Thursday, February 26, 2009

Newlywed Fogies Out on the Town: Restaurant Week

It’s Restaurant Week in Chicago. One hundred and thirty restaurants have come up with a $22 lunch menu and a $32 dinner menu, throwing wide their doors to the impoverished masses.

This was an opportunity that F and I could not resist. So in our effort to get out more and to explore Chicago’s culinary scene, we chose Bistro 110 for our gastronomic adventure. This decision was not made lightly.

First, I read the reviews for each and every restaurant on and dismissed any restaurants that had received fewer than three-and-a-half out of five stars. Then, I divided the remaining restaurants by cuisine. Our options included French, Italian, American, Steak (evidently a subset of American), Japanese, Vietnamese, Continental, Fusion, Latin, Mediterranean, and one gastro tavern.

Then I visited the website for each restaurant within a given cuisine and reviewed their Restaurant Week menus side-by-side. I whittled down each cuisine category to two restaurants and did away with a few categories all together—like the gastro tavern, The Gage, whose menu featured various foams and a “reconstructed root beer float.”

I narrowed our options to the following four: Bistro 110 (French), Naha (American), David Burke's Primehouse (Steak), and Tizi Melloul (Mediterranean) and printed out the menus for F to review. It was really very close, but we went with Bistro 110, mostly because of the duck and the snails.

The Dinner Menu:

French Onion Soup
Endive and Goat Cheese Salad
Escargots en Croute
Pizza de la Maison

Wood-Roasted Half Chicken
Grilled Steak Frites 110
Duck a l’Orange

La Fameuse Crème Brûlée du Bistro 110
Gateau Breton

Bistro 110 turned out to be a spacious restaurant tucked onto Pearson Street, off of Michigan Avenue. It stands next to the Ghirardelli chocolate shop in the small square next to the Watertower that has always thrilled me with its fairy lights and horse-drawn carriages. We were seated at a table along the side of the large dining room and were immediately set upon by two waiters and a busboy. We were greeted, our waters were filled, extra place settings were whisked away, and menus appeared before us.

F looked up in near panic, “This is the regular menu!” he whispered. It was, indeed, a full list of $15 appetizers and $30 entrees. When I asked for the Restaurant Week menu, we were presented with a simple 5 x 7 card, and while our waitress remained friendly, the flutter around us ceased. It seemed we were still part of the impoverished masses despite our elegant setting, but we didn’t mind. F ordered the Escargots en Croute and Grilled Steak Frites 110, while I ordered the French Onion Soup and Duck a l’Orange. In the meantime, our waitress presented us with the bread basket and a huge, whole roasted head of garlic, from which we scooped generous lumps, hardly making a dent.

The Escargots en Croute was OK. It was essentially a gigantic croissant, beneath which were hidden six slightly tough snails. The French Onion Soup was fantastic, but we had to break through a thick cheese seal to get to the soup. Both appetizers suffered from excess; too much pastry, too much butter, too much cheese. But F thoroughly enjoyed his steak and thin, crispy frites. My duck was tender and the sauce was tasty, but the sweet potatoes were the highlight of the dish—small, cubed, and lightly caramelized. Even F liked them, and he claims to hate sweet potatoes. So far, we rated our meal a 3 out of 5 stars. And then the dessert arrived.

F ordered the Gateau Breton and I ordered the La Fameuse Crème Brûlée du Bistro 110. The famous brûlée was a fine dessert, but the Gateau Breton! I have been dreaming of it ever since. It was a very simple, warm, crumbly shortbread cake dusted with sea salt and accompanied by an unnecessary but delicious scoop of vanilla bean ice-cream and a drizzle of caramel. This Gateau Breton was absolutely fantastic. F laughed as I returned again and again to his dessert, forsaking my poor crème brûlée. While as a whole the meal rates 3 out of 5 stars, this dessert was a 4.5 (I reserve the 5 for any dish that can rival a gorgeous dessert named “The Dieter’s Dilemma” at the now-extinct Brush Hill).

