Monday, September 24, 2007

Having my cake and eating it too

Do you remember very much from your childhood?


As a very young child, I remember fleeting moments of frustration mingled with happiness. I couldn't always make things work like I wanted to exactly when I wanted them. For instance, I knew that if I found the square plastic case with the picture of a jean pocket and a red cap sticking out of it, and I got the round disk into the player and pushed a certain button, my favorite song would come on ("Born in the USA" by Bruce Springsteen, in case you wondered). But sometimes the CD wouldn't be the right one; or I'd put it on upside down; or there'd be no CD in there at all. Or I'd push the wrong button or push it too many times and then the wrong song would come on and I never knew why.


Life as a little kid was a confusing world of rules that I couldn't control. Adults never understood me, eating chocolate for breakfast was Definitely Out of The Question, and whenever I tried to make cupcakes out of the box, they just tasted funny. It never occurred to me that there would come a day when my knowledge base (or physical skills) would be to my own satisfaction, but it did occur to me that as far as stages in life, I was just starting out. There were bullies at school, bees that that would sting a person for (apparently) no reason, and, time-outs that seemed as arbitrary of an occurrence as seeing a falling star. In short, being a child for me was about unpredictable, unavoidable circumstance. My world felt out of my control, and I didn't like it that way.


Of course, like every other grown person out there, I figured it all out eventually. There were those brilliant years of independence, of new skills and talents, of feeling like I knew it all even while I mistakenly thought I was humble, of reinventing myself every 30 seconds only to discover that the new me still wasn't quite right, of realizing that I didn't know anything at all but still wasn't humble, and of pure desperation for just not being able to be the person I wanted to be with the life that I thought I really wanted to have. Then I slowly began to construct my adult world. It started with a canine companion, an apartment, some important friends, the relationship, the career path and ultimately a personality that seems to be here to stay. There was a moment in life when things, attainable, tangible things (goals?) were finally within my grasp.

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Suddenly I find myself with a pathetically mundane life filled with various goals I have invented for myself: the house, a good haircut, two dogs, my husband... we take them to the park in our Volvo wagon, which is where we met, under the big tree at the bottom of the hill. It's so picturesque some days that I almost want to gag (the fact that anybody is still reading this is promising). You see, it turns out that exactly what I wanted as a young kid - dessert before dinner, a big wheels truck, to watch cartoons on Saturday morning - really wasn't actually that important. Those exact things changed from day to day and year to year in as capricious of a manner as I choose my hair color. I think I finally figured out that the most important thing I have, the thing that keeps me together when I'm stressed out or feel like I'm losing it, is knowing that what I control is merely a state of mind. Sometimes, getting my control fix after a bad day is as simple as turning on the oven and grabbing a recipe. In the world of baked goods, it's easy to measure out exactly 1 cup of sugar, and to feel pretty good about that small success while you're at it.

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I'm an adult now. I get to have my cake and eat it too. Chocolate, with beer in it, for breakfast even, if I want.


Chocolate Guinness Cake

Serves: don't ask

My posts have been full of "bests" lately, but this really is the best chocolate cake I have ever had. By now you should realize that I am a cookie person; the Chocolate Guinness Cake may change my dessert preferences forever - seriously. It is unbelievably moist, fail-proof, chocolatey, complex, dense and light all at the same time. It is amazing. I will be singing the praises of this cake for years to come. It'll take you several bowls and at least a half hour of hands on time to make it, but it's worth it. I should add that while about 80% of the people who ate this sang its praises repeatedly, the remaining 20% (Greg included) said that it was pretty good but didn't knock their socks off. I say, just try it and decide for yourself.

"Original" Source: Barrington Brewery in Great Barrington, MA

Modified Source: Deb at SmittenKitchen

The "original" epicurious recipe makes a gigantic cake. I made 75% of the original recipe in three 8" rounds. Deb made a 50% batch for a Bundt pan. One 8" round would easily serve 6-10, which is the recipe I am providing here. I think these would make fantastic cupcakes, especially with a gooey ganache or jelly filling.


Here is the recipe for one 8" round pan:

1/2 cup Guinness

1/2 cup butter

6 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup sugar

1/4 tsp salt

1 large, preferably organic/free-range egg

5 tbsp sour cream

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter one 8-inch round cake pan with 2-inch-high sides. Line with parchment paper*. Butter paper.
  2. Bring stout and butter to simmer on stove or in microwave. Add cocoa powder and whisk until mixture is smooth. Cool slightly.
  3. Whisk flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt in large bowl to blend. Beat egg and sour cream in another large bowl to blend.
  4. Add stout-chocolate mixture to egg mixture and beat just to combine**.
  5. Add flour mixture. Using rubber spatula, fold batter until completely combined (the batter will be slightly lumpy - that's okay).
  6. Pour batter into pan and give the pan several good thumps flat against the counter***. Bake until tester inserted into center of cakes comes out clean, about 25-35 minutes; remember to turn halfway through the cooking time. Cool 10 minutes. Turn cake out onto rack, brush tops with extra stout****, and cool completely before frosting.

