Monday, January 28, 2008

Jam Crumb Cake: First Attempt

My initial intention was to publish the full story about this in one entry. However, it's spinning out rather longer than I anticipated, so I'm going to "serialize" it to avoid having a painfully long post.

I tried to make a recipe from a magazine, and it failed utterly. As in vastly undercooked, woefully overtopped, horribly overleavened failed. It was really heartbreaking. This recipe looked so tempting, so alluring. The batter tasted amazing—perfectly balanced, clearly it was destined to be an outstanding finished product. In my experience if the raw batter tastes good, you’re golden.

And yet, there was something that nagged at me as a made the topping. When I scattered it on, it filled up half the pan. That didn’t look right. In the picture the topping didn’t completely obliterate what was underneath it—the underneath peeped out coyly, giving a glimpse of the glorious within. But I decided that this was a magazine of long standing, with top notch recipe developers, so I would forage ahead and assume that they knew best.

As the oven door shut, I nearly clapped my little hands with joy and anticipation. In a mere 25 minutes, I would be reveling in my concoction. I could hardly wait.

And then I started to smell The Smell. That acrid, black-brown smell that can only mean one thing. I opened the oven door and sure enough, the batter was oozing out of the pan, over the sides, and down onto the cookie sheet that was (thank God) on the bottom rack of the oven. The outer edge was foaming and frothing like a rabid raccoon, while the center looked to be serenely untouched by the surrounding heat.

I shut the oven door and said a little prayer, hoping that a miracle would occur in the next 12 minutes, and perhaps it would work out after all. Or maybe the face of the Blessed Virgin would be visible when the timer went off, and I’d be able to auction it on eBay.

To make a long story short (too late), I was bitterly disappointed. Not only was the resulting goo undercooked in the middle and overflowing its banks around the edge, but there wasn’t even a suggestion of the Blessed Virgin. Not even an apostle! The thing was a complete and utter failure. I tasted part of the outside cooked part, and it had potential; it wasn’t a complete throw away (well, that one was, but the recipe itself wasn’t).

And so, like a heartbroken girl at the end of a bad relationship, I went over in my mind everything I’d done, torturing myself with what I could have done differently, how I could have saved it. The two things that sprung to mind were the baking powder and the topping—next time I’m halving the topping, end of discussion. The baking powder, however, is a discussion in itself.

Many years ago I read Edna Lewis’s A Taste of Country Cooking, in which she proclaimed (correctly) that commercial double acting baking powders leave behind a metallic and often overly-salty unpleasant taste in baked goods. Having noticed this myself, I took to heart her recommendation that homemade single-acting baking powder was a cheap luxury, and one worth having.

It was some years before I went ahead and made my own according to her recipe of 1 part baking soda to 2 parts cream of tartar. I had one interestingly similar experience to the present one with some blueberry muffins just about the time I made the first batch. Since then, however, I have made many, many baked things with my homemade baking powder (including a lemon cake that took two days to make) and never had a problem.

And then I ran out of baking powder. And then I made another batch. And then this overflowing thing happened again.

About the only thing I can think of is that maybe I didn’t mix the two ingredients well enough, and there was too much baking soda in what I used. According to my research this could have caused the Mount Vesuvius result I achieved, except that there were no acidic ingredients in the batter. From what I’ve read, it’s an acidic component (such as buttermilk or yogurt), combined with the heat of the oven, that causes the chemical reaction that produces the carbon dioxide bubbles to form.

So I’m a bit stumped. But I am determined! This recipe is too good to let get away. I will reduce the amount of topping. I will remix my baking powder. I will tinker with the amount of baking powder. I will prevail! I will not be beaten down by a Jam Crumb Cake!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

In the Bag: Pecan Crusted Roast Pork Loin with Qunice Glazed Pears

I’m not really a competitive person. I didn’t play team sports as a child, and I generally don’t get involved in competitive situations as an adult. But I’m willing to make an exception for certain “food challenges.” These aren’t so much about competition as they are about seeing who comes up with what interesting ideas. No one “wins” and yet everyone wins, because ideas are proliferated, and we all benefit from the creativity of others.

In this case, the challenge (a link to Julia’s homepage is here if you want to look around further) is to take three seasonal ingredients and create a dish using them. The ingredients for January are pears, nuts, and lemon. I considered the combinations that immediately occurred to me—a pear crumble or crisp with chopped nuts in the topping, or a salad with candied nuts and pears. But I kept thinking, wanting to create something a little more unexpected.

