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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Homemade Vanilla Extract

We use real vanilla extract (as in, not imitation) for a lot of things. Homemade kahlua, homemade ice cream and much more. The stuff is expensive! So I was excited to hear that you can make your own. The first thing I heard was to stick a vanilla bean in a bottle of vodka. I went online to do some research and found a little more to it than that:
After searching several sites looking at quality and prices, I was happy to find that the best deal was also organic! I bought some bourbon vanilla beans from this site.
I then looked at 2 recipes online: the first recipe
and the second recipe.
The first seemed stronger, so I made mine closer to that one.
I mixed the ingredients all together on April 25th.
8 vanilla beans sliced down the middle, scraped and chopped, all added to a sterilized quart jar.
I did this by taking each bean half and running the knife (sharp side up) along the inside to scrape out the "caviar" of the vanilla bean, before chopping up the bean skin.
I poured 2 cups vodka on top (40% alcohol), sealed tightly and shook vigorously.
Here's the plan:
Week 1: Shake daily
Week 2-4: Shake every other day.
Week 5: Let it age, check taste.
2nd recipe says you can add 1 t per cup of dark rum to sweeten.

I came up with 8 beans because the first recipe called for 1 oz. of beans per cup of vodka.
1 oz=4.5 beans. That would be 9 beans for 2 cups. The 2nd recipe called for 6 beans/2 cups. I met them in the middle with 8. Plus, scraping out the caviar and chopping up the beans will probably make it stronger.

Above: What the vanilla extract looked like with everything in it, before being shaken.
I'll add more photos to update the progress.

Cake #8: Argroves Manor Coffee Cake

Remember back on 2/28 when I made The Barefoot Contessa's Sour Cream Coffee Cake? I made a double streusel recipe because I looked ahead and noticed that the next recipe in the book called for the same streusel. I was expecting to make the next coffee cake within a week or two. Then March and April happened and turned out to be some of the busiest weeks I've had in a long time. Busy as in: Something planned every single night after work! Easter, the German Chocolate cake butting in, and finally, April 25th (almost 2 MONTHS later) I got around to the next cake. Guess what? The streusel was still fine. Moral of the story- make some streusel ahead of time and refrigerate it. It will make the cake-making process that much easier.
I decided (after the POUND of butter the German Chocolate cake called for) to do this cake with applesauce instead of butter, and it turned out great! And healthy! Woo-hoo! Don't worry, health-phobes, that streusel has a good solid 3 T (3/8 stick) of butter in it.
First, you make stewed fruit by mixing sugar and water. I used raw sugar because I do that sort of thing, which might be the reason it took forever to get thick. (In case you're wondering, forever is much longer than the 20 minutes the book said it would take.) Add blueberries and a peeled, chopped apple to the sugar water.

Above: stewed fruit- in motion!
The cake calls for (applesauce), sugar, eggs, flour, baking powder, salt and 1 cup of vanilla yogurt. I used Brown Cow yogurt with the cream on top. The stuff is thick and tasty and again, for the the health-phobes, NOT non or even low-fat. Is health-phobes even a word, or did I invent it just now? Am I going to go down in history as the inventor of the term health-phobe? Wouldn't that be something.

The book says something confusing: add 1 cup of the dry ingredients, followed by 1/2 of the flour mixture. Unless I'm missing something, I'm pretty sure the flour mixture is the dry ingredients. That got an arrow and a question mark on the page from me.
So, now you've got your stewed fruit, streusel and cake batter. Pour half the batter into the tube pan, then all the fruit, then some of the streusel, then the rest of the batter and the rest of the streusel on top.

Above: The top of the cake.
Above: The bottom of the cake.
Next time, I would put about 3/4 of the batter in first- the stewed fruit seemed to fall to the bottom, maybe because it was heavier than the batter or it wasn't thick and syrupy enough. It seemed to be more of a bottom layer than a middle layer when I ate it. Anyway, this cake is really good and, um, great with coffee! Imagine that!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Short's Burger and Shine

Downtown Iowa City, on Clinton St.
April 2010

This is the restaurant that took over Baldy’s old spot (see Baldy’s review from Dec. 2007). It took me a long while to go back there, since I was bitter about losing one of my favorite lunch places, but it was worth it.

They completely changed the interior- moving the bar side to the opposite wall and putting in a wall on the north side that goes in front of the brick, but with glass squares along it, lighting up various objects (including a mouse trap) against the brick wall.

Unfortunately for us who want to go out and enjoy a quaint little dinner, there are tvs everywhere with the volume up REALLY loud (which is especially annoying during those six-minute-long commercial breaks) but the place was also full of college kids paying attention to those damn tvs, so I guess not everyone shares my opinion….