As we fought over the last crumb of the Gateau Breton, F and I pondered whether we had ever had a restaurant meal we would rate the nearly unattainable 5 out of 5 stars. Between us, F and I came up with only a very few. Here is my list:

Brush Hill

Once a year, my parents would take my sister and me to Brush Hill for a special dinner. Brush Hill was a restored 18th century post-and-beam barn at the top of a hill in Vermont. I remember the drive up the hill along a winding path through the woods. I remember the dining room with only three tables and a gently roaring fire in the 12-foot-long brick fireplace. I remember ordering perfect, tender, pink lamb chops with mint essence, garlic, and grilled leeks. I remember that the kitchen was directly through an oak door near the fireplace, and the chef would come out to talk with my parents. I remember walking up the creaking stairs to the restroom on the second floor, past two bedrooms furnished with antiques. I remember that at the time, my sister and I were in the habit of rating bathrooms from 1 to 5, and we gave Brush Hill the highest honor. And I remember the reason we came back again and again to this restaurant at the top of a hill deep the woods of Vermont: The Dieter’s Dilemma, a puff pastry shell filled with French vanilla ice cream, topped with chocolate-rum sauce. It was quite simply the best dessert I have ever had, and probably will ever have. Brush Hill is long closed, but the memory of that dessert remains forever imprinted on my taste buds, never to be outdone.


F and I were married at my parents’ house in Connecticut. For our honeymoon, we drove up the East Coast and spent a few days in Vermont, where we had the best breakfast of our lives at Dot’s in Wilmington. Dot’s is not much to look at from the outside—or the inside, for that matter. It’s a small building next to the river that runs through town. The back end of the restaurant hangs over the river. It’s dizzying but also exhilarating to think that were the restaurant to slip into the churning waters, Dot’s homemade bread would be the last thing you’d ever taste. And that would be just fine. My oatmeal and bananas were satisfying on the chilly October morning and F’s eggs and bacon were perfectly prepared. But Dot’s homemade wheat bread is the best bread I have ever tasted. I can’t do it justice with words, so I won’t try to describe it. You will just have to go to Dot’s for yourself.

Mercat a la Planxa

Our Chicago friends took us out for dinner at Mercat a la Planxa to celebrate our engagement. While the atmosphere is a little too trendy for me (Dot’s is really more my style), being with good friends on the eve of my wedding and tasting exotic and delicious dishes that arrived one after another in a dizzying array, made this dining experience one of the best of my life. Our friend E had eaten at Mercat many times with her colleagues and knew the waiter, who was exuberant and generous with suggestions, portion sizes, and little treats from the chef. It was a feast of Bacon-Wrapped Dates Stuffed with Almonds, Garlic Shrimp, Spicy Potatoes with Spicy Paprika Aioli, a selection of cheeses, and the truly wonderful and surprising Langotsa y Vainilla, or Butter Poached Lobster, Roasted Garlic Flan, Basil & Vanilla. And then our friends ordered F a glass of 25-year-old Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. It tasted like a barrel; like pitch and oak and knotted rope. It was unbelievably good, and everyone at our table held the glass to their noses, unwilling to pass it on. I wish I could have kept that glass.

Those are my top three restaurant experiences to date. What are your 5-star restaurant moments?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Snow Day!

Grownups don’t get snow days. Work must go on, whether we have to dig out our cars and drive twenty miles through a blizzard or wait for the bus to finally arrive, packed full of sick, wet commuters dripping germs and snot.

So while we once prayed for snowstorms because they meant sleeping in and snow forts, we now dread them—perhaps most of all in Chicago, where it was recently -18 degrees before wind chill.

Today in Chicago, we are under severe storm watch for a storm that was supposed to blow in yesterday. The blizzard was going to begin at 6pm last night and last until 11am today. Six o’clock came and went and the sky was still clear when I went to bed last night. This morning, the news amended that the severe storm would now be arriving closer to noon.

It’s noon now, and we await the storm. Luckily, it’s Saturday, so there’s nowhere to go, no need for high heels in the slush, no need for a humid bus ride, no need to do anything but enjoy a snow day at home with the kitties. Gleefully anticipating the worst, F and I have stocked up on provisions. We have stacks of books to read and Netflix to watch. We are ready for a snow day. And I am ready for a day of cooking.

While we are awaiting the snowstorm t
hat may or may not arrive, F and I are spending a pleasant Saturday at the “kitchen” table. Our kitchen and living room are divided by a low counter, so our large table near the front windows doubles as a kitchen table, a dining room table, a computer table, and any other sort of table we might need. Right now, F is drawing and I am putting the finishing touches on my Oscar night menu.

