Thursday, May 27, 2010

Daring to do it: Piece Montee

(Early warning – this is kind of long and pretty picture heavy… Grab a snack and enjoy!)

The May 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Cat of Little Miss Cupcake. Cat challenged everyone to make a piece montée, or croquembouche, based on recipes from Peter Kump’s Baking School in Manhattan and Nick Malgieri.

One of my favorite treats when I was younger was cream puffs and éclairs. So decadent, I knew it was a special, occasional thing. When I saw this month’s challenge I couldn’t decide if I was more nervous or excited! I had only ever seen croquembouches on tv as part of pastry challenges or VERY fancy wedding celebrations. And now I was going to have to make one? Way cool but way challenging!
The first challenge was to figure out when I could make this. A croquembouche is not exactly small. It is pretty hard to scale back the recipe. Even making a half batch, I knew I would have a lot of puffs. So I needed an occasion when there would be more people than just myself and Hubby to eat. (Little Girl is turning into a great eater, but I haven’t quite gotten to the point where I give her desserts like this yet... Maybe soon...)
The second challenge would be the filling. Creme patisseere sounds fabulous. But with me being lactose intolerant, whole milk isn’t something I want to keep around. (I know, Little Girl will soon be drinking it... but she isn’t yet!) I use soy milk as my dairy replacer, and it works well. But it is not “thick” enough to sub out for whole milk... So I decided to make my standard vanilla pudding recipe instead. (The American interpretation of pudding, not the British we were challenged with last month!)
The next challenge was the “glue.” Every croquembouche I have ever seen had the amazing spun sugar caramel holding it together and decorating it with amazing golden threads. Yeah. Gorgeous. But not going to happen when I am cooking with Little Girl underfoot. I am clumsy enough that I risk injury when I cook and bake. I have come to accept that. I will NOT risk injuring Little Girl! So the spun sugar option was not going to happen. So chocolate it was! (Good thing Hubby loves chocolate, right?!)
So far two of the three challenges have been dealt with. Just that first one – when can I make such a generous dessert – was lingering. Then my brother-in-law helped me answer that question. He didn’t know he was helping me, he wasn’t even going to be there to help eat it! (Lucky for him, though, Auntie Twin is also a Daring Baker, so he would be getting his own croquembouche to try!) Here’s the story, if you can follow:
I am a HUGE fan of the Philadelphia Flyers. I follow the team, watch the games, get really invested in the players. The hockey playoffs were just getting underway, and I was really psyched up. Then the challenge was posted. Auntie Twin and I were on the phone discussing it when her husband looked over her shoulder. (The following are not exact quotes, but approximations based on my none-too-stellar memory.) “Croquembouche? Isn’t that the Flyers’ goalie’s nickname?” The Flyers’ goalie is Brian Boucher. His nickname (as brother-in-law knows and was playing off of) is Bouch (with fans yelling “BOOOSH!!!” after great stops in net). That was when inspiration struck. A friend was going to be coming over to watch the next game with us – I would make a “croquemBoucher!”
In order to make this a proper croquemBoucher, I had to make sure I was using Flyers colors – orange and black. The black would be easy – I was using chocolate to begin with! For the orange I added red and yellow food coloring to my choux pastry batter. True, the batter looked orange-er before it was baked, but it was the best I could do.
Hockey aside, the choux was a lot easier to make than I thought it would be. I always had it built up in my head as this complex, very French patisserie recipe. Turns out, you just have to cook the batter while you make it. I can handle that! I was a little worried during the baking process – it didn’t look like the puffs were puffing as much as I had expected. But it turns out that patience is, in fact, a necessary ingredient in baking... By the time I took the puffs out of the oven, they were puffy and beautiful!! Unfortunately, though, I do not have parchment paper. I used wax paper, coated with non-stick spray, but the puffs still stuck some. Which left me with the problem of some puffs having either no bottom at all or having big holes. Not so great for holding filling in... I decided that this was nothing that a little bit of chocolate couldn’t fix. Using the melted chocolate which was going to be my glue anyway, I dipped the bottoms of the puffs and created “lids” (well, the opposite of lids, as it was the bottom not the top!) for my puffs! After setting, these worked great and made a pretty base, as well as an extra burst of chocolate!!
Filling the puffs was a little intimidating for me. I do have a pastry bag and tips, but I am really a lot better at spilling stuff out of the bags than filling or piping from them. So I used condiment squirt bottles. You know, the kind that are usually filled with ketchup or mustard at restaurants... It worked pretty well, actually!
Once filled, I set about stacking my piece. By this time, though, I had learned that our friend would not be able to join us, so we were back to just myself and Hubby for dessert. So I made a miniature stack, and we enjoyed our croquemBoucher in front of a great hockey game!
(Side note- since making this Flyers themed dessert, Boucher was injured, but the team has made it into the Stanley Cup finals! Hopefully the croquemBoucher wasn’t a jinx, and the positive thoughts helped push the team to a great playoff run! Let’s go Flyers! Beat the Blackhawks!!)
I did actually decide to make a “real” croquembouche to celebrate Little Girl’s first birthday. Since she is not quite ready for the rich filling and chocolate drizzle (though she did try to break into Mommy’s chocolate earlier… that was exciting…), I made a “baby-bouche” of choux puffs filled with mashed banana to accompany the grown up croquembouche filled with a cream cheese/Greek yogurt buttercream filling.

