Sunday, February 26, 2012

My first food swap

Today I went to a food swap in Troy. I am sure from my own experience organizing a cookie exchange that getting that all organized is not as easy as it looks. I got a New York state cookie cutter at The Hungry Fish Cafe this weekend and decided to make a speculoo cookie recipe from Around My French Table by Dorie Greenspan. Check out what I made, and I'll mention what I got for it!

Check out the packaging I made and the signs for my table display:

There were over 40 people there at the Oakwood Community Center in Troy. It was super fun. You can't believe the creativity and skill people show in what they come up with to make. I did notice that the people who made alcoholic things were most popular. It seems like if you made infused vodka you get to choose between all the canned tomatoes. Also, I could not have expected that there would be so many vegans! It was weird that it kind of felt like speed dating or a high school popularity contest. The girl who made the beer was basically the prom queen, and as a vegan turned most people down for swapping. Things I was super impressed with but didn't end up taking home: curried carrot spread, caramels made from goat cheese with sea salt (as amazing as it sounds), lavender lotion, apple butter, pickled jalapenos, the beer. Very good things I ended up with: lemon lip balm, cauliflower white bean spread (very tasty), green tomatoes, maraschino cherries (I didn't even see these during the sampling section of the evening, but these will be great in cocktails I think), sunflower seed brittle (delicious), feta sun dried tomato spread (from the very nice woman I was sharing a table with), grape jelly (my other table neighbor who gets the grapes from a plant on her lawn), fabric sewn postcards (adorable, I may frame them), and homemade grape nuts. It was quite the haul. I have already finished off the sunflower seed brittle, and that was a real treat.

There is a bit of a game in that the more in demand your product is the more you get your absolute top choices. Of course, also, everything seems tasty, so maybe it doesn't matter so much what you end up with. I think people either go for something very time consuming they can't do themselves or something a little gimmicky or trendy like the liqueurs. I came home thinking of what I could make again - I thought of my homemade marshmallows, but thought again that the vegans wouldn't want the gelatin so I couldn't get what they would be offering. I thought of granola, but more than a few people had that. Perhaps my bagels would be a good choice (my friend said yesterday that she had recently craved my bagels one day after I brought them to a brunch party last week), but they really need to be eaten very soon after they are made to be at their best. I read some cordial recipes like limoncello and blackberry brandy in my New York Times Essential Cookbook tonight, but for some reason I felt like a bit of a sell-out only wanting to make those because everyone crowded the beer girl's table all at once, which gave her the pick of everything (it was pretty hilarious actually).

Anyways - it was very fun! Thanks to those who organized it! They told me they loved me right when I walked in, and said they hoped I had fun as I left - very hospitable. It was also nice how they asked everyone to list their ingredients and make obvious notes of potential allergens. It was fun to meet people, think they were really nice, and then realize I've read their blogs. I would love to attend another swap!

Taking Allergies Seriously

We always look forward to a trip to the superb Ala Shanghai, in Latham. We're not alone in thinking it's one of the best restaurants in the area. Unfortunately, despite repeated requests something in our dinner last night triggered my allergic reaction to nuts. (Based on timing, I'm almost certain it was something in the steamed spicy wontons, whether a carelessly cleaned pan, a stray nut in the sauce, or perhaps some peanut butter used as a binding agent -- common in vegetarian dumplings, so I always take extra care to ask before ordering.) I thought it was minor, since I was merely uncomfortable for the next hour -- sometimes a very small quantity of a nut product will make itself known without triggering a full-scale reaction. But after I got home, my already-swollen lower lip had attained Mick Jagger proportions, and then it took me several tries to even swallow a Benadryl. Choking to death not being the way I want to go, a trip to the emergency room was necessary, where a pretty frightening situation was averted.

Normally, Ala Shanghai is very conscientious, and we've been there many times without any issue; I'm not sure what happened yesterday. But some restaurant owners and employees don't have a similarly good attitude. Take, for example, hot-chef-of the moment David Chang, and his implicit claim that many customers who make allergies are fakers who are crimping his style. I certainly don't doubt that this happens, and the diners who do it are indirectly putting other people at risk by undermining the credibility of real allergies and shouldn't do it. But allergies are very real problem, and this kind of cavalier attitude can literally get people killed. Not that he needs me to keep up to add to the immense demand, but I would to say that trying out one of the outposts in the sprawling Momofuku empire is a pretty low priority for me.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Hungry Fish Cafe, Wynantskill

I always look forward to President's Day because that means I usually get the Monday off after my birthday. This year, however, I am auditing a class at the conservation lab, so I ended up going into work anyway (it is a floating holiday for us). It is a fun class because I get to hear about all kinds of art related gossip, like how the people at the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge put paintings where the pastry chef ended up burning them with his setting the cherries jubilee on fire. The conservators told them not to put the paintings near any food, so they put them above the boiling water of the coffee station, and five years later had to pay to get them fixed all over again. Also, The Clark's Bourgereau is getting conserved and every time we go it is a little different looking as the yellowed varnish gets removed gradually. Anyways, this class is making me tired as two days a week I get home at about 10:00 at night so I took today off.

