Desserts From My Spring Dinner

I know, I know, you guys could all take or leave the dinner. What you really want to hear about are the desserts. I don't blame you. Everyone knows that's the best part of the meal!

Before my family came up to visit, I emailed my mom and sent my sister a Facebook message asking them their favorite kind of cake and their favorite flavor of ice cream. My mom emailed me a ton of great ideas while my sister wrote back: "Mint chip, chocolate cake, confetti frosting ( the Betty crocker kind :) )." Turns out she meant rainbow chip rather than confetti, and she had to know I would only go grab a canister of frosting as a last resort. Lucky for me, King Arthur Flour sells rainbow chips! (Although I can't find them on the site anymore...)

At first I considered stirring them into the frosting and trying to trick her, but then I let that go and decided to just adorn the tops of the cupcakes with the rainbow chips. I thought they would look nicer that way.

And though she requested mint chip and I had already looked up a few recipes for it, I remembered that she also loves hazelnut gelato and decided to make that instead when I saw David Lebovitz's gianduja straciatella gelato (which basically means hazelnut ice cream with streaks of chocolate) in The Perfect Scoop.

So the girl got Thomas Keller's chocolate cupcakes with chocolate and vanilla frosting and chocolate flakes and rainbow chips and David Lebovitz's gianduja straciatella gelato. So not spoiled!

And don't think I forgot about my mom. I read through her list of ideas and decided to make coffee ice cream with chocolate coffee chunks and a New York-style crumb coffee cake. In my family, we're pretty much in agreement that there should be more crumb than cake. I saw a recipe in a recent issue of Bon Appetit that sounded good to me, but I checked a few other sources just in case. I had just purchased Baking Illustrated, and since Cook's Illustrated rarely steers me wrong, I thought I might find a good crumb coffee cake recipe in there. I glanced through the headnote, and as soon as I read "achingly sweet crumb topping -- and too much of it," I closed the book. This would be one of those rare times I could not trust Cook's Illustrated. The rest of the world knows there's no such thing as too much crumb topping, right?

So I went with the Bon Appetit recipe, which you can find here. Unfortunately, I somehow did not really get any pictures of the cake, but I will tell you that it baked up incredibly moist with an appropriate crumb-to-cake ratio. I'm even thinking of making an extra batch of crumb next time and putting some in the middle of the cake too. It was that good.

And the coffee ice cream was just amazing. We're talking about a coffee ice cream that actually tastes like real coffee -- you steep coffee beans in milk and cream and use the coffee-flavored mixture for the ice cream. We all really enjoyed it, and I found some delicious chocolate coffee chunks on the King Arthur Flour Web site that were the perfect mix-in.

I also made some whipped cream and hot fudge, set out strawberries (which my dad explained I could hull with the end of a peeler for minimal waste -- I left that job to him!), pineapple, bananas, sprinkles, and nuts, so everyone could make sundaes if they wanted or just mix and match cake, fruit, and ice cream.

The best compliment I received that day was from my little brother. He tasted some of the ice cream, and then asked, "Megan, did you make this?" I said yes and waited for a not-so-nice comment, which I'm used to getting from him, since he's in a my-oldest-sister-is-so-not-cool phase.

The whole room went dead silent with shock when he said, "Good job." That's how you know how good the ice cream was.

We ended the day with my favorite game: Apples to Apples.

I'm going to try to get those ice cream recipes up soon. I'm so behind on posts! I guess that's what working 72 hours a week will do to you! But the way I think of it is that while there may not always be time to post, no matter how much you work or how busy you are, there's always time to cook and bake -- especially for the people you love. So even when you don't hear from me, don't think there's not a ton of cooking and baking going on here!

If someone offered to make them for you, what would be your ideal birthday cake and favorite ice cream flavor?


Spring Dinner

This post is long overdue. I've gotten so caught up with work that I haven't had a chance to tell you about my Easter dinner yet. And Easter feels like forever ago, doesn't it?