The menu gives you a choice of beef burgers ($9) or black bean (veggie) burgers ($8.50). All of the meat is grown locally near Riverside, corn-fed (I would prefer grass-fed, but that’s me) and each burger is named after a random Iowa town. (The menu also shows a map of where each of those little towns are- I have been to at least two: Cylinder and Jamaica!) I got the Center Junction black bean burger with onions, peppers, jack cheese and red pepper mayo. It was good but it had a bit of a soft consistency for a veggie burger, causing the bean mixture to squish out onto the plate a few times. Hubby got a beef burger which was very good.

Despite the fact that the buns were toasted (horray!) they were not very good. We were wondering why the beef is local but the buns are not, they tasted a bit stale, and they were on the small side for the size of the veggie burger. The fries were nothing special.

All the beer on tap is from Iowa- so there is a pretty good selection to sample! I got a Rye Porter and we had a Hop Wrangler and a Dopplebock. They were $4-5 per pint.

The napkins, silverware, ketchup, mustard and some kind of mesquite sauce were in a tray attached to the brick wall, which is a great idea in a small space- and it clears up more room to spread your elbows on the table while you eat your burger!

They kept the mirror theme- which works great in this narrow brick walled space- but instead of the large mirrors Baldy’s had, they have small mirrors hanging at each table, high enough so you don’t have to stare at your reflection all night.

Also, be sure to check out the black porcelain in the bathroom!

Environmentally- disposable napkins but reusable plates & silverware.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Cake #7: German's Chocolate Cake

I finally had to do it. I skipped ahead in the book from page 54 to page 182 only because a good friend was having a birthday party and I offered to make the cake. Then he requested German Chocolate Cake, which is almost at the very end of the book! But I assumed I would be able to tackle it, and in the end, I did. But it wasn't smooth. Which is why it's a darn good thing I have a blog....
First of all, I learned that German's Chocolate Cake is not German at all! It's named after an English dude with the last name "German". And most people think of the coconut/pecan frosting when they think of this cake, which is funny- because its the only one (of 3) parts to the cake that doesn't contain any German's baker's chocolate. It's also the most difficult part of baking this cake from scratch. But, it's probably way better than the stuff you buy in the can.
So, I started on April 15th- making the cake, then the coconut/pecan frosting, then the chocolate frosting.
Luckily, the pecan/coconut frosting calls for 3 egg yolks. Because the cake calls for 4 eggs separated, and I gave it 3 attempts (saving the ruined yolks for the frosting) before I had my husband break the eggs and separate them nicely. He said I wasn't graceful enough. I think I need to learn how to break an egg without a bunch of shell pieces getting into it before I can tackle the separating task.
Other than the separating, the cake part wasn't too bad. I melted the chocolate by breaking it up and adding 1/2 c. boiling water, and stirring until smooth.
The cake called for buttermilk, and I had some dried buttermilk powder which I mixed with water, 1/4 c dry milk to 10 oz water. It seemed to work pretty well- there were just a few small buttermilk powder chunks in the milk.
For every cake recipe this year so far, I have put the butter out to get it to room temp. before starting the cake. Well, it's officially hot enough now that I need to reduce the amount of time I let the butter warm up- they were getting pretty liquidy when I opened each stick!
The cookbook says to use 2 Kitchen Aid bowls for the recipe- one for the cake ingredients and the other for the egg whites. i only have one bowl, so I scraped the cake batter out, cleaned the bowl and whisked the egg whites until they showed peaks. Eggs are amazing things. Then I added the cake batter to the peaky whites and poof! The whites came to the top anyway so that method worked pretty well. Then I folded them in gently, about 20 times. I poured the batter into my well-greased cake pans and baked the cakes for about 30 min.
But the darn things didn't stay together. They came out of those pans pretty messy, and I reconstructed them hoping the frosting would cover it all up:

The recipe called for a double boiler, so we constructed one out of a cast iron pan with soy sauce holders and a sauce pan on top:
The double boiler was used for the coconut/pecan frosting, which was not very fun to make because:
You add water, sweetened condensed milk (super thick stuff) and egg yolks to the sauce pan over the simmering water in the double boiler and stir it forever until it "has thickened" I maybe misread that or got impatient because I stirred it until it just started to thicken, so I probably should have waited a little longer. Then you add butter and vanilla extract and whisk. Meanwhile, with your other hand or maybe your feet, the book suggests putting pecans and coconut in a food processor. Maybe because the sink was already full of dishes, or because I was out of counter space, I decided to use a small chopper instead, and that worked just as well, it just took a little extra energy on my part. And I had that energy to spare since I was maybe angry at the cake at this point.
Above: chopped pecans and coconut.

