Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Meeting Giada, and an Italian dessert

When I heard that Giada De Laurentiis was going to be in town last Friday for a demo and book signing - coincidentally, a day I'd already taken off from work - I knew I had to check it out. I've always been a big fan of Giada's - from her shows on the Food Network to her cookbooks (I have Everyday Italian and Giada's Family Dinners), I'm always impressed by her cooking style and the way she incorporates her heritage and family traditions.

So, early afternoon on Friday I found myself outside in Tribune Plaza with hundreds of other Giada-obssessed Chicagoans, hoping to be one of the first 500 to receive a free copy of her latest book, Giada at Home, for her to sign. She started with a demo of orzo pasta salad (I should probably mention that the event was sponsored by Target), and even though I couldn't see anything, it was fun to hear her talk to the crowd and answer questions. After waiting a loooooong time for my turn, I got to talk with her for a few seconds while she autographed my cookbook. 

So what did I say to her in those few seconds? I think it went something like this...

Me: "Hi! I'm Annie! I'm a big fan!" (note all the exclamation points; imagine this in your head as a 'squeaky-excited' voice)

Giada: "Wow, I see you have a few of my cookbooks there!"

Me: "Yup! I love them! Last night I made your Chocolate Amaretti Cake!"

Giada: "You did?!"

The end. 

But yes, folks. In that moment, I had to tell Giada that I made her cake...because I love it. It's incredibly moist, not too sweet, and just seems uber-Italian to me. My mom, sister-in-law and I were dining at an Italian restaurant and then seeing Carmen at the Lyrica Opera, and I thought this cake would be the perfect pick-me-up after the show.

I promise that my photos will get better...practice makes perfect!

Chocolate Amaretti Cake
(adapted from Everyday Italian by Giada De Laurentiis)

3/4 cup bittersweet chocolate or semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup slivered almonds
1 cup baby amaretti cookies (about 2 ounces)
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, room temperature
2/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons grated orange peel (1 orange's worth)
4 large eggs

Preheat oven to 350. If you have a 9-inch springform pan, spray it with nonstick spray. If you, like me, don't have a springform pan, any 9-inch pan can work (I used a regular cake pan) - but I did find that it stuck to the bottom a little.

Microwave the chocolate until melted and smooth, stirring every 20 seconds, for about 1 minute. Combine the almonds and cookies in a food processor. Pulse until the almonds and cookies are finely ground. Transfer the nut mixture to a medium bowl.

Add the butter and sugar to the processor and blend until creamy and smooth. Add the grated orange peel and pulse briefly, until incorporated. Add the eggs 1 at a time. Blend until the eggs are incorporated. Clean the sides of the mixing bowl and blend again. Add the nut mixture and melted chocolate. Pulse until blended. 

Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake until the center puffs and a tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, about 35 minutes. Cool the cake in the pan for 15 minutes.

If you want to get fancy, transfer the cake to a platter. You can serve with sifted cocoa powder or powdered sugar on top. Another great idea: serve with freshly made whipped cream, and add some orange juice from the orange you've zested.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The pursuit of the perfect pie crust

It’s very rare that I follow a recipe exactly as it’s written. I love reading recipes and cookbooks, but I typically use them as inspiration – then do it my way. However, baking is a different story. When I picked up a couple pounds of local apples at the farmers’ market last weekend, I knew that the pie I was plotting would need a killer crust recipe to match.

At this point, a lot of women (or at least my roommate J and any woman in her family) would just whip out their tried and true heirloom pie crust recipe.

I am not one of those women. I did not grow up in a house of homemade pie crusts, and I did not receive a delicate 3x5 index card with the recipe lovingly handwritten by my mother the day I moved out. My mom is a great cook – but in my house, crust is just a vehicle, and therefore, storebought.

So, wanting to do greater justice to these naturally beautiful apples than a throwaway crust, I decided to consult the best. In my one previous homemade crust attempt I used Martha Stewart’s recipe, and the process had instilled such anxiety and stress with its strict warnings that I’d taken no joy in the nice, flaky finished product. This time, I wanted something easier, faster, and less…scary.

With Martha out of the picture, I turned to the greatest culinary authority I know – America’s Test Kitchen. After some quick browsing, I found the recipe for which I was looking (yup, even on a blog I hate ending a sentence with a preposition!).

Like Washington crossing the Delaware*, I decided to boldly put my faith in the unknown and go for it.

Including prep time to assemble my ingredients and equipment, two thick disks of plastic-wrapped pie dough were chilling out in my fridge in less than fifteen minutes.

