Friday, February 26, 2010

Friday I'm In Love... with Best Friends Cocoa

I'm not usually a big fan of cocoa - it gives me a stomach ache like nothing else - but there are times during the long, cold winter when you want something hot that isn't coffee or tea, or you just HAVE to have chocolate and there isn't a bar in sight. For years, I put up with the crappy box of packets from the supermarket when I needed a fix, but more often than not, I just went without.

A few weeks ago, though, I got an email from the folks at Best Friends Cocoa, and my thoughts changed drastically with one taste. By "folks," I mean Linda and Uri Guttman, who bought the company from its founder about 6 years ago when it was about to close. Since then, they've run the company from a small factory space in Arlington with just a few employees.

Like I said, Best Friends Cocoa changed my thoughts on cocoa as a whole. This stuff is smooth and sweet and comforting, while the supermarket stuff just tastes like dirty water in comparison. (It also doesn't give me a stomach ache - must be the all the chemicals in the mass-produced stuff.) It takes a little more effort to stir into your hot water (like I said, no chemicals means you have to do a little more work), but it's well worth it. If stirring is too much trouble for you, Best Friends Cocoa can also sell you a little battery-powered milk frother to mix up your cup of cocoa.

And did I mention flavors? Besides the traditional, which is fun to dress up with your favorite liqueur as a treat (I've enjoyed it with mint Bailey's as well as PAMA), they also offer Marshmallow Cloud (Linda's description is best: "a marshmallow toasting over a campfire, melting into your cup of cocoa"), Cinnamon Twist (a warm flavor with just a bit of kick), and Raspberry Truffle (Oh. My. God.).

Best Friends Cocoa is available to order through their website (including a sampler pack so you can decide which is your favorite), at Whole Foods Markets in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and through various markets and gift shops. Linda and Uri also have a table at Dedham's Indoor Farmers Market, held Sundays from 10am to 2pm in the Odd Fellows building at 626 High Street in Dedham. Above is Linda, Queen of Cocoa, holding court over her booth.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Upcoming Lamb Events

There are always so many exciting food events going on in Boston, but there are two coming up soon that I'm particularly excited about. It seems I have lamb on the brain - and I'm not the only one.

Like I mentioned, February is Lamb Lover's Month, and the American Lamb Board is celebrating in style. They are helping host two exciting events here in Boston (as well as other events around the country). The events are similar, and yet quite different. I'm looking forward to both - will you be attending?

The Lamb Takedown - Sunday, February 28th will feature more lamb than you can imagine at the Middle East in Cambridge. Twenty amateur chefs (although, I'm sure, amateur only so far as they don't run a restaurant) will each have 15 pounds of meat to transform into amazing creations. Of course, with your $15 ticket, you get the chance to sample them all and vote for your favorite. Who doesn't love such delicious voting? Also, apparently there will be "lamb swag" for everyone. Maybe lamb stickers? You can buy your tickets here or at the Middle East.

The Lamb Jam - A week later, on March 7th, it's time for the professionals to give the same concept a shot. Fifteen of the cities best chefs will be putting their spin on lamb. Just seeing the names on the list - like Dante de Magistris, Will Gilson, and Michael Leviton - is making me hungry already. Oh, and did I mention beer pairings? Ten different breweries will be on hand with some tasty brews, and a winery will be on hand as well. Tickets for the event at the Charles Hotel in Harvard Square can be purchased here.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Lamb Lover's Month

Did you know that February is Lamb Lover's Month? I didn't either, but it's a delicious way to spend a whole month.

A few weeks ago, I got an email titled "Lamb Gift." I thought it must be a joke from a friend (one of my many nicknames is Lamb), or at the very least, spam. On closer inspection, though, it was clear that it was an invitation to play around with some lamb recipes. Fast-forward a few weeks to a big box on my doorstep. Inside were 8 fat lamb chops from the American Lamb Board and tons of inspiration (including the amazing stickers above, which I may be enjoying more than the lamb itself).

I'm not usually a chop girl - there's bone to cut around, and it's a lot of work to get all the meat off. These chops, though, were tender and flavorful and made me think twice about buying chops in the future. I'm still more of a boneless leg fan, but if I'm just cooking for one, chops are a good way to go. And frankly, the last few times I've bought lamb, it's been from New Zealand and been just fine, but this American lamb was way tastier (and also from roughly 8000 miles closer to my home).

In the Boston area? Make sure to check out the Lamb Takedown on February 28th - 20 chefs will create tasty lamb dishes, and you can try them all! Can't wait to see what everyone comes up with.

With eight chops, I had some room to play around. I ended up making two very different marinades, letting them sit for about 5 hours to soak up the flavors since the chops were small. These marinades would be just as delicious on a boneless leg of lamb, but for that, I would double the recipe and marinade overnight.

