The Great Wedding Cake Adventure

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“Do something that scares the shit out of you,” they say. Try new things, take chances, make mistakes. So when one of my sister’s best friends approached me about making her wedding cake, I knew I had to go for it.

The initial discussion was fairly lax. It would likely just be a bunch of cupcakes or something of that nature, the wedding would be fairly mellow, sometime in July. I said I’d be all for that. The bride, Carmen, and her fiancee lived in California, so the communication was all via e-mail and Facebook messenger.

Fast forward to October, the topic was revisited and Carmen expressed that she and Devon’s ideal cake would be modeled after the weighted companion cube from the original Portal game. This made things interesting, as I would be actually constructing a single cake and decorating it with the intention of it looking like a certain object.

The companion cube in a snapshot of the game

*Cue mini-panic*  At least I had played Portal and knew all about everyone’s attachment to the companion cube. I have a little stuffed one myself.

I pushed the thought out of my mind through the winter months, since Christmas and the accompanying stress were enough to keep me busy

Suddenly, it’s May! Time to get to some serious recipe testing. Step one was tracking down some square cake pans. Thank you for making that an easy find, Target.

Cake #1: Step two was making an initial practice cake to determine the total volume of batter necessary to make an actual cube-shaped cake. I bought a few boxes of cake mix and some tubs of pre-made frosting. While the cakes were baking, I played around with coloring and piping buttercream. After baking, I had three layers of cake that added up to 2/3 of a cube. Having accomplished the actual “test” part, I enjoyed goofing around with decorating.

Test #1 - The silly cake

Test #1 – The silly cake

Once I knocked out a recipe test with the square pans, I gained a little confidence. Which was good, because I expected myself not only to make the cake from scratch, but also the buttercream frosting and some sort of fondant to shape the cube.

I remember being 10(ish?) and attending a first holy communion of the girl my mom nannied. Her reception after the service included a huge white cake decorated in fondant. This was my first experience with the stuff. I managed a single bite of the cake and was immediately abhorred by the texture. Whatever this “squishy jelly bean insides paste” was, I didn’t want anything to do with it.

Fondant, albeit a fabulously versatile medium for shaping cake decorations, pretty much tastes like sugary crap. With all the advancements technology and the pastry world has made since the 1500’s, you would think we’d have found a better way. Huge sheets of sugar cooked with glycerin and gelatin doesn’t strike me as “delicious”.

Since I had nixed the use of fondant, I embarked on a week’s worth of research about fondant alternatives. I eventually settled on marshmallow fondant. The recipe was more or less as follows:

Marshmallow Fondant

1 bag baby marshmallows (16 oz)

2 T water

~2 lbs powdered sugar, sifted

Organic vegetable shortening

Vanilla (or other flavoring)

pinch of salt

Place the whole bag of marshmallows in a microwave safe bowl with the water. Microwave in 30 second increments, stirring with a wooden spoon greased with shortening each time until evenly melted and smooth. Coloring can be added at this point if the whole batch is going to be a single color.

Stir in powdered sugar 1/2 cup at a time, until unable to stir with the wooden spoon. Smear a clean countertop (or silpat, if you’re smarter than I and think ahead) with a thin layer of shortening and sprinkle with powdered sugar. Apply a thin coating of shortening to hands and turn out marshmallow mixture. Knead as you would bread dough, adding powdered sugar as needed until a firm, solid texture is achieved. Store in a ziploc coated with shortening at least overnight, or up to two weeks. Bring to just under room temperature. Roll out with powdered sugar.

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The result was still technically fondant. A little gummy, and very sweet. However, I felt like it tasted much better as a whole, and a much less offensive texture than the original.

Cake test #2: I Randomly told myself that since I had the 4th of July off work, I should do a cake test that day. It was my last chance to try all the recipes before taking my yearly vacation. The wedding would be mere days away once I returned.

This time, I made everything from scratch. Three layers of a buttermilk white cake, a little  homemade buttercream, and some holiday-themed fondant decorations. I was really pleased not only with the test items individually, but the fact that I actually made something that looked like something.

'Murica

‘Murica

 

More lessons. A single layer of buttercream would leave too little frosting to balance the cake and fondant. The result was a lot of lumps. Also, as much as I had been avoiding it, I was going to have to bake 4 layers to achieve a perfect cube.

Cake #3: The real deal

The Sunday before the wedding, I was in the kitchen making the components that could be refrigerated a few days without losing quality. Three quarts of buttercream and a half quart of simple syrup later, I felt more prepared.

