The Unreal Meal

unreal – adj. inf. – incredible, amazing
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Legacy: In Dead Earnest

January 28, 2014 By: Annie Category: Family

I think many people go through life wondering if they’ll have an impact, if there’s some legacy they’ll leave behind. I feel like we sometime struggle with whether we’ll make enough of a difference or we share enough of ourselves that we won’t die and be forgotten. Maybe that’s vain, but I think it’s a natural human response. There are also those who are good enough to rise above that vanity. These are people who know the outcome their actions is worth more than memory of them having done it; they work every day to make the world a better place and try and leave it better than they found it. Pete Seeger was one of those: his continual fight for the common man, to bring to light to and rail against social injustice, and to leave a legacy of conservation ensured that when he died yesterday at 94, he left behind a world widely touched by his music and his work.

Many people may not even know who he is. After all, at 94, he’s not really contemporary for my generation or those behind me. But the influence from his music is so vast and so potent that I’m sure that many people know at least something he wrote. Take a gander at the Wikipedia page about him or this list of songs he wrote and sings. He used music to affect positive change – to inspire people to action, to talk about injustice, to champion the Civil Rights Movement and rail against the Vietnam War. His music allowed him to found the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc. with his wife Toshi (who left us last July). Clearwater is an epic conservation and environmental advocacy organization that has helped clean up the Hudson River and serve as a both a catalyst for legal change regarding our waterways and as a source of education.

You might wonder how this ties into a food blog. In my mind, food and music have a lot in common. They can change our mood and be shared with people we care about – we often cook for and sing to those we love; food sustains and nourishes our bodies while music sometimes does the same for our hearts and spirits. Food and music are both shared across all customs, all races, all income levels – we all eat; it’s often done together, and throughout history, we’ve all known music that is woven into our culture.

I truly believe that like music, food is and can be a legacy. People often have strong memories surrounding perfect things that were created in a parent’s or grandparent’s kitchen for holidays, special occasions, or simple Sunday dinners. Like so many of our beliefs, those we have about food are often formed by the thoughts and actions of those who came before us. I believe that everyone should have access to good, fresh, local produce and that good food is worth spending time on and time with because that’s what I grew up experiencing.

My grandmother was the best gardener that I knew who passed much of that knowledge on to her daughters and grandchildren. Some of my earliest food memories are of sneaking up onto the counter in her kitchen to pull off a chunk of brie that was sitting out to ripen or wandering through the garden pulling green beans off the vine and eating them where I stood. Meals never had to be extravagant or expensive, but they had to be good and come from good ingredients. That is so much a part of the legacy that she left behind, that she instilled in my mom who has passed that on to me. Someday, if my husband and I choose to have children, we’ll pass that on to them as well and I know that my cousin (her only other grandchild) is doing that with his own children.

My grandmother’s legacy opened my eyes to food. Pete Seeger’s legacy lies in how he opened people’s eyes through music. Different, but both so important and both of such strong impact to me. One of my friends wrote on Facebook this morning, “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know his songs – or didn’t know how to sing them. I feel like I was born knowing them and that they’re a part of me at a very basic level.” A perfect description of my own thoughts and feelings. In the same way that those before me taught me about good food, my mom taught me about Pete. Oddly enough, food and music became intertwined through Pete as well when he indirectly taught me about composting (a huge food belief that I have that while sometimes really challenging to do practically in NYC, it’s still something that we try and manage as often as we can).

So with that, rather than a recipe today, I leave you with this wonderful and somewhat ridiculous song about what to do in the event of death. It was written by Lee Hays (of The Weavers fame) who taught it to Pete; Pete sang it on the Precious Friend collection that he and Arlo Guthrie recorded together; my mom and I have listened to that collection of music more times than I can count; many of those listenings were on road trips between Ohio and NY to visit my grandma. One of my treasured memories is being able to take my mom to Pete’s 90th birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden and introducing my husband to him. All my life really is a circle. Thank you, Pete. And Mom. And Nanny.

In Dead Earnest, words by Lee Hayes, music by Pete Seeger (you can listen to the song via Spotify if you so choose)

If I should die before I wake,
All my bone and sinew take.
Put me in the compost pile
To decompose me for a while.

Worms, water, sun will have their way,
Returning me to common clay.
All that I am will feed the trees
And little fishies in the seas.

When radishes and corn you munch,
You may be having me for lunch!
And then excrete me with a grin,
Chortling, “There goes Lee again!”

2014: The Year of Old Recipes

January 04, 2014 By: Annie Category: Family

Welcome to 2014 – happy new year to all and all that jazz. Something I didn’t post about at all in 2013 is that I made it “The Year Without a Recipe.” By that I mean that I didn’t use anyone else’s recipes for anything that I cooked the entire year. It was great in many ways – I challenged myself to come up with new things on my own, which was awesome. I am glad that is over, though, if for no other reason than there are a lot of foods outside of my comfort zone that I’d like to know more about (particularly those of other ethnicities/cultures).

My background and “education” about food (entirely from books and my own experiences/family history, mind you) is basically rooted in classical French food. I could launch into a long essay about how classical French is the same as classical Italian and you can see overlaps of all kinds of cooking styles in many different schools of thought, but that’s for another day. Suffice it to say, I was really pleased with 2013, but I’m now looking forward to 2014.

