Lemon Poppyseed Cake

When I was little, I used to spend my summers with my grandparents in New York getting spoiled rotten and loving every second of it. My grandmother and I would build our day around chores, cooking and watching soap operas. Our favorite was As the World Turns; we were hooked and made no apologies for it.  Over the summer they brought in teen plot lines, and even though I was nowhere near being a teen, I knew a good tale when I saw it. I never watched during the school year, but when I’d return to New York the following June, there my TV friends would be, almost exactly where I left them, with perhaps a day or two—a week, at best—having passed in their fairy tale lives. Within a day, I would be fully caught up and I’d settle in as though I hadn’t been gone for 9 months. Hopefully you see where this is going (I really hope you do, because my train of thought has gotten derailed a bit as I’ve travelled down memory lane…). I know I haven’t been around and that you’ve all gone on with your lives, but I hope you’ll play a little soap opera time warp game with me and pretend that only a day or two has passed since we last talked food and fun.

So. Where were we? Yes! I was traipsing around the globe, feeling very adventurous and worldly. My last trip before summer was to Ireland for a wedding. Now let’s pause here to say that there is a backstory to me flying to Ireland for 72 hours to go to the wedding of a man I met once (on St. Patrick’s Day!) located in a town that was 7 miles from the edge of nowhere. While that story, in retrospect, is somewhat as fraught with drama and tension as a plot line on The Young and the Restless, to tell it would take us on the kind of detour that we’d need a bottle of Maker’s Mark to navigate, so let’s just get to the food. I found myself in County Westmeath on a misty Friday afternoon at a lovely old mansion overlooking mile after mile of greenery (I was slightly disappointed that there was nary a field of heather, nor could anyone tell me where I could see one, but there you have it). At any rate, the first best surprise of the event was that after the ceremony we were all ushered into a beautiful atrium where they were serving tea and scones! Like in actual tea cups and with bowls of clotted cream and everything. I found this to be the most charming thing I’d ever seen, especially at a wedding, to the point that I made a fool of myself taking pictures of teacups and plates (the good thing about being the only American somewhere is that you always have an excuse for borderline behavior. “Oh, that random girl that none of us know who’s taking pictures of cups? She’s AMERICAN… [wink wink].”).

The second best surprise was the wedding cake. I have come to expect disappointment when it comes to wedding cakes, because they tend to be all looks and no taste.  This seems unfair to all involved since most likely we, as guests, have gone through every minutiae of wedding details with the couple, including the tasting, and then we don’t get anything remotely resembling the deliciousness we were promised (not that I go to weddings for the food. Ahem). Much to my happiness, though, there was a lemon poppyseed cake which, again, upped the charm factor of this wedding. It was a bold move; poppyseeds are not the fan favorite anywhere (I don’t think…?) and with a pound cake consistency, it had the potential to be dense. But, as one of my dinner companions said, the cake was “gorgeous.” I’d never in my life heard someone describe the taste of food as gorgeous before and that–along with the jet lag and Jameson’s–just about knocked me off my chair.

I wanted to recreate that cake long before I even finished eating it, but it took another two months before I got it together to make one for a friend’s birthday. She’d requested a fruit filling, so I found a recipe for a berry compote that I decided I’d put in between the layers of cake and on top. Gorgeous, isn’t it?

Yeah, that’s just about where the gorgeousness ends,unfortunately. While the berries were tasty (it’d never occurred to me to use thyme with fruit), the cake was dry and had so little flavor it was almost a crime against lemon cakes everywhere. I was disappointed, not only because I’d baked it for a friend, but because I’d really wanted to bring that bit of Ireland back with me.  The trip, like the cake, was so unexpected and lovely and just right, that to be able to return to the magic of that time just by whipping up a dessert would have been glorious.  But, the cake didn’t work, literally or figuratively (and I realize that was a lot of pressure on a little baked good (and a hefty dash of wishful thinking), but have you ever found me to not take things to levels previously unknown?).

I recently decided to try again, this time using a recipe I had long before the disastrous one, but completely forgot about.  I added poppyseeds and gambled on using lemon extract, because have you seen the price of lemons lately?  The result was–dare I say it–gorgeous.  It was moist and light and I love the texture that the poppyseeds added.  As a bonus, the lemon extract made it taste fresh with a slight tartness and lemon growers everywhere are going to have to survive without me from now on (and I’ve used bottled lemon juice as a replacement in other recipes and didn’t like the results. You purists out there can send me cash for real lemons, if you want).  I didn’t add the berries this time, since they were out of season, but I’ve included the recipe below because it’s worth trying.

