I hope I never lose my sense of wonder. If that makes me naive, then so be it.

Friday, 14 December 2012

daring cooks, december

This month's challenge got me out of a rut I'd gotten into with a fall/winter family favourite. I tried two new variations, and liked them both.

Our Daring Cooks’ December 2012 Hostess is Andy of Today’s the Day and Today’s the Day I Cook! Andy is sharing with us a traditional French Canadian classic the Paté Chinois, also known as Shepherd’s pie for many of us, and if one dish says comfort food.. this one is it!

Shepherd's pie (typically leading pun-happy family members to ask, "is it made with real shepherds?"), or cottage pie (apparently the more correct name if it doesn't have lamb as the meat) is one of those easy-to-make, cozy foods that we love. I usually make mine with ground beef, cooked with onion and garlic, and doused with a sauce I call "What Is In My Fridge". It's usually tomato-based, and I often put in some BBQ sauce for some zip. I mix in corn, cover it with mashed potatoes, bake it, and we're set to go. We do like this, but I always make it this way. Time for a change!

I tried two versions this month; one, a provided recipe using lamb and dark ale, and the other, a fancy one with duck.

Take 1: Slow-Cooker Irish Shepherd's Pie
The beginning.
Andy provided this recipe, so I went shopping for lamb (never buy it) and dark ale (never buy that either; I'm not a beer drinker, and this stout did not convert me). I was curious to check out a slow-cooked recipe and was not disappointed. Potatoes were cut in half lengthwise and put in the bottom of the pot, then the mix of lamb, carrot. parsnip. mushroom and onion - and really, with such earthy veggies, it was already feeling pretty comfy - was tossed with flour and herbs and put on top. This went on top of the potatoes, and then the stout was poured over it all.
Lamb and veggies and herbs. Oh my!

Then, oh joy of making supper in the morning!, I turned on the cooker and mostly ignored it for the next eight hours or so. I saw 'mostly' because it smelled amazing and so I kept going to peek at it.

Finally, I fished in the cooker to find all the potatoes, mashed them with butter and milk, and put this back on top of the rest of the mixture before adding frozen peas (nice pop of colour, since they hadn't stewed all day and were still bright green) and  baking it all.
Keg party for my food!

Yum! Hearty and good, and the tastes nicely merged together. The gravy was delicious, though the overall recipe wasn't D's favourite as he's not really a fan of lamb. I would like to try it again, with beef, since really the rest of it was so good and I liked the cooking method. I found it very interesting that the stout I did NOT like to drink tasted wonderful as the liquid in the stew. Good to know!
Slow-Cooked Irish Shepherd's Pie. Made without shepherds.

Take 2: Fancy-Schmancy Shepherd's Pie
Confit - poached in duck fat. Not greasy at all, but delish!
This version, I made up. The start: duck confit. I learned how to make this with a DK challenge almost two years ago (cassoulet), and I had some duck legs in the freezer from the ducks we raised ourselves this summer. That was made a couple days in advance, then the meat chopped up and put into individual ramekins.

Cremini mushrooms were sauteed in butter, then port wine added and reduced before adding a bit of cream. Over the duck this went. Finally, potatoes, made with cream and whipped until awfully smooth. I baked them until the tips of the potatoes got golden brown.

The smaller serving size of the ramekin was good, given how rich it was, but this was a success too. Great tastes, but still comfy with the potato. This version would be fun to have for a dinner party.

Thanks for a great challenge, Andy! It was fun to find some new ways to make an old favourite.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

miscellany: brownies, two ways

My dear home group of friends is wonderful. We talk, share, learn together, pray together, support each other. And they are willing guinea pigs for my food.

Last week I hosted, and tried out brownies, dressed up in two very different ways (the brownies, not me). The base of both was a simple brownie recipe. I made an 8x8 pan with the Williams-Sonoma recipe (divine) and mini-muffins with the Betty Crocker recipe (faster and yummy, but not-quite-so-divine). I have no photos. Bad me! We ate all the evidence.

Brownies are one of those first recipes so many people make, simple but delicious. I like a brownie with a slight crisp on the top before getting into the dense, chewy interior. I also like them in little bites so you can savour the richness without overdoing it. Granted, you could go back for many more little bites and overdo it anyway but THAT'S NOT THE POINT. 

Version 1: make the sweet sweeter. 
To 1/2c butter, melted in a skillet, add 1c brown sugar. Heat this over medium heat until it boils and caramelizes and your kids walk into the kitchen in a sort of trance saying, "mmmm, what IS that?". Then smile and shoo them out because it is VERY VERY HOT. It's a balance, letting the sugar boil just enough to get the caramel taste, but not burning it. So, watch it carefully! Remove this from the heat and whisk in milk or cream (1/4 cup) and sifted confectioner's sugar (ummm, about 1 1/2 cups. This is me we're talking about here, I added it until it tasted right). This further sweetens it, and thickens it a bit too. Let the whole thing cool and it will thicken some more, until you can drizzle (cool a little) or spread it (cool it more) over the brownies. Ta-dah!

Version 2: a bit of contrast.
These take more time or less time, depending on how you look at it. A few days before this, I had made up some crème fraîche. The making takes a number of days, but those days take no effort, relying only on the magic of microorganisms. To 1 cup of whipping cream, add 1 tablespoon of buttermilk. Put a loose lid on and let it sit at room temperature until it gently sours and thickens. Then pop it in the fridge where it will keep for a week. It takes the barest of technique (measure, pour, stir, and don't leave it too long) but a bit of bravery (see the blog from when I first made it). Once it's made, though, it means you can top the brownies in no time. Apparently crème fraîche can also be bought, but I have yet to see it in stores. Perhaps I don't move in high enough circles, grocery-wise. But it really is a snap to make.

The crème fraîche was whipped up with a whisk until it thickened a bit more, then I added sugar to taste (about 1/4c to the whole batch I'd made). This was spread over the pan of brownies, then popped into the fridge. It never quite sets hard, so the topping remains a slightly sweet, tangy, soft and creamy layer, but it also didn't run off the sides when I cut the brownies.

Both versions got good reviews, and it was nice to have something to top basic brownies and offer a bit of contrast. I did feel like I had to warn people about the crème fraîche ones, though, since one expects sweet for a dessert and the tangy flavour would be a bit of a taste shock. I still want to do one version yet, one that somehow mimics the Starbucks whipped-cream-salted-caramel topping they have at this time of year. Yummmm.