The Little Chicken That Could, The Little Tart That Couldn’t

Alice Waters, I thought you were crazy. I’ve been roasting chickens for a long time now and when I flipped through my Chez Panisse Cookbook the other night and read your recipe for roasted chicken I couldn’t believe it. No fat! No melted butter brushed on the surface (like The Barefoot Contessa’s) or softened butter smeared around (like Grant Achatz’s). No olive oil massaged into the skin (like Marcella Hazan’s) or bacon laid gingerly across (like Nigella Lawson’s). Your recipe asks the reader to simply sprinkle on exotic seasonings (1 tsp crushed fennel seed, 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper flakes, 1 1/2 tsps additive-free kosher salt, 1/2 teaspoon ground pepper), to stuff the bird with thyme and then to place it in a roasting pan and roast for an hour at 400 degrees. That’s it. How could it possibly taste good without any fat? And yet look:

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Alice, I think you may be a witch. A good witch, but a witch nonetheless. This bird was more flavorful and juicier than any roast chicken I’ve had before. How do you come up with recipes like this? Are you some kind of sorceress? Do you ride around the Bay Area on a broom like Angela Lansbury in Bedknobs and Broomsticks? Do you stare into a crystal ball and wait for words like “fennel seeds” and “cayenne pepper flakes” to appear? What are you, are you human? Well, whatever you are, I bow to your magnificent authority. Your roast chicken recipe may be my new staple.

Now bring out the other California chef, you know the one. The one I previously lauded as having written my favorite new cookbook. That’s right, bring out Suzanne Goin of “Sunday Suppers at Lucques.”

Suzanne, I love you. I love what you’re about, I love that your recipes are so complex and creative and dynamic. But I have to ask you a question: what’s the deal with this caramel tart!?!?

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I spent lots of time and money making this! I made the pastry dough from scratch. I had to roll it out. I had to fit it into the tart pan. And then I had to make the caramel: scary caramel while Diana and Craig made popcorn because they’re impatient.

“You’ll see guys,” I told them. “When this tart’s done you’ll be sorry you filled up on popcorn.”

Well I followed your recipe to the letter. I used a candy thermometer and got it exactly to 310 before pouring it on to the nuts and adding the salt. After adding the filling to the pre-baked pastry, I refrigerated–like you said–for two hours. Do you know what kind of restraint that took?

And for what! I took it out, two hours later, and cut a piece and bit in and the caramel globbed on to my teeth like an alien creature from a Star Wars movie. Craig took a bite and said “blech! it’s too sweet.” Diana took a bite and said, “The texture’s a little weird.”

Back into the fridge it went and the next afternoon I was ready to give it another chance. So I cut in and nearly had to saw my through. I took a bite and nearly cracked a tooth. So now look where it is:

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It’s in the garbage making love to a lobster carcass (leftover from a video I just shot! more to come!) I’m sorry you had to see that, but do you think I liked having to throw it away? All that energy and hope in the trash but nobody wanted to eat it! Oh Suzanne, how could you do this to me? We were so happy together.

I’m sorry, but Alice is moving in. I’ve packed your things and there’s a car service on the way. I hope you understand—it’s not personal. It’s just every time I look at you now, my teeth hurt. Please forgive me.

Toasted Coconut Marshmallows FROM HELL

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New York, NY. April 18, 2006—For foodblogger Adam Roberts, the night started out like any other. “I was crying into my pillow and cursing my existence like I always do,” he told reporters yesterday. “When I suddenly had the urge to make Ina Garten’s toasted coconut marshmallows.”

Roberts saw Ms. Garten make these marshmallows on her program “The Barefoot Contessa.” Roberts explains, “I’ve always wanted to be barefoot, I’ve always wanted to be a contessa. I felt like this was a perfect opportunity.”

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Peanut Brittle Soup: A Fable

There once was a boy whose spirits would droop

“I love to eat candy

and I love to eat soup,”

he’d write in his journal

while taking a poop.

“One day I will find a solution.”