Then I made the "optional" chocolate frosting for the sides of the cake. This should NOT be optional because it was awesome. In fact, I think I'm going to make this frosting for other cakes, it was AWESOME. So awesome, I'm going to tell you how to make it!

First, take a 1/2 pkg (or 2 oz.) of German's Baker's Chocolate and melt it in the double boiler. You can't really tell when it's melted, it stays together. You'll have to poke it and watch it go "aaaaah". Or wait, maybe that was me going "aaaaah". Meanwhile, after you've washed your Kitchen Aid bowl for the 2nd time, throw in a stick of butter and the melted chocolate (see photo above) and beat it on medium speed. Add 1 1/2 c. confectioners' sugar slowly. Then add 1 t. vanilla extract (you can make your own! I will post a blog in a few days!) Then gradually add 1 1/2 T milk and beat it until the frosting has a "spreadable consistency". Stick your finger in there and taste it. You will go "aaaaah". Or, maybe, "damn! that's good!"
Now, learn from my mistakes, and DO NOT REFRIGERATE! I did, and when I took it out to spread it on April 17th (2 days later) it was hard. Too hard to spread on anything. So I added some milk and stirred it well, so that it was spreadable, but it wasn't exactly frosting consistency and it didn't exactly look pretty. But, I had just gotten some decorating squeeze tubes from a Pampered Chef party and I really wanted to try them out. So I brought the cake and the frostings to the party, resuscitated the chocolate frosting, and put it in the squeeze tube. After spreading the coconut/pecan frosting between the two cake layers and on top of the cake, I attempted making little star patterns around the top edge to give it a WOW effect. After a few "stars" squirted out (which didn't really resemble anything like a star) I gave it a little squeeze-and---- the entire tube of frosting squirted out at the speed of light all over the top of the cake, all over the counter top, all over the toaster and all the other stuff on the counter, and I got to hear sounds of laughter behind me from the host of the party. Although it made her day and she told EVERYONE at the party about my cake decorating disaster, I decided to use something with an actual "spreadable consistency" next time I attempt to use those decorating tubes. Or else I'll decide that just because I can bake a cake, that doesn't mean I can decorate it.

Santa Ana

Columbus Junction, IA
April 2010

We stopped at this little panaderia and taqueria while traveling through town, looking for a place to eat. Knowing there were a few great Mexican restaurants in this little town, we chose a great place.

First of all, their menu is written across the far wall, all in Spanish except at the bottom where it says "Whatever you need, ask in English." So we asked the one man there what he recommended, and ended up with chicken burritos which were excellent and filling. He brought out chips with 3 hot sauces (salsa picantes) and spoons to pour the sauce over the chips. 2 of the sauces (the red and green) were very good. The 3rd (a brownish color) was a chipotle sauce, and neither of us are big fans of chipotle.

The man working there asked if we like hot stuff, and brought out a habenero salsa warning us to just take a drop. It was pretty hot (I could tolerate more than just a drop) and very flavorful- we both poured a mixture of the habenero and the other 2 sauces on our burritos. We washed down the tasty food with glass bottles of Coke & Pepsi. We were the only ones in the little restaurant/bakery, and when the man wasn't cooking or bringing us our food, he was watching soccer on a tv, all in Spanish, with the volume up pretty loud. Somehow, that just added to the atmosphere- and we were pleased to leave with stuffed bellies after only paying $16.50 with the tip. (They don't take cards)

We will be back.

