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The joy of the challenge

{Note, April 13, 2013: Not sure why this post from three years ago was just republished on RSS feeds, and I’m not sure how to remove it … there are some great recipes here (but some incredibly old/poor quality photos), so you may want to revisit this post, but it’s not a new one! Sorry about that …}

I’d say about 75 percent of the time that I’m cooking, I like to do something just beyond my comfort level. Whether it’s doing a recipe I’ve never done before or changing one I know in a way that makes it slightly different, I generally like to learn a little something new when I’m cooking. But every once in a while – usually on a fairly empty weekend day, or when we have people over for dinner – I like to do something really new and different, or something that scares me a little. That’s part of the reason I put together Food List 2010 – to push me to make the more challenging things I want to have as a part of my arsenal. I figure this strategy will help me learn not only to cook the more everyday items with skill and comfort, but will also lend me the ability to reach out every once in a while and try something a little more ambitious with some reasonably certain rate of success.

For the past two nights, we had friends in town from New York – friends I knew liked to eat and eat well. It took me a while to figure out what I wanted to make, though I had a few initial assumptions: I would have time throughout the week to prep various parts, if necessary; I wanted to make something from the ice cream cookbook Brett gave me for my birthday; I didn’t want any complicated meat dish (so either something to grill or a vegetarian menu); and, I wanted to finally try out no-knead bread.

I actually find menu planning to be pretty stressful. For instance – because I was making the bread, I wanted the rest of the meal to be non-starchy (pasta – out). But because I didn’t want some relatively-complicated meat dish to be the main (pork loin, for instance, or roasted chicken – out), I was searching for something both hearty and vegetarian (or at least that a grilled sausage might pair well with) that I could do with things in-season and (preferably) already in our refrigerator (which basically amounted to zucchini, red peppers, onions, an eggplant, radishes, and bruised apples). Needless to say, I ended up losing quite a few hours to pulling my hair out in front of a behemoth pile of cookbooks.

But! It eventually came to me, and here’s what we did, along with some grilled sausages, roasted red peppers, pinot noir, and a cheese plate.

First: We made this last weekend in New Orleans at the suggestion of my friend Gill, and it is genius! Packed with flavor but very light and about as simple as humanly possible to make. I made the mistake this time of using green olives with pimentos, which made it a bit too tart for my taste (and lended a not-attractive red tint to the otherwise green spread), but it was still delicious.

Artichoke-olive spread
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1 can/jar artichoke hearts
  • 1 can (~1 cup) green olives
  • 1 Tbsp. capers
  • ~1/3 cup olive oil, or to taste

– Process all together in a food processor until fairly consistent in texture.  Put on … crackers! Bread! Carrots! Sandwiches! Anything, really …


Second: This one’s on my Food List 2010 for a reason – souffles are ubiquitously terrifying for anyone who hasn’t tried making one before. That’s probably the reason I only had my first souffle last March, in Paris. (Meaning, I put it on my list before I’d even had one … I just figured it was something people who cook are supposed to know how to do, right?)  It was a sweet Gran Marnier souffle for dessert at Bistrot Paul Bert, and it was incredibly airy, smooth, and perfect.  I figured here I’d try a savory souffle, which would provide enough foundation for the meal without being carb-based. While it was a little scary – as anything is when you’ve never made anything like it before – it was still surprisingly simple. And turned out light, airy, and – well, I don’t think I’d say perfect, but definitely tasty.

Goat cheese souffle
Adapted from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, Deborah Madison

  • Butter for the dish
  • ~3 Tbsp. grated Parmesan
  • 1 1/4 milk (the fattier, the better)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • A few thyme sprigs
  • A few thin slices of onions
  • 3 Tbsp. butter
  • 3 Tbsp. flour
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1/4 tsp. cayenne
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 4 oz. crumbled goat cheese (we used a bucheron from the Cheese Cave)
  • 6 egg whites
  • Thyme leaves for garnish

– Heat oven to 400F. Butter the souffle dish (6- or 8-cup) and coat with the Parmesan.

– Heat the milk with the bay leaf, thyme, and onion slices until boiling, then set aside to steep for 15 minutes.

– Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large saucepan. When it starts to foam, stir in the flour and cook over low heat, stirring, for 2-3 minutes.

– After steeping, pour the milk into the saucepan through a colander or strainer (to remove the bay leaf, thyme, and onion). Whisk it in and stir quickly for a couple of minutes until it has thickened, then add ~1 tsp. salt and pepper and the cayenne. Remove from heat, and whisky in the egg yolks one at a time. Add the cheese and stir – if the cheese is not super soft, it won’t be smooth, and that’s okay!

– In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until they start to form peaks, then add a pinch of salt. Continue beating until firm peaks. Stir 1/3 of the egg whites into the milk/flour/egg mixture, then fold in the rest.

