Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Pittsburgh Coffee Crawl: Oh Yeah! Part III

Yes, I know, this is the third time I'm reviewing Oh Yeah! But I've gotten different ice cream every time I've gone. And it's good every time! So I've just gotta tell you about it!

Last night, not many of the crew made it out for coffee, but Lauren and Ruchi needed to nail down details of Oh Yeah!'s donations to the Pittsburgh Legal Income Sharing Foundation's annual Auction fundraiser. Oh Yeah! is donating a bunch of artwork and several tubs of their delicious ice cream to be scooped out for auction patrons. So awesome!! I'll be one of the lovely handmaidens distributing that delicious treat.

So, last night, Karl and I were on our own for about a half an hour before Lauren and Ruchi showed up. We enjoyed Blackberry Chip ice cream (a delicious blackberry ice cream with dark chocolate chips all through) and Pinot Noir ice cream. We didn't get carded for the Pinot Noir ice cream, though the sign does say "adults only." I guess we just don't look young enough anymore!

Blackberry chip is pretty self-explanatory. It didn't change my life, but it was very good ice cream. The Pinot Noir ice cream was a little wilder: it's not every day you have wine-flavored ice cream!

Right off the bat you notice that the ice cream smells "wine-y," as if there is some yeast in it. The taste is so strange that I'm not sure I can describe it other than to say it's addictive. It has some wine-esque elements, but if it weren't called "Pinot Noir" ice cream, you probably wouldn't guess that wine was an ingredient. It's a very complex ice cream!

We played with Coop (the resident boxer/Great Dane mix I may have mentioned in a previous post) while we ate our ice cream and drank some of the nicest espresso I've had in Pittsburgh.

Oh Yeah! looks like a keeper to me!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Baking Frenzy: Challah

Yesterday, while reading my usual run of Epicurious food blogs (the Epi-logs), I came across one that recommended three different recipe search sites, one of which was Project Foodie. I tested it out by searching for Challah recipes since I have been wanting to try making my own bread. I quickly found a recipe that satisfied me, and I wasted no time in trying it out.

Baking bread from scratch is so satisfying. There is something very comforting about the whole process of bringing together all the ingredients, then using your hands to knead and shape and punch the dough. I also enjoy the scent of the yeast as the dough rises, and, of course, the heavenly aroma of bread baking in a hot oven.

Challah is a traditional Jewish egg bread, usually consisting of three or six strands of dough braided together before baking. The finished product looks absolutely beautiful. I braided my loaf of challah with three strands: the six-strand braid looks a little complex to me (though I do want to try it some time).

I adapted the recipe I found on to make one loaf of challah instead of two, since I don't actually eat that much bread. I think next time I'll go ahead and make two loaves, and give the extra away as a gift: what could be a lovelier gift than a hand-crafted loaf of fresh bread?

Adapted from a recipe from "Secrets of a Jewish Baker" by George Greenstein

1/2 cup warm water
1 package active dry yeast (3/4 TBSP)
1/2 egg, lightly beaten (use other half to brush loaf before baking)
1 egg yolk, lightly beaten
1/8 cup canola oil
1/8 cup plus 3/4 tsp sugar
2 to 2 1/4 cups bread flour
1 tsp salt
Canola oil, for coating bowl
Cornmeal, for dusting baking pan

In a large bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the warm water and allow to soften for about a minute or two. Add the 1/2 egg, egg yolks, oil, sugar, 2 cups of the flour, and the salt. Stir until the dough comes away from the sides of the bowl.
Turn out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead, adding more flour, a little bit at a time if the dough is sticky or very soft. The dough should be firm. Knead until the dough is smooth and elastic and the gluten is well developed (5 to 10 minutes). When you push down, the dough should feel firm and push back.

Transfer to an oiled bowl. Turn to coat, and let rise, covered with a towel or plastic wrap, until tripled in volume (30 to 40 minutes). Punch down the dough (using your fist), then fold the outside edges into the center. Cover and allow to rise for 15 more minutes.

Punch down the dough again and, on a very lightly floured work surface, use your palms to roll the dough into a rope about 12 inches long. Cut it into 3 equal pieces, then roll them out to 8 or 9 inches each. Braid the three ropes by pressing the ends together, then braiding as you would hair. Tuck the ends under after you braid.

Transfer the challah to a cornmeal-dusted baking pan. Place in a warm, draft-free area, preferably enclosed, and allow the braided loaf to rise until doubled in size (about 20-30 minutes). You can preheat the oven to 350˚F at this point.