E-mails back and forth between the bride and myself regarding cake stands, fillings, cutting implements. I had split days off the week of the wedding to compensate for the specific day I had requested. This meant I worked until 10:30pm the night before the wedding. At 11:30pm, I was pulling the first two cake layers out of the oven. At 12:30, I was removing the last two, making a double batch of fondant, and poaching strawberries in simple syrup to make filling.

After a fitful night of minimal sleep, I woke up around 6:30 and got back to work. The layers had cooled, and were ready to stack. I whipped one of the quarts of buttercream with some of the strawberry syrup and filled each layer. Then, into the fridge to rest and firm up for about 20 minutes.

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Next came the “crumb layer” of plain vanilla frosting. This is essentially the base layer, meant to cover the cake just enough to look vaguely uniform. It’s often pretty messy, and has a lot of crumbs or bits of filling smeared on it. It’s purpose is to even out any holes or ridges. Back into the fridge for another 20 minutes.

20140722_083753Finally, the outer layer of buttercream. Alexir has woken up at this point and keeps peeking in the kitchen to monitor my progress. A final rest in the fridge for an hour to make sure things are solid enough to hold some fondant.

20140722_085205The night before, I had grown so tired mid-fondant-making, I decided that it wasn’t worth cleaning the counter I had smeared with powdered sugar and sticks bits of fondant. When I headed to bed, I had covered the counter with a few layers of plastic wrap and called it good.

On hindsight, I was thankful I made that bit easier for myself. Coloring the fondant was a bit of a task, even with exact colored gel dyes. The black is never a “true black”, so making my grey meant I kept mumbling “it’s purple…it’s bloody purple…” to myself. Alexir tried to assure me after a short rest and another dusting of powdered sugar, it would be fine. At least the pink was more cooperative.

Several people have blogged about their own experiences in making companion cube cakes, and one person was kind enough to provide their readers with some rough patterns to use for cutting and shaping fondant. I used one such pattern as a guide. Even still, the process was painfully slow and arduous. Rolling, scraping, making sure each piece wasn’t sticking to the counter. The cube is a tough shape to cover with a single sheet on fondant because of the square edges. I had to cut and seal the sides to keep from having deep ridges of extra fondant.

Right around this time, Alexir reminded me it was time for him to head to the bus stop. Meaning: It was time for me to stop what I was doing and drive him to the bus stop.

I had just hit the proverbial wall. Things looked lumpy to me. The colors weren’t exactly perfect. At that moment I was underfed, exhausted, and my angry inner perfectionist was trying to ruin my day. I looked up at Alexir, kneeling in a pile of powdered sugar, both hands sticky from painting water on each piece of fondant, and said “I’ll be ready in. a. minute.” {insert death glare here} I popped on the last few pieces of the set I was doing and swept him off to the bus in a huff.

I returned home determined to adjust my attitude and bust out the rest of everything in time to catch a short nap. Things worked out, and I finished about 30 minutes later. The final product was certainly no expert job. I could see some of my mistakes, and it still bothered me. However, it was time to let go. I finished trimming the silver cardboard cake trays to size, transferred the cake to its platter, and flopped into bed for a 30 minute nap.

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The rest was a blur of showering, 3 outfit changes, and delicately loading the cake into a box for travel.  I set a half dozen towels in various parts of the box with the intention of keeping the cake plate from sliding when I made turns.

Shockingly, the travel was uneventful. Traffic sucked, but I made it in one piece with the cake. Cue a mad rush parking to set the cake down. Parking again. Returning to the cake table to tie on the final ribbon. Helping arrange the Borrachini Bakery cupcakes intended for the guests. With the table finally set, it actually looked pretty decent. Maybe I did an alright job after all.

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The ceremony was beautiful. Carmen was the most perfect, gorgeous bride. Devon (her husband) was a charismatic and kind groom. Everything was so sweet.

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When they moved to cut the cake, Carmen asked me to stand up so she could give me credit. Everyone clapped, and I was so humbled. Then, the photographer asked me to stand by the couple with the cake to have my photo taken. Squee! What?! I can’t imagine a single decent photo was taken of me at that moment. I was all smiles, toothy and goofy.

Carmen hugged me a ton over the course of the reception. She said she loved the cake (and that it tasted decent as well). At the end of the day, that was all I was really hoping to achieve. Any remnants of my stress during cake decorating dissolved.

