Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Splendid Summer Day

Lest I mislead everyone into thinking that Minnesota is simply
a place where the winters are cold and the storms unpredictable, I want to share with you the tale of my splendid summer day.

Around noon, I decided that this was an ideal day to leave the metro area and explore a state park. A proud state park permit holder, I have not actually had many state park adventures yet, so I was overdue. I hopped in my car and headed northwest, to Lake Maria State Park.

The park was lovely. The hiking loop I followed was three miles long, doubled as a horseriding path, and took me through some old growth forest as well as some areas of prairie. I met a few other people on the path, so it wasn't the entirely isolated afternoon I had expected, but that was fine. Being surrounded by the lush green of the park was calming, and I left my cellphone in the car so that I wouldn't know the time, be tempted to contact anyone, or be startled by any incoming calls or messages. I ended up wandering around for nearly two hours, doubling back at one point to lengthen the hike.

On my drive home, I stopped at a public access beach, threw on the swimsuit I had brought along, and jumped in for a swim. It was perfectly refreshing and cool after my rather hot and buggy wanderings. As I sit here on Sunday evening, preparing to wrap up my weekend and begin a new week at work, I feel as though I experienced a truly splendid summer day.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Movie Review: Julie & Julia

My oh my oh my! 2 weekends ago I saw the movie Julie & Julia, which brings to life a true story about Julie Powell, a young woman living in New York, and Julia Child, her inspiration. Julie was in a rut career wise, which, trust me, can be a downer. To get her going, she decided to cook her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year, and blog about it. The book follows both Julie during her year of cooking and Julia, during her years of discovering cooking.

A lot of the reviews I read beforehand said that while Amy Adams, who plays Julie, was good, she was nothing like Meryl Streep as Julia Child. Now. Who IS like Meryl Streep? I mean really, she's amazing. During the movie, you forget it's her, 100%, it's like watching Julia Child in real life. Honestly though? I loved Amy Adams' part. Perhaps it was because I so identified with her feeling of hopelessness job wise, and have also found cooking as a great escape, but I thought she was fantastic. Anyway, the movie is charming, funny and thoughtful and I can't wait to watch it again on DVD.

My only regret? Not eating before the movie! The food in the movie looks sooo good, and all Julia talks about is butter, I mean my goodness, it's cruel! I left the theater not only hungry but just dying to cook some food from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It's been on my list of cookbooks I always look for at used bookstores, but I've yet to find one...a testament to the quality cookbook it is! I caved and bought one on the next week and it arrived a few days ago. I can't WAIT to get started!

A little love for City Kitchens

This is just a little shout out to City Kitchens, I've mentioned them before I think, but they are great. There are a bunch of kitchen shops in Seattle, two of the bigger ones are in the market, one famously being Sur La Table. While I like Sur La Table for some things, it is always so crowded and almost always over priced. City Kitchens on the other hand, is much less crowded, bigger, has fantastic sales people and amazing sales. Even better, each year they have a sale from mid August through the end of September where almost everything is on sale, and things that aren't specifically on sale are 20% off...incredible! I plan on taking a gift card I got for my birthday and heading on down there this weekend and getting all the things I've been hoping would go on sale, because guess what? They're all on sale now! Woohoo. Regardless of the sales, it's my favorite shop, so if you live in Seattle, I encourage you to check it out...directions can be found on their website, here.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Minnesota Weather

I’ll never forget my first tornado warning. Growing up in Maine, we had the occasional thunderstorm or hurricane, but never a tornado. I had no idea what to expect, and didn’t even realize that tornado sirens existed.

One warm day in May of 2001, I was happily sitting in the grass with my friends, soaking up the sun and enjoying the blue sky. Dinnertime rolled around, and we went into the dining hall. Suddenly there was hail falling, and before I knew it, we were being told to leave our trays on our tables and get down to the basement. The tornado siren went off, and the sky had changed dramatically since we’d been outside, less than an hour before. We weren’t downstairs very long before they released us, and by the time I finished my meal and went back outside, the sky had cleared and the temperature was lovely again.

Now I know that tornadoes can – and often do – appear on an otherwise lovely day. I know that on the first Wednesday of each month, at 1:00pm, every tornado siren in the Twin Cities gets tested. Usually, this means that every once in a while I hear a tornado siren, look at the nearest clock, confirm that it’s 1:00, and realize that another month has passed.

