Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Recipe: Earl Grey Brownies With Lavender Honey Ganache

This was my first Bakespace recipe submission in response to the Baker's Edge brownie contest. I didn't win anything, but it was really just for fun. It's an original recipe, so it's experimental. I tweaked it a bit after testing—I thought the flavors weren't quite strong enough and that it was a little overly dense—but I haven't tested it again. I think the crystallized lavender is really what adds the most interest, although I originally added it just for the visual.

6 oz. bittersweet chocolate
6 oz. unsalted butter (1.5 sticks, cut into quarters)
6 oz. eggs (4 large)
13.5 oz. granulated sugar (1.75 cups)
1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
3 Tbsp. looseleaf Earl Grey tea, ground in a coffee grinder
5 oz. cake flour (1.25 cups)
3/4 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt

1. Preheat oven to 350ºF. Spray or butter pan.

2. Melt the chocolate with the butter over a double boiler.

3. While the chocolate is melting, whip the eggs and sugar in a large mixer bowl fitted with the paddle attachment for 10 minutes.

4. Combine Earl Grey powder, flour, baking powder and salt. Sift.

5. Add the melted chocolate and vanilla to the eggs. Stir by hand to blend completely. Fold in the flour, mixing until just combined.

6. Spread batter evenly into prepared pan.

7. Bake at 350°F for 35-40 minutes, or until an inserted tester comes out with just a few crumbs attached.

8. Allow to cool, then add ganache and garnish with crystallized lavender (recipes below). Refrigerate.


Lavender Honey Ganache

2 oz. semisweet chocolate
2 oz. bittersweet chocolate
6 oz heavy cream
1/2 tsp. vanilla
2 Tbsp. honey
1 Tbsp. lavender

1. Finely chop the chocolate into 1/4-inch pieces.

2. Place the chocolate in a medium heat proof bowl.

3. Place lavender flowers in the cream and scald. Remove from the heat, cover, and let steep for 10 minutes. Strain and rewarm.

4. Immediately pour the hot cream over the chopped chocolate. Using a rubber spatula, stir gently in a circular motion, starting from the center of the bowl and working out to the sides. Be careful not to add too much air to the ganache. Stir until all the chocolate is melted and completely emulsified.

5. Cool. Spread over brownies.


Crystallized Lavender

1 egg white (pasteurized, if desired)
1/4 cup lavender
1/2 cup sugar
food coloring (optional)

1. Color sugar with food coloring, using fingers to spread color evenly. I divided the sugar and used both pink and lavender.

2. Spread lavender onto a sheet pan covered with aluminum foil. Using a pastry brush, coat dried lavender with egg white. Spread sugar over lavender, mixing with fingers to coat evenly. Allow the lavender to dry.

3. Stir lavender to remove clumps, and transfer to an airtight container.

Cooking 2.0: Bakespace.com

I'm a social networking junkie that will join up and check out almost any new site, although I generally create an account, look around, and never go back again unless I start to get messages from friends. I really only use Twitter and Facebook on a regular basis, although I have a lot of friends on MySpace and will answer messages and read blogs there. That said, a relatively new social networking site called Bakespace, which is specifically for "cookers and cakers," has caught my attention and, more importantly, has managed to keep my attention.

You can tell that Bakespace is a new endeavor—it's a little awkward to navigate and I find it to be a little less than user-friendly (although I think MySpace is a nightmare but people love it, so there you go). What's keeps me going back? I, of course, like the subject matter and while there are a gazillion great cooking forums, discussion lists, and recipes sites out there, this type of site seems to appeal to me more. I can search around for recipes, have a place to save them, and submit my own—which I can also do on, say, Epicuirous, but I can also make friends and create a community, and Bakespace just seems friendlier for whatever reason. Maybe it's the cupcake logo—I can always be wooed with a cupcake.

I also really like their newsletter, which I receive by email. They include recipes, tips, trivia and contests and again, while there are other sites that do this, Bakespace continually seems to draw me back to their site for more information. I've been wanting a centralized space to save all my recipes, and I think this might be it, especially if the site continues to evolve and grow. Check it out, and if you decide to stick around, add me as a friend.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Everything's Better with Bacon!

Well, maybe not everything. Bacon desserts have been popping up for a while now, but I wonder if the appearance of the Vosges Bacon Exotic candy bar is the official indicator that bacon craze has reached its peak. If you feel like celebrating the fact that during this Year of the Pig, the pig is still big (over a year ago Josh Friedland declared that "the other white meat is the new black."), check out the following:

  • Chocolate Covered Bacon, a recipe to make it yourself if the Vosges is just too expensive (or if you just want to add sprinkles).

  • Memphis Barbecue and Bacon Ice Cream from Delaware-based Udder Delight Ice Cream House (sounds kind of icky, but the peanut butter and jelly ice creams sounds delish).

  • Bacon Brittle, which doesn't sound so bad. It's reminiscent of Pig Candy, and I literally laughed out loud when I read Jonathan Gold's description of Pig Candy on the LA Weekly site:

    "Pig candy has been a secret dinner-party hors d’oeuvre for years, and there has been a bit of an underground craze for the dish started in Washington, D.C. The only place I know to get it in Los Angeles is at Lou, a tiny, wonderful wine bar that just opened at the south end of Vine. Lou serves a pretty decent range of artisanal cheeses, the garlic-laced salamis of Seattle’s Armandino Batali, and slivers of Colonel Newsom’s legendary Kentucky ham, but on cool nights there may be nothing better than a plateful of pig candy and a glass of organic Cotes du Rhone."

    Huh. Secret dinner-party horsd'oeuvre? The only place he knows to get it is a wine bar? Here I thought you just put a bunch of bacon on a pan, cover it with brown sugar, throw it in the oven, and munch on it with a Diet Coke at 2am (I think the Bacon Cheese Baconburger may be the male equivalent of this scenario). And I bet it was invented by a southern woman with PMS, not a fancy chef in D.C. Anyway, it's got to be good because the Sweet Potato Queens say it is.

  • Bacon Salt from J&D's (Justin and Dave, “bacontrepeneurs”), which is vegetarian. I haven't tasted it, but the concept seems similar to smoked salt and smoky paprika, both of which I love. These are great additions to anything you want to add a smoky depth to, and make great substitutes for bacon or ham hocks when you want to make a vegetarian (or just lighter) version of a dish that really needs that flavor. Amusingly, Justin Ozersky and Daniel Maurer of Grub Street feel that the bacon salt is the point where this bacon fervor jumped the shark (and I loved J&D's response), but they're all about the bacon chocolate. I bet they eat their pig candy at wine bars, too.

  • Bacon of the Month Club from the Grateful Palate, where you receive a different artisanal bacon each month, along with a variety of bacon tchotskys. They also have a Bacon Geek T-shirt. Fun!

  • Bacon Scarf from Shopsin's General Store, one side marbled, one side lean. Show your piggy pride with flair!
Thanks to my friend Heather's bacon-link email, the original inspiration for this post.

