A Minor Setback

January 18, 2008

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Okay, I’ll be brief today, because …. Well, because I’m busy. As I’ve told you way too many times, I’ve been delighting all week in cooking for two parties this weekend. And, can I just tell you, when you’re planning for two parties, the last thing you want to happen is for a recipe to totally, completely flop. That’s what happened with the rolls I had planned for tonight’s mini-burgers, the centerpiece of the Guitar Hero Party 2008 menu. What’s that? You think those rolls above look great? Well, that’s because they were my second attempt. The first ones—Ina Garten’s mini brioche rolls—are pictured below:

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(Click “more” for the rest of the story, more photos and the recipe.)

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How Not to Make Caramels

January 5, 2008

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I am in the midst of making a package of treats as a thank you gift. It will include the granola I wrote about yesterday, the rosemary roasted cashews that I love too much and perfect squares of decadent peanut butter brownies (a recipe I got from Smitten Kitchen). In case the recipient is reading, I will say no more about the package. Except for this: it was also supposed to contain caramels.

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Caramels—ends dipped in melted bittersweet chocolate and wrapped in pretty parchment squares—would be a lovely addition to the package, no? Well I’m sure they would have been … had they come even close to being edible. And the rock-hard mass that my “caramels” became was certainly not edible, unless of course you enjoy losing your teeth while eating.

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I’ve never made caramels before. You see, before yesterday, I didn’t own a candy thermometer, which is an essential piece of equipment for caramel-creating. And, let me tell you, those suckers are apparently hard to find. I don’t know if it was a post-Christmas shortage, but I had to go to several stores to find one (a little too potato-ricer-esque for my taste). I’ve also held off on making caramels because I was a little scared. So I was comforted when I read Jacques Pépin’s description of his caramel recipe: foolproof. And I followed his recipe to the letter. Even when my intuition told me that the color had surpassed lightly-golden and descended into a rich brown, I forged on until my thermometer registered 320°, as Pépin instructed. And I trusted that, because I had followed every single one of his instructions, that if I just let the caramels sit for the prescribed four hours they’d transform into the soft, pliable wonders in Pépin’s photo, even though they hardened mere moments after I poured them into their mold.

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Upon closer inspection of Pepin’s introduction to the recipe, I see he says it’s almost foolproof. Ha! So, I ask you dear readers: where did I go wrong? Faulty recipe (doubt it, it’s Jacques Pépin)? Faulty thermometer? And, perhaps more importantly, do you have a recipe that is truly foolproof?

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Santa was very kind to me in the kitchen department this year. As you’ll see in a slew of upcoming posts, I was lucky enough to receive a host of cooking implements. One such gift was clearly in response to one of my recent kitchen failures. One weekend this fall, we endeavored to make our own ravioli. Well, the fillings we created were delicious, but the pasta itself was a disaster. I had read in a few places that it was entirely possible to roll out pasta sheets for ravioli by hand. Well, it might be possible, but it certainly didn’t occur when I tried it. Most of the raviolis ended up in the trash (Kevin was kind enough to eat a few, but I couldn’t take more than one). Santa must have known about this disaster and, in response, he got me this:

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It’s not quite as scary looking as our potato-ricer-disguised-as-torture-device, but it’s definitely a somewhat ominous-looking contraption. It’s a pasta-making Kitchen Aid attachment. Various inserts allow you to make linguine, spaghetti, fettucine and even sheets of pasta. I spent quite a bit of time perusing the instruction manual and the reviews of the attachment online. Let’s just say that they didn’t exactly ease my fears. In what I thought was an effort to increase our chances of success, I decided to use Kitchen Aid’s pasta recipe included in the instruction booklet and the least risky-looking of the inserts, which promised to yield a thick spaghetti strand. Well, thick it was. And also completely bizarre looking:

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Using the machine itself was a challenge. After mixing and kneading the pasta, we began feeding the dough into the attachment in walnut-sized bits, following the instructions. And when I say “we,” I mean it. Using this thing kind of reminded me of assembling Ikea furniture: half-way through the instruction manual full of user-friendly photos depicting two people assembling a dresser you turn the page and–bam!–suddenly there are three people in the photo with the dresser. Likewise, this pasta attachment requires at least two people. At least it does if you want to remain halfway sane during the process.

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The difficulty and odd-looking results aside, the pasta was actually really tasty. Especially tossed in two of the three sauces I’d prepared for the evening. You see, my sister was spending the night with us. Her Friday nights typically involve stories along the lines of: “When that place closed we went to X and when X closed we finished off the night at Y. Oh and we stopped off for some food at Z on the way home.” So the least I could do to entertain her on a Friday night in with old, boring married people was create a “bar” of three sauces ready and waiting to douse our weird, but homemade!, pasta strands.

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Kevin’s choice was carbonara, a sauce I know he loves (cream, bacon and eggs: shocking that a sauce featuring these ingredients floats his boat, I know). Ali opted for a spicy tomato-and-sausage sauce, with a touch of cream. I went for a porcini mushroom sauce (any time I make myself something that Kevin won’t be eating, it’s a safe bet that it will involve mushrooms). Ali’s and Kevin’s sauces were both really good–I’d recommend them both without reservation. Mine, on the other hand, was not great–runny, bland and, frankly, a waste of $10 worth of dried porcinis. And after my trials and tribulations with the Kitchen Aid, I needed something great. Fortunately, our dessert (recipe and photos coming soon) more than made up for it.

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