As I put this cake together, I couldn’t be farther from where I was when I bit into that wedding cake in Ireland. I was a little lost then, a little disconnected from myself–nothing was quite working no matter how hard I tried and how true my intentions were. My failed attempt at my friend’s cake was how I’d been feeling for several months presented on a platter.  It’d be unfair to stress out this new lemon poppyseed cake with the pressure I placed on the other one, but I won’t lie, the success of this cake makes me feel like maybe-just-possibly-let’s-keep-our-fingers-crossed I’m back.  The fact that it was a recipe I had tucked away waiting for the right moment makes me think I was never really gone in the first place.  Either way, it’s good to be home….

Lemon Poppyseed Cake (adapted from Barefoot Contessa Parties, by Ina Garten. I used her lemon cake recipe as the base; my notes in red)

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Food Finds: New Year’s Eve Plans

Although my astrological sign (Cancer) would tell you otherwise, I don’t have much desire come New Year’s Eve to make lists of all that’s been accomplished this year and things that still need to get done in the next or generally reflect on the past 364 days.  By this time of year, I’m more than ready to get started on a new path with new adventures.  I tell you this because I’d thought about doing a round up of all things food as we head into 2011, but I’d much rather think about what you’re doing on NYE and all the yummy things we have to look forward to in the coming year.

I’ve never been a fan of spending gob loads of money to stand around with a bunch of strangers trying to pretend that we’re having a good time, so I rarely venture out on December 31.  This year, though, I’m putting on a nice outfit and heading to Vermilion for a 5 course Indian-Latin meal.  There appears to be some Iron Chef battle going on that night, too, which I’m not entirely clear on, but if you’re giving me duck vindaloo and shrimp paella while a DJ spins, battle it out to your heart’s content!  Other restaurants you should check out if you’re interested in ringing in the next decade on a tasty note:

  • Mercadito is also doing a 5 course menu with an open bar option.  This is one of my favorites for always good, always fresh and always fun Mexican.
  • Cafe des Architectes will let you celebrate in grand style by adding black truffles to your entrée. Go ahead! You deserve it.
  • Recently reopened Avec is throwing their hat into the 5 course NYE ring and has an optional wine pairing in case you don’t want to have to figure that out on your own.  As one of the best communal table places in the city, you may meet your 2011 crush while feasting on pork belly cassoulet.
  • I’ve never had a bad meal or a boring time at Carnivale, which on top of Caribbean inspired food will have samba dancers and other live entertainment. Really, can you go wrong with that?

If you’re looking to bring in the new year like a rock star, check out these sure to be spectacular parties:

  • After you have dinner at Cafe des Architectes, head to Le Bar which is located on the other side of the Sofitel. It’s one of my favorites for its cozy atmosphere (fire place included!), St. Germain inspired cocktails and lovely park view.
  • Sable Kitchen & Bar (which provided the delish treats and liquor laced cocktails for my birthday this year) is going retro with a 1940s theme party, complete with small plates, desserts and champagne.
  • Only a few tickets are left for Lumen’s Vintage Vegas Party, so get moving (procrastination is sooo 2010!).  I’ve had many a fun night at this swanky and sophisticated club, including birthday ’09.

And when you wake up on Saturday morning, feeling less like a rock star and more like you’ve been hit on the head with a boulder, put a coat on over your pjs (or your going out clothes, either way) and find yourself at one these hangover cure spots:

  • Eatt’s menu reads like the comfort food lover’s dream: corn beef hash and eggs, sausage, bacon and ham skillet (yes, that’s all in one dish!) and Dutch apple pancakes.  Go even if you aren’t hung over.
  • The Bongo Room is a no-brainer.  Just say yes to chocolate tower french toast, smoked duck breast Benedict or (and?) pumpkin spice pancakes.
  • If you can’t get to breakfast, let breakfast come to you.  Grub Hub offers delivery from hundreds of restaurants that usually don’t deliver.

I am wishing you all health, happiness, laughter, love and joy in 2011! Celebrate well and see you next year!