We have invited a group of friends over to our little apartment tomorrow night to watch the awards. We are providing the snacks and the piece de resistance is a Milk-Chocolate Tart with Pretzel Crust from this month’s issue of Food & Wine. The introduction to the recipe reads: This dessert from pastry chef Colleen Grapes at the Harrison in Manhattan, a tribute to the chocolate-covered pretzel, hits just the right salty-sweet note. Grapes mixes crushed pretzels with flour, butter, sugar, and egg to make a crunchy crust, pours in a luxurious milk-chocolate filling, then sprinkles on more crushed pretzels as a garnish.

This is one of those decadent, delightful desserts that I couldn’t (or shouldn’t) make during the week for just F and me. Having guests over is the perfect excuse to make something really rich and indulgent, enjoy a single piece, and send the leftovers home with friends.

The Ingredients:

1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1 ¼ cups coarsely crushed think pretzels (3 ½ ounces)

¾ cup confectioner’s sugar
½ cup all-purpose flour

1 large egg
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, melted
1 ½ cups heavy cream
¾ pound milk chocolate, chopped

Maldon sea salt, crushed pretzels, and crème fraîche, for serving.The only ingredient I did not get was the crème fraîche, since I plan to slice the tart into smaller pieces for our party guests to nibble on as the night progresses.

Forecast: clear skies

First, the crust. As we do not yet own the bubble-gum pink standing electric mixer, I used our food processor with the blade, which seemed to work just fine. I mixed the butter, ¾ cup of the pretzels, and the confectioner’s sugar until creamy, then added the flour and egg. Once combined, I added the rest of the pretzels, making sure to leave some pretzel pieces intact. Then I flattened the dough between two sheets of plastic wrap and chilled in the fridge for 30 minutes.

Forecast: partly cloudy, no snow

I preheated the oven to 350 degrees as a rolled out the dough between the sheets of plastic wrap to a 12-inch round. I peeled off the top layer of plastic wrap and inverted the dough into (what I thought was) a 10-inch tart pan (more on this later). I pressed the dough into the fluted corners and trimmed the overhanging dough. Then into the fridge again for another 30 minutes.


Forecast: partly cloudy, no snow

As I do not have pie weights, I lined the bottom of the crust with parchment paper and filled with rice. I baked the crust for 20 minutes, and then removed the parchment paper and rice, covered the edges with tin foil so that they wouldn’t burn, and baked for 10 more minutes. Then let the crust cool completely.3:30pm
Forecast: gray sky, no snow

I melted the bittersweet chocolate and brushed it over the bottom and up the side of the crust, then back into the fridge for 10 minutes.

I brought 1 ½ cups of heavy cream to a simmer, turned off the heat, poured in ¾ pound of milk chocolate, and let it rest for 10 minutes. Then stirred with a whisk, poured into a bowl, and let it cool for one hour at room temperature.5:00pm
Forecast: getting dark, flurries

Then poured the chocolate into the crust and slid it back into the fridge, where it will rest until just before the party, when I will sprinkle the top with pretzel bits and sea salt.

I realized about halfway through this process that my tart pan is too small. I was so excited to actually own a tart pan that I put it to use with wild abandon, even though it is likely, upon reflection, approximately 2 inches smaller than the 10 inches the recipe calls for. Oh well. My tart may have more crust than chocolate, but I don’t think anyone will know how far I have strayed from Food & Wine’s recommended tart size—except that half of our party guests read this blog, so they will find out, and they will judge, as they are all gourmands and better cooks than I.

Forecast: Dark, cold, but no snow

There are worse things than having a cup of leftover milk chocolate. This evening for dessert, I made F a vanilla ice cream and milk chocolate crepe, drizzled with milk chocolate sauce.

Tomorrow will bring further party preparations, an Oscar party, and a photo of the finished tart…and maybe our winter storm.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Valentine to a Schlub

“I sound like such a schlub!” F said, upon reading Sundays in the Kitchen. “All I do is sit around and eat Cheez-Its while you buzz around the kitchen making all these great dishes.” I assured F that I had intended only to make fun of my own inability to relax on Sundays and in no way meant to imply that he was schlub-like.

“Oh, I know,” he said. “I’m glad you’re doing this blog. I just know your parents are reading it, and I hope they don’t think I’m lazy and terrible.”

