Archive for category 2010 Bon Appétit Covers

The @#$%! Cake

Friends, have I got a story for you.

It’s a story of tenacity.  Perseverance.   Winning.

It’s a story of a street-wise Chicago teen who moves to a small repressed town where dancing and rock music are illegal.  Against all odds, he… oh, sorry.  Wrong story.

It’s a story about me and a @#$%! chocolate cake.

You know the one.  The one on the December cover of Bon Appetit magazine.  The one I tried to make last December and failed miserably.  Yeah, that one.

The truth is that I was doomed before I began, and it was all Matt’s fault.  He happened to be piddling in the kitchen while I prepared my mise en place. I distinctly remember buttering and flouring the cake pans and telling him, “You know, I’m amazed that I haven’t had to make any of these Bon Appétit cover recipes twice.”

I actually said that.  Out loud.  To another human being.

I thought I had it in the bag.  How many cakes have I baked in my life?  After my inaugural turkey, surely this would be a no brainer, right?  I mean, can I get an amen?!

Now, Matt’s a stoic guy.  He doesn’t always have something to say.  In fact, about half the time he replies to me with a “Humph.”

Literally, “Humph.”

In MattSpeak, that translates to, “I have understood and acknowledged your statement; however, I have nothing further to contribute to this topic.”

On occasion, though, he comes up with a perfect little quip, chock full of simple wisdom.  This was one of those occasions.

Let’s rewind a bit and get the full effect:


Laura [buttering and flouring a cake pan, quite satisfied with herself]: “You know, I’m amazed that I haven’t had to make any of these Bon Appétit cover recipes twice.”

Matt [piddling, aloof]: “Seems like you’d wanna wait until you’ve actually finished all twelve of them to make a statement like that.”


Do you have ANY idea what it’s like to live with someone who’s nearly always right?

Or, for if you’re the superstitious type: Can you BELIEVE he jinxed me like that?  Gah.

And so it began.  The batter came together easily enough, went into the pan easily enough, slid into the oven easily enough.  So far, so good.

But when the cake layers were done, I thought it might be fun to drop one of them on the floor.  You know, just to remind myself what startled and horrified feel like when experienced simultaneously.

Buttercream: spackling of champions.

The good news was that I dropped the pan right side up, where it landed completely flat on its bottom, like a brick.  The poor cake, piping hot from the oven, scrambled like eggs inside the pan.  After the requisite muttering under my breath, I told myself that it was nothing that an advanced cooling technique and some buttercream spackling couldn’t hide.

No problem.  I got this.

Speaking of buttercream, it had its share of issues too — it separated while beating in the butter.  It was looking a little iffy there for a minute, but I warmed and whisked it a little and managed to recover.

No problem.  I got this.

Then came the glaze.  Ohhhhh, the glaze.  I made it twice, and failed twice, which is kind of amazing considering that it requires all of one step: melt stuff.  The first time, I melted the stuff, and then waited for it to thicken, which the recipe said would take about 5 minutes.  After 30 minutes, I tried chilling it, to no avail. It was the roughly the consistency of water.

After checking, I realized that the recipe states “1 ½ sticks,” but I read it to be 1 ½ cups, which is 3 sticks.  Twice as much.  No wonder.

So I made it again.  The second take thickened enough to go on the cake, but something was still off.  It was thick, but kind of gloppy and didn’t spread well.

I decided to move on.  The chocolate ribbons would distract the eye and cover all my sins.

No problem.  I got this.

Well, the @#$%! ribbons didn’t turn out to be the @#$%! panacea I’d been counting on.  They were floppy and flimsy and structurally unsound.  I added powdered sugar.  I froze them.  I tried everything I could think of, but there was no three-dimensional bow in this cake’s future.

Uhhhh, problem.  I don’t got this.

I had a bona fide cake wreck on my hands.  (Before you ask, all photographic evidence has been destroyed.)

So, what happened?  At first, I wasn’t sure.  I checked the recipe’s comments on the Bon Appetit site, to see if there had been a misprint or some such.  I grumbled as I read how easy and fabulous it was for everyone else.

I mulled it over.  I re-read the recipe.  I couldn’t figure it out.

Then, two nights later, I sat bolt upright in bed out of a deep sleep.  I knew the answer.

I had incorrectly measured the chocolate.

Mise en place, Take Two.

I had used a different brand of chocolate than I normally do.  My usual brand comes in 1-ounce squares, but the brand I used came in ½-ounce squares.  So, while I counted out what I thought was the correct number of ounces, in reality I had only used half the necessary amount of chocolate – in both the @#$%! glaze and the @#$%! ribbons.

It was a total rookie mistake.

That’s the thing I like about baking – it’s a personal barometer.  If my head isn’t clear, I make mistakes.  I drop things.  I mis-read recipes.  I lose stuff.

Once I realized the chocolate problem, and stopped to think about all the other things I’d done wrong, I realized how cluttered my mind was, how stressed I’d been.

You may have noticed that I started posting fewer entries about that time – I needed to regroup, relax, get my head on straight.  It took a while, but it worked – and then my world kind of blew up.

Once again, I needed to regroup, relax, get my head on straight.    And once again, life settled down.

By then it was September.  Yikes.  Not sure how that happened, but I never lost sight of the @#$%! chocolate cake I wanted to remake. My birthday of my lovely mother-in-law, Eileen, is in September, and I saw my opportunity.