Thank you so much, Cat, for a great challenge! This was a lot of fun, and really allowed for a great deal of creativity and self expression! I am so glad you made me get over my fear of choux, and I am excited to have something new in my repertoire! Look here to see the great work done by my fellow Daring Bakers!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The first...

Today is the day. One year ago was one of the most surreal, yet amazing days of my life. One year ago today Little Girl was born!

I cannot believe it has been a year already! It has been a whirl-wind, with so much learning, love and growth - both for Little Girl and for her parents!! I am thankful every day for the amazing, healthy, funny, beautiful, intelligent, happy girl who joined our family on May 26, 2009. I love her every moment of every day, and I can't wait to watch her continue to grow!

Being that it is Little Girl's first birthday, many people have been asking what we are doing to celebrate. Well, I am not a big believer in throwing a huge party. The kid doesn't know the difference, right? I am also a firm believer in celebrating birthdays for extended periods of time - not just on the day itself! So tonight we will have a mini-party with just the family. Mommy, Daddy, Little Girl and Mommy's best friend (really, a part of the family) will have dinner and cake, sharing the singing with all four grandparents via phone and Skype. We will then celebrate again with Hubby's family over the weekend at our family's annual Memorial Day weekend gathering. We will then celebrate again in a couple of weeks when Little Girl and I go back to Florida to visit my parents!!

We are also starting a tradition with this birthday. As much as I love giving and receiving gifts, I really don't want to make birthdays and holidays turn into events that are solely about the presents. No, I do not think that giving (or receiving) presents is a materialistic, evil thing. Not at all! I love to give gifts!! But I want Little Girl to grow up knowing that it is the love and the thought that people give her that are truly important and special. So instead of getting her lots and lots of gifts every year, we will be spreading the "wealth." Little Girl will get a gift to unwrap from Mommy and Daddy, something relatively small and (hopefully) meaningful. Money will also be set aside for her education. In addition to that, money will be donated in Little Girl's honor. As she grows up, she will be able to choose where she would like the money to go. This year, though, she is a little too young to tell us. So we chose the Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation. This is an amazing organization raising money and awareness to help cure childhood cancer. The foundation is located close to where we live, so Little Girl was able to make the donation in person, even handing the check to the friendly woman there herself! It was so great to see her having fun giving the check, even if she doesn't yet understand how amazing that was. (Unfortunately, I hadn't yet gotten the camera out, but it was a sight that would make anyone smile!)

So in honor of Little Girl, here's hoping that someday soon all children will be able to celebrate their birthdays happily, healthily, and surrounded by love!!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Up and moving!