Before baking, brush the eggwash over the loaf. Be careful not to allow the excess egg to collect in the crevices of the braided dough. Do two egg washes, allowing the first coat to dry for a couple of minutes before brushing on the second coat.

Bake about 35 minutes on the middle shelf of the oven until the loaf has a rich mahogany color. When tapped lightly, the loaf should emit a hollow sound on the bottom with your fingertips.

Allow to cool before attempting to slice it!

Monday, February 25, 2008

Party Bites: Spinach Parmesan Balls

When bringing food to a cocktail party, you have to keep in mind a couple of things: the food should be easy to eat (ideally, finger food or food on a toothpick) and it should pose no major threat to fancy clothing (or the host's floor!).

I almost always consider the simplicity factor: how else will I find time to spruce up my appearance for the party?

Ariel had a great party Saturday night, to which I brought a virgin recipe: Spinach Parmesan Balls. I found it on the Food Network website.

It received pretty great reviews at the party! Samantha even asked me for the recipe (always a high compliment). So, the recipe follows. I substituted butter for margarine, which didn't seem to cause the balls to suffer (no surprise there).

The Food Network recipe recommends using latex gloves when mixing and handling the mixture (probably due to the raw eggs), but I didn't. I don't really have a phobia with handling gooey stuff (it actually feels good to me). As long as you give your hands a good wash afterward (and don't lick your fingers), you'll be fine.

Spinach Parmesan Balls
Recipe courtesy of Dan Smith and Steve McDonaugh of the Food Network show "Party Line with the Hearty Boys"

2 10-oz packages frozen chopped spinach, thawed
5 eggs
2 small onions, minced
10 TBSP butter, softened to room temperature
1 1/2 cups shredded Parmesan
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1 3/4 cups Italian-style bread crumbs

Preheat the oven to 350˚ F.

Squeeze the excess water from the spinach by wrapping it in an old towel (or a couple of heavy-duty paper towels will work), then put it in a large mixing bowl. Add the remaining ingredients and mix well by hand (this part is fun! It feels really nice to get your hands in all that goo. But be sure to wash your hands well afterward).

Form the mixture into 1-inch balls, either by hand or with a small ice cream scoop. Place the balls closely together on a baking sheet.

Cook in the top half of the oven until firm to the touch, about 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool 5 minutes, and then transfer to a platter and serve immediately.

Yields about 35 balls, depending on how big you make them.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Soup's On: Lentil Soup with Bacon and Cabbage

Delia Smith, in the "SmartCook Collection: Soup" cook book from which I prepared this recipe, says the following as a preface to this delicious soup recipe:

"This is a very substantial soup, best made with the tiny French, greeny-black Puy lentils. If you can't get these, use green-brown lentils, which don't have the depth of flavor of the Puy lentils but are still excellent and can be used in the same way."

Absolute bunk, I tell you!

Now, granted, I didn't do a side-by-side comparison, but I don't think it would make one iota of difference in flavor if you used regular "green-brown" lentils, which are much cheaper. The depth of flavor of this soup comes from the pancetta, the Savoy cabbage, and the heavenly trio of carrots, celery, and onion. By the time you add the garlic, the lentils' flavor is out of the picture. I will use some of the leftover Puy lentils to do a side-by-side comparison of them with regular lentils by themselves (not in a soup) and get back to you to confirm or debunk this theory of "depth" of flavor.

Anyway, back to the soup: it is AWESOME! I could eat this soup twice a day indefinitely and never tire of it. I'm going to try making it without the pancetta next time to see how much of a difference it makes to the flavor. The broth turns out so rich, and adding the cabbage toward the end creates such a lovely texture and the illusion of substance. Yummy, warm, and comforting at the end of a long day of fruitless job searching.

Lentil Soup with Bacon and Cabbage
Serves 4 to 6

1 TBSP canola oil
4 1/8-inch thick slices of pancetta, finely chopped
2 medium onions, finely chopped
2 medium carrots, finely chopped
2 celery ribs, thinly sliced
1 cup lentils (Frency Puy lentils, or regular lentils)
1 14-oz can plum tomatoes, chopped or whole
2 garlic cloves, crushed through a press
3 14.5-oz cans of vegetable broth
3 cups (or one small head) of Savoy Cabbage, finely shredded
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 TBSP chopped fresh parsley (substitute 1 TBSP dried parsley flakes)

Heat the oil in a large saucepan and cook the pancetta in it until the fat begins to melt. Then stir in the onions, carrots, and celery. With the heat fairly high, toss the vegetables around in the pan. Cook, stirring now and then, until the vegetables are a little brown around the edges (about 6 minutes).

