Salted Pecan Squares with Bourbon and Chocolate

Believe it or not, there are actually two things better than eating a dessert that includes chocolate, nuts, and booze. One: using said dessert to help raise nearly $900 for a local food charity. Two: catching the look on this cutie’s face while she was chowing down on one.

Should I? Yep.

How did I learn this? The Hideout’s Soup and Bread dinner. Every Wednesday from January to the first day of spring for the past four years, The Hideout, a funky little bar and music venue in Chicago, hosts a community dinner where six or seven people (chefs and home cooks alike) each volunteer to make different kind of soup–the night I was there choices included roasted tomato, chicken and dumpling, sausage and artichoke, and French onion. The dinner is open to anyone and everyone, and is “pay-what-you-can” with the money going to that week’s chosen charity (usually food-related).

Circle of pecan bars

Since I couldn’t get there early enough to contribute a soup, I was happy to find out they welcomed other treats too. What better excuse to try a bar version of one of my favorite Christmas cookies? With bourbon. And chocolate. I found a recipe from Cook’s Illustrated that was perfect–a salty, nutty shortbread-ish crust topped with a gooey, caramel-y layer flavored with bourbon and vanilla and studded with pecans. As for the chocolate (my own variation), well, if you’re going to gild the lily, you may as well gild it with chocolate.

Crust is almost ready Whisking in the butter Three components

By the time I got to The Hideout around 6, dinner was in full swing and it was packed! I had no idea how many people to expect–20 maybe? It was nasty and snowy and just generally the beginning of February in Chicago and who wants to go out in that? A whole lot of people, it turns out, filling every seat in the place. It reminded me so much of big family dinners–everyone loud and happy and brought together by the promise of a good meal, the kind that warms you up from the inside out.

I barely had time to set my tins down before the bars started disappearing, and they were completely gone within the hour. People must have enjoyed them, if the woman who rolled down her car window and yelled “Your pecan bars were great!” at me as I was leaving was any indication (thank you lady in the car, that made my night!).

Pecan bars Soup and Bread at the Hideout Nothing like a bowl of soup on a snowy night

The best part though? To quote the email I got on Thursday: “We raised an amazing $849! That definitely surpassed our expectations and we’re thrilled to put the donations to use in our Consumer Choice Food Pantry, and for those in need of emergency food.”  A little sugar buzz never hurts to open wallets.

If you’re looking for a good dinner with good people for a good cause, check it out. I’m hoping to go at least once more before they’re over for the season, so you never know, there might be pecan bars to go with the soup and bread!

Snowy day, great for baking
What’s better than soup, bread, and pecan bars on a day that looks like this?

Salted Pecan Squares with Bourbon and Chocolate
Continue reading

Take That, Snow!

Snow, snow, and more snow. Tis the season, I suppose, and in all fairness this has been a not-terrible winter. While I guarantee I will still whine and complain about the waiting-for-the-snow-plow-to-unbury-my-street and digging-out-my-car parts, it is nice to have a Sunday’s-worth of plans canceled in favor of a few cooking/baking projects to basically say “Take that, snow!” (after, of course, an emergency trip to the grocery store since I was out of eggs. And milk. And sugar. All set on bread though!).

Mushroom wild rice soup

After making a veritable cauldron of roasted beef stock, I was looking to put it to good use–something other than beef barley (want to guess what I forgot to put on my list for that emergency grocery run?). Beef goes well with mushrooms, and maybe…some wild rice? Sounded good to me.

Perfect wild riceMushrooms, onions, and other goodies

One of my Christmas gifts this year was a subscription on America’s Test Kitchen online recipe archive, so I’ve been on a bit of an ATK bender since the new year. Lucky me, one of the recipes in their archives was wild rice and mushroom soup, and easy enough to use beef broth instead of chicken. And since I had a bunch of beef cooked and shredded in bits and pieces left over from making stock, it went into the soup as well.

Cooked downMarbled soup

Well, if I can’t beat the weather (I did try!), I may as well embrace it, and this soup was basically a bowl of snow day winter coziness. Stick-to-your-ribs from the wild rice, beef, and mushrooms; a little bit bright with the lemon and chives; rich and creamy (but not so rich that you can’t have a second helping–we’re embracing winter after all, right?).

Bonus–it went perfectly with that monster loaf of rye bread.

Marbled cream

Wild Rice, Mushroom, and Beef Soup
Continue reading

Winter Comfort Bread

One of my long-time food quests has been to make a really good, crusty, crunchy loaf of bread. A loaf of bread that’s sturdy and solid and meant to stand up to a lengthy dunk in a steamy bowl of soup or stew. Not a soft, sweet, buttery sandwich bread, but winter comfort bread. I think I finally found it, and it’s the easiest bread I’ve ever made.