I worked around the idea of coming up with a savory dish, something for a nice weekend dinner. That’s mostly when I have the opportunity to cook these days. We’ve been eating a lot of steak lately, so I was hoping to find something that we could have instead. Since I love pork loin, and pork and pears go nicely together, that was the direction in which I moved. I’m not usually much of one for chutney or fruit relish with meat, so I made the pears more of a side dish, cutting them into slices instead of cubes.

The first time I made this, I used Bocs pears. The second time I used Asian. My husband said he preferred the Bosc, but I felt the Asian added a wonderful undertone of honey to the whole dish that was a sparkling surprise dimension. Either type of pear would be fine, but I highly recommend the Asian if you’re feeling adventurous. I had never had an Asian pear at all before this, but now I’m on my way to the grocery store to buy some more to eat out of hand. And I love the idea of using quince paste. It’s seasonal and quite underappreciated in this country. Generally you see it recommended as an accompaniment for cheese, and that’s about it. It has so many potential uses in a more starring role; it’s a shame to relegate it to a supporting player in every instance.

I mixed my own honey mustard, but prepared honey mustard could be used for those in a hurry. I also used bread crumbs that I made from old bread and stored in the freezer. I wouldn’t recommend the finely powdered store bought variety. They really do need to have some heft to them. I specified either all stock or a wine and stock combination in the pears. It’s really a matter of preference.

Pecan Crusted Roast Pork Loin with Quince Glazed Pears

1 pork loin roast, approx 2 lbs
¾ c pecans
2 c fresh bread crumbs
3 T Dijon mustard
1 T honey

1 T butter
4 Bosc or Asian pears
1 T quince paste
¼ c white wine
½ c chicken stock
(or ¾ c chicken stock)
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt & freshly ground pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 475 degrees F.

Toast pecans in a skillet over medium heat until just starting to brown. Allow to cool slightly, then combine with bread crumbs in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse 10-12 times until pecans are in fairly small pieces and well incorporated into bread crumbs. Turn crumbs out onto parchment on the countertop, or into a large rimmed baking sheet.

Combine mustard and honey in a bowl (commercial honey mustard could also be used). Brush top and sides of the roast with honey mustard and roll in crumb mixture until well coated. Press extra crumbs to the surface of the roast to ensure it’s coated all over.

Place roast on a rack in a roasting pan. Roast at 475 for 20 minutes. Reduce oven heat to 400 and continue cooking for another 40 minutes, or until internal temperature reaches 160 degrees F. Remove roast from oven and allow to rest 10 minutes. Carve into slices and serve with pears.

For pears, peel, core and slice pears into wedges. Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Sautee pears in butter for 8 to 10 minutes, until just turning golden brown. Add the quince paste and stir to let it coat the pears as it melts. Add wine (if using) and stock, and reduce heat to medium. Continue cooking over medium heat until pears are soft, but not disintegrating, and quince paste is completely melted. Add the juice of 1 lemon, salt and pepper to taste. Serve with pork.

I served this first with oven roasted potatoes and sautéed Brussels sprouts, and the second time with mashed potatoes and a very disappointing sauté of spring onions. Next time I’ll have to consult the Fine Cooking in which I originally saw the article on using scallions as more than just an oniony garnish, and find an actual recipe, of which there were several, if I recall correctly. The end result of my efforts in this case was limp and bitter, so I need to see what I may have done wrong.

In both cases, however, the pork and pears went beautifully together and made for a very pleasant Saturday night dinner.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Lovely Lemon Cake

I never want to see another lemon. That may sound like a strange wish, but there you are. I have spent the last two days grating lemons for their zest, leaving the shriveled fruits on my bench like so many faceless naked little rodents. As to why I was spending so much time denuding lemons and leaving them to wrinkle up on my countertop, I must offer a little background.

We have a tradition in my commuting group: we celebrate birthdays with completely inappropriate foods at 7 a.m. Since we’re on a ferry, we don’t have to actually drive the thing (as with a car), or even pay attention to where we are (as with a bus), other than knowing when we arrive so we can get off, but they’re kind enough to announce that, so our commuting time is spent reading, working crossword puzzles, chatting, and sometimes eating. Whenever someone’s birthday comes along, we use it as an excuse to consume as much sugar as possible prior to sunup (noting that sun rise this time of year in the Pacific Northwest is around 7:50 a.m.).