Next, stir in the lentils, the tomatoes (with the liquid from the can), and the pressed garlic. Stir everything together, then pour in the broth. As soon as the soup comes to a boil, cover and simmer, as gently as possible, until the lentils are tender (30-40 minutes). Then add the cabbage and cook for about 5 minutes until the cabbage wilts. If using dried parsley flakes, add them with the cabbage.

Taste and season with salt and plenty of pepper. If using fresh parsley, add it just before serving.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Happy Birthday, Wine Library TV!

Wine Library TV, hosted by my favorite wine-person in the world, Gary Vaynerchuk, turned TWO YEARS OLD yesterday! Yay!
For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about: Wine Library TV is a video podcast about wine. Gary Vaynerchuk, the host, tastes anywhere between 1 and 7 wines during the show and talks about his tasting notes, wine regions, grape varietals, values, and other general wine awesomeness. Please do yourself a favor and check it out.

The reason this show has probably survived 412 episodes over two years (which is a LOT more than most tv shows) is because Gary is such a personality. He isn't a wine snob. He is all about trusting your own palate and drinking what you like (as long as you're stopping to think about WHY you like it).

If you are like me, once you get into the show, you will start thinking about watching WLTV like you think about watching "Grey's Anatomy" or "Desperate Housewives" (or, if you're REALLY like me..."Project Runway" or "Dirty Jobs"). I have learned so much about wine, and I feel like Gary is a part of my family now. He is surprisingly invested in his podcast (which may be another reason it is so successful) and makes a point to interact with his viewers. I have personally received reply emails from Gary when I have asked him questions, and once, he emailed me to respond to a comment I had left in response to one of his podcasts. It's pretty awesome.

Get with it! Watch one! I know, they're long. But it's so worth it if you are serious about learning about the wonderful world of wine. I have had much less success with books and other podcasts. Gary keeps wine exciting.

Happy Birthday WLTV!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Pittsburgh Coffee Crawl: Enrico's Tazza D'Oro

Enrico's Tazza D'Oro Cafe and Espresso Bar
1125 N. Highland Ave
Pittsburgh, PA 15206
Phone: 412.362.3676

For some reason, I thought I had already reviewed Tazza D'Oro in a previous post, but I guess I didn't! Weird.

Anyway, a contingent of the Tuesday Night Crew crawled back to Tazza D'Oro for the second time, since last time, the baristas were busy training and rehearsing for some National competition in Washington, D.C., and thus, no espresso drinks were available.

That's right: the Tazza D'Oro baristas are all certified. That means they can make pretty leaves and hearts in your latte. I like that. Except for the part where it makes me buy a latte instead of a regular coffee, triggering an urge to spend even more because you HAVE to tip when a barrista makes a heart in your latte! Anyway, it's all very reasonably priced. I think it's about $2.25 for a small latte (still a dollar less than a comparable beverage at Starbucks!).

The cafe is set up on the first floor of a house in a very residential little neighborhood. It's easy to drive right by Tazza D'Oro because it blends right in. Inside, it's not terribly well-lit, but that's somehow ok. It's nice and quiet (no loud elevator music), except when the espresso machine is going, of course. All tables and chairs are wood, I think, and it just seems very brown inside. None of this is bad. It has a very organic feel to it.

Tazza D'Oro is probably not my favorite cafe ever, but I do like it. They have a quite extensive tea menu that I would like to sample from some time in the future. When you order tea, they wrap up the loose tea leaves (and, if applicable, other components) in what looks like a tiny mesh "tortilla". The finished "log" looks like a mini spring roll (or, as Karl put it, an owl pellet).

Check it out!

Fruit Fancy: Lemon Plums

A couple of weeks ago, while at the local Market District Giant Eagle (grocery store), I spotted a new, bright-yellow addition to the usual mounds of plums, peaches, and nectarines. The sign said "Lemon Plums" ($2.49/lb), and described them as a very rare fruit. The color was a little more fluorescent than a lemon's, but the bottom of the plums did have that nubby shape that is characteristic to both ends of the lemon. I bought one to satisfy my curiosity, especially since they weren't any more expensive than regular old tree-ripened black or red plums (makes you wonder how rare they really are!).

The sign said that, as the plum ripened, its brilliant lemon-yellow color would gradually turn to a pretty red hue. So I waited. And waited. I waited for over a week. FINALLY, the plum did start to turn red. It was actually rather a stunning display, as if the plum were in the midst of a slow-motion blush. I knew the plum was finally ripening by the actual firmness.