In a piggy-related Bleu factoid, I met many of my current circle of friends (including Heather) through a Yahoo Group of Chicago goths called Black Porkchop. Here's a photo from the Black Porkchop Goth Pool Night at Sheffield's [edit: oops, that's Philosophur's—Sheffield's is down the street] (now Cherry Red) from back in the day:

Ah, memories! Photo swiped from Tarik Dozier.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Things to Do in Cleveland, OH: Little Italy

I spent approximately half of my high school years in Cleveland, OH. Unfortunately, because I was a teenager and, stereotypically, only interested in boys, music and shopping, I really missed out on all the best bits. Little Italy was one of those places that I was vaguely aware of but, at the time, not the least bit interested in. These days, I'm fascinated by diverse little neighborhoods that add such flavor to the cities they inhabit, so when my mom planned a Red Hat bus tour to this historic area, I had to tag along.

Cleveland's Little Italy neighborhood, also referred to as "Murry Hill" after the street that runs along its center, was established in 1885. By 1911, 92% of the residents had been born in Italy. Today, it's a trendy and artistic little area that is feeling the strain of gentrification, and as is so often the case in these cultural hotspots, the native ethnic population is dwindling and the art student population is rising. However, it still retains its Italian charm: the cobbled streets, young boys toting baskets of fresh baked Italian bread from the bakeries to the restaurants, old men sitting and chatting by the storefronts, eager to flirt with the passing ladies, and shops that open lazily at 1pm on a summer Saturday (to our dismay, as we were there early). I loved it, and if I lived in Cleveland, it's most likely the neighbohood that I (a little past art student but not so far past) would want to live in.

Our highlights:

Presti's Bakery, originally opened in 1903. The bakery was relocated to the current location in 1999, and while it has a more modern feel, it's still has atmosphere aplenty. They have good coffee, fresh bread, a wide selection of pastries, and a large variety of savory items. I also sampled their gelato before we left, and it was very good (although I have to say that I think the homemade gelato at Ventrella's Cafe here in Chicago is still the best I've ever had.)

Trattoria on the Hill
, where we had lunch, is only 20 years old but still seems to be a local favorite. They had great bread, supplied by Presti's, and the pasta was very good. Everyone loved the food (although the service was a little chaotic). You can buy a jar of their tomato basil sauce to take home with you.

Algebra Tea House: A little off the beaten path, and a little out of place, this tea house made me feel like I had returned to the apartment that I shared, a decade ago, with my friend Kym. She was (and still is) a wonderful artist who turned our living quarters, originally a run down office space directly above the notorious Tuman's, Chicago's Alcohol Abuse Center of old, into a bohemian work of art that also functioned as a fabulous party pad. They have a variety of tea, a selection of Middle Eastern coffee, old boards games, couches, shelves of dusty pottery and free wi-fi. I bought some hand ground Turkish coffee along with a cute polka dot Turkish coffee pot, and received verbal preparation instructions and a free cup along with it.

Little Italy Wines: A cute little wine shop that was so crowded when we visited that I decided to forego trying to search out a bottle to try, but they have a wide variety of wine available as well as a selection of good beer. We did, however, purchase the Bellavitano cheese that they sell, and it was quite tasty! Although Bellavitano is made in Wisconsin, it's made in the Piave style. Apparently Little Italy Wines is the only store in the area that carries it, and if you're curious you can order it from their site.

Also, although it isn't in Little Italy, I have to mention Alesci's as well. This Italian deli located in South Euclid, OH (right around the corner from where I lived) carries all kinds of Italian specialty foods, including Alesci's own sauce and meatball mix, and some of the best Italian bread I've ever had.

There were a lot of other places that we didn't get to explore, so I hope to be able to get back there some time (preferably in the late afternoon—I think I need to move to Europe!) and explore what we missed.

More pictures of our trip are available on Flickr.

Some other interesting facts about Little Italy, courtesy of Wikipedia:

  • The first pasta machine was invented in Cleveland's Little Italy by an Italian immigrant named Angelo Vitantonio, who received a United States patent for the product in 1906.
  • Guarino's was the first Italian restaurant in Cleveland, and arguably the first Italian restaurant in the state of Ohio. It is located just past Murray Hill on Mayfield Road.
  • Chef Boyardee's cooking skill became notable when he opened his first restaurant called "Il Giardino d'Italia" in the Little Italy section of Cleveland in the 1940s.
  • Cleveland's Little Italy was home to the largest Mafia organization between New York and Chicago, comprised of family names like Porrello and Lonardo. The organization was the seat of power for families that operated in Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Toledo, Detroit, and Akron.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Wine 2.0: Wine Library TV

I've been meaning to post about Wine Library TV ever since Diggnation put it on my radar, which was a while ago. I hadn't gotten to it, but as host Gary Vaynerchuk's guest appearance on Conan O'Brien last night was big news on the geek circuit, I think now is the perfect time to talk about it.

If you're interested in wine but haven't heard of Wine Library TV (yet, because if you haven't, you will) you should definitely check it out. In addition to being on Conan, he was also interviewed recently in Time, where he is described as "
more hyper than Emeril, more cheerful than Rachael Ray, more street than Bobby Flay and cockier than all of them combined." An article in Slate described the show as "Wine Geeks Gone Wild." The Food Network may have given this country the foodie bug, but it warms my heart that it's a vidcast by a New York Jets fan from New Jersey that will make this a nation of wine geeks. Only in America can a guy on the internet compare wine to "big league chew and to your leather baseball glove" (ABC News), spit into a New York Jets bucket, and then get Conan to eat dirt on national television. I'm sure there are plenty of oenophiles crying foul, but in my opinion, the more wine appreciation there is here, the easier it makes it for me to enjoy and learn more about good wine.

Gary's rise to fame has also a been a great 2.o social networking experience. I saw his announcements about the Time interview and the Conan appearance on Twitter, saw (and participated in) the responding congratulatory and good luck tweets, and then followed along as he sent out updates from the Conan set. It's a well-connected and entertaining new world, folks, and I'm excited to be a part of it.

Keep on bringing the thunder, Gary, you'll make Vayniacs of us all!

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Movies for Foodies

In response to the fact that this seems to be the summer of restaurant-related movies (Ratatouille, Waitress and No Reservations), Premiere Magazine has released a list entitles "The Top 20 Most Mouthwatering Movie Moments." I'll leave it to you to go and peruse the descriptions, but here's the movie list:

  1. Babette's Feast
  2. Big Night
  3. A Christmas Story
  4. Eat Drink Man Woman
  5. Fatso
  6. Fried Green Tomatoes
  7. Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle
  8. In Her Shoes (brought the term 'foodie' to the movies)
  9. Like Water for Chocolate
  10. Marie Antoinette
  11. Mostly Martha (the German film that inspired No Reservations)
  12. My Best Friend's Wedding
  13. Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen's
  14. Soul Food
  15. Spanglish (featuring the Thomas Keller BLT, pictured above)
  16. Tampompo
  17. Tom Jones
  18. Vatel
  19. Volver
  20. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (the original)
A couple of my favorites that aren't on this list: Chocolat and Under the Tuscan Sun (although I preferred the books for both of these). I also think of Sideways and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover as being foodie movies, but the the former counts only if you're into wine and counting the latter could be seen as a tad morbid.

What are your favorite movies about food? I've added all the movies from this list that I haven't seen to my Netflix queue, but I'm sure there are others out there. List your recommendations here, and/or add me as a friend on Netflix.

Thanks to The Stew for the original link to this story.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Maybe All We Need is a Little More Wine

My friend Ben sent me the link to this Washington Post article: "A Gate-Crasher's Change of Heart."

