Saturday, August 30, 2008

Haggis in A Waffle Cone?

Think I'm kidding? Just head to Harrod's in London and go to the ice cream stand.

Posh Shop Sells Sausage Ices

I can just imagine what the menu board reads like. "Sweet cream ice cream with tender chunks of haggis and a caramel ribbon".

Sorry. I don't think Cthulhu would sell haggis ice cream in his restaurant. Shoggoth Cookie Dough is much more popular.

I think I'd rather have the Lancashire Hot Pot ice cream. Especially is they use this recipe.

It's Time To Get A Smoker

Okay, I'm done trying to defeat the challenge of smoking on a gas grill. Cooked another piece of meat today, this time a 5+ lb beef brisket. I Did pretty much the same thing, with the exception of using apple wood sawdust instead of hickory chips for smoking.

It didn't matter a whole lot - I just couldn't get the grill to sustain the smoke level I want. Even when finding an odd steel grate (for some reason inadvertently delivered by our last moving company) allowed me to lower the plate of sawdust directly over the flames, it still took forever to get smoke. It still tasted awesome, BTW.

The rub was good.

Both the mop and sauce used beer for the majority or part of the liquid. I put more thought into what beer to use than I thought I would. I settled on a Belhaven Scottish Ale that my dad had left with me some weeks ago. It's fairly heavy and malty, and I figured in a recipe looking for smokey, somewhat sweet and caramelly flavors, I figured it was "the go". I had just enough in a 15.9 oz draft can to make the mop, the sauce, and give the cook a mouth full before tossing the can in the recycle bin. It's not as good as a McEwan's, but what is? The sauce was very vinegary (sp?), too much so for my taste. Two tablespoons of light brown sugar made it a much better sauce.

Summer's almost over and I, as a true consumer, will probably find a good smoker on clearance at Home Depot or someplace.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Birthday Weekend Food Adventure, Part Three - The Best Barbecue Evar!

With the kids finally in bed Saturday night, it was time to start prepping to make pulled pork on Sunday. I had been dying to make the stuff for like, a whole week. Srsly.

I'd spent some time online at home and at work looking for recipes, and finally settled on this one. Actually, there was no settling. I read the post, read the recipe, looked at the results and said "Yeah, I'm doing that".

I pretty much followed the recipe as written, except I used pork loin instead of bone-in butt. We had it in the freezer and I couldn't justify buying another big hunk of meat above thawing this one out and using it. Saturday night I made (and applied) the rub, and then made and stored the mop sauce. The pork looked pretty good the next morning.

I found out that my gas grill holds temperature pretty darned well, but I also found out that it's really difficult to get wood chips to smoke on it, even beyond the trouble the author mentioned using hardwood sawdust. The chips mostly just dried out and took forever to start generating smoke, which led me to continually screw with the process. Screwing with the process led to two fires in my wood chip pan. In retrospect, it makes sense - it takes a lot more heat to get smoke out of a relatively thick piece of wood than a flake of sawdust. So much so, that you risk open flame. In the 6.5 hours I probably got 30 minutes to an hour of good "smoke".

Other than that, the whole thing ran rather smoothly, if busy. When I wasn't mopping the pork, putting out fires or checking the temperature, I was making the barbecue sauce, and making homemade coleslaw. As a variation on finishing the recipe, when the loin was done, I cut the twine holding the two halves together, opened it up, and mopped it with barbecue sauce. I let it smoke for another few minutes, then set about cutting and shredding it.

I cut both halves into thick slices before shredding. As I was cutting it up, I tried a bite. WOW. This was going to be amazing. Shredding the pork was hard work. I believe this was because I was using boneless loin with little intramuscular fat, instead of a bone-in piece of meat with a fair amount. So I shredded enough to make everyone a couple of sandwiches and mixed in some barbecue sauce, and left the rest sliced. I had two sandwiches. One shredded, with barbecue and coleslaw, and one sliced, drizzled with extra mop sauce and barbecue, and then topped with coleslaw.

Best. Pork. Evar.

I have another piece of meat, some brisket, in the freezer. I plan to take it out and smoke it this weekend for my son's first birthday party. To solve the wood issue, I had thought about either dropping the $50 on a smoker, or ordering some hardwood sawdust. The smoker would be the easiest way; wood chips are easily bought, and the thing is made for cooking this way. However, though the pork was awesome, I am not satisfied with how I tackled this attempt at smoking on a gas grill. So I went ahead and bought the sawdust. It shipped today. Can't wait.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Birthday Weekend Food Adventure, Part Two - The Long-Ass Road to Lobstah!

So with the cake done, "Happy Birthday" sung, breakfast eaten and gifts given, we decided to embark upon our road trip. Ogunquit is a beautiful little vacation town in southern Maine, close to York. In other words, almost in New Hampshire. Sar and I hadn't been since summer, 2001. The key being, then we only had one child, and we left him with his grandparents. This time we had four, and they were coming with us.

