Friday, November 28, 2008

Thanksgiving Day

It takes so long to prepare for, and it's over before you know it.

We had a nice day for it. The ducks who live behind my building were very happy that they weren't on the table that day.

It was a successful day. I think the food came out just fine. I was a little worried about my mashed potatoes. They were really garlicky. I was afraid my family would spend the rest of the night cursing me out for their constant garlic burps, but that wasn't a problem (at least I haven't heard about it yet). My turkey came out wonderfully. The desserts were all delicious. The company was fabulous.

It wasn't without moments of panic. I had planned to do my final shopping on Tuesday morning. I wanted to get out early before the crowds became really bad. Unfortunately, I also had some plumbing problems in my kitchen. I needed a new faucet installed. I had hoped the plumber would come and be in and out quickly, but the problem went beyond my faucet and extended to the valves, so he took three hours to finish. It also ended up costing me four hundred smackeroos. I did not need that kind of bill two days before Thanksgiving. The supermarket was a madhouse when I got there. Navigating the produce department felt like the demolition derby, but I made it out alive, managed to accomplish everything I needed to that day, and still made it to tap dancing class that night.

Wednesday was the day I was making most of the side dishes and one of the desserts. I woke up in the morning feeling totally unmotivated. I knew I had to get my chocolate cream pie ready, but I had this Rachael Ray moment where I felt like saying, "I don't bake." As I was stirring my pudding, I felt like that horrid episode of Iron Chef America where all Rachael Ray did was stir a custard and complain about how baking takes too long. Well, I had to remember that for reasons unknown, she won that competition, so I figured if I stuck it out, I'd be a winner of a different sort.

So let's meet some of the supporting players in yesterday's meal.

These were wines I bought from Cava Winery, a new vineyard in New Jersey that opened up right down the street from where I keep my horses.

The famous hen of the woods mushrooms. Don't worry. I didn't steal them. My brother freely gave them to me.

If there is any time when you can act like Rachael Ray and say, "I'll take all the help from the store I can get," Thanksgiving is it. I was very grateful when I saw these and realized I didn't have to trim up a pound of green beans.

I had to chop a lot of shallots to top my green beans. Before starting I gave my knife the sharpening of its life. Note also the goggles and the candle. I was determined not to cry.

Do you think I have enough bread for my stuffing? I made way more than I really needed. I ended up with two pans of the stuff. The next time I am using a smaller loaf of Italian bread with the cornbread.

My obsession with staying organized extended beyond the book. I posted up lists of pots, pans, and serving dishes I would need.

My tables all set up. One thing that was not on my to-do list was "Iron Table Linens". I ended up going over all of the napkins with an iron right before this shot was taken, but the one tablecloth I had that even came close to being able to cover the folding tables was wrinkled beyond repair. I tried ironing it the night before, but the attempt, like resisting a Borg assimliation, was futile (or useless, like resisting a Vogon guard).

The beverage table. I spent a lot of time here. One nice thing about making dinner is that you don't have to drive anywhere. Drinky drinky drinky.

The pre-dinner snacks. We had Terra Chips, marcona almonds, and cheeses from Cato Corner Farm, courtesy of my uncle.

I had to take some cooking breaks between drinks.

You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant. You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant. Walk right in it's around the back, just a half a mile from the railroad track. You can get anything you want at Alice's restaurant.

Oops. I'm sorry. Where was I? I was very lost in song while cooking up the stuffing. Thank goodness there are still some radio stations that play Alice's Restaurant on Thanksgiving. Noontime was my Alice's Restaurant time, no exceptions. This stuffing will always be tied in my mind to that song now.

Guests begin arriving. I was pleased this year that my nephew decided to eat the chips instead of carpet the floor with them.

My mother and her boyfriend and my mother-in-law are the first to sample the wine selection.

My niece Penelope, being cute.

My uncle's wife and my cousin Casey. He seems a bit overwhelmed by all of these people and food. At least he's not as picky an eater as his cousins.

Kevin surveys his domain. Although not one for cooking, I could not have accomplished the day without him. He was my chief bottle washer for the day. *mwah!*

Time to get dinner started. We began with my brother's hen of the woods mushroom bisque. I was a little irked that my helpers handing it out started mixing the table settings. This bowl should not have been on top of this plate!

