CustardQuest ’11: Part 1

I love baked custard. It’s sweet and milky, but substantial enough for breakfast or a good snack. There’s something very wholesome about it and it’s a great source of calcium and deliciousness. But after all my years of making and eating it, I still don’t have a go-to recipe. I figured I’d spend a little time this winter trying different ones out and declaring an allegiance at the end.

I started with the basic recipe in Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, which uses 2 cups of 1% milk, two eggs plus two yolks, half a cup of white sugar, and a bit of vanilla. That initial effort was very, very good and the pictures I took are stuck on a flash drive that self-destructed last week. (Also on that flash drive: photos of a disastrous custard I attempted using buttermilk. It didn’t really set up correctly and it curdled. It was a weird recipe I found online that only used one egg, plus some flour, so I probably should have known better.) However, I hate only using parts of eggs. Either I freeze the egg whites and never use them again, or I throw them away and feel guilty about the waste.

This batch used three whole eggs and half and half instead of milk. I thought using a higher-fat dairy might help in case not having that extra yolk in the mix kept it from setting up as well. It’s also very, very delicious (especially with the addition of a handful of the wineberries I collected in Inwood Park this summer and froze for just such an occasion), but I don’t want to consume this much half and half on a regular basis. Back to the drawing board…

WWUBVD?

Earlier this week, Sarah McColl posted this fun visual style quiz on twitter. I have a hard time resisting that kind of thing, so I took it, and got Unpretentious Bon Vivant.

I *love* Unpretentious Bon Vivant. I feel like Unpretentious Bon Vivant is a goal, an intention, an objective to keep in mind when I’m making decisions. Like, if anyone ever asked me anymore what I want to be when I grow up, I want to be Unpretentious Bon Vivant. Since I’m a hermit who is moderately affected but with, one hopes, sufficient self-awareness to avoid pretension, I feel like I can only be helped by asking myself, ‘yes, but would Unpretentious Bon Vivant do that?’.

I do think that Unpretentious Bon Vivant would give her cat water in one of her favorite thrift-store dessert dishes.

I had some plant cuttings in a jar of water on the windowsill a few months ago and every time I turned around, the cat was drinking out of it, despite the fact that she has two bowls of water in the kitchen and she had to navigate around the plants. I figured that the novelty was appealing and filled up the custard dish for her. She still loves it, and it’s an easy way to make her happy, so there you go.

A few things on my radar:

  • I’ve been watching the first season of Bored to Death, which is pretty adorable. It also lets me engage in a pastime I enjoy: identifying the locations in movies and tv shows shot in New York (Veselka! The Greenpoint Coffee House! Ft. Greene Park!). And Sarah Vowell had a bit part in the finale; anything she does is right by me.
  • I still like snow. I don’t care. WinTER! WinTER!
  • I was feeling a little off yesterday and called in sick. But I was better in the afternoon, so I took myself to the movies. I liked Black Swan, though I think if I hadn’t heard it described as a campy ballet horror movie, I would have found some of the twists and turns a little more off-putting. And I really liked The King’s Speech.
  • Last weekend, my friends Rose and Sean had a few people over to raid their well-stocked bar and make drinks, either inventing them or consulting their library of cocktail books. Then we photographed drinks and tasted drinks and talked about the drinks, generating lots of content for their blog in the process. It was loads of fun and I came away with a few new favorites.
  • This post from Bookavore made me laugh: “Oh and as to all the people who thought and perhaps still do think that this book signals the death of literature: I found myself wondering over and over as I read this book just how weak you all think literature is. Literature has Jane Austen. Literature has MOBY-FREAKIN’-DICK. Literature has patron saints up to its eyeballs and many of them are handy with firearms.”
  • This is fascinating. The world is an amazing, amazing place.

Silk Purse Pasta

Last night on my way home from work, I made a deal with myself: I could skip yoga if I made a very long to-do list full of stuff I’ve been avoiding and then did everything on it. (I know this sounds vaguely insane, but I’m trying to train myself to schedule exercise and then treat those appointments as sacrosanct. It’s one area where I tend to be pretty lax with myself.) (No, YOU shut up.) One of the items on the resulting list was ‘cook and eat brussels sprouts,’ meaning the bag of them in my fridge that were starting to go yellow and wouldn’t be a viable foodstuff for much longer. I figured I’d either chop them finely, saute ‘em, and throw an egg on top or roast them until they turned brown and nutty.

But then I remembered that I had some very good, happy-pigs-fed-on-acorns-and-cream-and-pixie-dust bacon in the freezer. Using a slice of that and a very few pantry staples, I started playing around and ended up with something that’s almost like an eggless carbonara. Not quite as gooey and decadent, but not far off. If I’d had any white wine open, I would have splashed some in, but the combination of bacon, garlic, brussels sprouts, parmesan, and salty, starchy pasta water managed to turn into a rather splendid sauce all on its own, something I might even make on purpose in the future. Even though the extra time at the cutting board and stove meant that I didn’t get to every item on my (admittedly ridiculous) list, it was absolutely worth it, especially since I get to eat the leftovers for lunch in a few minutes.

I used that amount of sprouts that I had as a guide and ended up with two smallish servings. It would be easy to scale up though.

Silk Purse Pasta

1 slice excellent bacon, chopped
2 large garlic cloves, minced
2 c. brussels sprouts, finely chopped
4 oz. spaghetti
~1/4 c. freshly grated parmesan

Set the pasta water to boil, salting it with abandon, and cook the pasta. Meanwhile, cook the bacon over medium heat until browned and crispy. If it gives off a lot of fat, spoon off all but a tablespoon or so. (Or don’t. No judgment here.) Add the garlic and cook until golden. Add the sprouts, stirring to coat, and let cook until softened and browned in spots. Drain the pasta, reserving a cup of cooking liquid, and add the the sprouts. Combine, slowly adding pasta water, until mixture is voluptuously saucy. Stir in cheese, adding more water if it becomes too dry. Serve with extra cheese if desired.