2014 leads me to: The Year of Old Recipes. A while back, my mom gave me a stack of three old books of recipes that she thought were either my grandmother’s (‘Nanny’, my mom’s mom) or my great grandmother’s (‘Grandma’, Nanny’s mother). She told me that I should go through them and see if there was anything of interest or worth saving, etc. I stuck them on a shelf and did nothing with them for a while, wondering what I might ultimately want to do with them. So that’s my project for 2014 – I want to try and cook a bunch of the stuff in the books and see if I can modernize them somewhat (if need be). I also want to resurrect this site, so hopefully I can tie some of the 2014 project into this.

Today I started briefly looking through what I have to see if I could come up with stuff to start cooking. Here are the things I discovered so far:

  1. My mom, her mother, and her mother’s mother all have crazily similar handwriting. To the point where I’m sort of sad that mine isn’t just like theirs.
  2. My great-grandmother must’ve had a ridiculous sweet tooth as, in the two books of clipped and written-out recipes that I have of hers, most of them are for pastries or desserts of some sort. Based on that alone, it’s astonishing to me that she lived to be 97 and didn’t develop type 2 diabetes!
  3. Somewhere along the way, a book that I suspect came from a tag sale got mixed in with the family stuff, so it was kind of disappointing when I realized that there were only a couple of things from my mom in it. One of those things, however, is in Mom’s handwriting and is my dad’s chicken soup recipe. I already have that recipe committed to memory, but it was still pretty awesome to find, nonetheless. I suspect there might be some chicken soup in our not-too-distant future.
  4. Almost as awesome as being able to see recipes from previous generations is being able to peek at the ads and newspaper articles from that time. Which is a good segue to…
  5. I found an article published in The Philadelphia Inquirer (my great grandparents lived in south Jersey near Atlantic City) written by none other than James Beard himself imploring people to bake their own bread at home. It contains a recipe for raisin walnut bread (I will be making that one soon, too, I think, since it sounds delicious).
  6. There is no number six.
  7. My great-grandmother had another recipe that she wrote out in the early 70s that she must’ve found in a newspaper or magazine somewhere that came from Mr. Beard. At the top of the page under the recipe title she wrote, “by Jim Beard.” Jim – you know, because they were clearly best buds. ;)

So with that I embark up on 2014. Here’s to hopefully as good eating this year as we had in the previous year!

Shrimp Ravioli with Spicy Shrimp Vodka Sauce

February 20, 2013 By: Annie Category: Dinner

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted here. And by a long time, we’re talking like almost two years long time. It’s not that I haven’t been cooking — I have. I cook almost every night. I just never document or take pictures or something gets in the way, and that food never ends up here.

I make no promises that I will change that with any regularity, mind you. However, I made a meal tonight that I was really proud of, so I thought I would share. Plus, a friend of mine wanted the recipe, so it gave me a good excuse.

At the beginning of 2013, I made my first New Year’s Resolution in many many years. It was thus: 2013 for me would be the Year of No Recipe. What does that mean? It means that while I may draw inspiration from other places, none of the food that I cook this year will come from someone else’s recipe. I wanted a way to push my own creativity and boundaries. It’s now February 19th, and I’m still going strong on that.

Tonight is the closest that I’ve come to borrowing from somewhere else. This recipe was inspired by an e-mail that I got last week from the James Beard Society where they linked to some sort of lobster stuff pasta (tortellini, I think?) in a spicy lobster vodka sauce. I didn’t even click on the link (I’m trying not to read recipes too much), but it went into the depths of my brain. When I was doing my grocery shopping for this week, FreshDirect had wild Patagonian shrimp on sale, and my brain started churning: could I do something like the Beard recipe with that shrimp? We’ve had them before, and they’re very lobster-like, so why not?

Alex washing and cleaning shrimp
Alex washing and cleaning shrimp

From there I had to figure out what I wanted to do with the filling. A mousseline seemed like the best option (a mousseline, at its most basic, is 8 parts meat or fish, 4 parts cream, and 2 parts egg, and then it’s basically blended together to make a mousse-like consistency), but what other flavors to complement the shrimp? I ended up with sautéed leeks, minced thyme, salt, and some toasted and ground fennel seed.

 

Sliced Leeks

Sliced Leeks

From there, the rest was pretty easy. Make some pasta dough (or in this case, have Alex make some pasta dough) and some vodka sauce, stuff some pasta and cut into ravioli (way less time consuming than tortellini, and it gives more filling, in my opinion), and cook. In truth, the whole thing was surprisingly easy, albeit somewhat time consuming. We had originally planned to make this for dinner last night, while we were home all day doing nothing, but our nothing doing turned into nothing cooking, hah!

The Specs

Pasta Dough
12 oz All Purpose flour, unsifted
4 lg eggs (which should be 8 oz of eggs)
Salt, to taste (about 1/2 tsp)

Shrimp Filling
8 oz peeled and deveined shrimp
4 oz heavy cream
1 large egg (approximately 2 oz)
1 cup very thinly sliced leeks (white and light green parts only)
1 1/2 Tbsp minced fresh thyme
2 tsp fennel seeds, toasted and ground
1/2 tsp salt

Vodka Sauce
2 Tbsp thinly sliced garlic (about 6 medium cloves)
1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 cup vodka
1 cup marinara (I had leftover sauce in the freezer and used that)
1 cup heavy cream
Salt, to taste

Method

Make the pasta dough first. In a large bowl, mix flour, eggs, and salt until it just comes together. Form into a ball and wrap in plastic wrap. Allow to rest for about 30 minutes.

