Saturday, December 31, 2011

Wine, Cheese, and Chocolate

This year I welcomed a new sister-in-law into my family-- my brother and Janejai were married in NYC in October!

For Christmas, they sent me a lovely crate of cheeses-- way more than I could eat by myself!

So a wine & cheese night was definitely seemed in order... and chocolate is the perfect accompaniment for that! 

I invited a few friends over one dark, cold winter night to indulge themselves in fancy cheeses and other delectables including pate, olives, fruit, and a flourless chocolate cake.

I set out a smorgasbord of gluten-free crackers to go with the cheeses... 

and we had fun creating our own descriptions of the cheese... which we thought we better than the descriptions that came with them.  Who wouldn't want to eat a cheese that makes you feel like you're rolling around naked in mousse (Delice des Cremiers), mud oozing between your toes (Chabichou), diving into mashed potatoes wearing a yellow polka dot bikini (Basqu d'Argental), or walking into a cow barn with fresh milk running down your body (Blue d'Auvergne)...

To add a little sweetness to the evening, I whipped up my standby flourless chocolate cake to serve with the spread.  I love this recipe since it's only 5 ingredients that are easy to keep on hand, quick to make, and always a crowd-pleaser.  And gluten-free.

Flourless Chocolate Cake


4 ounces fine-quality chocolate (not unsweetened)-- I usually us 2/3 cups of Ghirardelli chocolate chips

1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter

3/4 cups sugar

3 large eggs

1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

In a double boiler on the stove, melt the butter and chocolate.

Remove from the heat and add the sugar, eggs, and cocoa powder.  Pour and spread evenly into a an 8-inch round pan lined with parchment paper (this makes it easy to remove after it comes out of the oven; alternatively, you can grease the pan and dust with cocoa power, but really-- the parchment paper is the way to go...).

Bake at 375°F for 25 minutes (I always test to see if a toothpick comes out clean).

It's an easy cake to decorate by sprinkling some powdered sugar over it, but I like to use a bit of butter cream frosting to doodle on top... 

But there's also all sorts of fun ways to decorate this cake for any occasion...

Saturday, December 24, 2011

White (Christmas) Russians

Sometime around August, I declared this would be the Winter of the White Russians, and I've been indulging in the rich dessert-like drink since.  But now it's Christmas and I'm on an eggnog kick, so I decided to try and combine the two... and hence idea of the White Christmas Russians.

And here we are on Christmas Eve... this morning when I woke up, my first thought was "Geez, my nose is kinda cold."  Climbing out from under my big down comforter, I thought my cabin seemed even colder than usual.  My cabin is not really that well insulated considering its location in Alaska and at the 64 parallel, so I usually keep my Toyo stove set about 58-60 degrees... otherwise I feel like I'm heating my whole property with heat that radiates out from my hot roof and big windows.

Indeed, checking my thermometer I saw that it was 40 degrees in my cabin (and -10 degrees outside), and the Toyo displayed the EE2 warning message.  I had let my fuel oil tank run dry on Christmas Eve-- and a Saturday too!  Knowing I would not be able to get fuel delivered until Monday at the soonest, I built a fire in the wood stove and started Plan B-- going out to get a few gallons of #1 diesel to get me through the weekend.  The last time this happened was a few years ago-- it was also a holiday weekend: my birthday weekend-- and I was able to borrow some fuel jugs from my friends Kelly & Johnny and put some fuel in my tank myself.

Before I could even head out to Kelly and Johnny's (and through the magic of Facebook), I got a phone call from my friends Darce and Shawn offering to bring me some fuel.  When they showed up, they had a Christmas present for me along with the fuel!  Beautiful hand-knit fingerless gloves.  Fairbanks is an amazing place where people take care of each other-- especially in the winter.  I have some of the most generous, helpful friends here who are always willing to go out of their way to help me out with whatever situation I seem to get myself into.

So, once the fuel was in the fuel tank and the Toyo was back up and running, I mixed up a batch of White Christmas Russians.

White Christmas Russians
2 oz vodka
1 oz coffee liqueur (e.g. Kahlua)
half and half

Mix the vodka and coffee liqueur in a martini shaker.

Pour over ice in your finest glasses or tumblers...

And a big splash of both the eggnog and half and half...

And serve to friends sitting around the woodstove.

Alternatively, stick the mixture outside in the snow and let it freeze solid.

And it's kinda like ice cream!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A midwinter Midwestern feast (while basking in the warmth of Southern California)

Heading down to California for a conference at the beginning of December, I tacked on a weekend beforehand to swing through to Santa Monica to meet up with my cousin Aaron, his wife Julie, their son Clark (soon to be 3 years old), and their new born twins Laila and Vaughn (3 months). 