New sweater

I cast on for a new sweater last week, using this batch of handspun wool/silk tweed. I had swatched for a couple of things, but nothing was quite right. I plied it fairly tightly, so it’s a little stringy and didn’t look great in stockinette. I did, however, like the way it looked in a twisted stockinette. Knitting every other row through the back loops changes it up just enough to be a little interesting, while still allowing the yarn to shine.

I’m making a very simple pullover, possibly with a big turtleneck if I have enough yarn. I don’t love working with yarn this chunky — I’m knitting it on US11s — but I can’t deny that it goes quickly and the results are pretty dramatic.

Tiny luxuries

I’m a big believer in the idea of a tiny luxury, a thing or, most often, an experience that doesn’t cost much, but is just far enough outside my normal range of activity to be special. Taking myself out for a nice breakfast before work is a perfect example — it costs less than going to a movie to sit in a charming cafe for an hour, eating something delicious, drinking good coffee, going back and forth between reading my book and eavesdropping on the conversations around me.

Wednesday morning decadence

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My office is opening at noon today to give us all time to deal with any snow-related delays. The late start has an additional benefit though: time to enjoy a leisurely, weekend-style breakfast: steel-cut oats cooked with a chopped apple and topped with brown sugar and buttermilk, eaten while reading and watching other people shovel.

Cloudy with a chance of meatballs

Considering that I’m technically a WASP (though I would think that the high concentration of peasant blood running through my veins would disqualify me in any real way) and didn’t have anything other than jarred sauce until I was in my 20s, I make a mean pot of tomato sauce and meatballs. No tricks or fanciness here, just straightforward, substantial, winter-friendly, delicious food, perfect for eating while a big snowstorm rolls in. I like my meatballs very small — I got six dozen out of a pound of meat — so that you can get pasta and a whole meatball on your fork at once. I sometimes use a combination of beef and lamb, but the butcher I go to keeps a blend of ground beef and pork ready to go, so I’ve switched over to that for now.

Meatballs and Sauce

1 lb. ground meat, any combination of beef, lamb, and pork
1 egg
1/2 c. grated parmesan
salt and spices (I used about a teaspoon of something called Happy Salt that my mother found who-knows-where and decanted into a ziploc for me. It seems to be a mixture of salt, garlic powder and pepper, but would have used oregano and parsley otherwise)
bread crumbs
olive oil
2 large onions, chopped
4 or 5 cloves of garlic, minced
pinch of crushed red pepper
1 large can crushed tomatoes
1 large can whole tomatoes in juice
1/2 c. red wine

Mix the meat, egg, spices, and cheese with a fork or your hands. Mix in bread crumbs until mixture holds together and isn’t sticky. Roll into marble-sized balls. Heat a little olive oil in the bottom of a Dutch oven or other large saucepan. Working in batches, brown all of the meatballs on all sides and set aside.

In the same pan, add the onions and cook until soft and lightly browned. Add the garlic and cook until golden. Put the meatballs back in the pot, add the crushed tomatoes and the juice from the whole tomatoes. Chop the whole tomatoes or squeeze them through your fingers into the pot. Stir in the wine. Let simmer for two hours or until sauce is thickened.

In which I bastardize a recipe and then complain about it

This recipe initially caught my eye because Japanese pumpkins, aka kabocha squash, are my current favorite kind of winter squash. They’re really dense and flavorful and rich tasting. I always have barley around and I’ve been wanting to experiment with cooking with miso.

Ways in which I deviated from the recipe:

  • I didn’t use the dashi or sake, subbing chicken broth and lemon juice respectively, because I didn’t want to buy groceries I wasn’t sure I’d use again. I like sake okay, but if I’m drinking at home, that’s not what I want.
  • I used firm tofu because I thought silken might dissolve into the broth in the leftovers.
  • I made the dish a week or so after The Blizzard That Ate New York, and the kabocha bin at the coop was empty, save for one with a rotten spot, so I made it with what I think was a buttercup squash.
  • I peeled the squash and cut it into chunks instead of enormous wedges. (do people really eat unpeeled winter squash? I’m genuinely curious.)

The mystery squash was a little stringy and the chicken broth reduced down to be a little salty for my taste, so the dish was not a wild success, but I have higher hopes for making it again and hewing a little more closely to the recipe, dashi powder and all. I will say that soaking the barley worked a treat; I’d never done that before, but definitely will adopt it for any non-soup barley applications in the future.

Odds and ends

1. I finished this sweater over the weekend. Still need to give it a final blocking and get a photo of it on me though.

2. I started writing a column for Serious Eats NY. Each week, I’ll be profiling a local food artisan and reviewing one or more of their products. I’m really excited about the gig; it should be a lot of fun.

3. I made a long list of New Year’s resolutions. I *love* making resolutions. For me, they’re not at all about focusing on negative things that I want to stop and more about adding positive stuff. 2011′s include writing here on a more organized schedule (I’m thinking MWF, but haven’t decided for sure), trying one new recipe a week, which will surely help with the first one, and reading literary mystery authors I’ve either missed entirely or not read much of: P.D. James, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ian Rankin, Patricia Highsmith…

4. I finally got around to watching all of Party Down over the holidays. Holy cats, that was an awesome show! Too bad it was canceled before I even knew it existed.

5. And I did a fair bit of work on my ripple blanket over the holidays. I had to add a few colors, since I’m not going to get as many stripes out of each skein as I expected, but I think it’s working out fine.