Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Gourmet's Lasagna Bolognese

This month's issue of Gourmet will be its last, and I felt obliged to commemorate its productive and wondrous life somehow. With the cold weather making its way to California (cold being the low 60's of course), I was inclined to make something comforting to the soul, warm to the belly and unforgettably delicious.

Lasagna seemed to fit the bill. Lasagna Bolognese, to be exact.

The beauty of this recipe is that the ingredients are simple and few, so that aside from the pasta, cheese, a few vegetables and ground beef, you may likely have most of the items at home. I went to Whole Food's to pick up these items, and I ran into a problem I didn't expect--the market didn't carry fresh pasta sheets.

I could hear my culinary instructor smiling and asking, "You know how to make pasta don't you?" Well yes, but the idea of hauling out my pasta machine from its dusty stupor and making a bigger mess than I desired didn't appeal to my lazy self at the moment.

Off I went to the dried pasta aisle, and there I stood for about 15 minutes. No-boil lasagna sheets or original lasagna sheets? Whole Foods brand or Barilla? I hated myself for the indecisiveness but eventually I made a decision (mostly based on price)--Whole Foods branded no-boil lasagna sheets. I prayed it would work, since my last attempt with lasagna (three years ago) ended in a raw and inedible failure.

What I have come to love about Gourmet over many other food magazines is that their recipes always worked.

Until now.

It was strange--I followed the recipe but the half cup of white wine never quite cooked away, even after 45 minutes. I turned up the heat towards the end but was afraid to overcook the meat so I ended up just draining away the excess. As for the second step, I only added in half the amount of liquid and was glad I did--after four hours there was still a bit of liquid left.

Their bechamel sauce didn't succeed either so I ended up adapting it with the techinque I learned in school. When all was said and done, the lasagna baked beautifully and was delicious. But as I sipped my wine, I realized I was no longer as devastated over Gourmet Magazine's decease--needless to say, it seemed as though its recipe testers didn't always do a thorough job.

Below is a recipe for success, I promise!

Classic Lasagna Bolognese
-adapted from Gourmet Magazine (with my edits)

1/2 pound no-boil dried pasta
1 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
2 T olive oil
2 T butter
1 small onion, chopped
1/2 c chopped celery
1/2 c finely chopped carrot
1 lb ground beef
1/4 c dry white wine
2 c canned plum tomatoes, seeds removed and roughly chopped
1/2 c tomato juice (reserved from the canned tomatoes)

1) Heat the oil and butter together over low heat in a pot until the butter is melted.
2) Add the onion, celery, carrot and cook until wilted.
3) Add the meat, breaking up the meat with a fork or spoon. Cook over low heat, stirring frequently. Season the meat with salt/pepper, add the wine and allow the wine to cook down until it is almost dry. If it cooks down too quickly, you can add a little more. Cook the meat until it is just barely pink.
4) Add the tomatoes and 1/2 c tomato juice. Simmer over low heat for 3-4 hours, stirring occasionally. If the tomato juice cooks off you can add a little bit of water. If you still have juice remaining at the end of 4 hours, drain off the excess.

Bechamel Sauce:
3 cups milk
6 T butter
6 T flour
1/2 t salt
1/2 t finely ground pepper

1) Heat the milk over low heat but do not boil (it should be hot enough so that your finger can only stand the heat for 2 seconds).
2) In a sauce pot, melt the butter over low heat. When it is completely melted, quickly take the pot off the heat and whisk in the flour slowly to avoid lumps. Bring the pot back to the heat, and cook for about 1-2 minutes over medium-low heat. The flour should have a slight toasty smell.
3) Gradually pour in the milk, and whisk over medium heat until slightly thickened (it should completely coat a spoon). Take it off the heat. The whole process should take no longer than 5-10 minutes. Should your sauce become too thick and gloppy (this will happen if you don't take it off the heat right away), take it off the heat immediately and pour in a small amount of milk. Whisk until it is thoroughly incorporated.
4) Cool for 10 minutes before using. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

To assemble:
Spread the bottom of a baking pan with a thin layer of bechamel. Lay the no-boil pasta sheets over the bechamel in a single layer. Spread a thin layer of meat over the pasta, then a thin layer of bechamel, and then a sprinkle of cheese. Repeat until the meat sauce is used, then cover with a final layer of pasta. Spread bechamel and cheese on top.