Ha. They weren't exactly thrilled about "an hour or so" drive up the coast to Maine just for lunch, but we told them we'd pack their swimsuits in case we got a chance to hit the beach. This seemed to placate them (at least until 20 minutes into the drive!) so after an hour of packing snacks, changes of clothes, baby support items and getting everyone to go pee, we piled into the car and away we went.

First mistake - believing it would only be "an hour or so" drive to a small resort town in southern Maine on a gorgeous (probably the MOST gorgeous) Saturday in summer. Maybe we were on crack. It was well after noon when we got to York, and pulled out the Garmin and asked it to find us a restaurant.

We chose Barnacle Billy's which, we found out, had a wonderful view of Perkins' Cove. Oh, and there's a lobstah on the sign, we were pretty sure that there'd be lobstah on the inside. Which was good, because I really wanted a lobstah roll. So I ordered one, and a cup of lobstah stew.

The stew was basic - and excellent. Lobstah in a cream base, and the cup was chock-full. You literally tasted the lobstah, the base, and that was it.

I was surprised and happy at how much lobstah was in the cup. When I was done with the lobstah, I had very little broth left. I left it. I was ready for the lobstah roll, which came a few minutes later.

I remember sitting in the lobby at the dental clinic at Naval Air Station Brunswick, waiting for the "Tooth Fairy" (Navy slang for a Dental Technician) to give me my annual checkup, and picking up a magazine about life on the south coast of Maine. There was an article in it about lobstah rolls. I think it was entitled "Lobster Rolls - It's All About the Lobster!". It's main thesis was that there are several ways to make a lobstah roll, but the centerpiece should be the lobstah, not the mayo, or the butter, or whatever.

Duh. Most. Dumbest. Lobstah. Remark. Evar. But it is true, and this lobstah roll held to that standard. It was lightly dressed and seasoned, not buried in mayo. And the lobstah was amazingly sweet. I don't care what anyone says, the sweetest lobstah I have ever had comes from Maine in the summer. Particularly the young, molting ones whose shells are still soft.

I washed it down with two Shipyard Export Ales. I drank a lot of Shipyard when I lived in Maine. Sar washed hers down with rum punch. It was awesome - strong and fruity, and I shoulda' got one of those, too.

The kids ate great, too. Our son enjoyed his cheeseburger, and our daughters split an order of fish and chips. The thing that turns me off about a lot of fish and chips is that it tastes like you're eating a breaded sponge saturated with vegetable oil. This was nothing like that. The fish was firm, tasted clean, and the breading was crisp.

Following our meal, we set out walking around Ogunquit, to find the shops and the beach. We remember the beach was close by.

Second mistake - we, uhhh, mis-remembered. We were miles from the beach. Warm weather, uphill walks, groaning kids and the advancing hour put an end to the foray after about an hour, and we returned to our car and drove home. I was fading pretty hard from being up late making the cake, and a big-ass Dunkin' Donuts iced coffee got me through.

Rough road trip, interesting time with the kids, and awesome lobstah from Maine. One out of three is a rough record, and not perfect for a birthday, but we had better things to return to. Namely, cake and barbecue.

Next Part: The best barbecue EVAR!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Birthday Weekend Food Adventure, Part One

This past weekend was my wife's birthday. Typically in the past, our birthdays had consisted of getting a babysitter and heading out on our own for an evening, but this year I wanted to do something different and get some local friends together for something of an afternoon birthday party. My problem was, I made the decision very late, and as is common with people and their busy schedules, few people were free. No worries. Instead of having a party Saturday we'd just jump in the car and head to Maine for some lobster. I had a brisket and a pork loin I was going to smoke for the party so I'd just do up the pork on Sunday and put the brisket in the freezer for next weekend (our youngest's first birthday). And of course, she still gets a cake. You gotta' have cake.


Here's the thing. My wife makes the best-tasting cake you have ever eaten. Even if you haven't eaten it yet, it is. She is the Michael Phelps of cake. She routinely puts days of planning and work into them, and they taste like it. So I had to make a good show of it, and make her something that at least attempts to duplicate what she does. I decided to make a buttermilk chocolate cake with chocolate filling and caramel macchiato frosting. My wife loves caramel macchiatos, or caramel and coffee drinks in general. The few times we go to Starbucks she orders one, but mostly she just makes them at home.

I've picked up a few "secrets" watching my wife make cakes, not all of which I am at liberty to disclose. There are two that I know I can disclose without getting into trouble:

First, forget nonstick pans. Use properly (lightly) greased and floured aluminum pans. Second, after you grease the pan, line the bottom with a piece of baking parchment. Lightly grease the parchment, and then flour. This all but guarantees the entire "bottom" of the cake will separate from the pan when turned out. In this case I was using 8" round pans.

I started at about 9:30 pm Friday night, first setting out butter to soften for the frosting. While it was softening I went about baking the cake layers, which went off without a hitch. I planned on three layers, but baked four.

