Friday, January 27, 2012

Cuppa and cake

Move over, Curious George—there’s a new cupcake in my life.
NYC’s Magnolia Bakery opened a few blocks from our office and has become a meeting spot for afternoon tea and a persistent reason for field trips. (We naturally frequent the area, anyway—Magnolia is slotted in a prime spot between Anthro and Steve Madden.)
I took my newest SM boots on one such a trip with the TBB ladies this afternoon. It was thence, giddy on old-timey vibes and trying not to lick the enticing mint green accents, that I met my new favorite cupcake, and its name is pistachio. That’s right: I’ve fallen for Magnolia’s Friday special, the pistachio cupcake with pistachio meringue buttercream. Need I go on?
The cognac-colored cake matched my new boots and, more notably, its light crumb has a marzipan-esque flavor that makes me ecstatic I changed my policy on marzipan. Most notably, however, was how extraordinarily the nutty cake paired with the sticky, vanilla-laden frosting. Magnolia gets top marks from me on this scrumptious creation—and that’s before I add points for real ingredients and no added preservatives.
The bakery wins the bonus round with their tea selection: cue the appearance of family favorite Harney & Sons. Their organic peppermint literally changed my life.

Oh, Magnolia. You got me.
Magnolia Bakery on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

What I talk about when I talk about eating at Nightwood

I have quite romantic feelings towards Nightwood. Eating there feels like wearing scarves—it’s elegant and sophisticated, but in an approachable way that works with my scuffed boots. Everything about Nightwood speaks to me and makes me feel at ease: the changing seasonal menu, the wood beams, the local philosophy, and the simplicity of delicious food. I feel good about eating there, and, when I think about it, this is what I want to eat:
On cool mornings, I crave the best oatmeal Ive ever had, rich and creamy with chunks of juicy green apple.
On warm afternoons, I want the tart bite of crispy thin slices of fried Meyer lemon.
On cold nights, nothing spells comfort like grilled cheese and tomato soup, topped with fried artichoke.
These dishes stay with me; my mind lingers on them long after Ive lingered over the last bites. Candlelight, handwritten menus, heavy silverware! Cest lamour, no?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Combating winter

We’ve hit the desolate patch of winter where potatoes abound with no end in sight. Too far from the sunny reaches of the glimmering hope of spring produce, we’ve had to turn to other sources to break through the bleak spud-filled landscape.
While January is a tough month for local fruit, it’s a perfect time to enjoy the bounty we put up this summer. Frozen strawberries and canned peaches make an extraordinary smoothie—particularly when combined with Greek yogurt. I think the honey we used in the canning liquid makes it especially delicious. 
We enjoyed this treat alongside lemon-pistachio muffins for breakfast yesterday, before heading out on a wintry stroll. 
The sky was low and the wind was brisk—as was our pace on the return trip, eager as we were to dig in to the light and crispy baguette we acquired along our route. Avocados and clementines sat atop a salad for lunch, with pistachios for texture and balsamic for tang. (My favorite dressing right now is a grated clove of garlic whisked into a spoonful of country dijon, a few tablespoons of balsamic, and a few tablespoons of olive oil.) Clementines may not be local, but they are ripe, in season, and pair wonderfully with avocado. The combination of creamy richness and juicy citrus made for a bright, filling meal along with the spoils of our journey.
I find a brisk walk is a fine way to work up an appetite. So were the 19 minutes of UFC training Alex put me through this evening because I’ve been asking him wrestling questions ever since we watched Warrior at the beginning of the month. I punched, elbowed, and leg-tossed our laundry bag in an epic, pre-dinner match. Good thing we don’t fold and put away our clean clothes for a few days, or I’d’ve had no opponent. Sherlock Holmes without his Moriarty. (Alex can be Watson.)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Oh bread? Yeah. I make that.

I’m having a bad hair day (Future Hanna’s note: yesterday). I attempted a “no-fuss curls” application from pinterest that went horribly awry and has produced a frizzy mad-scientist situation on my head that puts Doc Brown to shame. Very fitting for this failed experiment. For some reason I think that explains my decision today to stop talking about making bread and start actually making bread. I’m ready to walk the talk, as it were, to experiment productively.

