Nancy Silverton’s Banana Bread: The Superlative Killer

I am currently reading Charles Dickens’ Bleak House (a nice light read while studying for the New York bar) and I’m actually really enjoying it. One of my favorite characters is Lawrence Boythorn, a boisterous giant of a fellow who is described by one character as: “Always in extremes; perpetually in the superlative degree.” He sits at the table with a canary on his head and according to the novel’s heroine, Esther: “To hear Mr. Boythorn presently expressing the most implacable and passionate sentiments, with this fragile mite of a creature quietly perched on his forehead, was to have a good illustration of his character, I thought.”

This, I think, perfectly describes my writing on this site. I can, at times, be very extreme in my condemnations (“Per Se,” for example) or disturbingly enthusiastic in my exhaultations (I should be ticketed, now, for every superflous “delicious”) but all the while–despite the heavy thunder–there is a canary perched on my forehead. One must take all my superlatives with a grain of tweet tweet tweet.

Tonight, then, as I began Nancy Silverton’s banana bread recipe, I rubbed my hands together anticipating the superlatives I would use.

“Delightfully unexpected!”

“Unusually sublime!”

“Most likely to succeed!”

The recipe, it seemed to me, was the strangest I had ever read for banana bread. It started, naturally, enough, with bananas:

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These had been ripening for a week, and the time had come to put them to work.

Now I peeled them and mashed them and–would you believe it?–they measured out exactly 1.25 cups, the precise amount Nancy calls for:

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Whisk that together with two eggs and vanilla:

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Set that aside.

Now for the strange stuff. I told you this recipe was strange, right?

Here are all the weird elements lined up:

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Most conspicuous of them all, in my opinion, are the poppy seeds. Who puts poppy seeds in banana bread? Nancy Silverton, that’s who.

The vanilla bean is my own addition. It’s been sitting there since Condoleezza’s rice pudding and I figured I would put it to use in a stroke of banana bread genius.

As for the other bottles: there’s nutmeg and cinnamon and cloves. Sure, normal for PUMPKIN bread, but banana bread? Do you see how exciting this all is?

So I put it in the mixer with the paddle attachment attached:

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If you look carefully you can see my vanilla bean scrapings resting on the butter in the upper right.

This beats for 2 minutes on a low speed until softened. Then you add the sugar:

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Not just white sugar, no. White sugar’s not good enough for Nancy. Nancy wants brown sugar too. How intricate is this recipe!?

[Tweet tweet tweet.]

So you mix it all together and then you add 1.5 cups of flour and the banana/egg mixture, alternating back and forth until you get this:

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I took a taste and let me tell you it tasted absolutely–(superflous superlative warning)–delicious. A really wonderful complex cluster of flavors. Bravo, Nancy.

And then for the final touch. Are you ready for this? You slice a new banana all the way down lengthwise and create two wedges that you lay on top of the bread like so:

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This was painfully difficult. I destroyed two of Lauren’s newly purchased bananas in the process. She doesn’t know I did this. Let’s not tell her, ok?

But it does look pretty. And then you bake it for 50 minutes.

Here’s where we encountered some problems. Nancy says to bake until the bread is browned and firm to the touch. I took it out of the oven. The bread was brown. It was not firm to the touch. I put it back in. I waited some more. I took it out. The outsides were really brown. The inside was still not firm. I stuck a tester in, it came out wet. I put it back in. I took it out. The outsides were on the verge of being way too cooked so I blew the whistle and turned the oven off. Here’s our finished product:

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Looks great, huh? The center is mushy, yes, but the outsides are perfect. And the banana slices really do make an impression. Get it? Make an impression?

I quickly and eagerly cut myself a slice:

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After all this hard work, after all this fussiness how great would this bread taste? How glorious the flavor?

Eh.

It tasted fine. The flavors were all present but somewhere in the background and you could hardly taste the bananas. It’s almost as if all the elements cancelled each other out. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it tasted interesting–I’m really glad I made it–but was it worth all that work? Probably not. Superlatives be damned, this bread was just o.k.

Oy! Meets Grill: Basil-Garlic Chicken Breasts with Grilled Balsamic Peaches

Last week, I asked for your help in my help-seeking post: How Do I Use This Barbeque?.

