Monday, May 23, 2011

WTF dessert?!?!

I'm calling this one WTF dessert, because that's what I would have said if you tried to get me to eat it. I imagine that's what about half of you will say when you get down to the part where I tell you what it is.

So how did this mystery dessert come about? One of my coworkers, Anthea Watson, just left NOI to go run a very cool shop on the re-elect. For those who aren't organizers, there is a veritable sea of online interfaces that field organizers have to use. There's VAN (the voter file, used for voter contact and volunteer management), there's (which I'm told is no longer called MyBo? Anyway, it's used for setting up online events and profiles around campaign activity), there's National Field (reporting software where organizers submit their nightly numbers and tidbits from the day). God only knows what else. And for each of these, organizers have a unique login, a different place they have to go, and a growing headache. So Anthea is in charge of a team that will be working to streamline all the different platforms that organizers of all sorts will be using, to save time, hassle, and make shit more efficient.

It seems like a monster job, and it is, but compared to what Anthea got done here in the last 18 months or so, I'm not sure it really stacks up. Anthea was the project manager on the Voting Information Project, a ridiculously bold effort to create a free, accurate, 50 state polling place lookup tool. Such a thing has never existed. One vendor has a database (which is not so accurate from what I hear), and charges huge sums for polling place information. Organizations spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars either buying from that vendor or sourcing the info themselves.

And the reason this is such a challenge, is that voting is regulated differently in every state. Some 25 states worked with us (after meeting and being wooed by Anthea and others on her team, in and of itself a Herculean task), and created digital feeds. But 25 other states didn't. And for those states, Anthea oversaw the process of collecting, standardizing, and digitizing every polling place in America. One of our partners on the project, an internet titan who shall remain nameless, told us they could code all the polling places if we collected them. So Anthea's team spent months collecting the lists.

Some were in nice, tidy spreadsheets. Others were in PDFs or Word docs. Still others were just in some local registrar's head. And once they had collected thousands and thousands of records, at the end of September (just about 5 weeks before the election) our partner told us, "Oh, we actually can't standardize this. Sorry." And so Anthea and her team (which grew a bit to accomodate the need) spent the better part of a month working 16 or 18 hours a day, pouring over records and matching whatever strange codes they were given to determine polling places.

I'll spare you the remaining details. But the upshot is that they came through. And 7.2 million people we can track used that data and the tools that were created with it to look up their polling place. The primary tool was a Google Gadget that could easily be embedded in any website, and found more than 320 homes. Facebook, Foursquare, Rock the Vote and others built their own tools using the file we provided. Probably north of 10 million people used the data somehow.

If you ask Anthea, she'll probably say that she couldn't have done "anuhthing" without the whole staff (she's from Wisconsin and at least one of her parents is a Limey, so she says some words kinda funny). But what she fails to acknowledge in her humility is that she was the person who kept that shit moving.

Anyway, when I found out she was leaving us for the re-elect, I asked her what kind of special ice cream she wanted for her going away party. And she said, "rosemary."

Well, it was her party, so I said, "ew" in my mind, and, "OK" with my mouth.

Now I couldn't imagine a dessert in which the primary flavor was rosemary. And I couldn't imagine an ice cream that was just rosemary either. Rosemary is a wonderful flavor. And in my experience, one that is grotesquely overused. You order rosemary chicken in a restaurant, and it comes out with pieces sticking out and tasting like you're chewing on a bush. You get a loaf of rosemary bread at the fancy bakery, and feel like you're munching on a stick. Apparently, rosemary is the one herb that chefs have no problem slathering on anything that bears its name.

So I was a) confused, and b) determined to make something awesome. I did a little thinking, a little searching, and found this recipe on Straight from the Farm blog for dark chocolate and rosemary ice cream. It looked pretty bomb. But I had a few reservations (seemed like an awful lot of rosemary, among other things), and made a few changes. Then it was just a matter of choosing something to pair it with. And I thought, WTF, this is already fucking weird. So let's go even weirder. Rosemary? That goes with white cheddar and bacon. Chocolate too. So let's do it.