My turkey, out of the oven and flipped upside-down as per Sue's instructions. This turkey was so big (just under 19 pounds) that I had to take a rack out of my oven to make it fit. It was so heavy you can see the indentations the roasting rack made in it.

Time for Bro to start carving.

Ah Erik, you should have been a surgeon!

Turkey is all carved up. The buffet begins.

Clockwise in the second photo: Turkey, Pecan Sweet Potatoes, Rosemary Garlic Mashed Potatoes, Corn Pudding, Port-Ginger Cranberry Sauce, Green Bean Casserole, and Apple-Cornbread-Sausage Stuffing.

Everyone gets down to the business of eating!

I am Henry The VIII. Henry The VIII I am!

Some shots of the dessert buffet. We had chocolate mousse, chocolate pie, pumpkin pie, pine nut and honey tart, upside down apple cake, apple pie and melatway cookies (this list is in no particular order).Everyone leaves and the fun begins. Now it's time to clean up this mess!

You can find additional photos that Kevin took on my website. These are more people-oriented.

It always feels really good to throw this out. Need I say I threw it out long before dinner was on the table? I can only stick to a rigid plan for so long. ;-)

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Time Is Almost Upon Us

Chairs chairs chairs. 17 people need places to sit. I pilfered these from my office.

Yikes. Thanksgiving is this week.

The guest list has topped out at 17 people: 14 adults and 3 children. At one point there was a risk that it would become 15 adults and 4 children, but one of the lost souls needing a place to go for Thanksgiving turned down the invite.

Today I'm picking up my turkey from Whole Foods. There will be no more mail-order turkeys that arrive late and are the wrong size this year. Whole Foods actually called me to remind me to come pick it up today. If it's the wrong size, at least I can let someone know.

I'm way more relaxed this year than I was last year. I know I can get through it now because I did it once before. I do have some moments of panic because I'm worried I'm too relaxed. I don't want to be over confident and screw things up!

I have a game plan all laid out. My guest list is finalized and so is my menu.

Thanksgiving Dinner Menu
Hen of the Woods Mushroom Bisque (provided by my brother)
Cider brined turkey with gravy
Cornbread Sausage and Apple Stuffing
Pecan Sweet Potatoes
Garlic-Rosemary Mashed Potatoes
Corn Pudding
Green Beans and Mushrooms in Wine Sauce
Port-Ginger Cranberry Sauce (provided by Mom)
Chocolate Cream Pie
Pine Nut and Honey Tart
Apple Tart Tatin (provided by my sister-in-law)
Apple Pie and Pumpkin Pie (provided by, but probably not baked by my uncle)
Meltaway cookies (aka Mexican Wedding Cookies, aka Russian Tea Cakes, provided by Dad)

I may be the Disorder Cook, but this one time I am uber-organized. This book is my bible. It contains a guest list, a menu, a complete shopping list (I take it to the store with me and cross things off as I buy them), all of my recipes, and a game plan for what I will be doing each day from now until dinner is over, at approximately what time. My husband was quite impressed that I had managed to do all of this.
And now for the recipes.

Cider Brine for Turkey and Gravy
12 Cups Apple Cider
1 cup kosher salt
2 Tbl. black peppercorns, crushed
2 Tbl. whole allspise crushed
12 slices peeled fresh ginger
8 whole cloves
3 bay leaves
1 turkey
3 oranges, quartered
6 cups of ice

Boil first 8 ingredients and allow to cool Rinse and dry turkey and trim off excess fat. Stuff cavity with orange quarters. Put all ingredients in a large stockpot and brine at least 12 hours.

I stuff the turkey with two cinnamon sticks, an apple, and an onion prior to putting it in the oven. This year I had better remember to remove this stuff before attempting to make soup with the carcass.

I get my roasting method from The Pioneer Woman Cooks.

While it's roasting, I make a stock from the neck and giblets by boiling them for 30 minutes in a quart of water.

When the turkey is cooked I remove the drippings from the pan and save the fat. I deglaze the plan with wine and pour that out. Then I add the fat back into the pan with flour and make a roux. The juices, wine, and turkey stock I've made with the neck and giblets go back into the pan and it all gets stirred up until it's thick. If it's too thick I add chicken broth.

Pecan Sweet Potatoes (my own invention)
3 lbs sweet potatoes
1 cup pecans, toasted and ground
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup rum
1 stick butter
1 tsp (or more or less as you desire) cayenne pepper*
Salt to taste

Roast sweet potatoes at 400 degrees until soft and mashable. Mash with remaining ingredients.

