Saturday, February 18, 2012

Updated Dark Chocolate Pot de Creme

For Valentine's Day, I received a great gift -- two 6 Piece Creme Brulee sets. Each set includes a 9"x9" baking dish, a wire rack and four ramekins.  Great for Creme Brulee, but since I don't like Creme Brulee, I'll use it to make Pot de Creme.

One week after taking the Midnight in Paris class, I decided to make the dessert at home, using my Valentine's Day gift.  I wanted to give this a try on my own -- as in class, we split the tasks between 4 people. I had never made anything like this before and was quite excited to see if I could bake something as elaborate as this.  Yes, I know this is a very easy recipe, but I am far from a baker.

I followed the recipe from the Chopping Block almost exactly. I opted to use two teaspoons of vanilla extract in lieu of the half a vanilla bean.  I also used 70% cocoa from Ghiradelli - I'm not sure what chocolate was used in class, but the 70% seemed a bit more rich and flavorful than the semi-sweet we used the week prior.

Almost every thing I read about substituting vanilla extract for vanilla beans said you had to remove as many teaspoons of liquid as you are adding -- to keep the balance. I didn't do that. I figured since this is a custard, it wouldn't really matter.  It didn't.

The recipe indicated we'd bake these for 25-30 minutes -- after 30 minutes the Pot de Creme were completely liquid still.  I kept it in the over for 5 more minutes...then 5 more...then 5 more. I cooked these things for 45 minutes then pulled them out. They were firm yet jiggly.  I was afraid I over cooked them, but I really don't think 30 minutes was enough for me.

My mother says I have a "slow" oven.  Not sure how she would know, since she never cooks..but in this case it appears she is right.  I think this is another reason I don't like to bake -- I'm afraid I'm going to over cook or undercook because the timing is a bit off.  Just another level of stress.

All in all this recipe was absolutely fantastic.  The dark chocolate was perfectly rich.  The texture was creamy with just a bit of chocolate flake scattered throughout adding to the richness.  This recipe makes 4 servings, but the creme brulee ramekins were a bit smaller so I made 6.5 servings -- which I think were perfectly sized for the richness.

And yes -- I did make homemade whipped cream (heaping teaspoon of powdered sugar and an 1/8 cup of whipping cream -- beat with a wire whisk until just perfect).

Does baking give you a lot of angst too? Have you been successful is altering a fantastic recipe offered by someone else into something your own? Do you have a problem with having half a dozen amazing desserts in your refrigerator -- are you like me and just want to sit down and eat them all at once?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Where to eat...Saigon/HCMC

In just a few weeks we will be heading off to Southeast Asia, mostly spending time in Hanoi and Saigon/HCMC.  As noted earlier we've got most of our activities planned, we are now working on finding the best places to eat while in Saigon/HCMC.  Like I did for Hanoi, I pulled a list from several websites, including TripAdvisor and have come up with this list of these five likely possibilities.

Have you been to any of these restaurants?  Doesn't the cooking class at Hoa Tuc look fun?  Have you tried it before - is it worth while?  What restaurants am I missing?  Obviously we are going to hit up a few stalls on the street for real local food.  We are also going to visit some local shops while we are biking to the Cu Chi Tunnels.

If you were returning to Saigon/HCMC and had time for just one meal, where would you go and what would your order? 

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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

What I'm Cooking...Dark Chocolate Pot de Creme

Last Thursday I took a cooking class at at The Chopping Block, called Midnight in Paris.  This class was really great.  Everything we made is something that I will make again in the future.  The other classes I've had at the Chopping Block have yielded one or two recipes that have made it to my recipe box, but never 100% of the recipes we used. Even though the other recipes (from other classes) might not have made it to my recipe box, I learned some new techniques that I constantly use.

This recipe is from the Chopping Block -- and is not my my recipe at all.  As always, you should read the recipe all the way through before beginning - something I often fail to do.  You'll notice below that numbers 2 and 3 go hand in hand and should be undertaken concurrently.  The full recipe is at the bottom of this blog post.