*Note: my favorite trick for chocolatey things is to butter the pan thoroughly, add cocoa powder to coat, shake around the pan, and tap out the excess (see photo up top). I do this instead of parchment paper - way easier

**If the chocolate mixture is too hot to comfortably hold a finger in, just temper the eggs by mixing them with a half cup of the hot mixture at a time. I figure if it burns my finger it'll curdle the eggs.

***Thumping cake batter is always a good idea. It gets the air bubbles out so that the cake will cook evenly. Plus, it is good satisfying fun.

****I added this part. : )


I made a chocolate ganache with Baileys in it that I wasn't psyched about. For frosting, I refer you to either of the two sources above, or else just search the web for chocolate ganache recipes (whipping cream + bittersweet chocolate = great) and drizzle over the cake after it has cooled completely.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Wedding, part 3

Olive Oil. We went through almost a gallon of it. Thank you Costco. And friends Kim and Ian, for shopping with us so that we could use their truck to transport all of this food.

Way back when we first got engaged, Greg and I envisioned a fairly simple wedding. With budget constraints, a certain aversion to excess, and some good hard-headed-stubbornness to always do things with our own hands, we came up with the following ideas: on the beach somewhere, very small, and we'd do the catering ourselves.

We told a few people of our plans, and after hearing some laugh, others furrow their eyebrows, and quite a few say "What? Are you mad?", we completely abandoned the idea of a sit-down reception following ceremony. Our families had never met before and the thought of planning a traditional wedding sent me into increasing throws of grumpiness and bad temper: circumstances called for creativity. We decided that if tradition demanded a fanfare-filled, indecently priced, and short-lived event, we'd throw tradition to the wind and get married
our way. We had a mostly private ceremony with our immediate families in Italy, and then three months later we threw a celebratory bash for our friends and the rest of our family.

Whether I love food or food loves me, or food equals love to me, I knew that our reception would be centered around food we had lovingly prepared ourselves. The last two days have been a hectic rush of culinary preparation, but I think I feel confident in saying that it worked beautifully. For my own reference mostly, I wrote down the full menu at the bottom of this post, along with a few vaguely written recipes that others might enjoy. The food was great and designed to remind us of the three weeks we spent in Italy. Of course, we made far too much for anybody to eat in a single evening. Even after having most of our guests leave with plates full of leftovers, we still have a fridge stocked with yummy bites for a minimum week's worth of snacking. There are a few things we won't be able to finish off, but I plan to make the savory items into ravioli for freezing, and any remaining bruschetta topping will be great as a fresh pasta sauce. The four cheese lasagna, as we figured after our trial run, was a huge hit. The second most popular dish were the vegan meatballs - very funny, since there were only 4 vegetarians in the whole place, and many of the meat-eaters were shocked to discover that they weren't eating meat at all.

It was a truly wonderful evening. I was so busy that I didn't get a single picture of any of it, but my dad was diligent in snapping pictures every few minutes so we will have a record of the night after all. We invited 150 people, 66 RSVP'd yes, and I'd say somewhere around 50 showed up. We brought in houseplants and little white globe lights, every pitcher and serving utensil we owned, along with big sheets of white butcher paper for covering the tables in true Italian style. Greg's mom made flower arrangements from the weeds in our front yard, and my parents patiently assembled caprese salad skewers until the Italian flag colors of red (tomato), white (mozz), and green (basil) were imprinted in their minds forever. Greg grilled until midnight on Friday, and I made 24 cups of bechemel at 8am on Saturday. My father-in-law fussed over the exact seasoning on his salt cod bakala until it was spicy and perfect, and my aunt, uncle and cousin stuffed favor bags full of photos, and chocolate covered raisins and espresso beans. It was an adventure, to be sure, but I wouldn't trade the memories for the world.

The best part? We were able to see everybody in one room. I can't help but be nostalgic about putting away the wedding dress and sad to remove from my bookmark list, but I am filled with happiness to know how many of our friends and family were in one room on one night, sharing laughter and some four cheese lasagna. Being among so many individuals that are important to me, I couldn't escape a feeling of gratitude for all of the fortune in my life. Our love of family and friends is what our wedding has been about.

Greg and I wrote our vows in secret and recited them to each other for the first time on May 21st. I called him my "biggest surprise" and he called me his "greatest success". Even in the three months that we have been married, I see our relationship move forward in ways that I shouldn't really be surprised about after all. Saturday night cemented that bond for me. When I glanced his eye from across the room, or found myself helpless with laughter at stories of Greg's childhood, I was reminded again of how lucky I am to be with such a tremendously talented, generous and loving person. I've said it before in this blog and I'll say it again: thanks, Greg. Love you.