I made the cake.  Again.  This time, with my head on straight.

It was a bit of work, but each step was pretty easy, especially when you measure correctly and aren’t burdened with having to recover from, say, dropping the @#$%! thing.

And I have to say, it was quite lovely.  Dense and highly spiced, it was a sneak preview of the flavors of Christmas.  I felt vindicated.  Victorious.  Redeemed.

Two weeks later, my world blew up again when my dad died suddenly.  (That might be the understatement of the century, actually – but you get the idea.)

I’m learning a hard lesson: this is life.  Up, down, sideways.  Sometimes backwards.  But the important thing is to keep putting one foot in front of the other, no matter how strong the headwind.

Why?  Because I’ve seen the alternatives.  They aren’t pretty.

And they don’t get you any cake.

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This Is It, Ya’ll

The last Bon Appétit cover of 2010 has arrived, and I can hardly believe it.  Where did the year go?

Remember what I said a few weeks ago about cake vs. pie?  A perfect case in point: this glitzy cake couldn’t be any further from a humble sweet potato pie if it tried.

At first glance, my reaction to the cover photo was: Lord have mercy on my soul. A three-dimensional chocolate bow will do that, or so I hear.

Then I looked at the recipe.  My first reaction there was: Whoa.  Two entire magazine pages for one single recipe.

And my second thought was: Lord have mercy on my soul.

Then I actually read the recipe, and it’s not nearly as crazy as it looks.  I felt even better when I read this issue’s letter from the editor, because there I learned that this is a recycled cover from 1984, and that it has been their most requested recipe for the 26 years since, “generating more mail over a longer period than any other recipe.”

This is good news, for two reasons: a) It must be a darn tasty cake, and b) It can’t be that hard.  (Famous last words, anyone?)

I have high hopes that this is the dessert I’ve waited all year for: challenging but doable, and impressive in both the looks and taste departments.  For the record, the turkey freaked me out waaaaay more than this.

p.s. Interesting to note that this recipe is not (yet?) available on the Bon Appétit website… any guesses as to why?  Because it’s also in the new BA Desserts cookbook?  Or perhaps the recipe developer didn’t give permission?

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Bon Appétit Challenge: Salt Roasted Turkey and Rosemary Bread Stuffing

If you don’t mind, I’d like to begin by justifying my intimidation level for this little endeavor.

To psych myself up for attacking my first turkey, it seemed natural to consult my Williams-Sonoma Thanksgiving cookbook. Mistake Numero Uno, my friends. Here’s the intro to the chapter on main courses:

When cooking turkey, the centerpiece of every traditional Thanksgiving menu, achieving golden skin, juicy white meat, and well-cooked dark meat all at the same time qualifies as an art. The following recipes come to the aid of the cook, making cooking — and eating — the turkey the best thing that happens all day.

Really, Chuck (Williams)?  Really?  According to you, I’m supposed to artfully create the centerpiece of the most traditional of meals for my closest friends and family.  And not only that, it’s supposed to be the best thing that happens all day.  In my mind, this stops just shy of me wearing a dress and heels under my apron, with a ribbon in my hair.

And am I the only one that thinks the most superb turkey conceivable is a far cry from the best thing that ever happened to me?  Pass the pie, brother.

This is when the bellyaching commenced.  I don’t WANNA cook a turkey, I said, to no one in particular. Not even a Salt Roasted Turkey with Lemon and Oregano. Why did I DO this stupid challenge, anyway?, I asked.  What if I screw it up?, I whined.  Somebuddy call the wahhhhhh-mbulance.

And you know what the near-unanimous answer was to my dramatic neuroticisms?  You can’t screw it up!  It’ll be fine!  You’ll do great!  If I can do it, you can do it!

I almost started to believe them.  Almost.  And then Bon Appétit, the lovely, upstanding, respectable periodical that I’ve relied upon for years, ran a Thanksgiving bloopers contestShare your Thanksgiving disaster stories with us and you can win an All-Clad roasting pan and rack! It was like a car accident: I couldn’t help but look at the stories of gravy explosions and birds being dropped into sudsy dishwater.  Mistake Numero Dos, people.  Now I’m officially freaked out.  Freaked.  Out.

(On the other hand, my now-certain epic failure suddenly had an upside: an All-Clad roasting pan and rack!)

I pressed on.  For reasons still unknown, in true WFI fashion, I decided to attempt my inaugural bird on a weekend when Johanna was in town as our houseguest.  Now, if you know me, you know that I don’t really do houseguests.  It’s not for lack of want-to, you see, it’s just that I grew up with all my houseguest candidates living within a 30-mile radius.  So, like the turkey, it’s a lack of practice more than anything else.

Did I mention that I also invited a new friend, Diana, to join us?  Did I mention that she’s also a chef?  Mistake Numero Tres: setting myself up with undue pressure.  Pretty smooth, huh?

To the bird.  I expected BA to call for an insanely happy, free-range, never-been-injected-with-anything bird… but they didn’t.  So I grabbed a Butterball, the universal choice of the bourgeois, to really give the recipe a run for its money.  And Butterball has that hotline, after all, which may just come in handy.  We’ll see.

Fennel and speck for the stuffing.

I managed to thaw the thing adequately, which was a chief concern going in.  I also managed to do a good bit of the work in advance — namely, making the Ultimate Turkey Stock and cooking the stuffing ingredients the day before.  So far, so good.

