Saturday, December 27, 2014

Blue Apron Adventures

Last week we cooked our first three meals using the Blue Apron delivery service. As I commented in an earlier post, we will not subscribe for weekly deliveries, but will have one delivery per month. Between the cost ($60 for three meals' worth of ingredients and recipes), plus the amount of work necessary for each meal (about an hour of prep and cook for each meal), we just don't have the ability (or patience) to keep up with weekly deliveries right now. But it'll be a fun adventure one week out of the month for sure.

Each meal arrives beautifully packaged and organized in a way that pleases my OCD: spices and additives are pre-measured and labeled for the meals they are intended for; meats come packaged; vegetables come labeled for their destined meals. I love the cute little baggies and bottles the ingredients are in! It's so satisfying to lay everything out. Each meal also has a generously sized recipe card that lists all the ingredients you'll need and also has photos with each cooking step.

The first meal we made was the gnocchi with sausage, which also had savoy cabbage and was cooked in a vinaigrette sauce.

Ingredients for gnocchi night.
This recipe didn't have a tremendous amount of prep, nor were the veggies and meat in need of time-consuming preparations (it was simply chopping cabbage and an onion), but still, by the time we sat down, an hour had somehow elapsed. Below you can see the how-to side of the recipe card as well as the prepared vegetables.

The recipe cards are great because if you like a dish, you can obviously recreate it by just buying the items you don't already have. It's such a great way to explore new recipes and flavors in a relatively safe way--the portions are just right (and often left us with leftovers to have for lunch the following day!).

Just about to plate the completed dish. Yum!

 The second of the two meat meals was stewed chicken with vegetables and latkes. We enjoyed this meal on the first night of Chanukah, which John appreciated because he had been jonesing for some latkes like whoa. Ask and ye shall receive, I suppose. This preparation probably took the longest. There were a lot of vegetables to prapre: chop half an onion, grate the other half; grate potatoes for the latkes; chop carrots and celery; quarter mushrooms; chop herbs. John manned the chicken once all the prep work was finished so I could work on the latkes.

This was the only meal we fully worked on together, simply because it required so much work. It was fun to cook something new together, and was also a dream because we had separate work stations thanks to our kitchen's generous counter space.

The chicken stewing away once we had everything added to the pot.

Getting ready to make me some latkes! Goy ahoy!

Little latkes, all formed and ready to be fried up.
I think I made the latkes a bit thick, but I wanted to be able to fit as many as possible in the pan so I'd be frying in the least amount of batches possible. Had they been thinner, they'd've been crispier, I think, but overall, they came out very good.

Here's the composed meal. The latkes are topped with thyme-infused creme fraiche.

 Our Blue Apron profile is set to send us a mix of meat and vegetarian meals, and this box had a seasonal pasta dish as the veg option. The fresh pasta was mixed with carrots, Brussels sprouts, and chestnuts for a nutty and delicious meal. The finished dish was topped with poppy seeds, granulated honey, and the chopped mint and parsley.

I tell you, I was never more glad for those pre-measured ingredients as for when that granulated honey came into play. I didn't even know that was a thing, so I was very happy to not have to hunt for it. haha

Our next delivery is set for the week of January 5, and I figure it will be a very welcome sight after holiday overindulgences and rich foods. It will be a relief to have a box of fresh and healthy things come right to our doorstep. I'll write about that experience as well. Can't wait to see what they send!

I'll be back later this week with some writeups on my holiday baking adventures, including my first pies and my latest macaron flavor.

Until then, happy end-of-holidays.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Cupcakes, Two Ways

This week I made two cupcakes I had been dreaming of for a looong time. YUM YUM YUM

First up, carrot cupcakes. Last year, I thought of the perfect cupcakes for Jeanette's birthday:carrot cakes!

I hate nuts in my baked goods. I find it infuriating when they eek into chocolate chip cookies or are hunked into cakes. I do love their flavor, however, so if I must use them, I chop them up reaalllllyyyyy tiny. That way you wind up with a subtle crunch throughout rather than a patch of "Dear God! Frigging pecan!

The wet team here includes brown sugar, canola oil, and an egg. It gets all smooth and caramely when you whisk it together before adding the nuts and pouring the whole shebang into the dry ingredients. Lovely.

So here's where it gets a bit interesting. John, Jeanette, and I are fans of comedian Patton Oswalt, and he has a funny bit about feeling overweight and being presented with a buffet at a fancy Hollywood party. In the end of the bit, encouraged by Brian Dennehy, Patton pretty much says, "Screw it! Sprinkle some fries on those cupcakes!" An idea was born: cupcakes with fries sprinkled on them would be Jeanette's birthday cupcakes. Then I had to figure out how to make them, but also how to make them yummy. Then, I had it: carrot cupcakes already have a vegetable in them. So why not use a waffle-cup sweet potato fry to top the cupcake! Yaaasssss.