I found a recipe from Emeril for white cheddar and bacon scones, and whipped 'em up. They came out pretty tasty, but a bit dry. I'd probably add another 1/2 cup of butter and 1/2 cup of cream if I make them again, but it's up to you.

Partway into the making, I had to get my helper involved. OK, she's not really my helper, but she refused to hang out in her playpen thingy, and when I let her crawl she kept pulling shit off the shelves. She's pretty happy in this backpack, as you can see, so I strapped her in and periodically passed her crackers. We listened to my "Grungeville" Pandora station. She likes '90's rock, especially Pearl Jam.

And good jeebus, that shit is amazing. The ice cream is like some sort of mysteriously delicious chocolate concoction. If I didn't know there was rosemary in it, it would probably take me a minute to figure it out. As an undertone, it makes a warm, earthy, herbal flavor that just accentuates the chocolate. And the combination with the scone is bizarre and delicious. So without further ado, here's the recipe I settled on (I've made it again, just as good the second time). Amy thinks it's the best I've made yet, and she was beyond skeptical at the outset. Hopefully you'll enjoy, too, if you whip it up.

Dark Chocolate and Rosemary Ice Cream

1 cup whole milk
2 cups whipping cream
2/3 cup sugar
4 egg yolks
2 sprigs (about 4" each) fresh rosemary (I wouldn't try this with dried rosemary)
3 Tbl cocoa powder (unsweetened. I use natural, but I imagine dutch process is just fine too)
8 dark chocolate truffles*
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp salt

Put the milk, sugar, rosemary, vanilla, salt and 1/2 cup cream in a saucepan, and heat on medium-low until steamy, but not boiling. Put the remaining 1.5 cups of cream on an ice bath. Reduce to low, and allow to simmer about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove the rosemary, and add the cocoa powder, stirring constantly. Chop your chocolate up small, add, stir slowly until fully melted. Use about 1/2 cup of the liquid and temper your eggs, then add to the mix, whisking quickly until fully incorporated (I've determined that real tempering actually takes less effort that my "lazy" system). Switch to a flat-bottom rubber spatula, turn heat up a notch or two, stir slowly until the mixture thickens to where it doesn't run off the spatula. Strain the hot liquid into your cold cream, then whisk aggressively (both to mix and to cool). Chill the mixture until cold, drop in your machine.

A few changes I made... I added an extra egg yolk, because I thought this recipe would really want to be thick and creamy. I also cut the sugar from 3/4C to 2/3C, figuring that the chocolate would add some sweetness, and I didn't want it that sweet anyway. I cut the second round of rosemary out, because I didn't want it to overwhelm the ice cream. I reduced the cocoa powder to let the dark chocolate shine a little more. And I swapped out the vanilla bean for extract, because vanilla beans are fucking expensive. And everything worked out just dandy.

*The recipe called for 2 oz of semi-sweet chocolate. But someone gave us this box of Trader Joe's dark chocolate truffles a while back, and they've been slow to the stomach. So I thought, "fuck it, I'll use some for this." It seemed like a good idea at the time, and boy was it ever. So I recommend grabbing this stuff and using it.

And so, this is the weirdest dessert I've ever made, and also the weirdest I've ever eaten. But delicious weird, anyway.

What's your "WTF dessert?!?!" story?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Hoist up the John B Sail...

It's not that today's been bad. It's not that I'm in a foul mood, although I am a bit tired and a bit worn thin.

Mostly, I just don't want to be around humanity.

Except one. Right about now, I just wish I could go home to my daughter. I know at some point she'll have more multifaceted phases. The "annoying" phase. Then the "ohmygodwhatiswrongwithyou?" phase. And plenty of other stressful phases in between.

But right now, there is only one thing, even when she's screaming bloody murder at 3:15am for no apparent reason. Right now there is only "light up my life."