Due to the young brood, we weren't very mobile, so we decided to cook up a Saturday night feast.  Cooking a meal together was an ideal way to spend the evening, and the kitchen feels like a natural place to spend time with Aaron and Julie.  Many of our conversations tend to revolve around food, and over the years I've introduced them to some of unique tastes from Alaska-- birch syrup, wild Alaskan blueberry jam, and wine and mead produced in Alaska.  The first time I met Julie in person and was then able to hang out exclusively with her was about 4 years ago when they were living in San Francisco.  It was a Elliott cousins reunion where those cousins that could met up tin SF for a few days.  I stayed a day longer than the others and was crashing on Aaron & Julie's couch.  The moment that really bonded as family was while Julie & I made tin foil liners for the burners on their stove.

Reaching back to our Midwest heritage and keeping in mind my gluten-free dietary requirements, we planned a meal of steaks, mashed potatoes, grilled zucchini, and Aaron's special garlic broccoli.  I also made a batch of fudgie wudies for dessert.

Aaron picked up some lovely NY strip steaks at the local market.   He coated them with coarse rock salt so they sparkled like diamonds plus added a bit of fresh ground pepper... and then onto the grill they went!

Also on the grill were the zucchini-- sliced into medallions and tossed in olive oil.  It had already gotten dark out by the time we were ready to grill, but I always pack a headlamp in my suitcase when traveling because it inevitably becomes useful-- for such occasions as grilling in the dark.

Once the steaks were done and resting, the potatoes needed mashing... just a little bit of milk, butter, and fresh ground pepper.

The last component of the meal to create was:

Aaron's special garlic broccoli

chopped broccoli
lots of garlic
olive oil
pinch of salt

Mince the garlic.  Aaron demonstrated his garlic peeling technique which involves shaking loose cloves of garlic in two bowls of the same size (with one bowl inverted and place as a lid over the other bowl).

And... VoilĂ !

Heat the olive oil until it's quite hot and add a bit of salt and the minced garlic.  Let cook for a minute or so and then add chopped broccoli.

Continue cooking until the garlic is crunchy.

Aaron, a sommelier who has served as the Wine Director at a number of top notch restaurants, selected a special bottle of wine from one of the wineries he now represents to pair with the meal.  I don't know a whole lot about wine, but I do know that this was fantastic bottle of wine...

With three small children amongst us needing attention, dinner was eaten in shifts and at the kiddie table...

One of the first questions I was welcomed with when Aaron picked me up from LAX was "Did you bring us fudgie wudgies?"  To his credit, Aaron did not leave me at the airport when I informed him that I had no fudgie wudgies with me, so I did feel compelled to whip up a batch for dessert.

Fudgie Wudgies

2/3 part wudge
1/3 part fudge
Vanilla Hagen Daz (to garnish)

***Always use only top quality wudge and fudge.  When possible, have an external quality control agent.***

Spread half of the wudge in the bottom of a baking pan.  Layer the fudge over it, and then top with the remaining wudge.

Bake in the oven until done.  When cool enough to cut into bars, serve to loved ones with a little Vanilla Hagen Daz.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thanksgiving Bourbon Pumpkin Cheesecake with Cajeta

Thanksgiving is probably my favorite holiday of the whole year—being given time off from work to spend time with friends and family, enjoy an amazing feast, and not have to deal with the commercialization of the holiday and expectations of gift-giving (besides for Tom Turkey who always left us a gift of a book at the dinner table so that we had something to read on our days off from school).

This year I headed over to my neighbors Bridget & Adam’s for Thanksgiving and was pleasantly surprised that, because Fairbanks is one of the towns where social circles loop back on themselves, I also got to shared the holiday with my friends Shannon and Colleen who I’ve know since my JV year when I first moved in Fairbanks in 1998.  I also meet some new folks as well.  The interesting thing is that the first pumpkin cheesecake I had was two years ago at Shannon and Colleen's house around Christmas time-- this had inspired me to make a pumpkin cheesecake last year for Thanksgiving.  As I was making the cheesecake, my friend Tom, an ex-pat living in Italy at the time and therefore hours ahead of me into the Thanksgiving holiday, posted about the bourbon pumpkin cheesecake he had made.  Feel like my plain, old pumpkin cheesecake was not longer adequate, I asked him for his recipe. While last year's pumpkin cheesecake was a hit, this year I decided to step it up a notch and use Tom's recipe.

The only alternation I had to make was use gluten-free gingersnaps for the crust.  Luckily gluten-free gingersnaps are easy to find in Fairbanks.

Another option would be to leave out the gingersnaps all together and make just a pecan crust.

The main difference I found in this recipe is that it took a lot longer to cook than indicated-- my cheesecake was in the oven an extra 35 minutes or so.  Another note on baking this cheesecake, make sure to put a cookie sheet under the springform pan since the butter in the crust will melt out and drip down, creating a smokey mess as it burn on the oven's heating element (and could cause a grease fire!)