I spent the drive home reflecting on the experience. The adventure of agreeing to something new. The rush diving head first into something both unfamiliar and (at times) scary. I not only attempted something not previously considered in repertoire, but I fucking did it!

Congratulations to Carmen and Devon. It was a supreme honor to make the cake for your special day. Wishing you nothing but love and happiness in your future together!

 

“Great love and great achievements involve great risks”  ~Dalai Lama~

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Oh Sew Green and the Buttermilk Chai Cinnamon Roll

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While at the Mother Earth News Fair this last week, I met a talented seamstress and mother of 6. Her store is called “Oh Sew Green”. Check out her facebook (and link to her etsy page). My friend, Andrea and I fell in love with her homemade alternatives to single-use products. Examples were absorbent fabric towels, to be used in place of paper towels, and reusable snack pouches to replace plastic ziplocs. My personal favorite was the elastic bowl cover. The suggested uses were to cover plates or bowls for food storage in your fridge or for transport. However, when I saw it, all I could think is how perfectly it would replace my cheap disposable shower cap as a proofing bowl cover for bread. I found the cutest fabric design. This picture doesn’t do it justice.

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I’m always imagining my favorite dishes being “just a little bit different”. I’m not necessarily trying to reinvent the wheel here, but more add a slightly different spin on a classic. So for my first recipe using my new proofing cover, I decided to toy with a new idea for cinnamon rolls. The friend who invited me to the fair love chai tea. So, why not take a normal cinnamon filling, and add a chai spice blend?

Everything nice!

Everything nice!

Make no mistake, cinnamon rolls are exactly as full of eggs, butter, and milkfat as you would imagine them to be. And that’s what makes them so awesome. Considering this was my first time recipe testing a dough recipe of my own creation, I’d say they turned out pretty nice.

Butter, spices, and a fist full of brown sugar

Butter, spices, and a fist full of brown sugar

 

 It can be a bit of a time-intensive process. Having the right tools helps.

Slicer. For meats and cinnamon rolls alike

Slicer. For meats and cinnamon rolls alike

 

Mid-process, I realized I need to order a 9″x13″ pan cover in matching fabric. Plastic wrap had to suffice this time

A proofed up and ready to bake

A proofed up and ready to bake

By the time these guys are baked and glazed, you’ll be wondering why you ever fussed about all the work. You troubles just melt away. Or maybe that’s the impending sugar rush talking.

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**A few notes about working with yeasted doughs: I think many people avoid anything involving kneading. It can be a frustrating process the first few times, but it feels like a great accomplishment once you get the hang of it. I recommend using The Kitchn website as a resource when in doubt. Their info is very accessible to the average person, and they often have accompanying videos for techniques.

A second note is the proofing process. Everything from temperature, humidity, to the type of flour and yeast used all effect the proofing time. This means your best bet is *not* to make dough and let it proof unchecked for the recommended time. Start checking the dough at 40 minutes. It will be properly proofed if you gently poke the dough and an indentation remains. If not, allow to proof for another 20 minutes at a time.

Third, and most important: maximize the effectiveness of your time. Recipes that involve proofing mean you have time to make all the other components of the recipe, do some dishes, or otherwise bust out a little work to make your life easier. Nothing helps me enjoy something I’ve cooked like not having to worry about a sink full of dishes after.

 

 

Chai Spice Cinnamon Rolls

 

For the dough

2 packages (or 4.5 tsp) active dry yeast

1/2 cup granulated sugar, divided

1/2 warm water (about 100*-115*F)

1 egg, room temperature

4 Tbsp melted butter

1 cup buttermilk

4 cups all purpose flour

2 tsp salt

1 tsp cinnamon

1/4 tsp ground cloves

 

Chai spice mixture

1 whole star anise

1/8 tsp fennel seed

2 allspice

6 whole peppercorns

4 green cardamom pods

2 Tbsp ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp ground cloves

 

For the filling

1 cup brown sugar

4 Tbsp butter, melted and divided

2.5 Tbsp chai spice mixture

 

For the glaze (glaze recipe can be halved)

6 oz sour cream

1/4 cup buttermilk

1/2 Tbsp chai spice mixture

3 Tbsp creamed coconut (I like “Let’s Do Organic” brand)

1/2 tsp salt

3-4 cups powdered sugar

 

To make the chai spice mix:

Toast anise, fennel, allspice, peppercorns, and cardamom until brown and fragrant. Remove seeds from cardamom pods and dispose of outer shell. Grind in spice grinder. Mix with cinnamon and cloves in a small bowl. Set aside.