The most gorgeous loaf of bread to ever come out of my kitchen

In the past, I’ve tried using two different kinds of baking stones to get the heat of a wood-burning hearth oven, adding a pan of boiling water to my oven or spraying down the walls with water to replicate its steam, and plenty of other tricks. They all work, sort-of. But I didn’t want a sort-of loaf.

You'll need a lot of flour and some really big bowlsGluten-y

This is a loaf to be reckoned with. It uses four pounds of flour, first of all. It will take your biggest mixing bowl and the better part of two days. It’s easiest to cut into hunks and chunks, perfect for serving warm, slathering thickly with butter, and soaking up a rich broth.

Bread dough, post salt waterPretty round bread babies

Conveniently, this is also one of the easiest breads I’ve made. The two days is mostly just waiting. There’s no kneading; you don’t need a mixer. The timing works on your schedule–the pre-ferment can probably wait an extra day; the dough, after the first rise, can be put in the fridge until you’re ready to bake it (I didn’t get around to baking my second loaf for nearly a week–it was still delicious, though a little denser than my first loaf).

Scored and ready to bakeJust a quick peek!

Fair warning: this recipe makes two humongous loaves of bread–if you didn’t guess from the aforementioned four pounds of flour. Unless you have a giant cast iron pot, or just want a more wield-y option, I’d suggest splitting this into four loaves.

Perfect with soup

Crusty Bread Continue reading

Welcome 2015!

I’ve been a bit neglectful here over the past few weeks, but I hope everyone had wonderful holidays to end and start the year!

It was nice to reflect and realize what an incredible year 2014 was. It started with four weeks of the best cooking class I’ve taken, had a pretty nice midpoint with buying my first home and growing my first garden, and ended with my first of hopefully many visits to Paris, just to list the highlights. And of course continuing to share food, pictures, and stories with you all here. 2015 has a lot to measure up to!

Plus I got all kinds of new kitchen toys I can’t wait to play with–a madeleine pan, pretty kitchen towels, duck fat (very excited about this one! just making a note for next time not to try to put it in my carry-on as it managed to set off all kinds of alarms and earn me a TSA pat down for my efforts), cookbooks, a little chest freezer (can’t wait for farmers market season!).

For a final look back on 2014, the three post popular posts of the year (all of which happen to be three of my personal favorites as well):

Blend

Homemade Mustard
I first posted this last January and I’ve been making a batch about every two months since; it’s basically the only mustard I’ve eaten all year and it’s pretty popular at the Chicago Food Swaps too. Lately my favorite variation is with white wine and white wine vinegar, though it’s also good with stout (I’m tempted to try it with the Great Lakes Christmas Ale that’s so popular right now). The cider version was also a pretty spectacular addition to the glaze for my family’s Christmas ham.

I also love this post because it earned this comment in an email from none other than America’s Test Kitchen: “We actually saw your post yesterday and passed it around to people in our office because we loved it so much.” Still one of my proudest moments of 2014.

Cauliflower soup with a drizzle of butter

Cauliflower Soup
Another recipe from January, this has been one of my favorite fast meals, especially when it’s cold outside. It’s five simple ingredients–cauliflower, leek, onion, butter, vinegar–that end up being far more than the sum of their parts. It was also my favorite exercise in understanding taste and flavor.

Thick and jammy

Strawberry-Cranberry Jam
If you have any bags of cranberries left over from holiday celebrations, stick them in the freezer so you can make this when strawberry season comes around again (or you can make it now if you have strawberries stashed in the freezer). It’s by far my favorite jam and is an especially nice reminder this time of year that, really, strawberry season isn’t that far off.

Happy New Year everyone!

What’s Cooking Wednesday – Better Chicken Broth, Drunk Cooking, and My Favorite Restaurant

Vietnamese Chicken Soup, and My New Favorite Broth-Making Method
I caught my first cold of the season last week and before I got too far down the whiny, useless, tissue-strewn path, I made a huge pot of Vietnamese chicken soup (pho) from Smitten Kitchen. The soup itself is good (I think, I couldn’t really taste it due to the aforementioned cold) but I really loved the method for making broth. Simmer a quartered chicken plus a bunch of wings or bones for 30 minutes, take the chicken out and pick the meat off and reserve it, then add the bones (and skin if you want) back to the pot to simmer for another 2 hours, then strain. The broth was amazingly rich and the chicken meat wasn’t dried out. My test is always if it’s basically chicken jello the next day and this passed with flying colors. Delicious, delicious chicken jello.