*Chipotle powder would be a nice variation on this and I might do it this year.

Garlic-Rosemary Mashed Potatoes (My recipe, more or less)
5 pounds yukon gold potatoes
3 heads garlic
Olive oil
1/4 cup fresh rosemary leaves
1 stick butter, soft
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat over to 325 degrees. Cut the heads off the garlic bulbs and drizzle with olive oil. Loosely wrap in foil. Bake 1 hour at 325 degrees.

When garlic is soft, remove cloves from their skin and place in a food processor with rosemary leaves, salt and pepper and process to a paste (you may want to add a little more oil).

Peel potatoes and cut into evenly-sized chunks. Boil until tender.

Heat half and half gently.

Mash potatoes with a masher (my preferred method). When they are as smoothas you can get them, add the warm cream. Then thoroughly mix in the rosemary-garlic paste. Add more salt and pepper if desire.

Cornbread, Sausage, and Apple Stuffing (my recipe)
2 8"x8" squares of cornbread
1 large load stale crusty bread
2 Granny Smith apples, chopped
1 Medium onion
3 Ribs celery
1 pound bulk turkey sausage (or link sausage removed from casing)
1 Tbl. sage
About 2 cups chicken broth

Cut bread into chunks a day or two before so they get dried out.

Thanksgiving Day cook sausage in a large skillet. Cook the onion and celery in the drippings until soft. Add apples and cook until they just begin to soften.

Mix the fruit and veggie mixture in a large bowl with the bread. Moisten with chicken broth as needed.

Put into greased pan and cover with foil cook at 350 for 30 minutes. Uncover and cook 15 minutes more or until brown and crispy.

Corn Pudding
I use this recipe. The only variation I make is that I use frozen corn. Don't look at me like that. It comes out just fine.

Green Bean Casserole
I use a deconstructed version from Michael Chiarello. I will be using my brother's hen-of-the-woods mushrooms in this.

I don't bother breading and frying onion rings. I simply thinly slice a lot of shallots and fry till brown and crispy and sprinkle them on top.

Triple Chocolate Pudding Pie
No holiday in my family is complete without this recipe. I make a slight variation by using cinnamon instead of chocolate graham crackers in the crust. I like the flavors together. I also don't decorate with espresso bean candies. I might dust some cocoa nibs on top this year.

Pine Nut Tart
I am using recipe I found on Tartlette. My variation is that I will be using one regular tart pan instead of tartlettes. Helen assured me it would work and that the dough can be pressed instead of rolled if the kitchen isn't too warm. Yay.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Loopy from Lupa

I have just had the pleasure of spending a wonderful afternoon eating and drinking at the Batali/Bastianich experience known as Lupa.

Stacey said we all look like our blogs. That's true. I think I glow and am covered in words. ;-)

Raise a glass everyone

It was wonderful to meet other food bloggers for the first time. I had the pleasure of meeting the sharp-witted Stacey of Stacey Snacks (who was both the organizer, and generous funder of this outing), my "neighbor" Giff of Constable's Larder, adorable Claire of Colloquial Coooking, the wonderfully affable Stefan the Zen Chef Gone Wild, and the very special guest, Peter of Kalofagas who is in town on vacation (and is every bit as charming and funny IRL as he is in his blog).

I have to admit company like this is a little intimdating for me. I'm not the most wordly of foodies. Hearing everyone discuss the joys and pitfalls of traveling in Paris was educational and interesting to me. On the other hand it did give me a little of that "I'm an unsophisticated bumpkin" feeling as my European travel experiences are limited to a bus tour of Italy in 1985, a horseback tour of Ireland in 2003, and three business trips to London between 2005 and 2008. Heck, I only visited Canada for the first time earlier this spring and that was to Calgary (not exactly a foodie city). But that feeling was only my own insecurities talking because there was certainly no pretension or snobbery in the crowd. No one seemed shocked or condescending that *gasp* I've never been to Paris. (Not that I don't want to go, mind you. I'm totally willing to risk that "snooty Parisian" thing to have the opportunity to see that city.)

So the company was wonderful, but how was the food? What was my first experience at a Batali/Bastianich restaurant like?