Ok, so it really looked like I had fallen off the face of the Earth there. I didn't! I promise! There was just a lot of no computer time happening - visiting the in-laws, forgetting the computer at the in-laws' house (yes, thank you, I am that good...), Jewish holidays... Lots going on. But things are pseudo-back to normal now. Except for the whole Memorial Day weekend coming up where I, again, won't be home and blogging... But other than that...! I will try to keep you updated on the crafts and activities going on before then, and then when we come home, hopefully things will go back to normal - whatever that is!

The biggest news in the family is that I am about to be getting a lot more exercise. No, we didn't join a gym, nor did I find some untapped well of willpower to work out. Little Girl is walking! That's right, she is figuring out how to walk on her own... Her first solo steps were two weeks ago yesterday - the day before Mother's Day! Now that's what I call a fabulous gift!! Well, in the last two weeks she has been practicing and she has gained so much balance, strength and confidence!

While she isn't totally off and running on her own yet, she is doing so amazingly well! Especially considering this is all before her first birthday! Hubby and I are so proud of our Little Girl. As cliche as it is to say, it really does go by so quickly, and we are so lucky to be able to enjoy every moment!!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Daring to do it: Enchilada Stacks

Our hosts this month, Barbara of Barbara Bakes and Bunnee of Anna+Food have chosen a delicious Stacked Green Chile & Grilled Chicken Enchilada recipe in celebration of Cinco de Mayo! The recipe, featuring a homemade enchilada sauce was found on and written by Robb Walsh.

