In Week Three, I found my stride in the kitchen. After a thirty-recipe, husband-out-of-town, dinner-party-hosting Week Two, this week felt like a cake walk. My body was feeling less sore, my emotions less erratic, my pacing more predictable. This week I really started having fun!
This week also happened to be our daughter Norah’s birthday week, which meant a large family dinner on Wednesday. We served Ina’s Lasagna with Turkey Sausage, Garlic Ciabatta Bread, and Perfect Potato Pancakes which (oh my gosh!) were one of the best things I have ever tasted.
On Tuesday, after beating the Coffee Meringue Buttercream for almost an hour, I assembled the beautiful four-layer Devil’s Food cake from the cover of Cooking for Jeffrey. It was a rainy day, and the store was packed with lunch goers. I decided to slice the cake, hand out free samples, and ask for everyone’s feedback. It was a fantastic impromptu moment! Everyone tasted, commented, tasted again, and engaged in a session of constructive criticism and preferences. I personally didn’t love the cake. Others thought it was fabulous. To see a room full of people unite over cake is a memory worth cherishing.
I am officially done passing judgement on any of Ina’s recipes before I try them. I have been stunned numerous times already by the way simple ingredients, combined in the right proportions, using winning techniques, yield off-the-charts flavor every time. You cannot jude a Barefoot Contessa recipe by the list of ingredients. I have flipped past so many recipes over the years thinking, “I bet that’s not very special” only to realize in the past three weeks how wrong I have been. If nothing else, this project will guide me through a year of preparing and cooking the best food I have ever tasted.
One question I get asked a lot is “Is there anything you haven’t liked so far?” The answer is yes. I can count on one had the recipes that haven’t quite done much for me, and that I probably would not prepare again. These, however, are the rare exception, and probably have more to do with me than the recipe. In the almost 1,000 recipes she has published, I expect not to care for a few here or there. May we all have such high performance percentages were we to offer something creative to the world.
This week, the Decadent (Gluten Free) Chocolate Cake did not do it for me. I used 70% bittersweet chocolate, which may have proved to be too dark for my liking. I could be talked into trying the recipe again with a lower percentage dark chocolate. But the texture was off as well. It was crumbly and dry. I have had delicious flourless cakes in the past, and they tend to be moist and almost fudge-like. This one did not turn out that way for me. In fact, one of my daughters looked at the cake and said, “Aren’t you going to do anything to it to make it look better?” Taste is subjective, results can vary from time to time, and there are bound to be recipes that aren’t my cup of tea. But most of them are proving to be exactly my cup of tea (with seconds, thank you very much), and the more I cook and enjoy this food, the more I am convinced of how talented Ina is, and how grateful I am for her contribution to the culinary world.
WHAT I COOKED
Devil’s Food Cake with Coffee Meringue Buttercream, Cooking for Jeffrey
Parmesan Roasted Asparagus, Family Style
Truffled Filet of Beef Sandwiches, Back to Basics
Roasted Tomato Caprese Salad, Back to Basics
Butternut Squash and Apple Soup, Parties
Honey Vanilla Fromage Blanc, Back to Basics
WHAT I LEARNED
ROASTED TOMATO CAPRESE SALAD. File this under the top ten things I have ever made. The oven-dried tomatoes are to die for. I want everyone I know to taste this! I forced Molly, my tomato-hating coworker, to eat one of the tomatoes, and she loved it. I’m telling you, this dish is incredible. I started with terrible grocery store Roma tomatoes. They were hard, underripe, cheap, and out of season. But this recipe transformed them into little orbs of delight with just a few simple ingredients and time in the oven. To. Die. For.
BUTTERNUT SQUASH AND APPLE SOUP. Healthy food alert! This soup happens to be vegetarian, dairy free, and gluten free. Who knew? The flavor is a perfect combination of sweet and salty, with a bit of heat. Something about it keeps you coming back for just one more bite. I used a food mill to process the soup, which I am learning yields the best texture in situations like this. Sure, you can use an immersion blender (like I have for years) or process it in a blender, but the food mill gives you the perfect chunky-smooth results. I got smart and used pre-cut butternut squash, which in this situation is a smart choice. In other situations (like roasted Butternut Squash), it can be a gamble because some of the cubes cook at different rates. But in a soup, don’t bother cutting your own squash. I highly recommend this soup.
