announced I flipped the Around My French Table book open to the basque tortilla, and left it sitting out for a few days. Mr. Hobby was admiring the picture, and we decided we’d make this recipe together. What fun I thought! I made my grocery list out and planned to use one of the Bonne Idees of inserting ham into the dish, but I figured instead I’d use the pancetta. Since I knew I’d be buying a package of pancetta to make the green beans this month, I figured I might as well make the dishes at the same time, and use one package of pancetta. I’ll post more about the green beans on 2/18/11 because that is their assigned FFwD date.

You know what they say about the best laid plans, right? Well, we were predicted to have an epic snow storm here in St. Louis. So I had planned to do the shopping on Monday, and make the tortilla on Tuesday. I was dismissed from work Monday at 3 due to weather. This is very unlike my work, we don’t normally close early. I went straight to the grocery store, and beelined for the eggs, worried they’d be out. St. Louisans tends to run to the store and buy out all the staples whenever snow is coming, even ¼ an inch. So with the snowpocolypse predicted, the city was sold out of generators by Sunday. I had reason to be concerned I wouldn’t be able to find the 9 eggs needed for the tortilla. But, thankfully they had plenty of eggs. They weren’t my usual kind, but they were eggs, and that was what mattered. Next, I set about finding the rest of the ingredients on my list. I bought the last of the fresh green beans. But I really had trouble with the potatoes and onions. There were almost no onions left; I was able to get a little bag of them. But there were no potatoes left in the store! There was literally 1 sweet potato still in the loose potato bins. There were a few small bags of red potatoes (not right for this recipe) and there were a few 10lb bags of russet. I had wanted to make the tortilla with Yukon Gold, but that obviously wasn’t going to happen. As I wheeled the 10lb bag a way, I knew I’d be in trouble with Mr. Hobby. With just the two of us, we can’t eat enough potatoes to warrant a 10lb bag. The last time I bought a 10lb bag we had it in the house 2 months, and they started sprouting, we ended up eating potatoes for a week to finish off the last of the bag. Luckily, as I was about to check out I saw some potatoes on an endcap. They were the kind that are pre-washed and wrapped in cellophane; you’re supposed to put them in the microwave to make a baked potato. They were on sale for 10 for $10, so they had a special spot on the end, and they’d been missed by the frantic potato buying masses. As I was leaving I ran into a good friend, and we had a good laugh about the potato panic. If we really loose power (they were predicting power outages in St. Louis due to broken power lines) then who is going to be eating raw potatoes? Surely they couldn’t have all been FFwD fans? The panic ended up being over hyped. While people 2 hours away from St. Louis got 17 inches of snow, the storm skipped us, and we got about an inch of ice covered by 2 inches of snow.

Tuesday night Mr. Hobby and I set out to make the tortilla and green beans. He suggested we make it without talking, and only mime things to each other. I agreed, because I knew what he was getting at – this would keep us from yelling at each other! This turned out to be really great, because it forced us to be very thoughtful about our communication with each other. You can only mime things like cut up the potato. Had we been talking, I would have screeched “You’re cutting them to big” and he would’ve nagged “How much did you spend on these fancy pre-washed potatoes?” The potatoes took awhile to cook, in part because of their size I’m sure. Otherwise, this wasn’t too challenging. We made sure the skillet and oil was real hot when adding the egg/potato mixture, and didn’t have any problems when it came time for the flip. I was a bit nervous about putting my aluminum foil wrapped plastic pan handle in the broiler, but we had no problems. The leftovers are great too!

About to flip

Flip action shot

Proud of his flip!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Mac and Cheese Cook-Off

In the last year a couple cookbooks have come into my collection, these include one by Pioneer Woman The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Recipes from an Accidental Country Girl and one by Jessica Seinfeld Double Delicious!: Good, Simple Food for Busy, Complicated Lives.

These two ladies share some things in common: successful cooks and cookbook authors, mothers, and married to men who seem easy to love (Marlboro Man and Jerry Seinfeld). But their cookbook styles are worlds apart: Pioneer Woman says yes please to cream and butter. Jessica says no way to cream and butter, and replaces fatty ingredients with vegetable purees and whole grains.

Both ladies have mac ‘n cheese recipes in their books that look fantastic. I love mac and cheese, but had never made it at home before. So, I decided to invite two of our friends over for a dinner party – on the condition that they realized I would be serving two different mac n’ cheese dishes. They agreed, and so the mac and cheese cook-off began.

Since both dishes make 8 servings, it is pretty easy to do a comparison of the ingredients and see their differences.

PW 1 egg, Jessica no eggs
PW ¼ cup butter, Jessica 2 tablespoons margarine
PW whole milk, Jessica skim milk
PW 1 lb cheddar, Jessica 1 cup cheddar and 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan
Jessica whole wheat pasta, PW regular macaroni
Jessica ½ cup pureed carrot, PW no veggies in here!