And after a day of running to someone else's beat, of trying to please 3 bosses and 2 coworkers and 4 external partners, of riding the metro with a bunch of grumpy office workers, of drinking too much coffee and getting overheated, there's finally a true, clear escape. When she rests her little head on my shoulder and lets me sing her to sleep, there is nothing in the world but peace. And I know that I only have so long until she's too big. Only so long until she's yelling, "I hate you" or "You're ruining my life," at me. Only so long until she's out in the world, living her own life.

I wish I wasn't going on this work retreat. Tonight, I really wish I could go home to see my Lila Rose. Even more than usual.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Apple Bread Pudding from Leftovers

I hate wasting food. I'll eat leftovers of pretty much anything, even things I didn't like much in the first place. I'll eat things whose expired status is in serious question. I store celery butts, onion peels and other such in the freezer for soup stock.

So it especially upsets me when I see good, usable food thrown away for nothing better than a lack of imagination.

Case in point. We host a lot of training at my job. And we provide food. How much food varies between trainings, but at the bare minimum breakfast and snacks. And there are always leftovers. If I'm not around, the leftovers get tossed.

Thankfully, I was in charge of a recent training. And we had some odd leftovers. A pint of heavy cream (coffee leftovers). Five or so uneaten croissants. A bunch of apple halves. Half a veggie tray.

The veggie tray was an easy one - straight into the stock bag in the freezer. But the other stuff? Well hell, that's 2/3 of what you need for some wicked bread pudding. More than one person looked at me like I was nuts when I was packing things up, even after I explained what I was doing. A few gave me appreciative looks, but mostly nuts. Because even on a floor filled with progressives we're slaves to the disposable landscape syndrome.

These apples look all brown and icky. People looked at me askance when I packed them up

Anyway, back to my point: the recipe. As usual, I looked over five or six recipes to get ideas, and used none of them. Here's what I did, and how I did it.

4-5 cups of cubed croissants
Just slice off the brown part!
3ish cups of cubed apples (every recipe told me the red delicious apples I had were not good baking apples. They worked wonderfully. I say use whatever apples you have/want)
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup (1/2 stick) butter
Some raisins (didn't measure, probably 1/2 cup or so?)
2 eggs
2 T bourbon
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/8 tsp ginger

Melt the butter in a pan with a large bottom. Add apples and let them sizzle for a minute. Add sugar, stirring, and let it caramelize slightly on apples. Add cream, spices, vanilla, and heat till steamy but not boiling. Add raisins, turn to low, leave to simmer for 10 minutes or so.

Preheat your oven to 350. Meanwhile, separate the eggs. Use the whites for something like angel food cake. Beat the yolks so they're smooth. Slowly add to hot creamy/apple-y/sugary/spicey goodness, whisking aggressively. This is where real chefs would temper the eggs, but again, I'm too lazy so I take this route. Whatever. Get the eggs incorporated without scrambling them. Switch to a flat bottom spatula and stir slowly, scraping the bottom. Add the bourbon, continue stirring. When it's thickened to where it doesn't run off the spatula, remove from heat.

Now add your croissants. Mix gently, so that the good stuff all gets soaked up nicely, but don't abuse the bready stuff. Pour it all into a 9x13" pan (or a smaller if you want a thicker bread pudding), stick it in the oven. Leave it in there 40 minutes or so, until it seems done (if you use a smaller pan/thicker pudding system, probably more like 50-60 min).

I got more feedback on this than anything else I've brought to NOI. And I've brought 3 different angel food cakes, a frozen peanut butter banana chocolate pie, and more cookies and ice cream than I can name. People came back for thirds. People ask me to bring it again. Actually, it looks like there will be about enough croissants left from the training I'm in now to make it tonight!

What do you do with leftovers? Any creative solutions to prevent wasting food?

Friday, May 6, 2011

Pina Colada and Ancient History

Ostensibly, this post is about the quart of (delicious) Pina Colada ice cream that I just made. But the Pina Colada and I have a lot of history, so I'm also using it as an excuse for that.

