Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Beef Stroganoff

In trying to decide the menu last night, I remembered I had a bunch of egg noodles left. I'd been curious about Beef Stroganoff for a while, as I've always liked it the few times I had it. Of course, for a basic like this, I went to The Joy of Cooking. I chose the new one just in case.

I was happy to see that it has a nice sauce component, for practice. The sauce starts with a roux which is then reduced a bit. The only difficult part of the process was picking the beef out the onions. I don't mind them and these were awfully tasty. But the recipe said to keep them out and Channing hates them, so I lost this round. I think I did use a too-expensive cut of beef, but the result was very good. The knife skills with meat are very different than vegetables. The clean, rocking motion we were taught just doesn't work the same.

Monday, December 10, 2007

"Did I Miss Something?" you ask...

If you're not reading this through an RSS aggregator, you may not have noticed a lot of new posts in the last few days. Or you may have seen posts that seem older than the latest suddenly appearing. No, you didn't miss anything, they're actually new.

I'm trying to keep this record somewhat chronological, but Blogger is really strict about posting order (at least, as far as I can figure out so far). Once I put a stake in the ground with a Draft, that's the time and date that's stuck to it, regardless of when I publish it. So, it's a double-edged sword. Everything is in order, because I dropped in the stubs as drafts. On the other hand, it looks like there isn't any new content.

So, just keep an eye on the December posts for new stuff. All of the Thanksgiving stuff should be there in a few days, complete with recipes as well as new different sutff. I currently have 11 posts in Draft stage, which will be filled in one or two a day, as I take breaks from working on the last draft (finally!) of my mysterious book chapter.


If you ever see a recipe for guacamole which has measurements, throw it away. It's completely useless. Why? Because the flavors of the dish is completely driven by the avacodo and that can be a total crapshoot. You never know how intense the flavor of the fruit is going to be until you start making it, so everything else has to be adjusted relative to the base ingredient.

Case in point: I was making the sauce, once again, for our semi-Mexican themed holiday party. I lucked out and found ripe ones, but when I started actually preparing it, I found that the were very, very mild in flavor. Consequently, I had to be very careful with the other ingredients, particularly with the lemon juice and salt, so that they wouldn't overpower the avocado. I dialed back a LOT from the usual mixture. I generally prefer a much more intense flavor, but a delicate touch was called for here. It "sold" well, so I think I got it right. I've always done this to taste anyway, but this is the first time I've ever encountered any this mild.

Avocados (~1 per cup of sauce you want)
Fresh Squeezed Lemon Juice
Table salt
Yellow Onion - diced
Fresh Cilantro - chopped
Tomato - deseeded, membrane removed, diced
Jalepeno Peppers - very small dice (for flavor)
Serrano Peppers - very small dice (for heat)
Ground Chipotle Powder (from Penzey's)

Prep all of the ingredients and arrange in front of you. Mash avocados and taste to get the baseline. Add all of the other ingredients to taste, working through one at a time. The only exception, for me, is the tomato. I'm not a big fan, but I think they're needed for color. Those I add until the proportion looks right. Make sure you bite into some onion when tasting, so you account for the sweetness there.

Serve with restaurant style, locally produced tortilla chips. Using Tostitos or Doritos (do they even make the plain variety anymore?) is a sin.

Sunday, December 9, 2007


In keeping with the Mexican orientation of the party food and needing something more on the sweet side of the divide, I whipped up a flan. I've been making this for about 10 years and have tried various formulations, but I keep coming back to this one from Diana Kennedy's The Art of Mexican Cooking.

I use the Coffee Flan recipe, usually without the coffee flavoring (though it's virtually identical to the regular flan recipe on the previous page in the book). But the coffee version is tasty as well.

I made this for the second time was in my corporate apartment in St. Louis about 11 years ago. There is a long and embarrassing story about that event, but I learned four things from the experience:

  1. Don't trust cats.

  2. Always (and I can't stress this enough), always keep a box of toothpicks in your kitchen for testing doneness.

  3. Plexiglas really is pretty much unbreakable.

  4. This recipe goes from good to absolutely perfect if you add about 90 minutes to the baking time (keeping the water in the bath filled).