Make the filling. Make sure that all of your ingredients are cold and that your shrimp are patted dry. In the bowl of a food processor, pulse the shrimp with the egg, thyme, and fennel. With the processor running, gradually drizzle in the heavy cream. Once it is all incorporated and light and whipped in consistency, turn off the processor. Don’t over-whip. Fold in the leeks, refrigerate until you’re ready to use.

Roll the pasta. When the filling is made and the pasta has had some time to rest, turn the dough out onto a floured board and knead until it has a firm but elastic consistency. Roll into long sheets according to your pasta roller’s instructions. Hang on a drying rack or the back of a chair until you’re ready to make the pasta.

Make the pasta. Cut sheets of pasta into lengths that will fit on your board. Pipe a single, unbroken line of filling from one end to the other about 1/3 of the way up from the bottom. Brush the top edge with egg wash and fold the bottom over the pasta filling. Press along each side edge and the top with your finger to seal. You can use a ravioli cutter or a pie dough crimper to cut each piece. Cut any excess dough off the top edge and fold over and crimp like an envelope. Pictures to follow. Place each individual ravioli on a floured tray and refrigerate until ready to cook.

Make the sauce. Heat a non-stick sauté pan and add the olive oil when warm. Sauté the garlic and red pepper flakes in the pan being careful not to let the garlic burn or it will be very bitter. When fragrant, add vodka. Let the alcohol cook off entirely. I did this by lighting the vodka on fire and waiting for it to go out. This is a fine method, just be very careful because it’s seriously flammable and a 1/2 cup of booze burns for a good bit of time. Once the flames are gone, add the tomato sauce and stir to incorporate all the ingredients. Using a rubber or plastic whisk, whisk in the heavy cream and season to taste.

Bring it all together. Boil a large pot of salted water. When at a rolling boil, add the ravioli. Cook for about 5 minutes. It will float right away, but don’t take it out immediately, as you want your filling (raw shrimp and eggs!) to cook through. Also, be aware that often fillings like this puff up, so don’t be alarmed by that (but don’t let them cook too much at that point, either, or they’ll explode). Once the ravioli are cooked through, strain and add to vodka sauce. Toss to coat and serve immediately.

Notes: I also cooked about 4 oz of shrimp in the sauté pan before adding the garlic. I sautéd it for about 2 minutes on each side then removed it from the pan and put it in the fridge until I was ready to make the sauce. I cut it into bite-sized pieces and tossed it in the sauce. I think this is a wholly unnecessary step and next time probably won’t bother.

Pictures of the Ravioli Making

Pasta Dough at Rest

Pasta Dough at Rest

Piping filling onto dough sheets.

Piping filling onto dough sheets.

Cutting off excess dough.

Cutting off excess dough.

Cutting the filled pasta into ravioli shapes.

Cutting the filled pasta into ravioli shapes.

Finished raviolis!

Finished raviolis!

The finished product! Please pardon the horribly messy plating!

The finished product! Please pardon the horribly messy plating! We were starving and just wanted to eat, haha.

Bad Blogging Skills, No Biscuit!

April 06, 2011 By: Annie Category: Admin Details

It’s been over a year since I posted here.  That’s pretty lousy, I know.  It’s obviously not been over a year since I last ate (Honey Nut Cheerios with a banana sliced in for breakfast this morning just a couple hours ago, if you really want to know), but somehow the writing, photographing, etc. seems to have gone by the wayside.  Or so it would appear, anyway…

Something that I’d been thinking about for a while now was doing a Photo of the Day type thing that was solely food related. I thought and thought for a while, and finally decided to do that.  I started it on 3/27, so I’ve been going for a whopping 11 days now (today being #12).  That being said, I’m enjoying the hell out of it, and I’ve been posting my pics both on my personal Facebook page as well as Flickr.  I’m going to try and see if I can import the Flickr photoset here, and then perhaps I can keep things going here a little more fluidly and regularly.

Keep your eyes peeled, and if anyone knows of good WordPress plugins for importing stuff from Flickr, please let me know!

Highlights of some of the things that have happened in the last year, food-wise:

Last May I got paid to bake a cake for a co-worker for his graduation.  First money I’ve ever made cooking for someone.  Pretty stinkin’ awesome.

In September, I got engaged.  That’s not food related, just exciting.  Later that month we went to California for a dear friend’s wedding (amazing food at that wedding, too — best I think I’ve ever had at a wedding).

On that same trip, we dined at Incanto with some friends, which was absolutely wonderful.  The day after that, my fiancé and I drove up to Napa and had dinner at The French Laundry.  I can’t even begin to relate how spectacular that was.

Last month, we had the opportunity to attend a special small-ish (about 80 people or so) event held at Nobu57 that was an umami and sake tasting.  It was put together by Nobu himself and two of his partners, affectionately referred to as Mr. Sake and the Umami Mama.  It was astonishingly good, and they just kept pouring and pouring and pouring and pouring the sake.  Nobu is a kind, gracious man whose death row food would be sushi (yes, I asked), and he particularly loves fluke.  As that’s a favorite of mine, I felt that we were instantly kindred souls, though that could’ve been the sake, haha.  It was truly an unreal meal.