Just a note from your friendly lawyer by day, food blogger by night to say that all of my recommendations above are purely based on my own independent non-NYE visits to these places (except Grub Hub, which I’ve never used) and while I can’t guarantee that they’ll wow you like they did me, I really hope they do.  Obviously let me know if you go and what you think.

Christmas Treats

I have a friend who is a terrible regifter.  There is nothing wrong with regifting; I’ve done it myself on occasion (never to you or one of your presents though! NEVER! How could you even think that?!?).  The key to regifting is to remember who gave you what and never make the regift seem as though that’s exactly what it is.  I mean, if you have a known dislike of scented candles, don’t go and give someone a set of pine scented tapers that you received. It’s going to be obvious that you didn’t purchase that.  But, if you get something that you already have one of, or that doesn’t fit and you really can’t return, I say regift away in good faith!  This friend, though, has not only regifted me something that I have given her (can you seriously imagine??), but has regifted me something that is so hideous that you know someone regifted it to her at some point.  There was likely a chain of this particular gift dating back to the late 20th century that I had to break.  I couldn’t, with a clear conscience, give it to anyone else (even a work grab bag), yet I couldn’t throw it away because it was a gift, as horrid as it was… So it sits in my closet taking up valuable shoe space.  I wish I could tell you what it is, but I need to protect the regifter here.  Don’t be that person this year.

Anyhoo, I bought many ingredients over the last couple of days to make all manner of Christmas goodies, but truth be told, the transition from sunny Hawai’i to bitter cold Chicago has taken its toll.  Tears have been shed as I watched the weather report while eating from a bag of chocolate chips intended for chocolate covered pretzels.  But this is where the regift is totally acceptable.  I’ve listed below some of my fave recipes from Christmases past so that you can make a list, hit the stores and be ready for Santa or other guests that may drop in unexpectedly.  You can thank me by promising to have a happy, joyful, restful, food-and alchoholful Christmas.  Merry Merry to you!

Chocolate Covered Oreos are my favorite go-to easy dessert year round.  Adding crushed candy canes kicks them up a holiday notch.

Sugar and Gingerbread Cookies are two of Santa’s favorites, so if you haven’t been all that good this year I’d commit these recipes to memory ASAP.  The vanilla cream is addictive, so be careful.

Would it really be Christmas without a fruitcake?  In a perfect world, you would have started soaking yours in rum around Easter, but give your guests a shot of Appleton’s on the side and they’ll be happy.

Speaking of rum, a little goes a long way in this egg nog.  Unless you’ve had a really stressful shopping experience; then you may as well do it up a bit.  I won’t tell.

If you’re feeling like really ramping up the decorating, try making red velvet cupcakes and adding a little green food coloring to the icing.  I don’t know, for some reason it looks really cute in my head.  It could be that I’ve had a bit too much of the spiked egg nog mentioned above…

Growing up, Christmas breakfast was almost as important as Christmas dinner in our house.  These cinnamon rolls are hella labor intensive, but also hella delish and impressive, so get started on making Santa’s good list for next year and have these ready.  Otherwise, doughnut holes or blueberry muffins will definitely hit the spot after all the presents have been unwrapped.

You deserve a break today, and it’s not at McDonald’s.  After all the shopping and wrapping and making chit chat with cousins you (a) see once a year and (b) don’t actually like, relax with a Come Heather Look, brought to you by the letters G-I-N and the friendly folks at St. Germain.  Don’t say I never gave you anything…

Pumpkin Pie Brulée

Oh kids!  Did you think that I’d forgotten about you? Did you worry that I wouldn’t come up with a little Thanksgiving something to complete your holiday table?  Probably not, because if you’re like me, you are so ridiculously overwhelmed by the fact that Thanksgiving is TOMORROW for crying out loud, that you have precious little room to think about anything else.  For the love of all things good, where is the time going??  Remember that one time when I said that I’d have all of these new and exciting things for you? Yeah.  About that… I really truly do, but life came at me fast over the past couple of weeks and things got a bit sidetracked (apologies in advance for a pictureless post.  Fingers crossed that I can get them up this afternoon. You know, after I actually bake the pies and all…).  And then I’m (knock on wood) going on a bit of a holiday next week (Hawaii! Woo hoo!).  I promise that after I disconnect the Mai Tai drip, I will be back in full force.  Please stick around, ok?  You all make me happy and I’d like to return the favor.