In every flan recipe I've read, they always said to not stir the sugar as you're making the caramel. I've resisted that before, but because of what I've learned about saute'ing I figured I'd give it a shot. Stirring releases needed heat when caramelizing (proteins and sugars). I think I was always afraid that I'd end up with incredibly burnt sugar on the bottom and uncooked on top. I tried it and, sure enough, it worked. I did let it go a little longer than usual and got a darker syrup than usual, having noticed Kennedy's recommendation for exactly that.

The result worked very, very well. The flavor was more intense and not so cloyingly sweet. I was pleased at how well this worked as a party food. I served from a single platter, rather than individual servings, but people went with it and ate the entire thing.

Two more notes about flan:

  1. I've tried several other recipes over the years which usually had sweetened condensed milk in them. I guess that's essentially what you're making in the first step of this recipe, but this seems to work much better.
  2. Trying to get the caramelized sugar into individual ramekins in a nightmare. I tried doing 12 once and either the sugar seizes up after only a few or it's burning while you try to keep it fluid. Screw it. Just make the big one.

Pork Tenderloin

I have served pork tenderloin with roasted potatoes for years at the holiday party, having gotten the idea from a friend of my brother. I've never been completely happy with it, in part because it wasn't "mexican" enough. They'd always been a little dry, too. A classic problem with pork.

For the menu issue, I got the inspiration to used a pork taco mix I had from Penzey's as a rub and then use the Lime Cilantro recipe from Thanksgiving on regular, rather than sweet, potatoes. I also applied what I had learned about pork from the Sauces 101 class, as part of the ancillary learning to counter the dryness.

Turns out I was out of the Pork-specific seasoning, so I used one of my jars of Penzey's regular taco seasoning and let it sit for an hour. About an hour or two before the start, I seared all sides of each loin (2 packages = 4 loins) in a pan with corn oil (for the hint of flavor) and then set them to roast in a pan @ 350F with my remote thermometer in. I took them out when it hit 148F (targetting between 145 and 150) and let them rest.

I put them back in the oven, covered with foil at 200F, until ready to serve at 8:00. I then had my friend Ross cut them into medallions about 1/3" thick. They were perfect. Just the right temperature, just the barest hint of pink and still very juicy.

Time did get the better of me on the potatoes, but the pork itself just flew out of the pan. I've never run out before.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Red Wine Beef Daube

This dish was my absolute favorite of the Meat 101 class, so I had to give it a try myself.

Everything went pretty well. I cut and marinated the beef for two full days instead of just 12 hours, just because of the logistics of getting time at the stove (I think this is about right because our fridge is a bit on the cold side). The actual cooking process was very, very easy. I think this was part because of the recipe and part because I'm really geting the rhythm of my kitchen. I'm getting a better sense of what things work best where, etc.

I suspect I overdid it on the browning. I ended up adding about 1/3 cup of bacon grease I had leftover in the fridge when the pan started going dry (if I hadn't had that, I would have used grapeseed oil). This was making me think at the time that something was up. In part, that may have been that I was using a bit more than the 2 lbs in the recipe. But then I noticed one of my notes on the recipe from class, which said that you only need to brown two large sides of the meat. I was turning the pieces onto all sides which, on the well-cut ones, was six. So, I essentially tripled the browning time. And added more fat to the mix. I don't think that it was necessarily a problem, but it did add a lot to the cooking time.

The end result was pretty good, but not quite to the level of the class. I'd give it a B+/A-, where the batch in class was a solid A+. By the time it had cooled, I still hadn't eaten much dinner, so I ended up eating a full portion right there at the stove.

We'll be having it for dinner on Thursday night, per the recommendation to let it sit like a soup or chili. I don't know how it will turn out then, but I think my tasting was pretty apples-to-apples regarding the individual preparations. But it seemed that the meat was a little tougher than it should have been. I think going with the longer braise that the instructor recommended would work well.

Picking out the bay leaves and herb stems was a bit of a pain, though. I may try going the route of the cheesecloth bags for these kind of items next time.

Oh, a charming story about our local Jewel: Channing and I don't drink around the house much, so we didn't have any cognac around . Nor did we need a large bottle, since it would really only be for cooking. So he picked me up a small bottle (those little flask looking things that have about a pint) and, while checking out, the sacker makes a comment, "Oh, someone's gonna get drunk tonight." The checker then responded, "He got a small bottle because he's trying to hide it." Right in front of Channing. Bitch.

I'm still not sure if I'm going to report this (we have her name, ID number, date and time on the receipt). I'm really turning into a cranky old man about these kinds of things and am still somewhat paying for having filed a complaint against the driver on my CTA route. But seriously....

Murgh Saag (Indian Chicken with Spinach or Broccoli)

I had been somewhat curious about this recipe from Razzaq's Indian Lowfat Cooking for a while, but have never made it before. I'm not really sure why, as it uses two of the healthy things that I actually like to eat - chicken breast and spinach or broccoli (I say two, rather than three, because presumably, you'd only be using one or the other of the vegetables).

This definitely needs to become a regular menu item as it's really straight-forward, easy and extremely tasty.

In digging though my spices, I did notice that I have several jars of curry powder that I have not touched in literally years. Yet I've been cooking Indian a lot. I can only assume that these are spice blends that I'm basically making from scratch with each dish and the recipes I'm using are not geared for the American audience that the curry powder is. I have to read up more on that.

I think this means that I should throw them away. Not only are they too old, but they're taking up space in my cabinet while being unlikely to ever be used. I've read about throwing out old spices, but I can never bring myself to do that. If I suspect that something has lost its punch, I'll usually double it for a recipe and then adjust to taste during cooking as well. Maybe I need to just suck it up and start pitching...

Menu: Indian for the Family

My dad and stepmother came to visit us for pre-Christmas. In the past few years, they've come the same weekend as our big Holiday Party, bring tamales from Texas for the event. There was a conflict this year so they came up the week before. Which was great, because usually a LOT of visiting time is lost to party preparations. And recovery. The less said about that, the better.
In making arrangements for this trip, I realized that, despite all of my talk about cooking over the years, I haven't actually cooked a meal for them since 1988. Seriously.

And boy, that was a disaster (though everyone was very nice about it).

So, with the new kitchen and all of my skills, I figured it was way past time. Also, Karin is quite an excellent cook herself, so I thought it was a good opportunity to try out the collaborative cooking thing.

She's on a restricted diet these days and though she can always find something good on a menu and insisted that we not factor that in to planning, I did anyway. Because I think that boundaries force you to be more creative and, also, might as well improve the chances of success. The two good fits, cuisine-wise, were Italian and Indian. We wanted to show off Anteprima, so Italian was covered that weekend. Also, for all their trips here, they'd never been up to Devon Avenue. So, when getting the few ingredients I don't have on hand (fresh fenugreek or curry leaves, for example), I have to chance to show off a new part of the city.

Turns out it was a win for me, too. I usually go to Patel Brothers (2542 W Devon Ave), as they're the biggest and seem to have everything (except a meat counter). Because of parking (always a challenge up there), I ended a little further west on Devon than usual and in front of the North Water Market (2626 W Devon Ave - between Rockwell St & Talman Ave). Oh my. This place is amazing. The produce section is literally four times the size of Patel Brothers and the layout is much easier to navigate. I ended up getting all of our produce there, the fenugreek, the breads (frozen) and some basmati rice to replace the bag I'd been having problems with recently. I think they really enjoyed the experience, with all the people, the variety of foods and the Bollywood music over the PA.

I'm not sure if their spice and sauce collections are as extensive or cheap, but overall, I think that North Water has become my new favorite. On reflection, I think that maybe I went to Patel Brothers more because they were further east on Devon (I drive east to west on that stretch) and more brightly lit outside. We also picked up some pakora and samosas at Kamdar Plaza (2646 W. Devon Ave - a basic Indian grocery with a great sweet shop as well) as I didn't want to be frying at home that night.

For dinner, the menu was:
Pakora and Samosas
Naan and Paratha (purchased frozen)
Sweet Tamarind Chutney
Spiced Rice
Aloo Ghobi
Bengali Red Lentil Dahl
Murgh Saag (Chicken with Spinach)

Here is the problem with coming back to these posts after a long time. While I generally have an excellent memory, I can't remember if we had anything for desert. I can't imagine that we didn't, but it sure as heck wouldn't have been rice pudding because of the no dairy requirement. Anyway. I eliminated the currants and cashews from the rice because dried fruits and nuts are also restricted. No worries. Also, to avoid butter, I used grape seed oil, which worked just fine. The Murgh Saag was the new thing for me; a recipe I'd looked at for a long time in Razzaq's Indian Lowfat Cooking, but had never made. That will get its own post.

Overall, this worked out really well. The prep and cooking to for. ev. er, though. I think because there was a lot of chatting and less "focus." We started cooking at 7:00/7:30 and didn't serve until 9:30. There's just no way. This should have taken half that time. But everyone had a great time and I managed to deliver without embarrassing myself. I'd give it a B+.

Thanksgiving Dinner - How it Went

Cooking on the day of Thanksgiving is, for everyone, a feat of coordination and stress management. I’m pleased to report that, while I definitely stretched myself in regards to the breadth of the menu, it was a success.

Planning, preparation and flexibility was key. I was able to successfully execute everything on the menu with a self-imposed grade of B or better, for an overall A-. I'm good with that. For now.

I didn't really realize how much stuff I was making until my dad called that day and asked what I was serving. As I read off the list, the sheer time it took me to say it all shocked me. Discussions of the particulars of each item will have their own entry. For completeness, I'm including every dish, even if there wasn't anything new I learned about it or related techniques, etc.

I separated out the dishes that would reheat well or needed to stay cold until served and made those on Wednesday night. These were the Cheese Grits, Spinach Cheddar Bake, Treebeards’ Mushroom Soup and the Lemon Ginger Cheesecake. This left the balance for Thursday itself. With a dinner time of 5:00, I had plenty of time.

With those four done, I figured all I’d really have to do was the turkey. Worst case, if I just threw together a green salad to start, I’d be okay. On top that, since Chris was bringing an Apple Cranberry pie, I figured I could blow off the Chocolate Tart if I ended up too pressed and we’d still have a wicked desert spread.

I prepped all of the remaining dishes at once. I find that if I’m cooking one dish and, in the middle, I start prep for the next, something always goes wrong. My concentration gets muddled and I usually miss a step or ingredient of one or the other dish. If I work in series (finish one completely before starting the other), that takes too damned long. So I used my great big counter to lay out the ingredients for each recipe in a row and then just went to it. The improved knife skills also paid off in that I was able to be a lot faster with all of the chopping.

We ended up serving about an hour late, because I decided to go ahead with the tart at the last minute. But that was totally worth it. Also, it was just about the right amount of time for everyone to get acquainted and relaxed.

I was concerned a little about having everything warm for serving. I addressed this by serving in courses, at least with salad, soup, the main event and desert, with generous time in between each for conversation and to let stomachs settle a bit. This gave everything time to heat up in time for its particular serving and for people to pace themselves.

I got big props, because everyone is nice. But these were further validated by JT's comment regarding robust flavor (a specific goal of mine) and Channing's mother's repeated approval then and over the next few days. This is a woman that speaks her mind, so that was high praise.

Treebeards' Mushroom Soup

I've been literally been meaning to make this soup for years. I ordered it once at the restaurant when I was feeling a little coldish. Stuffed up, but not enough to stay home from work. I was not expecting the pepper kick and I'll be damned if it didn't completely clear me up. This wasn't a bland cream of mushroom soup, but a blast of flavor and spice with large, delicious chunks of mushrooms.

The only think that held me back was the use of whole milk (or half & half) in the recipe and Channing's hatred of whole mushrooms. Do you see a pattern in what I have to work with here? It's a texture thing, actually.

I knew I needed a soup course for Thanksgiving and I'd made the Eastside's Curried Corn Chowder too many times before (and he doesn't like that, either, because of the whole kernels of corn and the spice). So, I threw this on the menu.

There were enough dishes that anyone who wasn't interested in it wouldn't go hungry (only hurt my feelings), but wanted as many people to enjoy it as possible, of course. I realized that I now have an immersion blender, so I could make it a mix of regular and creamed soup. That way, I could serve the cream-only portion to Channing and still have the basic recipe for us.

Preparation was pretty fast and easy, the hardest part being cleaning 2.5 lbs of mushrooms. I'm pretty fast on these and it still takes about 15 minutes, just for that.

While the result wasn't quite what my 15+ year old memory led me to expect, it was quite good. There was definitely a pepper kick in there which, with the other spices, kept it from being anything like the canned Cream of Mushroom. Most of the heaviness of the liquid was a function of my having blended half of the recipe and using the the half & half itself. I think you could easily go with a lighter milk and it would be fine.

While eating dinner, I did find that there were a few lumps of flour in the mix. They didn't taste too different from the softened mushrooms, so not a big deal, but it was a little embarassing. I need to be more careful with the flour next time. I had made two batches - I'm pretty sure the first was fine, but I was rushing through the second one and I'm willing to bet that I just got careless.

Roasted Turkey & "Gravy"

I had grand plans to follow Alton Brown's guide for the perfect turkey this year. Printed in Gourmet a few years back, it's written exactly as he talks, like it's a transcript or something. The big problem is you realize just how little information there is and how difficult it is to tease out any of it when you need it. Oh, and I think he's really annoying on television, anyway, so reading this article excruciating for me*.

An example of the lack of information? There's absolutely no place where he gives an estimate of how long the cooking time would be. While I appreciate going by temperature only, not telling that info really makes planning meal time difficult.

Fine. I had the intent to brine it until I realized how much of the solution I'd have to make to put the bird in the cooler (many gallons). Screw it. It didn't seem to help last time anyway. Oh, and he doesn't actually have a recipe for the brine. You have to pick it out of the verbiage and it's still missing the point that you have to boil and cool the solution before you soak the bird.

So, I basically used the Roasted Chicken method on this larger bird. I grabbed a fresh 20 pounder at Jewel, so I didn't have to worry about thawing. I would have preferred a more natural bird from Whole Foods. But I happened to spot the chosen victim while on a regular shopping trip and saw that I could save myself an easily 3 hour ordeal.

They were out of sage at Jewel, so I mixed a holiday rub I picked up at Whole Foods into 1.5 sticks of butter. This was rubbed over and under the skin. I also threw a few sprigs of fresh rosemary and thyme, 2 small quartered onions a several smashed cloves of garlic into the cavity and then trussed it up (with twine - the legs were too big for the skin trick).

The only time crunch I faced was getting things out of the oven in time to put in the turkey. Then I remembered my trick from a few years ago - the grill. For the second time, stress just melted away.

The hardest part was regulating the temperature with the grill flame. I did use the Brown trick for browning the turkey:
  • Start the turkey @ 500F and roast for 30 minutes.
  • At that point, cover the breast with a foil shield and reduce the temp to 350F until done.
Easy enough. I found that High on my grill stays at an even 500F and you have to drop all the way down to Low to maintain 350F. This is, of course, dependent on the outside temp, which was about 35F that day. I didn't baste as I didn't want to lose heat.

I was surprised at how fast this cooked. We hit 165F within about 2.5 hours, when I expected about 4. It came out just right, though, so I think I finally got the thermometer right (granted, the thigh on the turkey is a much bigger target). Though it was ready a good few hours before dinner, it held a lot of its heat. I carved in the kitchen and added a touch of heat from the microwave before serving.

There was a downside to the amount of butter, though. I had nothing, I mean nothing, to make gravy with. Just a ton of cooked butter. Yuck. So, at the last minute, I whipped together a wicked veloute sauce. You have no idea how cool it is to be able to say that. It was flawless on the first try.

* Strangely, though, I really like his cookbooks. They have a lot of the science of cooking explained well. But on TV, I find him, well, patronizing, I guess.

Cornbread Stuffing with Fennel & Sausage

Once I found this recipe for dressing, I've never made any other one. It completely nails the sweet, savory and texture nodes. I use sweet cornbread when I make it, usually from the Jiffy Corn Muffin mix.

The downside is that it's not very flexible for modifications. I discovered this first at my brother's house. We swapped out the pork-based Italian sausage with a chicken sausage because some relative (my sister-in-law, maybe? It's been a while) couldn't eat pork.

The result tasted fine, but was way, way too dry. I think this happened twice, as I had forgotten between the two attempts. So this year, our friends Ebru and Fuzail joined us for the feast. Being Muslim, they couldn't eat the pork either, so I went a different route. I split the recipe into two and put sausage in one and left the other vegetarian. Finally remembering the moistness issue from nixxing the pork sausage before, I upped the chicken stock on the pork-free version.

Unfortunately, there may be a density factor at play here in the baking, also. I split the two versions into covered baking dishes, but they were only about half as deep as usual. Again, a bit dry. So, my lesson from this experience is to just do exactly what the nice people at Bon Appetit tell me. At least in this case.

UPDATE: I made this again at Christmas in Ft. Worth a few weeks later. I found that if you make it in one dish and you up the stock added by a cup or so, it turns out absolutely perfect. Yay!

Green Onion Buttermilk Biscuits

I don't really know what to say about these other than they're incredibly good and I've never screwed them up. They're the only home made biscuits I've ever made and have been consistently successful for 6 years. So, I'd say it's a fool proof recipe. For some reason, it's not on-line, so this is a scan of a xerox from the magazine. I'll clean that up with either a scan of the original, if I find it, or I'll type it. But in the meantime...

Treebeards' Garlic Cheese Grits

I always have to explain grits, as most everyone I know here has never had them. They're like polenta. In fact, this recipe is a lot more so than the ones I fell in love with that my mom used to make. The egg in the recipe firms it up a lot more like the Italian version and the cayenne gives it a great kick. This is one of the recipes that is included in the Treebeards' cookbook that isn't actually on the menu, but in keeping with the palate and feel of the restaurant. That's a shame, because I would have ordered them all the time.

Something about that grits = polenta thing: A woman in my office, Teresa, is Chicago born and bred, though it seems she got a solid upbringing with Southern food here. She went down to Mississippi with a friend whose father (or some male relative) who is a fantastic cook, based on what Teresa was describing. He served soft polenta with an Italian meal he put together and Teresa had no idea what it was. His response? "They're like grits." So the analogy works both ways.

Roasted Garlic & Sour Cream Mashed Potatoes

This "recipe," like my guacamole, is basically made to taste. I've had this as part of every single holiday meal I've served for at least ten years now, so it's not like there's much "learning" for me here. They are tasty, but I think it's time to move them out of the line up.

5 lbs Yukon Gold potatoes
1 pint sour cream
1 bulb garlic
olive oil
salt & fresh ground black pepper

I roast the garlic in the toaster oven, as a) it seems wasteful to use the entire oven for such a small item and b) I'm usually baking something else there at the time anyway, since it is the holidays, after all. I slice the top off, to expose a bit of most, if not all, of the cloves and drizzle olive oil over all of it. Then I roast the buld, lightly covered with a sheet of aluminum foil at 400F for about 20-30 minutes. Thinking about it, I'm not sure I've ever timed this.

Wash the potatoes and chop into ~1.5 inch chunks. Cover with cold water in a pot and boil until fork-tender. Note that I do not peel them.

Once the potatoes are done, drain them, put them back into the pot and mash until creamy. Add sour cream, garlic, salt and pepper while mashing, to taste.

5 lbs is an awful lot, I know. I just got in the habit because I like the leftovers and if I don't do the whole bag at once, the remaining spuds usually go bad.

Lime Cilantro Roasted Sweet Potatoes

Holy Mother of God, this recipe is good. As I mentioned in the menu overview, I usually just skip these as I have too much starch action going on in the meal. But the promise of the sharpness of fresh lime juice was just too good to pass up and would make it a nice pop of flavor.

There's not much to say other than it was easy and straight forward. The sweet potatoes were a hair underdone, so I need to watch that next time.

UPDATE: One thing I have found is that it is really important that you spread the pieces out in a single layer in the oven, with space between each piece, like it says in the recipe. If they're packed too tight or on top of one another, they get mushy. Still taste great, though.

Spinach Cheddar Bake

Bon Appetit describes this recipe as a "creamed spinach," but it's really more like a casserole. A very managemable and delicious way to include greens in the holiday meal - it always gets rave reviews. I've made this several times before, but I did learn two new things time:

  1. You can cut this in half. In fact, you should. As written (for 18!), this is an insanely generous amount. As much as I like leftovers of this stuff, really. This is the first time I've tried cutting it down and it worked.
  2. When reheating something with a crispy crust, do not leave the foil on the entire time. Okay, everyone, "Well, duh." Fine. I waited a bit too long and it was kinda moist. Don't think anyone knew the difference or cared.

Oh, and that first review with the bit about "adding pimentoes for color?" Crazy talk. Just saying.

Ginger Lemon Cheesecake

These are two of my favorite flavors and so there's been a fondness in my heart for this dish since I had it as a desert at FlatTop here in Chicago (a Mongolian barbecue). Theirs was pretty good, notable for the crust made of gingersnaps, so recreating it was a good target for learning cheesecake.

I'd tried it a few years ago by improvising on a lemon cheesecake recipe, substituing the gingersnaps for graham crackers in the crust and adding Indian ginger paste into the recipe. The result tasted fantastic, though there was a HUGE split in the top and the crust got really soggy.

Then I found this recipe in one of my magazines.