He travelled the world and the world shook its head

He slept with great wisemen

and the wisemen all said

“Tie up my feet and jump on the bed”

which only increased his confusion.

“I don’t understand why I’ve learned so little,”

he wrote in his journal while taking a piddle,

“Perhaps I’ll go home and make peanut brittle,”

and that’s where our fable begins.

He used the Craft cookbook by Tom Collichio

He gathered up butter, one giant stick-io

and sugar and water and felt mighty slickio

he turned up the heat with two spins.

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And this is where the story turns tragic

Only one other word rhymes with tragic

The recipe says, as if by magic

“The caramel will soon turn amber.”

“How yellow is amber?” the boy wondered aloud

And studied the mixture, a yellow white cloud

“I think it is ready,” he said mighty proud

His voice quite assured in its timbre.

He added some peanuts, he added some salt

He wondered if the polar bear on Lost is caused by Walt

then he poured out the mixture, a peanut gestalt

swimming with glee on a Silpat.

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“Swimming with glee? Why’re they swimming with glee?

This isn’t the way peanut brittle should be.

Peanut brittle isn’t known for its flluidity.”

His ego and confidence: SPLAT.

“I know: in the fridge!” he said with a laugh.

“That should speed up the cooling by half.”

He cleared out some space and drank a carafe

of milk that was two weeks expired.

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One hour later, the young boy came back

“Now I will have my peanut brittle snack.”

But the peanut brittle was still wet as the rack

of a model who always perspired.

The poor young boy’s face returned to its droop

“I said I loved candy

I said I loved soup

and now my peanut brittle’s like poop”

and this poop he quickly discarded.

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So what have we learned in this tale of a tot

Who knew what he wanted, but didn’t want what he got?

We have learned that when sugar gets hot

The recipe better tell you the temperature, not the color,

or your results will be retarded.

THE END

Why Bad Soups Happen To Good People [Plus: My Newest Kitchen Gadget!]

Usually I put the name of the dish I’m writing about in the title of the post, but if I were to do that here you’d probably say: “Ummm, Adam, it’s Butternut Squash and Italian Sausage Soup. That’s gross. Of course it’s nasty.” And, inevitably, if I linked to it you’d discover its source: Emeril Live. You’d judge me cruelly and take away my foodie license. But for what it’s worth, here’s the finished product:

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It doesn’t look bad, I’ll concede, but it’s not a soup I’d make again and it’s certainly not one I’d recommend. Mostly, it just tastes bland; and when it doesn’t taste bland, it tastes like sausage—but not good sausage, just greasy and a bit grimy. It reminds me of the episode of Roseanne where Becky has a hangover and Darlene’s trying to make her puke. “You know when you bite down into a sausage, and there’s that little hard bit?”

Right, so I’m not selling you on the soup. Why in the world would you want to click to read more? Enter at your own risk. [NOTE: If you do enter, you’ll get to see my newest kitchen gadget!]

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Do Not Try This Orzo At Home

If today’s posts have a theme, the theme is “disappointment.” This was (mostly) a weekend of bad eating. It culminated tonight when I attempted an Orzo recipe from last month’s Bon Apetit. I’m sure, if you wanted, you could find that recipe on Epicurious. But why would you want to? Because it looks pretty?

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Well you remember the pretty girl from high school? The one without a soul? That’s this orzo. It’s soulless and empty and I hate that I spent hours making it.

Ok, there were lots of steps but it wasn’t as bad as I’m making it sound. Sure, I had to peel and slice up ginger:

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I had to bring it to a boil in oil:

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I let it fall to room temperature and then poured it into a jar:

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The jar went into the refrigerator for one hour.

Meanwhile, I chopped up some dried apricots, green onions, and cilantro:

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I cooked the Orzo: (actually, this was Riso pasta–an acceptable alternative, according to the recipe):

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Toasted my pistachios:

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Strained the ginger oil:

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And then assembled the Orzo salad you see at the top of this post. You mix the pasta with the onions, cilantro, apricots and pistachios. You pour some ginger oil into a bowl with lemon juice and dried Coriander and whisk that together. You pour it on the Orzo. You season to taste…

And when you taste you hit yourself on the head and you say, “I spent two hours waiting for this?” Then, after eating a bowl, you have the joyous task of cleaning it up.