You offered your help. I appreciate that.

And so tonight I decided to use the advice you gave to conquer my fear of grilling. Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, your Amateur Gourmet conquered the barbeque.

It began with a book. A marvelous book, in fact: “License To Grill” by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby. I bought this book last summer when I bought a kitchen-counter grill from Williams Sonoma. This is a gas grill that looks like an open-face George Foreman. I used it to prepare chicken once and it tasted fine. But there wasn’t that “open flame” quality. That’s what I was seeking tonight.

In any case*, “License To Grill” is marvelous because it offers gourmet recipes that you can prepare right in your backyard, just like Tony Soprano make sausages. And by “gourmet” I simply mean recipes that your eaters will say: “Wow this tastes like nothing I’ve ever had before!” Not gourmet like you serve slivers of horse meat in a martini glass.

[* = I think “in any case” is my most overused expression.]

In any case, I was so excited about my decision to tackle the grill that I couldn’t choose upon a recipe. I sat in my car outside of Whole Foods (after several hours of fake studying and 20 minutes of fake exercising) and flipped through the book over and over again. And then I made a bold decison: “I will bring the book into the store!”

Why hadn’t I thought of this before? Oh, I know. I thought they would think I was shoplifting a book when I left the store with it under my arm. These are the sort of worries a neurotic person like my experiences throughout the day.

So here I am pushing my cart with the cookbook in the basket:

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“Daddy! Daddy!” whined the cookbook. “Can I have lucky charms?”

“No!” I yelled. That’s all he needs is MORE SUGAR.

Now I studied the fish case and saw scallops. I looked up the scallops recipe. I thought to myself: “Eh, ok, scallops, that could work.”

I explored the meat department. Also the vegetables.

And then it dawned on me. [CUE ANGELIC CHOIR.] Chicken! I’ll make chicken!

I flipped to the poultry section of the book. I found a glorious recipe: “Basil-Garlic Chicken Breasts with Grilled Balsamic Peaches.” Perfect!

I paid and made my way out of the store.

“Sir!” yelled a manager. “You have to pay for that book!”

Once home, I began my preparations.

First of all, the basil they were selling at Whole Foods was hydroponic. I suppose that’s because “real basil” hasn’t burst through the soil yet. Here’s what hydroponic basil looks like:

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I think hydroponic should become a new hip word.

“Dude! That’s so hydroponic! You totally aced your SATS!”

“Umm, Marvin, a 700 combined score isn’t really acing your SATs.”

“Oh.”

Next I poured one cup of balsamic vinegar into a measuring cup:

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Only there wasn’t one cup of vinegar in the bottle I had. But I proceeded anyway. Who said details were important?

I poured the vinegar into a small sauce pan and began boiling it:

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I did this for 20 minutes until half of it evaporated. Then I added molasses:

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This was my first experience with molasses. I enjoyed it. I am frustrated because a while ago I encountered a recipe I wanted to make that required molasses and now that I have it I can’t remember what recipe that was. If I found it that would be so hydroponic.

So I mixed the molasses in with the vinegar and added some black pepper. Set that aside. We won’t be using that again until later.

Now, in other news, I combined olive oil, garlic and basil in a bowl:

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I stupidly used Nigella Lawson’s spring whisk into which the garlic and basil got caught. I spent 20 minutes picking it out.

Put my two chicken breasts (not skinless! not boneless! although the recipe does call for boneless, the store didn’t have boneless without it also having to be skinless) into Tupperware and added the garlic, oil and basil mixture:

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Now the peaches. Aren’t they lovely?

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I sliced them in half and removed their pits. I contemplated eating one with some basil but Peaches and Herb don’t go together.

“GO together?” says Peaches. “Why honey we used to date… Hit it Herb!”

“REUNITED AND IT FEELS SO GOOD…”

Quiet Herb.

Anyway I stacked everything up for carrying out:

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I carried it out:

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Now the barbeque (as Ross conjectured) had a self-igniting feature but, alas, it was broken. So I had to go the alternate route. I had to light with a flame:

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Am I just a pervert or does that look dirty?

Don’t answer that.

