Sunday, December 28, 2008

New Year, New Life

Don't you just hate them? Before you start listing people, I'm talking about New Year's Resolutions. they seem to indicate that you have no resolve what-so-ever at any other time of year...except for maybe Lent...which is very limited in time and then has option-out days...Sundays, your birthday, your neighbor's birthday...
Hey, I'm all for self-reflection and introspective analysis...but really...all the talk about making myself better, fitter, stronger, richer, nicer is just a potential for failure. I don't resolve, I crawl to the finish line eyes aloft, thanking God that I made it another year without major regret and with my gallbladder.

Remember the Millennium? How the computers were supposed to crash and we all were going to ring in 2000 without electricity, money, food and water? I was in London that year. And if any country (in my opinion) was going to miss the mark, it was England. So, I rushed around, on New Year's Eve making my preparations. I was having a little fete at my home, a top floor flat in an old abbey. A wonderful place that was said to be haunted by a monk, who offed himself right in my very dining room. I'm not so sure, it was a very serene place. It was a 5 story walk-up, so I didn't get much pop-in traffic, which was just to my liking. I'm not so much into "stopping by". I actually don't get it. How hard is it to call someone and mention you will be in the area, or are thinking about being in the area before you show up at their doorstep. It's kinda rude if you ask me. I'm sure my issue is with my inability to say at the door, this isn't really a good time. Or, oh, you should have called, I have a million things I am trying to get done and don't have 5 seconds to spend with you. Combine that with my totally crazy idea that if people come over, you need to have a cheese board, antipasto platter or cake at the ready...much less a tidy room to usher them into. I suppose if I had an upstairs and a downstairs, I could use only the upstairs for living and keep the downstairs for attending to unexpected company...but I don't, so I hate the pop-in. Take note.
So New Year's Eve 1999. I had gathered all my provisions for the party, and for the devastation. I bought about 100 quid worth of water and I pulled 3000 pounds from the bank. Yes, there's more. I bought the hype, hook, line and sinker. Furthermore, it always seems that when I am totally and completely prepared, it's always for naught. I lived in a small village and waled from the bank to my home, so what happened next, really freaked me out. No sooner had I walked up the 5 flights of stairs, stashed my loot in my sock drawer and began filling the tubs and sinks with water, my bell rang. My bell never rang. No one would just be stopping by...this was England. My party wouldn't start for 5 more hours, the mail had been delivered, my downstairs neighbor usually just tapped on the ceiling when he needed something...who would be ringing? I am suspicious of everyone...I grew up in LA. So I looked in the video monitor and there was a guy standing there. And he says to me, with a very thick (non-British) accent, I have a gift for you. "who are you?" I ask..and he says, I have a gift for you. And immediately I know...he saw me withdraw money, he is here to rob and kill me. And he says once more, a New Year's gift for you. I don't know if I had ever been so rude in my life but I said..."I don't want yor (explicative) need to go away. I know what you are up to. I have weapons here." He pleaded a bit more, but I'm not some little girl from the farms of Iowa, I lived through the LA riots, I was totally on to him.
Hours later my neighbor rang me, telling me there was a case of champagne on the doorstep with my name on it. Apparently my US boss has missed the delivery to our office and had the champagne for everyone delivered to my house. Ooops, my mistake. I really should have tipped that guy.

As expected with all the preparations, that New Year, as like most others, was pretty uneventful. Too much to eat by 9, too much to drink by 10, nod off until midnight...a few yahoos and yippees and off to bed. New Year, New Life.

I don't have much in the way of food traditions for New Years. Sometimes it's Thai food, sometimes pizza and other times a pot-luck of recipes I want to try. But tonight I will be toasting in the New Year with a fantastic that will keep me lit as well as wide awake. And it's legal in most states. Happy New Year! No resolutions, solutions.

Vanilla Coffee Martini
In a shaker with lots of ice mix 2 oz of vanilla vodka, 1 oz freshly brewed espresso, 1 oz Kahlua, splash of cream de noya (almond liqueur). Shake, shake, shake. Serve in a martini glass with 3 espresso beans.

update: This summer I made a "slimmed down" version of this drink. 2 oz vanilla vodka, 1 oz freshly brewed espresso and enough splenda to make it sweet for you. Add lots of ice and a splash of milk or cream. Delicious!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Perfect Recipe

I am always in search of great recipes. When I was little, and I would say probably somewhere between 6 and 10 years old, I accompanied my mom to an open house for a little shop in what was once a sleepy village called Montrose. Once upon a time, no one knew about it, and then Dolly and the girls in 9 to 5 hitched a ride on its streets and the adorable retro bowling alley became a popular filming site for movies and one or two "very special" Blossoms. Now what was once small neighborhood shops, a movie theater, a bakery or two, is now restaurant row and and a "hang" for teenagers. But it used to be a place that my folks could trust as safe.