The recipe is very straight forward and as all you know, I really don't like to bake (too much science versus an artistic flair).  A couple comments -- I wonder if you could use vanilla extract in lieu of the vanilla bean. I wonder only because vanilla beans are so expensive.  I've read it is acceptable to swap it out and should use 2 teaspoons for every one bean -- but you also need to pull out that same amount of liquid so you don't upset the delicate balance of baked goods.  Would two extra teaspoons of half and half really cause an issue?  When I make this at home (this weekend??) I will try it without the bean and a reduced amount of half and half.

According to our amazing instructor, Sara, you can keep the custard (I prefer the word "batter") in the refrigerator (unbaked) for up to 3 days.  Then the next piece of great news -- you can keep the baked Pot de Creme in the refrigerator for 3 days as well. That means you can make these things on Sunday and have them all week.  You can't beat that, can you?

I apologize for the last picture -- it isn't mine, I just found it online at LA Weekly.  I was just too damn excited to try my creation and ate it long before I realized I hadn't taken a picture of it.  Sorry guys!

Their recipe is as follows:

  • 2 cups half and half
  • 1/2 vanilla bean
  • 6 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream with 1 tablespoon powdered sugar
  • Chocolate Shavings
  1. Preheat the oven to 350F
  2. Place the cream in a small saucepan. Scrape the pulp from the vanilla bean; add the pulp and the pod to the cream.  Heat until steaming. Remove from heat and whisk the chocolate in until smooth. Remove the vanilla pod.
  3. While the cream is heating, whisk together the egg yolks and sugar.
  4. Slowly temper the warm cream mixture into the eggs, stirring gently
  5. Place the ramekins in a baking dish, then pour the custard into the ramekins.  Fill the pan halfway up the sides with hot water.
  6. Cover with foil and bake for 25-30 minutes, until jiggly but firm.
  7. Allow to cool in the refrigerator for about 2 hours or until cold (May be refrigerated overnight).
  8. Serve chilled with whipped cream and shaved chocolate.
I can't recommend the Chopping Block enough. If you have any questions about what they do or how they teach, just let me know. If you want to take class there, but don't have anyone to go with, shoot me an email, I'd love to meet up with some of my readers and take a class.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

New Skills in 2012

Each year, I put put together an annual plan (goals) with the help of the Best Year Yet Program.  Some of these goals are personal, some are professional; some are home related, some are travel related -- they run the gamut of life.

Part of my Best Year Yet plan each year pushes me to learn new skills.  Last year, I wanted to be more creative, so I worked on a couple painting projects, like this one.  This year, I have four things I want to learn how to do:
Ok, so two of these are pretty much go hand in hand, but have different outcomes, really.  

A colleague of mine took the back splash workshop at the Home Depot a few months ago and tiled her back splash without a problem -- sounds like a good place to start for me.

My aunt (well, technically, my grandpa's aunt) made some amazing bread and butter pickles. I have several recipes for these pickles -- but I've never made them before and really don't know of anyone who has properly made pickles that could help me.  I do want to try this and I want to make both dill and sweet pickles.

I also want to try canning things like fresh vegetables (tomato sauce) and fruit (peaches).  I think making spicy (pickled?) green beans for a Bloody Mary would be great too.  Theoretically, I'd like to can a homemade pasta sauce I make too -- but I understand there are other issues with canning meats and sauces, so obviously I'll need to do more research on this.

Finally, I want to learn how to properly decorate a cake. A good friend of mine (JLPB) does some really amazing cakes - she's promised to make me a cake, but since I'm nearly 2000 miles away, I haven't had a chance to get the cake. Her cakes look fantastic and while I cannot expect to match her skill level, I would like to be able to create frosting flowers or other embellishments as opposed to just throwing some sprinkles on the top. 

What do you want to learn how to do this year?  What resources are you using? Do you think my three items are lame?  Are you interested in helping me achieve these goals?  What advice do you have for me on these goals?