Bake for 45 minutes. If the top has not yet browned by this time, you can broil it for 1-2 minutes (but keep your eye on it!).

Bon appetit!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Quick and Easy Mango Sticky Rice

If there's one thing my husband and I order at every Thai restaurant we dine at, it's the mango sticky rice. I could be too full for dessert, and we will still order the mango sticky rice. I could not have an appetite for dinner, and we will still order the mango sticky rice.

It eventually dawned on me that the ingredients for mango sticky rice were so cheap it made economical sense to make this dessert at home. A plate of fruit brunois and rice with coconut milk is $1-$2 per plate and here we were, paying $6 a plate (and happily doing so, I might add). I knew how to make rice and dice mango--how hard could it be to put the two together?

When a guest chef came to my culinary school to demonstrate Thai cooking and mango sticky rice was on the menu, I was elated. Finally, I would learn how to make this dessert, and never again would we have to overpay for this dish. I mentally calculated how the four buckaroos would add up to our rainy day savings.

Oh, but life is seldom so easy. Apparently the proper way to make mango sticky rice takes two days. Two days! I was not going to waste two days to make a dessert. I'll pay six dollars any day to save two days of my life.

Or maybe, it could be easy. I reread the recipe when I got home, and decided to take some shortcuts. I'm normally not a fan of cheater avenues as often times it doesn't feel genuine, but in this case I wondered if I could save a lot of time without sacrificing a lot of the taste.

Eventually, this recipe came to being. I served it to a friend of mine recently, and after she heard my story I joked I could be the new Rachel Ray.

"But gourmet," she said, as she polished off the last grain of rice.

Quick and Easy Mango Sticky Rice
Serves 4

2 c sweet rice

Rice Seasoning
2/3 c unsweetened coconut milk
1/3 c granulated sugar
generous pinch of salt

Coconut Sauce
1/2 c coconut cream (scraped from the can of the coconut milk; if you don't have enough substitute with more coconut milk)
1/4 c brown sugar

1 ripe mango, peeled and small diced
4 T coconut, toasted

1) Follow the instructions on the rice bag and cook the rice appropriately. A rice cooker is best but a small pot will do.
2) Toast the coconut at 300 degrees for 3 minutes or until it is a light golden brown.
3) When the rice is nearly done, combine the coconut milk, sugar and salt in a saucepan. Bring the mixture to a simmer over low heat and stir until the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat.
4) Combine the coconut cream and brown sugar in a seperate sauce pan and bring to a simmer over low heat. Stir until the sugar dissolves, then set aside.
5) When the rice is done, let it rest for about ten minutes. Then pour the rice seasoning over the rice, and gently combine with a rice paddle or a rubber spatula.

To serve:
Fill a small ramekin with the rice and gently push it down with a rice paddle (or spatula). Invert it onto a plate, spoon some of the coconut sauce over the rice and then sprinkle 1 T of the toasted coconut on top. Spoon some of the diced mango around the plate. Repeat with the remaining three plates.

For optimal flavor and texture, serve immediately or within an hour. After an hour the rice starts to become a little gummy.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Sour Cream Cheesecake

Back when I used to be athletic (ha), I had a tennis coach who insisted that his mother made the best cheesecake in the world. At the time, my high school taste buds thought the Cheesecake Factory had the best cheesecake I ever tasted, and I was dubious that anyone's homemade version could top that.

And then one day, he gave me an entire 12" cheesecake for me and my family to share.

Laden with berries, the cheesecake he gave us had a sophisticated tinge of...something. I didn't know what it was at the time, but it really was the best cheesecake I ever had.