I'm not sure which recipe I liked more - the apple rosemary mustard marinade is something more typical for lamb, whereas the apricot soy is a bolder flavor, and Asian-inspired flavors aren't common with lamb. Either way, I'm looking forward to making these both again.

Apple Rosemary Mustard Lamb (above)
1 Tbsp dry mustard
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup frozen apple juice concentrate, thawed
1/2 cup spicy Dijon mustard
2 Tbsp chopped fresh rosemary
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp olive oil
2 tsp honey
1 tsp salt
4 lamb chops

Whisk together dry mustard, ground cloves, and apple cider vinegar and let stand 15 minutes. Add thawed apple juice concentrate, mustard, rosemary, garlic, olive oil, honey, and salt, and mix until well combined. Pour marinade into a large zip-top bag and add lamb chops. Let rest in the fridge for at least 4 hours.

Grill or pan-fry lamb for about 3-4 minutes on each side, then cover with tin foil and rest for a few minutes before serving.

Apricot Soy Lamb

1 cup apricot jelly or jam
3/4 cup soy sauce
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp red pepper flakes
4 lamb chops

Combine jelly, soy sauce, garlic, and red pepper flakes in a bowl and whisk until well combined. Pour marinade into a large zip-top bag and add lamb chops. Let rest in the fridge for at least 4 hours.

Grill or pan-fry lamb for about 3-4 minutes on each side, then cover with tin foil and rest for a few minutes before serving.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Almond Macaroons

I don't get confused easily (at least, I don't think I do), but there are a few things I can never get right. Using affect when I mean effect, for example (although I'm generally pretty snobby about my grammar, this one just doesn't stick). In that same vein, macaroons drive me crazy. Coconut vs. almond, macaroon vs. macaron - it's enough to drive someone to bake.

For years, I maintained that I didn't like macaroons due to a distinct distaste for coconut, and then these crazy chewy cookies made with almond paste appeared. But wait - almond macaroons are not the same as macarons, the fussy little cookies made with almond flour and sandwiched with delicious fillings? You know, I've stopped caring what I call them - these cookies are just plain delicious.

These almond macaroons turn out flat, with a crispy edge and a chewy middle. Use alcohol-free vanilla to make them gluten-free!

Almond Macaroons
3 1/2 ounces almond paste (half a 7oz package)
1/2 cup confections' sugar
pinch of salt
1 large egg white
1/4 tsp. vanilla
sliced almonds

Preheat oven to 300° and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Mix together almond paste, sugar, and salt until crumbly, about 3 minutes. Add egg white and vanilla and mix until smooth and thickened, about another 3 minutes. Drop by teaspoon onto baking sheet, about two inches apart. It doesn't look like you have much dough at all, but this should make 12-13 cookies. Arrange two slices of almond on top of each cookie. Bake until golden, 20-25 minutes. Slide parchment off baking sheet and cool completely.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Farewell Dollhouse

My friends and I enjoy throwing pop culture-themed parties. First there was the all-day Firefly viewing party, then the Lord of the Rings weekend (those movies drag a little when you watch all three extended versions back to back to back), and of course, the party for the ill-fated Drive, complete with Matchbox cars for everyone. So what better way to celebrate (perhaps mourn is a better word?) Dollhouse then with themed food and drinks.

Ann made a rich chocolate cake, and the plain frosting seemed like a perfect place to get in a little Dollhouse. We drew on the dolls' beds, with the dolls nested safely inside. When it came time to eat the cake, I felt odd asking for the piece with Echo on it, but I liked how she came out the most. It was like asking for the slice with the frosting rose, only... you know, a person.

Activities were planned for the evening as well (besides watching the episodes Epitaph One and Epitaph Two): bonsai trimming, fingerpainting, and yoga (all of which the dolls do in the dollhouse). We also printed out these awesome paper dolls and had some fun taking pictures of them. Above, some of the dolls are posed with our Dollhouse-themed drinks. My favorite, though, may be Topher and his drawer of inappropriate starches. All the pictures are here.

Plans are underway for a Joss-verse-themed birthday party for a friend in May. I'm already itching to bake some Fruity Oaty Bars and drink from my Kiss the Librarian mug. What else should we make?

Dollhouse Cocktails

The Wedge
3 parts vodka
1 part Midori
4 parts Sprite
lemon and lime wedges
Combine over ice in a pint glass.

The Imprint
3 parts gin
2 parts PAMA (pomegranate liqueur)
1 part pineapple juice
3 parts seltzer
Combine over ice in a pint glass.