Monday, February 13, 2012

What I'm Cooking...Daube a la Provencale

From time to time, I'll watch Food Network. Usually, I watch Giada or Ina -- sometimes Chopped (usually, while I'm blogging) but rarely anything else.  Sunday morning we watched $10 Dinners.  I find the host to be quite grating - but Sunday's episode had several recipes that sounded quite lovely.  The episode was called Winter in Provance and had two recipes: Daube a la Provencale and an Orange Olive Oil Cake.  We decided to make this for our Sunday dinner.  I made the entree and MS made the dessert.

I followed this super easy recipe -- except for letting it marinate for 6 hours. That's just crap.  I started cooking this thing at 13h00 and wouldn't have had enough time to marinate it more than just 2 hours (assuming I wanted to eat dinner on Sunday night).  The final product was so good - and will definitely make it into my recipe box.  The meat was so tender and flavorful.

I also ran out of red wine vinegar, so I just added some extra red wine and tossed in 3 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar.  It seemed to work well.  This beef dish is not like a traditional stew -- it doesn't have a thick base, but a watery broth base.  The addition of macaroni works surprisingly well.  I thought about swapping out the noodles for potatoes (boiled or mashed), but I was afraid this would make it too much like a standard/traditional stew. I'm happy I followed the recipe.

We did dramatically (from a flavor standpoint) change the dessert recipe.  Since we were in Palm Springs just a couple weeks ago and harvested a couple dozen lemons, we decided to change the orange component to lemons.  It worked marvelously.

This is the first recipe I've made from $10 Dinners.  I haven't done any research on this show, nor have I ever watched a full episode (I didn't even watch the full version of this episode).  But I do have one question - how the hell can this woman make these meals for less than $10?  I had most of the items (except the wine or the meat) and it still cost me more than $10.  The meat alone was $10.68.  Where is this woman chopping: Kansas? Is she slaughtering the cow herself?  I don't get it.  It reminds me of Rachel Ray's 30 Minute Meals -- no way in hell those meals take 30 minutes.  I stopped watching Rachel about 6 years ago because she just annoyed me so much.

Do you watch $10 Meals?  Can you pull these meals together for less than $10?  What about that Rachel Ray -- can you do her meals in 30 Minutes?  Don't you just love a great stew on a cold winter day?  What is your favorite cold weather recipe - something that cooks all day and fills the house with heat and amazing smells?  Share your favorite recipe with us all.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

A Midnight In Paris - A Class at the Chopping Block

 I must tell you, I love the Chopping Block.  I've taken countless classes there (everything from hands-on Sushi, Chicken 101 and Afrodiac Appetizers to demonstration Fondue and Cupcake classes).  Tonight we took "Midnight in Paris" and had a wonderful time.

We made the following recipes -- I plan on writing up each of these recipes separately for your review/use.
Good god, everything was so wonderful.  We partnered with a couple from Evanston -- who use Thursday night as their "date night". She has wanted to take a cooking class for quite a while, but he wasn't too keen on it.  After a bit of time he really got into it.  They were fun to hang out with too -- especially since they enjoyed several glasses of wine with us.

We started off by making the Dark Chocolate Pot de Creme - since it took the most time to bake then chill. I'm not a big dessert guy, but this was truly wonderful and BEYOND easy to make. I will definitely make this again -- very soon.

The next thing we started on was the Coq au Vin -- although we didn't use the traditional Coq, we used a quartered chicken. Since this wasn't an old tough Coq, we didn't need to braise it for hours.  The bacon, onions, mushrooms and shallots smelled divine.

We then started working on the celery root, and finally the mussels.  Since the mussels take the least amount of time we started them last -- even though those were the first things we ate.  I don't usually dig mussels and I really don't dig fennel (with the anise flavor) I must admit, I loved this appetizer.

