Monday, October 27, 2008

Fall ice cream flavors at Francesca's

I've been hosting my four year old niece this weekend. Her taste buds are fairly limited to things like french fries, pancakes, chicken fingers, and mashed potatoes. I took her to Elmo's for pancakes. Elmo's met with her discerning taste. Her mother and I were happy that Elmo's serves nice, strong coffee while customers wait for tables. I usually eat the salmon cake and eggs. Perhaps it shows my roots, but I'd rather have a salmon cake than some fancy salmon tartare or sushi.

We also went to A Southern Season because her mom hadn't been. I'm pleased to say that the Weathervane Restaurant has a good children's menu. My niece loved the sweet potato fries.

The best part of the weekend was a trip to Francesca's for ice cream. They have several seasonal flavors that we loved. Even the child liked the pumpkin, cheesecake, and rum raisin flavors, although she opted for some old regulars: a scoop of strawberry and a scoop of vanilla with a cookie crumbled in it. I tried both. Both were great. What's not to love about ice cream!

I heartily recommend the pumpkin ice cream. It's so much more interesting and possibly tastier than pumpkin pie. It is definitely worth a trip to Francesca's before they stop making it.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Queen of Sheba re-opening!

It's been a long 18 months in the Triangle without Ethiopian food! The Queen of Sheba closed in 2007 after a developer bought the old location and tore it down to build condos one block from Franklin St.

Happily the owner has found a new location on Weaver Dairy Rd. The grand opening of Sheba will be in November 1. I cannot wait. This is the best news I've heard in a long time!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Fresh pasta in Pittsboro

If you happen to be in the vicinity of Pittsboro, NC, around dinner time, I highly suggest a stop for take out pizza and pasta, especially the pasta, at the Neighborhood School Pizzeria on Thompson Street.

A friend of mine had raved about this place for ages. I don't live anywhere near Pittsboro but when I was driving through at 6pm on a Friday afternoon, I figured I would give the place a try. I couldn't make up my mind on what to order so I asked the owner / chef what she recommended. She suggested her most popular pasta dish -- chicken bianco.

It is a take out place, but I found a place inside to sit and watch the activity in the kitchen while I waited. While I sat there, the young girl cooking pulled a chicken escalope out of the fridge, dipped in egg and fried it in a stick of butter while I watched. She poured in a very healthy dose of brandy and added cream. While that buttery loveliness simmered, she took two lumps of fresh, pasta dough and passed them through the pasta machine turning them into thin yellow ribbons. She put them in a pot of boiling water and in no time the pasta was ready and so was the chicken. She put the pasta in a to go box and poured the chicken and sauce over it.

I could not drive myself home fast enough! After a torturous 30 minute drive, I raced into my house, put my dinner on a plate, and poured a glass of white wine.

Ahhhh heaven! The delicate, creamy flavors of butter, cream, brandy and egg melted in my mouth. It was heart-stoppingly good...and fattening. I ate half for dinner and saved the other half for my lunch.

I can't wait to go back! The owner also makes big trays of lasagna to order. One day when I need to feed a crowd I will order a couple. The pizza looked very tasty too. Maybe I'll drive out there this weekend!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Homemade donuts

After reading this article about doughnuts in the NYT, I decided to give one of the recipes a whirl. Doughnuts are my favorite food. My order of preference for fatty, breakfast breadish foods: doughnuts, biscuits, bagel with cream cheese. Muffins? Forget it. If I'm going to have that much sugar and fat to start my day, it had better be a doughnut or even a piece of cake with frosting.

Anyway, after perusing my fridge and cupboards and consulting with my brother who is a fine baker, I decided to make the yeast doughnuts instead of the cake doughnuts. The recipe from the paper calls for a topping of sugar and Earl Gray tea. Isn't that awfully frou frou for a doughnut? I decided that I couldn't possibly go to all the trouble without making a chocolate glaze. Clearly I would have to try half of the doughnuts with chocolate and half with the frou frou tea topping. Then I realized I needed to try a plain glaze too.

The only problem with the yeast doughnuts is the fact that they have to raise a couple of times. For neither love nor money is there a chance that I could rise early enough to make these for breakfast. So it was doughnuts for dessert or in fact for my dinner, as it turned out.

I used the Kitchen Aid with the dough hook to make the dough. It was fairly straightforward. The dough is very sticky.

It was messy to handle. I coated my hands in flour, but I was afraid of using too much for fear of making the dough too dense. No one wants hockey pucks for doughnuts.

I rolled them out to 1/2 in thickness, cut them with a biscuit cutter into 2" circles. I decided the dough was to messy to think about holes. Besides, doughnuts without holes have more surface area for glazes and toppings.

While I was waiting for the doughnuts to raise again, I made two glazes and the Earl Gray topping suggested in the article. In order to get a really fine powder to mix with the sugar, I put the tea in a spice grinder (formerly a coffee bean grinder). It worked beautifully.

I also made a chocolate glaze that was basically a ganache by heating 1/2 c. cream and 1T butter to almost a boil then adding 4 oz of chopped, dark chocolate.

For the second glaze, I wanted something that was more like a traditional glaze but perhaps a tad more interesting. I mixed 1c. powdered sugar with cream, orange juice and vanilla. I added cream by the tablespoonful until the mixture was like a thick paste. Then I added the juice by the tablespoonful until the mixture was like a thin glue. I threw in a capful of vanilla for good measure. The end resulted tasted like an orange creamsicle! MMM.

Once the doughtnuts had risen. I heated the canola oil in a large, iron wok that I generally use for things other than stir fry. I dropped the doughnuts into the hot oil and watched them puff up into airy deliciousness. They cooked for about 45 to 60 seconds on each side. I had to turn the burner down for the last two batches because the oil was so hot.

I drained the doughnuts on paper towels and let them cool slightly. Then I dipped some of them into the glazes and some into the sugar and tea mixture.

The recipe made 30 doughnuts which is seriously a lot of doughnut for one person. I don't know how many I've eaten, but it's at least six because I had to try each topping twice. Then when I was finished I had to eat the leftover chocolate glaze because it would have been a shame to let a Caillebaut ganache go to waste!

I took a huge pile of doughnuts next door. My neighbors think I'm the fairy god-neighbor, and they are always glad to see me with a plate. I think the doughnuts turned out nicely. I'm not sure the effort is worth doing regularly but it is fun to do as a special treat. I also don't know what to do with half a wok's worth of used canola oil.

I imagine that this recipe would be a winner with kids. Plus kids would love dipping cooled doughnuts into the glazes, but keep them far away from the hot oil.

I liked all of toppings. The Earl Gray and sugar topping was surprisingly delicious. The bergamot, that flavour that makes Earl Gray what it is, gave the doughnut a high-brow, sophisticated boost. While it's hard to beat chocolate, I think my favorite topping was the vanilla orange glaze. Somehow it seemed to go best with the doughnuts. It was like an old-school glaze with a kick. The chocolate was almost too much. I thought it overpowered the airy, fried dough. My neighbor loved the chocolate, so it really is a matter of taste.

It will be a while before I can look at another doughnut. Now, I'd better figure out what to do with that canola oil.

Friday, October 10, 2008


Italy's culinary bible for home chefs is a cookbook called The Silver Spoon. In recent years it has been translated into English, and some friends gave it to me as a going away gift when I changed jobs in August. This epicurean tome probably weighs five pounds, but it covers everything. Do you want to know how to fix scorpion fish? The Silver Spoon has it covered.

The cookbook's section on vegetables is phenomenal with recipes that make the most unlikely vegetable very tempting: turnips with bacon (well, bacon does make everything better), peas with pancetta (close enough to bacon), Parmesan turnip greens, and so on.

I decided to try stuffed onions first. The picture looked pretty, and I had a bag of onions in the fridge that needed to be used. The Italian name for the recipe is cipolle alla grossetana, so it was translated as grosseto onions. I don't know what that means but it was easy to fix and very tasty.

1. Peel four large onions. Cook in salted boiling water for 15 minutes. Drain and cool. Using a knife, scoop out the flesh in the center of the onion and save it to be chopped later. You should have four onion shells. Do not try doing this with hot onions.

2. Combine in a bowl 1 1/2 c. lean ground beef (or veal but I buy beef from the farmers' market so I use theat), 1 Italian sausage removed from casing, 2 T freshly grated Parmesan, 2 t olive oil, 1 egg lightly beaten, pinch of nutmeg. Season with salt and pepper.

3. Stuff the onions with the meat mixture. Put the onions in a deep pan. Pour 1 c. of beef stock around the onions. I poured in some white wine for good measure too. Put the lid on. Simmer over medium low heat for 30 minutes.

Serve the onions on a plate and pour any remaining sauce over them. When no one is looking, sop up the yummy sauces and meat drippings with a great piece of bread.

I had leftover stuffing that I put in the freezer. This meat stuffing would be great in bell peppers, zucchini, or artichokes too.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Doughnut recipes

Although I am a Chablis-drinking, brie-eating, east coast elitist -- according to some people's definition -- I must confess that the humble donut is near the very top of my list of favorite foods. What's not to love about fried dough? Having said that, I do not consider Dunkin' Donuts much to shake a stick at.

While Durham lacks in serious donut-making, I was thoroughly delighed to see Amy Tornquist from Watt's Grocery mentioned in a NYT article on doughnuts. Her churros, fried dough coated in cinnamon sugar with a chocolate dipping sauce, get a special mention. An adaptation of her recipe accompanies the article.

In addition to Amy's recipe for churros, there are two other recipes. I am gearing up to give one of the recipes a try this weekend. I've never made doughnuts or beignets or anything of this sort.

I am wondering if I can use a deep, iron wok for frying. This is one of the rare occasions when a deep fat fryer might actually be useful. Hot oil terrifies me. Once I caught a roll of paper towels on fire when deep frying.

Will the effort and calories be worth the at-home effort or is it better to get a fried dough fix at Watt's Grocery or Rue Cler? I guess I'll find out. If anyone has any suggestions or tip on making doughnuts at home, let me know before I burn my house down this weekend.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Onion soup

Not wishing to go the supermarket, I surveyed my kitchen cupboards and the fridge for inspiration. I found a big chunk of Gruyere hiding in the freezer, and I had a loaf of delicious sourdough bread. I also had a bag of onions and lots of stock. French onion soup seemed the obvious choice for my dinner.

Melt 3 or 4 T of butter in a pot. Add 4 thinly sliced onions. I use the slicer blade on my food processor for this. It works well and the onions turn out just the right thickness. Sprinkle the onions with 1/2 t sugar. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until the onions turn brown and begin to caramelize, about 20 minutes. Add a box (4 cups) of beef stock. Add a few sprigs of fresh parsley and several sprigs of fresh thyme (or a good pinch of dried thyme). Add 2 T of some type of alcohol. I like brandy because I usually have it on hand. White wine works or you might try some cognac. Season broth with salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for 15 minutes. Remove the sprigs of herbs before serving.

While the soup is simmering, toast two to four slices of sourdough (I like the French sourdough from Guglhupf Bakery but my favorite is from La Farm Bakery) under the broiler. Top one side of each slice with a nice pile of shredded Gruyere or other hard, salty cheese. Place under the broiler a few seconds until the cheese melts.

Put the cheesy bread into shallow, wide-rimmed bowls. Ladle the onion soup over the bread, and serve. This recipe serves four.