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Saturday, December 31, 2011

As Smooth As Butter

After living in Europe and Africa for 10 years as the kid of an Army officer, my father moved our family back to the States to prepare for his Army retirement. Before the actual move, we took an extended European farewell tour as we made our way to Naples, Italy to board the U.S.S. Constitution for our trans-Atlantic journey home.. We lived out of suitcases for weeks while we country-hopped from Africa to Egypt, Turkey, Greece, Spain, and Italy. The last leg of our trip resulted in a two week stay in Rome before taking a final train ride to Naples for our Atlantic sailing. 

We stayed in an ancient crumbling hotel overlooking a piazza dotted with fountains, people, and rambling motorbikes.  By American standards, the hotel certainly would have been condemned.  It wasn't America. Situated on the edge of an old Italian piazza, our hotel was considered  a thing of beauty. We had modest accomodations with marbled floors that glistened under floor-to-ceiling windows purposely cracked open for fresh air which allowed sheer white curtains to flutter from warm gentle breezes.  Heaven.

As a nod to public safety, (and our own) we were told to stay off of the balcony. It was probably hanging onto the side of the hotel by a mere whisper of hope.  Being an inquisitive and precocious kid, I was fascinated with the off-limits balcony. How could it be forbidden territory?  It was ours, wasn't it? I stared at that damn balcony every morning, yearning to test the warnings  by jumping up and down on it with my heavy scruffed-up Buster Brown lace-up shoes. As much as I wanted to test the fates, I played by the rules and left the balcony alone.   My father was an Army Major.  There would have been hell to pay for that mischief.

We spent our days in Rome sightseeing and eating our way around the city. Although the various pastas, pizzas, and pastries were fabulous, my fondest Roman food memory was the simple butter that accompanied our morning continental breakfasts. Served at room temperature in tiny glass bowls on  linen covered trays, the butter arrived every morning surrounded by crunchy rolls and pots of jam. Sweet. Clean. Fresh. I couldn't get enough of it.

Nowadays, when Michael and I want high end European style butter, we'll simply buy Plugra, President, or Kerrygold Irish butter.  When I crave the taste of my childhood Roman holiday, I'll make butter.

A few nights ago, I caved into my craving and literally whipped up 1/2 pound of fresh soft butter.

No recipe.  I really didn't do anything.  It just happened.

Using a stand mixer with a whisk attachment, I whipped a pint of organic heavy whipping cream until it formed beautiful stiff peaks.  Whipped cream.  Standard.

After thoroughly wrapping the stand mixer with plastic wrap, (trust me on that) I turned the speed up to medium high and let it rip for about 25 minutes until the whipped cream broke apart and I could see splashing liquid splattering around the mixing bowl. I turned off the mixer and removed the plastic wrap.  Fresh butter dangled over a pool of residual buttermilk.  Fabulous.

After scooping the soft  butter into a chinois to drain, I squeezed it into a ball to release any additional liquid.  

I tossed the buttermilk, scraped the creamy fresh butter into an eggplant-shaped butter dish, and topped it fresh snipped chives. 

Bon Appetito!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Elfin Shenanigans... Snacks, Leftovers & Stuff

A few nights ago, we had a few friends over to share a little holiday cheer. After a full night of merry making, we tucked the nutcrackers into their silver tree branches and unplugged the Christmas Disco Seal before dragging our tired butts to bed.

Early the next morning, (still tightly bound in my red and green elf tights) I was back in the kitchen scrubbing  cabernet sauvignon splatters from every kitchen appliance. It was hysterical. 

When everything was clean and back in order, I scrounged for something simple  to cook for dinner. With small snippets of leftover party snacks dotting every inch of refrigerater space, things looked bleak until I found a small tub of Dad's Favorites Beer Cheese tucked under a glistening halved pomegranate in the vegetable bin. In a split hangover-induced second, it dawned on me that beer cheese would make a great filling for grilled cheese sandwiches.

I'm a firm believer that a little hair of the dog soothes a weary hangover, so Michael and I chugged a few margaritas as an elixir to ours.  Emboldened by the power of tequila on a quiet Sunday afternoon, I threw together a couple of ordinary white bread sandwich loaves for our grilled beer cheese sandwiches.