I never used celery root before -- and after tonight I will totally be making this again. This is a great substitute for a potato -- possibly a healthier option...possibly not.
The Pot de Creme was a perfect way to end this meal. I love dark chocolate so much and this was a great  portion and so easy to make.  The best part, our instructor indicated the batter (is that the right term??) would last 2-3 days in the refrigerator and once you cook it, the Pot will last for 2-3 more days in the the refrigerator too. That means, you can make a big batch of this on Sunday and eat it every day throughout the week -- score.

When was the last cooking class you took? Do you take these classes frequently?  Once you make a handful of recipes in class do you ever make them again? Once you partner up with people in class, do you ever see these people again?

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

What I'm Cooking...Lemon Parmesan Chicken and Penne

Last weekend, while were in Palm Springs, we picked up a big bag of fresh lemons. We picked these from the tree in the front yard of our friends home.  We love fresh lemons. MS decided to make dessert with these and I was going to make dinner.  I initially thought of making a Lemon Chicken Piccata, but I couldn't find just the right recipe at first.  Then I decided to go a bit more unhealthy and make a cream based pasta sauce with lemon as a base flavor.

I've never made a cream sauce before. I traditionally I like to cook things that are a bit more healthy -- this obviously means I'm not a cream sauce guy. I've made homemade pasta sauces many times before -- I love my Bolognese sauce and my pesto (made with basil I've grown on my lanai) is pretty damn tasty too.

The full recipe is at the bottom of this post.  I found the original online and realized, just by looking at it, it needed some tweaks. I started by cutting it in half, increased the herb mixture and reduced the cream cheese and some of the cream.

Honestly, this recipe was good, but really not all that flavorful.  Maybe I salt my food too much, but this recipe really needed some more salt and pepper.  Both dinner guests did add more salt and pepper (and extra parmigiana too) to their portions as well.  Everyone also had second helpings (and thirds for one guest).

I also loathe leftovers, but this recipe made so much food, I decided to keep it in the fridge for a bit. I heated this pasta up with a quick turn in the microwave the next day and it was just a bit better than it was originally.  I still had to add more salt and pepper though.

Lemon Parmesan Chicken and Penne

2 pounds chicken breast – pounded flat to flattened to 1/2"
1 tablespoon garlic powder
2 tablespoon dried basil
4.5 teaspoons kosher salt
1.5 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 shallot, minced
1.5 cloves garlic, minced.
2 tablespoons flour
4 ounces cream cheese (room temperature
1/2 cup sour cream
1.5 eggs whisked
1.5 cups heavy cream
Zest of 2 lemons
3/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
1.5 pound of penne pasta cooked
Olive oil

1. Season the chicken with the garlic powder, dried basil and a 1/2 tablespoon kosher salt. Drizzle a bit of olive oil into a deep, wide pan over medium high. Once hot, brown both sides of all the chicken breasts, approximately 30 seconds per side, and lay the meat on a baking sheet. Add more olive oil to the pan if necessary to prevent sticking. Slide into a preheated oven at 350 degrees for 12-15 minutes or until cooked through. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.

2. In the same pan used to cook the chicken, add the butter and melt completely until it begins to sizzles. Drop in the shallot and garlic, tossing to coat. Cook the shallot and garlic for 1-2 minutes before stirring in the flour. Stir constantly to form a buttery paste, cooking for another 2-3 minutes until a toasty brown roux forms.

3. Mix the cream cheese into the buttery flour, then stir in the sour cream until smooth. Cook for an additional 2-3 minutes. Scoop about 1/4 cup of this mixture into the whisked eggs and combine them very well, then pour the egg liquid back into the large pan of sauce. Continue to stir.

4. Next, add the heavy cream and reduce the heat to medium low, continuously stirring all the while. Cook the sauce for another 3-4 minutes without allowing it to come to a boil. If it begins to bubble, reduce the heat slightly.

5. Finally, sprinkle the lemon zest and parmesan into the sauce. Cook another 6-8 minutes, reducing the heat again if necessary.

6. While the sauce continues to thicken, slice the chicken breasts into thin strips and drop them into the sauce. Once all of the chicken is in the pan, remove from heat. Pour everything over the cooked penne and toss well to coat. Serve immediately.