Tonight (FHN: last night) I’m making Dorie Greenspan’s bubble-top brioche. Yeah, I am. I’m doing it. I’m not the greatest baker, and yeast makes me super uncomfortable, but my head looks like a birds’ nest and I miraculously have all the ingredients in my house, so let’s do this.

During my lunchtime mental rehearsal of the recipe, I discovered that we won’t actually be eating any brioche until tomorrow (FHN: which is today). Nervous, disheveled Hanna attempts a long, potentially disastrous culinary process for the first time. Um, what is “perfect opportunity for a second live blog,” Alex?

I solemnly swear to follow the directions exactly and not panic at all.
Day 1.
4:47 pm. Just got home. Re-reading the directions: everything needs to be at room temperature. I’ve set eggs and butter on counter and will make dinner. Man am I excited to use my dough hook!

5:01 pm. …I’ve made my first deviation from the recipe: We don’t have whole milk, only heavy cream and 2 percent. This is a French bread, so I’m going with the cream, obviously.

5:40 pm. Dinner is done and the eggs and butter are good to go. Time to confront the yeast. YEAST!

5:45 pm. Yeast is now in the warm water/cream mixture in the bowl of the stand mixer. It smells like walking through a half-lit Edinburgh, when the scent of brewing beer fills the street.

5:53 pm. Eight minutes have passed and the yeast is not frothy. No, the recipe doesn’t call for frothing, only dissolving, but from what I know about yeast, it should froth. Should I start again? I’m not going to panic. I’m going to google.

5:56 pm. Google seems to agree about the frothing. I’m starting over.

6:02 pm. Reflection on photographic evidence suggests that I can’t read the thermometer. Perhaps my liquid wasn’t hot enough the first time round.

6:12  pm. Yeast is better dissolved this time, still not frothy. Oh well. I’ve got Alcatraz queued up in the other room, so I’d like to get this moving.
6:30-something pm.  My dough is resting in a buttered, cling-wrapped bowl on my warm oven, and I bet it is doubling as I type, so let me tell you how it happened: Flour and salt went into the yeasty milk. (Reading the recipe, I can only assume “shaggy lumps” is some sort of British slang.) Then sugar and three eggs, one at a time. That’s when I started having some trouble with the dough hook. I know, I know, the recipe clearly states to start with a paddle attachment. But it also says that when the dough is done it’s going to climb the hook. Which is it Dorie?! When the dough hook began to struggle with the eggs, I switched to the paddle to beat in the butter, then back to the hook (which the dough did indeed climb) for the finale. Finale might be too strong a word.
7:47 pm. Touching warm dough is fantastic. I like the sound it makes pulling away from the sides of the bowl—squerch! It’s going to live in the fridge for a while—demanding my attention every half hour for two hours. Like a puppy.
8:17 pm. 1 check-up down, 3 to go! I’m surprised to see the dough is still rising in the fridge!

8:47 pm. The dough is starting to look a little like an old wrinkly ball sack. (Sorry, Mom.)

9:17 pm. Doesn’t look like the dough is rising anymore, I’ll check it once more before bed.

9:47 pm. The end of day one comes unceremoniously to a close.

Day 2.
7:01 am. Dough still in fridge. I saw it when I went to get the milk. It looked blurry... that may be me.
9:40 am. I'm at work, but I can't stop thinking about my brioche. I want to go home and touch it. Unfortunately, in the poignant words of Taylor Swift, “But we got bills to pay!” and I need to stay here and make more lucrative dough.
4:55 pm. Got home and went straight to shaping my little brioche loaves so they have time to rise and we can eat at a reasonable hour. I had some trouble dividing the dough into twelfths (also, a lot of trouble spelling “twelfth”), and then thirds for making balls. Looks like we’ve come full circle on the balls.  I’ve got to go meet Alex in the park. He’s not just there for kicks, he’s with the dog.
5:41 pm. Alex’s face is rising better than my dough. Just returned from a ch-ch-ch-chilly walk to find the brioche balls have not puffed as expected and filled their muffin tins with yeasty expansion. However, Alex’s face has puffed up nicely due to the extreme cold. He won’t let me take a picture. I’ve put the dough in the oven, which, even when off, stays warm. I’m hoping it just needs more heat.
6:00 pm. Hour rise has not shown results. Setting the timer for 30 more minutes of oven warming. See how much I’ve grown? Not panicking at all… yet.
6:21 pm. Much more pleased with this rise. Let’s preheat the oven and glaze these puppies!

