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Yes, there were oranges.  Lots of them!

But what I’ll remember most about my trip to Valencia (aside from the sunshine and excellent company) is the 5-course lunch I had at the Seu Xerea “lounge restaurant.”  It was easily the best 12 Euros I have ever spent.  Delicious, fresh, high-quality, creative dishes fusing Mediterranean and Asian flavors.  I also discovered a fabulous Spanish beer in the process.  That’s my idea of a perfect meal…and the perfect prelude to a siesta.

First course:

Seared octopus with creamy polenta, sesame seeds, and chives

Second course:

Mixed greens with seared chicken breast, mung bean sprouts, radish, sesame vinaigrette, and citrus aioli

Third course:

Green Thai fish curry with snow peas, mung bean sprouts, chives, coconut milk, and sea salt

Fourth course:

Asian “fideos,” i.e., lo mein with grilled calamari, shitake mushrooms, carrots, and bell peppers.

Fifth course:

Strawberry soup with basil ice cream and sesame garnish

And to wash it all down:

An ice-cold Alahambra Reserva 1925, a delicious full-flavored amber lager

Muchas gracias, Valencia! I will never forget you.

Cooking something delicious is really much more satisfactory than painting pictures or making pottery.  At least for most of us.  Food has the tact to disappear, leaving room and opportunity for masterpieces to come.  The mistakes don’t hang on the wall or shelves to reproach you forever.

-Jean Grigson, Good Things (1971)

I was chatting with a friend of mine recently who claimed I was just being modest when I insisted that, in fact, a number of my cooking projects fail horribly. So I thought it time to share the barely-fit-for-consumption, non-blogworthy side of things.  In no particular order, here’s a sampling of the failed, ugly, inedible, or otherwise disappointing things to come out of my kitchen.  Thank goodness they eventually disappeared.

Consider yourself warned!

This sad dish was an unsuccessful hybrid of Emeril Lagasse’s recipe for Cuban-style pork chops and an ad-libbed recipe from my Cuban cooking instructor, which involved grapefruit juice.  A big “meh.”

My first attempt at Filipino chicken and pork adobo was another victim of the ad-libbed hybrid recipe.  The proportions  for soy sauce and vinegar were off in the main recipe I followed, and I made the fatal flaw of removing the chicken skin before cooking.  It was a sour, thin, bland mess.

This gluten-free almond meal bread from Cooking with Trader Joe’s was another disappointment.  Although the flavor was pleasantly nutty, the texture was way too heavy and dense.  It sat in my stomach like a rock.  I still feel guilty about the half loaf sitting neglected in my freezer.  I think separating and whipping the egg whites would help lighten things up, but someone else will have to try.

Gramercy Tavern Gingerbread is renown for being delicious–and extremely difficult to get out of the pan.  I read all the recipe comments and was confident that my well-greased, amply-floured pan would release my gingerbread in the crucial moment.  Wrong.  It stuck miserably to the pan and the top of the cake tore off. Although it tasted fantastic, I won’t be making anything this sticky again until I have a heavy-duty, extremely non-stick bundt pan.

Plain and simple: I did not heart Rachel Ray’s Eggplant Stew with Honey and Golden Raisin Polenta.  Can’t really blame Rachel; I’m just not a big fan of vegetarian vegetable stews.  The polenta was OK, but overall, this dish fell short of my high hopes.

These molasses cookies were intended to be a homemade knockoff of Archway’s famous soft molasses cookies.  I learned the hard way with the first batch that dough would spread into a giant cookie blob unless the mounds were no bigger than 1 tablespoon and placed at least 2 inches apart.  I even tried refrigerating the dough to prevent spreading, but no dice.  The second batch (pictured above) turned out slightly better (i.e., not a mono-cookie), but  the texture was still more chewy, less cakey than I remember.

Martha Stewart’s shallot cherry confit was another disappointment.  I made a batch for a Thanksgiving potluck, but the end result was very, very tart and oniony. I suspect the problem is the recipe doesn’t specify to use commercially-sweetened dried cherries.  Let’s just say that my batch made with organic, unsweetened dried cherries required a lot of doctoring before it made an appearance at the party.

Another victim of my overzealous chicken-skinning: Persian roasted chicken with dried cherry-saffron rice.  (Note to self: don’t try to “lighten up” unfamiliar dishes before at least following the recipe once).  Also, I confused ground cumin and ground coriander (their names are somewhat similar in German), which made for strange seasoning.  I am sure the original recipe is much, much better, but at least my lighter take on the saffron rice was a success.

Which is all to say: you win some; you lose some.  The important thing is to learn from your mistakes, cut your losses, and keep cooking.

It’s rhubarb season!  And as my friend Susan will tell you, “everyone should eat more rhubarb.”  Why not, when it’s so easy to make this sweet little cake highlighting summer’s best?