Cure for all ills (hopefully including this stupid cold) courtesy of @smittenkitchen

My Drunk Kitchen
Have you heard of this? I don’t remember how I found it years ago, but I rediscovered it while I was home sick and watched through her entire catalog of cooking videos. Do yourself a favor and if you don’t watch any other videos, at least watch the one with Lance Bass, I about cried laughing. (And just in case the name of the series doesn’t suggest it, don’t watch if you’re easily offended by foul language or drinking in excess.)

French Method+Mexican Flavors=Mexique
In another recent, but rather more upscale, rediscovery, I went out for dinner last week to a restaurant, Mexique, I haven’t been to in probably 5 years. When I went the first time, right after they were named one of the best new restaurants in Chicago, it was one of the best experiences I’ve had–food to wine suggestions to service (the chef, Carlos Gaytan, came out to ask our table how everything was and I saw him check in with each table in the restaurant).

I hadn’t been back in part because I was worried it wouldn’t live up to my first meal, but on a whim I went a few weekends ago and everything was as excellent as I remembered and the chef still came to every table. Now, as much as love food, I am sorely out of touch with the goings-on of the Chicago restaurant scene, which probably explains how I missed that the chef just placed fourth on Top Chef or that the restaurant was recently awarded a Michelin star–all after being on the verge of closing 2 years ago. I found this all out after the fact, but this was a great article about the restaurant’s ups and downs.

Feeling saucy–The Cooking Lab, Part 3

What do cream of potato soup, mayonnaise, and a delicious, buttery pan sauce have in common? More than I realized after last week’s class, it turns out. (Also, we got to play with fire.)
It's like a Rorscach test in fire. I see a pterodactyl.In some ways, this session of Cooking Lab has been the most challenging to recap. We covered a lot, but (if you’ll excuse the pun) it boiled down to two simple words: fat and fond.

Continue reading

The art of simplicity

I do so love synchronicity. Also, soup.

Cauliflower soup with a drizzle of butterHere’s what happened:

  1. Bought a cauliflower 2 weeks ago with good intentions to use it in…something. It sat, staring at me, every time I opened the fridge.
  2. Randomly joined a cooking class! First class focused on learning tastes and flavors and how they interact (including the importance of acid and salt as essential components of a dish or meal).
  3. Received an email from my beloved America’s Test Kitchen the next day with a 5-ingredient recipe for cauliflower soup highlighting the simple flavor of cauliflower (and calling for the exact amount of cauliflower I had).

This soup turned out to be perfect, and with perfect timing, in so many ways. First, let me start with this–you know the traditional, creamy, potato-leek soup? This is its equally tasty, equally creamy (but without the cream), less carb-y cousin. It’s cozy and warm and filling and fast.
Simple head of cauliflower It was also the perfect vehicle for applying what I learned in last week’s Cooking Lab class. Try this: as you make the soup, taste the ingredients at different stages in the process. What does the raw cauliflower taste like? To me, a little bitter, maybe a little earthy (that’s umami), maybe a tiny bit sweet. How about raw leeks and onions? (I got an F in tasting on this one–I don’t like raw onions.)
Sliced cauliflower Split leek Thinly sliced onions How do the onions and leeks taste once they’ve softened with the salt? Kind of sweet, but also a little salty? What about the cauliflower once it’s cooked and softened? More sweet, less bitter.
Leeks and onions, softenedCauliflower, just addedSoftThe well-browned butter? Sweet and nutty, earthy. The browned cauliflower mixed with sherry vinegar? Sour, obviously from the acid, but also sweeter than I’d expected.
Butter-fried cauliflowerHow about when it all comes together? How does the flavor of the basic soup change with a little of the butter, a piece of the vinegar-ed cauliflower, the chives? A balance of all five flavors in a perfect little bowl.
Creamy cauliflower soup, garnishedIt’s so fascinating to me to intentionally taste how ingredients change as they cook, and in a soup like this with so few components, the changes are easier to taste. Plus, blah blah flavors and tastes, it’s the perfect warm and cozy when we’re in the midst of yet another cold snap (also known as “winter in Chicago”).

Creamy Cauliflower Soup Continue reading

Resisting the siren call of takeout, aka red pepper soup

I confess, I can cook for the transition of fall to winter, winter to spring, spring to summer, but when it comes to the beginning of fall, I’ve drawn a blank. I know I should be reveling in squash and carrots and apples during what has really been a spectacular fall–and I will be savoring all those things soon, I promise–but I just haven’t had a taste for any of it yet.