Captain Morgan released Parrot Bay Rum late in my junior year of high school. And we loved the shit. It was delicious, it was easy to drink, but it was also made by Captain Morgan so it wasn't sissy stuff. This was, of course, before there were 16 fruit flavors of every alcohol, at least stateside. It was pretty exotic stuff. We'd drink it just about any way you can, straight or mixed, whatever.

So after high school, at my parents urging, I took a year off. They hooked me up with the Center for Interim Programs, thinking I'd go to some state with a good university system, work for Habitat or some other service group, get residency, and go to school. On my first visit with the guy who ran the place, he said, "where do you want to go?" and waved at the world map behind him. And the only answer was Australia.

But Australia's a story for another time. This story is about Pina Colada. The reason I bring it up is that my 19th birthday was a few days before I left for Oz. I was living in a shithole apartment, aptly named The Cesspool, with 4 friends. (random fact, it was the first place of 4 where I lived with Alex Malloy, and I still have lived with Alex longer than anyone else to whom I am not related by blood).

The Cesspool was a total crash pad, and earned it's moniker the hard way. We were among the very few people from our high school who were a) still living near our home town and b) had a place of our own. So everyone who was either still at LHS or living at home ended up on our floor at some point or another.

For my birthday that year, we got several (2? 3? 4?) handles of Parrot Bay, a ton of Pina Colada mix, and ice. And we got trashed. Somewhere in the evening, my buddy Matt Hicks decided he'd call into the local classic rock station (WZLX, baby!). What ensued was somewhere in the neighborhood of completely ludicrous. But you can judge for yourself, as I have set the recording together with a bunch of pictures from that night, The Cesspool generally, and just plain old high school.

A few things about this recording. I've been carrying it around on a cassette tape for 13+ years, so the condition is not great. I digitized it by playing the tape next to the computer mic, making it even worse. But you can hear that I once had something bordering on a Boston accent. You can also hear that I'm a pretty cocky little bastard. I was very proud of what I was doing. And you can't hear it, but there was some hefty editing to our conversation. But whatever. The main point is, I was totally sloshed on Pina Coladas.

Those were pretty good Pina Coladas that night, especially considering the low grade. Maybe the quantity or the company influenced it. Probably both. The best Pina Colada I've ever had was in Playa del Carmen, in 2004. Yes, this is probably somewhat influenced by the setting, but we found this little joint where they clearly made their own mix. And it was delicious. Just a little chunky, totally fresh, just the right rum content. Mmmm. Delicious.

So as I was thinking about cocktail/ice cream combinations to make, naturally the Pina Colada came to mind. And I got to thinking about a recipe. Most of the recipes I saw online called for only coconut milk, which didn't seem quite right to me.

Back when I was trying to convert from server to bartender, I was working at Gordon Biersch. My boss was a big lug. Not a bad guy, per se, but kind of a goofus. He was quizzing me on recipes one day, and asked, "What if someone ordered a Pina Colada?"
"We don't have a blender."
"Sure, but what if they just really wanted a Pina Colada?"
"We don't have mix."
"Yeah, but it's some hot girl and she just wants something that tastes like a Pina Colada." (he generally operated under the stereotype restaurant GM mode of "anything for a hot girl," which included jobs).
"Um, I'd do Malibu, Pineapple, a splash of cream and shake the hell out of it."
"Cream?" He said it as thought it was the dumbest, grossest thing he had ever heard. I nodded and said, "Yeah, cuz otherwise it's just a Malibu-Pineapple."
"Gross," he said, and walked away.