I’ve seen this described as rhubarb “tres leches” cake, and although it actually only contains dos leches, the fruit and cream do sink to the bottom and create a delectable custard.  We demolished several slices with friends recently and continued picking at pan scraps and “shaving” off corners to make the rest “more uniform.”  I take that as a good sign.

When the sight of neon pink and green stalks at the market finally proves irresistible, be sure to make this cake.  Enjoy!  And happy summer!

Yellow cake:

-1 1/4 (scant) c. all-purpose flour
-1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
-1/2 tsp. salt
-3/4 c. sugar
-1/4 c. oil
-1 egg
-2/3 c. milk
-1 tsp. vanilla extract

Fruit & custard layer:

-2 c. chopped rhubarb (about 3 large stalks)
-1/2 c. sugar
-1 c. whipping cream

1.  In a medium bowl, toss rhubarb with the 1/2 cup sugar.  Set aside.  Preheat oven to 350F.  Grease and flour an 8-in. round baking pan or large glass/ceramic baking dish.

2.  Prepare cake batter: whisk together flour, salt, sugar, and baking powder in a medium bowl.  In a larger bowl, mix eggs, vanilla extract, oil, and milk.  Slowly mix dry ingredients into wet until thoroughly combined.

3.  Pour cake batter into prepared pan.  Scatter chopped rhubarb and juices evenly across the top.  Pour the cream over top.

Continue Reading »

A few weeks ago, I went on an Iron Chef-style mission to empty my fridge by cooking creatively.  With plans to leave town for the next 15 days, I did not want to come home to any nasty (green, fuzzy, smelly) surprises.  And I hate to waste food.

When I found a pint of buttermilk lurking in the fridge, I thought chocolate buttermilk cake might be the answer.  This recipe sounded promising but needed to be scaled down.  Although I was a little nervous about the success of my sketchy mathematics, I forged ahead.

I shouldn’t have worried.  As my husband took his first bite, I asked, “Is it as good as the Guinness Chocolate Cake?”

“Better,” he said with a smile.

Iron Chef: 1; Waste: 0

This buttermilk chocolate cake is moist, dark, and moderately sweet.  Sweet-tart raspberry sauce and a bit of whipped cream are the perfect accompaniments.

(Adapted from “P@perseed)

For the cake:

-1 c. all-purpose flour
-3/4 c. sugar
-1 1/3 tsp. baking soda
-1/4 tsp. salt
-1/3 c. unsweetened cocoa powder (I used Dutch-process)
-1/3 c. + 1 Tbsp. oil
-1/2 c. buttermilk
-1 large egg
-1/2 c. strong, hot coffee
-1/2 tsp. vanilla extract Continue Reading »

Yeast can be intimidating.  It’s a living organism, and as such, can be temperamental. Forget a packet in the fridge for a couple months, and it may commit suicide. Mix it with too-hot liquid, and you can kiss it goodbye.  And as I recently learned, if you neglect a batch of yeast dough for too many hours, bad things can happen.

When it comes to rising, bigger is not always better.  Don’t let your yeast go crazy like this.

A good rule of thumb in baking is that it pays to follow the directions.  Yeast is no exception.  Knowing its finnicky reputation, I tackled this honey oatmeal bread with trepidation. The first time I made it, I whipped up a batch shortly before dinner. Since it was my first time, I followed the directions closely. It turned out great, with a lovely loaf shape and a faintly sweet, creamy crumb.   The oatmeal gave it some heft, without making it too dense. Bread nirvana!

The second time I tried the recipe with more time to kill and ignored the specified rising times.  A little longer couldn’t hurt, right?

Wrong.

I ended up with a flat-topped, funky, yeasty-tasting loaf.  Was it edible?  Sure. But pretty—or scrumptious?  Definitely not.  Oh, the disappointment.

I’ve made this bread three more times following the directions and finally have the hang of it.  If I, the baking-challenged, can tame the wild yeast beast, you can too.  So have no fear.

Just be sure to follow the directions.

This is my favorite bread recipe so far.  I hope you love it as much as I do. Special thanks to TrishUntapped for sharing the inspiring recipe.

(Adapted from Kitchen Aid, via TrishUntapped)

-3/4 c. water
-1/4 c. honey
-2 Tbsp. butter
-3 c. all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting (can substitute up to 1 c. whole wheat flour)
-1/4 c. quick-cooking oats, plus more for sprinkling on top
-1 tsp. salt
-1 (1/4 oz.) package active dry yeast
-2 eggs, divided
-1 Tbsp. water

1. Heat the 3/4 cup water, honey, and butter in small saucepan on low heat until very warm (ideally 120-130F).

2. Place flour, oats, salt and yeast in mixer bowl. Mix on low speed 15 seconds or until combined.

3. Using dough hooks, gradually mix in honey-butter mixture. After one minute, add ONE whole egg and mix one minute longer.

