Monday, March 22, 2010

Pretzels are the human equivalent of salt lick

I don't know if guys get like this, but all the girls I know have days when there just isn't enough salt in the world. Chips, of course, are a good source of salt - I rank chips based on how salty they are. Any form of potato - fried, mashed, roasted - also works well for salt distribution. Breads, however, are usually not so salty (especially bread from Tuscany, which contains NO salt - blech!). Enter the pretzel - doughy, with a chewy crust, and as much salt as you can heap on.

I've been hearing for a while from a number of bloggers that pretzels are SO EASY to make, but I had my doubts. How easy can something be if it involves making a dough, letting it rise, shaping, boiling, AND baking? Surprisingly, they are easy. Even with all those steps, the process goes quickly, and the outcome - trays full of pretzels - is worth the effort. It takes me about 2 hours to make a batch, but then I have more pretzels than I know what to do with - definitely a good use of my time.

I'm interested in trying some variations on this recipe - like adding chopped herbs to the dough or sprinkling some grated parmesan on top - but really, these pretzels are pretty perfect just covered in salt. Feel free to vary the amount you sprinkle on - I've made them with double the amount that's on the one in the picture above, and that was just a little too salty for me.

Soft Pretzels
(from Alton Brown's recipe)
1 1/2 cups warm water
1 Tbsp sugar
2 tsp kosher salt
1 package active dry yeast
4 1/2 cups flour
2 ounces butter, melted
10 cups water
2/3 cups baking soda
1 egg yolk, beaten with 1 Tbsp water
Kosher salt

Combine the water, sugar, salt, and yeast together in the bowl of a stand mixer and let sit for 5 minutes or until it begins to foam. Add flour and melted butter and mix on low speed with the dough hook attachment until well combined. On medium speed, knead until the dough is smooth and doesn't stick to the walls of the bowl, about 5 minutes. Remove the dough from the bowl, give the inside of the bowl a good spray with Pam or other cooking spray, and put the dough back in. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise for 50-60 minutes, or until it has doubled in size.

Preheat the oven to 450°. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper and spray with cooking spray; set aside. Bring the 10 cups of water and the baking soda to a rolling boil in an 8-quart pot.

Turn the dough out onto a cutting board and divide into equal pieces. I've made about 16 that come out to about the size of my palm, but you can make as few as 8 (like Alton does) or as many as 24. Roll each piece of dough out into a thin rope, no more than a half-inch in diameter. To shape the pretzels, form the rope into a U-shape, cross the ends over each other twice (like a little twist), then fold the twisted part down onto the curve of the U. Form all the pretzels before moving onto the next step.

Boil the pretzels in the water-baking soda combo one at a time for 30 seconds. Use a large slotted spatula or spoon to remove them. Lay the boiled pretzels on the prepared baking sheets, brush them with egg yolk, and sprinkle with kosher salt. Bake until a dark golden brown, about 10-12 minutes (add a few minutes if you make them larger). Transfer to a cooling rack.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Mmm Cake

That is all.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Only on a New England Saint Patrick's Day

Sometimes things just work out well. Take, for example, last week - I was given the opportunity to meet the master distiller of Bushmills Irish Whiskey AND I was struck by an intense desire for Moxie. Normally, these two things would have nothing to do with each other. But I quickly remembered a drink I had had at Deep Ellum a few years ago - the Black Water - and the stars aligned.

The Black Water, named for the English translation of the Native American word "moxie," is a simple combination of whiskey and the almost-disgusting soda Moxie. I think Deep Ellum uses rye whiskey, whereas Bushmills is a blend of malt and grain whiskey. My palate isn't refined enough to tell the difference, I just drink what I like.

Now, if you didn't grow up in New England, you may never have heard of Moxie (in fact, there's no guarantee you've heard of it if you DID grow up here). Moxie originated, like most sodas, as a tonic meant to have health benefits. It was created in Lowell, MA in 1884 and named after a river near inventor Augustin Thompson's home in Maine. It was thanks to robust advertising that we now use the word moxie to mean that someone has vigor or guts - it didn't exist in the English language before this soda. And Moxie is one of the few sodas that actually taste like the tonic it came from - it's definitely an acquired taste. Imagine cola and root beer combined, only more bitter and less sweet. I can't drink the stuff straight, but I think it's amazing with whiskey.