Yesterday was cloudy, raining heavily, and quite cool. It was about 64 degrees around 2:00 when I saw someone on Twitter comment that winds were strong in Minneapolis. By 2:15, a tornado had touched down in downtown Minneapolis, and by 2:30 there was news that a few highways were underwater, an office building had the windows blown out, a music shop was missing a big chunk of roof and wall, and trees and power lines were down in various neighborhoods in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. By 3:00, tornado warnings were sounding in Saint Paul and western Wisconsin.

The tornados and winds materialized so abruptly that there were not any sirens, storm warnings, or tornado watches broadcast until the first tornado hit. Someone reported exiting a building into what they thought was a tranquil and rainy day, seeing a trash can fly past at eye level, and opting to stay inside. The energy company released a statement that at one point in the afternoon, more than 7,000 customers were experiencing power outages.

Driving east on highway 94 at 5:30, I took a few pictures. Even then, the clouds were moving fast and changing shape, size, and color right before my eyes. I’ve included those pictures here – I took all of them within ten minutes, along a stretch of highway about 1/4 mile long.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

An "Adult Birthday Party"

I have a group of friends that I hang out with on a fairly regular basis these days, but our relationship revolves around food. It all started when we were recent alums in the same city, who had all been friendly with each other, but not much more than that. We started having dinners once a month, rotating hosting duties, giving us each a chance to try out new recipes on willing guinea pigs. Our monthly dinners have been going on now for 9 months and since we started we have added dinners for special occasions, as well as outings to restaurants we've wanted to try and pretty much any food related excuse we can find to hang out and eat delicious food. It's all very fun (and delicious), and we've all expanded our cooking knowledge in the process.

We joke about how we act so grown up, making fancy appetizers, complex entrees and extravagent desserts. But then there are things like the halloween themed paper napkins we use at Michael's or the table I (used to, yay) have that barely fit 4 plates on it, or the joke that no one can start dating someone, niether Alicia & Matt nor I have more than place settings. And best of all, the following phrases are most likely heard at least once per dinner: "sorry if this is a disaster", "oh no, I think I missed a step", "oh shit!" and last but not least "I swear, it's almost ready!". Because honestly, we don't know what we're doing.

So this brings me to the title of the post. Last weekend was Michael's birthday so we, of course, had a dinner to celebrate. I was in charge of choosing the cake that Alicia, Matt and I would make. Now usually I go for the classic three layer chocolate cake with the most fantastic Fanny Farmer chocolate frosting. But I needed something more extravagent for Michael, since he never ceases to amaze us with the meals he come up with. I was flipping through my cookbook The Birthday Cake Book by Dede Wilson when I came upon "Chocolate Almond Apricot Cake with Chocolate Glaze". Mmmmm mmmm that sounded delicious! The description made it even more appealing with adjectives such as rich and luscious, but the last sentence is what really sealed the deal. "This is a fabulous cake to serve at an adult birthday party". Perfect!

The cake was delicious, surprisingly easy to make, and last but not looked so fancy and grown up! Here's the recipe, enjoy!

Chocolate Almond Apricot Cake with Chocolate Glaze

Cake Ingredients: 2 3/4 c toasted sliced almonds, 1/4 c plus 1 T flour, 14 T (1 3/4 sticks) butter, at room temp, cut into pieces, 1 c sugar, 1/2 t vanilla extract, 1/4 t almond extract, 8 large eggs, seperated and at room temperature, 7 oz bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, melted and slightly cooled, 1/2 c apricot spread (100% fruit, no sugar added).

Chocolate Ganache Glaze Ingredients: 1 1/4 c heavy cream, 12 oz semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped. Whole dried apricots (for garnish).

Directions: Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F, grease a 9 x 3 inch round springform pan (a pan whose bottom is not attached, and the sides expand for easy removal) and line the bottom with greased parchment paper.

Combine 1 3/4 c of the nuts and the flour in a food processor and pulse a few times, then grind until nuts are very finely ground. In a large bowl, beat butter until creamy. Add the sugar gradually and beat until very light and fluffy, scraping down the bowl once or twice. Beat in the vanilla and almond extracts. Beat in the egg yolks one at a time, scraping down the bowl after each addition. Beat in the chocolate, blend in the nut-flour mixture in 2 additions.