I suppose I grew up a little that day. I finally understood what "complex flavors" meant--when sweetness is combined with another flavor dimension, it can make something as simple as a cheesecake into a mind-blowing memory.

It's been years since I've talked to my coach, and I recently had a hankering for that cheesecake. The only clue I remembered was that his mother used to work at Draeger's supermarket in Los Altos, so off I went, driving 25 minutes for a figment of my imagination.

When I arrived, I realized how ridiculous it all was. I didn't even know his mother's name. As I gazed at the pastry display case in my stupor, I read the ingredient list for Draeger's cheesecake.
Sour cream.

But of course. Why didn't I figure it out earlier? Whipping out my trusty Blackberry, I searched for a sour cream cheesecake recipe. And right on top was one by Alton Brown that had 5 out of 5 stars by 141 people. Good enough for me. I was going to try this recipe at home.

Sour Cream Cheesecake
recipe adapted from Alton Brown

Oreo crust (you can buy it premade or make your own)

20 oz cream cheese
1 1/4 cups sour cream
1 cup sugar
1 T vanilla
2 eggs
3 yolks
1/3 cup heavy cream

Preheat oven to 250 degrees.

In a mixer with a paddle attachment, beat sour cream for 10 seconds. Add the cream cheese and sugar and mix on low for 30 seconds and then turn up to medium. Scrape the bowl.

In a separate container, combine vanilla, eggs, yolks and heavy cream. With the mixer on medium, slowly pour the mixture in. When half of it is incorporated, stop and scrape. Continue adding the mixture until the rest of the ingredients are incorporated. Once combined, pour into the crust.

Place cheesecake into a preheated water bath, in the oven for 1 1/2 hours. Turn the oven off and open the door for one minute. Close the door for one more hour. Remove the cheesecake from the water bath and place in the refrigerator for 6 hours to completely cool before serving.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Eric's Birthday Cake

My friend's birthday was this past week, and I was at a loss for what to give as a present. He's an avid gamer, but like most gamers, he already owned all the games he wanted to play.

"Why don't you make him a game cake?" my brilliant husband asked.

Countless Mario cakes have already been made, and I wanted mine to be different. So I searched the web for a screenshot of the classic game, and came up with this:

Can you guess my friend's name, his birthday, and how old he is now? :)

Monday, September 14, 2009

My Father-in-Law's Meatloaf

I never had meatloaf as a kid. My mom rarely made "American" food, so my family never saw it on the dinner table. It wasn't until college I finally had my first bite of meatloaf in the dorms and understood why it was so unappealing to the masses--shoveling through a dense, compressed brick of dry meat with a fork just seemed like a chore. I could diet on meatloaf because I never wanted to eat any. Plus there were all these weird colored specks packed in. It was as if the person who made the dish didn't have more than a celery rib to spare.

In fact, the first meatloaf I finally ever liked wasn't even made out of meat. If you haven't tried the "neatloaf" at Ananda Fuara in San Francisco, I suggest you give it a try. Don't let the fact the restaurant is in the Tenderloin scare you. Brave that urine smell and try something new.

When my husband and I first started dating, he kept asking if he could make his dad's meatloaf recipe for me. I kept making excuses. Most girls would go ga-ga over a guy who pleads to cook, but honestly? Meatloaf does not turn me on.

Eventually the day came. He made the meatloaf; I pored over a fashion magazine. Three mags later, my stomach growled. Are you done yet, I half-whined (it came from my stomach, I swear). The kitchen was a disaster, but my dear was in the midst of pulling the meatloaf out of the oven. Ten minutes later, dinner was ready.

I remember that first bite. It was good. I loved it so much I begged him for his dad's (now father-in-law) recipe. Four weeks later, he finally forwarded it to me:


This is from my memory since I am away from home. The quantity of seasoning
can be adjustable depending on what you feel like. You can also add other
herbs or stuff that you like to the meatloaf .