After they chilled out and rolled out, forty-five minutes and a few peeks through the oven door later I pulled a bubbling, golden pie out of the oven and breathed in the glorious, buttery scent.

The crust gets two thumbs up – it was easy to make, and turned out perfectly flaky and reaaally buttery. Gone are its days as a second-class citizen in my house! Even my mom, the crust critic, was surprised by how much she liked it.

Note: I didn’t have any shortening on hand, and pretty much never bake with it anyway – so I used all butter and it turned out fine. The original recipe calls for 1/2 cup of shortening (if you want to use it, just replace some of the butter).

Foolproof Pie Dough – my way
(adapted from Cook’s Illustrated)

2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon table salt
2 tablespoons sugar
2 sticks plus 2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch slices
1/4 cup cold vodka (I used citrus-flavored, which is what I had on hand)
1/4 cup cold water

Add 1 1/2 cups flour, salt and sugar to your food processor bowl with blade attachment, and process until combined, about 2 one-second pulses.

Add all the butter and process until homogeneous dough just starts to collect in uneven clumps, about 15 seconds (dough will resemble cottage cheese curds and there should be no uncoated flour).

Scrape bowl with rubber spatula and redistribute dough evenly around processor blade. Add remaining cup flour and pulse until mixture is evenly distributed around bowl and mass of dough has been broken up, 4 to 6 quick pulses.

Empty mixture into medium bowl. Sprinkle vodka and water over mixture. With rubber spatula, use folding motion to mix, pressing down on dough until dough is slightly tacky and sticks together.

Divide dough into two even balls and flatten each into 4-inch disk. Wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 45 minutes or up to 2 days.

*Planned in partial secrecy, Washington led a column of Continental Army troops across the icy Delaware River in a logistically challenging and potentially dangerous operation.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Mercat a la Planxa - a taste of Catalonia in Chicago

I don’t get excited about much in the morning. Usually, I’m asleep dreaming about beating Mario Batali on Iron Chef America or sweeping the James Beard awards in every category. However, when my food writing instructor told us our next class featured a specially-prepared Catalonian meal and the chance to interview a rising star at one of Chicago’s best restaurants, I knew that this was something I could get excited about!

I arrived at Mercat a la Planxa (638 S Michigan Ave, inside the landmark Blackstone Hotel) a little after 10 o’clock, and was ushered through the door into the ground-level bar area. Hopped up with anticipation – or more likely, hunger – I skipped across the dark, hip and appropriately empty room to the winding staircase that led upstairs.

Emerging in the dining room, the sunny mosaic-ed walls, the lively Catalonian music and the bustling open air kitchen oozed energy, and I was immediately transported to Spain. Some restaurants try to force 'atmosphere,' and it ends up feeling tacky – but Mercat felt just right.

Our group sat down and started in on the first course. At the risk of sounding dorky, the bacon caramel that accompanied wedges of creamy, nutty Cadi Urgelia cheese was a revelation! How have I managed to live for a quarter-century without experiencing the flavors of bacon and caramel together? The pinky-sized, sea salt-garnished, flash-fried peppers with pureed almond/garlic/tomato sauce were also terrific.

As I chewed and tried to memorize each flavor for future reliving of this meal, Sous Chef Cory came out from the kitchen and began to demo the king of Catalonian comfort food – arroz a la cazuela. Though at first soft-spoken and serious, he soon relaxed and I learned a few things about the 29-year old wunderkind.

(Okay – maybe he’s not technically a wunderkind, but what would you call a guy who got his first executive chef gig at age 21 – with no culinary training?!)

Chef Cory revealed his guilty pleasure foods (Totino’s pizza and Pepsi), divulged his hobbies (ice climbing and fly fishing) and educated us on Catalonian cuisine, all while building layers of flavor in the fragrant stew. My first reaction to the spoon they set beside the bowl was that it was HUGE – but it made perfect sense. I obediently heaped every ingredient into one huge spoonful – the tender rice, the smoky saffron-chicken broth (apparently made thicker than regular stock by using chicken feet), the tiger shrimp, and the lemony artichoke and lobster garnish. That first big bite was so luxurious and comforting. And look at the bright yellow color!

I licked my bowl clean, and promptly continued eating. Bacon-wrapped dates, chorizo and scallops ‘a la planxa’ (grilled on a metal plate), spinach with chewy currants, and a crispy-yet-melty milk chocolate ball rounded out our Catalonian feast.

As stuffed as I was by the end of this meal, I wished I could order lunch and dinner from here and bring it home with me. I'm pretty sure that if I could eat at Mercat every morning, I wouldn't have a problem waking up anymore.