Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Teeter Totter

We’re having some weird weather here. One day it’s sunny and not too bad. The next morning I wake up and skip blithely out to my car only to find a thin layer of frost that needs to be scraped off. Normally I manage this task with a good jolt of windshield washer fluid and the wipers, but the washer fluid reservoir hasn’t been filled in weeks (Dear), so that’s not an option right now. (And never mind that if it’s cold enough this strategy backfires and I end up with more iciness on my windshield than had been there initially.) Instead I end up scrambling through the car looking for the ice scraper, tossing aside Happy Meal toys, old magazines, and bungee cords, all the time cursing under my breath as the minutes tick away the little bit of buffer I had left myself so that my drive to the ferry wasn’t a 10 minute exercise in muscle-clenching anxiety over missing the boat.

I’m kind of reminded of the winter weather in the Laura Ingalls Wilder book The Long Winter. They kept thinking that sooner or later winter would have to give up, that with March would come Spring. And then March came and there was still more snow, and their food was running low and they contemplated slaughtering their farm animals for food. OK, so maybe we’re not getting three day blizzards, nor are we thinking about eating our livestock (not that we have any livestock, you understand), but I just said I was kind of reminded of that, not that our situations were identical. March is not bringing with it the glorious rebirth that we’re all assured is the very essence of Springtime.

So what to do? I think an Action Item List is in order:

1) Stop whining about weather; it is clearly futile, as weather is not attending to said complaints
2) Resign self to wearing sweaters and/or winter coats for another couple of weeks
3) Allow three extra minutes each morning for possible ice scraper search and/or ice scraping
4) Commence campaign to get washer reservoir refilled (Dear)
5) Make Salted Caramel Cheesecakes with Graham Crackers

Ah, you weren’t expecting number 5? Well it seems as good a choice as any. Cheesecake is without season, no? On the one hand cheesecake can be light and fluffy and airy and cool and bathed with fresh strawberries with juice that are positively natational, just the thing for a warm summer day. On the other hand it can be dense and thick and rich and possibly studded with morsels of chocolate or candy bar or some other decadent add in, perfect for a cold winter night.

Well we’re not having hot summer weather, nor are we experiencing cold winter nights. So I need something in the middle. These are actually more of a cream cheese custard; they’re cooked in a water bath (as are many cheesecakes) but they have no crust. They’re just the filling poured into a ramekin and cooked, then they’re topped with sticky sweet caramel that’s enhanced with sea salt (everyone who’s sick of the combination of salt and caramel being featured in recipes as though it had never been thought of before, please stand up. Now, everyone who loves caramel with salt anyway, regardless of how many times recipes act like they’ve just invented the most perfect combination EVAR, please sit down. Right, that’s what I thought).

So having seen this recipe, and feeling it was perfect for this stupid weather, I also decided that it needed something with it, some cookie or cracker. I made chocolate graham crackers one time with Hershey’s Special Dark Cocoa that I remember as being a smashing success (my husband remembers them as less of a success, since 4 small children + 1 large batch of dark chocolate cookies = lots of chocolate mess everywhere). Since there’s no crust in these, why not serve the crust on the side? I clapped my hands with glee over the cleverness of this idea (work with me here; remember what I’m up against weather-wise and take pity on me).

I found these graham crackers and figured I had me a winner.

Indeed, I did. The cheesecakes turned out the consistency of a dense foam, which doesn’t sound very delectable, but is the perfect consistency for cheesecake. The salted caramel was the perfect zingy foil to the creamy, slightly tangy cheesecake filling, and had a nice subtle crunch from the sea salt scattered over it. The graham crackers were every so faintly touched with honey.

One nice thing I discovered about this recipe. It says you can make the various components up to a day ahead and keep them in the refrigerator. Baloney. Make them up to four or five days ahead. Seriously, I made six ramekins of this stuff, plus the topping and the crackers, and only two of us eat desserts like these in our house (most of the inhabitants lean more to the chocolate chip cookie side of the fence). Thus, we had dessert for three nights, and they kept perfectly nicely for four or five days (since my conscience and my thighs really don’t permit consumption of this sort of thing for three days running).

So make yourself some cheesecake, keep it around, and let it cheer you through the last dreary days of Winter. Or use it to celebrate the first glorious days of Spring. Either way, you deserve a treat.