Onto the Bushmills - I was invited to attend an event with Bushmills' master distiller, Colum Egan, who has been busy promoting the brand before St. Patrick's Day. I brought along a few fellow bloggers, and the evening ended up being Colum walking five women through all the different types of Bushmills (the tasting notes are here). It's amazing how the flavors can change so drastically between different blends of the same alcohol. I especially liked the Black Bush, which is aged in predominantly sherry barrels and has a little bit of a deeper, richer, sweeter taste than the original Bushmills, which is aged mostly in bourbon barrels and is a little lighter.

For a New England St. Patrick's Day, what better thing to do than blend a strictly New England soda with an Irish whiskey? Colum shared a number of Irish toasts with us, but my favorite is one I'll put to good use:

There are tall ships
and long ships
and ships that sail the sea,
but the best ships
are friendships
and may they always be.

Black Water
whiskey (I prefer Bushmills Black Bush, but only had original on hand)
maraschino cherries

Fill a cocktail glass with crushed ice. Pour in a three-count of whiskey and top with Moxie. Add a cherry (and a dash of the cherry juice if you like).

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Brownies with more than a touch o' the Irish

I read a lot of food blogs - probably too many. Often, I find myself skimming through my Google Reader without paying too much attention to details (sometimes even just looking at the pictures). When I'm in that kind of mood, it takes a special recipe to pull me out of my stupor.

And that's exactly what happened when I saw these Irish Cream Brownies on Baking Bites. I wasn't craving brownies until I saw the recipe, but as soon as I did, I HAD to have them. Luckily, I can just say the word brownie to my friend Ann and she's on board. We baked up a batch on Saturday night, to pair with Chipotle burritos, video games, and Caprica. Our group likes to talk, but we were silent as soon as these brownies came out.

I loved them so much, in fact, that I had to make them again a few nights later. We didn't have regular Baileys in the house, but we did have some of the mint Baileys. How awful could that end up, I wondered. How about even better? I'm sure the caramel Baileys would be amazing in these as well.

Man, are these tremendous brownies. Usually when something says it's Irish Cream (or Baileys) flavored, it means it has a hint of Irish Cream. Not these - these taste like the real thing (maybe because it uses the real thing?). Baking Bites included a glaze for the brownies, but I didn't feel it was needed (plus it didn't work for me). All on their own, the brownies form a crisp, thin crust while staying dense and fudge-like inside. I like these so much, they may become my default brownie recipe. What better thing to make for Saint Patrick's Day? My mother was asking for the recipe before she had finished her first bite...

Irish Cream Brownies (adapted from Baking Bites)
1/3 cup butter, melted
2/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup cocoa powder
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup Irish Cream liqueur (like Baileys) - the flavored Baileys work well too
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup all purpose flour

Preheat oven to 350°. Line a 9x9 baking pan with tin foil and grease lightly; set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together melted butter, sugar, and cocoa powder. Add egg and vanilla and whisk until combined. Whisk in liqueur until smooth (this will take a minute). Add in baking soda and salt, then whisk to distribute. Add flour and whisk until there are no streaks of flour left. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for 20-25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the brownies comes out with only a few crumbs, no uncooked batter. Remove using the tin foil and let cool on a wire rack.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Where To Eat Magazine's Taste of Lucca

I love trying new restaurants, but it can be hard to get a good idea of what they offer from only a dish or two. Tasting menus can be a great way around this, but they're usually a little too expensive for me. Enter Where To Eat's 10th Anniversary dinners. The magazine, which publishes restaurant information for casual dinners and insiders alike, has been celebrating 10 years in print by hosting "A Taste Of" dinners, featuring a different restaurant each month. These dinners have been going on since September, but you still have four more months to jump on the train. They are held on the first Tuesday of every month until July, and people who make their reservation early are able to attend the cocktail hour beforehand. They've already had dinners at Radius, Gaslight, Masa, and Upstairs on the Square... and now Lucca in the Back Bay.

These special dinners are built around three tastes of three courses. The other restaurants have served all three tastes on one plate, as if they were a regular course, but the chef at Lucca chose to serve each item separately, which made the meal longer but also a touch more formal.

Our appetizers started with an Island Creek oyster topped with bacon, lemon, and truffle oil. The flavors were remarkably balanced - truffle oil can be delicate, but it held its own here. We moved on to the Insalata alla Romana (above), which was basically a deconstructed Caesar salad. I especially loved the pickled shallots and slice of lemon (I don't have it in my notes - was it preserved lemon?), which added a nice bite that was different from the usual garlicky-ness of Caesar dressing. The deviled egg on the plate, however, was superfluous. Finally, we had a pureed soup of sunchoke and fennel with confit fennel and a pomegranate-peppercorn syrup. Everyone at the table loved this soup, and I was scraping the sides of the cup clean with my bread. It was definitely a warm and hearty soup for a cold winter's night - I would have loved more than just a taste.