I remember the open house as one for Halloween. Why anyone would have a Halloween open house is beyond me, but I distinctly remember someone in a witches hat, and I don't think it was me. Now, I caution that some of the details may not be true, as I remember it all happening in a book store, while my mother says it was another store that I don't remember existing at all. After tasting a cookie (or maybe it was perhaps more like 3...I was stocky even then), I had to have the recipe. I found the baker of these cookies and said to her, in my best Laura Ingalls impersonation, "these cookies are absolutely delicious, do you think I may have the recipe?" I made those cookies year after year. They were my entry in my grammar school bi-centennial cookbook, of which I still have a copy. It had been years since I had made "chocolate delight bars"--not sure if I made that name up , or if that was the original name...those details are blurry, but a couple of years ago I was feeling nostalgic, so I pulled out my od recipe book and baked up a batch.

These cookies are not meant to be eaten warm, so I waited for them to cool. As I lifted the delight bar from the pan, the memories flooded back. How wonderful to finally eating this treasured cookie again. How come I hadn't made them in so many years? Won't everyone be excited to taste these and hear the story!...And then it happened...I took a bite..and realized that these cookies, these chocolate delight bars...sucked.

We can chalk that up to taste buds changing, or maybe I transcribed the recipe incorrectly, or maybe I was just a kid who loved chocolate and figured I could stomach the rest of the cookie as a sacrifice, just like I stomached all of "Little Miss Sunshine" because the payoff was in the ending. But lately, I am finding that there are some really bad recipes out there.

I teach cooking classes. Mostly to people who don't really love to cook, but they like to eat decent food...and they watch the food network for fun. They see, and I won't mention any names here "chefs" who seem more like hopped up college kids whipping up sambies and soupinis...yumm-o and figure anyone can cook. Before I go on, let me say this. I used to think that a TV station for cooking shows was a great idea. I was wrong. Honestly, does anyone need to know how to take a cake mix and turn it into a roast duck?'s an idea for a show...let's go on a road trip and film us eating at all these places that are already famous. No...better...let's have 4 different shows of people on road trips eating at places that are already famous...that is good TV. Bring back Justin Wilson, the Galloping Gourmet, Jeff Smith, Julia. That's my plea. I'm not bitter, I'm bored.

The most important lesson I can teach is that just because it's in a recipe book, doesn't mean it is good. Everyone's taste is different (the only way to explain the success of the Olive Garden), and if you don't know what flavors work together for you, you will waste time and energy producing bad results.

I have been working on recipes for my holiday cookies. I like to create my own recipes either by tweaking ones I already have or starting from scratch. I find that "American" cookies are very sweet and "one-note". Meaning they don't completly satisfy. So, I usually will use a better grade of chocolate, or reduce the sugar content, or eliminatge something that I think will make the pastry sticky-sweet. I recently came across a recipe in a magazine. It's one of those magazines that takes write in boyfriend and I went to France...blah, blah, blah...This story is about a woman who makes a special detour in an airport for thse cookies. I thought to myself...these must really be something. I read the recipe and I was a bit skeptical, but I rolled up my sleeves and went for it. The recipe is basically a chocolate cookie with toffee chips. On top of this cookie (which is apparently the size of a child's head), is a mixture of marshmallow and crumbs. I did it their way, and I hated them. I thought the cookies were really ugly. They couldn't be made smaller, because of the marshmallow melange on top. The appeal of the marshmallow was that it basically exploded and melted and caramelized on top of the cookie, giving it a sugary crust. So, I went back to the drawing board and made the cookie smaller, baked it off, and ten applied a layer of sugar on top. I torched the sugar. I got the affect of burnt sugar, but I also got the affect of burnt cookie. No go. I placed sugar on top before baking. I got sugar dusted cookie. I placed a marshmallow on the top of each cookie, I got a small puddle of ugly. So I scrapped the idea. The sugar wasn't the star of the cookie was a side show. So, I started over. I think I have a nice cookie that is versitile and tastes like an Oreo. I thought I would share the recipe with you, as well as some fun variations.