Notkes

February 02, 2010 By: Annie Category: Dinner

I’m assuming that most people out there know what latkes are, but just in case, I’ll give a brief history.  Latkes are a traditional Jewish potato pancake, though the traditions of how to make them, when, and why seem to be as varied as there are types of potatoes in the world.  Potatoes are actually a New World crop, so it doesn’t seem that the tradition goes back to, say, the ancient Hebrews.  Wikipedia tells me they’re mostly associated with Eastern European countries and common among Ashkenazi Jews, and really, I’ve no reason to doubt them.  I am personally not Jewish (Ashkenazi or otherwise), nor am I Eastern European, so I have no real traditions of my own.  I just happen to love potatoes (I am Irish, after all).

At any rate, on Sunday night I roasted a chicken, and with it we had mashed potatoes and parsnips.  I boiled the parsnips right with the potatoes and mashed them all together with a little butter and salt and a pinch of nutmeg (something I always put in my mashed potatoes because, well, I like it, and my mom does it with hers as did her mom before her, so that’s the way potatoes are done in the Unreal Meal household).

Of course, when I was getting read to cook them, I heard the dulcet tones of my boyfriend in the deep recesses of my mind crying “Never enough potatoes!  Never too many potatoes!” so I made the whole 5 lb. bag.  I’m here to tell you: there were, in fact, enough/too many potatoes.  As a result, I had a 1.5 quart container filled with leftover potato/parsnip mash.  I then decided that they’d be perfect for dinner last night made into potato pancakes and served with a pan-fried pork loin cutlet and some broccoli (also known as: these are the things I had handy in my fridge).

Now, I’ve eaten many a latke in my day.  I grew up with a lot more Jewish friends than you would probably imagine lived in Akron, OH; my family is all from NY/North Jersey; and I’ve lived in NYC for about five years now.  I’m not wanting for decent latke experiences, I promise.  That being said, I’ve never actually made the suckers before, so I was took a bit of a chance and decided to see what I could fashion from my leftovers.  Mind you, the only real risk would be that I’d have a kitchen filled with four disappointed eaters, so I guess it wasn’t that big a gamble, but still, I don’t like to do things poorly.

Fortunately for all four of us, they were really delicious!  I’m calling them Notkes, because I like silly wordplay like that, and because to be perfectly honest, I have absolutely no idea if they’re remotely cose to anything traditional.  I’m going to go out on a limb and say no, as parsnips probably aren’t part of every Jewish grandmother’s latke recipe.

Notkes

2 cups leftover mashed potatoes (or mashed potatoes and parsnips)
1/2 cup all-purpose flour mixed with
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 small onion, finely minced
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
some kind of oil/fat in which to fry them

Mix the potatoes in a medium bowl with the onions and garlic.  Add in the nutmeg and salt, making sure to distribute evenly.  Stir in the flour and baking powder (this, I found, is most easily done with your hands).  Stir in the lightly beaten egg.  Let the batter rest while you prepare your pan for frying.

Coat the bottom of a pan with the fat of your choice (see the note below).  If you’re using a non-stick pan, you’ll need less oil, and if you’re worried about fat or particularly health-conscious (as I am at the moment), that’s probably a better way to go.

When the oil is hot, scoop about 1/4 cup of batter into the pan for each cake, and press to distribute with the back of a spoon until it is round and flat.  Fry on one side, without flipping, until you see the bottom edges of the pancake start to turn golden brown (about two minutes).  Flip with a spatula and repeat on the other side.  Transfer to a plate to keep warm, and do this in batches.  2 cups of mash will make about 8 pancakes.

Some notes:

  • On the oil: I used very little because we’re trying to be more healthful in our house.  I also didn’t particularly want grease-laden pancakes.  I made them in three batches.  The first was done with about 2 teaspoons of olive oil and 1/2 tablespoon of Smart Balance light butter (yes, the fake stuff, again, please don’t judge).  This combination was hands-down the best for getting a perfectly golden brown hue.The second batch I experimented with cooking spray.  Bad choice, steer clear of that one.  The third batch was only olive oil, and I think that in order to successfully do this with oil alone, there probably needs to be a lot more oil to get them to brown well.  Were I thinner and not focused on health at the moment, I’d probably have done them in all butter, and I suspect that would have been the most delicious.  One of my Jewish friends tells me, however, that there should be an “at least 200-1 oil to potato ratio,” so maybe that would really work best.  Another place where I fail to keep with tradition, I guess. ;)
  • On the onion: I used a yellow onion because it’s what I had handy, but I think white might give better flavor.  White onions are a little stronger, and while mine had good flavor, I think they could have been a tinge onionier (yes, I just invented that word).
  • On the potatoes: The cool thing here is that these could probably be made with any leftover mashed root vegetable.  I once made a mashed root veg accompaniment to a leg of lamb that was parsnips, rutabagas, turnips, and potatoes, and it was really stinkin’ delicious.  I bet that’d be awesome as a ‘cake.  Or sweet potatoes, and instead of the nutmeg (or maybe in addition to it), use cinnamon or allspice.  We even hypothesized what it’d be like to make a scallion mashed potato pancake, as sort of an East Asia meets Eastern Europe type fusion.  I also would have liked to include some fresh chives on top, but I had none handy.

In the end, like I said, they were delicious.  Of course, I still have about three cups of leftover mashed potatoes and parsnips.  I’ve put them in the freezer for another day when I think I’ll try my hand at a different Eastern European goodie: pierogi.

Ground nutmeg is important because it smells/tastes better, and it allows me to take cool pictures of the inside of the nutmeg seed!

Freshly ground nutmeg is important because it smells/tastes better, and because it allows me to take cool pictures of the inside of the nutmeg seed!

