Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Treebeard's Butter Cake - Revisited

This is too good not to share. even with being on haitus.

Janie Baur, one of the authors of the Treebeards' Cookbook (one of the all-around best books in my collection), came across my entry for their Buttercake and had this to add in the Comments. Rather than let it get buried, here is her wisdom. Thanks, Janie!:

"Hal, I was poking around the Internet this morning and came across this. When I wrote the Treebeards cookbook nine printings ago, we converted this recipe from a gigantic recipe that was used in the restaurant, hence the 3 ounces of cream cheese...and no, I don't believe they even make it any more. At least I haven't been able to find it for a few years. I put the leftover in my Food Saver bags and it stays good almost indefinitely.

Try experimenting with flavor variations like these:

Toffee — Fold a cup of almond toffee bits or chocolate-covered toffee bits into the filling before adding it on top of the crust

Chocolate — Use a chocolate cake mix in the base and add 3-4 tablespoons cocoa powder and fold in an optional 1 cup chopped nuts in the topping

Lemon — Use a lemon cake mix in the base and for the base, add a teaspoon of lemon extract plus 3 to 4 tablespoons of finely shopped lemon zest

The flavor combinations are endless once you start moving away from the traditional buttercake. I also make my buttercake the day before I'm going to serve it. It's always better the second day. I don't know why -- it just always is. At Treebeards, the day-old buttercake is always marked with a piece of tape on the bottom of each piece of individually wrapped piece and those are always the first pieces of cake to go first -- and there's a very specific reason for that -- they're clearly the best!

Have you ever used Penzeys double-strength vanilla? In my book, vanilla doesn't get any better than that."

Vanilla-wise, I am still working through a huge bottle of "La Vencedora." According to Cook's Illustrated, vanilla is incredibly shelf-stable, but I'll definitely give Penzey's a try for the next bottle.

A meta thing about Blogger: I know of no way to get the email addresses of commenters. Which means I can't respond directly to them and I would love to be able to thank Janie. If anyone can point me to the setting, it would be most appreciated!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Another reason Central Market rocks...

I forgot to put this in the Christmas Dinner post, but it's a point I don't want to let go.

HEB's Central Market stores are perhaps the one thing other than family that I really regret about not living in Texas. I can't begin to tell you how awesome they are because it would really take way, way too long. It's just crammed to the gills with the best food you can find anywhere - from the produce and meats to the bakery and prepared food areas.

Sometimes, I've even carried an empty cooler down to Texas so I can load up with stuff and drive it back to Chicago.

So, why am I so impressed this time? We needed some chicken sausage for the Cornbread Stuffing with Fennel and Sausage. There wasn't any in the case that I could see. I asked the nice folks if there happened to be any in back. "No, but I'm just about to make some. What kind do you want?" I was able to get 2 lbs of chicken Italian Sausage (I usually have to go with the closest seasoning I can find) in 20 minutes.

That was awesome. Who do I have to bribe to get one up here?

Cheddar Buttermilk Drop Biscuits

I praise God that I had already decided to make these even before the Green Onion Biscuit Fiasco of '08. I can still taste the baking soda.

These were okay, but need some work. First off, they were a bit dry for my taste. Part of that was my on-going issue with yellow-orange food. Where Yukon Golds made it difficult to see how well mixed-in the eggs in my gnocchi were, the somewhat orange batter (from the cornmeal and the cheddar) made it difficult to see how brown these biscuits were getting. Simply put, they were overdone.

Granted, this may have been, in part, because I didn't take seriously the direction that this was to make only 8 biscuits which were then to be split. In other words, these babies are HUGE. So, by making about 16 normal ones, I may have hastened the over-doneness.

Secondly, the flavor was a bit bland. This may have been because of the dryness, which kills taste. But it definitely needs some sharpness. Maybe some mustard powder, like you use to punch up Mac & Cheese.

Overall, there is potential here, so I'll give this guy another shot or two.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Lemon Rosemary Roasted Turkey with Gravy

I think I'm this close to perfecting the roast turkey for the holidays.

I've been a big fan of the lemon-rosemary flavor combo for a long, long time, but never used it with turkey until this past Thanskgiving. I was inspired by the Trib's Good Eats Thanksgiving story, where super thin slices of lemon and whole rosemary sprigs are tucked under the skin. I hadn't yet bundled up the rosemary and that was a great way to use a lot at once. This approach didn't work out so hot as written. The flavor was great, but the lemon slices heated differently than the rest of the bird, scorching the skin above, giving this gross polka-dot effect.

My brother, who was my partner on this dish, has some great rosemary bushes at his place, so I took that idea and improvised. We also added a brining step at his suggestion. I hadn't had great luck with that before, but we had time and I figured it certainly couldn't hurt. He picked out a 17 lb bird for our group of 10 adults and 3 young kids.

The night before, I took the basic brine recipe:
1 cup kosher salt
1 cup sugar
1 gallon water

Bring to a boil for five minutes and then completely cool.

And tweaked it for seasoning and volume to:

1.5 cup kosher salt
1.5 cup sugar
zest and juice of a three (3) lemons
small handful of fresh minced rosemary (a few tablespoons)
small handful of peppercorns
6 quarts of water.

We then brought this to a boil to supersaturate the solution and then let it cool completely outside (This is so you don't essentially poach the bird). We were able to fit the bird in a small (disinfected) Igloo cooler, cover it with the brine, set it out on the 35F porch (I would have added a bag of ice if it had been warmer outside) and covered the whole thing. Easy enough.

The next morning (Christmas Day), I softened two sticks of butter and mashed in another couple of tablespoons of minced rosemary and lemon zest and a few pinches of kosher salt. I rinsed off the bird, patted it dry, and rubbed the butter under and over the skin. I then cut a lemon and an onion in eights and crammed them into the cavity with a few more sprigs of rosemary. A quick truss and we were ready to cook

Due to oven space, we used the grill, by simply putting the roasting pan on the grate. My brother manned the grill while I worked on the sides in the kitchen. He did have a bit of a problem keeping the temperature steady. I found that the only way around that is to practice with your grill to find the right setting, unfortunately. The only problem is basting. Once you open the grill lid, you lose all of the heat and you have to start again. The oven has pretty much the same problem, but it's less extreme in the variances. I think it's Alton Brown who says that you shouldn't baste at all, in favor of the constant temperature. Not that I like him that much (okay, not at all), but it's a vote in my favor. We did run out of gas, so we finished it in the oven for the last 20 minutes.

The end result was really quite nice. The breast skin blackened a bit, which made me realize I'd forgotten to warn my brother to tent the the breast with foil for the first hour (which evens out the colorization). But it was still quite tasty.

The meat was moist enough that it really did not need gravy, but I decided to give it a quick shot, since the pressure was off. I've never been really comfortable with gravy, as it always seems to be a rush job, by definition, and risky. I deglazed the roasting pan with a bit of chicken stock, whisked in some flour, cooked that into a nice roux and then added stock and white wine to get to the right volume and viscousity.. The drippings from the brine and seasoned butter were just salty enough, but not too much.

So, in the end, there was no magic trick. Just carefully working through the basics and working with a consistant flavor mix paid off.