Whooooooosh! THE HEAT IS ON! [Quiet Condoleezza.]

On goes the chicken:

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Ah a nice sizzle. I sat back and relaxed, meditated, wrote a psychic letter to my spiritual penpal Dion. It came back Return to Sender.

After 10 minutes, I flipped the chicken over:

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The skin looked brown, though not as brown as I should have let it become. These were thick cuts of chicken and I would soon learn my lesson the hard way. [DUN DUN DUN!]

Soon I added my peaches:

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How pretty is that picture? That should be on the cover of my acid rock album “Sizzling Peaches.”

But, they weren’t getting charred enough on that top shelf, so I moved them down a floor to Apartment A:

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Now we’re cooking. Two minutes later I flipped them over and brushed them with that balsamic molasses solution from before:

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Don’t they look yum?

But now we’re on the chicken. The peaches are done. And the chicken?

It’s so hard to tell. I cut into one (after the requisite cooking time) and it’s raw inside. I move to the back of the fire so it will get more heat:

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I close the lid. I let it cook. I take it off. I cut into it. Still raw. I put it back. This goes on for a while.

And so this was the most challenging aspect of my BBQ adventure. How do know when it’s done. I was far beyond the suggested cooking time from the cookbook, yet it was definitely not cooked enough.

I followed my gut. Sometimes you gotta do that. Eventually (probably 20 minutes longer than anticipated) I took it off the flame, cut into it, and it looked perfect:

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And doesn’t that skin look wonderful?

Here’s the final plate:

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And trust me, it tasted as good as it looks. And it looks fiiiiine mama. Hydroponic! Back to you, Rod.

Chocolate Chip Carbohydrate Celebration Cookies

Sixteen very generous people replied to my post requesting the best recipe for a chocolate chip cookie. I went with my friend Katy’s suggestion because (a) it sounded good, and (b) if it came out bad I could blame her.

Her suggestion came from Marcel Desaulniers’ cookie cookbook. I do not know who Marcel Desaulnier is but apparently he makes really good cookies. Katy wrote: “I am in love with both of these [recipes].” (She posted two recipes, one for bars one for cookeis). “I want to share them with the world. Your readers should try them out. So should you. After you do, would you please bring some over? Thank you.”

Easy now, Katy. Let’s not put the cart before the horse.

The recipe begins, as so many do, with sifting. Specifically, the sifting of flour, baking soda and salt:

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I find the sifting process enjoyable. As I sift, I shift my hips and picture myself on a tropical aisle with coconuts on my breasts and flowers on my ears. And then I snap out of it and notice that I am done.

The next part requires my favorite kitchen tool: an electric freestanding mixer.

First you open some butter:

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And you take a picture of it. Chop it up and put it into the bowl.

Then hold Dark Brown Sugar up for the camera:

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And dump 2 cups in with the butter. This ended up using the whole box! That’s because I packed the sugar. You can take this information with you, then: one box of brown sugar contains two cups, packed.

I put it in the bowl with the butter:

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After whipping for a bit, I added eggs:

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Clay Aiken and I both find it offensive when people use the word “retarded” gratuitously, but Lauren buys retarded eggs. She buys genetically modified or vitamin enriched eggs and I’m always like: “No! No! No! Buy natural! Buy organic!” In her defense, though, the eggs in the fridge–despite being Omega Enhanced–were from free range chickens. Aside from that, they were from Kroger.

Anyway, Katy’s recipe calls for dark rum. We didn’t have dark rum. But earlier in the day Katy and I had this exchange on the phone:

Katy: And don’t forget the liquor, that’s an important part.

Me: Oh, but I don’t think I have dark rum.

Katy: That’s ok. Sometimes I use a liqueur…

Me: You do?

Katy: Yes.

Me: Wow.

Katy: I know.

Me: What kind?

Katy: Well I have this really good caramel liqueur…

Me: I don’t have that.

Katy: Oh.

Me: Oh, but we have White Chocoalte Godiva liqueur left over from a party.

Katy: Perfect! I bet that will be yummy!

Taking her advice, then, I went with the Godiva:

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“That’s LADY Godiva to you, short pants.”

Sorry, Lady.