I acknowledge that this is a valid concern for a new husband. Looking back through my posts, I realize that while I have not intentionally misrepresented F, I have not given him the credit he deserves in his support of my recent passion for cookingor what he calls my “new phase.” F often teases me about the fact that when I become interested in something, I devote most of my waking life to its practice instead of enjoying it as a hobby like a normal person. There have been many such “phases,” and I am certain that they cannot all be easy for F to endure.

F is my biggest champion. He reads my every blog post and even comments. He has always been entirely supportive of whatever new, life-changing obsession I have discovered. He was ready to drop everything and start a business with me when I decided to open a coffeeshop-bookstore in Hyde Park. (I later came to believe that since I have no money and we are in the midst of a recession, this plan is best shelved for now.) He bought a bike with me and even agreed to a 40-mile recreational ride with a group of middle-aged strangers when I became a bicycling enthusiast last summer. And he’s supportive now, as I’m becoming increasingly obsessed with cooking.

He encourages my venture into the culinary arts, but he does not share the interest. Which makes him all the more wonderful for reading my blog, trying new foods when he’d rather have pizza, listening to me babble about recipes, and holding the grocery basket when I take forever wandering down every aisle in the store. He even gave me Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking for Christmas.

He recently visited three grocery stores in a single afternoon in search of cardamom because I needed 1/8 of a teaspoon for a spice cake and he wanted my recipe to come out just right. He has made late-night runs for eggs and driven across town to find just the right size ramekin for a soufflé. And he does the dishes—even when I use all of our pots and pans to make a single meal. F is in no way a schlub.

He even puts up with my subtle attempts to interest him in cooking. Upon request, he mixes sauces and spice rubs and sometimes chops the garlic, and I have been gently insinuating for the last few months that he might like to take a cooking class with me. I have taken a few classes now at Kendall College, which are great in no small part because I get to wear a chef’s apron and paper hat in a huge, gleaming professional kitchen. I think that if F were appropriately garbed and surrounded by meat and knives, bubbling mixes and strange smells, he might just join me in what I’m quickly realizing is more than just a phase.

So on the pretense of Valentine’s Day, I signed us up for a pizza-making and wine-tasting class for couples at Frasca Pizzeria and Wine Bar in Roscoe Village and I didn’t tell him where we were going. F loves pizza and often bemoans the fact that we no longer order it every week as we once did (before I realized I had gained ten pounds). I thought the promise of pizza would be an understated and effective nudge in the direction of the culinary arts. Last night, as we walked into Frasca, F still had no idea what we were doing there.

The hostess led us to the back of the dining room where a row of rustic tables faced a wood-burning oven and a prop table with a bubble-gum pink standing mixer. We joined a few other early couples at the tables, which were set with wine glasses, informational sheets about the tasting wines, and the pizza recipe. F’s eyes lit up.

“Are we making pizza?” he asked.

“Yes, and tasting wine, too!” I said.

“Pizza and wine. I like this!” he exclaimed. I was relieved—and excited. I too love pizza. We can no longer order it once a week because I tend to eat most of it.

Our long table held a wide range of pupils. There were four other young couples, a mother and daughter, and an older couple in fancy dress who took photos as the chef/co-owner of Frasca introduced himself and explained the recipe step-by-step as he poured ingredients into the mixer. When he mentioned that Frasca’s distinctive crust is made with beer instead of water, I whispered to F, “If we make this at home, you can choose the beer.” The chef suggested a hoppy beer microbrew, and F scribbled hoppy beer microbrew on his recipe.

He continued to take notes on the temperature of the ingredients, where to get the right flour, the best way to grease the pizza pan, and the ratio between the quantity of yeast and the thickness of the crust. As though holding my breath at a deer's timid approach, I tried not to watch him make notes and nod in agreement with the chef. I pretended not to notice his intense joy in receiving a little plate with his own personal ball of dough and topping options. He smiled and chatted as he stretched the ball into a disc and carefully spread sauce over the top. He was deliberate in his pepperoni placement and liberal with his cheese. And when he handed his plate to the chef for baking, he said he couldn’t wait to eat the pizza he had made with his bare hands.

“This is great!” he said. “We should do this at home. We can have everyone over and give them each a dough ball and toppings and we can make our own pizzas for dinner.”

“Absolutely,” I replied.

“We should make pizza every month,” said F.