Would Jessica’s mac be lacking in flavor, or even resemble mac and cheese? Would PW’s mac cause me to die of a heart attack right there? Would the congealed leftovers make me nauseous to look at them?

I made both recipes, in their entirety, exactly as directed in the cookbooks. I prepared the dishes simultaneously, so that they’d be ready at the same time. I didn’t want a cold mac and cheese to disadvantage one of the dishes.

They both started out with a process I hated of whisking flour and butter/margarine together. I was so worried I was going to burn it, or it was too dry.

My favorite part of both dishes was after the cheese sauce had been made, when I dumped the sauce in with the noodles. I couldn’t help but do an early taste test of both. They were so good! Though at this point I was leaning towards Jessica’s. It was just so smooth! With the carrot and so little cheese, it wasn’t clumping, or starting to dry out too quickly.

Jessica's before the breadcrumbs

Both recipes called for being put into baking dishes and baked. Jessica’s was topped with a breadcrumb/Parmesan mixture before baking. PW’s was topped with some of the cheddar.

I pulled the bubbling dishes out of the oven a little before my guests arrived. When we dug in, they were at a perfect temperature.

PW's is on the left, Jessica's on the right

My tasters:
2 males, 2 females. Everyone in their late 20’s.

After a few minutes of munching I started asking for verdicts.

PW was preferred by 3 out of 4. The two guys, and me. While I had loved Jessica’s in my early taste test, I felt the breadcrumbs dried it out, and I wouldn’t plan on using them again. PW’s’ maintained a creaminess I preferred. But if I was to compare it to the pre-breadcrumb Jessica version, I would’ve preferred Jessica’s. One of the other guys, Erik, agreed about the strong dislike of the breadcrumbs, but since I was the only one who had tasted it pre-breadcrumb, he couldn’t compare. My husband preferred PW’s, but only slightly.

The other female, Olivia, liked Jessica’s the best. When I revealed that it was carrot puree in there, she was very relieved. She said she was nervous to say she’d liked it best; because she thought I’d put ground up cheetos in there. When I took a second look, I had to agree. Baking the pasta had caused the carrots to become more noticeable.

The leftovers test:

How did they taste reheated, after having been in my fridge for a day? I preferred Jessica’s again. It reheated pretty well, and the breadcrumbs weren’t as noticeable since the fridge made them soggy. I didn’t feel PW’s reheated well, it seemed to separate. If I’d reheated it in the oven, it might have done better. When I asked my husband which leftover he preferred, he couldn’t tell me, “I’ve just been eating out of whichever one is on top” was his response. I think he liked them both!


I’m going to make Jessica’s in the future, but not bake it! It is just my type of mac and cheese when the sauce is first combined.

You can find PW's recipe on her blog and Jessica's mac and cheese from Double Delicious here. When looking for Jessica's recipe already on the internet, I found out that her first book, deceptively delicious, had a mac and cheese recipe that she shared on Oprah. The Oprah recipe is different than the one I tested from the cookbook.

Overall, I would reccomend both cookbooks. They each have their own take on recipes, and I've enjoyed what I've made out of both cookbooks. And if you want me to do another Jessica vs. PW, just let me know!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Travel Tuesdays

One of my favorite hobbies is traveling, and I haven't really included that in the blog yet. To find a way to better incorporate my travel experiences, I decided to start Travel Tuesdays. Every Tuesday I'll post one of my travel photos, and include some information about the photo/place.

Since this is the first post, I thought I'd mention two photos today. My post header is of the beach of Isla Mujeres, an island off the coast of Cancun, Mexico. I snapped this photo across the street of our hotel one morning, and I'm always amazed that I've been somewhere this beachy and beautiful -it always reminds me of a calendar photo. We got to Isla by taking a ferry from a port just outside of Cancun. While our trip didn't include any stops in Cancun, my understanding is that some Cancun tourists, looking for a more authentic experience, will take a day trip to Isla Mujeres.

Today's Travel Tuesday photo is also from Isla Mujeres. We visited Isla in June of 2009, weeks after the media-driven panic over Mexican Swine Flu broke out. We were going to the Yucatan Peninsula for a wedding, but we'd planned a roadtrip around the area before the wedding. I had spend months planning this trip, and then swine flu risked ruining everything. Flights were cancelled, some employers were saying if you went to Mexico you wouldn't be allowed to return to work, really wild things. Things had calmed down some by the time we went on our trip, but it was definitely still on people's mind, and there were very few tourists because of the concern. Isla is a small island (4.3 miles long, and 2,130 feet wide), and it is popular to rent a golf cart and drive around the island, visiting snorkel spots and Mayan ruins. There is one main road that runs around the island. Along that road was a big wall with the phrase Isla Mujeres mpio. libre de influenza painted on it in blue. There is no flu on Isla Mujeres.