 

To make the cinnamon rolls:

Combine warm water with yeast and 1/4 cup granulated sugar. Allow to proof for at least 10 minutes. In a medium saucepan, melt butter. Once melted, whisk in buttermilk and heat until just warm to the touch. Add eggs and set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer with the mixing attachment, combine 2 cups flour with other dry ingredients. Mix in buttermilk mixture until a smooth dough forms. Add yeast mixture until combined. Switch to dough hook. Add flour 1/2 cup at a time until dough comes together and starts pulling away from the sides of the bowl. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface, knead for 6-8 minutes. Dough should be smooth and slightly sticky to the touch. Place dough in a well-oiled bowl. Cover and set in a draft-proof place until doubled in size.

Combine Chai spice mixture and brown sugar. Punch down dough and turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Gently roll out into a rectangle. Spread most of the melted butter along the dough. Sprinkle sugar mixture along dough. Starting with the end closest to you, gently roll dough. Once fully rolled, pinch ends to keep sugar mixture from spilling out. Slice (or google the dental floss trick some people use) into 12 pieces. Place in a buttered 9″x 13″ baking pan. Brush the rolls with the remaining butter mixture. Cover and proof until doubled in size.

While rolls are proofing, whisk together all ingredients for glaze in a small bowl and leave in fridge until ready to use.

Preheat oven to 375* F. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, or until golden brown. Allow to cool for 5 minutes, then spread on desired amount of glaze. Once cool, rolls can be stored in an airtight container for 3 days or frozen individually and kept for up to 2 weeks.

 

Yum!

Yum!

Camping Cuisine, Part 2: Cold Brew Coffee

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I would like to say that coffee is of little importance to me. That I could take it or leave it on any given day. But, I’d be wrong. After several years working long hours in the veterinary field, followed by working and attending culinary school, then moving on to being a cook, I’ve managed to make coffee a permanent fixture of my life.

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Dear coffee: I love you

So of course, when I consider a camping trip, I always want to consider my means for caffeine consumption. In the past, I’ve broken down and purchased the little Starbucks “instant coffee” packets. I was always disappointed by the somewhat chemically taste of them. This is why I’m so pleased with the solution I’ve found: homemade cold brew coffee concentrate. It is likely you’re camping during the hot summer months, so you won’t mind starting the day with a glass of iced coffee. The process also allows for maximum caffeine extraction. A little of this stuff will go a long way. Alexir and I affectionately refer to it as “rocket fuel”.

The term “cold brew” refers to the fact that the coffee grounds are allowed to steep in room temperature water. As you might imagine, there is a relation between the temperature of the water and the time the grounds need to steep. Plan ahead, as you would with most camping food preparation.

A few reminders:

* Use a really high quality coffee. Fresh coffee that has been recently roasted and ground at home will have a much better flavor than the cheap stuff.

* Use filtered water. It seems like an unnecessary reminder, but in the heat of the moment, I will reach my measuring cup for my sink spout. Just remember you’re not heating the water at all, so any impurities are just sitting in there. Buy a jug of spring water from the store if it’s easier.

*Make sure your grinder is set to “coarse”. If your grounds are fine, it will probably still taste fine, but the base will be cloudy

 

Cold Brew Coffee Concentrate

(from Bon Appetit Magazine)

6 ounces (by weight) coarsely ground coffee

3.5 cups (28 fl oz) room temperature filtered water

In a large pitcher or easy pour container, combine coffee and water. Stir until all the grounds have been moistened. Cover with cheesecloth or plastic wrap and leave undisturbed for 12-18 hours. I know this sounds like a long time, but it is worth the wait. The range of time is simply for your convenience. I feel that most of the mixes taste almost the same between hour 12 and hour 18. When in doubt, err on the side of longer. While the mix is steeping, I like to put my pitcher in a large mixing bowl in the back corner of my counter for added security. (My cat likes to snoop around my kitchen counters when I’m not at home. You don’t want to come home to spilled wet coffee grounds!)

Remove cover (DO NOT STIR or you will make your mixture cloudy). The grounds will have crept to the surface and made a solid blob on top of the liquid. You can use a butter knife to scoop out a little opening to pour through on one of the sides.