Thankfully, my 18 year old KitchenAid stand mixer did most of the work.
I proofed 1 tablespoon of yeast with 1/2 cup warm water (110 degrees) 1 tablespoon sugar, and a pinch of salt in the bowl of the mixer. When it bubbled and foamed, I added 3 1/2 cups bread flour, attached the dough hook, and blended the mixture on low speed until it was fully incorporated.  After adding an additional 3 1/2 cups flour, 1 cup warm water,  I cranked the speed to medium and let it rip for 10 minutes before turning the dough out on a floured cutting board.

I gave the plump dough a few pats, tucked it into a ball, and dropped it into an oiled bowl (covered) to rise and double in size before slicing it in half with a bench scraper.  I folded the halves in rectangles, pinched the seams, snuggled them into 2 buttered loaf pans, and let them rest for a second rise.

After 45 minutes, I slit the tops of the loaves, brushed them with egg wash, and slid them into a 350 degree oven to bake  until golden brown.

Once the loaves cooled completely on a wire rack, I sliced enough pieces for Michael to make killer grilled beer cheese sandwiches flecked with baby arugula and biting minced shallots. Jacked up comfort food. The  buttered crunchy grilled white bread oozed with spicy beer cheese. While the slightly wilted baby arugula provided fresh peppery bitterness, tiny shallots added subtle bursts of wetness. Elevated grilled cheese. Fabulous.

A couple of nights later, Michael's sister stopped by with a friend. We needed snacks, so I sliced the remaining bread into very thin batons, trimmed the crusts, brushed them olive oil, and baked  the crostini until they were golden brown.  After they cooled, I topped them with sliced brie, caramelized pears, and toasted pecans before sliding them back into the oven to melt the brie.  I finished the crostini  with sliced fresh Red Barlett pears, chives, and served them with clusters of globe grapes. Smalls bites of crunchy bread, gooey mild cheese, sticky caramelized pears, toasted pecans, and  moist  fresh pears. Crazy good. Repurposed  party leftovers. Heaven.

                Happy  Holidays!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Not Just For Toast

I taught the Culinary Arts Bourbon-Style Cooking School at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival for two years before eventually stepping down to let someone else take over.  It was fun, but a lot work. The process took months of menu planning and recipe testing before actually taking our little traveling  bourbon show on the road to My Old Kentucky Home State Park in Bardstown, Kentucky.  Both years, I cooked five bourbon-filled courses for sold-out crowds of 230 people before demonstrating all the courses on stage while they ate them. Crazy.

I had a blast doing it, but after planning, testing, tasting, and drinking hundreds of bourbon-infused recipes, I bottomed out on bourbon. To this day, I rarely drink or cook with bourbon......until last night.

Lately, I've tossed around ideas for something to cook for an upcoming family Chritstmas dinner we enjoy every year housed in a cabin overlooking the lake at Barren River Lake State Resort Park. It's a potluck affair for a large group of people packed into a rented cabin anchored by a tiny kitchen with very limited storage...150 miles away. Tricky business. Think about it.

While rifling through our kitchen cabinets and pantry for potluck inspiration, I stumbled across a small jar of Kentucky Proud Applecreek Orchards Bourbon Cherry Preserves that Michael picked up when we attended The Incredible Food Show in October.  Bourbon cherry preserves?  Uh, bourbon?  My head started spinning. During the food show, vendors from Applecreek Orchards served samples of their Bourbon Cherry Preserves on pretzels and toast points..

Nope. I used it to slather a bourbon-soaked  honey cured smoked ham.
I fell off of the bourbon barrel.

After scoring  the outer layer of fat on a small 3 pound honey cured smoked  ham, I slowly brushed the split fat and exposed ham flesh with 1/2 cup of Maker's Mark 46 bourbon.  While the ham soaked up the potent 94 proof  bourbon,  I mixed together 1 cup of dark brown sugar, 1 tablespoon of ground mustard, 1/2 tablespoon of ground ginger, and a tablespoon of fresh minced rosemary.  I rubbed the wet ham with the spiced brown sugar,  wrapped it tightly in aluminum foil, placed it into a dutch oven with 1/2 cup of water, covered the pot , and slid it into a 350 degree oven to bake for an hour.

While the smoked ham simmered in its intial sugary bourbon bath, I threw together a finishing glaze using the Applecreek Orchards Bourbon Cherry Preserves. I melted 8 ounces of the preserves in a small sauce pan over a medium flame before adding 1/4 cup red wine vinegar and 2 heaping teaspoons of prepared horseradish.  I brought the glaze to a quick boil, reduced it to a simmer, and let it bubble away to thicken before setting it aside.

After 45 minutes, I uncovered the ham, basted it with the gooey brown sugar rosemary-flecked Maker's Mark 46 pan drippings, brushed it with the bourbon cherry glaze, and returned it to the oven (uncovered) for an additional 15 to 30  minutes to finish cooking. 

When the ham was beautifully glazed and caramelized, I pulled it from the oven, let it rest, and joined Michael in the parlor to finish off the last of our Georges Duboeuf Beaujolaise Nouveau.

Good to the last drop.

After slicing the glistening glazed ham, I served it on puddles of the sticky bourbon pan juices nestled alongside blistered Green Beans Amandine and individual pots of  creamy Weisenberger Mill spoonbread. Old school.

Without being cloyingly sweet, the succulent ham hinted a slight caramel flavor from the Maker's 46-infused brown sugar sauna.  Peppered with hot pungent horseradish, the  dreamy bourbon cherry preserves oozed over the salty smoked ham, creating a fabulous sweet and savory balance. Pork candy.

Double shot.
Maker's 46.
Applecreek Orchards Bourbon Cherry Preserves.

Not just for cocktails or breakfast.

Try it on pig. 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Roasted & Toasted

A few days before our farmers' market closed down for the season, I stocked up on several varieties of winter squash; butternut, spaghetti, delicata, and acorn. After cooking most of them, a lone Elmwood Stock Farm acorn squash  sat nestled in a wooden bowl on the countertop for over a week. I'd grown weary of sweet and sticky lip-smacking glazed roasted squash, so I ignored it. 

A few nights ago, I needed  low impact time in the kitchen.  I didn't want to labor over anything fiddly or fussy, so I  took a second glance at the neglected countertop squash and decided to throw together a very simple roasted acorn squash soup using my familiar method for butternut squash soup.

After halving the squash, I scooped out the seeds, brushed the cut sides with olive oil, seasoned them with salt and pepper, and slid them into a 350 degree oven (cut side down) to roast for 45 minutes.  While the squash roasted, I sliced a couple of carrots, diced an onion, chopped a celery stalk, and diced a peeled bosc pear (unconventional). I tumbled the vegetables into a soup pot, added 2 cups of chicken stock, brought the stock to a boil, reduced it to a simmer, seasoned it,  covered the pot, and let the vegetables bubble away until they were tender.

I wanted a crisp garnish for the soup, but knew that croutons  would swell into gigantic puffy glops of bread. Although I usually suck at toasting seeds (burn baby burn), I took a chance and toasted the seeds from the acorn squash.  After rinsing and drying the seeds, I tossed them with melted smoked paprika butter before sliding them into the oven to toast alongside the roasting squash.

I poured myself a glass of wine and joined Michael in the parlor. My tufted chenille chair  blissfully swallowed me whole. Happy camper.

I almost forgot that I was cooking.

When the squash was beautifully caramelized and tender, I scooped the flesh from the shells, plopping  it into a blender with the chicken stock and cooked vegetables. Using a kitchen towel to cover the blender (trust me on that one), I pureed the mix until smooth,  poured the puree back into the soup pot, thinned it out with a bit of chicken stock, gave it a taste,  and kept it warm over a low flame until we were ready to eat. 

After a glass of wine or three, I ladled the velvety roasted acorn squash soup into our chipped hand-me-down Bybee Pottery bowls before finishing it with swirls of pure maple syrup-infused sour cream,  toasted spiced seeds, and fresh snipped chives

The soup was lighter than air with a soft luxurious mouthfeel. While the tangy sour cream cut through the richness with  smoky maple nuance, the verdant chives added tiny bites of freshness and the toasted seeds provided crunch.