Archive for the ‘dessert’ category

The Perfect Refreshing Dessert!

May 23, 2008

Summer is coming, I swear it, though when it will actually arrive no one knows. But even the slight warming that has occurred over the last few months and the lengthening daylight hours has been enough to put a spring (literally and figuratively) back in my step. With the habitual warming weather, of course, our palates go through a transformation as well and rather than longing for foods rich and comforting, we tend to shift toward lighter, brighter and fresher tastes as more fresh produce become available in season. If you are looking for the perfect refreshing, light, flavorful, healthy, colorful, uncomplicated dessert for your next kitchen foray, have I got the recipe for you! Now, this is not at all a recipe that I came up with on my own and I won’t take any of the credit for it, but I, and now a good number of my nearest and dearest friends, can vouch for its being a really wonderful end to a meal or even an afternoon snack. What is this fantastic dessert of which I speak? Well it’s a berry pudding with cream. This, upon first hearing it, may not seem like the answer to all your dessert-centered desires, but let me expound a bit more on the pleasures and details of this simple dish. All that it really consists of is pureed fruit (either fresh or frozen), pushed through a sieve to remove any seeds or pulp. You then add a bit of corn starch and some sugar and put it on the stove, stirring constantly until it boils, and then for just a minute longer. Pour it off into a bowl, let it sit for ten minutes, then press plastic wrap on the surface so that it doesn’t develop a thick crust on top while it sits in your fridge for at least two hours, but up to several days. Perhaps the best part is that you serve it with a mixture of whipped cream, vanilla, powdered sugar, and greek yogurt. The juxtaposition of the tangy, slightly sweet and creamy yogurt with the fruit in the “pudding” is wonderful. It is almost like fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt in reverse, but not as sweet. I love that the pudding is essentially just straight up fresh fruit and it really explodes in your mouth. I’ve now made both a raspberry and a strawberry version of this for different occasions, next I might try mixing these two flavors together, or I was considering mango (another way to get a dose of my favorite fruit). I urge you to give this recipe a try, it is well worth your time and perfect for the season!


Vegan adventures

May 9, 2008

So anyone who has perused this blog at any juncture is well aware of the fact that I am clearly not a vegetarian or vegan or any facsimile thereof, I mean have you seen the pictures of the deer heads and suckling pig? But even though I work with animal bones on a daily basis and am not at all afraid of meat on any level, I also am not on the carnivorous end of the omnivore spectrum. I do not eat a great deal of meat, but I don’t make an extra effort to cut it out of my diet either. I am equally happy to have chicken or tofu for dinner. For me, at least at this stage of the game, it is more about the experience of different flavors, textures, and cultural traditions, than it is about other aspects of food choices. (And believe me I am also well aware of the arguments for vegetarian and vegan dietary choices and I definitely support those people who decide that these lifestyles suit their personal goals and moral and political stances.) I, personally, am trying to move as far away from any sorts of restrictions or defined boundaries when it comes to foods as I can and so I choose to eat whatever might appear on my plate and to be more intrigued by the story behind the food.

With that information as a backdrop, I will admit that I definitely have an interest in vegetarian and vegan cuisine as such. I am very interested to experiment and experience the kinds of flavors and textures created with non-meat products. Following along this path, I and a few of my friends went to Horizons for dinner this evening. It was a special prix fixe menu that was a terrific deal and a wonderful opportunity to taste a few of the foods coming out of this well-known and well-loved Philly vegan hot-spot. Our menu included:

Jamaican bbq seitan with green jerk cabbage and scotch bonnet crema

Pan roasted tofu with exotic mushroom paella, english pea sauce, and tomato salad

Bittersweet chocolate cheesecake with balsamic strawberries
(ummm, yeah, so as is my wont, I got too excited when dessert came and I’d eaten the whole slice before I remembered that I was supposed to have taken a picture of it, but you know what cheesecake looks like, so just imagine it) ☺

The seitan appetizer, and this was the first time I’d ever had seitan, was a very unique texture. I described it as almost like a very fatty pork belly or some similar cut, but without the distinctly stringy texture of the meat and the overly disgusting feel of a big wad of fat in your mouth (I abhor chewing on large chunks of fat). The seitan was chewy in the way that pork belly is, but without all the associated guilt. The bbq sauce had a great punch, which was well balanced with the crispness of the cabbage and the crema sauce. The hot seitan also contrasted well with the cool cabbage and sauce.

Though the pan roasted tofu was a simple dish in and of itself, just add some seasoning on top and you’ve got your dish, the accoutrements were wonderful. The mushroom paella was more like a smooth creamy risotto and the pea sauce was fantastic! It added both a bright green color and an extremely fresh and bright flavor.