Dinner is served!

Dinner is served!

Neopolitan

February 01, 2010 By: Annie Category: Dinner

Remember that ice cream you’d get as a kid in the square container that had perfect stripes of chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry?  Wikipedia tells me that this Neopolitan ice cream was named in honor of its “presumed origins” in Naples, Italy.  I wonder if this stuff is still available today, and if so, has been renamed to reflect the often disingenuously PC culture in which we live?  Whatever the case, anytime that I think of combinations of chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry, I instantly think of Neopolitan ice cream.

Speaking of things that are tenuously rooted in Italian food history, I’ve recently been having conversations about spaghetti and meatballs with some coworkers.  One particular coworker is somewhat fixated on Italian foodstuffs (I can’t say that I blame him).  For about a month leading up to Christmas he (mostly jokingly) insisted that he wanted one of four things for his Secret Santa gift:  a 55″ or greater LCD tv, an xBox 360, Call of Duty – Modern Warfare 2, or spaghetti and meatballs.  No amount of lecturing on my part about how this is really an Italian-American dish and not authentic Italian cuisine would sway him.  In the end, two days before Christmas, we had our group gift exchange and his Secret Santa gave him a box of spaghetti and homemade tomato sauce and meatballs.  It was a huge hit.

After the new year, said coworker announced to us all that his birthday was at the end of January, and his list of gifts that he wanted remained largely unchanged.  This gave me an idea:  spaghetti & meatballs birthday cake.  A quick google search returned Ciao Chow Linda’s Spaghetti and Meatballs Cake.  I opted to do this for my friend, with just a couple changes:

  • I used a boxed cake mix.  Please don’t judge — it had to be done in a hurry on a Thursday night, and because I’m not really a baker, sometimes my from-scratch cakes don’t turn out as well as I’d like them, whereas a box is really hard to muck up too much.
  • I used the buttercream recipe from the side of the box of Domino’s confectioner’s sugar because it uses mildly less butter (I’m not sure that it’d really matter, mind you).
  • I didn’t pipe my spaghetti with a piping bag.  Why, you ask?  Because I don’t own a piping bag.  In spite of the fact that I’ve posted cookies and marshmallows and other sweet treats here, baking isn’t really my niche, so I lack some of the more useful bits of baking equipment.  I tried using a plastic baggie with a hole cut in a corner (that’s how I drizzle chocolate on things as a general rule), but the buttercream was too thick and it kept springing leaks.  My solution was to use a potato ricer.  That worked better than I would have imagined.  If I were doing it again, though, I’d probably tape off half of the holes so that it doesn’t come out so thick.
  • I used one jar of Smucker’s strawberry jelly and one of sugar-free strawberry preserves.  I would have used all normal strawberry preserves had the market near my apartment had them at all, but they didn’t.  I wanted preserves or jam so that there were chunks that looked like bits of tomato, but the sugar-free preserves have an unholy red/pink color to them.  As such, I mixed in the strawberry jelly which is really dark.  If I do it again, I’ll probably add a little red food coloring to try and mimic a more tomatoey color.
  • The meatballs were outstanding, I thought.  The woman, Linda, from whom I lifted the recipe says that she’d change them the next time, but I thought they were really quite good: dense, chocolatey, and sweet.  The nuts in them really help give them texture to look like a real meatball.

This is definitely a fun project, not remotely hard, and easily done in advance (though I did it all in one sitting).  In the end, it took me about three hours, but that was hardly all active time, what with the baking and the cooling and everything.  I also made and ate dinner in the process.

The cake was a huge hit with the birthday boy, and everyone that had some loved it.  Of course, there are few things better than vanilla buttercream, strawberry jam, and chocolate “meatballs.”  Italian or no, it was delicious!

Spaghetti and Meatballs Cake

Spaghetti and Meatballs Cake

Hiatus

January 28, 2010 By: Annie Category: Dinner

The Unreal Meal has been on a bit of a hiatus these last few months.  It’s not that I haven’t been cooking (I do that nearly every night), it’s that I tend to get caught up a bit in minutiae and lose focus sometimes.

For instance, I cook things that are really yummy and awesome, but I forget to write down what I’ve done so that I can post here.  Or I get that much done, but I forget to take pictures until I’m halfway through scarfing things down, and I get mad that I have no proof of deliciousness.  Or I take pictures but they don’t look nearly the way that I envision them in my mind’s eye, because I’m only a mediocre photographer with no lighting equipment and no real knowledge of how to adjust the settings to make things look awesome.  Woe is me sometimes (though if that’s the least of my problems, my life is pretty good!).

Anyway, I will return soon because quite frankly, it’s hard to call oneself a food blogger when one doesn’t write about food, right?  Stay tuned for more!

Also, if someone knows of a good WordPress plugin to combat spam/trackback spam, I would appreciate some insight.  I get craploads of comments posted from spammers and I want to be able to avoid that.

National Toasted Marshmallow Day

August 31, 2009 By: Annie Category: Dinner

According to my friend Stacy, and also apparently according to the the NY Examiner, August 30th is National Toasted Marshmallow Day.  Apparently the toasted marshmallow folks are somewhat lacking in their PR department, as I can’t really find anything (besides the Examiner link) outside of the blogosphere to support that claim.  It is, however, a good lead in for this post about marshmallows!

Marshmallows, though not toasted ones.

Marshmallows, though not toasted ones.

