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September 2010

September 27, 2010

Chocolate, warmed to 94 degrees

I can make a grocery list without the phone ringing off the hook.  I can shop for food without having to abandon my half-full grocery cart in the middle of the store to attend to a client's media crisis.  I have food in the house, and I have time to cook it.  My days are still busy, but much more manageable, now.  My nights even more so.  I am getting more than 5 hours of sleep.  I feel like I can breathe again.

Over the past week, late at night I've found myself standing in the front yard, looking southward in the sky staring at the waxing-then-full-now-waning moon, with Jupiter just below.  This past weekend, my neighbors and I had a roaring fire going in my copper fire pit, and we roasted hot dogs and marshmallows for s'mores.  We started at 6 o'clock on Saturday night and didn't turn in until well past midnight.  We listened to the pair of barred owls in the woods hoot and call to each other, and saw one of them swoop down my street, just under the street light at the end of the block, before flying to its tree in the woods.  We stuffed our faces with s'mores and drank wine.  We listened to the kids debate who was more annoying: Miley Cyrus or Selena Gomez (it was a tie).  We took turns with the binoculars to look at Jupiter's moons ... something we'll not be able to see again in our lifetime.

It's things like this that bring me back to center and recharge my batteries.

*   *   *   *   *

My nephew and his grandpa (my dad) have something very important in common: an undying, almost-addictive love of chocolate popsicles.  I grew up in a house with a freezer full of chocolate ice cream (from which great milkshakes were born) and Fudgesicles galore, because my dad loved the stuff (and it was the '70s: where there was always dessert after dinner).  Now that my dad is a little older, he's changed his snack and dessert portion sizes to that of a popsicle.  We will not go into my theory that eating seven popsicles is probably worse than a scoop or two of ice cream.  But that is neither here nor there.  Ahem.

Every time my parents babysat their grandson this summer, the little guy would run and jump and act like a crazy dude around noon -- not just because it was the time my dad came home from the office for lunch, but because it meant there would be chocolate popsicles for dessert.  Grandpa is #1 in this kid's heart, but chocolate popsicles?  Not even a #2.  More like a #1.5.

After they ate lunch, my laptop would bbbrrrrrrrriiinnnnggggg with an incoming Skype call, and my nephew could hardly wait to tell me about his dessert: cha-LOCK-a-lit possickles.  To hear that two-year-old little monkey butt say "cha-LOCK-a-lit" was hilarious.  So, of course, I asked every conceivable question that could result in him using that word/pronunciation in his answer.  It never got old.

So when I scanned the Alinea cookbook and my now-outdated cooking planning calendar (thanks a lot, job) to figure out what I wanted to cook next, I read this recipe to myself as Cholocolate, warmed to 94 degrees.

And away we go...

I spent some time among some glorious, bountiful fig trees in northern California in early August, but the fruit was still green and hadn't yet ripened.  I hear they're now out in full force, and it was all I could do to not hop on a plane back out there to pluck them off the tree myself.  Instead, I drove to Whole Foods and picked up a few boxes of figs—a fruit I really didn't "get" for years and years, and now can't imagine living without:

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The first element of this dish I needed to work on was drying figs for bergamot tea.  So, the day before I knew I was going to serve this dish, I halved a whole mess o' figs and dehydrated them overnight at 150F degrees:

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I did two racks of them, which came out to just under the 125g of dried figs I needed.  Not bad for a guesstimate.

I put the dried figs into a bowl until I needed to use them, and got started on the chocolate mousse, which also needed to be dehydrated.  Here's my mise en place (egg whites, sugar, salt, egg yolks, chocolate):

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I melted the chocolate in a bowl placed over a saucepan of simmering water:

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And, as it was melting, I whipped the egg whites (and salt) until they became frothy and were just starting to get foamy:

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I added the sugar and kept whipping until just before the stiff-peak phase:

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See?  Just soft peaks:

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I removed the chocolate from the burner, took the bowl out of the saucepan, and stirred to make sure the chocolate (which in my head as I type this looks and sounds like cha-LOCK-a-lit) was completely melted. I also whisked in the egg yolks.  Then, I folded in a third of the whipped egg whites: 

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And after that was pretty full incorporated, I added the rest of the egg whites, folding them in gently until it was a creamy, smooth mousse:

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I spooned the mousse onto a Pam-sprayed, acetate-lined dehydrator tray (I filled 3 of them):

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And, I set the dehydrator on 150F degrees, and let it dehydrate for 8 hours.  The book said it would need 6 hours, but I know my dehydrator well enough (and the humid day I was cooking) to know I'd need longer.