And then Sunday came.  D-Day, if you will.

On the way home from church, I swung through the store for some side dish ingredients (fourth grocery trip of the weekend, but who’s counting?).  Wisely, I foresaw the possibility of huge timing issues on my part, and grabbed some nuts and cheese for my diners to nibble on.  I wasn’t sure how, but I felt certain I’d be keeping my guests waiting, and now at least they wouldn’t have growling tummies in the process.

It would turn out to be the best decision I made all day.

Upon returning home, I realized that despite reviewing the recipe – oh, I don’t know  — FOURTEEN times, I managed to misread the cooking time.  The recipe calls for roasting the bird in several 45 minute increments, and I glossed over a couple of those.  My ETA is now officially off by 1.5 hours.  Rookie mistake. (Cuatro, if you’re keeping score at home.)  Huge.

Ding dong.  Oh, Hi Diana!  Where’d I put those cashews?

So later… hours later!… there were 45 minutes left on the clock.  Time to insert the probe and start tracking internal temperatures.  Diana and I were chatting in the kitchen, and she commented on how well-browned and nice looking the bird already is.  Then I asked her to help me figure out where the “thickest part of the thigh” is, for thermometer placement, because the whole operation hinges on getting a good temperature read.  We’re aiming for a final temp of 165.

She poked with the probe.  175 degrees.  Wha?  Maybe she hit a bone?, I suggested.

She poked again.  178 degrees.  And again.  174 this time.

She checked the recipe, and looked at the oven.  Have you been roasting at 375 the whole time?, she asked.  My face fell — I immediately knew what the problem was.  I’d cooked the stuffing earlier at the prescribed temperature of 375, and was in such a hurry to get started on the bird (because of my colossal timing problem), I failed to knock down the temperature to 350.  I’d cooked it 25 degrees too hot the entire time.

I got insanely lucky: the turkey was fine.  By divine providence, my poor recipe reading was inadvertently offset by my lack of attention to detail, and cooking it at the wrong temperature actually fixed my timing problem.  (Not a strategy I would recommend, by the way.)

Not bad for a first timer.

So.  How’d it taste? Ummmm, like turkey.

Seriously, all that grinding and salting and rinsing and brushing did not conspire to create a life-changing dining experience.  The skin was beautiful and delicious, thanks to the lemon oil, but the meat itself tasted like… every other (good) turkey I’ve ever eaten.  I fully admit there’s a fair amount of bias here, since I’m not a huge meat eater.  And I also fully admit that I could be spoiled by all the good cooks in my family, and an amazing turkey seems like no big deal.  All that being said, I did achieve golden skin, juicy white meat, and well-cooked dark meat all at the same time… but I’m not sure it’s an art form when you accomplish something in spite of yourself.

The stuffing was tasty, my overcooking it a bit notwithstanding (what mistake number are we on?), but it was a little on the exotic side for several folks at the table.  If you’re looking to shake things up a bit, I would definitely recommend this recipe, as it has a lot of complex flavors that work pretty well together.  That being said, if you have a multi-generational recipe that you make every year, you might consider making it in addition to that, and not instead of.  Similar to my take on the pie issue: you’re messing with people’s holidays, and there’s a line.  You don’t want a revolt on your hands.

The Greek Inspired Fresh Oregano and Giblet Pan Gravy might actually have been my favorite of the four recipes involved: tons of flavor, and not much more work than “regular” gravy.  Although the speck was pretty good in that stuffing.  Tough call.

In total, I’d say that I’m really glad I faced my demons, but I’m also glad it’s over.  Like every home cook, I dream of one day hosting Thanksgiving dinners like the ones you see in catalog photo spreads… a huge table beautifully set for a dozen, all the picture-perfect food coming out of the kitchen at the same time, Norman Rockwell quietly sketching the scene from his corner perch.  I’ve got about twenty years before I can afford the set-up (that is, a house big enough to have a dining room big enough for a table big enough), and it’ll take me about that long to master cooking for that many people at once…

But I’ve taken the first step.

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Bon Appétit Challenge: Apple Torte with Breadcrumb-Hazelnut Crust

It might look okay, but it's not. It's really not.

Swing and a miss!  BA is oh-fer-two on desserts in 2010.  This apple torte was a big ‘ol flop, and the worst part is, it’s probably due to technical reasons. 

When I took a good look at the recipe, two problems presented themselves right away.  First, 8 cups of breadcrumbs were called for in the ingredient list, but only 3 were referenced in the directions, with no explanation for how this “new math” would work.  Oops. 

Second, the apples are cooked for quite a long time before filling the crust, and the whole thing is then baked for an additional hour.  Call me crazy, but that sho’ is a whole lotta cookin’ for delicate apple flesh.  When baking the guh-jillion other apple pies I’ve made in my life, the apples are tossed in sugar and spices and then placed into the crust still raw.  Hmmmmm. 

With that in mind, let us begin. 

Lidia’s Problematic Apple Torte, Take One.  Action! 

(A Sunday afternoon, weeks ago.) 

I purchased all the ingredients, which was a non-event except that I had to go to my slightly-larger-but-still-in-the-suburbs supermarket to get the hazelnuts.  I got home and started the prep, beginning, naturally, with the breadcrumbs.  Having made the aforementioned guh-jillion apple pies before in my life, how hard could this be? 