A couple weeks ago, Food2 posted a blog entry on Extreme S’more Creations, and one of the creations was a bacon s’more.  My instant reaction when I saw it was “bacon s’more, yes please!”  Then I started thinking about what it really is: graham crackers smeared with some Nutella topped with a toasted marshmallow around which a flimsy piece of bacon had been wrapped.  I thought that I might be able to do better, even though part of me was saying, “Really? Bacon? Another thing with bacon? I mean, isn’t this just playing into the current bacon fad in the food world?  Does everything have to have bacon?”

I decided that I didn’t really care if it was a fad or not, that it was probably going to be a fun and delicious experiment.  My brain went to ways in which I could conceivably do this, and started thinking about things that go well with bacon that might include chocolate, and suddenly I was picturing myself eating chocolate chip pancakes with dark maple syrup and a crispy side of bacon, dipping the bacon in the maple syrup and melted chocolate bits.  That’s when it hit me: bacon graham crackers, dark chocolate, maple marshmallows.

I haven’t gotten to the graham crackers yet, but I promise there will a follow-up post about that forthcoming.  Yesterday, though, somewhat coincidentally to it being National Toasted Marshmallow Day, I made some maple marshmallows.

I started with Alton Brown’s marshmallow recipe and actually altered it very little.  Instead of using all corn syrup, I used a mixture of corn and maple syrup.  The recipe site says that this recipe makes nine dozen marshmallows or 1 1/2 pounds of mini ‘shmallows, but I think that’s probably reversed, because in no world could I have come up with nine dozen normal-sized marshmallows!  I think I probably got about four dozen from one 13 x 9″ pan (I didn’t actually count).

Maple Marshmallows
(Adapted from Alton Brown’s Food Network recipe.)

3 envelopes of unflavored gelatin (I used Knox)
1 cup ice cold water, divided
12 ounces granulated sugar  (this requires a kitchen scale, which every home cook should have!)
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/2 cup grade B dark amber maple syrup
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons extra maple sugar
1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar (powdered sugar)
1/2 cup cornstarch
Nonstick cooking spray

First, let me preface the actual recipe instructions with this note: You might think your best friend’s name is Bob or Sue or Tony, but I promise you that when it comes to making marshmallows, your best friend in the world is PAM.  Words cannot adequately describe how sticky marshmallow batter (for lack of a better word) is, and how it can stick to any and everything, including the bowl, the spatula, the kitchen table, the floor, the ceiling, and the cat, to name a few.  More than that, it will stick to you. I promise that you will think to yourself “I just won’t use my hands,” but you will, and you’ll get fluff on everything.  So let me tell you this upfront: nonstick cooking spray will stop the stick.  Use it on everything that might possibly come into contact with the marshmallow goo, including your hands, and you’ll thank me for it, I swear.

Moving on!  In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, dissolve the three packets of gelatin into 1/2 cup of the ice cold water.

While that’s getting all cold and hard and gelatinous in the bottom of your mixer (don’t be alarmed when you look at it and it looks a bit like the surface of an alien planet), combine the sugar, the other 1/2 cup of water, the syrups (minus the extra 2 tsp of maple), and the salt in a medium-sized sauce pan.  (Alton tells us a small sauce pan, but I nearly had molten hot sugar goo boil over the sides of my small sauce pan, so I’m advising an upgrade.)  Place it over medium-high heat, and stir as it starts to melt together.  After a few minutes, strap a candy thermometer to the inside of the pot, and continue to let it heat.

Now, another warning comes in here.  This comes to a boil very quickly (or at least it did on my stove with my small saucepan), and almost as soon as it starts bubbling away, it starts to try and escape the pan.  I pulled it off the heat momentarily to allow it to simmer down a bit, but be really careful.  After all, it’s effectively nothing but really hot sugar, and not only can that burn like hell (it’s like candy napalm), but I can’t imagine that it would be fun to clean if it boiled over onto/into your stove.

Anyway, once you’ve got the napalm under control, let it heat up on the stove until it comes to 240° F.  Don’t be alarmed that this seems to take for-freakin’-ever, or that it seems to hover in the 210-215° range for an inordinate amount of time.  Alton says 7 to 8 minutes for this stage, and he might be right (I didn’t time it), but it seemed longer to me.  Eventually, though, you’ll get it to go up above 215°, and then watch carefully because 240° isn’t too far away.

Now, the tricky part.  Once you’ve hit the magical temperature, turn on your mixer on low.  I have a 6-quart KitchenAid Professional Stand Mixer, and I put it on #2 (just above ‘stir’).  While the mixer is mixing, pour the sugar napalm in a single thin stream down the side of the bowl.  Don’t pour it directly on the whisk attachment, or you’ll spray hot molten sugar lava all over yourself and your kitchen, which is really not recommended.  Once it’s all in the bowl, gradually increase the speed to high.  By ‘gradually’ I mean a few seconds in between increases on the switch.  Once it’s on high, let it go for about ten minutes (Alton says 12 – 15) until it’s thick, fluffy, and lukewarm.  When that’s almost finished, add in the remaining 2 teaspoons of maple syrup (or you could probably use just a teaspoon of maple extract).  It’ll look something like this:

Thick and Fluffy!

Thick and Fluffy!