The chocolate cheesecake was also quite good, very light and fluffy. Not much to say there since I obviously liked it so much I forgot to take a photo. Chocolate in a dessert and I’m one happy woman.

Like so many others before me, I was quite impressed with the food at Horizons. The presentation was really nice, the colors were vibrant, and the flavors and textures were really well-balanced. The ambiance of the restaurant is also very pleasant and the staff were extremely congenial. At the very least I will have to make a return visit to try their mango crème brulée because it’s on the list of the top 5 crème brulées in the city (according to Citypaper), which I’m trying to, but doing a very poor job of, working my way through. But I’d want to go back anyway, this is a place you can take your vegetarian and vegan friends for sure, but also people who just like to eat these sorts of foods, to see, taste, and experience what is out there in all the various arenas of the culinary world.

Baking in the middle of the night

April 22, 2008

In delving more into historic recipes over the last couple of months, and by delving, I mean actually making, I have been struck by the fact that many of the older recipes require a lot more time in the kitchen, or at least are not nearly as instantaneously ready as most of those that we are used to today. This is in part because of the central focus of food in the lives of people in times when it was not readily available in restaurants, take-out joints, all-nite mini marts, and basically around every corner. When you have to plan ahead, and sometimes months ahead for your meals, then the fact that preparation of a particular dish might take you several hours or days, seems like small beans, as long as you have food on the table at the end of the day.

The first time this fact became obvious to me was when I recently made a plum pudding using a recipe from Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747). The recipe had been translated by a group of culinary historians (the Past Masters) into modern-day measurements and directions, though still meant to be prepared in a pot of boiling water that was placed over the fire in a large fireplace. The batter is placed in a “pudding cloth” (a piece of linen, which I didn’t have, so used a cloth napkin that I didn’t feel much attachment to) and is simmered in the boiling water for 5 hours.

Being someone who doesn’t spend a great deal of time in my apartment, what with school and extra curriculars and spending time with friends, etc., I don’t often have 5+ hours in which I’m home at a stretch, except, of course, when I’m sleeping. Thus began a growing trend where I start multiple-step or time-consuming recipes that require getting up in the middle of the night to do the next step or monitor the progress in one way or another. I can’t say that this is the best way to get a good night’s sleep, obviously, but it can be fairly entertaining to wake up at 2:30 in the morning and pull a cake out of your oven.

My latest adventure in this vein was the making of a baba au rhum or rum cake. For whatever reason, in this day and age where you can so easily be overwhelmed by the sheer number of recipes that fit your criteria once you decide what you plan to make, I find myself making decisions about which recipe I’m going to use without even having read through the entire set of directions. That’s how I ended up setting my alarm multiple times last night to get up and do various different steps in this cake recipe. I made the mistake of trusting that it would take roughly the amount of time that the recipe claimed it would, which we all know is total bollocks, I usually multiply it by 1.5 to get actual estimates. But the recipe promised a finished product in 2 hours and I started at 10pm, so I figured I’d be done a little after midnight at the worst. HA! That’s where I got the 2:30am cake comment earlier in this post, cause that’s when I pulled the baby out of the oven, and it wasn’t even done then, ‘cause you have to wait for it to cool and then pour rum syrup into it, which takes another 20 minutes. So you can see how accurate of an estimate that turned out to be. I suppose I should have been suspicious from the get go because of the fact that there was yeast in the recipe, hence rising time (this being one of the main reasons that I hardly ever make recipes which involve yeast), but, like I said, I made a snap decision on the recipe because it was recommended and I had the ingredients and it sounded good.

So at the time I wrote the above I couldn’t actually comment on how said rum cake turned out since I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to taste the fruits of my night of interrupted sleep’s labor, but I will do so now… There are definitely no complaints on the eating end about the amount of rum in this cake! It is soaked to the brim and then some, leaving excess pooling on the plate at the bottom. This recipe is definitely different than what you might think of for your typical rum cake because of the yeast bread, which I actually really liked. I have to say that the top part was a little bit more cooked than I would have liked ideally, but I was asleep and I’d set the timer for 10 minutes shy of what the recipe said, because I was using a different pan (a loaf pan), but next time I’ll know it needs even a little less time. I am a big sucker for anything gooey or mushy and this recipe absolutely has some of those qualities because of the added liquor in the bread. Above all it’s just a fun / funny experience to be baking and sleeping simultaneously. Not that I’m suggesting this as another area of our lives where we should start to multitask, well maybe every once in a while.