Our entree dishes began with Rigatoni Bolognese, with homemade pasta covered in a thick sauce of beef, veal, and pork. Now THAT'S a bolognese. My favorite of the entrees was up next, a beautifully pan-seared scallop (above) with spinach and shiitake mushrooms, drizzled with a lemon vinaigrette. I love ordering scallops at restaurants because I have such a hard time cooking them - this one was perfect. And the lemon vinaigrette? I could drizzle it on everything and be happy. The final entree was hanger steak with a semolina dumpling and broccoli rabe. The starch was my favorite part of the dish, filled with herbs and pan-fried to have a crispy exterior and creamy interior.

By dessert, we had lost most of our dining companions - the evening was simply stretching out too long. A brave few of us, though, including Where To Eat's publisher Jill Epstein and Fiona from A Boston Food Diary, held strong throughout the dessert course. Our first taste was pound cake with passion fruit panna cotta, coconut crumble, and a butterscotch pudding sauce. The cake was too dense for my taste, but I found the panna cotta tart and fresh - it whisked me away to a tropical place. This was followed by apple crisp - while strange because it feels so out of season, this was one of the best apple crisp's I've had. The topping was actually crisp, while the apples were cooked through and well seasoned. The last dessert, though, was my favorite - a chocolate semifreddo with orange marmalade, coffee anglaise, and candied pistachios (above). Billed as an "Orange Mochaccino," the dish tasted just perfect with all the flavors combined. But then, I do love a good chocolate dessert - it was nice to see something other than a flourless chocolate cake on a menu for once.

I'm not sure where the next four Where To Eat dinners will be held, but if they're anything like this fabulous meal at Lucca, they'll be worth a reservation.

Lucca Back Bay on Urbanspoon

Monday, March 1, 2010

Lamb Takedown!

If you've ever been to a concert at the Middle East, you're familiar with the process: line up in the restaurant, hand over your cash or ticket, get a wrist band (or not), then head down the stairs into the basement. What you're probably not used to, though, is the smell of lamb and spices hanging in the air.

At the Lamb Takedown, however, the smell of cooking meat was exactly what was to be expected. The evening featured 18 local amateur chefs who all proved that they had more-than-amateur skills with a huge variety of recipes. The plate above represents only about a quarter of the offerings, so clearly, only small bites of all the dishes was enough to fill me up.

For me, there were a few stand-out hits, a couple of misses, and some that were just not my style. I put my vote towards the lamb meatball, stuffed with a piece of feta cheese, cooked in a North African tomato sauce, and topped with tumeric yogurt, candied orange peel, and parsley. That meatball was all kinds of wonderful (and I'm not usually a big fan of meatballs), and the candied orange peel really made the dish stand out. I also loved the Moroccan braised shoulder with apricot couscous, the five-spice pulled lamb with pickled fennel and carrots (I could have eaten those pickles all night), the smoked leg served in a pita with summer fruit compote, and the perfectly-seasoned pulled lamb taco.

At the end of the night, there were awards to hand out. All the chefs gathered on stage, and Matt Timms, the evening's host, asked them to introduce themselves to the crowd, and then the prizes (including some much-coveted Le Creuset cookware) were awarded.

One of the judges, Adam Ragusea of WBUR, made a fun video - definitely worth a watch if you couldn't be there last night.

The winners of the evening (stolen from the Takedown's site):

People’s Choice

  • 1st - Aleks Strub: Lamb Bolognese with Rosemary Gnocchi
  • 2nd - Justin Manjourides: 5-Spice Pulled Lamb with Pickled Fennel and Carrots
  • 3rd - Matt O’Shea : Hammered Shanks- Cajun Spiced Lamb Shanks braised in Abita Turbodog with jambalaya.

Judge’s Selections

  • 1st - Justin Manjourides: 5-Spice Pulled Lamb with Pickled Fennel and Carrots
  • 2nd - Aleks Strub: Lammb Bolognese with Rosemary Gnocchi
  • 3rd - Jamie Saltsman: Smoked Leg with hand-picked fruit compote

Judge’s Honorable Mentions:

  • Aaron Foster: Lamb Ruben
  • Alex Rosenzweig: Georgian Style Barbecue