Line a fine mesh strainer with a coffee filter. Slowly pour small amounts of the mixture through the filter, allowing several minutes for the chunky mixture to filter. This whole process can take 30 minutes or more. I usually pour enough to mostly fill the filter, then go around doing dishes or other chores for a bit, then come back every 10 or so minutes and pour another filter full of the mixture. If you get frustrated at how slow things are moving, you can switch to a fresh coffee filter halfway through. With all those grounds, it can be tough to fit much liquid.

You can use immediately, or store in the fridge for up to two weeks. To serve, combine equal parts cold brew concentrate and water or milk. Play with this ratio for a while until you find what works for you. I love ridiculously strong coffee, so I go with a 2/3 cold brew t o1/3 water mix. Toss in some ice and a splash of cream, and I’m on the road to super-motivation!

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Yum!

This mix stores really well in mason jars, which are my preferred method. They keep well in the cooler, are leak-proof, and once you get down to the last serving of cold brew, you can just mix water into the jar and drink straight from it!

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Ready to assemble

 

 

Oh! And if you’re someone who likes sweet coffee, I know you hate drinking gritty sugar in your iced drinks. The easy solution: homemade simple syrup!

Simple Syrup

1/2 cup + 2 T granulated sugar

1/2 cup water

In a small saucepan, bring ingredients to a simmer. Remove from heat as soon as sugar dissolves. Transfer to heat-resistant container and allow to cool. Keeps in refrigerator for up to two weeks.

Happy caffeinating!

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East Meets West Somewhere Around Dessert

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This last weekend, Alexir and I were wandering the isles at PCC. Our conversation drifted into one of those cyclical “What do you want for dinner?” conversations where no one has an answer. We continued with the “I dunno, what do you want?” roundabout as we reached the bulk section. Alexir promptly walked up to the bin of large flake unsweetened coconut and declared “toasted coconut ice cream!”

Before I could even wrap my head around debating the legitimacy of ice cream for dinner, he had happily filled a bulk bag with the snowy white flakes and tossed it into our basket. Though I had been angling more towards what meat we should make for dinner, I had to admit that the prospect of another pastry project piqued my interest.

The typical coconut ice cream you’d picture is likely make with shredded sweetened coconut. While this is delicious, it is missing the recurrent theme that drives so much eastern food (imagine indian, moroccan, malaysian, etc): the application of heat to key ingredients. The things I love about a good curry, or a complex tagine, boil down to the spices being toasted just before use. When formulating my ice cream recipe, I used the same concept. Alexir’s recommendation for toasted coconut allows an added depth. I would describe it as “warmth”.

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Since I decided not to keep the large shreds of coconut in the ice cream base for freezing, I had to set aside time to steep it in the cream. I also elected to use a little “creamed coconut” to keep the flavor in the forefront. PCC carries the “Let’s do organic” brand, which is an almost solid packet. The only ingredient is coconut, so I didn’t have to worry myself with other weird stabilizers affecting my final project.

The best part: my house smelling like a tropical, toasty paradise when I was prepping the coconut.

This lovely dessert called for a worthy partner. Something that could offer textural contrast without overpowering the ice cream. I consulted my favorite book for such situations (The Flavor BIble). The book offers an alphabetical listing of hundreds of ingredients, followed by other ingredients whose flavors pair well. Using coconut as an example, the flavor list included cream, curry, vanilla, etc. As I was scanning the list, my eyes fell upon cardamom, and I knew it was meant to be.

Cardmom smells like some exotic secret love to me. When the little green pods start popping open, I’m intoxicated my the heady, floral notes wafting through my kitchen. If I were to make a cookie, I felt an assertive base was necessary. Chocolate it had to be. Good flavor contrast, a starkly different color than the ice cream would be, and always good as a little crisp cookie. I consulted several recipes before generating my own to make them to make what I envisioned. Instead of forming the dough into a typical cylinder to chill, I opted for a long rectangle. After cutting and baking, it made for some nice little wafers.

I grew impatient waiting for my ice cream base to chill, and *may* have spun it way too early. The result was a less-than-ideal texture. But the taste was everything I wanted. I promise I’ll be more patient in the future. But seriously, all I could think of was my favorite parts of curry (cardamom and coconut) coming together with sugar. Sweet, but not overly sweet. Rich enough that you felt satisfied with a small portion.

Like a promise of summer just around the corner. I keep sneaking into the freezer with a spoon for bites on the afternoons where Alexir works late. Wouldn’t you?

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Toasted Coconut Ice Cream

1 cup shredded, unsweetend coconut

2 cups heavy cream

1 cup whole milk

3/4 cup sugar

1 vanilla bean, split with seeds scraped out

1 Tbsp organic creamed coconut (preferably “Let’s do organic” brand)

5 egg yolks

1 tsp vanilla extract

 

Preheat oven to 350* F. Spread coconut on a baking sheet and bake 5-7 minutes, or until well toasted and fragrant.

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine milk, cream, toasted coconut, creamed coconut, and vanilla bean. Heat on medium, stirring occasionally, just until steaming. Remove from burner and allow to steep for 1 hour.

After an hour, strain through fine mesh strainer, pushing firmly on coconut pulp to remove as much of the cream mixture as possible. Return strained mixture to the pan, add sugar, and heat until just simmering. Place egg yolks in a large bowl. Drizzle cream mixture slowly into egg yolks while whisking continuously. Once fully incorporated, return to pan and heat over medium high. Whisking constantly, continue heating until base started to thicken considerably and reaches at least 175* F on a digital thermometer. Strain into large pan, whisk in vanilla extract. Cool until 45* F or cooler. Spin in ice cream maker until thick. Freeze several hours or overnight. Serve with fresh toasted coconut and cardamom chocolate wafers.

 

Chocolate Cardamom Wafers

4 oz (1 stick) salted butter

3/4 cup sugar

1/2 cup dark brown sugar

1/4 cup milk

1 tsp vanilla

1 cup all purpose flour

3/4 cup cocoa powder

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/8 tsp salt

5 cardamom pods, toasted, seeds removed and ground

 

Cream butter and sugars until fluffy. Add milk until combined.

In a separate bowl, whisk together remaining ingredients. Add mixture to wet ingredients just until combined. Turn out onto lightly floured surface and roll into logs. Wrap in wax paper or parchment paper and freeze at least 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 350* F. Line baking sheet with silpat or parchment paper. Slice dough into 1/4″ rounds and place at least an inch apart on baking sheet. Bake for 8-10 minutes. Allow to cool on baking sheet for 5 minutes before moving to cooling rack. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

 

 

 

 

Just Ducky

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The changing of the seasons always sends me spinning. Sometimes, I feel invigorated by the weather growing distinctly warmer or colder. Other times, I am brought to a screeching halt by the explosions of flowers or food-bearing plants. Regardless of the nature of the change, I seem to struggle with focusing my energy.

Today has been a mixed bag of laundry, half-cooking, and pretending to relax for brief periods. The sun breaks make me want to wander for hours outside. The clouds rolling back in make me feel pressured to accomplish all the cleaning projects I can before the next sunny afternoon.

The good news, I FINALLY bought the duck I’ve been telling myself to buy for the last few weeks. There is something undeniably satisfying about cooking with duck. Besides the unctuous flavor, it is also one of the only proteins that can be almost without waste.

For example, here is the list of all the things I was able to prepare from my single little duck:

** 2 duck breasts, both of which are being cured as I write into cognac-washed duck prosciutto

Duck breast prosciutto

Duck breast prosciutto

** 2 legs, which I’m roasting off for some tasty dinner bits

Roasted duck leg with thyme

Roasted duck leg with thyme

** All the fat was trimmed off and rendered into duck fat. This rates above truffles and caviar for some chefs. Never had fingerling potatoes fried in duck fat? Do it. Change your life

Culinary liquid gold

Culinary liquid gold

** The byproduct of rendering duck fat: tasty, tasty duck cracklings (think pork rinds, but made out of fresh duck skin)

Toasty fatty, skin, anyone?

Toasty, fatty skin, anyone?

** Bones, which were roasted and made into a roasted duck stock. 3/4 of that I reduced into a demi-glace with a little red wine and thyme.

Bones (plus extra feed for added body) mid-roast

Bones (plus extra feed for added body) mid-roast

Duck demi

Duck demi

 

What does this mean? That all in all, of my 5 pound duck,  I wasted about 5 ounces. That includes the head (yes, I bought a duck with the feet and head still attached). Count yourselves lucky I wasn’t feeling more photographically inclined when Mr. Cleaver came out to remove aforementioned head.

Pile of scrap smaller than my boning knife

Pile of scrap smaller than my boning knife

Even better, I’ll have a duck leg to enjoy tonight with a side of cracklings and maybe a basic sauce built out of that demi-glace. The prosciutto will be ready in about 3 week. The duck fat I can use for potatoes or other frying for a long time as long as I keep it frozen or in the fridge. One animal, at least 3 occasions worth of enjoyment.

That is how to truly respect a food animal.

Most higher end grocery stores sell ducks for $25-$40 for a 5lb bird. You can purchase a “Young Buddhist Duck”, as I did, for $15 at your local asian market. After a bit of research, I determined that the birds are purposefully raised free-range so that they develop a more even fat-to-meat ratio. Asian chefs use ducks raised this way for an optimal peking duck. If you’re willing to do a little more fat trimming and don’t mind a few ounces less of meat, the cost difference is fairly substantial. Not to mention a duck will offer up a wider array of product that any standard cut of pork or beef at the same price.

Take a chance, try some duck.

And I’m serious about those duck fat potatoes.

 

 

 

Camping Cuisine: Cilantro Lime Quinoa Salad

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The weather is starting to improve! The sun (remember that thing?) has been making more appearances each week. We even had a day last week where it reached 80* for a day. All this brings the desire for a few days of camping rushing back.

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As a child, my family went camping often. I can’t even recall the number of hot dogs, s’mores, and other camp snacks I ate every summer. However, I also remember when my hippie family started making a notable turn towards healthier options. One time, I think we took a pork loin or some other piece of meat and wrapped it in foil with onions and carrots. We set the pouch on a grill over the fire to cook. It wasn’t anything gourmet, but it was a hell of a lot better than a hot dog.

In that same vein of thought, I’ve been considering a few “cook approved” recipes that both travel well and contain all recognizable ingredients. The following is a quinoa salad, to go with almost any sort of grilled meat. Quinoa is the perfect grain, offering a whopping 6 GRAMS of protein per serving. This is a great alternative to coleslaw or other mayo-based side dish. The other veggies marinate well and hold up to being stored in a fridge or a cooler. In fact, the most difficult part of the recipe is trying to keep from bruising your avocados until you’re ready to serve.

Feel free to serve this with some coronas, a crisp dry white (if you’re that weirdo like me, who likes to drink wine while camping), or some tart organic lemonade.

If you’re itching to try the recipe, don’t feel like you need to wait for camping weather to bust it out. This works great for your standard BBQ as well, and will make your life easier by being easy to make ahead. I’ve included standard, vegatarian, and vegan variations, as I have friends in all categories (and you, as a host, should recognize that you often have guests in the different categories). If you have guests of varying dietary restrictions coming to an event, consider using two or three compartment trays with the varied recipes and listing which is approved for who. Everyone loves choices.

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For the quinoa salad:

3 cups quinoa

4.5 cups vegetable or meat stock

2 cloves minced garlic, divided

1 red, orange, or yellow bell pepper, small dice

1/2 english cucumber, small dice

1 small onion, small diced

1-2 medium avocados, sliced OR diced

1/2 bunch cilantro, roughly chopped

2 ea limes, juiced

Olive oil

Salt and pepper

(Optional) Cotija cheese

 

For the meat:

1 lb skirt steak, or boneless skinless chicken breasts

1 T olive oil

2 T tequila

1.5 t smoked paprika

1/2 t fine chili flakes or cayenne powder

1 t corriander

1 t cumin

1 ea lime, zested and juiced

2 t salt

1 t fresh ground pepper

 

If electing to prepare meat for the salad, combine all ingredients except the meat in a small bowl and liberally coat the meat. Allow to marinate in a tupperaware or ziploc for a little as one hour, or up to 8 hours. When ready to prepare, grill to desired doneness. Alternatively, heat saute pan with 1 t olive oil over high heat until oil is shimmering. Sear meat to desired doneness. Rest for 5 minutes, slice when ready to assemble salad.

Place the quinoa in a fine mesh strainer and rinse several times under cold water. Gently shake strainer to release excess water and allow to drain over a bowl. In a medium saucepan, bring stock and half of the minced garlic with a pinch of salt to a rolling boil. Stir in quinoa and turn down to low-medium. Partially cover and cook, stirring occasionally for 10-15 minutes. Quinoa is done when the germ (the little spiral) is exposed and grains are firm but not crunchy. Spread cooked quinoa in a large pan or bowl.

In a medium saute pan, heat 1 T oil. Cook onions and remaining garlic until translucent. Season with a small amount of salt and pepper. Mix into quinoa and allow mixture to cool in the fridge.