Do you make full on cream sauce regularly, or do you "cheat", but just adding cream and cooking it down? Do my recipes seem to be bland to you or do they seem to be over salted?  Do you love left over pasta or loath reheated meals as much as I do?

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Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Where to Eat...Hanoi

Next month, I will be heading to Vietnam for a couple weeks.  We will be staying in Hanoi and Saigon (HCMC) mostly.  While we have most of our activities planned (bike ride, self guided walking tours, historical site visits, river cruises, etc), all of our hotels and transportation options are booked.  As we make a list of things to do outside of these organized activities we are also making a list of restaurants we want to visit.

Beyond the standard street phở, which I am sure we'll eat almost every day, I am quite sure we will find some amazing French food.  I guess there are some benefits to colonialism.  I've done some research on TripAdvisor to find great restaurants in Hanoi:
Have you been to any of these restaurants in Hanoi?  Where would you recommend we go?  My real focus would be traditional Vietnamese food and of course French food.  Any of these restaurants we should stay away from?  All advice is greatly appreciated  -- we want to know what the locals and the regular tourists do.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Where I'm Eating...Kiki's Bistro (Chicago)

My birthday was Friday. After a minor last minute change of plans (thanks to a concert cancellation), we went to a French Restaurant in the Gold Coast neighborhood.  As you all know, I've been taking French classes at Alliance Francaise and spent a long weekend in the fall in Paris -- having French food was a great option for my birthday.

I got to the restaurant a little early and ordered a Kir Royale and sat at the bar while reading a French newspaper (my French skills didn't allow me to fully understand the article, but I got the idea).  While sitting at the bar, Kiki (the owner) and a woman (his wife? the manager? someone) came up and chatted with me for a while. They knew it was my birthday, but when they saw me reading the French news paper Kiki began speaking French to me. I explained (in French) that I am only studying at Alliance and I am a recent convert to French food.  The woman told Kiki that my group must be seated in Abdel's section. Abdel is from Morocco and speaks French fluently.  She suggested I only deal with Abdel in French -- that's a tough order.

Everyone else arrives and we are seated.  The restaurant is so much bigger than you'd expect. Over each table are tea lights hang in small glass globes. The bistro has open beam ceilings and reminded me of a couple of the restaurants we visited in Paris.

Abdel took our cocktail order - yes, I did order in French, but did not order for the rest of the table.  I ordered a bottle of wine for the table, which was quite tasty 2003 Bordeaux.  The menu selections for each guest is listed below:

Salade Lyonnaise
Braised Short Ribs
Warm Berry Bread Pudding

RK: I don't really remember everything RK got, so his list is not 100% correct.
Endive Salad
Steak Pommes Frites
Traditional Lemon Tart

Sopa a l'Onion Gratinee
Rack of Lamb
Crepes Suzette

Sopa a l'Onion Gratinee
Veau Provencale
Profiteroles au Chocolat

Every appetizer was completely devoured by each guest. This wasn't the best  Sopa a l'Onion I've ever had. It was so much better than the version I made, of course.  I would order it again though.

Each of the entrees were top notch. Everyone tasted each other's choice. Every item was better than the previous I had tasted.  I think my least favorite was RK's steak. It was really tasty, just my least favorite - it was served with a bearnaise sauce, which evidently was amazing, I didn't try it.

The short ribs were my favorite, but I think they were too rich for a full meal - but for a quick taste it was amazing. I definitely wouldn't have been able to finish them if they were my entree.

While I'm not a big dessert person, the Profiteroles were quite lovely. I really don't like Profiteroles with cream fillings (are those still called Profiteroles?), I think the addition of ice cream really makes it perfect. The Crepes Suzette was perfectly prepared (in my mind). I didn't sample the other desserts.