Salted Caramel Cheesecakes
from Food + Wine magazine
makes 6 ramekins + sauce

For the Cheesecake
1 8oz package cream cheese, at room temperature
½ cup sugar
3 large eggs, at room temperature
½ cup sour cream

For the Caramel
6 tablespoons light corn syrup
½ cup + 2 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup heavy cream
Fleur de sel

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. In the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the cream cheese with the sugar on medium speed until smooth. Beat in the eggs, 1 at a time until well combined, then add sour cream, mixing to combine. Spoon the batter into six 5-ounce ramekins or custard cups.

Set the ramekins in a roasting pan in the center of the preheated oven. Pour around the ramekins enough hot water to come halfway up the sides of the cups. Bake for 10 minutes, until edges are set, but center is still very jiggly. Turn of oven and leave cheesecakes in for 1 hour. Transfer ramekins to a rack and allow to cool completely. Once cool, refrigerate until serving.

To make the caramel, combine the corn syrup and sugar in a heavy medium sauce pan. Cook over moderately high heat without stirring until a deep amber caramel forms (you can swirl the pan a bit to get the two to combine, but be careful not to get it too far up the sides of the pan). Watch closely—it goes from amber to charcoal in the blink of an eye. And there is nothing at all luscious about burnt caramel, I assure you. Off the heat, carefully stir in the butter with a long handled spoon. The mixture may spit, so watch your hands. Stir in the cream in a steady stream. Again, there may be some bubbling. Don’t be alarmed if the mixture doesn’t seem to cohere instantly; just keep stirring and it will all come together. It may seem thinner than caramel should—it will thicken on standing.. Transfer to a heatproof container and allow to cool. Stir in ¾ of a teaspoon of fleur de sel.

To serve: Pour about 1 ½ tablespoons of caramel over each cheesecake. The caramel should be pourable; if necessary, warm in a microwave at 10 second intervals. Sprinkle each with fleur de sel just before serving. Garnish each with a rectangle of graham cracker, if desired.

N.B. The original recipe called for topping the cheesecakes with the caramel, then refrigerating them for at least 3 hours, and serving them with the salt. Since I wasn’t serving them all at once, I chose to keep the caramel and the cheesecake separate until I was ready to serve them. If you’re having them for a dinner party, you could prep them completely up to the salt, then serve. If you’re going to eat them over several days, you might want to hold off on the caramel, as I did.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Taking Care of Business

I've decided that I simply can't let the lack of a photograph deter me from posting. I have plenty of recipes for things that really don't require a picture (or wouldn't be terribly photogenic).

Take, for instance, the polenta I made last week. Inspired by a meal I had on the business trip I took the previous week, I set out to recreate the polenta, which was by far the star of the meal.

My trip was to New York City, and one of the nights I was there we had dinner at my favorite restaurant in all of New York. L'Ecole is the restaurant run by the French Culinary Institute. The students run it--cooking, serving, etc--and the price is just so reasonable. A five course meal is $42. You can't even get a five course meal for $42 where I live, much less anywhere else in New York. And the food is amazing. I had sausage with lentils, scallops, a pork chop with the aforementioned incredible polenta, a salad, and dessert. Needless to say they had to roll me out the door.

When I got home, I decided my poor husband, who had been watching four children for three days (so that's actually twelve man days), deserved something yummy as a reward. I had asked what was in the polenta, and it seemed like the main thing that made it so wonderful was heavy cream. As my grandmother used to say, anyone can cook well with heavy cream. Indeed.

So I made polenta using half heavy cream, half chicken broth (I usually use all chicken broth; water just doesn't cut it in my book). While I was stirring, I cooked off some bacon in the oven to the point just prior to "burnt," so that it would be super-crispy. (As an aside, why do people bother making bacon on the stove in a frying pan? Have they just not thought of putting it in a rimmed baking sheet in the oven? Or are they quite fond of scrubbing at splattered bacon fat? Even when the recipe calls for sauteeing something in the residual bacon fat, I cook it off in the oven and spoon some of the fat into the heated skillet after the bacon is cooked. I can't understand why anyone would do it any other way, unless they derive a deep and lasting pleasure from cleaning the stove, which I suppose is possible.) Once the polenta was done, I scattered it with bits of crisp bacon.