I began at the bar with Stacey while we waited for the others to show up. She recommended a Sicilian white, that was excellent. When everyone showed up (somehow the rest of the party all made it to the restaurant at the same time) we went to our table where we ordered more wine (including a bottle of a Tuscan red and a bottle of the white I was drinking, which Peter said was like drinking the "bookends of Italy") and a plate of foccacia. The foccacia was wonderful. There was a taste reminiscent of biscuits in it. Thanks to the fact that I had to spend my morning at home with the plumber, rush to my office for a meeting, and then rush to the city, I was really starving by the time I got to the restaurant. I really snarfed that bread!

For a starter the table ordered a sampler of all of the vegetable antipasti. There were beets with pistachio, brussels sprouts, treviso, olives, broccoli rabe, and squash. I tried all of them but the olives. I'm lukewarm on beets, but these were great with the pistachios. Even the brussels sprouts were better than usual. I liked the squash and the treviso quite a bit. Although I usually can't handle the bitterness of broccoli rabe, this was nicely mellowed by ricotta. I would say Lupa uses quite a skillfull hand with veggies.

The table also ordered a mix of seafood appetizers, which I didn't touch. Some of the fish did come with some grains that I took a risk and tasted, but the fish taste lingered in them, so I wasn't too keen on them. I had hoped all of the wine I was drinking might make me enjoy it more. Sadly it didn't work. Everyone else was pleased.
For myself, I tried some of the cured meats. I tried a mix of prosciutto and house-made coppa cotta. WOW! These were awesome. If only I could live on Italian cured meats without clogging my arteries and raising my blood pressure with all of the salt. The prosciutto was - well prosciutto. Proscuitto is always a beautiful thing. The coppa was nicely spicy.

Moving on to the next course, I opted for pasta. I'm a huge gnocchi fanatic, so I had ricotta gnocchi with fennel and sausage. The gnocchi were a perfect mix of dense and light. They were everything I like gnocchi to be. I was a little disappointed in the sauce. It was very good, but I don't feel as if it tasted very sausage-y or fennel-y. Does that make sense? It reminded me of the gnocchi bolognese I had at Chef Antonio's down the street a week ago (but that isn't a bad thing as I love Chef A's gnocchi).

For dessert I took Stacey's recommendation and tried the tartufo. This is not ordinary tartufo. This isn't your standard red-sauce-Italian-restaurant tartufo, which tends to consist of a maraschino cherry and some almonds surrounded by vanilla or chocolate ice cream and coated with Magic Shell. No, this was serious ice cream and chocolate. Break through the tasty chocolate coating and bite into creamy hazelnut ice cream. Keep digging and you get to lots of crunchy biscotti, and yes, a maraschino cherry. This was tartufo to end all tartufi. This was tartufo taken to a whole new level.

All in all, I would definitely say I liked the food at Lupa as much as I like the company, although it's no Iron Forge Inn (my gold standard by which I judge the deliciousness of all restaurants). I would definitely go back again in the future. The next time I would try another dish for a main course though. I would really love to try one of their meat dishes, particularly the yummy looking pork shoulder Peter ordered.

A well-fed group of bloggers. Can you tell how cold it is in New York this week?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

My Deviant Lamb Chops

Last night I was having a night where I wanted to do something nice for Sir Pickypants. I have been rather out of it in the past few days, feeling tired and run down. Cooking a meal that takes any effort felt like just that - too much effort. Monday night all I did was defrost the leftover sauce from the baked ziti and serve it over spaghetti with a promise to make a better dinner later in the week. Then I made him eat the leftovers the next night. I was determined to make him a better meal last night. I was even going to make him some fish.

I had the good fortune of finding the perfect fish recipe when I went to Kalofagas (the blog that's the closest thing I may ever have to an actual trip to Greece) and found Peter's simple Oven Baked Sole and Baked Chickpeas recipes. They were simple, had good flavors, and consisted of things Sir Pickypants likes, but with a few different twists. I had my promised meal for the night.

Oh wait. What about me? I don't eat fish.

I decided that lamb was the best meat to serve with this meal, but I didn't want to buy a lot of extra ingredients. I tend to make lamb the same way all of the time. It's usually mint, rosemary, and garlic with occasional additions of nuts or red wine. Today I realized I had never really changed my lamb recipe. I just tweaked it from time to time (some tweaks have been bigger than others).