When Karl and I finally tasted it, we decided that yes, it was delicious, but it didn't really taste much different from a regular plum. Maybe for this time of year, it tastes sweeter than most plums, but we did wait almost 10 days for the thing to ripen.

Incidentally, I cannot find anything about this fruit on the internet. Weird, right? Even Wikipedia's article on Plums doesn't mention this particular "cultivar" ("a plant variety that has been produced in cultivation by selective breeding," according to my MacBook dictionary).

So, if anyone knows anything about this mysterious fruit, do tell!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Valentine's Day Extravaganza: Plum Tart

Today is the day! Karl and I will be celebrating the Dia de Amor in high fashion this evening (since the middle of the week didn't work for us). Instead of going to a fancy restaurant, we decided it would be more special to stay home and cook up some of our favorite foods that we don't get very often. Ok, so that just means lamb and a fancier-than-usual bottle of wine. The other trimmings are red potatoes, brussell sprouts, and green beans. Yum! I can't wait!

For dessert, I wanted to do something special, so a couple of weeks ago, I asked Karl what he'd like, and he said "How about a plum tart?"

So, I got out my trusty "365 Great Pies You Can Bake" cookbook (which hasn't failed me yet), and found a recipe. I baked it this morning, and, as you can see from the photos, it is just beautiful!

I did make a few changes to the recipe: first, I used Grand Marnier instead of brandy, since I had Grand Marnier on hand. Second, the ratio of graham cracker crumbs to butter was a bit off in the recipe, so I added about a cup of graham cracker crumbs so the crust wouldn't be soggy. And third, the recipe called for 2 TBSP butter for the filling, but never specified at what point to add I just left it out. I imagine the butter was supposed to be dotted over the top of the tart, but I wasn't sure. I doubt it will make too much of a difference.

I can't wait to have a slice tonight after Karl and I have indulged in Burgundy-Pepper-marinated leg of lamb (from Trader Joe's at $5.99/lb) and a hopefully delicious French wine (2005 Domaine des Ouches Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley, $17.99). I will update later when I have had a chance to taste the tart. Judging from the heavenly aromas, I won't have any complaints!

Update: The plum tart was delightful. Next time, I won't use a graham cracker crust, although it certainly is a delicious complement to the plums. The problem is that the crust simply doesn't hold up as a tart shell. So, maybe I just need to figure out how to make a more compact crust that will hold up. Karl and I ended up eating more of a cobbler than a tart since the crust just didn't hold up.

I also will probably make sure the plums are a few days riper. It's kind of hard this time of year to get good plums, but I think a hint more sweetness would have been delicious with the tartness of the underripe plums. So maybe adding a little bit of sugar to less-ripe plums would work, too. Still, a GREAT tart that I will be making again.

Plum Tart

3 cups graham cracker crumbs, finely crushed
3/4 cup butter, melted

2 cups plums, sliced thinly (about 7 good sized plums)
3/4 cup apricot jam
2 TBSP Grand Marnier or brandy
1/3 cups hazelnuts, chopped coarsely

Preheat oven to 375˚F. Mix the graham cracker crumbs and the butter, and press tightly into an ungreased tart pan. Bake for 8 minutes.
Cool completely.
Arrange plum slices in tight, concentric circles in the tart shell. In a small saucepan over low heat, combine the apricot jam and Grand Marnier until it just begins to bubble. Drizzle the hot jam mixture over the plums. Sprinkle the nuts on top of the tart. Bake in 375˚F oven for 20-25 minutes. Serve lukewarm.

Note: Don't refrigerate this tart: apparently, it doesn't hold up well in the refrigerator.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Baking Frenzy: Banana Nut Bread

I don't know why, but I just have to bake lately! Sara says it is the cold weather, but I think it might be a big stress reliever. I have been anxious lately about many things (e.g., jobs...), and when I bake, all that stress goes away for a little while. So, bake I must: it's a better addiction than heroin, I suppose.

Yesterday being Valentine's Day, I had the perfect excuse to bake. Since Karl and I are somewhat busy during the week, we are celebrating the Day this Sunday. I'll be making a plum tart Sunday to follow up a lamb dinner. However, for the actual Valentine's Day, I wanted to do something simple that would let Karl know just how much I do love him. I wracked my brains, and came up with that simple delight: banana nut bread.

I didn't have a tried and true recipe, so I googled "best banana nut bread." The first entry was my winner!

I had a minor setback after I'd gone to the store for bananas and pecans when I realized my loaf pan was missing from the ranks of pots and pans in my cupboards. I'm not sure where the two loaf pans I had disappeared to, but I then had to decide whether to make banana nut muffins, banana nut bundt cake, or banana nut squares. I settled on the latter (using an 8x8-inch square Pyrex dish). The baking time actually turned out to be about the same (50 minutes), though I thought it would take less time in a square dish than in a loaf pan.