To assemble the salad, toss quinoa onion mixture with pepper, cilantro, and cucumber. sprinkle in lime juice and olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste. If serving immediately, mix in avocado. If taking camping, add avocado at the last minute before serving.

For vegans: Serve as is. Garnish with cilantro and a slice of lime

For vegetarians: Add crumbled cotija cheese if desired.

For everyone else: Top each serving with several slices of warm meat, garnish as described above.

This salad keeps well in the fridge or cooler for at least 3 days, and often becomes more tasty the longer it marinates. However, quinoa is very absorbent, and I recommend bringing additional limes to squeeze over the salad just before serving. Enjoy!

 

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Some “Me” Time

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Two weeks ago now, I was having dinner at The Harvest Vine with a former chef of mine and her friend (who also works in the industry). It was a weeknight, and a work night; but I was awake and relaxed enough to be enjoying our food. We were all sharing our current situations and future plans. When Chef Kym’s friend was listening to the benefits of my current job, she responded “That sounds like a pretty sweet deal”. And truly, it is.

With the exception of Wednesdays, I’ve been out of work no later than 2:45pm. Which means these gorgeous sunny afternoons have been mine for the taking. As such, I’ve been spending much more time away from the computer and getting out there to manage a (really for reals!) adult social life.

 

On one of my days off last weekend,  I walked Greenlake with a friend from culinary school, and was able to hear her story about becoming the Cooking Fresh column contributor for Edible Seattle.

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Trees, sun, fresh air, good conversation

One evening made dinner at home for a friend from work. The menu was actually pretty fun:

* Frisee salad, watermelon radishes, fresh garbanzo beans, pickled golden beets with lemon dressing

* Bricked chicken, smoked kale and potato cake (which came out more like a partially set puree, always something to improve upon), and romesco sauce

* Raspberry lemon curd, shortbread

The springiest of spring desserts

The springiest of spring desserts

Alexir and I cooked together one night for another mutual friend, and sat around drinking cider and watching “Coneheads”. Earlier that day, we spent an hour wandering through JD’s Market (On 44th and 200th in Lynnwood). The place has a very unassuming exterior, but inside offers a selection of atypical ingredients from india, asia, and various hispanic countries. While were there, I was able to pick up a bag of fresh kaffir lime leaves, some fresh garbanzo beans, and a handful of other unconventional ingredients.

Alexir's sambal is obviously the quart container in the middle

Alexir’s sambal is obviously the quart container in the middle

Yesterday, we got out on the most gorgeous spring day Seattle has seen this year and hopped the ferry to Bainbridge Island for another lovely dinner at Hitchcock restaurant.

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I’ve also gone the other direction, and parked myself on the couch for an afternoon to binge watch episodes of “House” on Netflix and eat half a pint of chocolate ice cream. Ok, it was a whole pint. Don’t judge me.

The point of all of this being that I’ve been away from my keyboard and posting less to the blog. I still love sharing my stories and recipes, but I’ve also enjoyed taking advantage of some much needed “me” time. I was sick for a while, and pet-sitting for two weeks. All in all, I’d say I’ve taken advantage of life more than I have in years.

Work has mellowed out considerably as well. Not that anywhere is drama free, but most of the sources are easily ignored. We’re having some turnover, and struggles to find decent new hires. But I feel like I really hit the stride I was longing for and can make it through the push of wherever I’m scheduled without getting too frustrated. And my management team has been complimentary. Not just a standard “good job”, but on days when I help pick up the slack when someone might be out sick, I get a genuine “Thank goodness Ashley is here”. Not trying to sound narcissistic, it’s actually unnerving to be working for people who notice and appreciate the extra effort you put in. I’m also pretty sure I’ve been approved for my vacation time for Oregon Country Fair, which makes this the first time in a long while that I’ve gone on vacation guilt-free.

I’d like to work on more specific posts, but I would need a little help from my readers for ideas and inspiration. Working for a corporate deli doesn’t present as many crazy stories as restaurants. I’m happy to take requests about nutrition, specific dishes, reworking something you ate as a child, and so on from there.

Today, I’m perusing recipes for a BBQ Alexir and I were invited to by a veterinarian friend from back in the day. I’m considering dessert ideas. I’ll try to remember to post on whatever direction I decide to take.

For the time being, everyone remember to breathe, and take a moment when you need one. You’ll thank yourself later.

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