Let me say right now you have never had anything so wonderful, so sublime, so lip-smackingly good, and at the same time so incredibly simple to make, as this polenta. The heavy cream and the bacon do all the work for you, you get all the credit.

Is this something you're going to make for dinner tonight? Well, possibly, if you're throwing a big blow-out to celebrate Poultry Day (March 19th!) and this is your side dish. However, I suggest filing this away for Christmas, or your birthday or anniversary, or maybe just the next time you're feeling too thin and emaciated.

The Best Polenta in the World
based on that made by L'Ecole, New York City
Makes about 6 servings

2 cups heavy cream
2 cups chicken broth
1 cup polenta (not instant)
4 strips of bacon, cooked crisp

Bring the cream and broth to a vigorous simmer (I never have the patience to actually let it come all the way to a boil, so I may as well admit that here in the instructions). Slowly pour the polenta into the liquid, stirring it round to combine. Reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring fairly frequently, until the polenta soaks up the liquid and takes on the incredible sumptuous texture that befits something cooked with two cups of heavy cream. This will take 15 or 20 minutes.

Serve polenta scattered with savory bits of crumbled bacon. If you make it ahead, and the polenta thickens on standing, you can thin it down with a bit of chicken broth prior to serving.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Top Rated

I have to head off on a business trip, but I wanted to leave you with a good recipe. This is, without a doubt, one of the best pan sauces for steak you will ever make. It's a 5.

I should explain what I mean by a "5" in case you weren't around all those years ago when I explained how and why we rate recipes. It's like this.

Once upon a time, when I was a lighthearted young newlywed, I made chicken stock from scratch using a whole chicken (come to think of it, I still make chicken stock from scratch using a whole chicken). I had a magazine spread that provided the recipe for the stock, along with uses for the leftover chicken (before I realized that a chicken that had been poached to Hell and back shouldn't probably be eaten at all, but that's youthful inexperience for you). One of these recipes was for Chicken a la King. I thought it turned out well, and when I asked how it was, I was told, "Fine."

Three weeks later I was out of chicken broth, so I made some more, and another batch of Chicken a la King. When we sat down to dinner that night, there was a distinctly disappointed look on Alex's face. When queried about what the problem was, he responded, "I don't really like Chicken a la King that much."


Which is how it came to pass that I now demand a rating for 1-5 for every meal I cook. Anything less than a three is banished, never to be made again. A three might be spruced up to improve it, but if we can't think of anything, it might get made again, but odds are it won't. A four could be put in the regular rotation (although considering my recipe collection--14 binders of recipes torn from magazines, every back issue of Everyday Food, Cooking Light back three years, 43 issues of Donna Hay magazine and counting, countless other saved cooking magazines, and 300+ cookbooks--I could make a recipe every day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the rest of my natural life and never cook everything, so the odds that there will ever even be a regular rotation are sort of slim). A five is incredible, stupendous, don't change a thing. There have been two recipes rated a five in ten years.

One of these is the recipe I'm about to share with you. We often make this for special occasions when we're eating in. It's fast and easy, and the flavor is so incredible you can't believe it's three ingredients and takes three minutes to make. The original recipe serves the steak with Parmesan Mash, which is wonderful, but it's also wonderful without. The next time you make steak, you must make this.

Pan-Fried Steak with Parmesan Mash and Pan Gravy
from Donna Hay magazine #16
serves 4

4 russet or Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 1/2" cubes
2 ounces butter
8 ounces heavy cream
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
4 - 5 ounce Filets Mignon
oil for brushing
for pan gravy
1/2 cup beef stock
2 teaspoons grain mustard
1 teaspoon brown sugar

Place potatoes in a large pot of cold salted water. Bring to a boil and cook for 15-20 minutes or until just cooked through. Drain, return to pan, add butter, cream, salt and pepper and mash with a potato masher until smooth. Stir in Parmesan cheese and set aside to keep warm while the steaks cook.

Brush the steaks with oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Heat a medium non-stick frying pan over high heat, and cook steaks 4-5 minutes per side (for medium-rare, or longer to desired doneness). Remove steaks, set aside, and keep warm. Make the pan gravy by stirring the stock mustard, and sugar into the pan. Bring to a boil and cook 5 minutes or until thickened. Serve steaks with mash and pan sauce.