Forgive my lack of pep when I say: sometimes cooking isn’t fun!

Coffee Cake Disaster

“The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” – Proverb

There are several things to consider when making a “welcome home” coffee cake. The first is whether or not the person you’re welcoming home actually has a way of getting home. Since Lauren made arrangements with another friend–one not busy making a “welcome home” coffee cake–I considered that hurdle cleared as I set about my task.

The second thing to consider is which coffee cake to make. Surely there are many worthwhile options. You might, for example, make a coffee cake with chocolate in it. You might even call it “Chocolate Coffee Cake.” Or perhaps one with actual coffee in it. You could call it “Coffee Coffee Cake.”

In my case, I plucked a recipe out of my newly purchased (from Powells.com, at half price) Nancy Silverton’s Pastries from the La Brea Bakery (to complement my birthday gift of Breads From The La Brea Bakery):

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From its many drool-inducing pages, I happened upon a perfect-sounding recipe: Summer Camp Coffee Cake. The instructions sounded too easy to be true. And the ingredients cheap and easily purchasable. I hopped in my car, and made my way over to Whole Foods where said ingredients were purchased. Yet, something sinister was at play…

Look, you might say it was my own ignorance, but I say it was the Devil. The recipe called for 1.5 cups of walnuts. The scale, obviously, only measured in pounds. Using my genius, I recalled that 1 stick of butter = 1/2 cup = 1/2 lb. Therefore, 1/2 lb must equal 1/2 a cup! I’ll buy 1.5 lbs of walnuts!

As I later recalled my logic to Lauren, she brought up an interesting point. “Density, dumbass,” she declared drolly.

In any case, I got home and measured out 1.5 cups from the bag of walnuts, placing them on a cookie sheet. As you can see my formula didn’t exactly work:

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I had more walnuts left over than I used in the recipe! Oh well. I’ll make walnut peanut butter or something later. In any case, the walnuts went into the oven for 12 minutes of toasting.

Moving on, I chopped my butter (strangely, Nancy has you chop up 2 sticks of cold butter for her dough; as opposed to most recipes which have you soften the sticks pre-beating) and placed it in the bowl of my freestanding mixer:

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I added the Baking Powder, Baking Soda, and salt and mixed. Then I added the sugar. Pretty soon, it softened into a lovely white buttery mound. I was all ready to add the flour and eggs, when I felt a strange vibration in my thigh.

“Not now,” I purred, “I’m baking.”

Then I realized it was my phone. I reached into my pocket and removed it. The name on the caller idea illuminated brightly: LAUREN.

“Hello?” I gestured.

“Adam!” she responded. “I’m stranded at the airport! Come get me!”

“But I’m making you a welcome home coffee cake!” I pleaded.

“Get your ass over here!” she concluded.

“Fine!” I hissed, hanging up.

What would I do?! The oven is pre-heated! The batter is half mixed! And the walnuts–the toasted walnuts–they need to be chopped and added to the sugar!

Thinking fast, I did what any sensible coffee cake baker would do in a similar situation. I forewent the manual chopping, and dumped the walnuts into a food processor.

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“Chop!” I shouted. “Chop with all your might!”

The processor obliged and I was delighted to find the job superior to the one I would have done by hand. I quickly mixed the walnuts with white and brown sugar, got my shoes on, turned the oven off and ran out the door.

**************************

Lauren called at 10:30. We returned back at 1:15.

Along the way, we grabbed a drink at a country line dancing bar because Lauren was flummoxed from her flight. “It was awful,” she moaned, “this family next to me was playing Uno and this kid behind me kept singing and we were stuck on the tarmac for two hours because our plane was too heavy to get over the mountains.”

Returning to the apartment, I consoled her. “There there,” I said, “let me finish your welcome home coffee cake.”

“I’m making a hot dog,” she replied.