We had originally sampled some food from the Hungry Fish Cafe at the Albany Wine & Dine Festival. My husband suggested that this was a good day to try them for lunch since I'm not normally home on random weekdays. This place is great. Like the Crazy Burger in Rhode Island, but not as crazy. Like the Blue Benn but with higher quality ingredients and not as far away. Local ingredients plus a little bit of creativity, and a good dose of soul - you cannot go wrong. I got the "Wynantsclub". It had Vermont cheddar cheese (very good quality), "gourmayo" (which seemed to have some mustard, horseradish maybe, a few other things), smoked turkey, Black Forrest ham,  bacon, field greens, and tomato on marble rye. This was a great sandwich. You could really tell they made the bread themselves as that sort of freshness and texture you cannot fake. I got the homefries with it. Homefries are hard to get right - it is so easy for them to end up greasy, mushy, overcooked, or too hard. These were a perfect texture and seemed to have some Cajun seasoning or something on them. I asked for hot sauce and the waitress brought out this Hoboken Eddie's, which they sell there. The hot sauce was a mix of a few different types of peppers, and deeply flavorful with a good punch of heat. The coffee was good too. My husband got the morning rice - long grain and wild rice tossed with ginger soy stir fried veggies with two sunny eggs. It was unique, very tasty, and a great choice on his part I thought. We were looking at Metroland as we were eating and they had a write up of the place (in fact, funny enough, the booth in the photo in that article is exactly the one we ate in).

We were quite distracted by all the little knicknacks for sale. I bought a New York state cookie cutter to make cookies for a food swap I am attending. I also bought something funny and kitschy for my friend for her birthday. They also have mixes for dips, canned goods, local ground beef, and homemade soap - all very interesting.

We had a great time. I'll definitely be back there, and might even stop in for some chili to take out for dinner one night (that was one of the things we sampled from them at the Albany Wine & Dine Festival). We had a fun diversion on the way home at the nearby TJMaxx and Yankee Dollar Store. I find dollar stores irrationally fun as you never know what sort of awesome things you'll find at them. Overall, totally worth taking the day off from work even if it was a bit rainy and dreary looking.

Art history sandwiches

 I have previously made art history cookies. I even mentioned to my boss about making art history inspired cake pops for when our new director starts (she suggested something more like this).

But now, check out these art history sandwiches!

Very cool.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Parties where you sell things

Sometimes my boss and I sit around and try to come up with ways to make more money. Yesterday we thought Etsy was a good idea. Today we started talking about all these parties you can have where you sell things. I never knew about half of these.

Anyone have any thoughts on these? Does anyone actually make money or is it all a way for these companies to infiltrate your social circles and make your friends guilted into buying things from you? 

TWD, Baking with Julia: Chocolate Truffle Tartlets

As part of Tuesdays with Dorie using the book Baking with Julia, I made the chocolate truffle tartlets. Check out the full recipe here. I am going to start out by saying I did not find this recipe easy. I do feel like I knew a thing or two about pie crust, but I also learned more in trying this recipe (you've got to be careful and don't overwork it or force it too much!). One thing I have really enjoyed about this exercise it that I am encouraged to try recipes I might not normally try. But not only were these tartlets very laborious, but also expensive if you go for the Ghirardelli chocolate and if you buy the biscotti. They are also incredibly rich for regular consumption - but I think for a dinner party these would be amazing. If you had people coming over, it probably wouldn't matter so much about expensive ingredients or time consuming cooking techniques.

First, the dough! Dutch process cocoa powder, flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor, then chopped up pieces of cold butter and ice water. You just get to the point where it is crumbly, then pat it out with the heel of your hand with some pressure.

Then pat into a rectangle and chill.

You cut them into equal slices and work with one at a time while the rest stay cold in the fridge.