Banana bread smells absolutely heavenly as it bakes, regardless of how it turns out. I highly recommend it as an air freshener. And for a Valentine's Day bonus, according to this article from, the aroma of banana nut bread is an aphrodisiac for women! If you find it necessary to have an aphrodisiac for men, your best bet is pumpkin pie.

I added a teaspoon of vanilla to the recipe, since I love vanilla. And one additional recipe note: the recipe list calls for baking powder, while the instructions reference "soda". I used baking soda and the bread was great. Next time I'll try powder and see if things turn out differently.

The bread turned out lovely. Moist and not-too-sweet. If I had it to do over again, I probably would use riper bananas (over-ripe). Since I baked spur of the moment, my bananas were just ripe: not ideal for baking. Still, everything turned out well, and Karl enjoyed a warm slice with butter after dinner. Yum!

Happy Valentine's Day (a day late I know)!

Old-Fashioned Banana Nut Bread
This is an Old-Fashioned Banana Nut Bread recipe taken from the
Breakfast and Brunch volume of the Oxmoor House Southern Heritage Cookbook Library.

1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, beaten
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups mashed banana (4 medium, ripe to over-ripe)
1/2 cups coarsely chopped pecans

Cream butter in a medium mixing bowl; gradually add sugar, beating well. Add eggs, flour, soda [sic], salt, bananas, and pecans; mix well. Pour batter into a well-greased 9x5x3 loafpan. Bake at 350 for 55 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes in pan, remove bread from pan, and cool completely on a wire rack. Slice and serve. Makes 1 loaf.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Coffee-Frosted Chocolate Cake

Tuesday, I had to bake. I really wanted to try making a cake from scratch, so I pulled out a random cookbook from our collection and flipped to the dessert section. The cookbook I was using was 1,001 Low-Fat Vegetarian Recipes, by Sue Spitler and Linda R. Yoakam. The recipe: Coffee-frosted Chocolate Cake.

Unfortunately, I was almost out of unsweetened cocoa powder, and the weather on Tuesday was pretty miserable. I didn't feel like trekking a mile to the grocery store through wet, icy snow; nor did I feel like scraping the 4-5 inches of snow and ice from my car to make the journey on slick, congested roads full of panicky drivers. Since the CVS right across the street from my apartment didn't carry cocoa powder, I almost gave up. But then I decided that the need to bake was strong: so I bought a bar of Lindt 85% dark chocolate, which I melted down as a supplement to the 2 TBSP of cocoa powder that I did have.

The results were lackluster, in my opinion. The cake was kind of dry (i.e., required lots of milk for washing down), even with the addition of the melted chocolate. Luckily, I was helped in eating most of it by my friends at Tuesday night coffee at Oh Yeah!. They all seemed to enjoy it, so maybe I'm just picky.

Eventually, I want to make the most delectable cake on the planet. I'm just not sure how to go about experimenting. So hopefully I'll find a good cookbook that will help me along a little.

I've adapted the recipe's instructions to be a little more enlightening.

Coffee-Frosted Chocolate Cake

1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup butter, softened
3 eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 cup milk

1 TBSP instant coffee granules
1 TBSP hot water
2 cups confectioner's sugar
2-3 TBSP milk

Preheat oven to 350˚F. In a large bowl, cream the sugar and butter with an electric handmixer until fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat until smooth. Add in the vanilla extract (if substituting melted chocolate, add that in as well, making sure it's not too hot), and mix until incorporated.

In a separate bowl, sift the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt. Slowly mix with a spatula about 1/3 of the flour mixture with the wet ingredients. Then mix in 1/3 cup of milk. Repeat this alternating process until all the dry ingredients and milk are just incorporated. Do not over-mix.

Divide the batter between two 8-inch round cake pans that are greased and floured. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted at the center comes out clean. Cool completely (on wire racks if you like).

To make the frosting, dissolve the coffee in the hot water. Using an electric handmixer, slowly add the confectioner's sugar, then add enough milk to smooth out the consistency.

Frost the cake with the frosting (or just drizzle it on, like I did because I used too much coffee).

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Pittsburgh Coffee Crawl: Oh Yeah! Part II

Oh Yeah! Ice Cream Bar and Coffee Pub
232 S. Highland Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15206
Phone: 412-253-0955

This week, the Tuesday nighters braved the "freezing rain" that was forecast after our morning mini-blizzards and forged ahead in our Coffee Crawl. Except we found ourselves back at Oh Yeah! for more ice cream and good coffee.