Anyway, I added 2 Tbs of that, then 1 tsp of vanilla:

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Mix it all up good:

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And then you add, very slowly, the sifted flour et al:

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There is a lot of flour in this recipe: 4 cups. And the yield is quite great: the recipe says it makes 2 dozen cookies, but my batter made 3 dozen. Far too many cookies if you ask me! So what I’m trying to say is that if you’re cooking for a small audience you might want to half everything.

Ok.

So here’s the finished dough pre-chips:

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It actually tasted pretty good. The liqueur gave it an interesting flavor.

Now we add the chips. Two bags of semi-sweet Giardelli:

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Hoomp:

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Mix it up a bit in slow spurts:

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I really enjoyed this part. Turn it on, turn it off. On, off. Quick quick. On, off. Zhrrp. Zhrrp. [It’s not me, it’s the carbs making these sound effects…]

Anyway, ok, two rounded Tablespoons for each cookie on two cookie sheets that I prepared with (exhibit A) Silpat:

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And exhibit B, Parchment Paper:

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They went in a 300 degree oven for 15 minutes; I rotated the sheets; 10 minutes more. What’s that haunting aroma? Why is it: the best chocolate chip cookie ever?

Lauren thought so. Look:

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Those are the finished cookies.

Here’s a cookie up close:

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And after biting into it:

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This cookie IS delicious, it’s true. If you like your cookies moundy and cakey and rich and thick, this is the cookie for you.

I’m looking for an elusive cookie I had in New York once. I tried to describe it to Lauren:

“I was at Lisa’s office in New York and I went down to the concourse and there was this bakery with these large dry looking cookies that I settled on because I was hungry. Well, I got it and I bit into it and it was perfect. It was flat and crispy on the outside and the inside was chewy.”

“Why would you want that?” answered Lauren sardonically, devouring her cookie.

“Because I like a snap and then a soft interior.”

Lauren rolled her eyes.

Ok ok, so these cookies are great. And there are so many. Look how many cookies we have:

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A perfect ending to a perfect, albeit semi-delirious, Carbohydrate Awareness Day. Here’s to carbs!

A Cobbler Recipe for Cobbler People: Cherry and Apricot Cobbler

In this world there are pie people, tart people, and cobbler people.

Pie people, bless their souls, say things like “bless their souls.” They wear aprons and buy toilet paper at Sam’s club.

Tart people are a little edgier, but not much. Their hair is cropped and they wear wire-rimmed glasses. They don’t favor Yanni, but they don’t dislike him either. In Sex and the City terms, tart people are Miranda.

And then there are cobbler people. We’re the rustics, the hands-dirty type. We like finger painting and eating glue. We’re impatient. We don’t care what it looks like as long as it tastes good. We are cobbler people.

What I like about cobbler is that it is so easy. You make the fruit, you make the topping, and you’re done. It’s a great way, also, to try different fruits and to celebrate the season. Except cobbler people don’t say things like “celebrate the season.” Pie people say that.

A few days ago I spotted apricots and cherries at Whole Foods. Remember how I told you to keep your eyes out for what’s in season? This was one of those times. So tonight I scrambled over there, loaded up on ingredients, and came storming back ready to make my cobbler.

Here are my apricots:

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Here are my cherries:

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After washing the apricots and cherries, I began the pitting process. Pitting cherries is the pits. I tried various techniques, but ultimately relied on my fingers. It took a while. Here are the results:

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And here are the pits:

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And the Pips:

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Now you halve and pit the apricots. This wasn’t too hard, I used a paring knife:

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The recipe I used (from Epicurious) has you toss the fruit with sugar, cornstarch and (rather unconventionally) almond extract. After which I poured it into the baking dish:

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It baked for 35 minutes at 400 degrees. It came out smelling great:

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Meanwhile, I made the topping. This was easy too. First I whisked together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt:

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Then I cut up a stick of cold butter into squares. Notice how ingenious (and immodest) I am. I halved the butter lengthwise, flipped it over, halved it again (thus quartering it). Then I sliced down horizontally to get cubes:

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Work the butter into the flour with your fingers until it resembles “coarse meal.” I never get this instruction because I am none too familiar with coarse meal. I imagine, though, that coarse meal looks like this:

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Sam Neil, on the other hand, looks like this:

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Here’s where our recipe gets sloppy. You pour in 3/4 cup of buttermilk and 3/4 cup of whipping cream:

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Everything turns quite gloppy:

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The cobblers I usually make have crumby toppings; this one would turn out biscuity. It made the actual toppping process (glopping the batter on to the fruit) a bit more difficult. “Drop dough by rounded tablespoonfulls” says the recipe. I managed ok, and it looked like this:

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Then I baked for 40 minutes at 375 and it came out looking like this:

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Pretty huh?