Now, in the ten or so minutes that you have while this is mixing, you want to prepare your mallow pan and get your utensils (including your best friend, PAM) ready to go.  To do that, first combine the powdered sugar and the corn starch in a small bowl.  You’re going to want some way of being able to dust with it, so either use a fine mesh strainer or a sifter (I used a sifter, since my fine mesh strainer is about 2″ across and takes a long time to dust things of any substantial size with it.

Once your dust is ready, then prep your pan.  You’ll want a 13 x 9″ pan.  Alton Brown says to use a metal one, and of course I don’t have a metal pan of that size.  I have a glass baking dish of that size.  As such, I opted to line it with parchment paper, then sprayed that lightly with my dear friend PAM, and then dusted that with the cornstarch/sugar mix.  I was determined to make sure that it didn’t stick!  It didn’t, but I did look like I was working for Pablo Escobar, circa 1985 or so…

Now, the moment of truth!  Once your napalm has transformed to fluff, it’s time to “pour” it into the pan (and I use that term loosely, it’s more like you’re manipulating it into the pan).  You can see how thick and gooey it is by the column that formed when I pulled the whisk out of the bowl:

It's a column of marshmallow fluff!

It's a column of marshmallow fluff!

It’s light and airy, but thick and a bit cement-like at the same time, if that makes sense.  Here’s what I found to be the best way to get the fluff off the whisk: spray the crap out of my fingers with PAM, and use them to clean it.  Drop all that goo into the bowl, then it’s time to maneuver the fluff into the pan.  To do that, spray a rubber or silicon spatula (I used one that was all silicon with no exposed wood), and then carefully start to scrape the fluff into the pan.  You’ll find that every couple of scrapes, it will start to stick to the spatula.  Stop at that point and respray, and don’t worry about a little residual fluff on the utensil — just spray over it and keep going.  Once it’s almost all in the pan, I ended up spraying my hands again (oh PAM, I do love you so), and scraped what else I could out of the mixing bowl.  There was still a coating of fluff when I was done, but the majority of it went in the pan, and thanks to my future wife, PAM, very little of it got anywhere else.

After you’ve successfully negotiated the fluff into the pan, dust the top with more of the powdered sugar mixture, and let it sit, uncovered, for at least four hours.  After it’s settled, turn it out of the pan onto a cutting board, and cut using a pizza roller that has also been dusted with sugar.  You’ll find that it cuts pretty easily, but it also likes to try and stick back together, so make sure that you dust each piece as you cut it.  I cut my pieces into somewhere in the 1″ cube range, though they’re not entirely uniform, and that’s really fine by me.  I haven’t tried toasting them yet (as the fact that I made them on National Toasted Marshmallow Day was somewhat coincidental), but that’s next, along with the bacon graham crackers!

It's a marshmallow, up close and personal!

It's a marshmallow, up close and personal!

Laces out, Marino!

August 27, 2009 By: Annie Category: Cookies, Desserts

September is somehow already close upon us, and with September comes not just the turn of fall leaves and harvesting summer vegetables, but also football season! Football season may mean nothing to a lot of people (and this isn’t a sports blog, so I’ll try not to dwell too much on that), but to many, football games are synonymous with food. In my world, there’s a lot of fantasy football, and with that comes gatherings of good friends for fantasy drafts.

Tonight marks the first draft of my (many) fantasy leagues this year, and since it’s at my humble abode, I chose to bake my favorite cookies to celebrate the occasion.  Once in the past, for one of the boyfriend’s drafts, I baked these cookies in the shape of footballs, and it was highly entertaining to have a friend of ours keep repeating the Ace Ventura quote, ”they’re shaped like little footballs!”  However, they don’t bake nearly as evenly as the standard round cookie shape, and it’s a bit of a pain in the rump to pipe the icing on so that it looks like perfect pigskin laces.  Freeform drizzles are much easier, thus I opted this year for the classic style.

Not shaped like little footballs, in fact.

Not shaped like little footballs, in fact.

My very most favorite thing about these cookies is not actually eating them myself, but it’s watching other people eat them.  They’re a bit of a surprise for novice nibblers, as they’re not just plain chocolate cookies with white chocolate drizzles.  They have a chewy caramel center, which I’ve been told is like finding a pot of gooey gold in the center of a chocolate rainbow.  Yeah yeah, it’s a terrible metaphor, but I blame the fact that the cookies are good enough that people are temporarily stupefied after eating them.

Gooey Caramel Center

Gooey Caramel Center

I’ve been making these for years — I honestly have no idea where I even found the recipe at this point — and since I’ve had so many requests for it, I’m finally sharing this with the world.  The best thing about these cookies is that they’re so incredibly simple, but could so easily be changed to incorporate other stuff and thus a whole new cookie is born.

Chocolate Salted Caramel Cookies

2 1/4 cups All Purpose Flour, unsifted
3/4 cups good quality cocoa powder (I prefer natural, but Dutch processed is fine, too)
2 cups granulated sugar*
2 Tablespoons molasses*
1 cup butter, softened
2 1/2 tsp baking powder (you could use 1 tsp of baking soda instead, but the cookies would be less fluffy)
2 large eggs
1 Tablespoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon chocolate extract (optional — not everyone has this, and they’re just fine without it)
48 Rolos candies or other small pieces of caramel
Fine grain sea salt, like Maldon or Fleur de Sel
1 cup white chocolate chips

*Alternately, you could substitute 1 cup white sugar and 1 cup brown sugar, and skip the molasses, but I always tend to be out of brown sugar, and I generally have a jar of molasses for which I have little use.

Preheat the oven to 375° F.