Since I work on Sundays and couldn't go home to celebrate Easter, my mom, my dad, one of my brothers, and one of my sisters and her boyfriend came up to visit me and Jeff a few weekends ago, and I made an Easter dinner for them. I also made a bunch of sweet treats to celebrate my mom's and my sister's birthdays.

I wanted to incorporate traditional Easter foods as well as spring foods into the meal. The main course had to be ham or lamb, sticking with the Easter theme. I ultimately went with lamb because my siblings wouldn't eat either meat, and Jeff doesn't like ham. (My mom came to the rescue by bringing grilled chicken and peppers for the kids. Can you believe I'm still calling my little sister, who just turned 18 last week, a kid?)

After weeks of flipping through magazines and cookbooks (yes, weeks... I'm a planner), I finally streamlined my menu to herb-crusted lamb with honey mustard glaze (Ad Hoc at Home, Thomas Keller), a potato roesti (Entertaining from Cook's Illustrated, Spring 2009), and steamed asparagus.

Because I'm not good at simple when it comes to entertaining, I started us off with a platter of steamed artichokes, colored peppers, celery sticks, baby carrots, tomatoes, provolone, chicken, and pepperoni, along with different salad dressings, roasted red pepper hummus, and bread.

I thought it would be nice to have something waiting for them when they walked in after the two-and-half hour car ride (and a brief hiatus at the "Natick Collection," which is really just an upscale mall).

For another starter, I made an asparagus tart. I got the idea from Gaby over at What's Gaby Cooking. All I did was brush olive oil on a sheet pan, lay a piece of thawed puff pastry on the pan, brush the puff pastry with olive oil, sprinkle some parm and gruyere over it, lay stalks of asparagus on top, season with salt and pepper, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle more parm and Gruyere on top. I didn't even measure anything, which is pretty miraculous for by-the-book me. Then I popped the tart in the oven at 350 until the asparagus was tender and the pastry was deep golden brown and puffy. The tart was a huge hit. (And the leftovers weren't bad rewarmed in the toaster oven.) It was so flaky and buttery, and the two cheeses complemented each other really well.

Appetizers out of the way, we all relaxed, hung out, and caught up a bit. We alternated between watching my little brother (you can just see the back of his head in the picture below -- he's in that phase where he won't let anyone take a decent picture of him) and my sister's boyfriend play Wii and listening to Pandora radio on the TV.

Do you use Pandora? I never have before, but just the other day, Jeff showed me that we could get it on our TV, so I set up the Maroon 5 channel and was completely happy listening to Maroon 5 and Pandora-selected similar artists (like The Fray, Train, Jason Mraz, and Colbie Caillat) while I cooked and prepped away in the morning before my family arrived. It's definitely something I think I'll be using a lot while I'm cooking. I'm not really big on having constant TV background noise, but I love listening to music.

My sister and I kept putting in our votes for the Lady Gaga station, but we got vetoed. My dad made a shoutout for Audioslave, and since Jeff likes them too, we listened to the Audioslave channel until my mother shot that one down, and we moved on to The Beatles channel and the Simon and Garfunkel channel. It really was quite entertaining. I'm guessing I'm a little late to the game and you all probably already use Pandora on a regular basis, but I just had to share my excitement about it.

So after all of that, we had a chance to regain our appetites, and my mom and dad helped me get dinner under way. I got a lesson in checking lamb by just feeling it and making hollandaise from my dad.

And then my mom and I worked on the potato roesti. We devised a foolproof method of sliding it out of the pan and flipping it by using two sheet pans. I was so sure the huge potato pancake would break (it's bound only with cornstarch, no eggs or anything), but we somehow got it to stay intact.

My family loved the potato latkes I made when I was home for Christmas, so I thought I'd try making the potato roesti because it's basically the same concept, but it didn't require me to stand at the stove frying up individual latkes five at a time.

We all decided the roesti was a little plain compared to the latkes, but we all still ate every last bit of it. Next time I'm going to try grating onions (the same size and shape as the potato shreds), sauteing them, and mixing them in with the grated potatoes. And maybe I'll toss some scallions on top just to perk up its appearance a little.