Now from the side:

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Served us up a bowl:

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And it was quite delicious. I was worried for a bit. I thought the cherries wouldn’t be cherryey enough. That the apricots wouldn’t be tart enough. That the topping wouldn’t be crumby enough. But nothing to worry about: everything tasted bright and terrific. This is a good early summer recipe. That is if you’re a cobbler person. And who wouldn’t want to be a cobbler person? We’re the best.

Late Night Caramel Chocolate Pecan Ice Cream

When making ice cream it’s always good to keep in mind that the “batter” (if that’s what they call it) has to chill. So, for example, if you start your ice cream at 8:30 pm and the ice cream involves hot sticky caramel that needs to refrigerate to “cool,” don’t expect to be eating until after 11. And if after 11 your roommate drags you out for a night on the town, don’t expect ice cream until 2:56 am.

Tonight I was inspired to make the Barefoot Contessa’s Caramel Chocolate Pecan ice cream (a variation on the Turtle). I happened upon the recipe by accident: I was going to make her chicken chili, then I decided it would be wasted since my parents are coming in tomorrow for graduation and we’re eating every meal out. But then I saw the ice cream and said: I gotta make it.

This recipe is easy and delicious. I halved it because Barefoot’s recipes tend to yield 8000 times the amount you actually need. (Her Turkey Meatloaf requires like 15 lbs of turkey meat).

Anyway, begin by boiling sugar and water. (I won’t give amounts for copyright fears…are these unfounded? Anyone here go to law school?)

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She says wait until there’s a mahogany color which should happen in three to five minutes. Five minutes went by. Then six. Then seven. I began to grow afeared. But, luckily, the color quickly changed. I snapped a photo:

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Now you add 3 cups of cream. I like this recipe because there’s no milk. All cream. That’s my kind of ice cream.

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BC says: “Careful when you add the cream, it’s going to bubble up!” And that it did. And then it forms a congealed mass, which BC also warns about. She says: “Don’t worry, it will melt. Put it back on the heat” (oh ya, you take it off the heat when you add the cream) “and stir til the caramel dissolves.”

[Remember when I made that burnt caramel ice cream? I threw away the congealed mass instead of dissolving it. That’s probably why it didn’t turn out so great.]

So I dissolved my congealed mass, poured it into a bowl, and refrigerated. Went out on the town.

When we got back, hours later, I chopped up artisinal milk chocolate from Whole Foods (which tastes amazing, by the way).

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Then I chopped up pecans that I had toasted earlier. (I like toasting pecans in my free time as well as butterfly painting and long walks on the beach).

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Now we add the cool caramel cream mix to the mixer:

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Let it go for 30 minutes while you check your e-mail and download wholesome pornography.

After 30 minutes, I’ll admit it was still soupy but that’s because it required post-mixing freezing:

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Now we add our pecans and chocolate:

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Serve up two soupy bowls to late night ice cream fans:

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Pack the rest away:

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Friends, this ice cream was delicious. In the game of “worth making” or “not worth making” this definitely ranks in the former category. It’s wonderfully sweet, rich, and choc full of textural goodness. Lauren complained that it was “too rich” but that’s because she abhors capitalism. Trust me, this is good stuff. And now, I’m afraid, I must slumber.

Decadent and Wildly Expensive Chocolate Ice Cream

The checkout woman at Whole Foods is psychic.

Last time I was there she said: “Are you a lawyer?”

And I said: “Well I’m a law student.”

And she said: “Ya, I can tell.”

I found this very insulting and I smacked her across the face.

“I knew you were going to do that,” she said.