While our pizzas baked in the oven, we sipped our wine, comfortable and warm in our booth as the servers bustled around us with plates of pasta and desserts. When the hot, crusty, bubbling pizza was finally set down in front of him, F inhaled deeply and gave me a big smile—a smile shared by all of our dining companions. It’s amazing how pizza and wine can impart such a profound sense of well-being and unbridled joy. I was happier and cozier in our little booth next to my husband, with my pizza hot from the brick oven, sampling lovely wine, than I had been for weeks. I was totally, completely relaxed, and I thought nothing could make me happier than I was at that moment.

And then F gestured to the bubble-gum pink standing mixer on the table before us and said, “So, where can we get one of those?”

Frasca's Drunken Pizza Dough
1 cup beer
3/4 cup water
3 1/2 cup “oo” flour (King Arthur or better)
1 tsp salt
1 cup AP flour
1 tsp sugar
2 tsp yeast

Dough Preparation

1. Add first 4 ingredients to mixing bowl
2. Next add in flour, sugar, and yeast
3. On the lowest speed mix for about 1 minute and 30 seconds
4. Turn off mixer and allow the dough to rest for approximately 30 seconds
5. Mix at speed 2 for 45 seconds
6. Remove dough from mixing bowl, fold in sides 2 to 3 times to create a smooth other skin
7. Place newly formed dough ball into a greased mixing bowl for proofing
8. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and place in a warm (85-100 degree area) with a damp towel over the bowl
9. Check dough after 1 ½ hours. Dough should dimple but not stick
10. Portion dough into 6-oz balls
11. Place dough balls into refrigerator for 1 to 2 hours and cover until ready to use.

Cooking Directions
1. Preheat oven to highest setting with pizza stone in the oven
2. Slide pizza onto stone and cook until crust is golden and cheese is melted
3. Cut, eat, and enjoy!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Newlywed Fogies Out on the Town

F and I have old-people tendencies. Our idea of an ideal evening is eating a home-cooked dinner on the couch and watching Lost. We sit side-by-side under a comforter. Our roly-poly black cat, Barry, sits on F’s lap, and our six-pound gray cat, Pickle, curls up tightly on the back of the couch above my left shoulder. It’s very domestic.

“Honey, I hate to say this, but you’re starting to sound like an old woman,” my mother said last week, when I informed her that F and I had been invited to see a play on Friday night, but that I would really rather go home, have dinner, and get to bed early. She was right. It’s not normal for twenty-something newlyweds in America’s second greatest city to want to stay home on a Friday night. It is time for us to get out and enjoy ourselves—even if we have to force ourselves to go to restaurants and movie theaters and see other people.

In the spirit of change, F met me on the corner as I got off the train last night after work. We had decided to start small and go out for dinner and a movie in our neighborhood, Old Town, and I came up with a short list of the best low- to mid-priced restaurants within ten minutes of our house. Luckily, we live in a popular neighborhood with thriving nightlife and a plethora of boutiques and restaurants. Just within that ten-minute radius, we had our choice of Italian, French, American, New-American, Japanese, Japanese Fusion, Bar/Pub, Diner, Fast-Food, Chinese, Lebanese, and Greek.

We settled on sushi. Last night, we went to Kamehachi, which the Yelp reviewers gave four of out five stars—and for good reason. Kamehachi, which means “eight turtles” in Japanese, has five locations in Chicago and was founded in Old Town in 1967 (although the original building was located down the street). Little did we know that we were eating in Chicago’s first sushi bar.

F is relatively new to sushi, but he’s enthusiastic. I have loved Japanese food ever since I spent a month in Japan when I was seventeen, but I do not pretend to know anything more than the basics of Japanese food. With our rudimentary knowledge of Japanese cuisine and our eagerness to try the exotic and extraordinary, we ordered:

Boiled soybeans in the pod

F especially loves edamame, which he calls “Japanese French fries.” They are actually a lot like healthy French fries; in Japan, edamame is a popular, salty snack eaten with beer.

hiyashi wakame
Assorted seaweed marinated in a red pepper and sesame dressing

This was beautiful. Centered on a white plate was a delicate bundle of four or five types of seaweed, each with its own distinct texture and shade of green. There were diaphanous, emerald ribbons that crunched. There were deep green seaweed noodles that slid through the chopsticks. There were vibrant, crimped strands that coiled out of the artfully arranged pile. The sesame oil dressing added a nutty flavor to the salty ocean taste of the seaweed. I have never tasted anything like it.