My Now Worth a Detour Cookie
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup cocoa powder--the darker the better
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter--room temp
1/4 cup crisco or other solid shortening
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar--lightly packed
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla extract

Sift together all the dry ingredients. In a mixing bowl, beat together butter, shortening and sugars until light and fluffy. A dd the egg and vanilla and beat again until it is all incorporated and the batter looks like frosting. Mix in dry ingredients just until fully incorporated..don't over mix. Take the dough and roll it into 2 logs, about 1 1/2" in diameter. Refrigerate until cold, about 6 hours or overnight. When ready to bake, slice crosswise in 1/4" thick rounds. Place on parchment lined cookie sheet and bake at 350 until done (check in 12 minutes). These cookies will spread, so leave some room.
These are good as is, but not pretty.
The original recipe had toffee bits mixed in. It's a nice option. Add 8 oz of toffee bits just before adding dry ingredients. For the holidays you can also add crushed peppermint candies, and then sprinkle a bit on top before baking. Other standard adds are mini chocolate chips, mini white chocolate chips, or even coconut flakes. You can add just about anything, but keep the bits small as the cookies are also small and thin. Once baked you can do lots of great things with these. make a ganache (equal parts cream and bittersweet chocolate---heat cream and melt chocolate in it) and pipe a design on the cookie, or dip half into it. Add some flavor to the ganache, grand marnier or orange flavoring...or any flavor that is complimentary to chocolate. Use the ganache to make a sandwich of the cookies. Place one side of the cookie back on the baking sheet upside down, place a peppermint patty on top, pop it in the warm oven for a few minutes, until the chocolate begins to melt, but doesn't completely melt, place another cookie on top and you have a minty sandwich cookie. Try the same with peanut butter cups or marshmallow. My current favorite option is to take the plain cookies, sandwich in some ice cream, pour myself a cup of coffee and read your comments.

Only 5 more days until Christmas...get baking.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The $327 Corn Dog

About a year ago, at my nephew's baptism, a few of us got to talking about Disneyland. From across the room, the baby's Godfather heard our conversation and came over to tell me that, and I quote, "Disneyland has THE BEST corn dogs", I've always been more of a fan of a corn ball, than of a corn dog and I like the fried chicken dinner in New Orleans square, so I ignored him. Then, unsolicited, a few weeks later, another friend mentioned the corndogs...and again said they were "THE BEST."

My first introduction to the corn dog was from Hot Dog on a Stick, while in junior high. It was the place in the mall that made the unfortunate high school girls wear tight polyester outfits, and a silly hat. Even a cheerleader would look like a circus act in this get-up. Admittedly, I would always walk by and snicker on my way to the Great Potato; immature yes, gratifying, also yes. They do have good lemonade, but the corn dogs, not so much.

We didn't have corn dogs in our house. First of all, the fry daddy was reserved for making bow-ties (see previous blog) or zeppoli, not deep fried American delights. Secondly, hot dogs weren't considered a real food in our house. They were something you at at other people's homes or a Dodger game. You want a hot dog? Here's your hot dog...Italian sausage with peppers and onions on freshly baked Italian bread. Can you believe I complained?

I spent my junior year of college in Florence, Italy. I lived in a pensione, in a room with 2 other girls. Among the many things I learned in this year abroad was an important lesson. If you want to find a good snack food, follow the stoner. Dave (his name has not been changed because I figure it's a popular enough name and I think he would actually be proud to be mentioned here) led us to The Jolly. This bar was only across the road and down a bit from the pensione, but it was where we would go to grab a beer, not a snack.
Enter Dave.
One afternoon we were enjoying our libations and watching the endless video loop of Pink Floyd's Wall, and Dave sauntered our way carrying a plate with what appeared to be a hot dog on it. What's that I asked? Well, it's a hot dog he replied, through his smirk. It was sliced in half length-wise, pressed in a pannini machine, placed on top of toasted crispy bread and served with ketchup. Oh my, it was lovely.

There was some controversy regarding the Dodger dog some time ago. Some of the restaurants serve them grilled (good) and some boiled (not so good). People rave about about Pinks, but frankly the crunch of the casing makes me gag. Carneys, no opinion. Costco makes a good dog at a good price, but I think their Polish is the choice of champions. Unbeatalbe is the brat at the County Fair in Plymouth, but you can only go in September, and you have to go to Wisconsin, so it's probably not practical. Trust me, they are delish.

Mike and I went to Disneyland yesterday. We arrived near the lunch hour, and because we had to renew our annual pass we were delayed a bit. When it was all said and done the bill, with parking was $327. Now before you go saying, wait, aren't we in a recession....I have been unemployed since 2001. I am both boom-proof and recession-proof. Besides, Mike gave it to me for Christmas, early. And, if I have to explain myself further, at the cost of admission, we only have to go 2 more times in order to make it worth it, and we will.