The checkout woman at Whole Foods is psychic.

Tonight, while checking out, the same woman noticed a pattern in my purchases: cocoa powder, bittersweet chocolate, vanilla bean…

“Are you making ice cream?” she asked.

“Krikey!” I yelled. “You’ve done it again!”

She stared back at me, silently.

“Why don’t you just buy some ice cream,” she said cooly, “this stuff’s expensive.”

She was right. (Have I mentioned that she’s psychic?) The vanilla bean cost $6; the Shaffren Bargen(sp?) cocoa powder cost $7 (<--a big waste...I thought it would be noticably different, but it wasn't), and the cream and the milk and the Giradelli chocolate bars (which, actually, are relatively cheap) all added up. Plus there was the Bon Apetit and Saveur I picked up too. In any case, I responded: "Because there is glory in decadent homemade chocolate ice cream, woman!" And I smacked her again, just for good measure. When I got home, Lauren's eyes lit up with the news: "I'm making decadent chocolate ice cream." Lauren is a chocolate nut. This was right up her alley. "Mmmm," she said. "But it probably won't be ready til after midnight." "Ohhhh," she sighed. She'd be sleeping by then. I got started with the vanilla bean, the milk, and the cream. IMG_2.JPG

This simmers for thirty minutes and can I tell you that there is no smell greater than the smell of milk, cream and a vanilla bean simmering.

“What IS that?” asked Lauren’s friend Hillary.

“Milk, cream and a vanilla bean simmering,” I responded snippily.

“It smells wonderful!” She leaned over the pot and wafted the steam towards her face.

“Hey!” I cried out. “No wafting!” I smacked her to punctuate my point.

After that I beat together the cocoa, sugar, eggs, egg yolks and vanilla extract…

BEFORE JENNY CRAIG:

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AFTER:

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Then I poured out a cup of the hot creamy vanilla bean mixture and poured it into the chocolate mixture:

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Meanwhile, I chopped and added 8 oz of the Giardelli bittersweet chocolate to the remaining cream/milk/vanilla bean mixture:

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Here’s the chocolate-egg mixture after mixing:

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And here’s the Giardelli-cream-milk-vanilla-bean mixture after melting:

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Now the egg mixture goes into the cream mixture:

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And you cook it down until it resembles pudding:

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Pour into a bowl:

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Refrigerate for two hours while Lauren goes to sleep.

While waiting, I watched episode 7 of “Freaks and Geeks.” This is the best DVD set I have ever purchased. First of all, the show itself is brilliant. It walks the balance between incredibly funny and incredibly poignant so well. Each episode is so well crafted, it’s like a mini-play. And then the features on the DVD are phenmonal: loads of commentary tracks, deleted scenes, behind the scenes footage, audition tapes. You could spend an entire lifetime going through all the material. But fortunately, two hours gives you enough time to let your ice cream batter refrigerate.

When ready, pour the cool mixture into the ice cream maker:

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Let it rip!

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I actually found this process disconcerting because the ice cream was so thick to begin with it was hard to tell when it went from pudding to ice cream. So I let it go for the requisite 30 minutes until it produced this:

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To call the finished product decadent is a profound understatement. This ice cream is so rich, you could use it to tar your roof. And so chocolatey! I couldn’t imagine an ice cream infused with more chocolate flavor. Which is not to say that I loved it: I’m not a chocolate fanatic, so it’s decadence is lost on me. When Lauren wakes up tomorrow, and a few hours after her breakfast, she’ll be the one to savor it’s splendor. I, instead, savored a few spoonfuls and returned here to write about it. My major gripe is the waste of the vanilla bean: you hardly taste it. Was it that important? The chocolate so dominates that it seems that it could have done without it. And saved me six bucks!

“I could have told you that,” says the Whole Foods checkout woman.

“What are you doing here?”

She smacks me across the face and leaves.

All Work And No Play Make Jack Candy Kumquats

Reader, are you in for a whacky couple of weeks.

Welcome to finals season. This is where I, The Amateur Gourmet, go a little nutty (as if I weren’t nutty enough already) with crazy schedules, weird cravings, and inexplicable forays into the kitchen. Many law students smoke as they suffer their way through finals; I bake.