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While the chocolate mousse was in the dehydrator, I made the cassia ice cream.  Since I couldn't find cassia buds, I used cinnamon sticks instead, which I simmered and let steep in some milk:

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After the cinnamon steepage, I poured the liquid through a fine mesh strainer and into a bowl where I added some already-soaked gelatin sheets, sugar, milk powder, glucose, and condensed milk and mixed it all with my immersion blender:

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I processed it in my ice-cream maker and put the ice cream in the freezer to harden further.  You'll see the ice cream in the final plating photo (but man, did it ever smell goooooood while I was making it).  Oh, and ***TANGENT ALERT*** while the ice cream was processing, and the figs (below) were simmering, I used the leftover sweetened condensed milk to make what I think might be the best thing in the whole world: dulce de leche:

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Alright, let's get back to the recipe.

Time to braise some figs.  I halved 12 figs and simmered them in some ruby port and dry red wine (along with a little glucose and sugar) for about 30 minutes:

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I strained the figs and let them cool, and reduced the fig braising liquid to a glaze:

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I let both of them come to room temperature before combining the figs and the glaze in a small deli container for storage until I needed them to serve the dish.

Next to last: I made the bergamot tea.  This couldn't have been easier.  In a small-ish saucepan, I combined the figs I'd dried the night before, sugar, water, and salt and brought it to a boil.  I turned off the burner and added some Earl Grey tea leaves, covered the pot, and let it steep for 5 minutes.  [Now, I'm not a tea lover, but there's something about the smell of bergamot in Early Grey tea that makes me feel all cozy inside.]  After it had steeped, I poured the liquid through a cheesecloth-lined fine-mesh strainer into a bowl and let it come to room temperature.  Then, I added some Ultra-Tex 3 and blended it with my immersion blender for 3 minutes, per the book's instructions.  I let it rest on the counter until it was time to plate.

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The last step was, perhaps, the trickiest.  Bringing chocolate -- chunks of a plain old bar of chocolate -- to 94 degrees.  It's melty, but not melted.  It's soft, but not gooey.  It's silky and shiny, but not gloppy.  It needed to retain its shape, but be soft enough to to push a pin through it with no resistance.  And, it had to be done while the chocolate pieces were already resting atop the pieces of dehydrated chocolate mousse.

The book suggested leaving it on the stovetop with the oven turned on, and hinted that it might take 20 minutes to reach 94 degrees.  I know myself (and my lack of experience, especially when it comes to being successful at making desserts), so I allotted 45 minutes for this step.  Which, it turns out I needed.

I placed the pieces of 64 percent cacao chocolate onto the squares of dehydrated mousse, and laid them on a Silpat-lined baking sheet.  I didn't want to put them directly in the oven, because I knew it would be harder to control the heat. 

So, I placed them on the stovetop, right near the oven vent... where it gets really warm.  So, how warm should the oven be to generate the kind of heat I needed to bring the chocolate to 94 degrees, without getting too hot that it would melt?

200 degrees?

Nope.

300 degrees?

Uh-uh.

400? 

Close.  But still no increase in the chocolate's temperature.

I turned my oven to 425, and checked the chocolate's temperature every minute.  Slowly it climbed from 74 degrees... to 76, then 77, then 82... and then stayed there for a few minutes.  It inched up a degree at a time, until it got to 94 degrees (94.3 actually) and I turned off the oven and removed the chocolate from the stovetop and started plating.

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First in the bowl?  Four braised fig halves, in their glaze.  Next to that went the cinnamon ice cream.  On top went the 94-degree chocolate-topped dehydrated chocolate mousse, which was topped with bee balm flowers (bergamot flowers are out of season right now).  My friends carried their bowls out to the table, and I poured in the tea around the base of the dessert:

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Pretty, isn't it?  But how did it taste?

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She's gonna kill me for posting that photo, but I don't care.

This dessert was really, really good.  Even better than I thought it was going to be.  Almost as good as being able to see most of Jupiter's moons.  Seriously. 