The lamb was a little overdone in spite of my meat-checking lesson. I think there was just way too much going on to keep track of it, but I really loved the flavor of the meat with the honey mustard glaze. I've often dipped lamb chops in mustard and then in bread crumbs, but I'd never used honey before. The breading that went over the honey mustard glaze consisted of homemade bread crumbs, garlic confit cloves (which I made by warming garlic in oil on the stove for 40 minutes), and butter. I definitely recommend the recipe. I've been making so many recipes from Ad Hoc at Home lately. I'm really shocked at how approachable the cookbook is.

I served the steamed asparagus with the freshly made hollandaise on the side. I don't know about you, but I love hollandaise. I'd never made it at home though because it always seemed really daunting to me. After making it with my dad and seeing that it's merely some whisking, and drizzling, and more whisking, and seasoning, I think I'm going to give it a shot.

To be continued... desserts coming soon!

What do you do with family when you all get together? What sorts of games do you play, or how do you entertain each other?

Do you use Pandora?


Spinach Salad With Honey Vinaigrette

We all get comfort food cravings, but how many of you get healthy food cravings? Every so often -- especially after filling up on lots of wine and cheese or decadent desserts -- I really just want a nice salad or some fruit.

Last night, Jeff went to the Bruins game (they won in double overtime!), which meant I could make whatever I wanted for dinner and not have to take his likes and dislikes into account. There's nothing wrong with being selfish sometimes! So after I dropped him off at the T, I headed to Whole Foods.

I usually go grocery shopping with a very specific list, but all I had written down were the almonds and chocolate I needed for some cookies I wanted to bake (I can't be entirely healthy), half and half for Jeff's coffee (I use Silk and still had plenty), and the very general "fruits and veggies."

I loaded up my cart as I weaved my way through the produce department. I ended up getting three packages of Olivia's Organics' salads. I wanted to try the herb salad because I had read about it on someone else's blog (unfortunately, I can't remember whose), but I also knew I wanted to make some sort of strawberry spinach salad, so I got the baby spinach too. And then I knew that Jeff wouldn't eat any of those for tonight's dinner (I made us big salads with chicken), so I got the baby romaine for him.

I grabbed a bunch of fruits and veggies for my "selfish" salad and for tonight's dinner, and then I got a mini baguette, and a few other things and headed home to get working on what I hoped would be an interesting and flavorful salad that would satisfy all of my cravings.

I absolutely loved the final product, and I hope you will too! I decided to dress the salad with a honey vinaigrette because I thought it would pair really well with all of the fruit. It's really a lovely combination. If you're short on time, you can skip the roasted beets, but I think they really work well with the other components of the salad and add a nice splash of color too.

Spinach Salad With Honey Vinaigrette


A couple handfuls of baby spinach
1 1/2 roasted golden beets, chopped (see recipe below)
1 Cara Cara orange, segmented
5 strawberries, hulled and sliced
10 raspberries, halved
1 tablespoon toasted sliced almonds
Shavings of your favorite cheese (I used Robusto -- a Gouda)
Honey vinaigrette (see recipe below)


Place baby spinach on a dinner plate.

Top with roasted beets and orange segments.

Arrange strawberry slices on top of oranges and beets.

Sprinkle on raspberry halves.

Toss toasted almonds over the salad.

Decorate with cheese shavings.

Drizzle with dressing.

Dig in!

I can't even describe all the flavors in here. There's sweetness, tartness, acidity, fruitiness, earthiness, nuttiness... I just love it. And I love that I put it together myself by finding fresh ingredients and incorporating some of my favorite foods and flavors.

Roasted Beets

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Trim ends of three similar-sized golden beets, and scrub them well. Place beets on a piece of foil, drizzle them with canola oil, and sprinkle them with salt and pepper. Close up the foil to encase the beets and place the package on a sheet pan. Roast for 30 to 45 minutes or until beets are tender. (Test by sticking a fork or knife into them.) Carefully open the foil package, and set beets aside to cool. Once they are cool enough to touch, peel the skin off and chop them. (Helpful hint: Thomas Keller recommends using a paper towel to peel the skin off the beets in Ad Hoc at Home, and it works like a charm!)

