Saturday, February 28, 2009

February Daring Bakers: You Still Can't Go Wrong with Chocolate

Well, another month has flown by - a rather busy one, as evidenced by the slow posting around Red Ramekin lately. Don't worry, I'm still cooking even though that sometimes means dinner is served at 9:30, but, while we're happy to eat at that hour, we usually aren't as happy to take a break between meal prep and chow-time to take some gourmet glamor shots.

But another month's end means another Daring Bakers challenge, and I certainly wasn't too busy to make the obligatory February flourless chocolate cake. Not too busy at all.

[just about perfect panna cotta]

The February 2009 challenge is hosted by Wendy of WMPE's blog and Dharm of Dad ~ Baker & Chef. We have chosen a Chocolate Valentino cake by Chef Wan; a Vanilla Ice Cream recipe from Dharm and a Vanilla Ice Cream recipe from Wendy as the challenge.

Well that little blurb (brought to you by the Daring Bakers) sums it up: February's challenge was a very (very, very) chocolatey flourless cake, to be served with homemade ice cream. So what is there to be said about a flourless chocolate cake?

I was a bit disappointed in this month's challenge, not because I didn't like the recipe, but because I didn't feel like I learned much this time around. I've made several flourless chocolate cakes before, and quite frankly, you really have to try to mess them up. Sure, you can overbake or make some other minor mistake, but when your only ingredients are chocolate, butter, and eggs, there isn't much that can be done to make the final product actually taste bad. And while ice cream is a fantastic thing to make indeed, it's something I'm pretty familiar with.

[nothin' wrong with that]

But enough complaining, because even though this was a relatively quick challenge, it was definitely a hit. I was inspired by the cake accompaniments enough to make three of them (two ice creams and a panna cotta), which meant that I was forced to throw a dessert party to avoid having to consume them all myself. Jonathan and I had some friends over, made sure that all of our spoons were clean, and piled plates high with all manner of creamy, buttery, chocolatey goodness.

I took "drinks" as the general theme for dessert, and made bourbon ice cream, absinthe ice cream (yes, with real absinthe - not for the faint of heart!), and a coffee panna cotta that made use of some of Jonathan's freshly-roasted, freshly-ground beans.

The cake itself was quite tasty (how could it not be?), but overall, not much more exciting than good brownie. I've made tastier flourless cakes in the past, and would probably revert to one of those if tasked with making another cake like this one. The accompaniments, though, were very exciting. Bourbon ice cream is something I've done before, and it never fails to please. Flavored with a hint of vanilla and brown sugar, it goes with pretty much anything.

[creamy bourbon ice cream, served in an ice shot glass]

The absinthe ice cream was...interesting. I'm not sure I could eat a whole cone's worth, but it was certainly unique and definitely a worthwhile experiment. And the panna cotta? Oh. My. God. It was incredibly good, and incredibly flavorful. It was nothing more than a basic panna cotta recipe with some freshly roasted and ground coffee beans steeped in the mix for a bit, but it was wonderfully balanced and light.

So, this month's lesson? You can't go wrong with chocolate. It may be easy, and it may have been done before, but nobody complains when you serve it. And a little something exotic on the side doesn't hurt, either. Thanks to this month's hosts for a fun excuse to host a party, but I'm already anticipating next month's challenge!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Victories, in Vegetables

You know that consummately un-green, late-winter feeling? The one you get from not having enough fresh vegetables in your refrigerator (not to mention your diet)?

If you're reading this from California or somewhere in the southern hemisphere, please skip directly to the recipe at the end of this post. For the rest of you, commiserate with me for a moment on the subject of winter vegetation, or lack thereof, in the colder nooks of the globe. Gone are the lively farmers markets of May through November, and everything leafy that crosses my path looks a bit limp from a recent cross-country or inter-hemispherical journey (I certainly am no locavore).

I'm not taking anything away from the deliciousness of certain cold-weather stars, like squash or cabbage. In fact, these hearty vegetables are some of my favorites. But with the more advanced months of winter (I was going to say "last" months of winter, but who are we kidding, here?) comes a kind of vegetable malaise that often results in cooking the same things over and over again. Squash: cubed and souped, cabbage: braised and stir-fried, cauliflower: roasted and curried, and spinach: frozen, frozen, frozen.

