Sunday, November 22, 2009

I'll Julienne You, You Fuzzy Little Foreigner

Chef knife? Serrated knife? Ninja star? What, oh what, is the right tool? I'd really like to know. Solution? L'Academie de Cuisine's Basic Knife Skills class. (This class is held monthly, and sells out frequently, so reserve your spot early). What an eye-opener. I don't pretend to know the first thing about correct form or whatever. However, during the demonstration part of the class, I saw many of my "techniques" kindly explained as, "What not to do." Oh. Whoops.

ONIONS (recreated for your viewing pleasure)
I felt pretty confident on my onions, thanks to some detailed diagrams in one of my cookbooks. I knew that one cuts an onion in half lengthwise, cuts off the bottom and slices down from the root, about as far apart as you want your chop. Then slice the onion crosswise and you get lovely, little cubes. Thank you, Good Housingkeeping for preventing me from looking like a complete ass on onions.


I didn't really learn anything about carrots, other than when cutting up round veggies (what veggies aren't round?) cut a little off one side to create a flat side on which the veggie can rest. With a flat side, your veggie isn't rolling all over the place, forcing you to chase it with your free hand and your knife. There is always a chance that a wily veggie may hightail it out of there, leaving only your fingers and knife to duke it out amongst themselves.

Here's a memo from the Land of the Obvious. Rather than try to cut out the tops and seeds, pumpkin-style, cut down the sides. Slice the pepper down from the stem to the tip into 4 or 5 long chunks, then slice into strips. This lesson is generally helpful for all different kinds of peppers, especially when you're trying to avoid touching too many spicy chili seeds.

This was just cool. I am constantly putting minced garlic in sauces and dressings. I mince as finely as I can, but I am always a little worried that one of my guests will get a chunk of raw garlic to bite down on. Because I have an irrational hatred of the garlic press, this little trick made my day. (Yes, I lead a simple life). Mince the garlic a finely as you can; squish and pull the garlic with the flat of your knife, a little bit at a time, continuing to squish and pull the garlic from right to left across your cutting board. Voila! Garlic Paste. So Obvious. (However, does not photograph well).

Finally, I picked up this handy trick for slicing basil. I usually stack up a bunch of basil leaves, largest to smallest, and attempt to slice vertically from the tip to stem. However, if you take your little stack of leaves, roll them up, and slice across your little basil rollie, presto! sexy, basil slices. Who would have thought?

I also learned to de-bone a chicken, but it is a little too complicated to recreate here. It was wicked cool. These are just a few of the things we learned. And we got to make lunch!

My table partners were both chatty and friendly; we easily talked in small groups about our favorite kinds of cooking styles and interests. It was a little like begin in science lab on the first day of sophomore year. You have to share your space and tools, but you don't want to encroach or be grabby. After the demonstration part of the class, we were set free to wreak havoc on our own platters of unsuspecting veggies, which we turned into a stir fry. Our stir fry came out well, although I may have been a little generous with the chili oil. As we have all learned, when it comes to the spicy, I am wicked heavy handed. I even tried to hold back a bit this time, but I was so proud of my brunoise jalapeno (which, I learned, it was you call julienne strips if you dice them into cubes), that I dumped the whole thing in there. Sue me.

Despite the fact that I was exceedingly nervous about cooking in front of a room full of strangers (not among, mind you, but in front of, because in my mind all eyes are on me, right? Why else would I have started a blog?), I really enjoyed this class. Even if you are a little farther along in your culinary training, I am sure you'll enjoy yourself and learn something, too!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Chocolate Cake Challenge: Part Deux

As you read the title of this post you may ask yourself, "Why is she attempting another chocolate cake" Fair question. In the borrowed words of Captain James T. Kirk, let me respond: "because it is there." OK, baking a cake may not have a lot in common with climbing a mountain, except that it represents a personal challenge to oneself. I love chocolate cake, therefore, unless I want to weight 300 pounds, I must devise a chocolate cake recipe that Boyfriend will truly enjoy. I sought inspiration from his favorite holiday cocktail, the Grasshopper. What I came up with was a fluffy chocolate cake, with a subtle mint flavor.

Chocolate Grasshopper Cake
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup unsweetened cocoa
(1 package instant chocolate pudding mix)
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup milk
1/4 cup creme de menthe
1/4 cup creme de cacao
3/4 cup softened butter
1 3/4 cup sugar
4 eggs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and lightly flour bundt pan. In a medium bowl, combine flour, cocoa, (pudding mix), baking powder, baking soda and salt. In small bowl, combine milk, creme de menthe and creme de cocoa.

