Sunday, February 15, 2009

Valentine Dinner - A Home Run

In what turned out to be the usual Saturday "too much to do in one day" scenario, I was still determined to turn out a really nice Valentine's Day dinner. My husband, Barry, really is the accomplished cook in our family; I can bake, but cooking for some reason just doesn't come as easily to me. But since he does 99% of the cooking every day for us, I wanted to make something over and above my "throw some pasta together" fall-back.  

So I went to my trusty cooking magazine archives and in the January 2009 Gourmet issue that I was raving about in a blog post a few weeks ago, I found a recipe for Polenta-Crusted Chicken with Balsamic Caper Pan Sauce (you can find the recipe here).  Sounds good, no?  And, it was in the Gourmet Everyday Quick Kitchen section - another good sign. I was intrigued by the fact that the chicken was coated with polenta, rather than breadcrumbs, and it was served with escarole (or in New Jersey-Italian, 'scarole). Well, it turned out to be not so quick. It wasn't difficult, but definitely not quick.  And when dinner was finally on the table, I wasn't all that thrilled with the outcome. The chicken was moist and I did like the polenta crust - nice and crispy. But the balsamic caper sauce was just not doing it for me.  Barry liked it more than I did (luckily).

But, as they say, even if your main course doesn't turn out so well, your guests will remember the last course.  Thankfully, for me, last night I hit dessert out of the park (now you get the baseball reference in the title, right?). In my very own little "Pastry Chef Hall of Fame," Claudia Fleming is in the top five (what, everyone doesn't carry around a mini Pastry Chef Hall of Fame in their heads?). For many years, Claudia was the pastry chef at Gramercy Tavern (part of the Danny Meyer restaurant empire in NYC). As Time Magazine said when they included her in their "Culinary Arts Innovators" series, her desserts are "deceptively simple." A few years ago, Claudia and her husband, Gerry Hayden (formerly the executive chef at Aureole), opened the North Fork Table and Inn on Long Island. The inn has been garnering rave reviews since opening, and no wonder with these two at the helm. This place is on that other list I keep in my head of inns/restaurants I must get to some day (another list I assume every real food-passionista keeps in their head).

So last night for my dessert course I made Fleming's "Almond Cakes with Chocolate Passion-Fruit Sauce." This recipe was from her Valentine's Day menu on Epicurious. This had everything you could want in a Valentine's Day dessert - small, cute, chocolate, and "passion." You don't want a big, heavy dessert at the end of a romantic meal. 

The scent of almond as I prepared the batter was heady. And the batter, oh my, the batter. Due to the beating of the almond paste with sugar and butter for two minutes, which on it's own creates a light batter, but then with the addition of individual beating of the eggs for one minute each, this batter was incredible. So light, so airy, so divine. You bake these in half-cup ramekins (be sure to thoroughly butter and flour the ramekins) so they are just adorable on their own. But with the addition of what has to be the easiest chocolate sauce ever, you have a delectable, show-stopping last course. Let me tell you how easy this chocolate sauce is. You chop up bittersweet chocolate and transfer it to a bowl. In a saucepan, you heat to boiling heavy cream and passion fruit juice. Once it boils, you pour it over the chocolate, stir until smooth, and let stand for 30 seconds. Hello? That's it. Delicious and so, so easy. The only thing I might add next time would be some fresh raspberries sprinkled around the plate. The sauce was fabulous with the almond cake, but I could totally see this drizzled over some good quality vanilla ice cream. 

And wait the almond cakes -- all I could say after the first bite (and each subsequent bite) was OMG. People, I don't swoon easily. Make these cakes for your next dinner party (the recipe makes six and they can be made ahead) and you'll be nominating yourself for your own little Hall of Fame (you do have one, don't you?).

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Great Burger Search is Over

Good Sunday evening to you.  I hope you all had a great weekend.  Here in the northeast (specifically New Jersey), on February 8th, we had temperatures reaching almost 60 degrees! What a pleasant experience it was to be outside with a light jacket and not my heavy-duty winter leathers. To celebrate this all-too-brief weather interlude, we jumped in the car and headed to the shore to try the newest location of Bobby's Burger Palace - owned by Bobby Flay, of Food Network fame and restaurants in NYC and Atlantic City. Some of you may remember one of Bobby's earliest Food Network shows entitled Grillin' and Chillin' where Bobby and Jack McDavid would spar off with dueling grills (gas vs charcoal). It was a great show. Bobby has always been a burger aficionado and now he brings fabulous burgers to the masses.

His first NJ location (Paramus is opening in the spring) is in Eatontown - a standalone site on the outskirts of the Monmouth Mall, which is nice so you don't have to serpentine through the mall to get to the restaurant. We arrived about 12:30pm and there was a line out the door. Within 15 minutes, we were up to the counter where we submitted our order and then found seats at the counter right in front of the semi-open kitchen (how lucky was that for picture taking?!). Efficient, pleasant servers deliver your order to your seats. I like that - kind of self-serve, but not.

With a name like Bobby's Burger Palace, obviously the menu largely consists of burgers - about 10 different burgers ("Bobby Blue Burger," "Miami Burger," etc). You can also get any variation made with ground turkey or chicken. There are a couple of "griddled" cheese sandwiches, one salad, two kinds of fries (regular and sweet potato fries), and beer battered onion rings. Also available are 8-10 flavors of milkshakes and malteds - when was the last time you saw those on a menu? The usual iced teas and sodas are also available. I believe the Long Island location has alcoholic beverages on the menu, but not in Eatontown. 