So that is exactly what I did. And let me tell you: it was an amazing combination. Between the sweet-but-nutty cake and the sweet cream cheese frosting, the fry on top really kinda married the flavors perfectly. I figured the concept would frighten and would be lost on our colleagues in the office, and so I brought only two fries to top my and Jeanette's cupcakes. We definitely got a few raised eyebrows,  but as everyone watched us clearly enjoying them, I sort of wished I had brought enough for everyone to try if they wanted to. The cupcakes got such rave reviews, and in fact, were demanded to make a repeat appearance, so maybe next time I'll do just that.


Here's my fully assembled cupcake, which I photographed on Jeanette's windowsill at work. I then realized the lighting is perfect there, and I want to do ALL my food photography in front of these ivy-covered windows!

My next cupcake adventure involved packing up a mobile bakery and heading down to Tara's house. She is quasi-confined to her house while caring for her dog, who recently had emergency surgery last week. The pup is doing just fine, but is still on pain medications and antibiotics, and so we didn't want to leave her alone in the house for more than a little while (we did pop out to Wawa to get some salads for lunch. Salads, knowing we'd be inhaling cupcakes.).

After getting the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook, I'd been fantasizing about their green tea cupcakes. Tara is the biggest green tea drinker of all my friends, and so I knew they'd be a perfect treat to share with her. And what better time than when we were planning a hermit kind of day to be with the canine patient?

The cake is chocolate and infused with milk-steeped green tea. The resulting taste was very nearly chocolate ice cream! It wasn't quite brownie-ish, and it wasn't quite regular-chocolate-cakeish. Then Tara hit it on the nose: chocolate ice cream!

I also decided it would be more fun to make tiny cupcakes rather than a dozen regular-sized ones, so I packed up my mini-tin and my piping bag. The batter came together in a rather interesting way. I had to cream together the butter and whatnot as usual, but then I had to add in half of the milk-and-tea mixture and beat the dough until creamy and smooth. Then I added in the rest of the milk-tea and beat it until smooth, loose, and without lumps. I've definitely slowly added in the wet ingredients before, but can't recall doing two separate and full incorporations. Would it have come out differently had I added it all at once? I doubt it would have, but hey--the directions are there for a reason!

And here's where I need to credit myself: we totally forgot to set a timer. After chatting at the kitchen table for a few minutes, we realized this. I then had to go based on looks alone--and wouldn't you know it, I grabbed them just in time. I do think I let them go just a few minutes too long, as the cake did get a bit dry by the time I got home with the leftovers. But all things considered, at least I didn't set the oven on fire for forgetting them completely!

After filling all 24 mini molds, I had a little batter leftover, so Tara grabbed a 6-muffin tin, and I was able to get 4 regular-sized cupcakes in addition to the minis. As you can see, they baked up just fine!

While the cake had 3 teabags' worth of tea in them, the frosting is really where the green tea flavor came out--starting with a run-of-the-mill buttercream recipe, you then add in a healthy dose of matcha powder, which gives both a beautiful soft green color (no food dye needed!) and an incredibly grassy flavor and aroma.

I used a large star tip to frost them, which made them look like adorable little Christmas trees. Unintended bonus festive points!

Thanks to Tara for providing the fresh ingredients and her kitchen to this production! For anyone who thinks we upped our counter game, sorry, Charlies: it's still all fake butcher block over here at the Cottage. haha

Later this week, I'll have a breakdown of my mega-baking for Christmas (ye gads, I need to down to business on that!), as well as a breakdown of our first week of cooking Blue Apron meals: we've done two, and have one more to go, which we will probably do on Monday or Tuesday evening.

Savory Adventures: Sometimes I Also Cook Dinners!

In my previous post, I mentioned I've been toiling away in the kitchen making fancier-than-usual dinners. The first was a recipe from Ree Drummond's The Pioneer Woman Cooks website: her at-home rendition of orange chicken. We just happened to have some chicken thighs in the freezer, and also happened to have OJ in the fridge, so it was kismet.

The recipe was easy and came together quickly. The only thing I did differently was that I didn't deep fry the chicken. I still coated them in cornstarch and egg whites as prescribed, but I then simply pan fried them in a thin layer of oil rather that dropping them into a few inches of very hot oil. I'm still too nervous to deal with a pot of hot hot hot oil. Someday, but not this day. I did, however, double-fry the chicken pieces just as the recipe requests. The only difference was a slightly less crunchy finish to the chicken, but that was all. It was absolutely delicious!

Things start out by soaking cut-up chicken thighs in whipped egg whites and some corn starch. While that's sitting, you make the very easy and very delicious sauce in a non-stick pan. Ree wisely points out that since the sauce is sticky, you want to use a nonstick pan so the only thing it glues itself to is the chicken!