4. Continue mixing 2 minutes more, or until dough clings to hook and cleans side of bowl. Mix 2 minutes longer until dough is smooth, elastic, and all ingredients are thoroughly incorporated.

5. Using a spatula, scrape any dough clinging to the sides of the bowl. Shape the dough into a round with the spatula.  Cover bowl with a damp towel (not terry cloth) or plastic wrap.

6. Let rise in warm, draft-free place about 1 hour, or until nearly doubled. The dough is ready when you press two fingers into it, and it holds the indentation (see below).

7. Gently punch down dough. With a rolling pin, roll out into a rectangle on a floured cutting board or counter top. Roll up from the short end like a jelly roll and tuck the ends under.

Continue Reading »

Dear Diary,

I think I’ve found “The One.” This key lime tart might just be my dessert soul mate. Its sophisticated looks and great taste are irresistible. Although we had a whirlwind romance, this feels like true love. I can hardly believe I’ve found so many of my favorite flavors in one dessert. Cancel my Tastespotting subscription; I’m set. This is it.

Admittedly, I’ve always had a crush on key lime pie. The Libra in me is drawn to that perfect balance of tangy citrus and creamy custard. But add a scarlet ribbon of raspberry jam, and [...sigh...] I go weak in the knees. Swap out the graham cracker crust for a crumbly pistachio-butter-cookie base, and I start thinking maybe you can have it all. This tart? It’s the whole package.

Man, I’ve got it bad. But what’s the use in fighting something that’s meant to be? Let’s fall in love!

Our next date? A delicious rendezvous after Easter dinner.

(Adapted from Martha Stewart and Thursday Night Smackdown)

For the crust:

-4 Tbsp. melted butter, plus more for the pan
-2/3 c. roasted, shelled pistachios (salted is OK)
-5 oz. of butter cookies (I used German Butterkeks, which are not as oily as shortbread)
-1/4 c. sugar (I used raw/demerera)

For the filling:

-1/2 c. fresh-squeezed lime juice (preferably key lime juice, or the juice of 5-6 regular limes)
-2 egg yolks
-14 oz. can sweetened condensed milk
-1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

-6 Tbsp. best-quality raspberry jam (I used Den Gamle)

1.  Preheat oven to 375F. Grease a 9-in. springform pan or pie plate with butter. (An 8×8-in. square pan would also work.)

2.  In a blender or food processor, finely grind the cookies and pistachios.  In a medium bowl, mix with the melted butter and 1/4 c. sugar using your hands.

Continue Reading »

I started taking French cooking classes at my local community college, and it’s been the calorie-rich highlight of my weeks. Because the course is conducted in German, I not only get to learn the finer points of butter and egg yolks, I can also practice my umlauts. It’s been a great experience, and I wanted to share the highlights with you here. Think of this as French cooking class light: all of the good stuff, none of the overcooked chicken livers.

So far, the dish that has impressed me most was one of the easiest.  I mean, really, who gets excited about lentil soup? Sometimes I feel like despite the massive number of ingredients and herbs I throw in, it’s just uninspiring.

Leave it to the French to elevate the humble brown lentil.

Well, this French lentil soup has taught me the wisdom in keeping it simple. Its flavor is practically the inverse of the time and ingredients involved.  Not only is it easy to make and flavorful, I like it enough that I’d serve it to company. The French must be on to something.  They know a) how to extract the most flavor from a few key ingredients, and b) not to muddle up dishes with too many herbs and competing flavors.

Simple, non?

Without further ado, here’s the recipe.  I’d love to keep talking it up, but it’s a rare sunny day in Berlin, and the sidewalks are calling my name!  I’ll report back with more French hits soon.

-3/4 c. brown lentils (or French green “du Puy” lentils; I’ve made it both ways), rinsed and picked over
-1 sm. onion, chopped
-2 strips bacon, chopped
-2 Tbsp. butter, divided
-2-3 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar, divided
-3 1/3 c. vegetable broth, warm
-1/2 bunch fresh parsley
-3 sprigs fresh thyme
-handful of celery tops, optional
-scant 1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard
-freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1. In a medium pot on medium-low heat, sauté the chopped bacon to render some of the fat, about 2 min. Keep the heat low so that the bacon does not get crispy. Add the chopped onion and 1/2 tablespoon butter and sweat until translucent.

2. Add the broth, 1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar, and the lentils to the pot. Cover and simmer 20 minutes.

3. Add the parsley (whole), thyme sprigs, and celery tops to the pot. Simmer covered 10-15 minutes more, or just until the lentils are tender. Check doneness occasionally to prevent overcooking.

4. In a small saucepan or skillet, brown the remaining 1 1/2 Tbsp. butter. Set aside.  It should be a deep golden brown, but not black. Continue Reading »

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