One time it was blood plum jam tart with whipped cream from the Italian-themed issue of the Australian version of delicious. magazine. I had lent a friend that particular issue for some research on restaurants and towns (they were going to Italy that October). She had flipped past several recipes and ohed and ahed and when she came across the blood plum tart she said “Ooo, make that for me.” Knowing her birthday was coming up in two more weeks, I agreed, although I think she thought I was kidding about making it for her. I couldn’t find blood plum jam, so it was just made with regular plum jam, although I did make sure to get an exceptionally high quality jam from Delaurenti in the Pike Place Market. This was also at a time when all my rolling pins were packed, so I had to use various other tools (a wine bottle, my hands, etc) to roll and press out the pastry, which was a typical tart dough and therefore not one that takes kindly to being fondled and fussed with by someone with warm hands. Still, it seemed to turn out fine, if a little spreadier than it should have been.

Yesterday was Jana’s birthday, and the celebratory sugar fix was actually chosen by two other of our regular crowd. Last week I was reading the special issue of Fine Cooking currently on the newsstand, 101 Tips. In addition to all sorts of great ideas and hints, it includes 12 “classic” recipes, including oven braised chicken (which was Sunday night’s dinner). And there was a lemon cake. I showed it to the two crossword puzzlers and remarked that it looked good, and that I needed to think of something to make for Jana’s birthday.

“That!” they both cried.

And so I became as one with the lemon.

Mostly this cake was a mad success. I declined to make the lemon curd from scratch, on the grounds that there’s an outstanding brand of lemon curd available in my local market. Also, I didn’t really have time. I also came rather up against it because my cake pans are 9” and the recipe called for 8”. Perhaps someone could rectify that situation and get me some 8” pans? The cake itself had fabulous lemon flavor, attributable to the two tablespoons of lemon zest in the batter.

And the height of the cake did matter, because the layers are sawed in half like a magician’s assistant and reassembled with all that lovely sticky lemon curd between them. One of the two layers sliced through a little thin, and there was quite a gob of lemon curd in the middle of the cake toward the bottom. Not that anyone complained, mind.

The frosting was a butter cream I actually liked, if you can imagine. Of course, two sticks of butter, two tablespoons of lemon zest, and 3+ cups of confectioners’ sugar, thinned down with a little lemon juice makes a butter cream that anyone could cozy up to. And one that would be amazing on gingerbread, I might add.

So after two days of zesting, squeezing, and generally consorting with lemons, I feel I’ve had my fill of them for a little while. In a week I’ll be back to loving them again, feeling they can do no wrong and that they’ll always have a treasured place in my kitchen.

Yes, the cake is crooked in the picture. Yes, the frosting is uneven. That’s the beauty of a homemade cake—it reflects all the imperfections of its creator.

A Few Notes:
Using the larger cake pans reduced the cooking time by about 10 minutes, it seemed. I didn’t have cream of tartar, but the egg whites turned out fine without it. Since I bought lemon curd, I had 22 oz, all of which I used, and at room temperature. I think that the cup it calls for is perhaps a bit on the low side. Personally I’d rather have too much than too little, and I think if it had been chilled, it would have been hard to spread too.

A Lemon Layer Cake
From Fine Cooking’s 101 Tips

This makes a really puckeringly lemony cake, a condition to which the lemon curd adds significantly. If this just seemed like too much lemon, a simple vanilla butter cream could be substituted for the lemon curd, and the lemon icing used on the top and sides of the cake. This cake could also be made in an orange, or even lime variation. The making of this cake is a fairly lengthy process, but it’s well worth it, and for a friend’s birthday, why not?

For the Cake
9 ¼ oz (2 1/3 cups) cake flour; more for the pans
2 2/3 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
1 ¾ cups granulated sugar
2 tablespoons lightly packed finely grated lemon zest
6 oz (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, softened at room temperature; more for the pans
1 cup whole milk, at room temperature
5 large egg whites, at room temperature
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar

For the Frosting
½ lb (1 cup) unsalted butter, completely softened at room temperature
2 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest
3 ½ cups sifted confectioners’ sugar
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Position a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Generously butter and flour two 8x2 inch round cake pans. Sift the cake flour, baking powder, and salt together into a medium bowl. Pulse ¼ cup of the sugar with the zest in a food processor until well combined.