I was standing there in the store with more dill weed than I would need for the fish and no particular desire to buy any rosemary (because the rosemary plant on my balcony has given up the ghost now that we have had a few frosty nights). I was going to do a radical change and use dill on my lamb chops and give them a new marinade, a new flavor, and a new attitude! I was going to be totally deviant with my lamb chops.

I got really experimental. Along with the dill weed I also used oregano and cumin. This was mixed with lemon juice and yogurt. This is already getting interesting.

In the bag, ready to hit the fridge and marinate away.

Cook up in a cast iron pan. I thought about using my grill pan, but it makes too much smoke and it was too cold to open the windows.

My finished chop with the chick peas and a little sauteed spinach (because the vegetable guilt demands that there always has to be something green on the plate).
The fish looks pretty good too - for fish anyway. Kevin really liked it a lot.
Chickpeas have never topped my list of favored legumes, but this recipe was really good. I'm glad I tried it.

The lamb? Well, I liked the flavor combo, but it didn't come through enough. I think these chops were in the marinade about 90 minutes. They needed to go in there for much longer for the full effect of the flavor.

Deviant Lamb Chops
2 lamb loin chops
3/4 cup Greek yogurt
Juice of 1 lemon
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp dried oregano
1 Tbl chopped fresh dill
2 cloves minced garlic

Combine all ingredients except for chops and place along with the chops in a plastic bag. Let sit in the refrigerator for at least a good two hours, but preferably a lot more.

Cook on the stove top for about 5 minutes per side. Then place in a 400 degree oven for about 10 minutes for medium depending on the thickness of your chops (mine were really thick).

Monday, November 10, 2008

Thanks - And A Recipe

First I want to say thank you all for your kind condolences on the recent loss of my grandmother. It's great to know this little online community is so supportive. You guys rock!

Thursday evening I was feeling down and not very hungry, but feeling a craving for comfort foods. The funeral was planned for Friday afternoon and I was bummed and tired and just plain out of it.

I decided to cook something that was comforting and would remind me of my grandmother. It had to be a hearty stick-to-your-ribs Italian-American dish that would be reminiscent of things she cooked for family dinners. I decided on baked ziti - a dish filled with pasta and creamy cheese and sauce. I would make those meatballs on the side to remember her lesson in meatball making.

I have to clarify that this is not actually baked ziti. It's baked rigatoni. It's not easy to find ziti anymore. Everything is penne, penne, penne. I think it ruins the aesthetic of the dish to have those point-tipped penne in there. You need the flat-tipped ziti. Rigatoni are shaped like big ziti rigate, so I used those instead of penne.

I made one adjustment once I got home with the groceries. I ended up not making the meatballs. I know that's a big surprise, but I was so run down, I didn't have the energy to roll and fry. I ended up just putting the meat directly into the sauce.

I had to show off these ingredients because all of these things came from the Tri-State area. Whole Foods, purveyor of goods from California and Central America, finally seems to be catching on.

My sauce. Oops. Grandma Tess was from the Bronx. It's GRAVY. I may have been too tired to make meatballs, but Sarah Palin will join PETA before I use anything red from a jar.

The cheese mix. Here was have ricotta for creaminess, mozzarella for binding, and parmiggiano-reggiano for saltiness and tang. Yes, I used pre-shredded mozzarealla. Have I mentioned I made my own sauce?

I wasn't hungry all day until I started mixing up this cheese.

My creation fresh out of the oven. I sprinkled lots more of that pre-shredded mozzarella on top.

Baked Ziti

1 pound ziti or rigatoni

For the Gravy
2 large cans crushed tomatoes
2 Tbl olive oil
1 pinch crushed red pepper flakes
4-6 cloves of minced garlic
1 medium onion, finely diced
1 pound ground turkey (or beef or whatever ground meat you want to use)
1 tsp salt

Heat olive oil in a large saucepan. Add red pepper flakes and allow to infuse for a few seconds and then add the onions. Cook until soft and add the garlic. Cook until fragrant.

You can add the meat here directly to the pan. I used turkey, which is fairly lean, so I added it directly. Add to the onions and cook through. If you are using a fattier meat, cook it separately so you can drain off the fat (unless you prefer to keep the grease - I don't judge those who do). Add browned meat to the onions and continue with the recipe.

Add the tomatoes and salt and simmer for at least a half hour.