6:31 pm. Brioche in oven!        

6:42 pm. I can smell ’em!
6:51 pm. BRIOCHE! And how shapely!
7:00 pm. We’ve eaten two. Crunchier crust than expected, maybe because I didn’t let the brioche (brioches? Who reading took French?) cool for 10 minutes? I’ll eat another to be sure.
7:01 pm. Golly these are delicious! Knightley is manic. A crumb dropped between the narrow coffee table/couch gap that he doesn’t like to breach and he dove for it. I’m glad he’s excited, I feel a little silly: Turns out bread’s not that hard to make. It took over a day, but I didn’t really do much.
I feel almost as accomplished as Bizkit the sleepwalking dog.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Winter's bone is probably from a chicken

Thursday saw the first snow of Chicago’s winter season and while I may have been a scene from War Horse during the actual storm, I was ready to take part in the fun with sledding on Saturday afternoon.
The toboggan run at Soldier Field was as packed as the snow on its slope with excited snow-venturers of all ages. We were pleased to scrounge up a couple of plastic sleds only to find that the newfangled thang is a foam board with handles—although a few of the ritzier families were throwing back to the classic rosebud-style radio flyers and some of the older kids were rocking their snowboards, too cool for slumming it on the ground with the rest of us.
What fun it was to join the throng, to remember the politics of the hill: jostling for the better launch positions, heckling the boy in the green coat who wouldn’t clear the run after upsetting his disk, and flying wildly over an inaccurately timed jump. A face full of snow is best taken with the satisfaction of one’s need for speed.
And after quenching my desire to skim the icy slant of winter’s bone, it was a disappointment to find very little excitement in the quenching of another of my recent cravings: chicken and waffles.
Our weekend advanced to Art Smith’s Table Fifty-Two, where we stopped for Sunday brunch and I promptly ordered the fried chicken and waffles. Like the unlikely pairing of a brisk outdoor activity in the coldest of seasons, fried chicken with a syrup-soaked waffle works.  If you haven’t gotten into this combo, I think you should. Crunchy chicken skin paired with fluffy waffles and maple for balance (and by balance, I mean sticky deliciousness).
While the dish exhibited perfection in flavor, texture, and breakfast opulence, the general consensus of our dining experience was that it was perfectly delicious, however lacking in excitement. The macaroni and cheese Alex impulse-ordered was perhaps at the core of my discontent—a tasty bowl of melt that just didn't hit the spot like I wanted it to, making me question: am I wrong to expect noodles in traditional pasta dishes? Yes, my complaint is too much cheese—not a normal problem of mine, but in this case it just didn’t stimulate me.
I find I need excitement these days! Exhilaration to keep me from seriously considering hibernation as an option. There’s a reason we shirk the constant warmth of our homes to take to the snow-lined streets: What gets you through the dreary weight of winter better than the thrill of the sled?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Mexican Dinner Party

That’s my dinner party. Yes, it has a theme. I don’t know how it happened that the MDP became my go-to service, but it probably stems from Laurie Colwin’s cardinal rule of dinner partying: Don’t serve anything you haven’t made before.
That, and that the main dish in my menu is Mexican chicken soup, a product of my first Colwin-esque roast chicken that is easy, delicious, and keeps impressing people.  The soup itself starts the night before with a par-roasted chicken and a few hours of simmering to create a chicken broth base. To complete the soup, all I need to do night of is sauté an onion with some seasonings (chili powder, red pepper, and tomato paste) and add the cooked chicken and broth back in. Then the soup can sit for as long as I need to prepare toppings (grate cheese, toast tortilla strips, and dice avocado) and side dishes—qualities that make this a stress-free staple and allows for weeknight entertaining.
At my first MDP I served the chicken soup with a grated carrot and baby lettuce salad, alongside yellow rice and beans. Most recently it was the winning companion to a Mark Bittman–inspired roasted sweet potato and black bean salad in a garlic-lime vinaigrette.
Ay, caray.  Increasing our ease of weeknight entertaining has been a goal of mine for a while, so the MDP has been a keeper, and will continue in the rotation. Still, while I love my reliable cen-iesta, I’m feeling like a one-trick burro.
My new mixer helped spice up the rut this week, contributing a perfect on-theme dessert: Mexican chocolate meringues. Cinnamon adds richness to these light cookies, while a sprinkling of salt deepens the chocolate flavor.
The meringues were ridiculicious, as was the tried and true soup, however I’m working on an NDP—a new dinner party.  I’ve got to practice first, but rest assured, you’ll be hearing from me.