In a large bowl, beaet the butter and lemon sugar with an electric mixer on medium speed until light and fluffy (about 1 ½ minutes). Add the remaining 1 ½ cups sugar and beat until smooth (about 1 ½ minutes). Beat in a quarter of the milk until just blended. On low speed, add the flour mixture alternately with the milk in three batches, scraping the bowl with a rubber spatula; beat just until blended.

In another large bowl, beat the egg whites with an electric mixer (with clean beaters or the whip attachment) on medium speed until foamy. Add the cream of tartar, increase the speed to medium high, and beat just until the whites form a stiff peak when the beaters are lifted. Add a quarter of the whites to the batter and gently fold them in with a whisk or a rubber spatula; continue to gently fold in the whites, a quarter at a time.

Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans. Smooth the tops with the spatula. Bake until a pick inserted in the centers comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Let cool in the pans on a rack for 10 minutes. Run a table knife around the inside of the pans and carefully invert each cake out onto the rack. Flip them right side up and let cool completely.

With the palm of one hand pressed on top of a cake layer, cut each in half horizontally, using a long serrated knife. Put one of the four cake layers on a serving plate, cut side up. With an offset spatula or a table knife, spread a generous 1/3 cup chilled lemon curd on top of the cake layer. Lay another cake layer on top, spread it with another generous 1/3 cup lemon curd, and repeat with the third cake layer and the last 1/3 cup lemon curd. Top with the fourth cake layer.

Make the frosting: Beat the butter and lemon zest with an electric mixer on medium speed until light and fluffy. Add the confectioners’ sugar in batches and beat until light and fluffy. Add the lemon juice and beat for 1 minute. (The frosting may be kept at a cool room temperature, covered, for 2 hours).

Frost the cake: Up to a few hours before serving, spread a thin layer of frosting on the cake, filling in any gaps as you go. Chill until the frosting firms a bit, about ½ hour. Spread the remaining frosting decoratively over the top and sides of the cake. Scatter with bits of lemon zest, or other decoration.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Eggplant Remorse

I could just weep. I love almost all vegetables, but there are a couple that just don’t call out to me. Asparagus, okra, avocado, eggplant. I’ve never felt impaired by these preferences, never felt deprived in any way. Until now. I’ve started to feel that my lack of love for eggplant is lessening my food experience. I actually feel like I’m missing something.

And the frustration is, I’ve tried eggplant. I really have. I’ve bought it, I’ve salted it, I’ve cooked it, and I’ve ordered it. I even tried it recently, at an excellent restaurant in my husband’s hometown, when we were visiting this summer. There was a lamb entrée that came with eggplant, and, as I told my sister-in-law at the time, if you’re going to try something that you have previously disliked, a really good restaurant is the place to do it. Well it was fine, but nothing special. I didn’t hate it, but it didn’t strike a chord, the scales did not fall from my eyes, I saw no angels dancing around the edge of my plate. I was, in short, unmoved.

Then I received as a Christmas present Simon Hopkinson’s Roast Chicken and Other Stories. His chapters are about a foods he admires, and appear in alphabetical order, along with recipes. Thus it is you find engaging discourses on the anchovy, chicken, chocolate, olive oil, pork pieces and bacon and so on. When I came to the chapter on aubergine (which of course is what the British call eggplant—I have the British edition, not the US imprint) I read with a little shrug, sure that once again I would finish the recipes and think, “Well, fine for those of you who like it, but not for me.” This has always been the case.

By the time I got through with his brief essay and the recipes themselves, I was in a deep state of depression. Tell me how anyone could hate something called Creamed Aubergines, or Aubergines Baked with Herbs and Cream, or even the more restrained-sounding Vinegared Aubergines with Chili and Spring Onions. Why, these recipes sounded positively…yummy!

And yet, this whole overwhelming emotion did not take me completely by surprise. I felt a twinge of it the day after Christmas. Our holiday visitors were leaving on a late plane, so we took them out for lunch rather than dinner. Since they had never been to Seattle before, we decided to take them to a restaurant I had been to for the first time only recently, and which my husband, based on my descriptions, was anxious to try. I made reservations at Serafina, which has a very local neighborhood feel about it.