sashimi moriawase
Chef's artistic presentation of today's freshest sashimi assortment (filets of seafood), served with miso soup and rice

We figured that we would trust the chef to choose the most delectable fish of the day, and we were glad we did. Our pristine white plate held two small samples of seven different fish: octopus, shrimp, tuna, salmon, eel, and two white-gray filets that we couldn’t name. My favorite was the briny, chewy octopus, while F declared the tuna his favorite. We agreed that the two unidentifiable white-gray filets were extraordinarily fishy, which is not a bad thing in itself, but was just a little too strong for us.

Full, satisfied, and feeling very young and carefree indeed, F and I decided we had enjoyed our city enough for one night, and postponed the movie for another evening. We stopped at Treasure Island on the way home for Cheez-Its and ice cream, and retired to our couch to have dessert under a blanket with our kitties. It was a perfect evening.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Operation AFB Drop


I have successfully made the drop. But this adventure was not without suspense:

By some marvelous stroke of fortune, I did make it out of the house at 8:15 this morning. This entailed leaving the gym a little earlier than usual, hurrying through my ablutions, and taking the “other” bus to work.

I had to take the “other” bus because I discovered that my camera was out of batteries, which added an unanticipated trip to Walgreens to The Plan. I had a few options:

Option 1: I would normally take the 36 bus, which drops me cl
osest to Dunkin’ Donuts. But if I took the 36 and went to DD, I would have to walk a block past my work to get to Walgreens, and then double back. Not a good option.

Option 2: I could take the 22 bus, which drops me right on the corner at Walgreens. Across the street is another Dunkin’ Donuts, but this particula
r DD serves burnt coffee. I was willing to make the sacrifice, but as I approached the bus stop, a packed 22 raced past the six or seven people who were already waiting at the stop.

Option 3: I crossed the park to the bus stop in front of the zoo. At this stop, I have my choice of the 151 or the 156. The 151 takes a glamorous route down Michigan Avenue, but drops me off three blocks from work, and nowhere near a Walgreens.

Option 4: The 156 was the perfect choice: it drops me off right at a corner with yet another Dunkin’ Donuts (this one has good coffee, but it’s a whole 4 cents more expensive than the other two DD down the street). When walking to work from this DD, I pass the Walgreens. Perfect.

(And F says I overthink things.)

After Dunkin’ Donuts and Walgreens, I snuck in the back entrance at work and made it up the elevator without encountering any of my co-workers. According to plan, I photocopied the Amish Friendship Bread (AFB) instructions and attached th
em to the dough bags. Before I even changed into my high heels, I scuttled into the kitchen, hurriedly set up my dough bags, and arranged the AFB on a serving basket.Just as I had stepped away from the bread and was gathering the dishcloth and tinfoil I had used to transport the goods, an intern appeared. She looked at the bread then looked at me. I said hello, perhaps a little too enthusiastically for 9am, and bolted out the door. I didn’t even have the chance to take a photo. That part would have to wait.

I did my morning work routine—changed into heels, stop
ped in the rest room to fix my windblown hair, turned on my computer, and signed into my e-mail. Only then did I stuff my camera into my pocket, grab my coffee and oatmeal, and head to the kitchen. No one was there! And someone (the intern?) had already taken a chunk of bread.I took some photos and, relieved, made my breakfast. Now I’m sitting back at my desk, eager to know if my bread is being nibbled. I will check back every few hours and document the state of the AFB with photos. Although I do not anticipate anyone taking my four bags of starter dough, the bread is great and it looks nice, too. I anticipate that it will be gone by the end of the day.


It has moved! My dough and loaf are now at
op the microwave, where first I discovered the AFB approximately ten days ago. One of my dough bags is gone, and the loaf is 2/3 eaten! Hurrah!
This may be the final photo of the day, since the bread is nearly gone and the dough bags obviously don’t make for captivating photography.


Only crumbs remain. This concludes the Amish Friendship Bread series.

Day 10: The Goo Becomes a Loaf


Today is the day! It’s time to bake the Amish Friendship Bread (AFB). I just got home from work and I’m ready to go.