Tom’s Bourbon Pumpkin Cheesecake

For crust

1 cup gingersnaps
1/2 cup pecans (1 3/4 ounces), finely chopped
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter, melted and cooled (as necessary --I often need more for it to come together)

For filling
1 1/2 cups canned solid-pack pumpkin
3 large eggs
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
2 tablespoons heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon bourbon
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, at room temperature

For topping

2 cups sour cream (20 ounces)
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon bourbon liqueur or bourbon (optional)
Garnish: pecan halves


Make crust:
Invert bottom of a 9-inch springform pan (to create flat bottom, which will make it easier to remove cake from pan), then lock on side and butter pan.

Stir together crumbs, pecans, sugars, and butter in a bowl until combined well. Press crumb mixture evenly onto bottom and 1/2 inch up side of pan, then chill crust, 1 hour.

Make filling and bake cheesecake:

Put oven rack in middle position and Preheat oven to 350°F.

Whisk together pumpkin, eggs, brown sugar, cream, vanilla, and bourbon in a bowl until combined.

Stir together granulated sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and salt in large bowl. Add cream cheese and beat with an electric mixer at high speed until creamy and smooth, about 3 minutes. Reduce speed to medium, then add pumpkin mixture and beat until smooth.

Pour filling into crust, smoothing top, then put springform pan in a shallow baking pan (in case springform leaks--it will). Bake until center is just set, 50 to 60 minutes. Transfer to rack and cool 5 minutes. (Leave oven on.)

Make topping:
Whisk together sour cream, sugar, and liqueur (if using) in a bowl, then spread on top of cheesecake and bake 5 minutes.

Cool cheesecake completely in pan on rack, about 3 hours.

Chill, covered, until cold, at least 4 hours. Remove side of pan and bring to room temperature before serving.

In order to make this a Thanksgiving cheesecake, I wanted to decorate it with a turkey.  I've tried decorating a cheesecake before with frosting, but the thin layer of moisture on top makes the frost go all wonky, so I thought I'd try cajeta instead.  This summer when I was down in Homer staying with my friend Sarah, she taught me how easy it is to make as long as you can patiently stir  it for an hour so it doesn't burn.

Cajeta: goat milk caramel

2 L goat milk
2 C sugar
vanilla bean (or tsp of Mexican vanilla)
1/2 tsp baking soda

Mix the milk and sugar in a pan on the stove over medium heat.  Stir until simmer, but be careful not to burn the milk. When it begins bubbling, take it off heat and add the baking soda.  When it stops bubbling, return to heat and  adjusting the temperature to keep it at just a simmer.  Keep stirring for about an hour or little more.  When sauce reaches golden brown and it forms a soft ball when dropped in cold water, remove it from the heat.  If using vanilla bean then cut open and scrape seeds and stir into sauce or add the Mexican vanilla extract.  Add a dash of cinnamon.  Pour into a glass jar and store in the refrigerate after it has cooled.    

Drawing the turkey with the cajeta and then embellishing with pecans and chocolate covered sunflower seeds worked alright for the turkey, but if I was going to do it again, I would add the turkey just before serving since he ended up looking a little warped after sitting in the refrigerator for a number of hours.  But it tasted pretty darn good in the end which was really the most important thing.   

Getting started…

I love food.  I love to cook. I love to bake.  Beyond the sheer corporeal enjoyment of eating good food, there’s the creative process of concocting a dish and attending to the aesthetic details of it. Baking is therapeutic.  Sophomore year of college I took organic chemistry which was a notorious class amongst the biology majors.  Studying for the exams usually just stressed me out and left me more confused on all the different rules and hierarchies that determined which chemical reactions will take place, so my ritual the night before all the exams was to look over my notes and then bake a batch of oatmeal cookies.  Somehow I managed to pull a B- both semesters.
I also love how food is such a social focal point—when I have parties, people always congregate around the food—and how sharing food can create intimacy.  Some of the best nights with friends include gathering around a kitchen and preparing a meal.  I’ve had friends from different parts of the world who have shared their culture with me by teaching me how to make certain dishes.  Food makes great gifts—a homemade cake to celebrate a friend’s birthday… or as a thank you… or just to break up the monotony of the week…
A little over two years I discovered that gluten, a protein present in wheat, barely, and rye, was the source of the increasing achiness in my hands.  When I indulge in bread or glutenous goodies, I feel it in my joints—especially during the colder month (which there are quite a few here in Fairbanks).  And so I had to change what I could eat, what I could cook, and what I could bake.  Initially I thought I would elaborately alter the way that I cooked, but quickly realized that it was much more feasible to make easy changes and to focus on recipes that were naturally gluten-free or could have gluten-free ingredients swapped in.  While I love that scene from ‘Stranger than Fiction’ when Will Ferrell’s character presents Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character with a box of different types of flours (instead of flowers), I don’t have the pantry space to keep an extensive library of flours and odd ingredients.
With the increasing awareness of gluten and some people’s sensitivity to it, I get lots of requests from friends for gluten-free recipes.  I’m also fortunate to have recipes shared with me.  So, I’ve decided to start this blog as an easy way to share recipes and inspire myself to test out new ones.