There we had a delicious lunch, sharing appetizers of Pancia (pork belly), Crostoni della Enoteca Trimani (slices of bread served with bubbly hot fresh mozzarella and topped with an arugula salad—this was enough for two people, or even a whole meal), and the Zuppa del Giorno (which was creamy garlic on this day). We moved on to Plin (agnolotti filled with braised pork shoulder, savoy cabbage, and Reggiano), two orders of Gnocchi di Semolina, and the Melanzane alla Serafina, described as their signature dish, which my sister-in-law ordered.

I confess it sounds outstanding: thinly sliced eggplant rolled with ricotta cheese, fresh basil, and parmesan; baked in a tomato sauce, served over cappellini aglio e olio. She declared it to be wonderful, and my brother-in-law, who also tried it, agreed. It was then I felt the first faint prick of remorse over my feelings for eggplant. It looked so good, and I adore all of the ingredients except the eggplant.

I’m a little afraid to rush out and buy an eggplant and try a recipe, even one of Hopkinson’s, as amazing as they appear to be. It has been my experience that when people who haven’t ever made a thing before (or haven’t ever made a thing before successfully) try to make it, they often manage to muck it up and end up disliking the thing (or continue to dislike it, as the case may be). I think the best thing I can do is go back to Serafina and try the Melanzane alla Serafina, and then turn to the cookbooks I own that were written by reliable authors and see what I can find. Because even if I were to try to make my own eggplant, I just don’t have a proven recipe right now that I know of. I’m sure the likes of Deborah Madison, Donna Hay, or James Beard somewhere in their works have an infallible combination of ingredients, but I just don’t know for certain. I’m going to have to see what eggplant is capable of before I try to prepare it myself.

For those of you who like eggplant, or who haven’t tried it and aren’t afraid of making it, or who don’t like it and want to try it again, just to see, here’s one of Hopkinson’s recipes.

Aubergines Baked with Herbs and Cream
from Roast Chicken and Other Stories by Simon Hopkinson

4 small aubergines
50 ml/2 fl oz olive oil
8 ripe tomatoes, skinned and coarsely chopped
Salt and pepper
50g/2 oz butter
2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
1 tablespoon each of finely chopped tarragon, parsley, chives, and basil
450ml/3/4 pint double cream

Cut the aubergines into 1 cm/1/2 inch slices and fry on both sides in hot olive oil until pale golden. Drain on absorbent paper and leave to cool. Season the tomatoes and stew with the butter for 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and pour into a 5cm/2 inch deep oval baking dish. Cover with overlapping slices of aubergine, and season lightly with salt and pepper. Stir the chopped herbs into the cream. Pour over the aubergines and bake in the oven at 375 F/190 C/Gas Mark 5 for about 20 minutes until bubbling and lightly browned.

Serve with a crisp green salad dressed with lemon juice and walnut oil, mingled together with some garlic croutons. A good accompaniment to grilled lamb chops.

Hopkinson doesn’t say how many servings this makes. Perhaps it depends on how much you like eggplant.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

ARF/5-a-day Round Up

Pop over to Sweetnick's to see the ARF/5-a-day Round Up. One of today's submissions should look familiar if you read yesterday's post here. Check out all the delicious offerings!

Monday, January 07, 2008

Ringing in the New

New Year’s Eve seems like it’s just designed for a meal made out of appetizers, or heavy hors d’oeuvres. Everything I’ve heard about how other people spent New Year’s Eve suggests that everyone seems to be of the same mindset. I guess when people throw New Year’s Eve parties, they tend to be more mix-and-mingle affairs, with some people possibly attending multiple functions. Well, this year we were no exception. We had another couple over with their kids, let the kids run around until they dropped (8:30 p.m. for mine, closer to 11:30 p.m. for theirs, possibly because of the unfamiliar environment), and ate lots of nibbly things through the evening.

Alex made the whole menu because, he insisted, I did all the cooking when his brother and sister-in-law were here, so it was his turn. Unlike me, he managed to have only one minor disaster when he burned a couple of batches of pot stickers, which he blamed on the cooking method given in the recipe (instead of on the fact that he was cooking on a gas stove instead of on the electric ones he’s been using for the last 12 years).

In choosing the menu we tried to pick things that would be easy to eat if you were forced to run after a child mid-bite. Pot stickers aren’t really in that category, but everything else was: empanadas, asian slaw lettuce wraps, white bean spread on baguette toasts, meatballs.