These ingredients were so wonderful together.  I also loved how the soft warmth of the chocolate tempered the ice cream.  The figs were sweet, but not overly sweet, and the wines were noticeable but not at all overpowering or domineering.  The tea added a really nice aromatic quality to the dessert in addition to tasting really good.  The texture of the dehydrated mousse was crunchy and chewy, and tasted like a compressed brownie.  In fact, I have some leftover dehydrated chocolate mousse and leftover cinnamon ice cream, so as soon as I hit the Publish button on this bad boy, I'mma make myself an ice cream sandwich.

But you guys?  This dessert?  Worth it.  Maybe it's because I've been so stressed out for the past month, but this, combined with fire pits, planet-gazing, hot dogs, s'mores, and wine, has made for a pretty memorable September.

Up Next: Tomato, balloons of mozzarella, many complementary flavors (I don't want to wait until next summer to do this dish, and this is the last week for tomatoes here in DC)

Resources: Figs from Whole Foods; Sandeman ruby port; The Squid's Fist wine; glucose from L'Epicerie; Domino sugar; Twinings Earl Grey tea; Ultra-Tex 3 from Terra Spice; cinnamon from HMart; Natural by Nature whole milk; gelatin sheets from King Arthur Flour; Organic Valley nonfat powdered milk; Borden sweetened condensed milk; Green & Black's 72% cacao chocolate; Ghirardelli 64% chocolate; eggs from Smith Meadows Farm; David's kosher salt; bee balm from my garden.

Music to Cook By: XTC; Oranges and Lemons.  I think "The Loving" might be in my top 20 favorite songs of all time.

Read My Previous Post: I made lamb stock, and all is well with the world...

September 20, 2010

I made lamb stock, and all is well with the world...

Late last week, I tweeted about the very distinct possibility that I might have a few hours of downtime over the weekend.  And, as soon as I saw the words appear on the screen, I kicked myself, because I thought I might've jinxed it. 

But alas, I did indeed have a few hours on Sunday with no work to be done, no deadlines to meet, no conference calls to run, no all-day strategy sessions to attend.  

First things first -- I went to the farmers' market:

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The middle of September is betwixt and between when it comes to produce in this part of the country.  Is it summer or is it fall?  Well, there are still a few stone fruits (last of the peaches) and tomatoes, but they're displayed on tables next to honeycrisp apples, which scream fall to me, and sweet potatoes (just thinking about them makes me want to wear a sweater).  Green beans and pea shoots next to winter squash.  I don't mind it, though.  This straddling of seasons makes me far more happy than the bridge from winter into spring, where if I see one more beet or turnip, I'll scream.  The weather here was so weird this year that nothing came into season when it typically does.  Some things were way early (corn), while others ripened weeks past their usual time (tomatoes).  I love fairytale eggplant, so I stocked up on those and will make a curry later this week with them.  And, my favorite egg and meat guy just started doing chorizo, so I had to get some of that. 

The other thing I bought?

Lamb bones:  DSC_0003

Since I only had a few hours to cook, and I wanted to prep some food for daily consumption this week (I love Indian and Thai takeout, but 5 weeks of it has wreaked havoc on my girlish figure), I decided to make some lamb stock, using the recipe in the Alinea cookbook.  I needed my house to smell like someone who cooks lives here.

I like to think I've mastered stock.  I can do The French Laundry's veal stock without hesitation.  I make a mean chicken stock, vegetable stock, fish stock, corn cob stock, and even goat stock.  I am pretty traditional in my aromats, but every now and then I like to mix it up.  For instance, using rue instead of thyme in goat stock, and then cooking beans in that stock?  Love. Adding summer savory to corn cob stock, then making risotto with it?  You might pass out, it's so good.