You will have more than you need from this recipe, so save some and freeze for a quick pasta meal when you need it.

For the Cheese Mixture
1 lb ricotta
1/2 pound mozzarella, shredded (plus more for sprinkling)
1/2 cup grated parmiggiano reggiano (or you can use the cheaper domestic parmesan)
1 Tbl chopped fresh parsley
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg (or a few grates of fresh)
Mix all ingredients together until well blended.

Cook pasta until just below al dente.

Heat oven to 400 degrees.

Mix all ingredients together in a buttered baking dish. Bake about 20 minutes or until nice and browned and bubbly.

Try to let it cool to a non-mouth-burning temperature before you stick your face in it.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The World Has Lost One Of It's Finest Cooks

In my last post I said how my maternal grandmother, Carol, wasn't much of a cook

On the other hand, my paternal grandmother, Tess, was in full possession of the Italian Grandmother Cooking Gene. As a child I loved her cooking more than anyone else's. I can remember my other grandparents asking me, "What does she make that's so good?" She never made anything super special. She made the stuff you might always expect in an Italian-American household. She made chicken cutlets and spaghetti and meatballs and pot roast, and lasagna. I couldn't tell you why, but somehow I thought her cooking always tasted superior. Maybe it was because she added more fat to the food than my mother or maternal grandfather did.

Grandma was one of those typical Italian grandmothers who worried if you didn't eat huge amounts (must be why my father, brother, and I carry around a bit of extra pudge on us). She hated to see me not eat, so she made sure that there was plenty of the stuff I liked and left the yucky food to those who ate it. It was just as well I didn't like vegetables in those days, because she wasn't very good with veggies (overcooked them to death as most women in her generation did) but she always had carrot sticks for me and cucumbers for my cousin Todd. She wasn't much for desserts and rarely baked. Desserts were often store-bought cakes and ice cream or the occasional homemade cheesecake. But she had her own deep-fryer and sometimes made us homemade zeppoli.

I used to love it when she hosted Christmas Eve. Unlike Grandma Carol, she was no insistent that I choke down some kind of seafood. She always made chicken and fish-free pasta for me on the Feast of the Seven Fishes.

She hasn't been doing much cooking in recent times. Her health has not been good and she's been in assisted living or nursing care for the past six years. She kept cooking as long as she could. I think one of the last big meals she hosted and cooked for the family was one of the best. She cooked every classic Italian-American dish out there: Baked ziti, stuffed peppers, chicken parmigiana. She served it buffet style rather than family style as she normally did because she had made so much food. I can still remember how we all marveled at it. We feasted. We understood just how much we loved her cooking.

She didn't teach me much, or pass much wisdom on to me sadly. She did like having me in the kitchen talking to her while she cooked though, unlike most of my other family members. Sometimes she'd talk to me about what she was doing. One time she taught me how she made meatballs. I can remember rolling them with her. She told me to go home and tell my mother I made a meatball.

Grandma died earlier today. She had been in nursing care for a couple of years and has given the family several scares when the doctors were sure she wouldn't pull out of it. She pulled out of it enough times that I think we all got too comfortable. Perhaps this was her way of keeping people from gathering around her when she died. I can remember visiting her one of the first times she was at death's door. She became coherent and saw all of us gathered around her bed and she demanded "What are you waiting for?" Her vision and hearing were bad and she really couldn't walk anymore. I'm sure her quality of life was not great, but she tried to hang on for a while.

It's not as if I didn't expect this, but it's tough to think I'll never see her again. I'll never eat her cooking again either.

I should make some meatballs in her honor.

The only picture I could find. Tess is the one on the left. Carol is on the right.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Profit This Roll!

I have said a few times before that my maternal grandmother was missing the Italian Grandmother Cooking Gene (it seemed to go via osmosis from my great-grandmother to my Irish grandfather, go figure). The kitchen was never her strong suit. Like most non cooks, she wasn't into baking either, but she did make exceptions.

When my mother was a child, she liked to make sugar cookies at Christmas. When I was a child, she would make cream puffs. Yes, they were CREAM PUFFS. We didn't use no high-falutin' names like profiteroles. We called them cream puffs (although I'm surprised we didn't call them St. Joseph's pastries). When she felt the occasion called for it, she would pull down her old, tattered copy of the Fannie Famer cookbook and get cracking. Her baking skills only went as far as the mixing and baking of the choux pastry though. When it came time to fill them, she relied on her good friends at Jello-O and My-T-Fine. (I learned to make pastry cream on my own as a teenager and never understood why something so simple had to be replaced with pudding mix.)