While there were no major disasters this time, I think we could safely title the whole experience The Improvisational Menu—with one or two exceptions, every item had some ingredient that was swapped out for another one because of lack of planning on someone’s part. I name no names, but I would merely point out that if you demand to do the cooking, it is at least in part your responsibility to ensure that you are familiar with the recipes and know what needs to be bought to prepare them. That’s all I’ll say.

I’ve said before that I don’t like to deviate from a recipe the first time I make it, because if for some reason I don’t like it, it’s impossible to tell if it was the recipe itself that was flawed, or if my changes were the cause of my dislike. Alex feels no such compunction to follow recipes to the letter, the first or the fiftieth time he makes them. As a result, he decided to “wing it” in a couple of the New Year’s Eve recipes.

As an example of a modification that I feel was only partially successful, I submit to you the empanadas. When I make these, I use ground beef, and season it with sort of Mexican seasonings. They are, after all, of South American origin. The version that was made for New Year’s Eve used lamb and more Indian spices. They were OK, they were just a little odd to me. Of course our guests, never having had empanadas made by us before, wouldn’t necessarily think there was anything odd about them. Also, they weren’t salty enough. This is an argument that we’ll probably have until the day one of us draws our last breath—I just like things saltier than he does.

All of this is really just a very roundabout way of getting to the white bean spread that we served with toasted baguette slices. Our guests, who are far less critical than I am (or at least, much more polite, or possibly both) enjoyed everything, and since the white bean dip was tinkered with successfully (in my opinion), as opposed to some things which were not, I thought I would provide the recipe for everyone's reasonably healthy snacking pleasure.

This comes from Eating Well magazine. Not the version that’s being published today, but the one that was published back in the 1990s. I tore out recipes and saved them in notebooks, and still have a great many of them. Now I wish I’d just saved the magazines, but I guess we all have these culinary regrets. Of course, the “Eating Well” aspect of this spread was completely negated by the three slices of crumbled bacon that were added to it, but since the bacon added a great deal in terms of flavor, and hell it was New Year’s Eve, I’d say that was a successful addition. If you leave the bacon out, you have a spread that's pretty good for you, and tasty as well.

White Bean Spread with Sage
Eating Well magazine c. 1997

1 clove garlic, crushed and peeled
½ teaspoon salt
1 15 ½ or 19-ounce can cannelloni beans, drained and rinsed
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 teaspoon chopped fresh sage

With the side of a chef’s knife, mash garlic with salt

Transfer mashed garlic to a food processor. Add beans, oil, lemon juice, cayenne, and black pepper. Puree until smooth. Scrape into a bowl and stir in sage

Will keep covered in the refrigerator for up to four days, or frozen for up to six months. Makes about 1 ½ cups.

We added three strips of cooked crumbled bacon with the sage.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Holiday Comedy of Errors

My, it is hard to get back to real life after the holidays, isn’t it? The last three weeks have been trying because a) we moved, b) we had company, and c) it was the holidays. The moving wasn’t horrible, but it was still moving. The company was my brother-in-law and his wife, who knew full well that we had been in our house for one week and one day prior to their arrival, so they were prepared for pretty much anything. And of course Christmas was Christmas, complete with last-minute present wrapping (see “moving,” above) and small children getting up at 4:30 a.m.

In some ways the season was a sort of comedy of errors. My new stove is a lot more high-strung than the Kenmore-types I’ve previously had, and I’ve never had a brand brand brand new stove before. The refrigerator is fairly docile. Its only oddity is that if you hold the door open too long, it starts beeping at you. Putting groceries away was somewhat trying until Alex found the “off” switch and subdued it. The dishwasher is just a delight—quiet, efficient, and not the least bit temperamental. In fact, it’s quiet to the point that you can’t even tell it’s running—more than once we’ve opened the door to find it in full cycle, whereupon we hastily shut the door in the manner of someone who has walked in on a roommate entertaining a romantic guest.

But the stove. The stove is somewhat arrogant, as befits an appliance of its pedigree. It has both convection and non-convection capabilities. It has racks that look like they could be used as structural supports in a skyscraper. And it has power. So much power, in fact, that our hood isn’t really quite strong enough to deal with the potential output from it. If we had both ovens going, plus all six burners and the griddle, I don’t think the hood would be able to keep up. Fortunately it’s unlikely that we’ll ever find ourselves in need of that kind of BTU production, but it’s worth keeping in mind, in any event.