With the first two layers baking away and the second batch of batter waiting to go in the oven, I started the frosting. I used this basic buttercream recipe as a base for both the filling and the icing.

By the time all four layers were out of the oven and cooling, the base frosting was done. I believed I had got it right, but as the weekend would show I ended up just slightly on the soft side - I didn't use enough sugar. The recipe calls for two lbs of powdered sugar in all, mixing one in outright and then adding "1/2 cup at a time" until getting the consistency you want. I weighed one half cup of sugar on our kitchen scale at 2.4 oz, so I figured around seven half-cup additions would be right. After seven additions, I had a wonderfully sweet frosting that seemed to be thick enough. Shortly after midnight I divided up the frosting - one third for the chocolate filling, two thirds for the icing.

At this point I entered the "I have no earthly idea what I'm doing" phase. Even though I had a bottom-up chocolate buttercream recipe. I'd just add what I felt I had to to the basic stuff. My first thought was to melt some Ghirardelli semi-sweet chocolate and stir it in, so I did - about two ounces. Got a light brown color, a faint chocolate taste.

I was wary about adding more molten chocolate to a heat-sensitive, butter- and shortening-based mixture, so I then added a tablespoon of unsweetened cocoa powder. Not chocolaty enough. Another tablespoon. Nope. One more. Okay, it's kinda' close enough in taste - not where I want it to be, but it will have to do. But it's too light. It needs to darken.

Then, I was visited by the Good Idea Fairy. "Hey. Your wife has a big box of coloring gel for frosting. You should add some black, or brown or something to darken it. Then it will look and taste like chocolate!" Yeah. You can imagine how that turned out. First just a little dab of black. Stir it in aaaannnnnnnd oh no no no nononono NO. Gray chocolate. Try to counter with a big dab of brown.

Poop. Really. It looks like whipped poop. Food coloring FAIL. Panic. Melt about two more ounces of chocolate and mix it in with another tablespoon of cocoa powder. Fortunately, the frosting holds up to the new heat source, and looks okay afterward. So I guess, from all the above, I can say 4 oz. melted semi-sweet chocolate and 4 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder added to about 1 lb of basic buttercream recipe makes a good chocolate frosting. Looking back, I should have just made a whipped ganache.

The caramel macchiato icing had it's own issues. Try as I might, I could not find any recipes for this. Of course I found caramel frosting, and coffee. But I already had my frosting. So I guess I was winging it. It turned out pretty darned good. I ended up using about 1/4 c Hershey's caramel topping, two or three tablespoons of instant coffee, and a dash of vanilla (BTW, we use Sonoma Syrup Co.'s Nr. 4 Vanilla Extract - it rocks! My wife found it at T. J. Maxx.). Microwaved it for about 15 seconds, blended it, and then mixed it in to the remaining 2 lbs of frosting. It tasted fine - coffee flavor was dominant, with a light caramel accent, just how she likes her drinks. I ended up over-working this batch and had to put it in the fridge to re-set before I used it. That was fine. By now I needed time to tidy up the kitchen some and trim, fill and stack the cake layers.

At about 1:30 am I trimmed the domes off the cake layers and started filling and stacking. No big problems here, and after a few minutes I was ready to start frosting.

The first layer went on pretty easily. Having the right tools (a turntable and a frosting knife) makes a big difference, and I didn't really care if any crumbs of cake pulled off and showed. The second coat was more trouble. The frosting had set well in the fridge, but since coming out it was getting soft again, and as I mentioned above it was just a touch too soft to begin with. So it was not laying down as smoothly as I would have liked, there were some crumbs mixed in and showing, but in the end I got a reasonable second coat. By then it was 2:15 am, and I called it a night.

When the kids woke me up (at the crack of 6:30) I used the remaining chocolate frosting to decorate the top and base of the cake with little "flowery-star-design-thingies" and took some of the leftover caramel macchiato frosting and blended in some burgundy gel to write "Happy Birthday Mumma" and draw a little heart on the cake. FTW!

The cake was a little rough, but still looked good. Even the "whipped poop" looked alright contrasted with the icing. And it tasted awesome. My wife said so.

The hard part is definitely in the decorating, especially in managing consistency, taste and figuring out the right confection for the job. For example, the chocolate buttercream turned out really good; in fact, it tasted sorta' like a whipped ganache. While I now have a good chocolate frosting scratch recipe, I would have had a much easier time just making the ganache. I'll also be sure to achieve the right consistency with the frosting. This is something that you can really only get right by doing.

Next time, I think I'll switch confections, too. I'll fill with caramel macchiato (and make it a bit more intense) and frost with chocolate. But not too soon. I'll need the right special occasion and motivation. It's a lot of work - about seven hours altogether went into it - and, really and truly, my wife is the cake expert.

Next: Long-Ass Road to Lobstah!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

On Vacation

Heading to the beach for a week...won't be posting much before next weekend.