"A grand feast of marinated steaks and jumbo shrimp was winding down, and a group of friends was sitting on the back patio of a Capitol Hill home, sipping red wine. Suddenly, a hooded man slid in through an open gate and put the barrel of a handgun to the head of a 14-year-old guest. 'Give me your money, or I'll start shooting,' he demanded."

But the robber was distracted by another guest's suggestion (panic-induced, I'm assuming) that he join them for some Chateau Malescot St-Exupéry. After a declaration of "Damn, that's good wine," the robber proceded to tuck his gun away, tuck into the Camberbert, and eventually ask for a group hug. Kevin Underhill of Lowering the Bar has contacted Chateau Malescot to suggest that "Damn, that's good wine" be their new slogan.

You can find a detailed overview of Chateau Malescot St-Exupéry at TheWineDoctor.com.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Things to Do in Akron, OH: Lavender and Lace

Finally, podcast episode #2 has arrived! I've switched to being mostly on my Mac, and it took me a bit to figure out Garageband (much thanks to Big-O's Techno Fodder podcast for making it much easier). I also used Adobe's new sound editor Soundbooth CS3 to attempt some heavy-duty cleanup. I really like the program, and it did manage to make my noisy recorded-in-the-car podcast a little bit cleaner. It's still not great sound quality, but I tried!

Now, on to tea. There are many tea rooms in Ohio, and I hope to explore many of them, but my mom's favorite is Elizabeth's Lavender and Lace Tea Toom in Dover, OH which is about 45 miles outside of Akron. The tea room is housed inside an absolutely gorgeous 1876 Second Empire Victorian Home that retains the original mansard roof. I love places like this because the history is just palpable.

The interior is decked out in Victorian style. There are multiple tea rooms and plenty of hats, boas and stoles to play dress-up (you're never too old to play dress-up!). They specialize in afternoon tea parties for all ages, and it's a great place for birthday parties, bridal showers or just a casual get-together.

We enjoyed a four-course meal, and everything was very good. Our tea choices were the Winter White Earl Grey, which I found to be much lighter than the standard black, and a Raspberry Tea, which wasn't our favorite but would be good if you're looking for a fruitier, non-caffeinated choice. The color was beautiful. Our menu was as follows:

First Course: Lemon tea bread, Chicken noodle soup and a light salad.

Second Course: Chocolate chip scones with raspberry jam and whipped cream.

Third Course: Three varieties of tea sandwiches - cinnamon pineapple cream cheese, chicken salad and tuna salad.

Fourth Couse: A variety of desserts - raspberry tart, chocolate cake and key lime pie.

We had a great time and were absolutely stuffed upon leaving. We visited the gift shop before we there, where they sell a variety of tea. I purchased a sample of their pumpkin spice tea, which would be lovely in the fall.

We weren't able to record inside the tearoom itself, so we had a discussion about tea on the drive home. We talk about our experience at the Lavender and Lace tea room, as well as about the history of tea and it's renewed popularity here in the U.S.

Links of Interest

Stash Tea: A nice overview of the history of tea.

Harney & Sons: One of my favorite tea purveyors (I thought they were British, but apparently they're in Connecticut.)

Intelligentsia: Known for their coffee, but I had an intense to-go cup of Jasmine tea here. I could have worn it as perfume.

British Express
: Browse and purchase a variety of British tea here.

How to Make a Perfect Cuppa: BBC Guide to a perfection in a tea cup.

Tea Post from Neil Gaiman
: What my favorite Brit author has to say about teal.


Click here to listen:

Bitespot 02: Lavender and Lace

You can also subscribe in iTunes.

View photos of our Lavender and Lace visit on Flickr.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Ear Candy: Cupcakes Speakers

Yes, they're cute enough to eat but do they sound as sweet? Don't know and probably not, but these cupcake speakers that I spotted on Geek Sugar are certainly adorable (I voted geek chic). This is a product produced by Semk; the site was slow to load for me and a little odd to navigate, but they have some fun stuff. Neat little flash intro, too. Technabob mentions that these are brand new and probably won't be available for a while, but will probably start showing up in stores in a few months. Unfortunately, I don't think they'll to a thing for my cupcake circuit.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Cupcake Circuits, Colbert and The Science of Appetite

First, apologies for the recent lack of posts. I was laid off from my job last week and it threw me for a bit of a loop, but I think everything's relatively under control now.

As I was catching up on my feeds this afternoon, I came across this post by Cathering Morgan on Blogher: The Science of Appetite, Weight Loss, and Dieting. Can We Rethink Thin? The post was inspired by a Time Magazine article, The Science of Appetite, which I found fascinating. It begins with the concept of a "cupcake circuit," the elusive and non-quite-understood part of our brain that associates cupcakes (or whatever food it is that creates the serotonin-induced happy dance in your brain) with pleasure, happiness and satiety.

I, like many others, am one of those people that have always struggled with weight. I was a pudgy kid, a teenager that thrived on sugar and alternated between pudgy and starved and eventually, a very overweight adult. However, I witnessed the staggering decline of both my grandmother and mother-in-law due to a lifetime of obesity and diabetes, and as I was starting to experience symptoms of irregular blood-sugar myself, I was freaked out enough to change my habits. So over the course of a few years I changed my diet and became a lot more active and I lost around 60 lbs. and 12% body fat and am now probably healthier than I've ever been in my life.

That said, I still struggle with my weight, and I definitely struggle with my cupcake circuit. I love sweets. They make me happy, and sometimes I crave them so badly that I feel like I'm having a drug withdrawal. I still eat too much sugar, but not nearly as much as I used to and as long as I stay active it seems to be okay. It fascinates me how much influence food often has over our psychological state of being. I try to use exercise as my overall spirit-lifter (for example, I've been more conscientious about my workout lately to counteract the blues of being unemployed) but sometimes, only a cupcake will do.

The article goes on to talk about how humans have historically had too little to eat rather than to much, and how we're adjusting (or not adjusting) to the current abundance of the industrialized nations. Scientists are currently scrambling to understand more about the process of appetite so that they can address the obesity epidemic that has emerged in the U.S. and is now spreading to other countries as they adopt more of our higher-speed, overstressed, fast-food culture.

Morgan also dicussed the recently released book by New York Times science writer Gina Kolata, Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss--and the Myths and Realities of Dieting, which talks about the history, science and myths of weight loss and the diet culture. I followed Morgan's link to an interview with Kolata on the Colbert Report, and what she had to say sounds interesting. The concept that we should happy even if we're not a size 2 is pretty standard, but she goes into a little bit of why dieting is so hard and just how long we've been doing it. I had no idea that the original low-carb diet was invented by William Banting, an English undertaker, in 1863. According to the arictle The History of Dieting, "British Medical Association immediately attacked this approach, and because Banting was not a scientist, claimed that it had no scientific value and would not work for others. The public however were impressed, and people all over the English speaking world read of his plan and lost weight themselves, not caring about the doubters. So popular did it prove to be, that it was translated into other languages and thus spread even wider." Amazing how much things have changed, and yet how much they've stayed the same!

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Note: Email Issues

It recently came to my attention that there was a backlog of email on my mail server that never came through. I've switched over to a new host, which has solved the problem, but lost some email in the process. If you've recently emailed and haven't received a response, please send another to bleu@bitespot.com. Sorry!