I never challenged him further, although I knew I was right. And over the years I've certainly learned that the best Pina Colada will have a little cream. Even if you're using the richest coconut milk, a little cream adds a weight and smoothness that you just can't get otherwise. And it's fucking delicious. So anyway, here's my Pina Colada ice cream recipe (I hope you haven't really read this whole random thought train just to get here, but if you have, well done).
  • 1 cup coconut milk (full fat. I discovered at the grocery store that there's a "Light" or "Low Fat" coconut milk. I refuse to acknowledge such a thing as legitimate)
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup vanilla sugar
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1 cup pineapple chunks and juice (see below)
  • 1/3 or 1/2 cup Captain Morgan Spiced Rum (depending on how boozey you want it)
  • Handful of shaved coconut
  • 1-2 previously used vanilla bean pods
This recipe varies pretty broadly from the standard base. Obviously coconut milk replaces regular milk. I cut the sugar to 1/2 cup from the normal 3/4 to account for the sweetness in the coconut, pineapple and rum. I cut the eggs because the coconut milk is naturally thick, so the thickening agent wasn't as necessary.

The vanilla sugar and used bean pods are key. They'll add a little extra vanilla component but not overwhelm. The vanilla sugar is not store-bought fakey stuff. Per the recommendations of many, I've taken to putting the (cleaned and dried) used bean pods into my sugar container after use. It gives the sugar a really nice vanilla essence. And the used pods still infuse some flavor when heated in liquid, but not a deep flavor.

Anyway, here's how you do.

Put the coconut milk, 1/2 cup of cream, sugar, vanilla pods and coconut shavings into a sauce pan, heat on medium heat. While it's heating up, get 1 cup of pineapple chunks. Fill the cup with juice, so the liquid fills in around the chunks. Drop it all in a blender and blend the living shit out of it until it's super pureed. Add to the stuff on the stove.

Heat it until it's all warm and steamy, stirring with a whisk, then turn down to low. Heat a few more minutes, continuing to stir from time to time. DO NOT BOIL!

Take it off the heat, let it sit there for about an hour.

After an hour, heat it back up to very warm. Add the rum, whisking aggressively (the rum can cause the cream to curdle if you just dump it in, so be careful here).

While it's heating, take the remaining 1 1/2 cups of cream, put it on an ice bath.

Fish out the vanilla pods, rinse, dry, return to the sugar container. I'm too lazy to properly temper eggs, so I just very slowly add them while whisking aggressively. However you get them in there (my method or true tempering), add the eggs. Shift to a flat rubber spatula, stir slowly, scraping the bottom. Continue until it thickens to where it coats the spatula without running.

Remove from heat, whisk into chilled cream. Whisk the mixture until it's a) thoroughly mixed and b) pretty well chilled. Cover, stick it in the fridge, leave it overnight. I'm usually too impatient to wait all night, but in this case I think it's worth it. All of the flavors are ones that really absorb slowly (rum, coconut, pineapple, vanilla) and giving it the time overnight to get together and make sweet flavor love is probably worth it.

When it's gotten all conjugal and shit, bust out your ice cream maker. With my booze + cream ice creams, I always leave it in a little extra time to really get as firm as possible, so probably 40 minutes instead of 30.

Take it out of the machine, put in a container. Again, the machine doesn't freeze everything evenly, so use your spatula to mix it and get the texture consistent (this should also help keep even flavor throughout). Stick it in the freezer, let it ripen for 4+ hours.

I've discovered that the freezer ripening is a really key step in ice cream. Straight out of the machine it's really delicious and fresh, but the flavors haven't had time to settle in. Once it's been in the freezer and hardened up, the harder flavors mellow, the softer flavors find their place, and the texture of the ice cream really gets nice. So while I may eat a spoonful or two straight out of the machine, I find it's worth waiting a while, and I'm both an ice cream addict and horribly impatient.

And that's my Pina Colada story. In the coming weeks I'll be doing Mojito (probably try ice cream and sorbet), Old Fashioned (I'm gonna candy my own orange and lemon peel for this), and Mud Pie with Kahlua and Baileys. But what other cocktail concoctions should I get into? Help me create some wicked ice cream flavors!

Oh, and I think I'm gonna make a Pina Colada Rootbeer Float later. I'll let you know how it turns out.

Photo from Flickr user SingChan, shared under Creative Commons license