Or in this case, I candy. Kumquats. Tonight I candied kumquats.

Lauren said: “What are you making?”

“Not making,” I said. “Candying. Kumquats. I’m candying kumquats.”

Here’s how that works:

You get a bunch of kumquats and you slice them (according to the recipe I pulled up at foodtv.com):

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Weird how they look like tomatoes and yet they’re nothing like tomatoes.

Moving on: you boil some sugar and water:

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Add the kumquats:

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Simmer and drain ’em:

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And that’s it. What do they taste like? Soggy, sugary kumquats. Like candied kumquats. I candied kumquats.

The CURSE of the CARAMEL CORN

In my brief stint as an Amateur Gourmet there have been few genuine kitchen disasters. Let’s see: there was the time I burnt my Martha Stewart Coconut Cake frosting; the time I almost poisoned Lauren with Isaac Mitzrahi’s parchament paper fish; and the time I used 5 Tbs instead of 5 tsps of salt in a batch of what became known as The Salty Brownies.

But it can easily be said that with any of those disastrous kitchen episodes, I learned my lesson. Should I ever make Martha’s coconut cake again, I’d time the sugar syrup and the egg whites perfectly. And with Isaac’s fish I’d fold the parchment much tighter, and I’d cut down on the wine. And, of course, now I’m extra careful with the difference between a Tablespoon and a teaspoon.

Yet one cursed kitchen concoction haunts me; forcing me into failure every time I attempt it. There is no lesson learned, no improvement. Each time I have a go, it fails in its own dazzling way. The item in question–homemade caramel corn–is the bane of my culinary existence. And tonight’s good spirited attempt ended, as they all do, in miserable failure.

Here’s the deal: I know what I’m probably doing wrong. All the recipes I follow tell you to pop the popcorn in a pot with oil and plain popcorn kernals. I don’t have any plain popcorn kernals. I just have the kind you pop in the microwave. So I cheat and use a bag of Newman’s Own Plain Organic Popcorn (a good choice, one would think, because it’s plain and can carry the flavors you add later) popping it properly in the microwave.

The next part is where things always go wrong. This is the part where you make the hot caramel sugar syrup. The idea is you make the syrup, and then you dump the popcorn in and stir it around, pour it out on a cookie sheet and whala! you have caramel corn.

The first time I tried this, I dumped the popcorn into the hot syrup and whala! the popcorn immediately shriveled and died under the heat; the white part of the popcorn literally melted away. It was like watching a balloon deflate. Kind of funny, yet kind of sad.

Other scenarios had the syrup too sticky, or–worse–too watery. Nothing more horibble than drowned popcorn.

Tonight I thought I was in good hands because I used Nancy Silverton’s Sandwich book recipes for bar snacks. So far, her recipes have really come through and I figured: finally, I have a legitimate caramel corn recipe that I can trust.

Yet, the fact of my cursed caramel corn status prevented me from buying the vanilla bean she suggests you add to the sugar mixture. I couldn’t, in good conscience, pay $6 for something I knew would end up in the garbage.

So, instead, I added everything else to the pot: sugar, water and vanilla extract (<--well, I subbed that for the vanilla bean): IMG_1.JPG

Perhaps importantly, I was out of corn syrup and so I went online and found that you could sub corn syrup for more water and sugar. This probably contributed to the disaster.

Then I added Nancy’s special mix of spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, and ground cloves

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I turned up the heat:

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And after several minutes of swishing sloshing and bubbling, I nervously added the popcorn.

Did it deflate? No. Well, a little. But all seemed well. I stirred it around, like Nancy suggests, and then I dumped it out on a cookie sheet.

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It smelled good enough. It looked fairly decent. But then I tasted it.

Blech!

The sugar had crystallized on the outside of the popcorn, creating chalky sugary patches that stuck together, and making the first bite very similar to eating sand on the beach. I could see how the flavors–especially the apple pie spices–could make for some really dynamite caramel corn. Unfortunately, this caramel corn’s destiny was not my mouth, but the mouth of the garbage can:

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Oh woe is me. Will I ever succeed at caramel corn? Only time–and a lot more sugar–will tell.