And it’s quirky. I realized this when I made the French Onion Soup the Saturday night before Christmas. My brother-in-law and his wife were getting in on an early evening plane, which meant they’d be getting to our house about 8:30, when you factor in the drive from the airport and the 35 minute ferry ride. I was sure they would want something filling and warming, but not heavy or rich, so I spent quite some time caramelizing thinly sliced onions, simmering broth, and toasting baguette slices. When they arrived, I dished up the soup, topped it with the croutons, and sliced up Gruyere cheese to melt over the whole.

I needed to move an oven rack to get the bowls in the right position under the broiler. I popped them in and waited. When they were perfectly golden and bubbling, I pulled the rack out and watched in horror as it tipped forward with the weight from the bowls and dumped the entire contents plus the bowls themselves on the inside of the open oven door. I stood there in shock and disbelief while my husband, his brother, and my sister-in-law sprang to action. They scooped the soup into a mixing bowl, and did their best to wipe out the oven. When it was confirmed that none of the scalding hot soup had splattered on me, and none of the bowls were actually broken (although I did discover later that one was chipped, but no one broke a tooth on the shard, or at least, they didn’t say anything if they did), we dished up the sloppy mess into new bowls and ate what could only be called Upside Down French Onion Soup. It tasted fine, but it was a far cry from the elegant presentation I had planned.

I’ve now been shown four times exactly how to get the oven racks in and stable, but I still have trouble remembering the three step process. The Range Police are going to come and take my beautiful new oven away from me for being completely inept and unworthy of such a magnificent appliance.

And my children are going to go deaf from the smoke detectors. Our smoke detectors are hard-wired into the house, and all networked to one another (of course; too bad there's no way to visually imbue a word with sarcasm, because this is a case that calls for it). The result of this is that when one goes off, they all go off in a cacophony of ear-splitting beeping and chirping that gives me a headache and lasts until the offending miasma has dissipated.

The first time this happened was at lunchtime on Christmas Eve. We’d been to the grocery store to stock up on cheese (the larger of the two grocery stores near us has a fantastic selection of cheeses, and we all plead guilty to being total cheese freaks), and I was making grilled sandwiches on the new griddle. Ciabatta with Manchego cheese, proscuitto, arugula, and the slightest wisp of homemade mayonnaise to moisten them, each brushed lightly with olive oil and grilled until golden, toasty, and melty. Well, that was the plan, of course. The reality was that they were grilled until golden, toasty, and melty, but with the blare of the smoke detector’s siren as an accompaniment. We opened windows and blasted the hood to its highest setting. My husband maintains the griddle hadn’t been properly seasoned, which is entirely possible. Fortunately, by the time I broke out the sweet potato chips, the green salad, and the blue cheese dressing, the concert was over and we could eat in peace.

The second time this happened was at dinnertime on Christmas Eve. Yes, twice in one day I managed to generate enough kitchen pollution to set off the smoke detectors. This time the baby was asleep (and slept through it, if you can imagine; I guess this is what happens when you’re accustomed to the screaming of three small boys—you learn to sleep through smoke detectors, earthquakes, and other acts of God and Mom). My husband was getting the twins ready for bed, and discovered that if you go into the bathroom that adjoins their room, the shrilling noise is muffled because there’s no detector in there to serenade you. My oldest son danced up and down on the front porch, asking me when it would stop and begging me to go get him his shoes so he could run down into the front yard to get further from the noise. I assured him it would soon end, which it did.

The catalyst for this second bout of aural mayhem was the prime rib we were having for Christmas Eve dinner. My aunt had invited everyone over for light snacky things on Christmas afternoon around 4, so we decided to have our really nice meal on Christmas Eve, and have something more casual on Christmas night. Prime rib was our protein of choice on Christmas Eve, and I proceeded to cook it according to the gospel of James Beard. The instructions said to roast it at 500 degrees for 30 minutes, then turn the heat down to 350. I dutifully cranked the oven up, turned on the hood, and put the roast in.

The roast setting on my oven activates both the broiler and the heating elements. When the fat from that beautiful piece of meat slipped down and hit the superheated roasting pan in which it rested, it was immediately vaporized, and wafted up into the path of the hood. But either the smoke overpowered the hood, or there was too much “overdrift” (if you will) in the direction of the smoke detector. Either way, within 15 minutes, we were in shrieking hell again. Once again we sprang to open windows and doors and generally encourage complete replacement of the fouled air with fresh. Once again within about ten minutes the noise had ceased. The meal continued uneventfully (although I did think the gravy was a tad on the greasy side, but I was so thrown by having set off the smoke detectors twice in one day that I probably didn’t skim the fat well enough; no one else mentioned it).