Overall, this turned out well. The texture was just right, there was no breakage, and ti tasted good. So, a good showing. On the down side, the flavor wasn't as intense as late time. I definitely need to make this to taste next time and add a LOT more fresh ginger.

Also, the crust was soggy again. Since I'd made a crumb crust well recently with the key lime pie, so I knew I could pull that off. And since I had blind baked this, my previous theory that the custard had soaked through seemed unlikely. I decided to test my springform pan for water-tightness and, sure enough, it leaked immediately. It looks like some water from the bath leaked into the pan, despite the aluminum foil lining the outside. Mystery solved. I need to look up if there's a way to seal it better (like greasing the groove the bottom seam) or if I just need to buy a new one.

Chocolate/White Chocolate Mousse Raspberry Tart

Oh, Lord. This is a long one.

I first made this tart on a dare. When I started cooking, I was on a project for BSG in St. Louis. One of my friends and co-workers there, Scott, would "dare" me that I couldn't make "X." That is, whatever it is he was craving at that time. Sometimes, I bit. Because whatever “X” was, it usually sounded like a good idea.

Once, when I was putting together a meal for the occasion of his wife, Namita's, visit to our project city, he dared me that I couldn't make a chocolate/white chocolate/raspberry desert of some type. So, I hunted down this recipe in my mom's collection of cookbooks as mine was pretty sad at the time and the internet was just a-birthing.

Yes, I'm old. Shut up.

It comes from a little collection called Beat This!, by Ann Hodgman. Quite appropriate for a challenge, I'd say. The book is a diverse gathering; the only thing tying the recipes together being the author's certainty that they are all simply the best ever. I bought my own copy, finally, but I can't say I've made anything else from it yet. That needs to change. It's just that the collection is such a random assortment, I never think to reach for it when I have something specific in mind. It is a very entertaining read and is definitely recommended.

To make this, I had to buy a tart pan. As I walked out of the store, I looked down at my bag and said to myself (and I'm totally not kidding here), "Well, Hal, today you are no longer a man."

I got over that. But that moment of emasculation is why I insist on calling this a tart instead of a "pie," as Hodgman calls it. If I had to have that moment to get the right pan, then it's a tart, damn it.

As I was going at it that afternoon, I could not make the crust to save my life. Three times I went at it, until I finally broke down and went to the store for that Pillsbury pre-made AND pre-rolled crust.

The rest went well and it was a big, impressive hit. It stayed in the repertoire, but it always bugged me that I was "cheating" because a) I'm terminally guilt-ridden and b) it was supposed to be a "french sugar cookie crust" which I really, really wanted to try. Really more of "b," to be honest, but never underestimate a Catholic upbringing, even second-hand as mine was. I even once tried rolling out the Pillsbury Sugar Cookie dough as a crust. Yes, disaster.

Whew, home stretch here, I promise.

So, now that I'm challenging myself, have learned a regular crust and was having a big-ass dinner, it was time to try again. Since I had the cheesecake, I took comfort in knowing I could abort at any time, if need be.

First thing Thursday morning, I tackled the crust. The first try, I did it as instructed in the food processor and got a big gloppy mess. Right away, I decided, "Screw it," and pulled out the pastry cutter. Sure enough, perfect. I forgot to set the timer and almost forgot it while it was blind baking, but thank God I remembered at the last minute and pulled it out at exactly the right time. There were going to be no threesies that day.

With that done, I pulled out all of the ingredients, lined them up and left them while I started work on all the rest of the dishes. If I got through with everything else, I'd tackle it. If not, it was a long weekend. I'd do it later.

Chris and BJ were the first to arrive at around 4:30 or so. I was rounding things up, sans tart, when they asked if there was anything they could do. Chris is a master of deserts and I realized, “Aha, here we go!” So I threw the book his way and asked him to start prepping. I knew he could handle it. Dinner was going to be a little late, but, by God, we’d have the tart. By the time, I could jump in, Chris was working the raspberries. We double teamed the rest and nailed it. I’m digging this collaborative cooking thing.

By the way, I think the flicking fingerfuls of white chocolate on the finished product sounds messy and like a waste of good white chocolate. I just melted a couple of ounces, spooned it into a sandwich bag, gathered it all in one corner, nipped off the tip and had myself a quick and easy little pastry bag. And the result? An already awesome desert made much, much better with the proper crust.