 Roll each into a thin circle, and fit them in the tartlet pans (I bought mine at the King Arthur Flour shop when I took a pizza making class up there). I know enough about pie crust not to force it into the pan. I think you really need to just lower it in, and not pull it at all. There was much discussion here as to why the recipe asks to remove the bottoms of the pans. I did this and it worked fine. I think also if you have any problems that you should ball it back up and chill that piece of dough again. I think once it goes too wrong it can't really be fixed unless it is chilled again.

For the biscotti, I considered making my own, but it just didn't seem worth it for just a few of them. Also, if you have tarts in the house you don't also want tons of biscotti. So I went with caramel macchiato biscotti I bought individually at a Starbucks.

Chop those up and white chocolate, semisweet chocolate, and bittersweet chocolate. Like I mentioned I used Ghirardelli, which I think worked really well.

After you finish baking your tart pans, you can move on to making the filling.

This is quite a luxurious custard filling with chunks of of chocolate and biscotti bits in it. Start with melting butter with the bittersweet chocolate in a bowl set over a saucepan of boiling water.

Whip the egg yolks with vanilla extract (I think coffee extract could be a good substitution for the vanilla). Then mix a third of the egg yolks with the chocolate, and fold them altogether.

 Fold in the crunchy ingredients.

Then after you spread the filling in your tart crusts, and bake them you've got these lovely, luxurious, over the top desserts.

Very delicious! As I said, also laborious and incredibly rich - but for company this would be a great recipe! I thought they also had a nice flavor the next day. Check out all the other bakers' tartlets here!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Birthday at The Melting Pot

Going out for my 30th birthday first started out with the question of what to wear. I took the approach that I learned worked best for my bachelorette party and showed up at Marshall's looking to spend about $20 and find something appropriate. I was looking for something that said "Hey, I am here to have fun, but I know it is not 21 that I am turning!" After finding that and checking out, I ran into Albany celebrity Erin Harkes who sang our first dance at our wedding. She is a great woman. I couldn't love her more. Anyways, here I model my 30th birthday party outfit for you:

Those heels I have only wore before down the aisle of my friend's wedding (we switched to flip flops not long after) and to my bachelorette party. Living in NYC for almost 5 years ballet flats became my go to for everything, but this seemed like an occasion for heels! Unfortunately, walking around Crossgates Mall in high heels turned out to be less than ideal. I did buy some great things with my birthday gift card from J. Crew - this skirt that belongs in a museum filed under "Impressionists" and a purple cardigan to go with it. I also got a very cool navy blue with red polka dot pencil skirt from H&M. Then we headed to The Melting Pot.

They were swamped so we waited for our reservations at the bar. We enjoyed martinis with jalapeno and garlic stuffed olives.

Apparently my husband had signed up for the "Birthday package". This included balloons at the table, a box of chocolates to take home, and a photo of us they took, printed out, and framed for us to take home. He said maybe it was cheesy or a rip-off, but I said no - totally worth it!

We went with the Big Night Out America which is their current special (apparently the Big Night Out changes theme every six months). So we started with the Wisconsin cheese, which had Boston lager, scallions, bacon, mustard, and tabasco. It was amazing. I also got the beer pairings for each course so this one came with Sam Adams.

Then we had salads. I had the one that went with the special - the iceberg wedge with peppercorn ranch paired with a flight of Sierra Nevada pale ale. My husband substituted in the spinach salad with mushrooms and a shallot bacon vinaigrette.

Then we went with the "coq au vin" cooking style. It seems pretty healthy and the burgundy wine gives it a nice full flavor. We went with what came with the "Big Night Out America", which included steak, buffalo chicken, BBQ pork, mushroom pasta purses, and a lobster tail. Beer pairing was Stone IPA.

I love all the sauces they give you, but two of my favorites are the yogurt based curry and the "Green Goddess" (which has cream cheese and chives I think).

Then - of course - dessert! I was on the phone with my mother-in-law thanking her for the J.Crew gift card and describing my awesome floral pencil skirt, so my husband went ahead and ordered Bailey's mixed with white chocolate. You get all these dippers like red velvet cake, cheesecake, Rice Krispie treats, strawberries, and bananas. Beer pairing was Guiness.

All in all, what a great cozy spot. I went on and on about the writing club my friends and I started and how I want to be the next Ann Brashares or Janelle Brown. As you can probably tell from the photos, the lighting is really dark, which makes it a great place for couples (she said they were insanely jammed on Valentine's Day).