With those occurrences, you’d think that the entrée I made for our Christmas dinner would just spontaneously combust and save me the drama and the pain. Well I have delightful news—no such thing happened. I made Beef Bourguignon from an old issue of Martha Stewart Living, and it turned out beautifully. I was forced to use bacon scraps instead of salt pork, and complained to my sister-in-law about the inability to get salt pork in this part of the country. They live in Atlanta, so salt pork is readily available, as it was in the part of the country in which I used to live. We served the stew over mashed potatoes, and everyone went to bed full, happy, and humming “You’re Easy to Dance With” from Holiday Inn (although admittedly still with a slight ringing in our ears, not from the jingling of sleigh bells, but from the wail of the smoke detectors. Oh well, no holiday is ever perfect).

I’ve promised the recipe for the Beef Bourguignon before, so now here it is. I love this recipe because it has all the advantages of beef stew—beef slow cooked until tender, a lovely flavorful gravy, caramelized pearl onions—but none of the other things about beef stew that always make me shy away from it, like carrots and potatoes cooked to a gray and indistinguishable mush (I know that if you add them later they don’t get as bad, but let’s face it, even then they can still be somewhat unappealingly discolored). If you can’t get salt pork you can substitute bacon scraps, or bacon cut into really small pieces. Also, I left out the rosemary because my sister-in-law can’t eat it. I’ve made it with and without, and it’s fine both ways.

Boeuf Bourguignon
recipe from Martha Stewart Living, February 2003

1 large onion, roughly chopped
2 carrots, roughly chopped
1 head garlic, cloves separated and lightly crushed (unpeeled)
10 sprigs flat-leaf parsley, cut in half, plus 3 tablespoons chopped for garnish
6 sprigs thyme
4 sprigs rosemary
2 dried bay leaves
½ teaspoon whole black peppercorns
2 tablespoons olive oil
6 oz. salt pork, trimmed of rind and cut into ¼ -by-1 inch pieces
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 cups homemade or low-sodium canned beef stock
1 750-ml bottle red wine, preferably Burgundy or another Pinot Noir
1 teaspoon tomato paste
1 pound frozen pearl onions
½ cup water
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon sugar
10 oz. large white mushrooms, trimmed and quartered

Cut two 12-by-22 inch pieces of cheesecloth; lay them on a clean work surface, overlapping each other perpendicularly in the center to form a cross. Pile the chopped onion, carrots, garlic cloves, parsley sprigs, thyme, rosemary, bay leaves, and peppercorns in the center.

Gather the ends together to enclose contents completely, and tie the top with kitchen twine, Place in an 8 quart Dutch oven, and set aside.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add salt pork, and sauté until brown and crisp, about 7 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer pork to Dutch oven, leaving rendered fat in skillet.

Season beef cubes with salt and pepper. Working in two batches, place beef in skillet in a single layer; cook until dark brown on all sides, about 6 minutes total.

Using tongs, transfer beef to Dutch oven, reserving fat in skillet.

Whisk the flour into the fat in the skillet. Slowly whisk in beef stock, and bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring frequently until thickened.

Pour mixture into Dutch oven around cheesecloth bundle. Add wine and tomato paste, and season with salt and pepper; stir to combine. Bring to a boil over high heat. Cover; transfer to oven. Cook until beef is very tender, about 2 ½ hours.

Remove pot from oven, and transfer cheesecloth bundle to a large sieve set over a bowl. With a wooden spoon, press on bundle to release as much liquid as possible. Discard bundle, and pour accumulated juices into Dutch oven.

Remove beef and pork from Dutch oven; reserve. Return liquid to a boil over high heat; reduce to 4 cups, about 10 minutes. Skim surface as needed with a large metal spoon. Reduce heat to low; return beef and pork to Dutch oven.

While sauce is reducing further, set skillet over high heat. Add the pearl onions, the water, butter, sugar, and a large pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, and reduce heat to medium; simmer until almost all the liquid evaporates, 5 to 8 minutes. Raise heat to medium-high, and add the mushrooms. Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are browned and glazed, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Transfer contents to Dutch oven, and simmer over medium heat until heated through. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper as desired, and serve at once. Garnish each serving with chopped parsley.

Serves 8; makes 2 ½ quarts.