The Attic
2 parts vodka
2 parts gin
1 part blue curacao
1 part pineapple juice
3 parts seltzer
1/2 lime
Combine over ice in a glass, then cover with plastic wrap and drink through a straw.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Girl Scout Cookie Creations 2010

As I mentioned last year, I am a Girl Scout. Like, still a Girl Scout. Like, a lifetime member of Girl Scouts. So when Girl Scout cookie time rolls around, I'm always excited to buy a box or twelve. (It helps that my niece is now a scout and gave me a box of Thin Mints for Christmas - like a drug pusher, she is. First taste is free...)

Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts has, for a few years now, put together an event called Girl Scout Cookie Creations. They ask local chefs to create recipes using Girl Scout cookies, and then they throw a big bash where people consume inordinate amounts of sugar. This year, they split the event into two nights - one in Salem and one in Boston. I only attended the Boston event, but from looking at the recipes, the night in Salem sounded just as delicious.

My friend Melody, who went through all 12 years of Girl Scouts with me, and I arrived right at the beginning of the event and quickly got to tasting. Our first bite was the Peanut Butter Terrines (featuring Peanut Butter Sandwiches and Shortbread) from Turner Fisheries (above). And from the first bite, it was clear that this was the dessert to beat. With the Shortbread as a base and the peanut butter puree on top, this was a perfect little treat. The puree was just sweet enough, and I loved the textural difference between the puree and the shortbread base.

Next up were Kickass Cupcakes' Caramel Delites Cupcakes. They were, like all of Kickass' cupcakes that I've tried, fine - a little dry and with waaay too much frosting. They used crushed Caramel Delites as a filling to the cupcakes, which added a nice crunch to the cake.

I was already feeling like I'd had too much sugar, and we were only 2 tables in! Some water cured me, though, and we proceeded to the Au Bon Pain table. Frankly, I wasn't expecting much of anything from the bakery chain, but their granola bars were fantastic. I tried the Caramel Delites bars, which were hearty, filled with granola, almonds, coconut, honey, and cookie chunks. I would most certainly buy this at an Au Bon Pain, and I might even make these at home. I didn't try the Peanut Butter Chocolate Banana bars (featuring Peanut Butter Patties) because I don't think bananas have a place in dessert, but Melody didn't like it as much as the Caramel Delites bar.

While enjoying our granola bars, we both thought we smelled something savory, like chicken wings. We took a swing by the cheese table in the front of the room, but there was nothing that looked like it would be giving off such tempting aromas. So we headed back to try the next sample, and lo and behold, Locke-Ober had ribs! Served with grits and sprinkled with crushed Shortbread, the ribs were delicious, but a bit of a cop-out. The cookies had almost nothing to do with the dish, making them an odd choice for a cookie-inspired event.

Ready for more sugar, we headed on to Aura's table, where they were offering something called the Layered Lemon Ice Box. The layered dessert was served in a push-pop, which made it all that more fun to eat. It consisted of layers of lemon curd, pureed blueberries, whipped ricotta, and crushed Lemonades cookies. The push-pops were fun, but they made it difficult to taste the layers together - instead, I really only tasted one at a time as I pushed the bottom up. Definitely tasty, though, and this has me wanting to make some citrus curd sometime soon.

Aquitaine was up next, and although I don't like bananas, I bravely tried their Boston Banana Cream Torte, featuring Peanut Butter Sandwiches and Daily Go Rounds. I can't say much beyond that it was good despite the bananas, and if this is your kind of thing, it looks very simple to make at home. But I do normally enjoy Aquitaine's desserts, so this is really just a personal preference thing.

Finally, we visited Tremont 647 for some Peanut Butter Cheesecake with Butterscotch Sauce, featuring Peanut Butter Sandwich cookies. After the first bite, I had a problem on my hands. Turner Fisheries had been on the top of my list the entire evening, and then suddenly, with a different take on peanut butter, Tremont 647 was turning everything on its head. I enjoyed the cheesecake, but the butterscotch sauce really tied the whole dish together.

Melody and I needed another break from the sweet, so we enjoyed some cheese and discussed whom to vote for. It seemed clear that we would vote for either Turner Fisheries or Tremont 647, and in the end, we went with Turner Fisheries because their dessert was something completely different. While Tremont 647's cheesecake was very tasty, it was cheesecake, which can take on any number of flavors, whereas the cookie puree in the Turner dish was something out of the ordinary.

And it looks like we picked a winner. Turner Fisheries got the crowd votes, and Aura won the judges over with their lemon curd push-pops. I was surprised that none of the chefs went for Thin Mints, the most popular of the cookies, but after stating that one of the mint offerings last year tasted like toothpaste, maybe I'm not so surprised. Is it sad that I'm already looking forward to next year?

And don't forget to buy Girl Scout cookies! If your local scout doesn't knock on your door, you can search for booth sales here. Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts also collect boxes of cookies for soldiers overseas, so buy an extra box to send to a soldier.