2 pounds ground beef (regular, not too lean) or half and half with
ground pork

1 egg
1 diced onion
1 shredded carrot
1 diced apple
1 cup 3-minute Quaker's oat meal (I always use), or bread crumbs
1 stalk diced celery
1/4 t ground pepper
1 t salt
1 T soy sauce/Worcester sauce

Mix all ingredients. If you don't like to clean the baking pan, you can line with aluminum foil before filling it up with the mixed ingredients. Bake at 350F for about 1 1/2 hours. When the top browns, the meatloaf should be done. Let it cool about 5-10 minutes before taking it out. Otherwise it might fall apart. Enjoy with ketchup and Worcester sauce.

Bon Appetit!


*Hint* For a nice meatloaf crust, securely pack the meat into the loaf pan and release the meat by flipping over the pan onto a foil-lined sheet before sticking it into the oven (see top photo).

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Those Cute Little Feet (or French Macaroons)

A month ago, one of my good friends asked if I, his friend-who-just-graduated-from-culinary-school, could help him with something.

I was more than happy to oblige, but when I found out what it was for, I tried my best not to fall into a pile of girly mushiness.

Apparently he had befriended a cute girl at a recent group dinner, and for dessert noticed she was "gobbling up" a plate of French macaroons. So my friend decided that in order to show his affection, he would learn how to make macaroons and present them to her.

I know, "awwwww" right?

"No problem!" I told my friend after I heard the story.

Except that there WAS a problem. I never learned how to make macaroons in school. I mean, I learned how to make the coconut kind, but not the French kind. So after extensive reading, here is what I learned about making French macaroons:

-A proper macaroon is smooth with no cracks
-A proper macaroon has "feet"--a crackly, puffed second layer that measures about 1/16-inch high. If your macaroon has no feet, you either overmixed it or underbaked.
-You have to be in a good mood for them to turn out right.

Ok, sounded simple enough. And the recipe I was using sounded simple too. My pastry teacher even let me make a batch at school during one of the nights I was assisting her.

An hour later, the pastry teacher came round and asked me how the macaroons were coming along. "Great!" I replied, and showed her my tray of piped macaroons. She shook her head in disapproval.

"You underbeat the egg whites," she said. "See how they are spreading out as they are drying?"

I decided I would make round two at home.

This time, my friend was around to help me. I made sure the egg whites were at a definite stiff peak this time, but unfortunately my friend was still sifting the almond meal by the time the whites were done and waiting. So I kept whisking, and I should have listened to my gut to NOT add the expensive almond meal in, to just start over, but I didn't. By the time my friend added in the sifted almond meal, I knew it was a lost cause. The whites were dry and crumbly. We baked them anyway. They turned out like little turds:

Lovely, purply turds. But turds. With no feet.

Time for round three. This time I whipped the whites until they were *almost* to a stiff peak but not quite. I also decided not to dye them with any color. I didn't need any more factors that might ruin this batch.

Better, but they still spread out a little more than they should have. Meaning, I just barely underbeat the egg whites again. Also I should have achieved more feet--so I might have underbaked them just a bit.

So three trials later, this is what I learned:
-Do not underbeat the egg whites, or they will spread and become flat.
-Do not overbeat the egg whites, or you will end up with snail-like turds.
-For perfection, keep trying. One day, you might get there.

French Macaroons
200g confectioner's sugar (aka powdered sugar)
110g blanched almond meal (available at most grocery stores)
100g egg whites, room temp, preferably aged overnight
Cream of tartar
30g granulated sugar

Food coloring (optional)

1) Sift together confectioner's sugar and almond meal and set aside.
2) In a stand mixer with a whisk attachment, whisk egg whites and a pinch of cream of tartar to a foam. Gradually add sugar and whip to a stiff peak. Whites should be firm and shiny. If desired, add food coloring.
3) Add sugar-almond mixture to whites and fold until completely incorporated. The mixture should be smooth, shiny and able to flow off a spoon.
4) Pipe small rounds (about 1 1/2") with a piping bag onto parchment covered sheet trays. Let macaroons dry at room temp for an hour.
5) Bake at 300 for about 16 minutes.