Mexican chocolate meringues

2 egg whites
Kosher salt
¼ cup sugar
6 ounces chocolate (we used what was one hand: half 70% cocoa and semi-sweet chocolate chips), melted and cooled to room temperature
½ tablespoon cinnamon        
¼ teaspoon vanilla
Preheat oven to 200 degrees. In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat egg whites with a pinch of salt until they make frothy peaks. Increase speed and slowly add in sugar, beating until the mixture is glossy and white. Stir cinnamon and vanilla into chocolate that has been melted over a double boiler. Mix cooled chocolate mixture into egg whites. Drop spoonfuls on a parchment-lined baking sheet, top with a sprinkling of salt. Bake 50 minutes in 200° oven. Turn oven off, propping it open slightly, and let the meringues sit until dry.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Inspired salad, winter edition

Dishes from the Purple Pig, it seems, have a way of staying with me. Most recently, it’s their “Braised Baby Artichokes, Fingerling Potatoes, Asiago & Salami Toscana” that’s stuck in my brain.  I think it’s the clean flavors and use of fresh ingredients that give me the confidence to try my hand at replicating these restaurant tastes at home. Though, certainly my recreation is on a simpler level: I didn’t braise anything... My artichokes came from a jar.
One of no doubt many variations in my version of this salad is the obvious use of cheddar instead of asiago. Our team is super into Prairie Breeze, a cheese from Iowa’s Milton Creamery that is incredibly rounded with buttery, grassy, sweet, mild, and tangy flavors. We’re into it like we’re into our new knobs. I’m not sure that transition was entirely smooth, but go with it.
I think a few more tries are necessary—and I mean both as in “try it again” in the test kitchen, and also that I’d like to conduct some “try it again” field research.
This, my first try, was studded with salty, briny bites and made a perfect, easy, weeknight dinner when paired with a runny fried egg. Really what isn’t a perfect dinner when paired with a runny, fried egg? Please don’t interrupt me when I’m asking rhetorical questions.

First attempt at artichoke potato salad inspired by the Purple Pig 

2 ounces salami in one thick slice
2 ounces sharp cheese
1 pound fingerling potatoes
1 14-ounce jar quartered artichoke hearts
1 small red onion
¼ white vinegar
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons olive oil

Wash potatoes and cover with cold water in a small saucepan. Add salt and bring water to a boil. Boil until fork tender (about 30 minutes). Meanwhile, slice onion into rainbows and soak in brine made from vinegar, salt, and sugar. Let sit. Drain artichokes of their liquid. Crumble cheese into small pieces. Finely dice the salami.

Remove potatoes from water and cut into bite-sized pieces. Toss with artichokes, cheese, salami, onions (incorporating a tablespoon or two of the onion brining liquid), a glug of olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste.

Add some chopped fresh parsley if you have it! Serves one double-hungry hippo, twice. 

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Affogato ’bout it!

We may have ended 2011 with a land war in Asia, sparked, of course, by Alex’s aggression on the border of my empire, but we started 2012 with brunch-time peace talks at the Purple Pig. Peace is good.
We ordered a few 2011 favorites (the fried deviled egg isn’t dinner-only anymore, if you know what I mean (what I mean is that they are now serving it for lunch as well)), but the new year brought some new standouts. In particular, I fell for the artichoke, fingerling potato, salami salad—a mesmerizing combination of salt, tang, and veggie goodness. And we upgraded the gianduia soft-serve to the affogato option—as in, chocolate hazelnut soft-serve doused in espresso.
2012 progress report: good decisions so far.