While the oven preheats to 350 degrees:

Pour the entire contents of the bag into a (non-metal) bowl, then add 1 ½ cups flour, 1 ½ cups sugar, and 1 ⅓ cups milk and mix well (using a non-metal utensil). I belatedly realized that this recipe should tell you to mix the flour and sugar together then gradually add to the batter, alternating with the milk. In my eagerness to be done with this project, however, I dumped everything into the bowl at once, which resulted in some very clumpy dough.

I measured four separate clumpy dough batters of 1 cup each into 4 one-gallon freezer bags. These are new AFB starters, which I may present to my friends if I choose to share.When mixing the following ingredients into the remaining dough, I did remember to combine the dry ingredients in one bowl and the wet ingredients in another bowl, and then alternate adding the wet and dry ingredients to the batter.Wet mix: 3 eggs, ½ cup milk, ½ tsp. vanilla, 1 cup oil (1 whole cup! I’m definitely giving this bread away to work people)

Dry mix: 1 cup sugar, 2 tsp. cinnamon, 1 ½ tsp. baking powder, ½ tsp. salt, 2 cups flour, 3 small instant vanilla pudding packets

Mix well.I used one 9” x 5” loaf pan and one 8” x 4” loaf pan. I poured the large loaf first, then added chocolate chips to the remaining batter and filled the small loaf pan. I sprinkled the tops of both with cinnamon and sugar.

Into the oven for an hour.

7:00pmBehold, the bread. F had a piece of the chocolate chip loaf for dessert, and gave it rave reviews. I also snuck a few crumbs (which probably added up to a generous piece), and I agree that it really is delicious. It had better be, with all that sugar and a full cup of oil! Although this is called Amish Friendship Bread, let’s not fool ourselves: it’s cake.

Since I do not need two loaves of cake, or four bags of cake dough, I will bring the four bags and the large, plain loaf to work tomorrow. I am hoping that the finished and delicious AFB loaf will help to make the goo bags more desirable to my co-workers. But my decision to share with my colleagues poses some logistical difficulties. I must anonymously set up my AFB display in the work kitchen, and photographically document its popularity (or lack thereof) throughout the day. But how will I carry out the AFD drop without being seen?

The Plan:
8:15am Leave the house
8:20am Catch the bus (assuming it’s on time)
8:35am Get off the bus downtown
8:40am Dunkin' Donuts for coffee
8:45am Get to work
8:47am Remove coat and hat
8:48am Make photocopies of AFB instructions
8:50am Write start date on instructions and attach instructions to each of the dough bags
8:55am Enter kitchen. Close both doors so no one can sneak up on me.
8:56am Arrange AFB on counter with dough bags
8:58am Take photos
9:00am Be back at my desk and nonchalant by start of day

Of course, the execution of this plan depends on a number of factors: whether I can really leave the house at 8:15 (no matter how hard I try to leave early, I always end up leaving at exactly 8:36 every morning), the timeliness of the bus, the length of the line at Dunkin' Donuts, the duration of the wait for the elevator at work, and, most importantly, the number of co-workers I must avoid on the way to the kitchen.

Now it is time to get some rest. I have a big day tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Quickfire in My Kitchen

I eat oatmeal every day—sometimes twice a day! It is quite possibly one of my favorite foods. I also watch Top Chef every Wednesday. So imagine my excitement when I saw this advertisement:

Enter the Quaker® Oats viewer quickfire challenge to find out.

You could be flown to New York where you’ll compete against other Top Chef fans. The winner will have the chance to attend a future Top Chef episode. For a chance to win, submit an original recipe featuring Quaker® Oats.

Read the Official Rules for contest entry.

And so we embark on a new series: Quickfire in My Kitchen, in which I document my experiments using Quaker® Oats in various non-oatmeal related recipes. The contest deadline is February 27, so I have a little over four weeks to see what I can come up with.

This is going to be fun!

Monday, February 2, 2009

Day 9: Amish Friendship Bread

This Week's Menu, Courtesy of Stanley's

From the gorgeous Stanley’s spread artistically arranged in the photo to the left, I bring you this week’s menu:

Saturday (and leftovers for Sunday): Stir-Fry (no recipe, just chop up some vegetables, chicken, and shrimp, and stir fry with garlic and soy sauce)

Sunday Soup Day (good for ten lunches): Roasted-Vegetable Soup

Monday: Gruyère, Arugula, and Prosciutto-Stuffed Chicken Breasts with Caramelized Shallot Sauce

Tuesday: Jack Quesadillas with Cranberry Salsa

Wednesday: Crepes with Ratatouille

Thursday: Garlic-and-Herb Oven-Fried Halibut

Friday: Wasabi and Panko-Crusted Pork with Gingered Soy Sauce

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Grocery Shopping, Redefined

Past: McQuades
I didn’t always love grocery shopping. There is a big difference between shopping for yourself and accompanying other people while they shop.