So, we both ordered the "Crunchburger," which is a burger with double American cheese and potato chips (my husband ordered his with cheddar). Barry also ordered a side of onion rings, because he can't go to any restaurant that offers homemade onion rings and not try them. A coffee milkshake and a dark chocolate malted topped off our lunch. When I tell you that, by far, this was THE best burger I have had in years, I am not kidding. Juicy, flavorful, done to my requested temperature (medium-rare), on a great sesame bun. I loved the crunch of the potato chips with the juiciness of the burger. The onion rings were very good and the milkshake and malted were outstanding. And, by today's standards in the northeast NYC/NJ area, the prices were not outrageous (all the burgers are $7.50). 

It was a good thing I got in some time on the treadmill early this morning because it was not a "light" meal, and it's also a good thing that this is not closer to our house (those coffee milkshakes could definitely be calling me...) but for those times when I need a burger, Bobby's Burger Palace is definitely where I'll go. And, I gotta tell you - there is nothing better than a ride to the shore on an oddly-warm February day coupled with a great burger and a coffee milkshake. It does wonders for cleaning out those winter cobwebs in your mind.
Bobby's Burger Palace on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The MOST Incredible Cookie - Part II

Welcome back.  Sorry to have run off and left you with only a photo and no recipe earlier today, but I promised you I'd post it tonight and here I am.

The official title of this cookie is "Bittersweet Chocolate and Hazelnut Cookies," but "brookies" is so much better, don't you think?  And let me just stop here for one second to thank my good friend, Christino, for coming up with that name - thank you. Brookie really fits this because when you bite into it, it is chewy on the inside with a nice crust, just like a brownie. But, IMHO, it is way better than a brownie because it is cute and bite-sized (just like a cookie).  May I present, the brookie.

When they come out of the oven, the powdered sugar you rolled them in prior to baking has melted into the cookie and they look like little licorice disks all lined up on the cooling rack (see in-progress photos above). But the taste and the texture - that's what I'm talking about here. The not-too-finely chopped hazelnuts gives them this wonderful mouth-feel; and the taste is sublime - dark, bittersweet chocolate just runs rampant through your mouth. This little cookie, excuse me, brookie, is just the perfect little pick-me-up in between meetings or at the end of the day. Or perhaps served for dessert on Saturday night with some cinnamon gelato...oh yeah, I can totally see that. 

Well, you've waited long enough.  Here is the recipe.  But before I forget, this recipe comes from the wonderful pastry chef, Gina DePalma. Gina is the pastry chef at Babbo in NYC and this recipe is from her book titled "Dolce Italiano, Desserts from the Babbo Kitchen." Thanks to my friend, Phyllis in California, for sending me this fabulous book last summer. The other thing I love about this book, obviously besides the recipes, is Gina's narrative about Italy - her descriptions about the little bakeries and munching on cookies while meandering the narrow streets of Rome are the kinds of things that fuel my hunger to go back to Italy. You might notice that this book is on my Amazon list of favorite books on the right-hand side of the page. If you can't get to Italy anytime soon, this book will at least keep you happy and well-fed. Mangia bene!

Bittersweet Chocolate and Hazelnut Cookies

2 C unbleached all-purpose flour
1/3 C unsweetened Dutch-processed cocoa powder
1/2 t baking powder
1/2 t kosher salt
1/2 C whole hazelnuts, skinned or unskinned
1 C (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 C granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 t pure vanilla extract
5 oz semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1-1/2 C confectioners' sugar, for dusting

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt. Place the hazelnuts in the bowl of a food processor and pulse them 2 or 3 times to chop them medium-fine. Add the hazelnuts to the bowl with the dry ingredients and stir to combine them.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and granulated sugar on medium speed until pale and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Beat in the egg and vanilla and scrape down the sides of the bowl. On low speed, beat in the dry ingredients, followed by the chocolate, and beat just until combined. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and chill the dough until firm, about 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 325 F. Lightly grease two baking sheets with nonstick cooking spray or butter or line them with parchment.

Place the confectioners' sugar in a shallow bowl. To form the cookies, roll 1 scant tablespoon of dough into a 1-inch ball, then flatten it slightly with your fingertips to form a small disk. Roll the cookie in the confectioners' sugar to coat it evenly and place it on the baking sheet. Repeat until all of the dough is used, spacing the cookies 1 inch apart on the baking sheets.

Bake the cookies until they are puffed and cracking, 8-10 minutes. Rotate the baking sheets 180 degrees halfway through the baking time to ensure that the cookies bake evenly. Allow the cookies to cool on the baking sheet for 1-2 minutes, then use a spatula to transfer them gently to a wire rack to cool completely. If desired, dust with additional confectioners' sugar.

The cookies can be stored in an airtight container, layered between sheets of parchment paper, and kept in a cool, dry place for up to 1 week.

Makes approximately 5 dozen.

The MOST Incredible Cookie!

I know that is quite a statement - but I'm not kidding. Just look at that photo - these are delectable!  And I'm not even that big of a chocolate fan, but these are 2Die4. Somewhere between a brownie and a cookie - why, it's a "Brookie!" 

I made these on Sunday and I wanted to immediately run to my computer to let you know about these, but between rooting for the six-time Super Bowl champion Steelers (YES!), and getting home a little late from work yesterday, I simply ran out of time. But I just had to start this post to let you know how wonderful these are.

Sorry to sort of tease you, but I've got to run now so I promise to post the recipe tonight. Believe me, you will want to fire up your oven and make these asap. Think hazelnuts, bittersweet chocolate, and bite-sized lusciousness...that'll get you through the day.