Even though I haven’t actually made the pie for this Thanksgiving yet, it is my go to Turkey Day dessert, so I can completely stand behind it.  A couple of years ago, I decided to mix things up a bit and try something else, and you know how that turned out.  It was kind of like when you have your very best friend for years and then the new girl comes to town and she seems like the perfect person to be your new best friend and even though you know better you ditch the old best friend for the new one and she totally stabs you in the back and steals your boyfriend.  And then you have to go begging your old friend to take you back.  Not that that ever happened to me, but you get the point (I hope.  It’s early and while this all makes sense in my head, I worry that it’s not translating).  At any rate, the pie is relatively easy as pies go, but I’m going to say go ahead and use a pre-made crust, because who has time to cut butter into flour and all that other crazy at this late date (and if you do have the time, god love you and please stop by my house with some fresh dough).  I will also suggest that you pick yourself up a handy blow torch to make the brulée topping, because putting it under the broiler is a little iffy and who doesn’t like to have some fun with a blow torch around the holidays? If you do go the broiler route, be sure to cover the edges of your crust with foil so there are no burnt bits.  Oh! And a little whipped cream never hurt anyone.

Since I’ll be making duck, I can’t help you out on the turkey part, but in case you need some ideas for sides, check out the posts on cranberries, roasted sweet potatoes, cornbread stuffing and corn goodness.  All are super easy and delicious, which is exactly what we need as the holiday madness descends.  I, of course, wish you a lovely Thanksgiving, filled with happy times and enough leftovers for a midnight snack…

Updated: I decided to do mini pies and the first time around worked well.  Just bake on a cookie sheet for about 25 minutes, chill and do your bruleeing before serving.  The second time around for a party, I bruleed and then transported, and the sugar melted and there was no turning back to the crunchy sugar coating I’d perfected before I left home.  Lesson learned: carry a blow torch with you at all times.  So, I have to give this 3 stars, because while it’s tasty as can be, the inability to be able to rely on it turning out right each time is too much for my baker’s heart to handle…

Pumpkin Pie Brulée (courtesy of Bon Appetit)

  • 1 15-ounce can pure pumpkin
  • 3/4 cup plus 4 tablespoons sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 1/4 cups whipping cream
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • Pinch of ground cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 375°F. Roll out dough on lightly floured surface to 12-inch round. Transfer to 9-inch-diameter glass pie dish. Fold overhang under and crimp decoratively. Pierce dough all over with fork. Freeze 15 minutes. Line crust with foil; fill with dried beans or pie weights. Bake until sides are set, about 12 minutes. Remove foil and beans. Reduce oven temperature to 350°F.

Whisk pumpkin and 3/4 cup sugar in large bowl to blend. Whisk in eggs, then cream, spices, and salt. Pour filling into warm crust. Bake pie until filling is set in center, about 50 minutes. Transfer pie to rack; cool 30 minutes. Chill until cold, at least 2 hours and up to 1 day.

Preheat broiler. Sprinkle pie evenly with 2 tablespoons sugar. Broil until sugar melts and begins to caramelize, turning pie for even browning, about 1 minute. Let pie stand until topping hardens, about 20 minutes. Sprinkle pie again with remaining 2 tablespoons sugar. Broil again until sugar browns, about 1 minute. Refrigerate pie until topping hardens, about 30 minutes. Serve or keep refrigerated no more than 2 hours longer.

Flaky Pie Crust Dough

Yield: Makes one 9-inch crust

  •  1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 5 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 1/4 cup chilled solid vegetable shortening, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 2 tablespoons (or more) ice water

Whisk flour and salt in medium bowl to blend. Add butter and shortening. Rub in with fingertips until very coarse meal forms. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons water. Toss until moist clumps form, sprinkling with more water by teaspoonfuls if mixture is dry. Gather dough into ball; flatten into disk. Wrap in plastic and chill at least 1 hour. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Keep refrigerated. Soften dough slightly at room temperature before using.)

Cocktails, Anyone?

So my birthday was last month and it was fabulous in a way that a girl can only dream.  Good friends, wonderful presents, perfect weather and lots of laughs. If this year is a fraction as lovely as my birthday celebration was I will be a lucky girl indeed.