In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Alternatively, beat in dry and wet ingredients, a few scoops at a time, until incorporated and batter is smooth. Transfer to bundt pan. Bake about 45 minutes. Cool for a few minutes and turn out on baking rack.

(Green in good. If you ask me, there isn't enough green food).

Grasshopper Glaze
1 1/2 tbsp creme de cacao
1 1/2 tbsp creme de menthe
1 1/2 tbsp milk
1 cup confectioner's sugar

Mix all ingredients together until smooth. Drizzle over warm cake.

I wanted to make a bundt cake because I have noticed that people generally feel less bad about munching away on a bundt, while a whole slice of cake can feel like a big commitment. However, if a conventional layer cake is really your thing, this recipe could easily be made with 3, 8" layer pans and your favorite frosting. (Note: if making a layer cake, reduce baking time to 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in center of cakes comes out clean).  I'll have to come up with a creamy, mint frosting for the layer cake version. (Part III?)

My only reservation is that I meant for this recipe to be more spongey. I realized after I put it in the oven that I forgot to add the pudding mix, which I believe would have achieved that effect. Even more regrettable is the box of pudding mix that will stay on my shelf for the next month, mocking me, until I bake this cake again. Perhaps I can impose on my parents' good natures and make this cake for them while I am in Boston over the holidays. What do you say, Mom? This cake is really fluffy and delicious. I promise.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Better Baking with Beer

Once upon a time, a few years ago, I tried to make a Guinness Chocolate Cake. The operative word in  that sentence being, "tried." It did not go well. However, never one to be bested by inanimate objects or ingredients, I knew I had to try again. Despite or perhaps because of Boyfriend's taunt of, "You remember what happened last time you tried to mix Guinness and chocolate, right?" I felt compelled to try Modern Domestic's scrumptious Chocolate-Guinness Oreos. Yum! 

At the time, I'd never made a layer cake before and was very excited about the idea. I love chocolate cake and Boyrfriend loves Guinness; what could be better than a decandent chocolate stout cake? I ran right out to the store and bought some one-use cake pans. (Big Mistake #1).

As I mentioned, I have never made a layer cake before. Come to think of it, I don't think I had made a cake, period, other than my trademark (read: idiot-proof) pistachio bundt cake, before attempting this four-layer edifice. Suffice is to say, I had no idea what I was in for. As you can see, the recipe calls for 4 cups of flour. Having little or no previous cake experience, this did not strike me as a large amount. So I went along my merry way, sifting and mixing and happily humming to myself, as I often do when baking.

Holy mackerel, did I make a mess. Big Mistake #2: I didn't let the cake layers cool enough before trying to stack and frost. Big Mistake #3: when my not-porperly-set cake layers started to crack and fall apart I tried to "glue" them back together with frosting, which, of course, was melty rather than sticky because the cake was still warm. Right about now, my kitchen had started to resemble the scene from "Sleeping Beauty" when the little green fairy tries to bake a birthday cake without magic - or an oven. If I had a broom, I certainly would have tried to prop my cake layers up with handle. (Big Mistake #4: Not making a fantastic "Slime Rickey" from YumSugar, to get me through the hard times). Unfortunately, at this point, panic had set in. As softball-sized chunks of semi-frosted cake goo tumbled to the floor, I  frantically attempted to salvage the base layer, by throwing - yes throwing! - falling, double handfuls of cake across the room into the garbage bin. (Big Mistake #5) By this time, I am literally covered in cake and frosting, nearly up to my elbows, not to mention that I have stepped in cake and am tracking it all over the kitchen. All the commotion drew Boyfriend, who, surveying the scene, kindly informed me that, "It's ok; I don't even like chocolate cake." Blerg!!

The moral of this story? Well, there really isn't one. I can tell you that throwing mounds of semi-solid cake across the room creates more problems than it solves. Right. How about: if at first you don't succeed, try and try again. 
Chocolate-Guinness Flavored Success!

P.S. It has been brought to my attention that I didn't actually write about these amazing cookies in this post.  Therefore, it should be noted that these cookies were yumtastic. It has to be a pretty exceptional recipe to get me excited about roll-out cookies. These were well worth the effort. They weren't too soft or too sweet. As one of my work colleagues put it, "Ohh, that cookie was a moment."