I was SO excited to see that this month’s Daring Cook’s Challenge was going to be Mexican themed! I love Mexican food. If we are splurging on food from outside of the house, my most frequent request is Mexican. Now, I do understand that most of my experiences with Mexican food has been “tainted” by the fact that I live in the Northeastern United States. Not so close to Mexico, so I know that what I know as Mexican food is most likely VERY Americanized. That being said, I was still psyched about this.
While Cinco de Mayo is not usually something I celebrate, or even realize is happening until after the fact, I decided to make these enchilada stacks for a Cinco de Mayo dinner. Why not, right? Well, for the weeks leading up to when it would be time to make them I kept seeing tomatillos and Anaheim (or long green hots or something like that...) at my favorite produce store. So I was not worried about getting them fresh when I was ready to cook. Silly me... I went in to buy my ingredients, but was not exactly successful... There were a couple of tomatillos left, but they were clearly the one that other people had passed on taking – small, under ripe... Ok, strike out on those. Off to find the peppers. Green bells, red bells, jalapeños, poblanos... no Anaheim. Really? Neither of the vegetables I wanted? I was amazed... This produce store has NEVER disappointed me before! Well, there are either a ton of Daring Cooks in my area or the couple of days before Cinco de Mayo might not be the best time to go looking for Mexican type ingredients... So off I went to a different produce store. There I was able to find the Anaheim peppers, which I was happy about, but they, too, were out of tomatillo. I asked when they thought they would be getting more in. “Maybe Friday,” was the answer. So no help. So unfortunately I had to use canned tomatillos for my salsa verde.
I actually made the salsa on the day before Cinco de Mayo (Quatro de Mayo, I guess!) so that the flavors could meld and marry overnight. The first step towards making the sauce was to roast the peppers. I have roasted bell peppers before, so I wasn’t too worried about this step. I was pretty sure I could do it without setting the kitchen on fire! I just had to do it while Little Girl was napping, since it involved being very close to a very hot oven. I decided to also roast the onion and garlic while I was at it. (I was going to roast the tomatillos, too, but I didn’t think that the pre-cooked canned ones would to too well with it...) My biggest problem with roasting peppers is the patience required in order to complete the task. Once the peppers were nice and charred I put them into a paper bag to cool/steam the skins off. Then I had to wait. Waiting is the part I am really bad at... I managed to wait long enough for the skins to steam, but not quite long enough for the peppers to be cool enough to handle. Oops... Oh well.
Once the tomatillos were blended and peppers, onion and garlic were roasted and minced, the sauce came together pretty quickly. The pot did most of the hard work, I just had to stir a little bit. It didn’t thicken up quite the way I had thought it would, but that could be because I had Little Girl climbing on me wanting to be held, so I had to finish cooking and get things put away a bit sooner than I had hoped. It turned out not to be a big deal at all. The sauce set up well in the fridge, and turned a great consistency when recooked in the stacks.
The next step of the process for me was to decide what my enchilada stacks would be filled with. Grilled chicken, clearly, was not going to happen in our Kosher/vegetarian home. Black beans, on the other hand, and a constant favorite with us – Little Girl as well as myself and Hubby! At first I thought I would just do a black bean and cheese filling. Always good, right? Then I remembered the yummy enchiladas that my mother-in-law makes using zucchini. So I made a filling of sautéed onion, garlic and zucchini with a combination of black and pinto beans.
Finally I had to think about the tortillas. I considered using store bought, but figured I should try to make them. Then I had to decide on flour or corn. That decision almost got made for me when I had the hardest time finding masa harina. But, as you saw on Cinco de Mayo, I was successfully able to get my corn flour, and successfully able to make my corn tortillas.
Now that all of my elements were ready, it was time to stack. The layers came together easily, even with the step of “re-frying” the tortillas. I probably used more cheese than I needed to, but that is pretty much because I don’t think there is such a thing as “too much cheese,” especially in Mexican food! Even before they went into the oven these enchilada stacks looked and smelled amazing. The beans, the zip from the peppers, the mounds of cheese... I was really looking forward to this dinner! While the stacks cooked got my side dishes ready. Man will you be floored by how fancy I got here... one dish of extra salsa verde, one dish of (store bought) tortilla chips, and one dish of diced avocado, seasoned with a little bit of garlic pepper seasoning... I know, I really worked too hard on those...
Once the enchiladas came out of the oven I was even more excited to eat. I could barely wait the ten minutes recommended to let them cool and rest. Let me assure you, though, the wait was well worth it. These enchilada stacks were AMAZING. The sauce had a little more of a kick than I expected, or really than I usually like, but it was so good. The avocado really helped to balance out the heat. The filling was the perfect combination of filling, satisfying and not too heavy. The cheese was gooey and melty, and a little crisped on top. I even would have added a little more cheese... All it all, this was a great meal and a great challenge. So good, in fact, that I used the leftover ingredients to make them again two days later when my mother was in town! While she isn’t one to go out of her way for Mexican food, and usually doesn’t eat too big of a meal for lunch, she ate her entire stack quite happily!! This is most definitely a recipe I will be making again! (and again, and again!)
Of course, I didn’t leave Little Girl out of the festivities. Clearly I couldn’t give here the salsa, and I am still not giving her dairy, but she enjoyed a tortilla, beans and her favorite food – avocado! It looks like we are raising another Mexican food fan!

Thank you so much to Barbara and Bunnee for a fabulous challenge! This was fun to make, it was fun to eat, and will be something that we enjoy in our family for a long time!

For the original challenge recipe please look here, and to see the amazing creativity of my fellow daring cooks take a look here!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Popeye pesto

I wanted to do something different for dinner tonight. I knew we were going to have pasta, but I hadn't quite figured out what to do with it. I thought about a few different things, but was really rather unmotivated to go to the grocery store for any ingredients. So pantry cooking (ok, or freezer and fridge cooking) was how it would have to be. I then remembered the box of frozen chopped spinach sitting in the refrigerator. While I normally prefer fresh vegetables, frozen spinach generally tastes just as good, is a great value, especially when on sale, and saves me the work of cleaning and chopping it! With greens in mind, I decided to get creative with the idea of pesto. I had to be very creative, though, as pine nuts are not things I tend to keep around, and I wanted to make a version that Little Girl would be able to eat (no nuts yet, preventing many-a substitution option).

I started with spinach, some olive oil and sauteed onions in the food processor. (I intentionally omitted garlic - I wasn't sure how Little Girl would like the strong flavor.) I then paused and though "Ok, I need a protein..." I then remembered another of my pantry staples - beans! In went a can of cannelini beans, a sprinkling of salt and a dash of basil (this is a pesto after all!). After a quick spin I had a delicious looking and smelling paste. This would probably be a great spread for toasts or crackers, but I was looking for a more sauce-like consistency. This was achieved with starchy water from the pasta pot. Another spin and the sauce was ready!

This was a momentous occasion in our family. I really do think that this was the first time that all three of us ate the exact same thing for dinner! Usually our meals are similar, but Little Girl's is missing an ingredient or two. Tonight? The same thing! I can't wait for her tastes to continue to expand so we can do this all of the time!!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Tortillas, take two

Since last week's corn tortillas were such a success, I decided that I should try the other kind - flour tortillas. I am not sure why I was quite as adamant about wanting to make them as I was, but I was thinking about it all day, and knew it was going to happen, even if it meant dinner would be a few minutes late... On the meal plan for tonight was eggs and potatoes, so I just figured that tortillas would take the place of toast, and I could make breakfast burritos for dinner!
I used this recipe for my tortillas. I looked at a lot of them, and they were all pretty similar. I didn't pick this one for any particular reason... it was just the first one on the list of search results... I needed to add a bit more flour as I was kneading the dough, but that isn't exactly unexpected in dough recipes, so it wasn't a big deal. I got the dough ready and rested, then rolled it into balls. I then let the dough rest again, since I had to, you know, take care of Little Girl...!
Just as it was with the corn tortillas, it was so exciting to watch the rolled out tortillas puff and bubble! Yes, I really got excited about air bubbles... It is just so rewarding to see the dough doing what it is supposed to do, and to know that you did it right!! I think I learned from last week, though, that the griddle needed to be hotter than expected for the tortillas to cook up right. I also got my timing down better. I got a rhythm going where I could put one tortilla onto the griddle, roll the next one and get it onto the griddle in time to flip the first. (Then by the time the third was ready to go on, the first was ready to come off and the second was ready to flip.) It went really smoothly!!
These tortillas were AMAZINGLY GOOD!!! They were soft, they were tender, they had a nice flavor, they make a great breakfast burrito, even for dinner! And I couldn't resist trying something that a bunch of bloggers mentioned - coating a fresh from the pan tortilla with butter (ok, margarine) and cinnamon sugar and diving in. Man was that worthwhile! I am so glad to have extras!!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Happy Mother's Day!

Today was my first official Mother's Day in the ranks of Mommyhood. True, last year I was very pregnant, and therefore doing the mommy thing, but this was the first Mother's Day when I could hold my Little Girl in my arms and tell her how much I love her.
To all of the mothers out there, and all of the fathers doing the jobs of mothers, and the grandmothers, and aunts and cousins and foster-mothers, stepmothers, friends and supporters, Happy Mother's Day, and thank you for your love, inspiration, support and continued efforts to make moms and kids happier people!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Take her out to the ball game...

We are sports fans in our family. Specifically, I am a die-hard fan of the Philadelphia Flyers and Hubby of the Philadelphia Phillies (gee, can you figure out where we live?). We try very hard to get to one or two games of each team every season. Flyers games are a little harder to get to, with the high price of hockey tickets, but we usually go to a couple of Phillies games each season - Hubby usually more than me. Now, Little Girl was born in the midst of baseball season last year. (I can NOT believe she is almost a year old...!!) I fully expected to get her to a game some time, but it didn't happen. Well, that situation was fixed today! Hubby received a gift of tickets to today's "Business-person's Special" afternoon game, and we went as a family. It was great! While the forecast predicted thunderstorms, they never materialized, and the day was warm and sunny. (Ok, it was very sunny - and I have the sunburn to prove it!) We were a little bit worried that the crowds and the noise would be overwhelming for Little Girl, but she was amazing. She loves people, and she was flirting and charming with everyone around us! I am not sure how much of the game she actually watched, but she had a lot of fun, which made it even better for her proud mommy and daddy! We did have to move out of the sun after a couple of innings (a couple of LONG innings...), but we were still able to see some great plays by the Phillies as they won 7-2 against the St. Louis Cardinals!
The only sad part of the day was learning about the loss of Phillies great Robin Roberts. He will be missed, and his tradition of greatness will be carried on by the current team. And in the hearts of fans young and old!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Cinco de Mayo! Ole!

It is Cinco de Mayo today! Time to celebrate Mexican style! Ok, really, I am not Mexican in any way, shape or form, nor do I usually celebrate Cinco de Mayo. But the calendar said May 5 was going to be hitting this week, so I figured I could do something appropriately themed for dinner. I decided to make something I have never made before: corn tortillas.

Hubby and I love Mexican food. You have seen that we can happily make a meal of nachos...! I have made other types of "flat breads" before, but never actual tortillas. In order to make tortillas properly one must use masa harina. I didn't have this. I had corn meal, that would work, right? Well, no, not at all. Corn meal is made differently and has a completely different texture. So I had been looking for masa in the grocery stores, but wasn't having any luck. Yesterday, just in time, my luck changed. This was a sign, right? I was supposed to make tortillas!

Masa in hand, the rest of the ingredients were quite easy to come by. Water. That's it. Masa and water. Hot water, to be precise, but not too difficult there. I added the hot water to the masa, then covered the bowl and let it sit. I actually thought it looked pretty cool soaking through the flour. After about 20 minutes I mixed and kneaded the mixture, adding cool water by the tablespoonful to get the dough to the right consistency. I needed a bit more water than I had expected, but I guess this varies depending on the weather, where you are, etc. Once the dough was ready I rolled it into balls to press into rounds. I do not have a tortilla press. I used a sandwich baggie and a rolling pin instead. It worked pretty well, I must say! (Of course, after a few tortillas I realized I could use the bottom of a dinner plate and push down to get the balls to flatten into better circles... So I switched to that method!) Finally it was time to cook. I am always a little nervous when a recipe calls for cooking on a dry (ungreased) surface. But it worked the way it was supposed to. It is kind of silly how excited I got when the tortillas puffed up while cooking!
Now that I know how easy it is to make my own tortillas, and how versatile these home made ones are, I might not buy the premade ones again! I am thinking of turning the leftover ones into my own chips... We'll see if that happens!!
Happy Cinco de Mayo!!

Recipe source: Rick Bayless

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Too much of a good thing

One of the only drawbacks to the amount of challah I have been baking is the fact that we simply can not eat that much that quickly! I have some in the freezer destined to become breadcrumbs, but I had almost a full loaf in my fridge calling out to me to turn it into something fun. My mother in law, sister in law and two nieces came to visit today, so I decided that this was as good a time as any to make bread pudding. What can I say, after the Daring Baker's challenge, puddings have been floating in my head!

I did not grow up eating bread pudding. Leftover challah was always turned into French toast. Which, I must say, was always enjoyed and appreciated! But I have learned that bread pudding it, for the most part, the same thing as French toast, just a little easier, since you don't have to cook each piece separately. Also, I didn't know who would be hungry when they got here, and bread pudding could be dessert-y or light meal-ish, so it wouldn't be wasted. I also remembered that I had some cranberries in my freezer, so the bread pudding would even be fun and colorful!

I had a good feeling about how this pudding would turn out when I remembered to butter the baking dish before I started! I usually get at least half of my ingredients in before I realize what a hard time I am going to have freeing my food from the pan. But I remembered this time, so I knew I was off to a good start!! Pan greased, I cut my challah into cubes. Then it was custard time. I am sure that there are plenty of recipes that will give you milk to egg to proportions. I don't use one of those. I used three eggs, a bunch of soy milk, a handful or two of brown sugar, a sprinkling of cinnamon, and a generous splash of vanilla. It looked good to me, and made enough custard to cover the bread. In went the cranberries, then, after a good mix, everything went into the fridge to soak. After something like an hour and a half (though it could have been more like two hours...) the bread looked nice and soggy, so it was time to bake. Well, almost time to bake. First I had to shake some cinnamon-sugar on top of everything - just to make it extra yummy.

The final product was even yummier than I had expected. I was really happy with how it turned out! And so was my family, which made it even better!