I had my party on the rooftop of a new hotel here in the Chi and while we watched Transformers 3 being filmed below us, we munched on bacon wrapped dates stuffed with blue cheese, vegetable dumplings, bbq pork belly pizzas and whoopie pies. Yum, right?  I decided that I needed to have a specialty cocktail to enhance all of that food goodness and I knew right away that it had to involve St. Germain.  I don’t remember exactly when I discovered this bit of elderflower liqueur happiness, but it has become a favorite in the alcohol arsenal.  It can be served on its own over ice or mixed with a bit of Champagne for a delightful cocktail.  It is the perfect summer drink, because it’s sweet, mellow and understated–3 things I’m definitely not, but I love it anyway. 

Of course, my birthday specialty cocktail had to include it and I thought I’d add my other favorite, gin, to the mix.  Luckily the hotel was willing to indulge me, and even said that I could name the cocktail since it wasn’t on the regular menu.  Although I don’t have kids and have never had a pet, I’m going to say that naming a cocktail is just as important. I mean, it has to speak to my personality, the elements of the alcohol involved and the setting where it’ll be served.   You can’t just go around calling something so delicious by any name; this required thought and deliberation.  It could also be that I’m just super Type A. Either way. 

Before I tell you the name I chose, I need to backtrack a bit to give you a little history.  In case you haven’t noticed, I fully embrace my nerdiness and dorkiness.  But there is a funny and flirty side that comes out every once in awhile (and I think there are some people who would say comes out more often than I think/intend).  At any rate, I’ve been told that when I’m in full on flirting mode (and I’ve come to believe that flirting has become like breathing to me, because I really don’t realize I do it.  On the other hand, I do realize I need to look into that) I give a “look.” I’ve asked people to describe this “look” and all I get is, “it’s, like, a look. You know? A LOOK.” Not helpful. I’ve tried to give myself the “look” in the mirror, but all I see is crazy staring back at me.  Finally, one friend said, “it’s like a come hither look, but it’s your own. It’s a come Heather look.”

So, I introduce you to the Come Heather Look: equal parts St. Germain and Hendrick’s Gin, with a splash of club soda, shaken and poured into a chilled martini glass.  Garnish with a lemon twist. 

I dare you to have more than one and not create a look of your own…

Tru Love

My birthday is tomorrow and, despite a few moments of sheer panic that I’m going to be an age that I never imagined and can barely count to, I’m starting to get excited.  It helps that I have a party planned for this afternoon where specialty cocktails (St. Germain mixed with Hendricks and a splash of club soda) will be flowing and tasty appetizers and desserts will be on hand (bacon wrapped dates and mini chocolate mousse cakes anyone?).

Last year was not a big birthday–unless you consider that I have outlived Jesus, which I suppose is a milestone worth noting–but after a bittersweet year, I felt that there was never a better time to reflect on the past and celebrate all that lies ahead with a bit of decadence. 

Lucky for me, my mother is a fan of celebrations and doing things on a large scale.  I mentioned in passing that I would love to one day have dinner at the chef’s table at Tru, never imagining that it would happen within this decade.  One afternoon she announced that she had made a reservation for us to sit in the kitchen of one of Chicago’s best restaurants and experience first hand how they’ve come to win several James Beard awards.

I should pause here to say that we actually celebrated her birthday there just 6 weeks before, so the extravagance of going back within a lifetime, let alone sitting in a private room in the kitchen was a little overwhelming.  I had no idea what to expect, but you couldn’t have convinced me that it would have involved our own personal waiters (one for each of us), a valet to keep us happy between courses, a personal tour of the kitchen by Chef Tim Graham, and the ability to take as many pictures as I wanted and ask any question that came to mind.  BEST PRESENT EVER.

I’ve only ever been in one other professional kitchen and it was pure chaos from the time it opened until the minute it closed.  Tru’s kitchen on the other hand is like being in your grandmother’s kitchen–if your grandmother had a staff of 30 and every conceiveable appliance to make good food outstanding–where everything has its place, everything moves and flows in a practiced yet original way and the anticipation of what’s ahead makes you a little giddy, because you know that not only will it be prepared to perfection, but prepared with true skill and love.  