In a mixing bowl, cream together the softened butter, the sugars, and the molasses (I use salted butter and omit putting any salt in the batter).  When the mixture is light and fluffy, add the vanilla extract, chocolate extract (if applicable) and eggs, and mix until lighter and fluffier.

In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and cocoa powder.  Whisk it together until it’s fairly uniform.

Gradually add the dry ingredients to the wet, about 1/2 cup at a time, making sure to incorporate all of dry stuff before adding more.  Once it’s all mixed in, let the cookie dough rest in the fridge for about twenty minutes, or it will be hard to form.

Once chilled, wrap about a tablespoon of dough around a Rolo and very lightly sprinkle a couple flakes of sea salt on the bottom of the candy before completely enclosing all the gooey center.  Line up on an ungreased cookie sheet, approximately 2″ apart, and bake for 7 – 9 minutes  until they’re set and just starting to crack a little.

Remove from the oven and let cool on a wire rack.  Once the cookies are completely cooled, put the white chocolate chips in a microwave safe bowl, and microwave on 50% power for 2 minutes.  Remove from the microwave, stir until smooth.  If they’re not completely melted, put them back in the microwave for another 30 seconds at 50% power until completely melted.

Pour the melted white chocolate into a zip-top bag, and snip a very small hole in one of the pointy ends so that you can pipe the chocolate, willy nilly, onto the cookies.  Let the chocolate set, then enjoy!

These are fantastic, and really versatile.  I’ve made them with mini Reeses inside, with Andes mints, with various colors of chocolate on top.  Let me know if you try them and you do a variation on a theme; I’d love to know what other people come up with!

The finished product!

The finished product!

Eating, Drinking, and Service

August 14, 2009 By: Annie Category: Cookbooks, Wine

For so many of us, food and wine are a natural complement.  Hell, it’s so natural that there’s a magazine with that name.  So it shouldn’t really have been much of a surprise to me when I got an e-mail this morning from Tasting Table sharing knowledge of a new wine club with a new twist (more on that in a minute).

Wine clubs are a dime a dozen these days (or, more likely, about $45 a two-pack of bottles).  Various vineyards have their own clubs, lots of resellers have them, it’s a fairly common way to introduce myriad selections to people who might be regular wine drinkers who like a little variety.  I, myself, have been a wine.com subscriber for a couple years.  Sometimes they send good things, sometimes it’s average.  My problem with wine.com is that they tend to overcharge for things, and their customer service is not always the best.  Plus, they sell out of popular things way too fast.

Keeping that in mind, I haven’t actively been looking for a new wine club, but Mama always taught me to keep my options open and be receptive to things that might cross my path.  Enter in this morning’s Tasting Table e-mail that talked of a new joint venture between Cookstr and Pasanella & Sons Vintners.

Cookstr is a fantastically well designed recipe database that features recipes from a lot of famous chefs and cookbook authors in one handy website.  Pasanella & Sons (I really need to stop resisting the urge to type panzanella – also delicious, but totally different) is a local wine shop here in NYC in, I believe, what used to be the old South Street fish market.  Combine the two, and you obviously have food and wine, but you get something more with their new service: a wine club plus a book club — a cookbook club, to be precise.  You get a bottle of red, a bottle of white, and (apologies to Billy Joel), a book with which to cook tonight.

I was so enamored of this idea (I’m a bit of a sucker for cookbooks, which is ironic since I don’t use them that often) that I immediately went to the site in the hopes of signing up for a new ongoing membership that could replace my wine.com shipment.  When I got there, they had a few options: a one-time month-only choice for $49.99, a 3-month option for $149.99, 6 months for $299.99, and 12 months for $599.99.  What was missing was a month-by-month option where I could subscribe on an ongoing basis, but without having to shell out six hundred smackeroos.

Doing what any enterprising woman might, I clicked the link associated with questions and comments, and e-mailed asking if this was an option or if it might become an option in the future.  I sent my e-mail at 12:50 this afternoon.  Ten minutes later, Will Schwalbe, the CEO and founder of Cookstr, responded to say that they didn’t have the ability quite yet, but would likely figure it out soon, and that he’d follow up with another e-mail once they did.

I was tickled and, quite frankly, a little stunned to have such a fast and amiable response!  Then I got sucked into various work duties (after all, I can’t spend every minute of my workday on fun stuff!), and before I knew it, I had another e-mail from Marco Pasanella thanking me for such a great idea and letting me know that he’d added that option to their website.

Let me tell you guys, I’ve worked in some sort of service industry (either food or customer) for my entire adult life, and I know two definitive things about it:  First, it’s incredibly easy to provide great service to customers if you’re simply responsive.  Second, in spite of that fact, it’s something that very very very many people neglect.  I don’t know if it’s because they’re just lazy or careless or what the story is, but more and more, I find that people are clueless about what constitutes good service.

Happily, Will and Marco do not fall into that second category!  I was so thrilled by their nearly immediate responses and actions, that I instantly signed up for the shiny new month-by-month program.  I cannot wait for the first shipment, and my first cookbook!

The practical upshot is this: food and wine are delicious, but there’s no substitute for great service.  And since they so willingly accommodated my wishes, I felt that I should do my part to get their name out there to more people that might be interested in the Vino & Cookbook of the Month Club.  You don’t have to be a New Yorker to join!

Once I have my first shipment, I’ll have to find something delectable from the cookbook that will go nicely with the wine they send.  Perhaps a nice bread salad would do.