This time, Karl and I split a scoop of the Mint Tea Cream, probably one of the most delicious ice creams I've ever had. The peppermint refreshes the palate with a fresh burst while the subtleties effervesce up into your nose. Absolutely delicious. We didn't get a mix-in this time, but I can think of a number of things that would have been delicious mixed into this one.

We also had a coffee, which was really nice and well-balanced (despite our mixing half decaf and half dark roast).

Did I mention last time that there is a delightful (leashed) dog on the premises? Depending on your love of canines, this may or may not be a selling point for you. The dog is very friendly, a large-ish black boxer mix. No barking has been heard up to this point, but the dog is very desirous of playtime, even with fairly new-found friends. Don't be surprised if you find his head in your lap with a ball while you're sipping your coffee!

Another bonus: clearly marked recycling receptacles for of all plastic utensils and cups. Yay! The more I got to Oh Yeah!, the more I like it.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Coriander-Scented Carrot Soup

Did you know that when you toast coriander seeds, they smell like Trix cereal?

The SmartCook Collection: Soup, the cookbook I was using yesterday to create "Coriander-Scented Carrot Soup" described the scent as "orange-like," but I beg to differ. While there is a distinct citrus element to the scent, if you really get your nose into the seeds after you've pull them from the hot pan and ground them up a little in your mortar, you'll be transported back to Saturday mornings when you were allowed to have the sugar-laden cereals (at least, that's how it was in my house!).

Anyway, this soup was a tad underwhelming. It really just tastes like carrots. And the somewhat strange title is apt: the soup is only coriander "scented": you can't taste the coriander at all. I was surprised at the absence of onions from the recipe, but I tend to give a recipe one chance before I try to improve ie. Next time, I'll definitely sauté some onions with the garlic, because this soup needed something.

The only changes I did make to recipe were:
1) I didn't peel the carrots. I just gave them a good scrubbing.
2) I substituted Greek-style yogurt for the crème fraîche, since I already had the yogurt. Enjoy!

Coriander-Scented Carrot Soup

1 TBSP coriander seeds
2 TBSP butter
2 lbs carrots, peeled and chopped
1 small garlic clove, crushed through a press
5 cups chicken stop or vegetable stock
3 TBSP chopped fresh cilantro, plus sprigs for garnish
2 TBSP crème fraîche or heavy cream, plus more for garnish
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1. Begin by dry-roasting the coriander seeds in a small skillet over medium heat, stirring and tossing them around for 1 to 2 minutes, or until they begin to look toasted and start to jump in the pan. Place them in a mortar and crush them coarsely.
2. Next, heat the butter in a large saucepan, then add the carrots, garlic, and three-quarters of the crushed coriander seeds. Stir well, then cover the saucepan and let the vegetables cook over gentle heat until they begin to soften -- about 10 minutes.
3. Next, add the stock, season with salt and pepper, and bring everything to a boil. Then reduce the heat to low and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, partially covered, or until the vegetables are tender. Let the soup cool a little, then puree it in batches in a blender or food processor (a large bowl to hold each batch of pureed soup is helpful here). After that, return the puree to the saucepan and stir in the chopped cilantro and 2 TBSP of the crème fraîche. Reheat the soup, then taste to check the seasoning, and serve in warmed bowls. Garnish each one with a swirl of crème fraîche, a sprinkling of the remaining toasted coriander seeds, and a sprig of fresh coriander.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Pittsburgh Coffee Crawl: Oh Yeah!

Oh Yeah! Ice Cream Bar and Coffee Pub
232 S. Highland Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15206
Phone: 412-253-0955

Last night, the Tuesday crew chose the new Oh Yeah! Ice Cream Bar and Coffee Pub as the destination for mid-week merriment and de-stressification from the arduous life of law school.

Oh Yeah! is in a two story house (it's situated on the first floor). You walk up the stairs to the porch and into the wide-open door (it was warm last night). The walls are covered in burlap coffee sacks, hung like artwork, with a smattering of paintings. Its somewhat tropical ambience is supported by the patio tables, complete with open umbrellas, that are the only source of seating other than the retro bar stools near the espresso bar. I also liked that Oh Yeah! supplies a few rows (and stacks) of well-loved books for cafe reading, from Simpsons comic books to Jonathan Swift and John Steinbeck to Gilbert & Sullivan's (opera libretti!)! A rather eclectic selection to choose from.