Use 1 1/2 beets for the salad, and save the rest to make a salad for lunch the next day.

Honey Vinaigrette (adapted from Ad Hoc at Home)

Combine 1/2 cup canola oil and 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil in a measuring cup. Pour 1/3 cup champagne vinegar and 3 tablespoons of honey into food processor bowl. Start food processor, and slowly add combined oils while processor is running. (Dressing can be stored in refrigerator for up to 1 month.)

What would you put in your "selfish" salad? Remember, you don't have to think about anyone else, just what you like and crave!


Wine, Cheese, And Chocolate

Last night, I finally went to a restaurant that has been on my must-go list since I first heard of it when I moved up to Boston almost four years ago. It's in a different location now than it was then, but L'Espalier still has the same reputation, which I know to be amazing food and amazing service. And that is just what I encountered last night.

I went there with two of my best friends for an event called Cheese Tuesday, which I heard about over on Fun and Fearless in Beantown. (If you haven't read this blog, go check it out. It's incredibly well-written, entertaining, and so informative about everything food and Boston!) After reading a review of Cheese Tuesday there, I hopped over to L'Espalier's Web site to see when the next one was being held. Once I found out that it was on April 20 and the theme was cheese and chocolate, I emailed my friends to see if they would go. They sent enthusiastic replies almost immediately, and I called and made our reservation soon after.

We met up on Boylston Street last night and all walked into the restaurant lobby together. There we were greeted, checked in, and ushered into a waiting elevator. When we got up to the third floor, we were greeted again and shown to our table. We were seated right by a window (which made me very excited because I knew I'd be able to take some pictures in natural light before the sun went down) and also right by a keyboard piano. As soon as I saw the piano, I remembered that there might be some sort of cheese singalong. And sure enough, when I flipped over the menu on top of my place setting, I found "cheesy" lyrics. That got us all giggly and excited before the wine was even poured.

A waitress soon came around with a basket of bread selections, and to our delight, she passed by three times with those breads. We were all able to try -- through sharing and the three passings -- all of the breads: a pretzel roll, what we think was called a milk roll (which looked like brioche to me), fig bread, and focaccia. The pretzel roll won all of our hearts and stomachs, but all of the breads were delicious, and we agreed we'd return just to have them again.

And this is going to sound strange, but I truly enjoyed the butter too. I don't know whether it was just really good butter or whether the way it was piped and served to us made it taste so good.

With a little substance in us now from the breads, the wine pouring started. Our first glass was a Riesling from Germany (2008 Leitz, "Rudesheimer Klosterlay," Riesling, Kabinett, Rheingau). It was light and sweet, and I immediately thought that Jeff would really have enjoyed it if he had been there. It paired so well with the endive and almond salad that came after we'd had a chance to take a few sips of wine and listen to the sommelier (or as the menu titled him, cork dork) explain the wine. We learned that German Rieslings tend to have a lower alcohol percentage, so it was a great wine to start the evening with.

I loved the salad, and we joked that it was a nice palate opener because it was so light and crisp and had all these spring flavors. A little Boucheron, a cheese we found similar to goat cheese and brie, was sprinkled on top, and the only thing we could find wrong with it was that there wasn't enough of it!

The next glass was also a white (2007 Tour Des Gendres, Bergerac Sec, Bordeaux). It made us think of pears. One of my friends found it a little grassy. I just thought it had that really strong grape flavor to it, and I realized why I liked it when the "cork dork" compared it to Sauvignon Blanc, one of my favorites. This wine was paired with Scottish salmon crepes with squash nage and shaved fennel. I wasn't sure what nage meant at the time, but after looking it up, I'm getting a sense that it means something like a broth. Whatever it is, it was delicious, and I truly enjoyed this course.