Yum

It’s too dark too early to grill, and too (blissfully, gloriously) warm for me to want to turn on the oven for anything other than dessert (and I have an awesome one for you soon), meaning a lot more staring contests with my refrigerator and subsequent calls for takeout than I like to admit.

Everything good starts with onions and garlic Lots of peppers

Let’s ignore the takeout and instead talk about the soup I ended up making with the giant bowl of grilled peppers languishing after my last grilling session. These are the kind of impromptu dishes that make me feel like a good cook–random components assembled in the right order somehow end up as a really tasty, really easy dish…that I may have eaten with grilled cheese every night this week. Yeah, let’s not talk about that either.

Smoothed out Creamy

In any case, this is a great soup that you can easily make any season with ingredients you probably have on hand–a few jars of grilled peppers (or grill your own if they’re in season), onion, garlic, a few spices, a little honey and vinegar, some broth and some milk. A pretty good alternative to takeout, I’d say.

Needs cheese Loving my new lens!

(On a sidenote, thanks to my dad and especially my photographer sister Laura this week in helping me hunt down a new, better lens after mine had an unfortunate encounter with an imbalanced cooling rack and, subsequently, my floor. I love my new toy!)

Roasted Red Pepper Soup Continue reading

New inspiration, and chili season

This post will be quick, but I had two tidbits I just had to share.

First, this time of year is the perfect time for chili what with football and changing leaves and the chill in the air after the sun sets. Coincidentally, the key ingredients of my favorite chili–tomatoes, corn, peppers, and zucchini–have just a week or so left in season at the market. I’ve shared the recipe for this chili here once before but it’s worth sharing again. Plus I recently entered it in a cooking contest that ends Tuesday, and you can vote for it by just clicking like!

Peak summer chili

Second, I have to quickly rave about the fantastic event I went to yesterday, the  first Chicago Food Bloggers get-together. I’ve mentioned the group before, and I’m sure I’ll talk about the event in more detail soon, but it was a perfect opportunity to put faces to names (and URLs), meet some new like-minded folks, and learn about their great blogs and other projects. I absolutely adore cooking for and feeding my supremely appreciative and patient friends and family (this blog wouldn’t exist without them!), but when I start blabbering about the finer points of pie crust testing, spice shopping, my latest recipe trials, or cry about daylight waning before I can take my pictures, I know it’s only a matter of time before their eyes start glazing over.

Yesterday it was exciting and inspiring to be able to talk about all this and more for 2+ hours with a community of people who are or have been or will be going through the same things. One of the best connections I made is with Kerry, the owner of the beautiful blog Milk Glass Kitchen. If you know me, you know anything vintage gets my vote! (But shhh, turns out we’re both competing in that chili cook-off I just mentioned!).

That’s all for now, but I can’t wait to learn and share more with you soon!

2013-09-29 12.39.50

Best Veggie Chili Continue reading

Finding tiny bits of beauty

To be fair, I did warn you. I said that I could live on soup through fall and I wasn’t lying. As I also seem to have come down with the latest strain of the plague making its rounds of my office (why are students so germy? even college students, eesh), I was craving a soup flavorful enough that I could have some chance of actually tasting it.

Creamy lentil soup

For about a year lentil soup was my shoot-I-forgot-my-lunch lunch from a little Mediterranean kinda-fast-food-but-not-really joint: a cup of lentil soup, a fresh pita, and three falafels for under $5. I was so sad when the place closed, and still haven’t found a good cheap-and-reasonably-healthy lunch replacement. This lentil soup is nothing like theirs, except for the hit of lemon at the end, but it’s delicious in a totally different way. (I don’t think there were enough hyphenates in that paragraph so here’s an I-need-another-hyphen hyphen: – )

Lentil soup ingredients

This soup is creamy (without any cream), rich (with a minimum of butter and oil), so packed with flavor I can still taste it with a compromised olfactory system (thanks onion, garlic, and curry powder), and just so simple (all the ingredients were in my cupboard). Perfect.

Can I stop for a second and point out how beautiful French lentils are? Indulge your inner child, scoop up a handful, and really look closely–tiny saucers of deep olive green with blue-black speckles, stripes, swirls remind me of pictures of Jupiter and its whirlpool of clouds or the jar of spotted, striated river stones my mom keeps in a glass jar on a shelf.

French lentils

Just gorgeous. How can you not love food and cooking when it involves tiny bits of beauty like this?

French lentils

I also love that this soup gives me an excuse to use a lot of really good curry powder, breaking one of the cardinal rules of cooking in an apartment: no seafood or curry if it’s too cold to open a window.

Curry powder for lentil soup

Oh well, I can’t smell anything right now anyways, and my neighbors can just indulge me for a day.

Creamy Lentil Soup

Continue reading