Thursday, June 07, 2007

A Little Bit of Wine Geek Humor

From the Akron Beacon Journal, 11/3/06.
(And yes, I'm slow).

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Island Cake and Lost Finale Party

Hatch Map Photo:

The Cranky Fanatic Lost Finale Party was a blast, and my island cake turned out pretty well. It's not the prettiest (the hatch map on top was very hastily added at around 3:30am), and I think the fondant got a touch dry, but all-in-all, I would say it was a success!

Working with the fondant really was fairly easy. One thing I will do differently next time is mix in the base color as I'm initially mixing the fondant. One recipe I referenced recommended this, and it would have made sense since I wanted the whole thing to be green. I wanted some darker swirls to create a marbled effect, but the darker color could've been added later. I think the little bit of dryness I experienced was due to having to mix all of the color in after the fondant was formed. It took a lot of kneading to get it even.

In related cake-decorating news, Epicurious' latest email newsletter contained a link to an article on a DIY Wedding Cake. I haven't explored it completely, but it looks like they have some nice how-to information there.

My other favorite dishes from the menu were the Garlic Shrimp (I didn't have Sherry, so I used Tequila) and the Grilled Sweet Potato Salad (I used toasted macadamia nuts instead of peanuts).

You can see a couple of pictures from the party on Flickr, and you can listen to us rehash the finale on the Cranky Fanatic Lost podcast.

Big-O is going to be hosting live Lost trivia contests on Talkshoe during the hiatus. I just participated in the first one, and even though I got the lowest score—I'm not so good with the trivia—it was a lot of fun! You can listen here or join in on Wednesdays at 8pm CST.


On a completely unrelated note, please pardon my dust as I make some domain adjustments. A friend of mine originally set up the hosting for the Bitespot domain name and I'm transferring things around a bit so that I can apply it to this blog. I'm currently having some picture link issues with older posts, but that should hopefully be resolved soon.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Baker Baker, Baking a Cake

This Wednesday night is the Lost Season Finale, and Cranky Fanatic Big-O is having a finale party here is Chicago. In my book, all celebrations need cake. Therefore, I'm attempting my very first fondant cake in an attempt to create something Lost-themed.

The cake itself is a Margarita Cake, basically a white cake that used margarita mix for the liquid. Honestly, I really haven't gotten the whole cake thing down. My mom, although she'll deny it, is a master. Mine are usually too dry or too dense or too bland or too something. I just finished making the cake layers, and the smaller top layer seems okay, but I used a single large round cake pan for the base and I think it was probably too big. Perhaps the reason that smaller, individual layer pans are used for conventional home ovens is that there isn't enough even air circulation for the big pans. I plan to use a strawberry preserve filling and frosting in between layers, though, so that will help if it's dry.

I'm going to decorate the base of the cake with regular shortening-based blue frosting. That should be easy since it's representing waves and doesn't have to be any sort of smooth. I would use buttercream since most people prefer it (I, myself prefer the supersweet stuff) but I can't refrigerate the fondant so this will be more compatible.

The fondant was a spur-of-the moment inspiration. I was listening to the Dharmalars Finale Predictions podcast earlier today and, oddly enough, they were discussing fondant with Jorge Garcia (he's an Ace of Cakes fan). I think that was the catalyst. The top, smaller layer will (in theory) be covered in green fondant to represent the island, and I plan on piping on a simplified version of the hatch map. I have absolutely no experience with fondant (other than eating it) so this is entirely experimental. I followed a recipe on the Wilton site, and it went so well that I'm suspicious. It can't be that easy. It's all wrapped up in an airtight container, and on a double-check seems to be fine, but I'm convinced that I will come home tomorrow to something rock-hard and unusable. Or maybe the hard part is getting it on the cake? We'll see, and I'll let you know how it goes!

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Urban Grilling

Photo credit: ThinkGeek

Last Friday my friend Leah graduated from Loyola, and she wanted to have a beach barbecue party in celebration. On Thursday, it was sunny, beautiful and in the upper 70's. However, Chicago weather being what it is, it dropped about 20 degrees on Friday and was excessively windy. Therefore, the barbecue ended up at my apartment.

I have a Weber charcoal kettle grill on my back porch that I use for grilling. Admittedly, it's not the safest of arrangements and our landlord would have a heart attack if he knew, but I've only had one close call and that was because I had an oven mitt hanging on the side of the grill (it combusted, and I really hope my mom doesn't read this post). I do tend to keep the fire extinguisher close at hand. It's the reality of urban grilling. You do it even though you probably shouldn't, and you hope you don't catch anything on fire. I have a back yard, and I could put the grill in it, but one of the neighbors would steal it or, more likely, blow it up.

As I was manning the grill on Friday night, I remarked on how I love to grill, and I love the charcoal flavor, but usually I'm cooking for two and it's just too much fuss to get the big kettle grill going for a small amount of food. I said how nice it would be nice to have a little bitty grill that I could use for that. So, what arrives in my inbox today? The ThinkGeek newsletter advertising the Grilliput Compact Grill. I have no idea how well it works, but it looks like a sturdier option than those cheapie camping grills that they sell at Walgreen's. Plus, it's made of titanium and it compacts down to a little cylinder!

The grill and accompanying firebowl are approximately $45 to order from ThinkGeek. I will probably wait to see if there are some positive reviews floating around before I buy one, but I am planning on picking up this R2D2 Action Figure for my dad for Father's Day, so maybe I'll order the grill along with it. If I do, I'll report back on the results!

Monday, May 07, 2007

Corona-Matic Keyboard Waffle Iron

Corona Matic Keyboard Waffle Iron

Photo Credit: Chris Dimino via Laughing Squid

Finally! A keyboard that I don't have to worry about getting sticky! The problem, presented by the School of Visual Arts in NYC: "Take this now useless item [a typewriter] and give it a new life." To the apparent joy of geeks everywhere, one of Chris Dimino's solutions was to create the Corona-Matic, a keyboard waffle iron (you should check out his other designs, too—my 2nd favorite is the urn). I originally heard about this on the Gadgette's 'Things We Want' episode, but it's been featured on many of the online gadget guides. I wonder if Chris expected to generate all this excitement? The story is currently working it's way up on Digg, so if you have a Digg account, contribute! Spread the word! I'd love to see this get made into an actual product. I don't have a waffle iron, but this would absolutely be my excuse to get one!

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Mighty Muffins!

In response to a tweet from Winnie requesting a good muffin recipe, I am posting the basic muffin recipe from my Baking and Pastry class (taught by Jeanne Krauss).


Basic Muffin

5 oz. (1 cup) pastry flour (or 4.5 oz., 1 cup, of all purpose flour)
2.5 oz. (1/3 cup) sugar
1/4 oz. (1/2 tsp.) baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt

1.5 oz. (1 large) egg, beaten
3.5 oz. whole milk
2 oz. (4 Tbsp.) butter, melted
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

Sift dry ingredients together.

Combine wet ingredients.

Mix wet ingredients into dry, mixing until just moistened. Remember, lumps are okay! Mix in your add-ins before all flour is incorporated (a gentle folding technique works well). Remember, DO NOT OVERMIX!

Spoon or scoop batter into paper-lined, greased or lightly-sprayed muffin tins to about 2/3 full. A #30 (2 Tbsp) ice cream scoop works well for this.

Bake at 375F, until done, approximately 20-30 minutes. Doneness is indicated by a golden brown color, muffins that feel set to a light touch, and a toothpick that when inserted, comes out clean.


You can put anything that you want into this recipe: fruit, nuts, chocolate, whatever. The important thing to know is that you should never overmix your muffins! You don't want the batter to be completely smooth, and lumps are OK! The more you mix flour, the more you develop the gluten. This is desirable for yeast breads because yeast produces gas slowly, and needs a very elastic environment to contain it. Weaker batters can't hold onto the gas bubbles for long, so they use chemical leavening (i.e. baking soda, baking powder), which creates gas quickly. A batter that is too elastic won't let the gas bubbles distribute evenly. Baking soda needs the recipe to contain an acid such as buttermilk, baking powder can be used on its own.

You can tell an overmixed muffin by the fact that it's tough instead of tender, and if you break it open, you will often see 'tunnels,' long trails in the muffin that develop from the leavening gas getting trapped. Muffins mixed correctly should be light in texture and have an even interior.

Other considerations:

  • Pastry flour makes for a more tender product because it contains less gluten. You can also mix 1 part cake flour to 2 parts all-purpose flour for an approximation (in this case 1/3 cup cake flour and 2/3 cup all-purpose). But most people are going to use all-purpose only and that's fine. If you're feeling fancy, though, my favorite source of specialty flours is King Arthur (also found at Whole Foods, Trader Joe's and other upscale or specialty grocery stores).
  • You can use up to a 1/2 cup of sugar in this recipe if you like a sweeter muffin (and depending on your add-ins), and keep in mind that sugar also acts as a tenderizer.
  • Sour cream (2.75 oz or 1/3 cup) could be substituted for the milk. Also substitute a 1/2 tsp. of baking soda for the baking powder. This is a nice complement to blueberries.
  • Buttermilk could also be used instead of milk. The amount would be the same, and you can use baking powder or baking soda as your leavener.
  • You can put a little water into any empty muffin cups to dissipate heat and create moisture in the oven.

Other highly recommended resources used for this post:

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Reality Cheddar, Not So Stinky


Live videostreaming—coined 'Lifecasting' by Justin Kan (always an exhibitionist apparently)—has become a recent trend thanks to the popularity of Justin.tv and the accessibility of Ustream.tv, a company that wisely jumped onto the videostreaming bandwagon and capitalized on Justin's popularity. Via Ustream, I've been able to view some of my favorite podasters at work, visit Hawaiian beaches, and watch Chris Pirillo be incredibly goofy. And now, my friends, I can watch cheese! The forward-thinking cheesemakers at West Country Farmhouse have given us Cheddarvision.tv. You think I jest, but I think it's brilliant! It merges a very old tradition with a very new one, and how else could a Westcombe farmhouse cheddar make a Geek Brief? You can also view a time lapse video of the aging, as well as suggest a name for the the cheese. After much deliberation (and some Wikipedia research), I submitted Wesleydale. I think it's quite fitting.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Ambria: Dinner and An Interview

Earlier this month a good friend of mine gave me a wonderful birthday present: he took me to Ambria for dinner. A mutual friend of ours, Fred DeVore, is a waiter there and he took very good care of us. He is extremely passionate and knowledgeable about the food, so it made for an especially delightful experience.

Also, though I didn’t realize it at the time, our sommelier was the infamous Bob Bansberg. Bob used to teach the wine class at the Illinois Institute of Art, where I attended culinary school. His knowledge was renowned amongst the students and I was very disappointed that he left just before I took the class.

Ambria is a beautiful restaurant, resplendent with a hush-inspiring atmosphere of mahogany, ambient candlelight, and plush Art Nouveau architecture. It’s reminiscent of a time that may be dying out in our desire for shiny, new and modern. Unfortunately, Ambria will be closing its doors on June 30, 2007 after 27 years of fine dining. You can find out more about the farewell festivities in this article from the Chicago Sun Times: The Long Goodbye. If you make a reservation, be sure to request Fred!

I’m so glad I got to experience this Chicago tradition before it’s gone. The following is an outline of our menu. You can hear more about Ambria, as well as a general discussion of the Chicago culinary scene, in my interview with Fred, available below for now and on iTunes very soon.

Menu from Ambria: April 5, 2007

Wine: Cava Avinyó Brut Reserva NV from Penedes, which was crisp and delicious. If you like sparkling wine but haven't tried Cava, you should definitely check it out. It’s a nice (and generally less expensive) alternative to Champagne that seems to be growing in popularity as people become more aware of it.

Amuse Bouche: Leek Potato Soup

First Course: Tapas, or Pintxos in Basque
There was a variety of tapas, but I found the most memorable to be the crostini with spring pea, creme fraiche, and a sliver of smoked salmon. The spring pea was just so delightfully fresh!

Wine: Joseph Perrier Brut Cuvee Royale Champagne

Second Course: Oysters
This warm oyster dish is a 300 year-old Basque recipe. The oysters are dressed with leeks, three varieties of Pimenton de la Vera (Smoked Chile Powder from La Vera, Spain) and applewood smoked bacon foam. Whereas many oyster dishes smother the oysters in other flavors, this recipe is designed to showcase them. It was rich and buttery but not heavy at all. The oysters were Pemaquid oysters from the Damariscotta River Estuary in northern Maine. This was my favorite savory course, and the wine pairing was lovely.

Third Course: Organic poached egg on a bed Anson Mills grits (from Georgia [correction: South Carolina]) with a sauce of thickened chicken jus and perigot black truffles. Being from the South, I love grits, and one of my favorite breakfast is grits and eggs mixed together. This was like my grits and eggs breakfast on steroids.

Wine: Cristom Willamette Valley Pinot Noir Marjorie Vineyard 2004

Fourth Course: Salmon
Served with quinoa, fried leeks and blue foot mushrooms. This salmon is FedExed fresh to Ambria by a Native American man who fishes them out of the Columbia River. Quinoa is considered a supergrain because of its high protein and amino acid content. I’ve had it before, but this was the first time I’ve really liked it, most likely because it was prepared with stock and then mixed with Manchego cheese. The salmon was amazingly tender—the mushrooms were meatier than the fish.

Fifth course: Chocolate Soufflé
Served with quenelles of ice cream and crème chantille (whipped cream). They tapped a hole into the top at tableside and poured in creme anglais. It was absolutely decadent. In his Tribune review of Ambria, Phil Vettel describes it as “all that you'd ever want in a dessert souffle.” I agree. I love dessert, so I couldn’t have been happier.

Sixth Course: Mignardises
A selection of chocolates. I was so full I only ate one, a raspberry-filled piece of dark chocolate. Divine!

My friend’s menu was a little different since he's a little less adventurous than I am. Instead of the oysters as a second course he had a squab breast with lentils du pays, a wild mushroom ragout and currant compote. His third course was a rouget de roche on a potato base. Rouget de roche is a small schooling fish with sweet flesh and red skin from the Meditteranean sea. It is flown in directly from Barcelona. His fourth course was a prime rib and loin of lamb. The prime rib was like butter.

Listen to my interview with Fred—the very first Bitespot podcast!

Bitespot 01: Ambria

Monday, April 23, 2007

Want to Learn About Wine? Drink More!

A friend sent me this New York Times article by Eric Asimov (he's the nephew, BTW): To Study Wine, Buy and Drink. The article requires registration, but if you'd like to read it without signing on, you can always use Bugmenot. Or just read on, I'll give you the gist.

In Asimov's opinion, you get the most out of wine classes and books after you already have a working knowledge and a desire to get serious. He recommends that find a good wine shop, let them know that you'd like to learn, and have them help you pick out a mixed case in the around- $250 price range. Then, you take it home and drink it, preferably with food, paying attention to what you like and don't like. Take notes as you go along, recording how the wines interact and change with food. "The most important thing," he says, "is not how you describe the wine but whether you liked it or not, and whether you felt it enhanced what you ate or clashed with it."

When you're done, you take the notes back to the shop, discuss your experience, and ask them to put together a new case for you. Swirl, smell, swish and repeat.

To demonstrate, Asimov is actually employing this process himself and you can follow along on his blog, The Pour. You can find his case list (he actually ordered two cases from two separate shops for comparison) in the post The Dining Table Wine School.

While I don't agree with the statement that classes and books are only for the experienced, I do think this is a really fun and useful method and a great alternative if classes and books really do intimidate or disinterest you. If nothing else, you get to sample a lot of great wine and he's absolutely right in that you'll start to figure out what you like and don't. He's also right in that that's all many people want or need to know.

If you can't afford a case (and at the moment, I can't, otherwise I'd try and follow along with Asimov) there's nothing wrong with buying by the bottle. The most important thing to understand is where to buy it and what a good wine shop is. As I heard Diana Hammond, the Wine Goddess of the Chopping Block, repeat over and over: the grocery store is not a good wine shop, nor is Whole Foods or the World Market. While the employees may have some knowledge of wine, they usually don't know enough to make a real recommendation. These places are fine if you already have some idea of what you want, but a good wine shop will have employees that really know wine and can make knowledgeable recommendations based on the information you give them.

The second most important thing to know: if you want a wine shop to give you a recommendation, you need to be able to give them a starting point, at the very least a price range. Choosing whether you want a red or a white is helpful, too. You also need to be open minded. If you go in and ask for a really good wine for under $10, expect to be given a recommendation for a wine that you're not familiar with. The most familiar wines (i.e. Cabernet and Chardonnay) are often the most expensive precisely because they're the most familiar. Be willing to try something new, and no nose-wrinkling! If you don't like the wine, feel free to return and say so, but at least try it.

If you live in the Chicago area, there are a ton of good wine shops. Diana always recommended the Wine Discount Center and I've always had a good experience there. There is also an extensive (and recent) list available on the Chicago Sun Times website: The Best in Bargain Wine.

If you are a class and book person (as I am) I highly recommend Diana's wine classes as the Chopping Block. She is extremely knowledgeable, very accessible and not at all snobby. She also offers a Cheap n' Good Wine List on her site. As for books, Eric Asimov does cover his recommended reading list in the post School is in Session, but for a light and entertaining introduction to wine, I highly recommend Drinkology Wine: A Guide to the Grape by James Waller. The information is there, but it's also an easy read.

So drink up and stimulate those brains cells! Apparently, a recent study found that Light to Moderate Drinkers Show Greater Cognitive Ability. True? Who knows, but it sounds good! Cheers!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

What's for Dinner? Pretty Pasta!


I was feeling inspired to make something nice for dinner, but I wanted something easy. I went to the gym after work (yay, me!) and didn't finish up until almost 8:30pm. Remembering that I still had the Foglie D'Autunno pasta that I picked up at the West Point Market in Ohio, I decided to make a quick run to Whole Foods for some basil, Parmigiano Reggiano, bread and a bottle of wine to go with the sun dried tomatoes and olive oil I already had at home.

Foglie D'Autonno

Foglie D'Autunno,which translates to the 'leaves of autumn,' is a rustic Italian pasta that's made by Castellana in Apulia, the 'heel' of Italy. It tastes like pasta, so it's nothing special in that regard, it's just that it's so pretty! The colors are made with various vegetable powders—and squid ink!

At Whole Foods, I ended up buying a Pecorino Tartufello, which is an Italian sheep's whole pieces of black truffles, instead of the Parmigiano. I wasn't positive that it would work with the basil and the sun dried tomatoes, but I love truffles so I thought I'd give it a try. The wine I chose was the Da Vinci 2005 Chianti Classico. I've been wanting to try this for a while. The 2004 was highly rated for such an inexpensive wine—the 2005 was $10.99. I also picked up some Sicilian-style marinated olives and a small loaf of Ciabatta (Italian 'slipper' bread, named for it's shape).


I tossed the pasta with Frantoia, an Italian olive oil that was a favorite at the Chopping Block and one of mine as well. I added the basil and sun dried tomatoes, both of which I sliced chiffonade (in thin strips). The Pecorino Tartufello was pretty powerful so I only used a little; I used a vegetable peeler to make thin slivers to top the pasta. I warmed the bread, sliced it, and poured a little more of the Frantoia into a saucer for dipping. I also added a couple the olives on the side to complete the meal.

Finished Meal

Everything went together pretty well. The wine wasn't the best match—I guessed when I picked it up that it might be a little too fruity to stand up to the truffles and the olives, and I was right. I think it would go better with a tomato-based sauce or a regular Pecorino. But the wine that I thought would match perfectly was $20, so this was good enough! It made for a rustically simple meal, but it was quite satisfying and again, very pretty! Not quite as exciting as the Digg party I'm missing right now (I'm listening to it enviously via Justin.tv; it sounds fun!) but it'll do.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Calacanis on Barcelona

Jason Calacanis is currently in Barcelona to give a talk on Social Media. Befitting that subject, he's been posting frequently on Twitter about Barcelonian food. He sent a Tweet out earlier today looking for advice on finding the best rabbit in the area, and the current update: "At abasolo etxea with my friend Xavier in barcelona. Amazing rabbit I'm told!!!" I've been enjoying his commentary immensely, and oh, how I would have loved to have been at the Barcelona Blogger/Web 2.0 dinner! Read more about his experience and drool over the imagery here: Tapas in Barcelona.

New Basque cuisine seems to be playing a major role in culinary evolution here in Chicago. I've often heard Alinea referred to as second only to El Bulli, the world renowned restaurant just outside of Barcelona. Cantu of Moto is also considered to be directly inspired by El Bulli chef Ferran Adria, who is credited as being the founder of the molecular gastronomy movement. Even Ambria, classically French, is currently offering a Tribute to Spain tasting menu that features Basque cuisine. And speaking of Ambria, I had the chance to dine there recently. It was fabulous, of course, and I'll be posting more on that experience very soon.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Tasty Tech at the Food Network Awards

I don't watch much of the Food Network. Not because I dislike it, but because I rarely sit down and watch shows on an actual television and so far I haven't been interested enough to seek out the torrents. Therefore, the first annual Food Network Awards was only vaguely on my radar, but enough so that I did check out the website.

I'm sure that, even if I had watched the show, I wouldn't agree with Bourdain's rant on Ruhlman.com: "Last night, during the breathtakingly awful, interminable cruelty that was The Food Network Awards, I even found myself feeling bad for Rachael Ray." Don't follow the link if you're not fond of profanity—it took me a minute to settle on a usable quote that didn't contain a colorful string. While I find the Food Network a little fluffy, and am aware that it's celebrities are often chosen for their cute-factor rather than their culinary ability, it's driven Americans to get more interested in good food and I can only thank them for that. It's not the Food Network's fault that we prefer everything fed to us with that special Hollywood-style seasoning.

There were only a few highlights for me from the award pickings. I was somewhat surprised that they had a Tasty Technology category (although I guess I really shouldn't be), and the most geek-friendly award winner was the PoliScience Anti-Griddle. It flash freezes instead of grills, and was created for Grant Achatz in 2004 (PoliScience is based in the Chicago suburbs). There's an interesting article about it on Chow (and I think I might change my tagline).

Other winners that I thought were interesting:

  • MooBella Ice Cream: A vending maching that uses "a multi-patented, fully automated ice cream process" to create custom ice cream on the spot.
  • Zingerman's: Z - Club: A "gift for the adventurous eater." Zingerman's supplies a boxed collection of rare and specialty foods such as "olio nuovo, a coveted version of the new season's olive oil pressed and bottled just days ago, or maybe a cheese from one of America’s small dairies" up to four times a year.
  • Liz Hickok, Jell-O Artist: Cities of Jell-O. Go look—it's cool!
I also have to give a little shout-out to Matt Lee and Ted Lee of the Boiled Peanuts Catalog. They lost to Alicia Polak of the Khaya Cookie Company under the category of Edible Entrepreneur of the Year. Polak hires South African men and women to bake handmade cookies that are brought to the U.S., so the award was well-given. But there's a Southern heart beating deep inside this yankified urbanite, so I just had to mention the boiled peanut boys. I might just have to order one of those boil-your-own peanuts kits...

Thursday, April 12, 2007

IACP Conference Welcoming Event: Culinary SENSE-ations

iacp event

I've spent the past few days preparing for the food photography exhibit for the welcoming event at the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) conference. The event happened yesterday and was absolutely fabulous. It took place at the Merchandise Mart, and the overarching themes were Chicago and food art. The Mart showrooms that chose to participate each hosted a particular theme. My showroom was Valcucine, and my theme was food photography. I wish I had done more (I still regret not being able to find someone to create that food photography cake) but I think in the end it turned out pretty well. We had 5 large photos by Jeff Kauck hanging from the ceiling, and 5 smaller photographs scattered on easels through the showroom. I also created a number of tiny matted stock photos to hang and scatter throughout the room, just to draw the eye through the exhibit. We also had a Chicago-themed video put together by Eric Futran, which featured a montage of local food photos set to a foodie-based version of Sweet Home Chicago. Valcucine decided to keep the exhibit up for a while as part of their showroom, so you can see it if you happen to be passing through the Mart anytime soon.

I also participated in the Written Word exhibit, headed by Leslie Swibes, which was in the Varenna Poliform showroom. The walls were decorated with food quotes, and themed cocktail napkins covered with quotes related to food and wine accompanied the wine stations and bread table. There was also a huge wok full of fortune cookies with food quotes inside.

This event was the brainchild of Shelley Young, owner of the Chopping Block. Shelley and Linda Avery, Executive Food Editor of Leite's Culinaria oversaw the event and all of the exhibits, and they did an amazing job. I would imagine that this was one of the most creative events that the IACP has ever seen.

The other exhibits are listed below, and you can see photos of the show on Flickr.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Food and Tech: Use the Nabaztag, Save the World?

CNET Article: For Chicago Chef, It's Prepare, Print, Serve

Photo: Homaro Cantu/Moto

A friend of mine sent me this recent article on Homaro Cantu and Moto. I've already expressed my rather mixed feelings on the whole molecular gastronomy concept, but I have to admit, the photos that went along with this article made my little graphic designer's heart go pitter-pat.

It's also interesting to me that this is a CNET article. It's starts off with the standard Moto fare: edible paper, liquid nitrogen, lasers, blah, blah, blah. If you're a foodie, I'm sure you've heard it all before. But this is a story targeted at geeks, not foodies, and it goes on to highlight the technologies that Cantu has implemented. His kitchen is paperless; he uses a proprietary software system that he coded himself to track profits and losses, and his staff utilizes a voice-activated, 60-inch screen projection system for their prep lists. He also uses a Nabaztag for his email. I own a Nabaztag (named Fiverito, a gift from the same friend who sent me the article), and I'm not really convinced that it's functional enough for use in professional setting, but I think it's really cool just on principal. I wonder if Cantu uses Twitter...

Cantu also talks a lot about sustainability. He states that he doesn't "create technologies just to create novel technologies. I create because I see a need or gap that needs to be filled at the social or retail level." I don't entirely buy that multi-purpose utensils, edible ads and robotic bunnies that read email are going to save the world, but I suppose that any idea that intends to move our society in a more eco-friendly direction is a positive.

Molecular gastronomy is definitely interesting, but I thought the following was a very telling statement. When asked what he eats at home, Cantu replied, "My wife banned me from the kitchen. She does all the cooking. I do simple things, like a bagel with cream cheese. I do eat normal food. Pizza and a glass of beer—that to me is a perfect meal." And so it is. Cantu names Marie's Pizzaria and Lounge as the best pizza in Chicago. I'll have to check that out.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Cafe Descartes Oatmeal Latte

Earlier today I was working on initial drafts of a logo for a cafe. While doing some online research, I came across the recipe for the Cafe Descartes Oatmeal Latte. There was a Cafe Descartes just up the street from the Lincoln Square Chopping Block, and I would often stop in for an Oatmeal Latte on my way in to assist a morning cooking class. It's served in a tall cup with a spoon, so you basically drink your coffee and then eat the oatmeal and dried fruit. It's a great concept—coffee and breakfast all in one! It tastes great as well, and I love the texture that the oatmeal adds to the coffee.

If you live in the area, I recommend stopping in at a Cafe Decartes near you and trying one for yourself. If not, try out the recipe below. You could substitute strong coffee or add espresso powder to the milk if you don't have an espresso maker, and just scald the milk by heating it until it bubbles around the edges. I felt the collective cringe of coffee geeks everywhere as I wrote that, but really, I think it would work out okay.

If you're a purist, you can learn all about making espresso drinks at home on the CoffeeGeek website. From what I understand (and I would say that my understanding is limited) the easiest and least expensive way to accomplish this is to use a Bialetti Moka Express.

Cafe Descartes Oatmeal Latte

8 oz Oatmeal, uncooked
2 Tbsp. Golden Raisins
2 Tbsp. Chopped Walnuts
2 Tbsp. Slivered Almonds
1/2 tsp. Cinnamon
1 Shot of Freshly-Roasted Cafe Descartes Espresso
1 tsp. Honey
1 Tbsp. Hazelnut or Vanilla Syrup (found at specialty shops and some cafes)
8 oz. Skim Milk
2 Tbsp. Fresh Blueberries

Pour 8 ounces of raw oatmeal into a large cup.

Add the dry ingredients to the cup: 2 tablespoons each of golden raisins, chopped walnuts and slivered almonds; and 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon.

Pour in a shot of freshly-roasted espresso.

Add 1 tsp. honey and 1 tbsp. of hazelnut or vanilla syrup into the cup.

Froth 8 oz. of skim milk in a stainless steel pitcher, for about 10 seconds.

Add the other ingredients to the milk.

Froth all the ingredients together, about 15 seconds.

Add 2 Tbsp. of fresh blueberries to top it off.

Pour back into the cup and enjoy!

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Foodie Tweet of the Day

"Seems like with bananas, you basically have a three-minute window between green and brown. Bananas are always 'becoming.'"—Merlin Man, via Twitter

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

How to Buy a Good Knife

When I worked at the Chopping Block, people asked us about knives quite a bit. What knives should you buy? What brand? How do you sharpen them? These questions recently came up on a culinary email list that I'm on, and I thought I'd repost my answer here.

The only real essential is a good Chef's knife. You can accomplish almost any task with that one basic. All of the high-end knives are equally good; you want forged knives, and you want to keep to the around-$100 range, give or take a bit. Size, style and weight are totally personal. I've assisted a lot of Knife Skills classes, and I've seen big burly guys that prefer the lightweight Global 8" Vegetable knife (Global knives were probably the most popular knives in the store that I worked in) and petite women that preferred the heft and weight of a 10" Friedr Dick knife. I really like my 10" Wusthof, but I did develop a fondness for the Global knives after working with them for a while. It's best to buy knives from a store that will let you hold and even test out a few different styles. I like to say that you don't choose your knife—your knife chooses you.

You also want to buy a honing steel. I really like the diamond steels—they're more expensive but they sharpen just a bit and I find that really useful. Some kind of sharpener is also good to have. I like having a stone, but you have to know how to use it properly or you can ruin your knife. There are also a variety of sharpening tools, such as the Global MinoSharp, that are okay. If you don't know how to hone and sharpen your knives, take a class or have someone show you. You should hone your knife every time you use it, and again if you notice the knife getting dull. A sharp knife is much easier and safer to use than a dull one. You should sharpen the knife once you notice that honing isn't doing much anymore.

After that, you want a paring knife for small tasks and a serrated knife for bread. Anything else you buy should be based on what you do most. A boning knife is nice if you like to bone out your own meats. If you carve a lot, buy a carving knife. If you make a lot of sushi, look into a sashimi knife.

You get the picture. Most of the chefs I know own a LOT of knives, but they'll also tell you it's more of a collector's impulse than a necessity.

I also highly recommend that you take a knife skills class to learn how to use your knife properly. If you're in the Chicago area, the Chopping Block offers some great knife skills classes. If not, most areas these days have cooking schools that cater to the home chef and offer some kind of knife skills class. You will, however, need to practice after the class or it won't do you any good!

Recommended reading: The Professional Chef's Knife Kit by the Culinary Institute of America.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Would You Like Some Tools With That Wine?

Winezap Mobile

This service was mentioned in the April 2007 issue of Food and Wine, and I thought I'd try it out. Using your mobile device, you send an email or text message containing the vintage, name, and varietal of a wine along with your zip code. In response, the service sends you a message containing the local retailers that carry the wine as well as the various prices. It's an interesting idea, and may eventually be useful, but I would say that it needs a much larger database. It's possible that it could be targeting higher-end wines than the ones I was looking for, or maybe it works better if you're located on the west coast, but the only wine I got any return on was a non-vintage Yellowtail Shiraz, and it only listed one retailer. After repeated attempts with no results, I looked for this wine specifically because it's one that almost every retailer carries, including run-of-the-mill grocery stores. So for now, this isn't much use to me, but I will keep an eye on it. If their database of retailers grows, the service could be handy if you're looking for something specific.

On a more useful note, I highly recommend the article "50 Wines You Can Always Trust" from the same issue. I know a little more about wine than the average person and I'd like to know a lot more, but right now I'm a relatively casual wine drinker and I rarely find these sorts of lists useful. I find that the wines are completely unfamiliar, I don't remember them, and even if I do I rarely run across them at a store. This list, however, has a lot of familiar names on it. I see many of these wines on a regular basis, and many of them are very reasonable in price. If you like wine but don't know much about it, or would just like to know enough to pick out a decent bottle, this article is a keeper!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Creme Anglaise

Since I just posted the recipe for Guiness Ice Cream, I thought it would be a good time to discuss how to make a basic Creme Anglaise, which is the fancy term for French ice cream base. Below is the recipe. It makes a basic vanilla ice cream, but you can take this and add any flavor or combination of flavors (think Ben and Jerry's!) that you wish. The sky's the limit!

8 oz milk
8 oz heavy cream
4 oz egg yolks (6 large yolks)
4-5 oz sugar
1/2 vanilla bean (or 2 tsp. of vanilla extract—I love Nielsen Massey's Vanilla Bean Paste)
pinch of salt

Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the pan and add the vanilla bean halves. If you are using a flavoring that needs to infuse (green tea for example, or whole cinnamon), add it now.

You want to scald the milk, not boil it. This means you want to heat it on medium until the edges begin to bubble. You want to keep an eye on it because it will boil over the edges of the pot if it gets too hot. If the flavoring you are using needs a longer infusing time, cover the pot and let it sit for an hour. Remember to taste! Bring back to a simmer, then remove from heat.

Beat the egg yolks and sugar and just a pinch of salt in a medium-sized bowl. Salt seems an odd addition, and it isn't included in a lot of ice cream recipes. But salt is a flavor enhancer, and adding just a pinch adds depth, not saltiness.

Temper the yolks by slowly drizzling 1 cup of the hot cream into the yolks while constantly whisking the mixture. A liquid measuring cup or ladle is great for this. The tempering process allows you to add a hot liquid to egg yolks without causing them to cook quickly and form bits. If you add the liquid a little at a time, it brings the temperature up slowly and creates a smooth mixture.

Gradually add this mixture in a slow steady stream to the remaining hot cream. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until nappe, or when the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon (170F on an instant-read thermometer), about 5 minutes. I find that a wooden spoon is the easiest to test for thickness on. You'll also be able to feel the mixture thickening as you stir, and it will begin to look glossy. Do not boil!

Remove from heat and strain through a fine mesh strainer into a clean container. If you are using a fresh vanilla bean, wash it off and save it in a plastic baggie. They can be used a couple of times over. Or, you can put it into a container of sugar to flavor the sugar with vanilla. It's great in coffee!

If you are adding liquid flavorings (such as a liqueur, or an extract) you can add them now or after the mixture chills. Adding them at this point allows the flavors to mature while the mixture chills, but the flavor is harder to gauge when the mixture is warm. Flavors are muted when food is cold (although you can add some now and add a little more later if you need to). Also, remember that too much alcohol can interfere with the mixture's ability to freeze.

Cover with plastic, pressing the wrap down so that it rests on the surface of the mixture. This keeps a skin from forming. Chill in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours or overnight.

Remove mixture from the refrigerator. Whisking to blend flavors even if you added them before chilling to eliminate any separation. Pour into the bowl of an ice cream machine and freeze according to the manufacturer's instructions. If you want to add in fruit or other flavorings (like cookie dough—yum!) do it now. If needed, transfer the mixture to a bowl so that you can distribute the flavoring evenly.

Transfer to an airtight container and freeze until firm and ready to serve.