PERFECT POTATO PANCAKES. These are, in fact, perfect. I had never tasted or prepared potato pancakes before making Ina’s, and let me just emphasize that these are worth it. I literally went to bed with a stomach ache because I ate so many. I could not stop. To quote my daughter, they are “like a really elegant Lay’s Sour Cream and Onion potato chip.” Truthfully, while I was prepping the ingredients, I was already gearing up to give them a thumbs down in my review, simply because of the huge pile of dishes required to pull them off as written. The pot to boil the potatoes. The food processor. The food mill. Two large bowls. It’s a lot of dishes. But alas, these are worth every dish. I made the batter, but it in quart containers, washed all the dishes, and then set up my frying station. As I started to scoop them out, I could tell I was going to love them. They are craggy, golden, and crisp on the outside. Yet, perfectly soft and pillowy on the inside. Topped with sour cream and chives…well, you can see why I could not restrain myself. Sadly, a couple of weeks later, I attempted these again, only to discover that you cannot make them early in the day and fry them later. They get watery and utterly fail. I would want you to know that these are worth it, require a ton of dishes, must be made right before you fry them, and again, totally worth it.
LASAGNA WITH TURKEY SAUSAGE. When will I learn? When Ina says to use turkey sausage, you use turkey sausage. I have been making this lasagna for almost ten years, and even crafted the Hurley House lasagna based on this recipe. And yet, from day one, I have assumed that in no way would turkey sausage be the right choice. Come on, Ina. Everyone knows pork sausage is better. Silly, silly me. You know what tastes amazing in this lasagna? Turkey sausage. I can’t even explain why it works, but it works. I would bet my life on this lasagna. It is the best lasagna you can ever make, and it will wow you every time. I always make this ahead and bake it later for dinner. The leftovers are genius. And the secret ingredient is the goat cheese. Don’t skip it. You’ll never know it’s there, but it totally makes the dish have a distinct flavor that keeps you coming back for more.
ORECCHIETTE WITH BROCCOLI RABE AND SAUSAGE. Oh-wreck-ee-eht-teh. Say it with gusto, and you’ll get it right. Speaking of getting it right, this was satisfying and perfect. Warm. Hearty. Easy. I would double the amount of sausage next time, just because I rather liked the sausage and wanted a few more pieces in my bowl. It will easily feed eight to ten adults, and this would be an ideal meal to take a family. In my mind, I can picture delivering it still warm in the pot, with a chunk of good parmesan, a loaf of crusty bread, and a bottle of red wine. What a gift.
AFFOGATO SUNDAES. Do yourself a favor and figure out a way to get this on your to do list ASAP. You’re going to need to whip up a batch of homemade whipped cream, but that’s a good thing because you’ve been wanting to figure out how to do that anyways. Plus, it takes less than three minutes, so no excuses. Then, brew up some espresso (either use a stove top percolator, or buy the instant powder and add boiling water). Have Haggan Daaz Vanilla Ice Cream and a bottle of Kahlua nearby. When the cream is whipped and the espresso is hot, scoop your ice cream into a bowl (or a coffee mug!), top it with the liqueur, the espresso, and a dollop of whipped cream. Throw a few chocolate covered espresso beans on for good measure and sink into the best dessert you’re going to experience for a while. The hot, the cold, the sweet, the bitter, the firm ice cream, the soft whipped cream…it has it all. I wanted to only take one bite (because I was really full from dinner), but I finished the entire thing. I completely agree with Ina’s note in the intro. This would make an incredibly easy yet elegant dessert for a dinner party. I want this on my birthday. I want to serve this to all my girlfriends. I want you to make this so we can talk about how good it is.
Before I sign off, I want to share a kernel of a thought that is emerging, challenging and surprising me as I cook this food and share it with others. Eating the food from these menus continues to bring a kind of restorative emotional experience. At first I thought it was just me, but then other people began verbalizing the same idea. “I was feeling really down before lunch, but something about this meal made me feel better.” “I was having a bad day, and this helped.”
This food is nourishing on a level that goes beyond nutrition. The flavors, the effort, the love…you can taste all of these elements in each dish, and part of that love is transferred to the person eating it. Food isn’t a substitute for emotional health, but when executed with excellence, it sure does foster a sense of care and love among those you share it with. Our staff lunches have become a connection point because we all get to taste this incredible food together and marvel at how stunning it feels to be cared for in a tangible extravagent, yet earthy and stisfying way.
The question I am asking lately is, “Is it possible to receive love and care through a tangible object, such as food, without that object becoming a false god?” I am staring to think the answer is yes, and I want to explore this theme further in the coming weeks. All I know is that every time I sit down with someone to share one of these meals, something happens on a level deeper than the sensory experience of tasting the food. I can’t wait to explore this more as we go forward.
Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on this topic?