An 18th Century Meal

February 23, 2008

I don’t know about the rest of you, perhaps my imagination isn’t as good as it could be, but I learn best by doing, through experience. For this reason, I have recently decided that it is imperative that I actually prepare some of the recipes that I read all the time in the cookbooks that I use in my research. A perfect opportunity to do just that presented itself this past weekend when my sister came to visit for the first time since I moved to Philly almost five years ago. What better way to welcome her to city and to introduce her to my friends, than to throw a party with an 18th century theme to the menu? I was a bit hesitant to suggest it to her since she is not known for being the most adventurous of eaters, but when I did she said full steam ahead, and I jumped into party-planning mode. I was definitely pleasantly surprised by how many of my friends were ready and willing to attend a meal that they knew so little about, but then they’re all pretty adventurous and certainly very tolerant, after all they put up with me.

Planning a menu was certainly a bit of a stretch for me, first because there were so many dishes that I wanted to make I didn’t know where to start, second because we had a few vegetarians in the group, so I had to make sure that they were sufficiently fed (despite the main course, which I’ll get to in a second), and third because I’d never entertained for such a large crowd before and I absolutely didn’t want people to leave hungry. To address the first problem I turned to a couple of my favorite historical sources for the recipes that I ended up making. All of the recipes I chose would have been made in Pennsylvania and the surrounding states in the past. Not all were specifically regional foods, but they would have appeared on the tables of people who lived in this region, whether or not they also appeared elsewhere in the country. The first cookbook I is one published by the Past Masters in Early American Domestic Arts entitled The Pennsylvania Housewife: English Household Receipts of the Middle Colonies. This book was written by a group of individuals who actually cook these historic recipes in period kitchens using period kitchen implements or reproductions. Knowing several members of the group, I can comment that they are a reliable source for tips on the best ways to prepare these foods, for they are the ones who have made them the most recently and accurately and have given the receipts (recipes) the most scrutiny. In the cookbook each recipe starts with the original as copied from the 18th century cookbook and then is followed by more modern instructions, including measurements of ingredients (which didn’t become popular until the 19th century) and step-by-step instructions as to how to prepare the dish. Because members of Past Masters typically prepare these recipes on the hearth, they do not include oven temperatures or exact cooking times, but any relatively well-informed or logical cook can figure these out. Two other cookbooks I utilized in preparing the menu for this meal were both compiled by William Woys Weaver, a well-known culinary historian of the Pennsylvania Dutch and author of a number of books on their cuisine and history in this area. They included Pennsylvania Dutch Country Cooking (1993) and Sauerkraut Yankees: Pennsylvania Dutch Foods & Foodways (2002).

The main course was a big question because not only was it necessary to feed a large number of people, but it was also an opportunity to potentially add to the collections in the zooarchaeology lab, something I’m always trying to work into my meals. In the end my advisor and I decided that a suckling pig was the way to go. I have archaeological examples of suckling pig and therefore wanted some comparative materials to know what size and age range I’m dealing with, besides the fact that it’s also an extremely impressive meal to present on the table. A meal that would have been a community-wide celebration during the 18th century, something that was highly appreciated by the Pennsylvania Dutch, and something that many people in the modern world do not have much exposure to. You’ve seen me comment before on this blog about the ever-expanding distance between modern consumers and our meat sources, how the animals that our protein is derived from are becoming less and less recognizable in the cuts they purchase in the supermarkets as more and more become boneless, skinless cuts. Having a whole roasted suckling pig at this party would bring people to the absolute other side of the spectrum and force them to literally come face to face with their meal, to own up to the fact that they were eating part of an animal, and even a cute young one at that. These are all lessons we should consider and, I think, test ourselves on if we are to continue to eat meat and to support modern animal agribusiness which focuses on meat production above all else. If we cannot face the prospect of eating meat when we can see exactly where it comes from, then can we really justify eating it? On top of this fact, the 18th century fully embraced the display of heads and other very recognizable body parts on the table. Not everything was served up in smaller cuts cleansed of their animalistic qualities. People in the 18th century took pride in their ability to serve an entire animal on the table, it demonstrated wealth and prosperity, generosity and bounty. Yes, to serve a truly 18th century meal, I did feel that a whole pig was, in fact, the perfect main-course to serve.

As far as the vegetarians at the meal were concerned, this was not a problem per se, but it did take some careful consideration. If you look at printed menus in cookbooks from the 18th century, you’ll see that meat was always the star of the meal, it appeared in almost all of the dishes on the table, and vegetables were served as sides to or garnish on these more prominent dishes. In order to prepare a meal to appeal to the modern sensibilities where vegetables are the healthier and more desirable aspects of the meal for many, I needed to switch around the focus of the meal from the meat dishes to the sides. This is not to suggest that the number of sides prepared for the meal was more than typical during the 18th century, simply that they played a larger role in the overall proportion of the meal than did the meat dishes. If I had been preparing a strictly 18th century meal, there would likely have been several meat dishes on the table in addition to the suckling pig, and on top of the sides.