While I like - even love - these dishes, my winter vegetable situation lacks the spontaneity that I find in the summer, whether in the form of found objects at the market or an impromptu snack of fresh, raw peas straight from the pod. Eating vegetables in the winter takes time and planning, and tends to be fairly predictable.

So it's no small victory to find a new vegetable dish or a sassy tweak to an old standby that brightens up the table on a chilly February night. The dish I have in mind features the humble sweet potato, a wintry vegetable if ever there was one, and one that, I think, is unfairly stigmatized for its various Thanksgiving applications.

Believe it or not, sweet potatoes don't have to be relegated to their traditional buttery, maple-y, cinnamon-y role. They don't have to be sweetened (they're already pretty sweet as it is), they don't have to be mashed, and they certainly don't have to be dressed in warm spices.

We had a few friends for dinner last week, and the idea that popped into my mind was Greek-style oven fries, which are based on a dish I used to eat at a Greek restaurant near my parents' house that combines thick, fried cross-sections of potato with lemon, fresh herbs, and feta. How's that for sassy?

Well, there was no frying involved, and I added some sweet potato slices to the mix, but the results were wonderfully flavorful. I roasted the sweet potato slices with plenty of olive oil, herbs, and lemon juice, and upon serving, added a bit more lemon juice and a sprinkle of crumbled goat cheese. They were the perfect antidote to the winter vegetable blues, and they made the most fabulous leftovers-for-breakfast that I've had in a while.

The technique is pretty basic - similar to any other vegetable roasting - but the mix of flavors is what makes these oven fries special. I used fresh mint in addition to some dried herbs, but you could also use fresh oregano and dried mint, or add some dill - you get the idea. It's important not to skimp on the lemon juice here, as the tartness creates a welcome contrast to its starchy, sweet vehicle. And the cheese? Its saltiness makes the whole sweet-savory-sour combination complete. I like cutting nice round slices of sweet potato for these fries, which makes it easy to scoop up the herbs and cheese. I could also see adding leftover rounds to sandwiches (if you don't gobble them up straight, like I do).

In any case, this dish is proof that winter vegetable eating can be exotic and exciting, which is definitely a good thing. It's rather warm in Boston today, but I have a feeling spring is still quite a ways away. Enjoy!

Greek-style Sweet Potato Fries (serves 3-4 as a side, scale up as necessary)

2 large sweet potatoes
2 garlic cloves, pressed
juice of 1 juicy lemon, plus more for serving
1-2 tbs. chopped fresh mint
~1 tbs. mixed dried herbs (make sure there's some oregano in there!)
1/4 c. olive oil
salt and pepper, to taste
crumbled goat cheese or feta for serving

Peel sweet potatoes, then slice crosswise into 1/4 in. slices. In a large bowl, combine sweet potato slices, oil, lemon juice, garlic, herbs, and salt and pepper, and mix to coat. Line a large baking sheet with foil and place sweet potato in a single layer on the sheet. Don't overlap slices; use two sheets if necessary. Roast in the oven at 400 degrees for 15-20 min., then flip slices and roast until golden brown and tender, about 15-20 min., more (In my super-fast oven, I roasted my potatoes for about 25 min. total. They are done when they have plenty of golden-brown spots on them and are soft and creamy on the inside). Serve with an extra squirt or two of lemon juice and a generous sprinkle of crumbled cheese.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Bread, bread, and more bread!

At this point, I'm sure you're sick of hearing me blather about bread. There's this post, about achieving whole-wheat nirvana, this one, about my dear sourdough starter, and even this essay, which is a treatise about the art of making bread itself.

But there's more! I made my debut into the big bad world of food writing yesterday with a piece on conquering one's fear of using yeast, which I wrote for the Kitchen Window feature on

If you are unfamiliar with Kitchen Window, you should really check it out. It's a wonderful weekly feature that covers a range of culinary topics and always includes recipes.

My piece on bread includes recipes for whole wheat sandwich bread, oatmeal rolls, pita, and a shockingly quick pumpkin, dill, and walnut batter bread.

I feel strongly that taking the time to make bread is symbolic of a more intangible willingness to dedicate oneself fully to the art of conscious eating. Baking, eating, sharing, creating - these things are all immensely important, and we pay tribute to them by doing things like baking our own bread. So, I'd love for you to check out this latest piece, and to tell me what you think. Enjoy!