Cool completely, then fill with buttercream, jelly or ganache.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Jasmine Infused Rice Pudding (or Forgive me, Please)

When it rains, it pours.

My husband and I fought not once, not twice, but five times last week. Each fight was louder than the last, and became about dumber things as the days dragged by. For those of you who have a spouse, you know what I mean--most of us in our single lives would never imagine fighting about a laundry machine dial. But you do. And somehow, life goes on.

Some say the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, and my husband is no exception. Give him something fried or laced with bacon, and he will swoon. Knowing this, whenever we have a fight I usually cook those very things to seek forgiveness. But this time I wanted to do something that showed a little more love and sacrifice.

As I flipped through my trusty Martha Stewart cookbook (yes, yes...I graduated from culinary school but I still adore her recipes), I saw a recipe that made me wince:

Jasmine Rice Pudding.

Don't get me wrong, it has nothing to do with Martha Stewart or the beautiful flavor of jasmine. I winced because I HATE rice pudding. Absolutely hate it. I never understood why anyone would take perfectly good rice and spoil it into a disgusting dessert. But my husband loves it. I knew if I made rice pudding, he would know I did it only for him.

I gave the ingredients list a quick look and as I suspected, I had everything at home. Perfect. I had an hour to whip it up before I had to pick my husband up from the train station.

Jasmine Rice Pudding (adapted from Martha Stewart)
(serves 6 to 8)

1 quart whole milk
1/4 cup jasmine tea leaves (use the real thing, not bagged tea)
3 cups water
1 1/3 cups jasmine rice
1 t kosher salt
1 T unsalted butter
1 1/2 c sugar

1) Heat milk in medium saucepan until hot but not boiling (I turned the heat off when it was almost too hot to the touch). Add the tea leaves. Remove from heat. Cover the saucepan, and steep for 20 minutes; strain milk and set aside.

2) Rice cooker method: Make rice as you normally would with the called for amount of jasmine rice/water/salt above.

Non-rice cooker method: In a medium pot, bring the water to a boil. Stir in the rice and salt. Reduce heat to low; cover, and cook until rice is tender and liquid has disappeared (about 15-20 min).

3) When the rice is ready, stir in the flavored milk, butter and one-half cup of the sugar (I emphasize this because you don't want to throw it all in right now) into rice. Cover, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring until sugar is dissolved and pudding is thick, about 30 min.

4) Spoon the rice pudding into dessert dishes (I used ramekins). Lay a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface of each pudding to prevent a skin from forming, then transfer dishes into the fridge.

5) Place the remaining cup of sugar in a medium skillet over medium-low heat. Cook without stirring until amber in color, about 10-15 minutes. Pour caramel over top of each pudding, and serve immediately.

Verdict? Let's just say I took a tentative bite before serving it to my husband and my eyes widened in surprise. I actually really liked it! I've had rice pudding in fine dining restaurants before (when my husband ordered it of course) and didn't even like it then. This Martha Stewart recipe helped me appreciate the dessert in a new light.

One difference for this, I believe, is that the rice for this recipe was cooked perfectly al dente. Most rice puddings I've tried in the past were either mushy or hard, whether it was Rice to Riches in NYC or a triple-digit restaurant. I also thought the amount of sweetness was perfect--it wasn't overwhelming and balanced well with the subtle jasmine. But the aroma of infused jasmine tea leaves was the amazing part--I didn't think such a delicate flavor would work for a hearty dessert, but it did, and beautifully at that.

So what did the husband think? He liked it of course ("SO GOOD," he said), though he thinks the rice pudding he makes is up to par. Potentially another fight in the making? Maybe. But until then, we're living happily ever after together...with our ramekins of rice pudding.