The main draw of this place is that they tout the use of almost exclusively local and organic products. They serve a variety of ice creams (with vegan options) with a TON of available mix-ins. The ice creams are products of Woo City, an Ohio company that makes hand-packed ice creams, sorbets, and frozen tofus (or "woo fu" as they call it) using all organic ingredients. The cream used to make the ice cream comes from grass-fed Amish cows, making it, supposedly, a good source of Omega-3 fatty acids. Great! Ice cream is now healthy! Ice cream flavor choices included Amaretto Peach, Guinness and Bass flavors, and Grasshopper, among others.

The coffee, though obviously not locally grown, is locally roasted at La Prima in Pittsburgh. The cafe also sells baked goods and other products of local businesses. Pretty cool, in my opinion.

In the interests of giving Oh Yeah! the proper review, Karl and I were forced to try the ice cream, though the rest of our group stuck to the coffees and teas. I got a small scoop of the Malted Vanilla Woo Fu (which was, I learned later, a frozen tofu -- NOT ice cream!) blended with habenero pepper powder. The scoop + blend costs $2.75 (a bit pricey, if you ask me, but probably worth it considering the organic ingredients and hand-packing). To create my blend, the barrista scooped the ice cream into a cup, sprinkled the powder on it, and then used a Matrix-like drill to blend it: this is not your average Blizzard machine!!!

I know, I picked a strange combination, but sweet and spicy is probably one of the more overlooked taste combinations. In retrospect, I should have mixed the habanero with either the regular (albeit sugar-free) vanilla ice cream, or possibly the 5-star Chocolate ice cream. It was still pretty delicious, and I didn't even notice that I wasn't eating ice cream (which is kind of incredible).

Karl got the Caramel Bourbon Vanilla ice cream blended with candied ginger. I'm sure it was delicious, but for some reason, the taste of my ice cream made the Caramel Bourbon Vanilla taste like dish detergent. Karl verified the effect after tasting mine, so I know the ice cream doesn't actually taste like dish detergent. Just be forewarned in the highly unlikely event you try to have both at the same time...

We also tried the espresso ($1.85), which was really pleasant, even as it cooled. The acidity factor was pretty low, but the espresso was dark and rich and really well-balanced. This was no stomach-eating Starbucks espresso, that's for sure.

One weird quirk: the bathroom door is a one-way mirror. So you can't see into the bathroom, but you can watch everyone while you go! I have severely mixed feelings about this, but I applaud Oh Yeah!'s attempt to liberate its customers a little.

I'll definitely be going back, especially once it warms up a little bit.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

HoneyBells: Oranges Extraordinaire

I don't usually enjoy oranges: they're often dry, pithy, and slightly bitter. The cheaper ones you get in the grocery store have more seeds to deal with than flesh. Peeling them barehanded is a nightmare after which the scent of oranges follows you for days.

Enter the HoneyBell orange into my life: so juicy, almost seedless, very little pith, and low acidity. And look how cute it is!

The catch? They're only available during January and February, and, unless you live in Florida, you must order them from (or possibly some other online fruit distributors).

Karl and I got lucky. His parents sent him a care package of these delightfully succulent oranges, so we have been devouring them for the past couple of days. The oranges are delicately sweet and so juicy! The lack of acidity is the best part: there is none of that mouth-puckering sourness that often accompanies oranges these days.

Perhaps the secret is that HoneyBells are not actually oranges at all (fooled you!). According to the informative pamphlet that arrived with the care package, HoneyBells are actually the result of cross-breeding Duncan grapefruits and Dancy tangerines. Now that is one science experiment I can get behind!

Monday, February 04, 2008

Chimay: Beer and Cheese

I gifted a bottle of the Chimay Blue Grande Réserve to Karl for Christams, and we decided to enjoy it this weekend by pairing it with the Chimay Grand Cru cheese, which we picked up from Giant Eagle (at $16.99/lb).

These products are very special because they are produced by Trappist monks in Belgium. Proceeds from sales of the three beers and four cheeses, all made on location at the monasteries, go to meet the needs of the monasteries and foundations involved, and also serve to sustain employment in the relevant regions. You do end up paying quite a bit more than you would for a Bud Light (a 750 mL bottle of Chimay Blue is about $15), but the quality is fantastic and well worth the occasional splurge.

The cheese, which I tasted first, smelled strongly of broccoli and sweaty, vinegar-y body odor: strange, but not exactly unexpected in a ripe cheese. It tasted delicious! It's very creamy (a semi-soft cheese), with some tangy funkiness. It doesn't coat the palate too strongly, which in my opinion makes for a great cheese to pair with wine or beer. The cheese also has a sweet, nutty element akin to toasted almonds.