Well, I de-crusted my grocery store French bread, chunked it up, pulsed it in the processor, and dumped it into my handy 2-quart measuring cup… and only had 4 cups.  Drat.  I’d have to go back to the store.  I stowed the crumbs temporarily in the refrigerator.  Because, you know, I was gonna back run to the store.  Any second.  That day. 

Lidia’s Problematic Apple Torte, Take Two.  Action! 

(The following Sunday afternoon, still weeks ago.)  

After a week of cramming our fridge contents around a giant 2-quart measuring cup, I finally froze them for later use on something else.  As you know, refrigerators are more than just coolers, they’re also de-humidifiers.  So crumbs stashed in the fridge for a week would be pretty darn dry before they ever see the oven, where they would might do something unexpected, like overbrown quickly.  And I wanted to be true to the recipe.  

So I bought two fresh loaves of French bread.  My apples and lemons still looked pretty good. 

And then my back went out.  Bah! 

Lidia’s Problematic Apple Torte, Take Three.  Action! 

(The third Sunday afternoon in a row, still weeks ago.) 

Well, my back was still bothering me a week later, but being the young nimble thirty-something that I am, I just knew a full recovery was right around the corner.  So I asked Matt (who was doing the grocery shopping, due to the back injury) to pick up my torte ingredients, so that I’d be able to hit the ground running.  The apples and lemons had gone south, and the second round of bread was petrified long ago. 

But my back didn’t get better; it got worse.  Pill popping commenced, with the ancillary benefit of helping me cope with my frustrations.  And the third set of petrified bread on the counter.  Grrrrr. 

Lidia’s Problematic Apple Torte, Take Four.  Action! 


Last week, the back still wasn’t great, but better.  However, I was so busy catching up on work and life that the apple torte had to wait.  Plus, somewhere during the interlude, I made the mistake of checking the online version of the recipe.  Bad move.  Comments were flying about the technical problems with the recipe.  Even Jasmine, a fellow blogger who’s also covering all the BA covers, pans the thing, and she’s normally a pretty sunny optimist.  It’s hard to get pumped over something you know isn’t going to go well, you know? 

Yesterday, I sucked it up and made the thing, muttering something about if I’d only gone back for that second loaf during Take One, this Frankenpie would be behind me.  Matt stopped by the kitchen, during the bread grinding process, to ask what I’m up to.  “Apple Torte, Take Four,” was my reply.  “Noooo,” he said.  “I’ve seen four sets of bread come through this kitchen, and I can tell you with certainty that this process does not yield pie.”  (I reminded him that he’d been properly Mirandized, and anything he said could and would be used against him on the blog.  He sported a half-smile, then left.) 

Luckily, no tragedies befell me before cranking out an actual pie this time.  And the result? 

Well, it wasn’t as bad as I thought, but it was pretty bad.  As expected, the filling was overcooked apple mush (albeit overcooked apple mush with a pleasant kick of cider).  And as expected, there was a metric ton of breadcrumbs left unused at the end.  Jasmine said that she tore the bread into chunks, measured 8 cups of chunks, toasted the chunks, ground them, and that gave her 3 cups of crumbs.  If that’s what the recipe intended, then that’s the most poorly written recipe I’ve seen in a long time.  

But I actually think it was a simple typo, and the 3 should have been a 6 or an 8.  The crust was so wet as to be impossible to work with — I had to add shocking amounts of flour just to get it to behave, which is normally a show-killing mistake when working with pie crust.  And the final product was chewy and tasted too much like butter; further evidence that the proportions were off and more crumbs were needed. 

The other beef I have with this recipe is the hazelnut husking, which is a task I reserve for only the most promising of recipes.  Like squeezing cooked greens dry, the final product better be eye-rolling good to make it worth all the effort.  That was obviously not true in this case: in addition to the crust weirdness I’ve already mentioned, the flavor of the hazelnuts was completely lost in the mix.  Not cool. 

I had more of an issue with the crust than the filling; for Matt, it was the other way around.  I think this recipe is the worst of the year so far; Matt still thinks the gingersnap wannabe cheesecake parfait thingys were unforgivable. 

To any would-be testers of this recipe out there: proceed with caution.  Sorry Lidia, sorry Bon Appétit.  If BA responds to the online comments (which they normally do), I’ll be sure to give an update here.* 

On to turkey!  (Gulp.) 

*Actually, the BA web editor had already addressed the breadcrumb issue before I wrote this post, and I missed it because it was on the second page of comments.  She wrote, “When the recipe says “spread breadcrumbs on large rimmed baking sheet”, use all 8 cups of fresh breadcrumbs. After the breadcrumbs bake/dry, they’ll shrink – leaving you with about 3 cups to proceed with. Hope this helps!” 

Of course, that doesn’t really help. In my case, the crumbs shrank to about 6 cups, not 3, and in my view, the crust needed more crumbs.  (Cringe.)

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Bon Appétit Challenge: Turkey Time

Well, the moment I’ve been waiting all year for has finally arrived.  The Thanksgiving Special issue of Bon Appétit is out, with a giant turkey smack on the cover.  Dun dun DUNNNN!

I’m officially intimidated, for the first time in this project.  Why?  Well, I’ve never made a turkey, for starters.  Let’s face it, turkey somehow became the official star of the Thanksgiving show, and aside from sandwiches, it’s the only time most of us see this particular protein all year.  And since either my mom, Aunt Denise, or my grandma (all amazing cooks) have always played Thanksgiving hostess, the one shot per year of cooking a turkey has never fallen to me. 

Two, in addition to being full of talented cooks (the boys too!), my clan is also a fairly discerning bunch of eaters.  So, in theory, I’m sure Mom would have graciously stepped aside to let me roast a turkey during my formative years, but neither she nor I would have really been interested in taking that kind of gamble.  Plus, our table topic at nearly every gathering consists mostly of raving about each other’s food, so if the turkey centerpiece falls short, what the heck would we talk about?  (I’m thinking now about the turkey in the Griswold Christmas vacation movie… when it breaks open and spews out a cloud of dust… classic.)

Third, frankly, I’m not all that interested.  Nothing against turkey, of course, but meat’s not really my thing to begin with.  And while I’ve made almost every cooking mistake in the book at some point, excepting perhaps burning down my house, tossing out 15 pounds of protein (read: expensive) just seems morally reprehensible.

And lastly, there’s the issue of sex appeal.  Whether strutting around live or served up on a platter, turkey loses every time (profusive apologies to Ben Franklin).  As I told you last year, sides and desserts are where it’s at.  A pumpkin cheesecake from yesteryear comes to mind…

All that being said, if I’m going to bandy this food blogger title about, especially one that includes a tagline about being reasonably competent, I’d better darn well be able to cook a turkey.  In fact, after Mom warned me about this whole turkey business, I decided to press forward with this project precisely because it would force me to bite the bullet.  It’s time to graduate to big-girl panties.

So, bring it on, Salt-Roasted Turkey with Lemon and Oregano.  If all else fails, I’ll have Rosemary Bread Stuffing with Speck, Fennel, and Lemon to back me up if the turkey is terrible.

Of course, I’ll make it well before Thanksgiving… in order to test the recipe in plenty of time for you, dear reader, and also to avoid all that awful pressure.  Call me chicken if you will.  Just don’t call me turkey.

Gobble gobble!

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Bon Appétit Challenge: As American As Italian Apple Pie

Woo hoo!  Another shot at a dessert.  We’re going from the all-American burger (which was even more American because regular fat wasn’t good enough… we had to amp up our fatty McFattness with special luxury cow fat.  How American is that?) to apple pie.  It’s enough to make me want to pop in a Lee Greenwood album.

But seriously, with the anniversary of 9/11 just having passed, along with the anniversaries of three hurricanes that changed the Gulf Coast (Katrina, Rita, and Ike), I am feeling a little wispy about the good old U. S. of A.  So bring on an Italian version of apple pie!  Err, I mean apple torte with breadcrumb-hazelnut crust!

Although I certainly know who Lidia Bastianich is from her cookbooks and her show on PBS, I’ve never actually made any of her recipes, so I’m looking especially forward to this one.  And it appears that this month’s issue has a whole feature on Lidia and the flavors of Fruili, her childhood home in northeastern Italy, which might be pretty interesting.

As far as the recipe goes, there’s nothing incredibly exotic going on ingredient-wise, but the crust will certainly be unique.  Ground hazelnuts and breadcrumbs are used in place of flour, and milk instead of water.  Sounds sticky and rustic to me… this one might require a second, or even third, take before I have something to put on the table.  We shall see!

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Bon Appétit Challenge: Triple-Beef Cheeseburgers with Spiced Ketchup and Red Vinegar Pickles

This little ditty was quite an adventure, and not just because I was chasing down bone marrow and suet.  When I set about printing all four recipes (yes, four!:  burgers, ketchup, pickles, and buns) and compiling a grocery list, I realized that there were no less than a zillion ingredients involved.  Okay, 40-ish ingredients, but it seemed like a zillion.  And considering that marrow and suet were two of those 40 ingredients, it should be no surprise that shopping was the real challenge here.

So.  Questions.  Yes… you in the back?

1) What the heck is suet?  I had to look this up, of course, but suet is hard raw fat from around the loin and kidneys – not the same kind of stuff you would trim from a cut of meat. 

2) Is beef marrow what I think it is?  If you’re thinking of soft fatty tissue found in the center of bones (usually leg bones for culinary purposes), then yes.   

3) Where the heck would you even buy that stuff?  Well, the short answer is “from a good butcher”, but there’s an interesting story there, if you have a moment.

As regular readers know, Central Market has been my go-to source for the more exotic ingredients for this challenge, because they are wonderful, local, and right around the corner from my office.  I called ahead about the suet/marrow request, and they said sure! we’ll take care of you!  of course!  yes!  no problem!  And since I had to go there for the juniper berries and pickling cucumbers anyway, this gave me hope that I’d be able to get everything at one place.  Oh, how naive I was back then… (sigh)

At the meat counter, the first words out of my mouth were that I had a really weird order.  Beef Dude gave me a lay-it-on-me, I’ve-heard-it-all look, so I told him that I needed three different types of beef, plus suet and marrow.  To which he replied: “Okay, but you have to tell me what you’re making.”  When he learned that I was going to personally grind all that bovine loveliness into four phat burger patties, he asked, “And just who is it that you love this much?”  Wow.  Even Beef Dude gets the Food of Love thing.  I love this store!

So he knocks out my order, which involves him cutting bones with the bandsaw, to expose the marrow… which obviously slows down the line a bit.  So I started whistling Dixie and sheepishly avoiding eye contact, but no one really noticed my whistling over the bzzzzrrrrrtttzzzzbzbzzzzrrrrbzzzzz of the bandsaw.   A couple of them overheard my order and looked at me like I was the female incarnation of Jeffrey Dahmer.  Looking back at it now, I should have barked at them or something.  Ruff!  That would’ve been so perfect.

The next morning, it was time to break out the apron and channel my inner Sweeney Todd.  I unwrapped the three packages of beef, and chunked ‘em all out to fit through the grinder.  No problems so far.

I unwrapped the suet.  Nothing to write home about, really – it looks like hard, pinkish fat.  I can tell from the texture that it’s going to melt differently than normal fat while the burger cooks, which is probably the whole idea.  I chopped it for the grinder and moved on.

Then I unwrapped the marrow bones.  Uhhhhh, ummmmm.  Well, humph.  What I had before me were three knobby hip bones… the big ball of the ball-and-socket joint, I think.  And they were each sawed in half, which was all very well and good, but there was no marrow.  I scraped at the middle of the cut surface with my knife, and it was porous, but very hard.  Great.

Seeing as I know exactly zip about marrow, I considered the possibility that it’s actually there, in the bone, but just needs to be softened somehow.  So I simmered some water, dropped the bones in, and… nothing.   Well, not “nothing”, really, because after an hour of simmering it looked like I had the beginnings of a terrific soup, but to the extent that soup was not on the menu, “nothing” seems appropriate.

Regis, I’d like to Phone A Friend, please…

I called the original Perry’s Steakhouse & Meat Market, to see what they had to say.  The person that answered the phone asked me to repeat the word “marrow” no less than three times, at which point she asked me to hold, at which point I asked to talk to the manager of the meat market.  When that “manager” actually asked me to spell “marrow”, I hung up.  So much for that idea.

It was a bit of a challenge to locate a marrow donor.

I jumped online and looked for other meat markets near my house, and the juiciest hit was a carnicería that I didn’t even know was in my neighborhood.  The clock is ticking at this point: I was making these puppies for dinner, for our friends Scott and Caryn, whom I had never cooked for before.  (Brilliant planning on my part, don’t you agree?)  I knew that I would be ordering pizza (and making a run for a LOT of beer) if I didn’t grab a gear.

I headed over there and wandered in, and it wasn’t just a meat market, it was a full on authentic Mexican grocery store with a lunch counter.  How did I not know about this place?! 

As silly as it sounds, no hablo Ingles was not a possibility I’d considered until I actually tried to order up some ol’ bone marrow.  ¿Cómo se dice ”bone marrow” en español, anyway?  I had no idea.  Mexican Beef Dude was blinking alternately at me and then the other customers, as if to say, can someone please explain to me what the heck this pasty blue-eyed gringo lady is doing in my shop?

In the end, we reached a bit of a compromise.  Lucky for me, Home Fries was selling some sort of steak I’d never seen before that included a round bone teeming with pearly marrow.  After trying unsuccessfully to use that as a prop for explaining exactly what I was after, with plenty of lo siento‘s sprinkled in, I finally gave up and said, “Aquí, éstos.  Siete, por favor.”  He put seven of the steaks on the scale, and then gesturing, asked “Todos?“  Sí, todos, I replied, defeated.  Muchas gracias!  And then, for good measure, one last lo siento mucho!  since I was already planning to return during tamale season.

And that, friends, is why I have seven slabs of mystery meat in my freezer, all with hollow bones.  But here’s the funny thing… those seven steaks only cost me twelve bucks.  Whaaa?  Later, I looked up the translation for the label on the meat, which read “hueso para caldo”.  Turns out that Mexican Beef Dude rang me up for “bones for broth”, which I’m guessing is why they were so dang cheap.  (On the other hand, these steaks look like they’re going to need a good long braise to be edible, so it may be that they were just cheap cuts of meat and I’m used to Central Market price points.)  Either way, when I dug those silky Crackerjack prizes out of each bone and dropped them on the scale, guess what?  It was three ounces, exactly the amount I needed, no more and no less.  Whew!

*                                    *                                    *                                    *                                    *

Through cyberspace, I can hear you all yelling: Enough with the rambling! Tell us how the burgers turned out already!

Well, they were great.  And obscenely huge.  They were the best burgers I’ve ever made, actually, but not for the reasons you might suspect.

Once the shopping was done, the prep was fairly easy.  Check it out…

Burgers: Grind, shape, salt, pepper, done. 

Spiced ketchup: Squirt, measure, stir. 

Red Vinegar Pickles: Bring vinegar, water, and a dash of everything in your spice cabinet to a boil.  Slice cucumbers and onions, place in large jar.  Pour kitchen sink mixture over veggies in jar.  Refrigerate.

Don't want none unless you got buns, hun!

I contemplated not making the buns, especially while lost in translation in the carnicería.  But since I’ve been working with yeast since I was a kid, and since I technically said I would make any and everything that appeared on the cover, and since the marrow thing actually worked out in the end, I went for it.  And you know what?  It made all the difference.   The weirdo preservatives they put in bread to keep it soft on the shelf would have made it too absorbent for all this yummy goodness.  They would have soaked up the juices and turned to mush.  These homemade beauties were sturdy, and you could tell that, left to their own devices, they’d be hockey pucks in 24, maybe 36, hours… which means they absorbed all the juice the burgers had to give, and then mocked them for not having more.  Take that, suet!

And then something really interesting happened.  When all those components came together, it created one harmonious entity: a colossal burger.  I couldn’t taste the meat.  I couldn’t taste the bun.  Or the ketchup, or the pickles.  Or even the sharp cheddar, which I sliced pretty thickly.  My buddy Caryn and I sampled the watercress beforehand, just to see what watercress is all about, and that stuff was peppery and in your face.  We were worried, actually (Caryn was too nice to say so, but her eyebrows were way up).  But when it was buried in the six-inch tall behemoth of a sandwich, it was totally lost in the crowd.  It was like a symphony… I knew the woodwinds were in there somewhere, but for the life of me, I could not pick out a clarinet.

So, in that sense, this was the best cover recipe yet.  I’ve never had a savory dish fuse together so completely.

The real stars of the show were the pickles, ketchup, and buns, all of which I will be making again, many many times.  But I can’t say I’d go chasing down marrow and suet again.  They didn’t do anything for the flavor, because fat itself has no flavor - so I can replicate the taste by grinding good beef.  They did, however, create a lovely texture, which means that if you’re wanting to make the best burgers EVER, then find yourself a carnicería and go for it.  Just be sure to take your Spanish-English dictionary with you…

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Bon Appétit Challenge: Burgers and Pickles and Ketchup – Oh My!

Well, now… this is getting interesting.  Of the nine covers we’ve seen so far, this is the fourth cover that features beef (the others being spaghetti with meatballs, grilled cheese and short rib sandwiches, and those unforgettable porterhouses). 

And now, as you can see, the September cover features a burger as big as your face, in your face.  The similarities to the short rib sandwiches are noteably apparent: bread, beef, homemade pickles, and peppery greens.  But the initial reaction is completely opposite…. the short rib sandwich looked rather complicated to make, and turned out to be pretty straightforward. 

My first reaction to this burger was: Meh, a burger.  How hard can it be? 

And then I saw the recipe. These aren’t just any old burgers.  Holy miscellaneous cow parts, Batman!  Here’s the blurb about them on the BA Daily blog:

It took chef Tony Maws six months to create his ultimate burger. The chef-owner of Craigie on Main in Cambridge, Massachusetts, started with the patty. After tons of taste-testing, he got it right–rich and steak-like, with just enough fat to make it juicy and satisfying. The trick? A mix of brisket, short ribs, and hanger steak combined with bone marrow and suet (beef fat). To tie it all together, he added a little miso. Just a touch really cranks up the umami (savoriness). He finished it off with spiced ketchup and a few vinegary pickles–and piled everything on a house-made bun. This fine-tuned burger has become one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes. We predict it will be a hit at your house, too.

Yes, you read correctly: bone marrow, suet, and three kinds of beef.  Plus homemade pickles, spiced ketchup, and fresh baked sesame seed buns.  Whew! 

And actually, I already made these burgers last weekend.  I committed to our friends Scott and Caryn weeks ago that come what may, I’d cook whatever they slapped on the September cover.  I’ll wait and tell you all the details in my full post, but the shopping was the challenge… you should have seen the looks I got when I asked for bone marrow at the meat counter.  Classic.

More soon!

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Bon Appétit Challenge: Blackberry, Lemon, and Gingersnap Cheesecake Pudding

Two words: Tread carefully.

This Blackberry, Lemon, and Gingersnap Cheesecake Pudding has the potential to be stellar.  Truly, it does.  But as I said before, there’s a lot going on here, and balance is key.  But before we get into that, I’ve taken exception to a few details in this little ditty of a dessert recipe.  Allow me to elaborate…

Blackberry: As in compote.  That’s what the recipe called it, anyway, but a compote is cooked: fruit cooked in syrup, unless I’m missing something (which is entirely possible).  The berries here are simply macerated in sugar and liqueur, and not cooked at all.  I don’t get why they’re calling it something it isn’t, but I do get that it’s super easy to toss berries in a bowl with sugar, liqueur, and lemon zest.  Done.

Lemon: As in curd.  What’s a curd?  Well, in the dairy world, curd is the part of milk that thickens when it sours and separates from the whey.  In more citrusy circles, curd is a thick custard made with lemon (or lime) juice and eggs… sort of like lemon pie filling, except true pie filling is sweeter and thickened with cornstarch.  I suppose it’s called curd because it has the same consistency as milk curd… who knows?  At any rate, this lemon curd recipe was easy and delicious, and I might just keep it on hand as a cake filling. Or from eating straight from the bowl.  So far, so good.

Gingersnap: As in crunchy storebought spice cookies.  I picked up two different brands, just to contrast them.  Surprisingly, Matt picked the ones with cloves and red pepper in the formula, instead of the straight-up ginger/molasses/cinnamon combo.  (He’s not a huge fan of cloves, but says it’s well-balanced in this cookie and not overwhelming.)  Gingersnap is an interesting choice here, for two reasons: a) with their warm spices, they’re more of a fall/winter thing, so it’s an unexpected pairing with bright citrus and summer berries, and b) as you’ll see in the next paragraph, this recipe is going for a cheesecake-y type thing, and graham crackers are the more typical (albeit more boring) choice for cheesecake crusts.  Hmmmm.