I had a great evening with friends and a great meal. Would I return to Kiki's? Absolutely. I thought the restaurant was great, the food was wonderful and the service was excellent.  You get amazing French food in a restaurant that looks like it was pulled out of the Marais in Paris without dealing with a language issue.  If you are studying French and want to practice you must go to Kiki's: speak with Kiki and Abdel. You cannot go wrong. I apologize for not taking photos of the food or the interior - my photos wouldn't have done Kiki's justice - make a reservation. I promise you will not be disappointed.

Have you been to Kiki's? What did you think?  When you are learning a new language do you try to use it as much as possible, even while not traveling abroad? Ou se trouvent les toilettes?  What is your favorite French food? Where is your go to place for French food in Chicago?

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Hotel Porn

One thing I enjoy doing while traveling relates to hotel porn. No, I don't sit around the room and watch porn. I do enjoy reading the names of the porn that the hotels make available to guests. Some of these are just so funny and anti-erotic.  My recent stay at the Doubletree Suites by Hilton Hotel Anaheim Resort - Convention Center allowed me to review the options at a hotel that was new to me.

I didn't watch any of these, obviously, but they still make me laugh. Doubletree even included a nice category to help you decide on what to purchase.
  • Charlie Sheen's House of Whores - Parody
  • America's Next Top Tranny - Tranny (I don't think that's the proper term to use)
  • Legend of the Magic Taco - Wall-to-Wall (I don't know what this category means -- do you?)
  • Beggin' for a Peggin' - Fem Dom
How fun are those titles, eh?  There were several other titles available, but they just weren't as funny.  I remember seeing the name of a video at a Marriott once and it was something like "Middle Aged Housewives - They Aren't Much to Look At" -- or something to that effect.

Am I the only one who checks out these titles?  Do you think I am crazy for doing this? Don't you just love the titles of these "films".  What is your favorite hotel porn title?

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Where I'm Eating...The Lobster (Santa Monica)

I've been to Los Angeles three times in January. Each of these three times I've visited the same restaurant in Santa Monica.  The restaurant is the Lobster and is found just off the pier in Santa Monica.  This place was originally recommended to me by a colleague who had visited a couple years ago. He had been drinking a good amount before his visit, but he really loved the place.

I decided to give it a try.  Each time I have visited, I've had the same thing and really love it. I start with the shrimp cocktail. The cocktail sauce has a nice bit of heat added by mixing horseradish with traditional cocktail sauce.  While the sauce is quite tasty, the real winner here is the shrimp. The texture of the shrimp was amazing - firm and an amazingly fresh taste. I do love shrimp cocktail any time anywhere, but I don't think I've had a better cocktail than I get at the Lobster.

For my entree, I get the lobster roll. This is a simple lobster salad (lobster meat and mayo) served on a bibb lettuce "liner" on a toasted roll.  I've never been a big fan of a lobster meat in general, but this sweet and flavorful sandwich is truly wonderful.  The sandwich is served with pretty unimpressive pickles (on the side) and some great shoestring fries. Usually, shoestring fries are too crispy for my taste, but not these, they are crispy but also a little soft (just how I like my fries) served with a bit of herbs on top.  No need for ketchup on these fries.

I usually pair my appetizer and lobster roll with a nice glass of Pinot Gris from the King Estate in Oregon. This crisp wine pairs so nicely with the seafood.  I am unfamiliar with King Estate - so if you know anything about this winery, I'd love to hear your impressions.

If you are in the greater Los Angeles area and have some free time you must stop by this place. I highly recommend making reservations as soon as possible.  The restaurant has amazing views and great outdoor seating. If you want to eat here you will need to plan ahead.

This is a great place even if you have a long layover at LAX. We stopped by on our return from Palm Springs this weekend and had plenty of time to get from the airport to the restaurant and back -- and even included a 20-25 minute walk along the walkway above the beach.  I would say you can do the Lobster for lunch if you have 3.5 hours at LAX -- as long as you have a reservation that is.

Have you been to the Lobster? Do you have a favorite place in LA that you visit during a long layover? What about other quick places to visit on a longer layover in a new city? Do you love lobster - what about shrimp cocktail?