I admit to being so afraid of falling over in my fancy shoes and bringing an entire fish course down with me that I didn’t walk around as much as I should have.  But I did have the courage to talk to the pastry chef, Meg Galus, about the exploding truffles which look like regular chocolate truffles, but when you pop it in your mouth, it explodes with a lavendar flavored liquid.  I seriously wanted to curl up in her little corner of the kitchen–a seperate room stuffed from floor to ceiling with industrial sized mixers, pans and whisks–and listen to her stories of creating desserts under Gale Gand, but restrained myself.  I watched her and her sous chefs slice vanilla beans into slivers as thin as a thread (I actually gasped at one point, because one man’s finger came so close to the knife.  He didn’t even flinch.).  I also took a walk around the station where they put together the “caviar” (in quotes because it’s actually boiled milk flavored with sturgeon that’s made to look like caviar).  The sous chefs actually took tweezers to remove any errant pieces of caviar… TWEEZERS, people!

Our special room was made even more special because Chef Graham came to describe each course to us.  I was rendered completely speechless at first, but I think I must have asked at least one intelligent question, because he asked me if I was in the “industry,” which was so swoon worthy I checked for a ring on his left hand (none!). 

I wish I could describe in detail each course of our Grand Collection menu, but everything was more about a feeling than an actual taste to me.  It was as though the chefs had taken all the emotions of my previous year–happiness and joy and longing and desire and sadness and hope and love–and served them to me in a gorgeous glorious array of food in a stunning atmosphere.  I realize now that it is the last two– hope and love–that carried me through a bittersweet year that ended in me experiencing such a lovely meal at a time when I couldn’t have imagined anything so grand or magical ever happening to me. 

Which makes me think that as long as I have both of those things, anything and everything is possible…

Mint Juleps

It’s Derby time, and like last year, I’m wishing I’d done something about getting a ticket to sit in the stands.  Every year I say to myself, “Next year you will buy a gorgeous dress and a big hat and you will bet money you don’t have and sip on a mint julep in a real mint julep cup like a true Southern Belle.” And each year, I’m sitting at home singing along to My Old Kentucky Home while my mother and I watch the fastest two minutes in sports at our respective houses while talking to each other on the phone.  True story (which actually sounds better in my head).

My bestest girl, R, happened to marry a lovely man from Louisville and, although the wedding took place in her hometown of Pittsburgh, I got schooled in all the best things about Kentucky that  weekend by her soon to be husband and his brothers.  I not only learned–over a drink or 3–to pronounce Louisville correctly (really fast, like Luhl-ville), but that making a mint julep without Maker’s Mark would be like making the run for the roses with a Central Park carriage horse.  Just. Not. Done. 

Maker’s Mark is the bourbon of Kentucky and well, why mess with a good thing?  I also found out that each bottle is hand dipped to get that red wax dripping down, so no two bottles are alike.  Like little whiskey snowflakes… Or something.

One of R’s sisters-in-law stayed at my house once, and as a hostess gift brought me a Derby cookbook, which was just about the best thing I’ve seen.  It’s full of breads and cakes and punches, but the star is the mint julep, of course.  I don’t have real mint julep cups, but I think bourbon, sugar and mint will be tasty in just about anything that’s not plastic.  These are pretty strong (I mixed a batch for a party last year and a few hearty men were felled by two of them), so be gracious and just sip them.  Add a cucumber sandwich and a bit of Derby pie for the perfect trifecta.  Superfecta? Wear a hat.


Mint Juleps

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup mint leaves
  • crushed ice
  • 100 proof Kentucky bourbon (you know which one!)
  • mint sprigs

In a saucepan, combine sugar and water; bring to a boil. Cover and cook, without stirring, for 5 minutes.  Remover from heat and allow to cool.  In a bowl, bruise mint with the back of a wooden spoon. Place mint in a jar, add sugar syrup, cover and chill in refrigerator for 12-25 hours.  When ready to use, strain mixture and discard mint.  To serve, fill frosted silver mint julep cups or old fashioned glasses with crushed ice.  Add 1 tablespoon syrup and 1 ounce (2 tablespoons) bourbon for each serving.  Stir, garnish with mint sprig and serve with a half sized straw.

1000 Words

You know that I usually have some holiday themed food to post, but I’m going to blame the fact that I actually went to watch the Chicago river get dyed green instead of going grocery shopping for why there is no corned beef or soda bread or even a green cupcake recipe to mark this St. Patrick’s day.  I hope the fact that I have on a green shirt will make up for it.

Since I have no food words, I thought I’d let some pictures do the talking.  I take a lot of pictures of food.  No seriously, a lot.  For each picture that’s posted, at least 10 have been taken.  This is mainly due to the fact that I’m not a photographer and I have a fancy camera that I barely know how to use. 