I won't tell you how much the Costco bill came to, but let me just say I'd like to shred my credit card right now. One of the best things I did to prepare for this was to break things down in two ways: (1) by ingredient category (dry goods, canned goods, dairy, fruit, etc), and (2) by recipe in basic steps.

6:30-7:30, Appetizers
  • Fruit Platter (cantaloupes, red and and green grapes, Asian pears, oranges)
  • 120 Crabcakes (Prepared by friend Stacey) with Lemon Aoili Dip
  • 100 Lox Bites
  • Cheese Platter (Prepared by friends Kim and Ian)
  • Cracker Assortment
  • Green and Black Olives
7:30-8:30, Main Dishes
  • 120 Vegan Meatballs in Sauce
  • 6 9x13" pans Four Cheese Lasagna
  • 120 Caprese Salad Skewers
  • 9lb Grilled Marinated Shrimp
  • Caesar Salad (Prepared by my Sister-in-law)
  • 4 9x9" Spinach Tart
  • Grilled Vegetables: 10 Eggplants, 15 Zucchini, 2 each of Red, Yellow and Orange Bell Peppers
  • 10 Loafs of Ciabaso Bread, with Olive Oil
  • 4 Bruschetta Toppings: Tomato/Basil/Garlic, Caramelized Onion/Garlic, Pesto, and Olive Tapenade
  • Salt Cod Bakala (prepared by my Father-in-law)
8:30-9:30, Dessert (prepared by my Mother-in-law)
  • 100 Frosted Cupcakes
  • Chocolate Cookies
  • Almond Cookies
  • Brownie Bites
The Booze: 100 Peroni, 20 bottles red wine, 20 bottles white wine, 15 bottles champagne

Spinach Tart
My mom's recipe. One of the few things she cooks (she is a self-admitted "food assembler", meaning that she assembles frozen vegetables and main course items into microwave dishes), and it is excellent and easy. Her version includes some sauteed mushrooms and jack cheese, but I prefer just the spinach.
Serves: 6-8

9" pie crust
16 oz frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and thoroughly squeezed to remove all traces of water
1/2 pt whipping cream
3 eggs
Salt, pepper and nutmeg
  1. If using frozen pie crust, place in fridge the night before to defrost. Place on counter one hour before prepping
  2. Preheat the oven to 350. Thoroughly butter a removable bottom tart pan and drape with pastry. Press pastry into all corners of the pan and sprinkle with several pinches of kosher salt. Chill for 10 minutes, and then bake until cooked through (depending on crust thickness, 5-10 minutes).
  3. Meanwhile, stir together remaining ingredients. Add salt and pepper to taste* with a dash of nutmeg.
  4. Pour filling into tart pan, and bake until set in middle, about 25 minutes.
*This will take a lot of salt and I am sorry to say that I'm just bad at measuring. The only way to check the seasoning, if you are averse to raw egg, is to microwave small bits until they cook through.

Grilled Vegetables

Eggplant, or other firm-fleshed vegetable
Equal parts olive oil and balsamic
Salt and Pepper
  1. Slice eggplant (or other vegetable) to 1/2" thickness (a mandoline helps).
  2. Marinate overnight with equal parts oil and balsamic vinegar
  3. Grill the next day, seasoning each side well with salt and pepper

Four Cheese Lasagna

(Click link for recipe)

Caramelized Onion/Garlic Bruschetta Topping

Olive Oil
2 large yellow or sweet onions
1 head garlic
Salt and Pepper to taste

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Start a heavy bottom pan warming on stovetop with olive oil to coat
  2. Slice garlic in half. Brush cut sides with generous amounts of olive oil. Wrap, cut sides up, in silver foil and bake for 45-60 minutes, until cloves have steamed through and begun to caramelize (wait for them to turn a golden color. They'll get very sticky when they're done!). Squeeze out garlic cloves into a small dish and set aside.
  3. Slice onions to 1/8-1/4" thick rings. Add to warm pan and stir to coat with olive oil. Turn heat to medium-low and watch onions carefully, continuously stirring so that they evenly brown without sticking. It will take 30-40 minutes for them to reach a golden color, and you can add more olive oil if things get dry.
  4. Puree onion mixture with garlic in food processor until smooth. Salt and pepper to taste (it will take a lot of salt)

Lox Bites

Assemble the following on small crostini round: 1/8" slice of cucumber, slice of lox, 1/2 tsp softened cream cheese and sprig of dill

Caprese Salad Skewers

Marinate small mozzarella balls in Italian seasonings, garlic and olive oil at least overnight. Slide the following onto each skewer: 1-2 grape tomatoes, basil leaf, mozzarella ball, and slice of proscuitto. Drizzle with olive oil.

We kept our to-do list on the fridge. Each little paper was a dish, and it actually helped things stay super organized.