Then we were supposed to meet a friend of ours for drinks from NYC, but we didn't get a hold of her. It was actually a blessing we thought we were going out with her, because if we hadn't have thought that we probably would have just come home and I would have read a book and he would have watched hockey. I sent out a few text messages "Want to meet us at The Point in 15 minutes?" And our friends did - plus we got a ride out of it from our friend's boyfriend who had people over and wasn't joining us. In a world where we usually ask people if they want to come over for dinner in three weeks, and they write it on their calendar, there was something really fun about the spontaneity. It must be said that we have great friends. I literally knew one person when we moved here, and a couple people my husband was friends with in Seattle moved here at the same time we did. the book MWF seeks BFF pretty much consistently defines "good friends" as those you can invite to things last minute. We know such smart and interesting people. Also, the tables at The Point are big enough and there are enough of them to accommodate multiple large groups (which is really something you cannot say about all drinking establishments in Albany). My friend bought me a Blue Moon (which my husband makes fun of, but I like). My husband bought me the "About Thyme" cocktail which has thyme, lemonade, cucumbers, and Hendrick's. I've had it before, and it is very good. Anyways, more talk of the writing club, HelloGiggles, and all around a great time.

I went to sleep feeling very happy. From my hilarious parents waking me up with a phone call, to all the great birthday cards I got, the text messages from my bridesmaids and boss, the great presents from my husband, and the enormous amount of Facebook messages - it was all very, very sweet. I loved dinner at The Melting Pot. I also felt more than anything really grateful for all the people in my life, and the life we have put together in this city.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Happy Birthday to Me

Tomorrow is my 30th birthday. I haven't thought about it too much, except when I heard this Tim McGraw song on the radio the other day (eating more salads, getting more sleep, laughing more - all good ideas for older people) . I feel a bit like with my wedding where my sister kept saying "Are you nervous?" and I kept saying no for months before, and then 10 minutes before the ceremony was supposed to start, and I started saying "I'm getting married in 10 minutes?!!". My sister said "You are freaking out now?!"

 Part of it not meaning much to me has been that I have sort of felt old ever since I got a full-time job in an office. I bet people who work in bars, the music industry, or waiting tables don't feel old nearly as early as someone who has to figure out what blazer goes with which pencil skirt and boots. On the other hand, I still almost always get carded for alcohol, and being married to someone 10 years older than me makes it so for all these past years people have been surprised by how young I am by comparison. HelloGiggles had a good piece about being 29. And also a piece about how people judge themselves on their birthdays. One weird thing about being 29 is that people don't believe you "Sure! How many years are you going to say you are 29?" What? I really am!

Of course people at work make fun of me. They start telling me about what foods to eat to avoid high cholesterol and say that I should start taking a ramp instead of steep stairs so I don't ruin my knees. They talk about grey hair and loss of metabolism. It seems to be the first talk I've heard in connection to me of actually getting old, as opposed to older. I found this with the wedding too - it seems the first time in your life that you acknowledge your own mortality ("til death do us part!"), and it makes the whole thing feel more serious. It reminds me of how I feel that bachelorette parties, though technically are there to mark the end of one's single days, usually happen long after those days are over. To say "Oh my god it is the end of your twenties!" - well I might say the spirit of someone "in their twenties" seems to fade around 27 or when you get a job you actually care about keeping. Yesterday someone called me "The Martha Stewart of our staff", and I ask you what is young about that?

Well, anyway, according to Ani DiFranco if you aren't getting happier as you are getting older you are messing something up. Most of my goals seem to be to keep things pretty much as they are - and if your goal is to keep your situation the same - you must be doing something right.

Anyways, we are going to the Melting Pot after much deliberation. We'll have to try The Bears another time.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The way to a woman's heart is through her stomach

Back when I first moved in with my husband I baked him a cake. I went to the store to buy some baking powder, and the woman behind me didn't approve of the brand I was buying. I said my boyfriend was teaching me how to cook, and that I had actually never made a cake before. She said it should have been the other way around - that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. Well, the opposite was true, and I didn't eat much of anything before I met him (well, this). This weekend, while doing some Valentine's Day baking I finally got to the end of that can of baking powder (if you want to lecture me about it not being fresh after 3 years, well go ahead). I got to thinking about food in our relationship.