The final menu for the meal was as follows:

Pretzel Soup with Peanut Roux
Johny Cakes – the middling sort
Winter Squash Pudding
Spinach with Eggs
Whole Suckling Pig
Dried Cherry Pie

Recipes for most of the dishes will appear on the side bar. The asparagus recipe has been omitted because we simply steamed them and added kosher salt and cracked black pepper. The Whole suckling pig we did not end up cooking ourselves because the animal was too large to fit into my oven, a smaller than standard little affair measuring only 16” wide and deep and 14” tall. With the pig being 18 pounds and longer than 16” even when folded in half (we measured it at the butcher’s), I thought it best all around to allow the butcher to roast it for me, he offered after all. So the pig was roasted in the oven at the butcher’s shop with sage, thyme, garlic, salt and pepper on a spit in the oven for about 4 hours, basting it with butter. Apparently, for those who are interested, this animal was likely between 12 and 15 weeks (3-4 months) old. Animals of this age do not have a whole lot of fat in their bodies yet, so though he saved the pan juices for us, the butcher also included a couple of tubs of pork (as in full grown animal) drippings, to make gravy from. We purchased the pig from the Hollywood Meat Market (1039 S. 9th St.) and actually carried it back to my apartment tied down to a big piece of plywood and covered over in aluminum foil, though apparently this didn’t fool too many people as we got a lot of looks and comments on the street, as well as a couple of car honks. The Hollywood Meat Market specializes in roast pig, so if you’re looking for something similar for an event you’d like to host, I can recommend them as very helpful and accommodating. Ask for Pete if you want something pig-related, he’s the go-to man there.

As for the other dishes, I think the biggest favorites were the pretzel soup and the dried cherry pie. The soup is more like an apple cider soup, thickened with pretzels and served with peanut butter, the flavor combination is unbeatable and it’s amazingly and surprisingly filling (also super easy to make). The dried cherry pie was also delicious and the filling was quite unique, starting with dried fruit rather than canned cherries or fresh. It gave the interior of the pie a very chewy and sweet consistency that was different than any other I’ve tasted, but really fantastic, more like a chewy candy bar than a pie filling (you can play around with the degree of stickiness by altering how much you cook down the filling). I was also very intrigued by the winter squash pudding which had only a few tablespoons of rose water in it, but the flavor became infused throughout the dish and provided a different set of taste sensations than you typically get, especially with squash. I hope you’ll try out a few of these recipes on your own and see if you can incorporate some historic food into your modern life. Until the next food adventure, happy eating!

Oh, and check out some photos from the meal in the slideshow below.

Crème Brulée Adventures – Episode 1

December 13, 2007

A short while ago Philadelphia’s Citypaper published a list of the “Top 5” places to get Crème Brulée in the city. (See the article here This, I thought to myself, must be done, my friends and I must assign ourselves the arduous task of eating these wonders of the dessert menu. Now I know that you can make crème brulée at home and it’s not all that difficult and you don’t even necessarily need to have that little kitchen torch in order to do it, but I’ve never really had the inclination to try it at home. This is a dessert to let the restaurants excel at and you sit back and enjoy. I’ll stay away from the handheld flames for the moment, thank you very much.

This little blurb is just the first installment in the series of our bruléed adventures. We chose to go to Brasserie Perrier for the first foray. They were serving a chocolate caramel crème brulée, yum.
Now to the dessert itself… I have no complaints really. It was a fabulously executed sweet ending, the chocolate layer on top was definitely distinct from the caramel layer on bottom and they were both lusciously smooth. The one thing that didn’t come through in this version of the crème brulée (and it remains to be seen if this is a function of the ingredients or the execution) was that it lacked that real crunchy burnt sugar layer on top. There was some thin, as in “do not walk on this ice you’ll fall in,” layer of melted sugar, but not enough to satisfy the inner crème brulée fanatic in me. It was served with a lovely cinnamon and chocolate biscotti that was a nice counterpoint to the smoothness of the crème. So if you don’t mind losing a little of the crispness on top in order to experience different flavor combinations in your crème brulée, then I would definitely recommend heading over to Brasserie Perrier, as I said, the dessert in and of itself was really nice, just lacking in some of the classic crème brulée characteristics. Stay tuned for the next episode of our adventures in the land of desserts…