The sauce is made of OJ, corn starch, water, and spices. You just cook it down for a few minutes, then add corn starch whipped with a little water to thicken it. While that was working, I was cooking the chicken on another burner. I heated some oil and dropped in about half of the chicken pieces (I didn't want them to stick together and make a big old clump). Once everything had been fried up once, I dropped them in again (again, in two batches), to get a slightly crispier finish on the battering. From there, I simply dropped them into the sauces and mixed it around to coat.

Ree's recipe makes enough for 4 servings--using 4 thighs--but since we only had two thighs, I simply halved the recipe (which was really simple to do--halving it didn't leave me with any bizarro measurements like 1/16 tsp or anything like that!).

John picked up ginger beer because he thought the spice (while Mexican/Jamaican and not Asian) would play nicely with the spices and flavors happening in the meal. He was right, but it had too big a bite for me to drink more than half.

This was fun and simple, and I will definitely incorporate this into our usual dinner rotation. Chicken thighs are typically cheaper cuts of meat, so it'll be an excuse to buy them and actually enjoy eating what is decidedly not my favorite part of the chicken.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

In the Kitchen for (and with!) Good Measure

The week has taken an...interesting...turn. Luckily, I have a date in the kitchen this evening with both a new dinner venture (my second of the week, and it's only Wednesday!) and a baking adventure.

I'll have to round up my photos from Monday, but I made orange chicken a la Pioneer Woman, and it was delicious! I am totally going to make this part of my rotation, and it finally gave me a preparation for chicken thighs that didn't make me gag. I just usually find that meat to be weird. Biting into a fat pustule is never a winner-winner-chicken-dinner scenario for me. I'll do a full post later on my savory cooking separate from my baking to keep things interesting. Diversity, people!

Tonight's culinary adventure will be cooking our first meal from Blue Apron. A friend has been using their meal-delivery service for a few months now, and as she's a vegetarian, she has been loving the variety and inspiration each box brings. With her subscription, she was able to send a trial week to a few friends, and she sent one along to me and John, knowing we'd apprecaite the opportunity! It's actually pretty cool:

They deliver once weekly on a day you choose, and they give you pre-portioned ingredients from meat and veg to spices and oils to cook 3 recipes, from which you get 2 meals each. So it's essentially a full week's worth of meals. You can set your dietary preferences, and you can even choose which weeks you want deliveries. For example, I think it's a bit expensive ($60/delivery) to use every single week, so I've gone in and picked one week per month to receive a delivery. Those weeks we won't have to buy entrees from the grocery store, and as we find recipes we like, we can keep the recipe cards and shop from the shelves to recreate them later on our own.

In our box that arrived today, we can make sausage with gnocci and cabbage; stewed chicken with latkes and creme fraiche; and fresh chestnut pasta with ghee and poppy seeds. We will dive into the gnocci dish first because it looks AMAZING.

Then, while happily digesting all of that yummy gnocci and sausage, I'll bake up some extra special cupcakes for a friend's birthday to bring into the office tomorrow. Yum yum!

And all of this before I start in on my prime holiday baking. I did my holiday stock-up last night of all the shelf-stable supplies (plus our usual weekly needs from the grocery store). Back in October I had gotten all 4 tires on my car replaced, and got a $70 rebate Mastercard gift card--I squirreled it away for this exact shopping trip, and thus got $110 worth of groceries for $40 out of pocket. Man, that felt good! I knew the gift card would come in handy to offset the extra money we're outputting for holiday gifts and travels this time of year. I'm very grateful it did!

On my holiday baking forecast are the following:

apple-cranberry crumble pie with homemade flaky pie crust (with butter, not lard!!!!!)
Linzer tarts
hot chocolate macarons with marshmallow buttercream filling
Ree Drummond's Knock-You-Naked-Brownies
LOTS of my homemade Irish cream liquor (for both drinking and gifting)
Christmas morning crockpot pumpkin spice latte

Thank goodness for the kitchen during stressful times. There is something so soothing about sinking my hands into dough, about measuring out vanilla extract and about cracking eggs.

Monday, December 15, 2014

A Little Monday Bah Humbug: Existential Crisis Edition

My soul feels tired. My 29th birthday is coming up, and I've been doing a lot of life-thinkin' and soul-searchin', and I'm just tired all the way to the marrow of my bones.

John and I are, for the most part, successful adults. But we're at the point where we are in between the big life-happenings while a lot of friends are in progress with big life-happenings. And because I torture myself with comparisons, I'm feeling pretty darn stuck.

We've been married for three years, so we've checked off the whole wedding thing. We've been in the house for a whole year already, so that's checked off the "big deal" list as well. We are not ready nor are we interested in kids yet (well, I'm at vastly unprepared and rather disinterested because I let fear rule me; John is at mildly prepared and rather interested), so we're in the weird phase of marriage where nothing is happening aside from continuing to pay bills and continuing to stress about everything. We're in the invisible stage--no one checks in on us begging for news or photos or to visit with us because nothing exciting is going on. There's no wedding details to talk about, no house listings to pore over, and no newborns to coo at. We are empty nesters, an old married couple in 28- and 30- year old bodies.