The Hideaway

On Prentiss St.
Iowa City

This is a new bar (formerly Fitzpatrick's) behind the (new) Old Capitol Brew Works. If you haven't lived in IC for the past few years, that means this area has changed a lot.
With a few tvs, it can get pretty loud if a sports game is happening.
The women's bathroom has a bunch of specials printed out and taped to the stall door, so you can grab it and take it home to stick on your fridge! Gotta love that marketing strategy!
They have high tables with stools along one wall, with hooks on the wall for you to hang your purses, bags, coats, etc. Smart thinking!
I have been there 3 times and the service has been great. Although, when I ordered a Wild Ride IPA, the waitress came back to tell me they were out, and then she tried suggesting a pilsner as a substitute. I politely tried to explain to her that no, a pilsner is NOT a good substitute for an IPA but I had difficulty, being a beer snob, doing so politely. She explained that they are both dark beers, to which I kept my mouth shut knowing I would say something pretty offensive if I commented on her ignorance of beer. To sum it up, I wouldn't trust their suggestions on beers to try if they happen to be out. And they have a great selection of beers on tap, but they are likely to be out of one or two, especially if that's the one or two that I happen to be ordering. The beer on their menu consists of: Sand Creek Wild Ride IPA, Peace Tree Hefeweisen, Anchor Steam, John's White, Bells Two Hearted Ale and a seasonal which has been Bigfoot, a Belgian and Lagunita's IPA. Normal prices of beer range from $4.50-$5.50 for the good stuff, EXCEPT WEDNESDAYS! All beer on tap (even the Lagunitas IPA) is $2.50 on Wednesdays! No shit! Or, as our waitress put it: "All draft beer is $2.50 today, EVEN DOMESTICS!" Wow! So I can get what's normally $5.50 for $3 off or I can get what's normally $3 for $2.50!
Also, on Wednesdays, all wraps are only $5, and they come with fries. They have sweet potato fries too, but I recommend the regular fries. They are just salty & crispy enough. They remind me of the fries I was dipping in chocolate malts when I was a kid. However, if you pay an extra $1 for some guacamole, you might get shorted on some fries. They fill up the plate with fries, and with a container sitting there in the middle, precious fry space is taken up with your guac. But, since guacamole is pretty filling, you probably don't need those extra fries anyway.
On Fridays all appetizers are $5. We splurged and got 3 appetizers- the nachos, bruchetta and quesadillas. All were great and filling. On Tuesdays they have 1/2 price wine and the seasonal beer is only $3. They have good burgers, and some vegetarian options- a black bean burger and a portobella mushroom burger. I haven't tried either, but I will be back. Especially on Wednesdays. My husband and I got 2 filling meals and 5 beers for under $23.
Environmentally: reusable plates, disposable napkins and NO BIKE PARKING! Booooo! You need bike parking if you're going to have 5 beers (between 2 people). We locked ours up to the outdoor seating area.

Red Avocado

521 E. Washington St.
Iowa City

It's not as easy to write a review about a place you've been to several times- it's much more easy to write about your first experience. But this is a restaurant I've been frequenting for the last 4 years, so obviously I like it a lot.
I recommend the Iowa Barley & Black Bean Salad. It's great for the price. They have a rotating variety of beer, right now it's the Brau Bros. Scotch Ale that I always order. The Sierra Nevada Pale and Porter are also both good. If you go on 2nd Thursdays, the local Green Drinks gathering of environmentalists are there- join them for specials, like $3 bottles of beer!
They also have specialty drinks which are excellent- smoothies with fresh fruit and soy milk, tisanes with hibiscus, rosehips or nettles, and fresh squeezed carrot or orange juice. They sell loose tea blends in bulk, priced per ounce.
The specials rotate, but are usually about $15-18 per plate. Most of the entrees come in small or large servings, around $7 for the small and $12 for the large. Remember that a smoothie might fill you up, so a small plate could be plenty!
The atmosphere is great- it has an artsy basement feel, the walls are painted brick with artwork and photos hung everywhere. The candlelight and mood lighting makes it feel cozy. There is also an outdoor area inside- the rooftop is open with vines crawling across it.
Environmentally- excellent. The napkins are cloth, everything is reusable, the food is local, organic and vegan.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Easter Meal

With a 16 lb. organic turkey in the freezer (thanks to our amazing neighbors) we decided to invite a bunch of people over for Easter dinner. Having never made an actual turkey (just the tofu-kind), we got some advice and ingredients and set to work.
First of all, I had at least 3 different people recommend the Reynold's Oven bag to cook the turkey in. My husband and I are both anti-cooking-anything-in-plastic so we said no. We wanted to learn the old-fashioned way.
On Tuesday, I took the turkey out of the freezer and put it in the fridge to start thawing. I never would have taken it out 4 days before, but by golly- it still wasn't completely thawed by Saturday morning! (We had Easter dinner on Saturday so that we could cook all day). That morning, we put the turkey in a sink full of cold water for an hour or so. Reason #1 of how necessary our kitchen remodel was- the turkey filled the sink and we never would have been able to do that in our old sink, which was half as tall!
After a few hours and the removing of the nasty stuff in the plastic bag that I guess all turkeys come with, I chopped up some onion, garlic, celery and carrots and stuffed them up in that turkey (after taking it out of it's bath). I was told to use paper towels and dry the turkey off. We use about one roll of paper towels every 2-3 years, so I had to go looking for them. I used to be one of those people who grabbed a 6 pack of bleached paper towels every time I went to Target- but in the last few years, I've learned they really aren't as necessary as you would think! It doesn't take much to cut back on the bad habit of paper towel usage. Anyway, by the time I returned to the turkey with my 2 paper towels, it was already dry! So: use a few paper towels to pat the thing dry, or wait 5 minutes and let it air-dry.
I used butter and rubbed it all over the turkey. This is the part that might be gross to some people. You are getting a little intimate with a dead and de-feathered bird, rubbing slimy stuff up under the armpits and all, but it wasn't too bad. At this point, if your house is anything like mine, and you've got raw poultry sitting out, your cats and dog might start to drive you nuts due to the tempting smell. It's a good time to remind them that it's Easter, not Thanksgiving, and they should be enjoying the beautiful spring weather.
By the way, you should have had your mom bring a large pan if you do not own one yourself, and now it's time to put the turkey in that pan and stick it in the oven! Meanwhile, make a zillion side dishes.