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Ignoring her attempts to pry one frozen hot dog from its mass of other frozen hot dogs, I began to complete the coffee cake. I cracked three brown eggs into a bowl. Why brown eggs? you ask. Because they were out of white ones, I answer.

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Then I attempted to measure out 4 cups of unbleached all purpose white flour. “Attempt” I say because I only got 3.5 cups out of the bag in my pantry. For the final 1/2 cup I had to use bread flour. Could this be the root of my coffee cake disaster?

I added the flour and eggs to the batter and mixed. Then I spooned out 2 cups of sour cream into a measuring cup.

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Stirring everything together, I read Nancy’s next instruction: Prepare the pan with melted butter.

“Ok,” I said to myself and dumped half the batter into the pan.

“Shit,” I said to myself, “I forgot to add the butter.”

Using a spatula, I scraped the batter out of the pan back into the bowl. I cleaned it out, dried it, and sprayed it with crummy Kroger butter. I wasn’t in the mood at this point to melt butter. (Strange how bad kitchen karma doesn’t just rain: it pours).

“OK, here we go,” I said and poured half the batter in.

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I added half the walnut/sugar crumb topping.

Then I attempted to add the other half of the batter. This is very hard to do when the batter is thick. How do you spread thick batter over a moody half-layer of walnut/sugar crumb topping? It sticks where ever you spread and gets all mixed in. Somehow, I overcame and added the final layer of crumb.

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Looks promising, doesn’t it? Like the valedictorian who goes off to college only to become a drug dealer.

I popped it into the oven with the best of intentions. Lauren chomped into her hot dog as its toxic smell filled the air.

“God that reeks,” I said.

“Mmmm,” she replied.

45 minutes later (the directed cooking time) I took the prize out of the oven:

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“How glorious!” I sang. “A triumph!”

“I’m excited!” said Lauren.

“You should be!” I replied. “This is your welcome home coffee cake!”

Rereading Nancy’s instruction to serve hot, I cut right in. Here’s where the disaster revealed itself. Layers of oozing dough dripped maliciously down my knife. The whole thing was undercooked.

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I fell to my knees and turned my tear-soaked face towards heaven. “Nooooo!” I screamed as solemn music played.

“Did you undercook it again?” chided Lauren.

“I followed the instructions!” I swore.

“Did you test it?” she pressed.

“Yes, I did!” I said, not lying because I DID test it. And yes, it came out gooey, but Nancy’s instructions say: “Done when firm to the touch and brown and toasty on the outside.” It WAS firm to the touch! It was brown and toasty!

I served up our two undercooked pieces and put the already cut, basically ruined cake back in the oven.

“Well it tastes good at least,” I said. It did taste good.

“Ya,” said Lauren, eating silently.

I watched the cake through the glass window. The exposed piece got dryer. The gooey dough stayed gooey. After ten minutes, I couldn’t take any more and removed my soiled cake from the furnace of failure.

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Look how dried out that corner piece is. Look how gooey the interior is. Look how broken my heart is.

But Adam, you’re the Amateur Gourmet, you’re SUPPOSED to fail!

I am?

Yes! It gives all of us a great sense of comfort to know that someone who devotes an entire website to food messes up too!

It does?

Of course it does! Gray skies are gonna clear up…

They are?

No no no. Try again. Gray skies are gonna clear up…

Put on a happy…NOOOO…I CAN’T DO IT…I’M A FAILURE!

You are NOT a failure.

I am, I am, I can’t do anything right.

Of course you can. Remember that time you made that apple cobbler and everyone had an orgasm?

Un huh.

Wasn’t that a success?

I guess so.

And what about that saffron rissoto? And homemade hot chocolate?

It gave me diarrhea.

But didn’t it taste good?

It did, it did.

You are a talent! All talented people fail!

I guess that’s true.

I know it’s true!

How do you know?

Because I…am…

Yes? Yes?

Let me tell you my initials: MS

Mimi Sheridan?

Think ImClone.

Oh my God!

Please, call me Martha.

Well thanks Martha, I feel great now!

No problem, friend. And if you ever bake my famous Nail File pie, send me a slice!

Will do.