The beer is a pretty classic Belgium, except that it tastes far more polished than most. Most Belgian beers tend to be sweet and caramelly, and the Chimay Blue is no exception. I usually don't enjoy sweet beers, and I therefore don't usually like Belgian beers, but the Chimay is very enjoyable even to my palate. There are dark, roasted malt flavors underlying the caramel and honey-like sweetness which bring a wonderful measure of balance to the table. The after-taste is almost floral and never degenerates into that sour taste that you often get with many beers: that, in my opinion, is a sign of a well-crafted beer.

When paired, I actually didn't find the cheese or the beer was enhanced. I generally don't enjoy my cheese paired with any beverage besides water, though, so I'm a bit of a tough sell on any cheese-pairing. Not many beverages can compete with the way a cheese tends to completely coat the mouth with its texture and flavors. The exception are highly carbonated or fairly acidic beverages with effervescence that cuts through that coating (e.g., sparking wine, acidic beers, etc.). Even then, it's important for the flavors to be complementary.

That doesn't happen with the Chimay Grand Cru and the Chimay Blue, in my opinion. The beer lacks any acidity, and its smooth sweetness merely runs over the cheese film on the palate without creating any sort of flavor combination.

Still, it was fun to try the beer and cheese together: that's what trying new things is all about! I certainly would recommend either the beer or the cheese to any beer or cheese enthusiast.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Cookbook Baking: Caramel Apple Cake

I have been looking forward to baking this cake since I went through my cookbooks early this week seeking out potential recipes to use to fulfill my new year's resolution to actually use cookbooks instead of just collecting them.

I received Paula Deen's Lady and Sons Savannah Country Cookbook several years ago as a gift from my college roommate, Meg. I tried a couple of the recipes from it, but they all seemed so sinfully fatty (Paula loves the mayo and the butter) that I didn't really go back to it. You simply cannot eat like that every day unless you are a marathon runner...and even then, I doubt that your arteries could stand up to the 3 jars of mayo and 10 pounds of butter per week that Paula wants to feed you.

When I was trying to choose a recipe from this book to use, I figured I'd better stick to the desserts, since those are supposed to be an indulgence. The very first recipe in the book's dessert section even seemed healthy...sort of. So, that's what I baked: Caramel Apple Cake.

Notes on the recipe: I am not impressed with Paula Deen's recipe structure. For one thing, it doesn't tell you anything about what the consistency of the cake batter should be. My cake batter turned out pretty thick, almost like a cookie dough. I kept checking the recipe to make sure I hadn't put too much flour in. If she had simply made a note that this cake batter wasn't as typically runny as most cake batters, I wouldn't have been so nervous.

In general, the recipe seems a little too bare bones. My cake turned out fine, but if I had been a beginner, I might have had to guess on a few too many things. Granted, this is a fairly simple recipe, so minor blunders probably wouldn't affect the outcome too much. Little things bug me though, like failing to specify whether the 2 cups of brown sugar should be tightly packed, lightly packed, or loosely packed or whether the apples should be peeled before dicing.

I also modified the recipe slightly by using two 9-inch round cake pans instead of a 13x9 inch cake pan. I didn't want to have one huge cake: I like to share the love, so I made two smaller ones. This decreased the baking time by quite a bit. My cakes were finished after 36 minutes, so if you do the same modification, keep that in mind.

I'll update when I've actually tasted the cake: I'm waiting for Karl to finish grading papers!

UPDATE: Oh, my word.
This is the most sinfully delicious cake I have ever eaten.
Karl and I had a piece for breakfast this morning, since last night we were both too full and too tired to eat any. I heated it up in the oven for about 10 minutes (on 250˚F) to get the caramel a little soft.
This cake melts in your mouth, literally. Karl said it tasted just like a caramel apple from a state fair (minus the hardness). It's really, really, really rich, but simply amazing. I will definitely be making this again.

Caramel Apple Cake
from Lady and Sons Savannah Country Cooking by Paula H. Deen

3 cups sugar
3 eggs
1 1/2 cups vegetable oil
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 cups apples, diced (fresh or canned)
1 cup walnuts, chopped
2 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350˚F. Cream the sugar, eggs, and oil until smooth. Add the flour, then mix in the apples, walnuts, and vanilla. Spread into a lightly greased 13x9 inch cake pan and bake for 45-60 minutes. Cake is done when toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Poke holes in the top of the cake, and pour the topping over it while warm.

Caramel Topping
3/4 lb butter (3 sticks)
2 cups brown sugar
1/4 milk

Mix all ingredients over medium heat. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Boil for 2 minutes. Pour immediately over warm cake.