John's job situation is settled out and he is happy and comfortable again. My career feels like I'm running on a treadmill, staring at goals I'll never physically get close to. This analogy is all too real when I am actually on the treadmill at the gym, staring at a pillar that remains a fixed distance away. Running outside feels like accomplishment: I pass trees, I pass other runners. I make progress. I don't like the treadmill--real or metaphorical.

I watch a lot of my friends enjoying the firsts I've already experienced with nostalgia--suddenly they see and appreciate the work that goes into a wedding, the horror and elation of buying your first home. In fairness, these moments are the ones that are vindication for parents. Suddenly, we realize they weren't being tightwads about taking extra long showers or leaving all the lights on--shit costs money! I get it, Mom and Dad. You may now laugh and say, "I told you so."

But I also watch my friends' lives take off on different and amazing paths. Paths that throw my life and accomplishments into harsh relief. All told, I've done a fat lot of nothing outside of not going broke and maintaining a job. Everyone has worked hard, but when I work hard, too, and see no payoff at the end, it makes me wonder what I'm doing so wrong, or maybe more accurately, what I'm doing so differently. Would a more important-sounding title make me feel better? Yes! Because I'd feel like how I'm "categorized" actually and accurately reflects all of the hard work I'm doing. Will it make me happy? Maybe, maybe not. I have no idea what career path would actually make me happy. My callings, as I've discussed here, are all pretty damn useless unless you've got the moxy to tread the path less trodden, and I'm not entirely certain I do.

It's also very upsetting that as lives take different shapes, we seem to be losing touch with folks who either cannot (or choose not to) relate to us, or whom we're having a difficult time relating to ourselves. The kids things has been particularly polarizing--having none ourselves, our friends who do have kids sort of don't know what to make of us or how to include us anymore, instead banding closer to their friends who are likewise child-ed. I'm not good at letting go, so I continue to let this bother me. I also have friends in new relationships who are just in that bubble of new-ness, and like I said, I'm not good at letting go, so I just let jealousy eat me up.

And finally, perhaps the most grown-up test of friendship, distance, has been the most minimal factor. Do I talk with my far-flung friends as often as I did when they were a close drive away? No. But I and my LD friends have realized how important our friendships are, and work that much harder to stay in touch. Thank goodness for the text message and for Facebook because we can stay in touch in near-real time, making it almost as good as actually being together. Unlike a phone call, you can text a random thought and get an immediate response at any time, almost like random late-night slumber party banter.

I guess this is the part where I admit I'm just going through another movement where I'm adding to the cosmic question of "What is it all about?" I'm feeling small and insignificant and lonely and worthless. I'm feeling frustrated and trapped and overwhelmed. That all this is coming up at Christmas isn't a coincidence...folks are looking to the new year, to new things and new resolutions and new opportunities. All I see is a question mark stretching out forever, and it makes me feel very anxious rather than hopeful.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

2014 is slipping away

I will be very glad to see the back end of 2014. It has been a very challenging year in many ways, and I think both John and I are over-ready to put a lot of it behind us and out of mind. We've got new goals and brighter opportunities in 2015, and will greet them with open arms.

2014 will, thankfully, be closing on a high note. We've already navigated Thanksgiving, and I'd love to walk you through some of the baking I did for the holiday! The big day started at home, where I cooked up a delicious but simple breakfast of eggs and churro popovers (make your own courtesy of Joy the Baker's recipe!). We washed that down with coffee while watching the Macy's parade.

Churro popovers!

Our delicious feast.

I then quickly got to work on dessert to bring to John's aunt's house, where we would spend the afternoon and share dinner with John's family. That's right, y'all: apple cider doughnuts! YUM. This was a recipe I found, I think, by Googling around on AllRecipes. It was simple and delicious, and the entire dozen was gobbled up in less than 10 minutes. : )

For my parents' visit on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, I would have baked an apple pie, but my mom forgot I had offered this and bought one from the grocery store. Since she and Dad had eaten some on T-Day, however, I made some almond cloud cookies to supplement (also courtesy of Joy).

As I ramp up for prime baking season (as if I'm any less active during the rest of the year...haha), I have also been collecting a few things to make lovely presentations of my goodies that hit the road with us. I've got some stamps, some gift tags, some bakery boxes, and some twine. Let's do this!

I'm currently finalizing my battle plan for Christmas baking, so as that develops, I'll come back and check in, especially as I tackle my first pie. OM NOM NOM Pastry dough, I will make you! Until next time, I'll leave you with a few festive images from our decorated house: