Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Classics: Frutti Di Mare

At least for me this is a classic.  Frutti di Mare is my family's traditional dish for Christmas Eve.  It is essentially fish stew over linguini.  Not complicated to make but time sensitive because it involves a fair amount of shellfish.  You don't want to start this dish too early or cook the seafood a little too long.  There is nothing worse than rubbery little mollusks.  Which means you are starting your cooking right after your guests arrive just to make for the start of a hectic holiday dinner.  The up side?  It is worth it!  Every last bright tomato and seafood bite!

This year I had been wondering about why we Italians have the seafood feast on Christmas Eve.  I never questioned it before because, well, why question a good thing?  The origins come from the Roman Catholic Church where, like on Good Friday (despite this overly optimistic name, it is the day when Jesus was crucified) observant Catholics do not eat meat.  With a little research I found a few possible answers as to why there are seven fishes served for Christmas Eve although none confirmed as true.  The number seven reoccurs in Catholicism.  It took seven days for Mary and Joseph to travel to Bethlehem.  God created the universe in seven days.  The Catholic Church has seven sacraments.  Mortal sins are summarized in the Catholic religion by the following seven: pride, envy, lust, gluttony, greed, sloth and anger. 

Religious or not, if God (or anyone else) says I need to eat seven types of fish on any day of the year I will not argue. Though preparing one meal with seven fishes is not an easy task.  We are usually shy one or two.  This year we were missing one because a family member is allergic to lobster.  Frutti di Mare is a great way to get as many as you can in one pot.  I am going to recommend a recipe from the Epicurious site that I have used two years in a row.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Details, Mistakes and Good Little Cakes: Butter Rum Cupcakes

Butter Rum Cupcake topped with Pecans

Life never ceases to remind me of the importance of small details.  I feel as though all of my efforts seem to go to managing and remembering numerous seemingly small facts that make up perfecting a larger picture.  Honestly, this can often overwhelm me. Of course it also makes me better at the things that I do.  I am determined, therefore, to continue onward in my quest for perfection and find new ways to collect techniques and adjust small details in cooking and designing and other aesthetic pursuits.

I feel I have more control over cooking than many other aspects of my life sometimes.  Cooking is never out of control.  There are always things that I can be sure of.  For instance, I know that if I slow cook onions in fat they will melt into a sweet, aromatic translucent deliciousness.  I know if I stir arborio rice for an hour it will release starches and become a creamy, base with pearls of rice to absorb whatever flavor you add to it.  These I have learned over many years of trial and error cooking.  

Baking, on the other hand, is a newer experience for me and one that requires a lot of exacting details.  Let's face it, there is no turning back once you have forgotten the baking powder.  However, most of the time forgetting an ingredient while cooking is not cause for ruins.  There is something to be said for the ability to improvise and learn from the step you have forgotten.  So goes the adventure of my Butter Rum Cupcakes.

Nick and I were visiting our friend, Janice, in Beacon for her birthday.  She was throwing her own birthday dinner and the least I could do was bring the birthday dessert.  I am not yet up to the task of baking a whole cake, mind you.  There is no sensible reason why.  I am just intimidated.  I am working up my nerve.  What better way to do that than to bake cupcakes?  Essentially miniaturized versions of cake. That might not mean that they are less of a challenge but it seems that way.  Besides, this was my third attempt at cupcakes and, since my first two were relatively successful, I figured it can only get better.  I am having fun with the idea of making a really good cupcake because, in all earnestness, they are not my favorite dessert.  Yellow cake and not-so-chocolaty chocolate frosting doesn't light my flambe`.  I would like to recreate this cutie dessert with more interesting flavors and textures.  Maybe it will appeal to a more sophisticated palate than the second grade classroom birthday party.  If cupcakes are mini cakes, why can't they be strawberry shortcake, molten chocolate or even lemon meringue.  Well, this sweet-toothed girl can dream, can't she?

The final result was something I call a Butter Rum Cupcake.  I say final result because the end result strayed from my intended recipe.  The original recipe was from a book on fanciful cupcakes and was called a Tres Leches Cupcake.  It involved preparing a mixture of heavy cream, condensed sweetened milk, evaporated milk and rum, ahead of time with which to soak the cakes when they came out of the oven.  It seems that I had confused evaporated milk with dry milk (no, in fact, they are not the same thing) and the result was not only ineffective in creating a soaking agent but downright distasteful.  The dry milk was a powder and essentially soaked up all the other liquid ingredients and, to make it worse, the whole thing smelled like baby formula.  Ick!  Maybe, I wondered, this time I can skip this step.  Next, I took on an unfortunate and dreaded task that is harder for me to face than all other culinary tasks.  I threw it out and moved on.

Now for the cake, sans leche.  This recipe is a adapted from Cupcakes, by Shelly Kaldunski.  I doubled the recipe for the amount of guests that would be at dinner and replaced half of the vanilla extract with rum since there is no longer a rum soaking liquid.  This cake is very spongy and I would definitely be willing to try soaking it in a rum mixture another time.  Lucky for me, it was flavorful enough with a not too dry texture to hold its own without drowning it in milk and rum. 

Rum Cake Sans Leche  (makes 22 - 24 cupcakes)

2 cups flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 eggs 
1 cup milk 
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon dark rum

Using a bowl and whisk or a kitchen mixer, mix together flour, sugar baking powder, and salt.  Then add eggs, milk, vanilla and rum and mix until all ingredients are blended.

Line your cupcake or muffin pan with paper or foil liners.  Fill them two thirds of the way with batter.  Bake at 350 degrees.  Make sure your rack is positioned in the middle of your oven.

Buttercream is one of those classic icings that if is done well, can be amazing and if it isn't just tastes like sugar.  So buttercream was something I wanted to know how to do from scratch and to do well.  Besides here is where I was really going to get my butter flavor to validate the name Butter Rum for my cupcakes.  The first recipe I tried for buttercream used egg whites.  I am not sure what part of the recipe didn't work honestly.  I combed through it a few times and could not find the step I missed or misinterpreted.   I meticulously whisked the egg whites and sugar in a heat-proof bowl over a low simmering pot.  I transferred that to my mixer and added the butter piece by piece along with the exact amount of rum. Still, it fell flat and began to separate.  Despite the recipe saying to put in under the mixer on high if such occurs, I could not revive it.  I did the unthinkable for the second time that day.  With a heavy heart I threw it out and started again, all the while hearing the chiding voices of my parents reminding me of starving children all over the world.

Trusted Mark Bittman to the rescue again.  His recipe was much easier and got a much better result.  It had that real butter taste that married perfectly with the rum.  I could have kicked myself for not trying it sooner.

It is hard for me to accept I have made a mistake that I can't fix.  My early New Year's resolution is to shrug my shoulders and start from scratch.  Something might just turn out better that way.

Rum Buttercream Frosting  (adapted from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything)

8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter
4 cups sugar  (The original recipe calsls for confectioners sugar but I was out.  I probably will try it that way next time to see the difference.)
6 tablespoons milk
2 tablespoons dark rum

Cream the butter and add sugar and milk alternately.  Add more milk if frosting is too thick.  Stir in the rum.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Stylish Blogger Award: Thank you and I pass this on to...

Thank you, Kitchen Morph.  This is from a fellow food blogger and I am honored it came from such a talented cook.  If you haven't been visit  I mean this sweet and savory lady uses flavors in ways I haven't even thought of.

However, as with any honor, there are responsibilities upon excepting this award and I shall fullfill them.  First responsibility is that I pass on this award to three other bloggers.  Or was it four?  What the heck, let's make it four.  (Kitchen Morph, my dear, I am excluding you only because you have already been honored.  I hope you understand.)  My winner today are:
  1. You Fed a Baby Chili? - , where food waxes poetic.
  2. Scarpetta Dolcetto -, sweet little shoe, you are an Italian cook after my own heart. 
  3. Gourmet Gadget Girl -, kitchen experience to relate to and tips for everyday.
  4. Sweet Bitter Tart - - to learn a little history about the foods you love and for the great illustrations.  
The second responsibility is to reveal three things about myself.  (Or was it four? Let's make it three.)
  1. I am truly happy when I am making things.
  2. I am really good at being a beginner and I probably will always consider myself a beginner at the things I love to do.  Instead of a cook, I would say I am a food enthusiast.  Rather than an artist, I call myself a creative person.  It reminds me of how much more room I have to grow.  I am pretty content as a small speck in the universe as long as the universe stays as marvelous as it is.
  3. My favorite color is red.
Thank you again for the award and for bringing my attention to the blogs your reading.  A big thank you to everyone who has read or has been reading my little blog.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

To Burundi with Love: Cauliflower Mac and Cheese

Mac and cheese is the ultimate comfort food (excluding vegans of course). This is another recipe for my dear friend in Burundi, where it appears cauliflower is also plentiful.  During my own short lived vegetarian life, cheese was an important part of my diet, not just for the protein factor but for the decadence factor.  If you can't have meat what would be your next go to when you want to indulge a little?  So I am feeling some serious empathy pangs for Melissa in a country where only one type of cheese is available.

Still, there is one.  And one that sounds pretty versatile at that.  Melissa mentioned that there is a Congolese cheese that is akin to a mild cheddar.  I usually use three parts of sharp cheddar with one part of a cheese that has a little tang like gruyere or blue.  With a milder cheese, I found that you have more room for a balance of flavors.

Have your cauliflower chopped and cheese shredded before you start.
I always start my mac and cheese with a roux.  Melt 2 tablespoons of butter, then add 2 tablespoons of flour and stir rapidly.  This will only take 30 seconds to cook.  Then add 2 cups of milk.  A dutch oven is perfect for this recipe so you can take it from the stove to the oven.
When your milk is heated, add your shredded cheese a handful at a time.  The amount of cheese you add is to taste.  I just stop adding when I get the thickness I like.  I shred about 6 oz. beforehand.
I added the cayenne pepper (to taste) and a tablespoon of dijon mustard to the cheese sauce to round out the flavor and give it a little kick.  Bread crumbs are going to give a nice texture later on so keep them on hand.

Sautee` your cauliflower in a skillet.  I like to use grapeseed oil for sauteeing this, but if your in Burundi, try to use butter.  If you can't use the corn oil and let me know how it turns out.  Add salt and pepper to taste. You will know it is done when it is tender and the edges turn golden.  For the last step toss your cooked pasta and cauliflower into the cheese sauce and mix well.  Then sprinkle bread crumbs to the top and stick under the broiler until the top sets. 
Mmmmm... What's missing? A beer?