Per the book's instructions, I took 5 pounds of lamb bones, arranged them evenly in a roasting pan, and roasted them in a 400-degree oven for an hour.  I turned the bones every 15 minutes so they'd cook evenly and not stick to the pan:

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While they roasted, I sat outside at my table, drank an incredibly awesome cup of coffee, and read about my boyfriend, Michael Bloomberg's, latest political endeavors:

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After an hour, the bones looked like this:

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I put them into my giant stock pot, covered them with water (and added more so that the water line was 6 inches above the bones), and brought it to a simmer.  I skimmed off the gunk that rose to the surface of the water, then stirred in tomato paste, carrots, onions, thyme, and peppercorns:

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I stirred, and skimmed, and let it simmer for 6 hours over low-medium heat:

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I removed the bones and threw them away.  Then, I poured the stock (with the remaining vegetables and a few residual bone chunks) through a fine-mesh strainer into another stock pot:

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The sun set on what had been a particularly lovely and not-stressful day, and I finished the stock.  I brought it up to a simmer over medium heat and let it cook until I only had about 1000g left.

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With just a few minutes to go before Mad Men started, voilà!  A thousand grams of lamb stock ... now chilled in the fridge and headed to the freezer in a few minutes until I'm ready to use it for the "Lamb, in cubism" dish.

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My house smells amazing.  I love that something as simple as stock can make a good day great.

For now?  It's back to the grind. But I'm dreaming of something sweet, and can't wait to get up to my elbows in chocolate.

Up Next: Chocolate, warmed to 94 degrees

Resources: Lamb bones from Smith Meadows Farm; onions and carrots from Twin Springs Fruit Farm; thyme from my garden; peppercorns from the pantry; and, Muir Glen tomato paste.

Music to Cook By: The Doobie Brothers; Best of.  Because "China Grove" makes the act of chopping vegetables even more cathartic.

September 14, 2010

I jinxed myself. I should know better.

In my last post, I wrote:

It's the end of August.

Congress is out of session.

My phone isn't ringing.

My email is (mostly) quiet.

This is the last chance for some downtime before the holidays, so I'm going to take full advantage of it.

See you after Labor Day...

If I may, I'd like to edit/amend the above:

It's the end of August. [True.  It was the end of August.]

Congress is out of session. [This is/was also true.]

My phone isn't ringing. [See?  This is where I went wrong.  I never should have typed this.]

My email is (mostly) quiet. [Never should have written this either. I AM SUCH A MORON.]

This is the last chance for some downtime before the holidays, so I'm going to take full advantage of it. [AAAAAAAAHAAHAHHAHAHAAHAHA!!]

See you after Labor Day... [Uh, yeah. Labor Day 2011.]

That post went up at 6:05 p.m., August 21.

I spent all day Sunday, August 22 canning and preserving food for this article in The Washington Post.  I also mowed and pulled weeds in the garden to fend off a location scout for The New Sanford & Son.  That evening, I relaxed on the front porch with a glass of wine and some leftovers from my birthday dinner a few nights before, thinking to myself these next two weeks are gonna be AWESOME.

And the next day, August 23, all hell broke loose for two of my clients and I've been working 18-hour days ever since.  That's not an exaggeration.  Quite literally, I wake up at 7 and start work and do not finish work until I go to bed around midnight or 1 a.m.  I sometimes put listen-only conference calls on mute and speakerphone while I am in the shower.  The phone does not stop ringing (there are reporters around the world interested in one of the issues I'm working on now and the concept of time zones doesn't always work when you're on deadline), the email does not stop coming in, and things are changing and developing minute-by-minute such that I have had to leave the grocery store three separate times, empty-handed, to handle a work crisis... never mind the dinners with friends and lunches with other clients I've had to cancel. [Not to mention the fact that it's taken me eight days to get this post up on the site.]  Deep breath...

I know.  Poor, poor me.  First-world problems and all.

This is all to say that, factoring in some travel and a two-week work project in California, I have not cooked since July 20 -- not for myself, and not for anyone else.  AND IT'S DRIVING ME BONKERS.

I don't have any food in the house -- it would only spoil.

I have eaten approximately 6,498,127 gluten-free Larabars.

I have gone through 4 boxes of Rice Chex.

The guys at my local Indian restaurant see my number on caller ID and answer the phone saying, "Hello Carol, we will see you in 15 minutes."

So you can imagine how the lack of any sort of balanced diet is contributing to my already sky-high stress levels.  I'm a real joy to be around.

I open the Alinea cookbook nearly every other day, and just as I start to make a shopping list and figure out a timeline for making one of the recipes, the phone rings or my email explodes with another judicial action, federal appeal, Congressional statement, or reporter looking for some background. 

I love my job, and I am incredibly passionate about the issues I work on.

But I need to chop something.  Badly.

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