Cheesecake:  As in… where’s the cheese? This isn’t a blatant “Huh?” moment like the pseudo-compote, but it’s still a stretch.  The recipe calls for 1/3 cup of mascarpone cheese to be whipped along with the cream.  That ain’t much. 

Soapbox alert!  I’m biased, because I prefer my cheesecake to taste like… well… cheese, and not like creamy-white-nothingness-in-desperate-need-of-a-topping.  I love cream cheese (mascarpone is an Italian style cream cheese that begins its lovely existence as crème fraiche), so I want some twang with my cheesecake, dangit.

Anyway, I dutifully performed my whipping duties, holding out faith that the complete lack of sugar and the smidge of cheese were going to work out in the end.

Pudding:  As in… um… okay, now I’m lost.  I see no pudding here.  Perhaps they mean “pudding” in the British sense, which is to say, a generic term for dessert.  But the online version of the recipe is actually filed under a category called “pudding recipes”, and when I click on that, I see lots of dishes that are either British desserts, or American-style pudding, or both.  I get the feeling that there’s a loop here that hasn’t been closed, and I’m hoping that the print version of this issue is going to clear it up for me.  The best I’ve got is the possibility that gingersnaps originated in the UK, but if Bon Appetit is expecting me to connect those dots… well, I’m not the National Security Advisor for a good reason.

So, what do we have so far?  We have macerated blackberries, a beautiful lemon curd, some unsweetened whipped cream with a dab of cheese, and crushed gingersnaps which may or may not, in fact, be British, and therefore pudding-esque. Humph.

You’ve probably noticed that there are a lot of steps here, and that’s true… but almost everything can be done in advance, and the most tedious step is juicing and zesting the lemons.  Not too bad, if it turns out to taste as good as it looks.  I might even be willing to overlook all the kooky non sequiturs in the recipe.

Speaking of which, how does it taste?!

Wellllll… I served it to my in-laws, and they really really liked it.  Eileen described it as a “flavor explosion” that “woke up her mouth”, and on a scale of 5, she gave it a 4.5. (A 5 requires chocolate in her book… can you blame her?)

Dennis said… well, first I had to wait for him to stop trying to harass me about my “Barn Appetite” project, and then I had to endure some story about harvesting raspberries in Montana with government survey equipment under the constant threat of bear attacks – you think I’m joking, don’t you? - and then he finally gave it a 4, because he doesn’t give out 5s “for obvious reasons”.

Matt and I felt differently, though.  Matt said that he liked all the individual flavors, but he thought there were too many flavors co-mingling here.  Which is consistent for him: he likes simple straightforward food, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.

And as for me… I personally thought the gingersnaps overpowered everything.  At first I thought that dumbing it down with graham crackers might help, but Eileen said that would be a big snoozer, and I think she’s right.  After thinking about it more, I think I was too careless with proportions during the assembly and added too much gingersnap in mine.  Say it with me: operator error.

If I made this again, I would test drive the proportions in bite sizes, and proceed accordingly, probably scaling back on the gingersnaps.  If the combination was done correctly, and if we renamed the silly thing, I think it probably could be a consistent 4.5.

But get this… part of being in a Barn Appetite test group naturally means having to answer 5,487 questions about the dish, and when I asked how everyone felt about the cheesecake angle, everyone furrowed their brows and said, “Cheesecake? What cheesecake?  There was cheese in there?”  Case closed.  (Although I was wrong about the lack of sugar in the cream – it perfectly balanced the sweet-tartness of the lemon curd.)

So, in summary… more care and restraint with the gingersnap proportions (or perhaps even replacing the cookies with liqueur-soaked ladyfingers or genoise cake!), and more cheese, please.  And on a personal note, I’d do a better job of sourcing berries, because my neighborhood grocery store wannabes had very little flavor. 

Normally, I’d give this a B-, but considering all the weirdness in the recipe, I’m calling it a C+.  That feels kind of harsh… but the blogosphere’s not always a pretty place, and we can’t give everybody a soccer trophy, right?

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Bon Appétit Challenge: NOW We’re Talkin’

I think I might have figured out part of Bon Appetit’s cover formula. 

I’m going off of memory here, because I didn’t used to pay the incredible amount of attention I currently do to the covers… but it seems that BA runs a dessert once in the summer and again in December.  I specifically remember a mid-year ice cream cone cover in recent history, with a shot that captured the scoop mid-drip.  Last December, they ran a gorgeous chocolate dessert, but it was also a bit odd (and therefore memorable) in its inclusion of fresh long-stemmed raspberries in the dead of winter.  And the December 2006 cover I remember very well, because it was a chocolate peppermint tart that I took to Thomas and Meredith’s annual Christmas bash. 

So it seems that they give desserts a tip of the cap twice yearly: one being a fresh, cool summer-time treat, and the other being a decadent, lap-it-up, you-already-blew-it-at-Thanksgiving, Christmas-only-comes-once-a-year, usually-chocolate finale.

And the August cover confirms the summer part of my guess: Blackberry, Lemon, and Gingersnap Cheesecake Pudding.  It may look breezy, and you can certainly do the work ahead of time, but make no mistake: this is no casual, fly-by-night dessert.  After all, it’s blackberry… lemon… gingersnap… cheesecake… pudding.   There’s a good bit going on here.

And I love it.  Slightly overcomplicated (they let me off the hook with storebought gingersnaps), multi-component, do-ahead, casual dessert.  This could not be more “me” if it tried.  Bring it ON.

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