I hated grocery shopping at McQuades with my mother. I spent countless hours standing in the magazine section admiring pictures of Leonardo DiCaprio in Tiger Beat magazine, while my mother pushed her grocery cart down aisle after aisle after aisle. I preferred the magazines to lagging behind my mother while the cart squeaked down an aisle of canned goods—especially when I had no interest whatsoever in cooking, or eating the majority of the things we brought home.

Present: Treasure Island

But now that I have a kitchen of my own, and someone to cook for, grocery shopping has become a high point in my day. After work, I ride the train four stops, walk two blocks past my gym, a movie theater, and Second City, and say hello to the Streetwise man on my way inside Treasure Island. Yes, my grocery store has a fabulous nameand wall art (see photo to the left). The first time I entered a Treasure Island, I was disappointed to learn that it was merely a grocery store, but I have come to realize that it truly does hold treasures—especially when I’m peckish after work. Treasure Island has free samples. I know where each sample is placed, even the samples that are hidden in corners and on shelves. As I blithely swing my basket through the store, I snack on French bread, jam, pretzels, orange slices, salsa and chips—and sometimes, if I’m very lucky, baked goods!

I always spend about fifteen minutes longer in the grocery store than I really need to, wandering the aisles and pondering my options. Although I would never buy $12 cereals or $25 gourmet cheeses, I still like to look at them. It is probably my biggest indulgence that I never leave without buying something totally superfluous based solely on an immediate craving. Dates. Marmalade. Tropical dried fruit mix. Hazelnuts. When I look at my bank statement at the end of each month, Treasure Island accounts for nearly all of my spending.

Future: Stanley's and Beyond
When F and I recently opened a joint bank account, we looked into how best to streamline our grocery shopping. Treasure Island is by no means the most expensive grocery store in Chicago, but it’s certainly not the cheapest. It’s down the street and it has free samples, but those facts alone do not make it the best option for the majority of our shopping.

I did a little research on grocery stores, and found that Stanley’s is hands-down the best place in the city for produce. I had passed Stanley’s twice a day for two years when I drove to the suburbs for my previous job. I recall sitting in traffic staring at its hideous sign and thinking that it looks like a dive market I would only enter in desperation. But it turns out that Stanley’s of the hideous sign is a glorious Mecca of produce. And it’s CHEAP!

The first time F and I visited Stanley’s, we went a little crazy and bought an entire cart of fruits and vegetables. I had a lot of fun looking for recipes to use up the exotic things we bought, and we did fairly well using it all, too. We only had to throw away some lettuce and a few potatoes. The next week, in an effort to use everything we bought, I chose four recipes in advance and shopped for specific ingredients.

For our Stanley’s trip on Saturday, I boldly planned a menu for the next seven days. We bought accordingly, and our total bill came to $27. Now, keep in mind that we will still need to visit Treasure Island for our meat and cereal and nonperishables, but I am so excited that we brought home an entire week’s worth of produce for under $30!

The next step in our grocery revolution is to visit some of the other local Chicago markets for our meat. As much as I love Treasure Island, and have come to know each and every produce man, butcher, and stock boy, I realize that I must sacrifice my daily grocery stop for cheaper, more streamlined, and ultimately more fulfilling approach to grocery shopping.

And so I say farewell to Treasure Island.

…right after I stop by on my way home tonight for a turkey breast and some free samples…

Day 8: Amish Friendship Bread

Giada in My Kitchen

This evening, as F and I were watching the Food Network and enjoying our dinner of delicious Chicken Français, which took me a good hour and a half in the kitchen, Giada De Laurentiis appeared before us in a little red dress. She flipped her hair as she ladled meat onto a generous pile of pasta in a recipe that was most certainly not from Cooking Light.

F said, "I wish Giada would come over here and cook for me." As soon as the words left his mouth, he looked down at his dinner and mumbled, "Oops."