The third wine was a red that we all favored (2008 Domaine Magellan, "Le Fruit Defendu," Vin De Pays Des Cotes De Thongue). We might be a group more partial to reds. The cork dork explained that the wine was called a Cotes De Thongue because several regions influenced it. He gave us as an example that if something had been produced in Back Bay but used resources around Back Bay, that it couldn't be called Back Bay but would have to be called Suffolk County. A part of me wishes that we paid more attention to the wine descriptions or that I was taking notes so I could tell you more, but we were there not only to learn about wines but to share a delicious dinner and catch up with each other, and once we had enough wine, we were just more interested in the catching up and the eating. I'm sure you understand.

Two of us had the roasted leg of lamb with crushed rutabaga and basil-mint pesto, but one of my friends doesn't eat red meat, and the chef was nice enough to prepare her some halibut instead.

The lamb was amazing and absolutely perfectly cooked. And along with the rutabaga, we also think there was turnip and sweet potatoes. I'm almost thinking the mashed vegetable was turnip rather than rutabaga because it didn't have that strong cabbage-like taste I notice in rutabaga.

The final course brought along our least favorite drink -- Port -- but our most favorite foods -- cheese and chocolate. The Port (Smith Woodhouse, 10-Year Tawny, Port) was just a bit too strong for my tastes. The cheese and chocolate came out on rectangular plates and were paired together based on L'Espalier's cheese guy's and a representative from Hotel Chocolat's expertise and recommendations.

The first pairing was a milk chocolate (42%) and Gouda. The second was a 72% dark chocolate with chilli and pink peppercorns and La Tur (described as a Robbiola). The third was 82% dark chocolate with Comte, which I learned is pretty much just another name for Gruyere, and I will now be on the lookout for it. The fourth was 100% dark chocolate (note that 100% chocolate is unsweetened chocolate) with Bleu d'Auvergne, a very strong bleu. The last pairing, which, given my dislike for white chocolate (ahem -- it's not chocolate), I did not think belonged on the plate, was white chocolate with Tarentaise.

Most of the chocolates were from Hotel Chocolat's plantation in St. Lucia, which made us all smile because that's where my friend just got engaged back in February.

My favorite was actually the second pairing. It's a shocking pairing even just the chocolate and the pink peppercorns, but the cheese sort of mellows it out and draws all the flavors together.

My least favorites were the last two. I was able to eat the unsweetened chocolate by pairing it with the white chocolate (which is always too sweet). The bleu was too strong and the last cheese had a strange, chewy texture. I would definitely have any of the cheeses and chocolates from the first three pairings again.

The four-course dinner moved at a nice pace, and we never felt rushed when our next glass was poured or our next course arrived. Our previous glasses and plates were always whisked away without us really noticing and nothing managed to pile up or clutter our table. I was happy with how L'Espalier accommodated my friend who doesn't eat red meat. I only wish that when the cork dork ran out of Port while filling my friend's glass, he had returned to top it off.

The cheese singalong was a lot of fun. Here's just a couple of lines to give you an idea: "I love chocolate, I love cheese/ I love to eat 'em any time that I please." It was sung to the tune of "Java Jive." I'm still not sure if I know that song, but we had fun trying to keep up and pretending we knew the tune.

Oh, and before we got our check, we got a little surprise that wasn't listed on the menu: passion fruit gelee candies and black sesame seed truffles. We all loved the top of the passion fruit gelees but thought the bottom had a strange texture. And the black sesame seed truffles were incredibly interesting, chewy, and indulgent. The whole evening was indulgent, I guess!

We even got almond macarons on the way out the door. I haven't tasted mine yet, but based on the rest of my experience at L'Espalier, I can't imagine being disappointed. We also got a coupon for a discount at Hotel Chocolat. It's a nice gesture, but there was only one at each table, and it would have been nice if there was one per person.

I'm already trying to rope my friends into going back in May for Springtime in Paris. We'd all love to go, but the event is a bit pricey, so we'll be taking that into account. It still probably won't stop me though because while it's expensive, it's a really good price for all that you get.

Favorite wine? Favorite cheese? Favorite chocolate?

Have you ever been to a wine and cheese pairing? A chocolate and cheese pairing?

Have you been to L'Espalier?