Disneyland is beautiful this time of year. The tree on main stree is sky high and perfect. All of the shops have Christmas windows and the streets are lined with garland. New Orleans square has a look of it's own with beads tumbling from the rooftops and spilling overhead. It looks like Mardi Gras and Christmas crashed. The turrets of Cinderella's castle are blanketed with snow and the Haunted Mansion is decorated in ghostly style. It is truly magical, just as the commercials claim. I was ooh-ing and ahh-ing as I was making my way down Main Street. And there it was...with a line as long as my wish list and as slow as my metabolism....the Corn Dog Cart.

While in line I could hear whispers of how wonderful these corn dogs are and others of how they should be for the price ($6 for a dog and chips). With the requisite but disingenuous question, shall we split one? out of the way, Mike and I each decided to get our own. I don't remember my last corn dog, so I can't compare. But I can tell you this. These dogs are worth every penny and the wait. They are at least a foot long with rich, more sweet than savory, thick cornmeal crust, fried to perfection. With each bite they get better. To my friends who urged me to try them, just as Virginia was assured there is a Santa Clause, I assure you Disneyland corn dogs are "THE BEST"

Monday, December 1, 2008

Grandma's China

As the holidays approach I've been thinking about my grandma a lot. She was very cyber-savvy and would have loved reading this blog. Actually, I think she might have had one herself. A blog-slash-dating-slash-let me tell you something site. She had lots to say and a wonderful wry way of expressing herself. She could turn a phrase like nobody's business.

My husband can trace his family back to American Presidents and Early Settlers. I can trace my family to an apartment in the Bronx. I am very proud of my Italian heritage, and can be frequently heard complaining about how "white" my name is. I would love to have a name that rolls off the tongue like a sonata, but I am third generation and my name proves it.

Before my husband I were married, we spent an evening with my grandma being schooled in the art of making bow-ties. Not the kind you wear, but the kind you eat. We happened to stop by as the dough was being rolled out and were quickly recruited to do the "part I hate" (grandma's words, not mine). It is important not to make the dough too thick or too thin. Just right is only something you learn by feel....roll it too many times and it "gets funny", don't roll it enough and it "gets funny". That's about as exact as her Sicilian cooking instructions get. Bow-ties are delicious, there's no two-ways about it. Dusted with powdered sugar they are more addictive than those little fried dealies from you local Chinese take-out.

From the same recipe you use for the bow-ties, you can also make struffoli. Struffoli are small fried balls of dough (smaller than a gumball, larger than a pea...see what I mean about the instructions) that are soaked in honey syrup, piled as high as Vesuvius and adorned with sprinkles. I think they are an Italian staple because they last so darn long. I would swear the same platter fresh at Thanksgiving is rolled out again at Christmas, no one the wiser. It's almost like a fruitcake, but you can't really use it as a doorstop. Struffoli aren't as tasty as bow-ties, but they certainly look more festive...and they are great for a crowd, because no one eats em'.

Because I don't come from a long line of prestige; instead of passing down linens, monogrammed silver, or anniversary diamonds, we pass down generations of funny stories, old fashion Italian pride and great recipes. Unlike many in her generation, my grandmother wrote things down and always shared her recipes with us. She wanted her food to be a memory for all of us.

When my grandmother died, I was given her china. It was a set her children (my dad, aunts and uncles) gave her and my grandfather. It isn't fancy and it is very used. There are pieces that have broken multiple times and have been fashioned together just so they will look good in the cabinet, they can no longer hold food or liquid. Their value, purely sentimental.

I have lots of options for my dining pleasure. I have collected dinnerware for years. But when I serve one of my grandma's recipes, I use the china she gave me. I honor her by setting a nice table, and I remember her by enjoying the love she shared through her cooking.

Grandma's 1978 Bow-ties--with my twist
6 cups flour, finely grated rind of 1 lemon or 1 orange, 8 eggs, 1 tsp baking powder, 1 tsp vanilla, 1 1/2 Tbs butter--melted, 2 Tbs sugar
Place flour, baking powder and sugar in a large bowl and add citrus rind. Make a well in the center and add all other ingredients and mix well. Lest rest for 30 minutes. Using a pasta machine, or rolling pin, roll dough out into thin rectangles...about 3 or 4 sheets of paper thick. Cut each rectangle crosswise to make a smaller 1 1/2"wide x 2 1/2" long strip. Pinch each strip in the middle to form a bow-tie. Fry the bow-ties in batches in hot oil until lightly browned. Drain and cool on paper towel. Once cool, dust with powdered sugar. Keep in an airtight container, if you can keep them that long.


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