In a clean bowl, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Fold about one-quarter of the whites into the batter to loighten it; fold in remaining whites. Scrape batter into the prepared pan. Bake the cake for 50-55 minutes.
Let pan cool for 10 minutes or so and then unmold the cake. Using a thin, long-bladed knife, slice the cake in half horizontally so there are two even halves. Spread 6 tablespoons of the apricot spread evenly over one of the cut sides, then put cake back together. Melt the remaining apricot spread and brush it all over the top and sides of the cake. Refrigerate briefly to set the apricot spread.

Place the cake on a wire rack set over a clean pan. In a large saucepan, bring cream to a boil over medium heat. Remove from heat and immediately sprinkle the chocolate into the cream. Cover and allow to sit for 5 minutes, the chocolate should melt in this time. Gently stir the ganache until smooth. Let cool a little and then pour on top of the cake, gently spreading it evenly toward and around the edges. Allow excess to drip onto pan beneath, using later if necessary. Take the remaining almonds and press into chocolate glaze. Place dried apricots in a flower pattern in the center of the cake if you wish. Refrigerate the cake for at least an hour, allowing the glaze to set. Serve immediately or refrigerate for up to 3 days. Bring to room temperature before serving.

Friday, August 7, 2009

A food filled trip to Maine!

Well, Sarah and I had a great vacation! She drove to Chicago, while I flew, and then together we drove to Maine, with stops in Ohio for a wedding, Pennsylvania to visit a friend and Connecticut for a family pig roast. What a crazy drive! We explored Columbus by car (fascinating city!), discovered a great pizza place in charming Cambridge, OH and learned of the beauty of northern West Virginia and western Pennsylvania. Did you know that you have to drive through West Virginia to get from Ohio to Pennsylvania? Neither did we! As you can see, we were welcomed by many a state!

Anyway. There are two things I love to eat in Maine.
Lobsters and blueberries. Stereotypical I know, but hey. There's a reason we're known for them, they're both delicious and bountiful! So. Lobster we ate. Lot's of it! We had lobster rolls (exactly what they sound like. It's essentially a toasted hot dog bun with the meat from an entire lobster, if not more, piled on top. If you want, they'll give you a side of mayo to do as you wish), lobster salad, plain old delicious steamed whole lobsters, and more lobster rolls. Delicious. delicious, delicious!

As for the blueberries. Ohhh did we eat blueberries. I was initially a bit worried about the blueberry prospects. Maine has had the rainiest, stormiest, wettest summer ever. There has been very little sun, and my dad warned me that it wasn't a great blueberry season. When I went out to my favorite spot in our blueberry field, I found maybe 10 blueberries. And it's not like there were a million little ones, just 10 that were ripe, there were maybe 15 more on their way. Oy! I was devestated. But then we hiked. We climbed to the top of Bald Mountain (a favorite local mountain) and boy oh boy oh boy! Blueberries galore! What little sun they'd had must have warmed up the rocks and warmed up the blueberries, or something. Or perhaps because the blueberries were growing on crevices in rock, the rain drained well. I don't know, but the blueberries were great, I was picking them by the handful, and they were so tasty! Later on, Sarah and I went to a field that always has blueberries, and the blueberries there were a lot better too. Not like on top of Bald Mt, but certainly good enough that Sarah and I managed to pick 4 or 5 cups...enough to make (drumroll please....) BLUEBERRY COBBLER!!!
Hooray! I was perusing the cookbooks in the kitchen and lo and behold a teathered and worn index card with a recipe for blueberry cobbler, in my sisters handwriting, fell out of one of the cookbooks. Excellent! The only problem? It was pretty vague. No mention of how many berries the recipe was for, or what size dish, not much at all. But. We tried it out, determined that perhaps half the amount of berries would have been better for the amount of topping, but who wants half the berries? Not I! So. Here follows the recipe for an 8" x 8", 4 cups of blueberries, blueberry cobbler!

Crust: 1 cup flour, 1/2 cup sugar, 1 1/2 t baking powder, 1 1/2 t salt, 1/2 cup milk, 1/2 cup butter. Filling: 3/4 cup sugar, 3 t corn starch, 1/2 t cinnamon, 1/4 t nutmeg. Directions: Stir filling mixture with approx 4 cups of blueberries, and pour into an ungreased 8" x 8" pan. Stir together crust ingredients and spoon over berry mixture. Try to spread evenly, but precision isn't a huge deal, it's going to be delicous no matter what! Cook at 375 degrees for 25-35 minutes, or until crust looks cooked through but still soft. Let cool. Honestly. The berries will be VERY hot, and the juices need time to firm up a bit. So. Be patient, let cool for a bit, and then....enjoy!!!