I started with deviled eggs the night before. Because it was Easter, I decided to dye them. I used a beet that had been in the fridge a little too long and cut it up, then cooked in in a little water. After slicing up the hard boiled eggs and separating the yolks out, I put the whites in a bowl with the beet juice and let it sit in the fridge overnight, resulting in some very dark pink eggs.
That part was pretty cool, and the beets don't affect the taste of the egg much. The part I messed up was the yolks. I should have just left them yellow, but I decided to experiment and I added some turmeric (which did affect the taste) and maybe too much paprika. The yolks looked more like a skin-tone and didn't match the pink part too well, but they still got eaten. And they made for some good conversation.
Recipe for Dyed Deviled Eggs:
Hard boil a dozen free range eggs by bringing a pot of water (with some salt if you want) to a full boil, carefully adding the eggs to it (it helps to have a designated large wooden spoon for this. I do.) Once the last egg is in, set the timer for 11 minutes. When the timer goes off, turn off the heat (remove from the burner if you have an electric stove) and set the timer for another 11 minutes. When the timer goes off, rinse the pot with cold water until it feels cool to the touch.
Then crack the egg shells off and compost them. Rinse the eggs. Cut in half the long way. Remove the yellow yolk part and put in a bowl. Dye as you wish.
Add to the yolks: 1 T mayonnaise or nayonnaise if you like the vegan stuff, 1 T vinegar, and one squirt of mustard. Dye as you wish. Mash it all together and scoop the yellow stuff into the white (or formerly white if you dyed it) stuff and top with paprika! Eat any of the ones that fell apart or don't look as pretty before putting them on an attractive platter.

As you can see above, I had the eggs out as an appetizer with a nicely decorated table- with tulip confetti and a bunny cut-out. I was trying to Martha Stewart-out the table!

While my mom and I cooked several sides, I put my dad in charge of the relish tray. My rules: it has to be colorful and on an attractive ceramic platter. His rules: It has to include olives and radishes. (He made a trip to the store).

Mom had recently made a Russian meal using Buckwheat, so she wanted to do a buckwheat side dish. We added lots of mushrooms and it looked good, but the buckwheat has a taste and smell somewhat similar to burning plastic. She wanted to pitch the leftovers, but I said no- let me experiment, and with the leftovers, I came up with a pretty darn good tasting dish!

Here's my experiment:
Buckwheat/Rice dish recipe (to be added as soon as I locate it!)

After all that dreading of facing the daunting task of cooking a real turkey (without a plastic bag!) it really wasn't that hard! The secret was calibrating the thermometer with a scientific thermometer. As homebrewers, we happen to have that stuff laying around the house. We knew our thermometer was off, but we found out it was 30 degrees off! We got it to be accurate, and the turkey came out of the oven at just the right temperature! (180 degrees).

Reason #2 of why our kitchen remodel was necessary- we could have 5 or 6 people actively involved in the meal preparation/table setting all at one time!
Other side dishes included a large mixed-green lettuce salad, homemade bread, green bean casserole (my secret recipe- involving sauteed onions, mushrooms and white pepper!) and a few more. Needless to say, there were plenty of leftovers despite the 8 people eating all this food.
With everyone gone and just two of us to tackle all the leftovers, we got all the meat off the turkey we could, and despite a few turkey sandwiches made with some homemade chevre from a friend of ours- excellent combination!- we couldn't tackle it all, so we froze some chunks of turkey meat. I then took the carcass and loosely followed directions from "Joy of Cooking". I put it in our very large Cuisinart Slow Cooker with some water and veggies and let it cook slow for a day. I tried skimming the fat off the top, but since it never really boiled, not much came to the top. I ended up refrigerating it before going though it, and that worked pretty well. For one thing, it was cool enough to handle. I pulled the meat off and saved the non-bony-fatty stuff and when I got it all out, I poured the rest into pint mason jars and froze them for later. The frozen meat will go in a future pot pie. We do own a deep freeze, which makes all of this a bit more possible!