Grandma's cream puffs always came out pretty good considering she was prone to kitchen disasters. Somehow I never quite got the hang of it. My attempts were either dense or else so delicate that they would rip apart when you removed them from the sheet. For a long time I gave up.

Yesterday I stayed home from work to supervise a delivery and installation of a new home office unit from California Closets. When I'm stuck at home for big chunks of time, my natural inclination is always to bake. I particuarly like to bake things I don't do often, or have never tried because I don't feel I challenge myself enough in the kitchen anymore. When I was younger I was up for just about any challenge, but after a few disasters here and there, I lost the confidence. I decided that this time I would make cream puffs.

I used Julia Child's (from Baking with Julia) choux recipe for the pastry. I figured if anyone was going to help me get the puffs right, it would be Julia.

I began my work, following every bit of advice I had. The dough was the perfect consistency. While they were baking, they gave off the most fantastic smell. I could smell the eggs and it reminded me of custard and yorkshire pudding.

When they came out of the oven, I was so pleased with myself. They had browned and puffed beautifully without being too delicate. They were not very prettily or uniformly shaped, but that was not to be avoided. My pastry bag set does not include a tip that's good for piping choux pastry. My tips are all either too narrow or decorative. I had to use a spoon and it's hard to get nice, round, even puffs with a spoon. Still, I don't think they looked too bad.

My pastry cream was a variation on a brandy cream I have in my favorite dessert cookbook, Gooey Desserts by Elaine Corn. I used rum in mine because I had no brandy and I don't always like the flavor of brandy in my desserts. To fill my puffs I was a good girl and used the piping bag. I didn't always "aim" it well. Some of my puffs received more filling than others.

Once they were filled, I dipped them in a rich, chocolate ganache.

This is one of the best and most beautiful desserts I have made in a while I think. Doing these felt like a real accomplishment.

Julia's Choux Pastry

1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 cup water
7 Tbl butter, cut into 7 pieces
1 Tbl sugar
1 tsp salt
1 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
5-6 large eggs, room temperature

Heat oven to 400 degrees.

In a saucepan bring milk, water, butter, sugar and salt to a strong boil, stirring until butter is melted. Stir in flour all at once and keep stirring until it is all incorporated. Cook until the dough forms a ball and there is a crust on the bottom of the pot.

Remove pan from heat and put the dough into a bowl. Beat in the eggs one at a time, stirring vigorously. Do not add the next egg until one egg is absorbed. The dough will become easier to stir as more eggs are added. After 5 eggs, check the consistency. If the spoon pulls up some of the dough and peaks when lifted, the dough is ready. If this doesn't happen, add the sixth egg.

Drop spoonfuls of dough (or pipe quarter-sized bits from a pastry bag fitted with a round, plain 1/2" tip) onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet, one inch apart. Bake for 20 minutes, switching wracks halfway through baking. Reduce oven temp to 350 degrees and bake another 5 minutes or until golden.

Rum Pastry Cream

1 3/4 cup milk
4 egg yolks
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup flour
6 Tbl butter, cut into pieces
2 Tbl brandy

In a heavy saucepan warm the milk. Put a fine mesh strainer over a bowl that is sitting in a larger bowl of ice water.

Beat the yolks, sugar, and flour together until smooth and ribbony. Dont' panic when you first start beating it and it looks grainy. It will smooth out. Whisk in the hot milk slowly and then return it to the saucepan.

Cook over medium heating stirring constantly for about 6-8 minutes. The custard will become thick and tight. Strain it into the chilled bowl and add the butter in small pieces and add the rum, stirring until cooled.

Place a sheet of plastic wrap over custard and chill until cooled completely.

Chocolate Ganache

1 cup heavy cream
8oz Semisweet chocolate broken into pieces

Heat milk to a simmer. Put chocolate pieces in a bowl and pour milk over them. Stir until chocolate is melted and blended in.

Cool until the consistency is still liquid, but thick enough to not drip all over everything.


Using a pastry bag fitted with a narrow, plain tip, squeeze some of the custard into the side of each puff. Dip filled puffs in ganache.