  • We met in a diner where I'd pressure him to order milkshakes, and he'd try to talk me into eating some of his fries. 
  • I baked him a quiche. There was no air conditioning and there was a hot and sticky black leather futon.
  • We moved to Albany and shortly after went to Provence to mark our 2 year dating anniversary.
I often struggle about what to eat for breakfast and lunch, but sometimes eating isn't just about necessity, practicality, fat content, or the time it takes to eat. Restaurants can add to your sense of community, and dinner parties can strengthen friendships. I personally can't think of anything more romantic than eating the food at Cafe Capriccio. Also, is it just me or does cake made for special occasions taste differently than cake not made for a wedding or a birthday? When I was a kid I had some idea about marriage being about routines people were trapped in. Now I realize how comforting routine can be - Thomas Keller's crisp and juicy chicken roasting in the oven as we both read interesting books, Cook's Illustrated hot and gooey chocolate chip cookies made for no reason at all, or a quick and healthy stir fry on a weeknight shared over stories of boring meetings that ran too long. Sometimes food is about necessity, and sometimes like music, it is interwoven with all the great things about your life.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Valentine's Day Gifts

I'm no good at waiting for gifts, and Scott's present would have been a lot more expensive to arrive on Valentine's Day. What is funny is that I talked about heart shaped whoopie pies in this post and that seemed to have given a hint. Before I get into all that, let me just say I love this blog, and check out her Valentine's jello mold. Here are some ideas from some museums that are and are not that great. And here are some other artsy, and pretty good ideas (suggesting  macarons and Macallan shows a good current understanding of the tastes of different genders, or at least in this couple).

Without further ado, when I woke up this morning I was making coffee and Scott pretended to have to go get the recycling bin to put magazines in (he did say he was going to clean up the living room this weekend). He came back with a huge box. What could that be I wondered?

They were featured in the New York Times. Martha Stewart said "These are the best whoopie pies I've ever tasted", and I agree! Check out their website, the lobster shortbread and mussels shaped whoopie pies are adorable. This morning I tried the one with champagne filling, and it was beyond amazing. I am a huge fan of Chambord, and I can't wait to try that flavored filling. They are fluffy, but still dense, and have the texture of the traditional New England filling, but the great flavor of the buttercream type. For a break down of the tension between people who like different types of whoopie pies check out this post.  So adorable, delicious and thoughtful!

I thought it would be nice to give him a reminder of our honeymoon. (Check out the food we ate here). I contact Lily Gene Prints from Etsy. She made me a custom map that plotted out our trip in hearts from Las Vegas, to San Francisco, to Napa and Sonoma, then Portland, and finally Moose Jaw SK. As she states on her website: "All giclée original prints by Lily Gene are high-quality, eco-friendly, acid-free fine art paper. Printed with professional archival pigment ink." I think it turned out amazing. Check it out:

Here also featured is a painting I made of us when we first moved here in 2009.  I didn't spend much time on it, and it was sort of a joke, but I kinda like it that way.

Last night I also went a little Valentine's baking crazy. Now, we can all agree cake pops are a little infantile and in fact a little weird as a concept. See this comment thread here. Every time I think of cakepops I think of Elizabeth's comment "They're like cake, but more wrong. Mush cake and frosting together until it makes a paste similar to partially masticated cake, form into ball, dip. Tastes exactly like it sounds. If you like your food excessively manhandled before consumption cake balls may be for you!" Ok ok fine. My coworker once said "We should learn how to make cake pops", and I said casually "yeah sounds fun....". She then ordered a cake pop kit and the next day said I owed her $13. I was like "What?" So I am the proud owner of a cake pop kit (warning: that website is obnoxious). What better way to take advantage than Valentine's Day? Then, another coworker walked in my office the other day and said "Are you going to make everyone cake pops for Valentine's Day?" How did I get this reputation? (Maybe this?) Anyways, you may remember my affection for these little guys. So here's some cool things I put together last night (using red velvet cake recipe from New York Times Essential cookbook and Wilton Candy Melts I bought at Michael's).

I know my bears aren't nearly as professional looking as Bakerella's, but as a first try I think they are pretty good. I'll also say there are two ways of making cake pops and balls. You can just bake them in a ball which discredits Elizabeth's criticism, and as the proud owner of the pan I can do that. I think Strawberry Fields Confections does it this way, but I am not sure. When I baked them in the pan I was completely ridiculous. I was reading the directions for the brownies and filled the cavities up all the way. This was totally silly considering, um that cake rises. The cake exploded way up above the pan, and it was hilarious. So I broke up the exploded over cake, mixed it with a Martha Stewart chocolate buttercream recipe, and followed the Bakerella bear tutorial. Did I give in to a trend? Did I feel cooler making my Christmas eclairs? A little bit. Anyways, I realize I went a little crazy. I even called my sister to tell her so. If we are hanging out with you this weekend or if you work with my husband, there's a good chance you're getting some of these. Anyways, perhaps Valentine's can be about how you love everyone, like this article says?