I’ve taken a photograhpy class, but this was back in the day before digital cameras (or at least around the time that many people thought they’d go the way of the laser disc) and the class was all about using a manual 35mm.  What I remember from that class about f-stops and apertures and lighting would only fill 1/8 of a teaspoon. 

Prior to September, all of the pictures here at Pestle Mortar were taken with an adorable Canon PowerShot on the macro setting.  I seriously took 100 pictures for 1 picture to turn out.  Once I decided to make a commitment to this blogging thing, I decided to invest in a DSLR and a real macro lens.  I bought a Pentax, because that’s the camera my photographer father always used and I could use the lenses that he gave me for my old 35mm. 

I try to take the camera with me so that I can practice (easier than actually reading the manual!) and I end up taking a lot of pictures that are this close to being really good, a few that are actually pretty good and a bucket load of ones that never see the light of day.  I don’t do any editing of the ones that are posted here, other than to crop and lighten/darken a bit.

So here are my 1000 words for today– my favorite practice food pictures that don’t really have a story to go along with them, so they never got a chance to be part of their own post. 

Where I’ve Been…

So one of my New Year’s resolutions (remember those?) was to aim for a weekly post, usually on Wednesdays, and up until yesterday I was doing well.  But, I’ll fully admit to you that nary a thing has been cooked, baked or eaten in my kitchen since last week, because it’s Restaurant Week here in the Chi, and well, why cook when someone else wants to do it for me? And only charge me $32 for a three-course gourmet meal? And then do the dishes afterward?  You can see why dust is collecting on my stove.

Starting last Friday, I have eaten just about every meal out at one of these fabulous restaurants.  I started at Brasserie Jo with a frisee salade Lyonnaise with bacon and a poached egg, followed by sautéed skate wing with caper brown butter and culminating with chocolate mousse.  Saturday found me at Japonais, feasting on an unagi trio, tuna tuna salmon roll and basil ice cream.  Sunday and Monday were days of rest so I could get ready for lunch with the ladies at NoMI (we did wear fancy dresses, but no hats this time) where we had butternut squash soup, tuna and salmon rolls (and some random California like roll with tomatoes. Not a fan) and fromage blanc mousse with roasted pineapple.  Tuesday night (yes, you read that right. I had the nerve to go out to dinner that night), I was laughing it up at Roy’s over tempura spicy tuna sushi rolls, coconut crusted tiger shrimp, Mongolian grilled baby ribs (that was the appetizer sampler), followed by blue crab dynamite crusted Mahi Mahi and a baked pineapple strudel.  Last night, instead of posting here, I was celebrating a friend’s birthday with a lamb shank with braised artichokes at Andalous Moroccan Restaurant.  I am only slightly ashamed to admit that several glasses of Champagne accompanied each of these meals.

If there is such a thing as a food hangover, I’m just about there (oh. Forgot to mention that I’m going to Eve tonight and Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse tomorrow).   I even started googling the Master Cleanse this morning.  But then I realized that it has been a wonderful, lovely week of food and laughter and friends and family and I thought how lucky I am to break bread and raise glasses with so many people.  In this busy world of relying on facebook updates and texts to keep in touch, to be able to sit across the table from some of my fave folks for a few hours and catch up in person is definitely worth those extra 5 lbs (that was as of Tuesday… we’ll see what happens by Saturday).

So thanks to Mayor Daley and the City of Chicago for a really stellar week.  I’ll be sending you the bill for my new larger wardrobe…

Red Velvet Cupcakes

After the baking extravaganza of last week, I really considered letting Valentine’s Day come and go without any baked goods, but really, I couldn’t pass up a chance to make red velvet cupcakes and since the recipe is easy enough for any random Wednesday, the upcoming Hallmark holiday seemed like as good a time as any. 

There really is no story behind this one (I figure all the wordiness of the last entry should hold you for a bit), except that I totally cheated and used Betty Crocker frosting, because as much as I enjoyed making my own for the devil’s food cake, I made the decision that the pros are better at it and why mess with a good thing.  That, or I didn’t have any powdered sugar.  Either way.

These are super easy and ridiculously moist and tasty.  And I think I’ll let the pictures be my 1000 words right now…


Red Velvet Cupcakes (courtesy of Paula Deen via foodnetwork.com)

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