– Pour into the prepared dish and put in the oven. Immediately lower the temperature to 375 and bake for approximately 25 minutes, checking every 2-3 minutes starting at 20 minutes. It is ready when golden on top and a bit wobbly in the center. The less you cook it, the faster it will fall, and you have a bit of flexibility here. You can bake a bit longer for a less moist center, and the height will stay as you take it out of the oven (that’s what we did).

– Sprinkle with thyme before serving, and serve with a spoon.

I’m excited to try this again with various cheeses (gruyere, cheddar, etc.) and additions (spinach, bacon, carmelized onions, etc.). Let me know if you have other suggestions!

Third: I remember hearing about this no-knead bread trend and how excited people were about two years ago or so, but I never really paid attention. Around that time our bread baking phase was slowing to a halt, and I just didn’t really want to read any more about bread. But last weekend in New Orleans, Gill and Whitney sang its praises again and again, and I knew I had to try it. I love artisan-type bread – can’t get enough of a crackly crust and a spongy interior – and the idea that I could make it at home with some reliability was pretty exciting.  I was amazed at how easy the recipe looked, and even more amazed to find out how easy it was to do and how ridiculously good the bread was. We’ve made our fair share of bread at home (well, to be honest I should say Brett has), and it has been wonderful, but nothing has ever come close to this. I would have been impressed to buy this loaf of bread at a bakery.

I don’t mean that at all to sound arrogant, because I think this had little to do with my skill as a baker at all – in fact the recipe (or the video, I can’t remember) explicitly says that a 6-year-old could implement this recipe well, and I know for a fact I did a couple of things wrong. I mean it to point out my amazement at this innovative bread-baking strategy, and my utter confusion at why everyone I know isn’t making this bread ALL THE FREAKING TIME. I’m pretty sure I’ll be making this again within the next two days or so.


No-Knead Bread
From Jim Lahey/Mark Bittman, New York Times

I’m not going to copy the recipe here because I’d just be copying from the website. Go here for the recipe, and here for the article and video (which made this less overwhelming).

And to note – this was the first time I made bread entirely by myself! So that’s another thing off the list.


Fourth: For the past few months, I’ve been craving one of those blended coffee drinks – you know, the ridiculous ones – for a few months now, but I can almost never justify anything about it – not the cost (exorbitant), the sweetness (would make me feel ill), the bizarre additives/powders/syrups (nasty), or the calories (talk about exorbitant). But the coffee, the chocolate, the creaminess, the refreshing, uh … frozen-ness, I guess you’d call it? I had in my mind exactly what I wanted, I just wasn’t sure how I was going to get it.

But then Brett gave me The Perfect Scoop for my birthday, and I almost immediately picked this recipe as the first I would make. As simple as it gets – coffee, sugar, chocolate, milk – with none of the custard cooking time or the weight of an ice cream, but more than just the ice of a sorbet. I was worried the coffee and unsweetened chocolate together would make it too bitter, but it’s incredibly smooth, light, and even creamy.  This is not the rainbow sherbet of your childhood, but what your mother wished she was eating as you smeared the pink and yellow layers together with your spoon. I made it with decaf because I knew we’d be having it after dinner, but the author suggests it as a perfect pick-me-up in the middle of a summer afternoon. Like a frappucchino, but not as pricey, cloying, or ridiculously, horribly bad for you. I served it with a dollop of whipped cream on top, which was an awesome combo, but definitely not necessary.

Another note – If you have an ice cream maker at home, or have ever thought about getting one, get this book! From vanilla to saffron ice cream, from frozen yogurt to sorbet to gelato, it has just about anything you could want – including sauces, mix-ins, and “vessels” (cookies for ice cream sandwiches, homemade ice cream cones, meringue nests, and more).

Mocha Sherbet
From David Lebovitz’s The Perfect Scoop

  • 2 1/4 cups strong coffee or espresso
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 6 Tbsp. unsweetened Dutch process cocoa powder
  • Pinch of salt
  • 3/4 cup whole milk

– Whisk together the coffee, sugar, cocoa, and salt in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil and boil for 30 seconds, whisking all along.

– Remove from heat, stir in milk. Chill thoroughly in the fridge, then freeze in your ice cream maker.

Seriously, that’s it.

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9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Carolyn #

    That soufflé looks amazing! Way to go. And that bread recipe is one of my favorites. When I lived in Chicago, that’s the bread that I made all the time. Cheap, easy, and better than I could find in the neighborhood.

    September 16, 2010
  2. Ben #

    What an amazing evening! The food was even better than it appears here (truly something because it your photos are beautiful). Thanks again for having us. It was a wonderful trip.

    October 3, 2010



    July 31, 2012
  4. That bread looks amazing! I have seen a couple other blogs try Bittman’s bread recipes and they always seem to come out really well.

    April 14, 2013
  5. That Mocha Sherbet sounds like something I’d choose first too! I’ve got to bookmark that! I love your site!

    May 26, 2013
    • Thanks Caroline! Hope you try it and love it. This reminds me I need to make this again soon!

      May 26, 2013

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