Monday, March 29, 2010

It 'tastes' like home to me

Hello wonderful followers of I Ate Everything!  I am still in amazement that I have been given the auspicious privilege of guest blogging on this fine site.   For a little intro… My name is Aubrey and I am a recent convert into the wonderful world of blogs… (I’m still very much a newbie).  I spent last year with Stephanie (and 3 other fabulous women) in East Asia where my palette was opened to delightful foods and flavors beyond my wildest imagination.  

Under Steph’s great influence my travels have begun to resemble more of an “Eating Asia” exploration of culture and less of the “hotspot marathon method” that I had previously employed.  Though I have had my share of ‘exotic fare’ – and often pride myself on seeking out the craziest of ‘local flavors’ (donkey hot pot, home-cooked scorpions, lamb brain…) -for this edition, I’d like to stick with something a little more familiar.

back from the days where we made our own scorpos for dinner

When you live 13 time zones away from home, it’s important to find a way to settle in and feel at ‘home’ in your new environment.  Yes, often times that does come in the form of a 35 cent McDonald’s ice cream cone, (stop judging… they are delightful!) but more often than not, for me it is a steamy hot, wonderfully fresh bowl of la mian (拉面).  Literally meaning ‘pulled noodles,’ this deliciously simple ‘noodle soup’ is my happy place.  Last year there was a restaurant not 2 min from our front door.  But this year I was devastated by severe la mian withdrawals…. Until heaven smiled down on me and opened up a noodle shop right across the street!  (resulting in untold happiness!!)

especially tasty with a mound of la jiao (red pepper)

As with everything in life, change is inevitable. Oh strange new world.  My old comforts of Inn n’ Out and Taco Tuesday have been replaced by la mian and gai fan (stir fried goodness heaped on a massive plate of rice).  

gai mian (goodness heaped on noodles)

true to my southwest roots, nothing would be complete without the 'heat'

I take comfort in seeing the same pensive grandfather sitting by the tree outside my apartment complex… 

and I always smile at the ladies playing cards in front of the street food vendors.  

This is my home… these are my familiar flavors…   With one slurp wonderful memories of friends, dancing, laughing and living flood my mind.  How sweet the taste of simple noodles!

In keeping with Stephanie’s questions to ponder… What tastes like home to you? 

PS- thanks for this opportunity Steph, but we're all very anxious to have you back!  :)

Monday, March 22, 2010

don't mess with texas (sheet cake)

Yet another layer of Stephanie for your perusal and enlightenment: I have this not-so-secret love for the South. If I had things my way, I would pick up today and move there. No, I'm serious. In this dream sequence, I'd be walking down the street, spring in my step, and an adorable Southern born-and-bred grandmother would take pity on this poor Yankee and swoop me up in her arms and into her kitchen, where I would proceed to feast on and learn the secrets of making authentically scrumptious biscuits and fried chicken and pecan pie. Then we'd talk deep (the merits of lard vs butter vs shortening, is Real Cornbread necessarily unsweet, chili--beans or no beans? or How many syllables does the word "grits" really contain?) while sitting in rocking chairs on her porch and drinking sweet tea as we played with a giant checker set...whoops, the fantasy just descended into a Cracker Barrel experience. The daydreams can be overwhelming sometimes, but I mean it, I am a really good candidate for Southern living. I could learn to like country music, I'll start talking like y'all, saying "icin'" instead of "frosting" and "dressin'" instead of "stuffing", and I already really, really love butter. If you are at all interested in sponsoring my dream...we should meet up. Seriously.

All earnestness aside, this past week I was faced with a challenge: dessert for 50 men, on the cheap. Cupcakes were immediately eliminated (too cutesy), as were ice cream cookie sandwiches (did them in the fall). After a thorough rifling through recipe files and cookbooks, I saw two good looking chocolate cakes from a book and a blog that I was trying to decide between, but upon closer inspection they (conveniently) seemed to be virtually the same thing: Texas sheet cake.

Of course it was from Texas. Those sassy folks think their state deserves to be its own country (and to which I say...take me with you)! Maybe this is a little audacious to put out there, but if I were in charge of these kinds of things (and let's pray that one day this actually happens), I would grant them independence based on this cake alone, provided I was supplied with a regular collection of Texas sheet cake battered spatulas. It's that good, and even better than good: ain't nothin' dainty or fussy about this cake. Slap it together, pour on the frosting, zero to delicious in 30 minutes! (Well, give it a little longer for the frosting...I mean icin' to set.) Cut yourself a big slice (remember its namesake!), top it with some nice ice cream, and sit in your rocking chair on your porch as you talk deep with your imaginary adopted Southern grandmother. Daydreams are nice and all, but take it from me: this cake is best eaten for real.

(PS...I made 4 of these cakes and I'm still not tired of them. Is that not compelling enough for you?! I'll bring the sweet tea; meet you out back!)

Texas Sheet Cake
(adapted from The Pioneer Woman Cooks and Homesick Texan)

2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) butter
4 heaping tablespoons cocoa powder
1 cup boiling water
2 eggs
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350. Find your baking sheet (should have a little lip and be just deep enough for a thin layer of cake). A jelly roll pan or a 13x9 baking pan will also suffice.

Whisk the flour, sugar, and salt together in a large bowl.

In another bowl, combine the eggs, buttermilk, baking soda, vanilla, and cinnamon (if you want).

Over medium-low heat, melt the butter on the stove. When it has melted, whisk in the cocoa powder and add the water.

Pour the butter/chocolate mixture over the flour/sugar mixture and stir briefly to cool down the chocolate a little (so it won't scramble the egg mixture). Then pour in the eggs and give the batter a few good stirs with your wooden spoon until smooth.

Pour the batter in your pan of choice, spreading it evenly. Bake for 20 minutes (for a sheet pan) or 30ish minutes (for a 13x9 pan, and I'd also recommend upping the temperature to 375-400 as well if you're using something smaller than a sheet pan). While the cake bakes...icing time!

something between 1 1/3-2 sticks butter (I'd be lying if I said the 2 stick butter icing wasn't superior...because it totally was! Plus there's the thrill of using up an entire pound of butter for a cake. But if in case you wanted to know...yes, you could use less butter, and it'll still come out fine.)
4 heaping tablespoons cocoa powder
6 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon cinnamon (again, optional)
1 lb. powdered sugar 
3/4-1 cup finely chopped pecans (PEA-cans are the most Southern nut, confirm/deny)

Much like last time...melt the butter over medium-low heat. When it has melted, whisk in the cocoa powder. Add in the milk, vanilla, cinnamon (if you want). Dump in that glorious pile of sugar and whisk some more. Finally, mix in the pecans. (If you don't use nuts for allergy/etc reasons, make sure to whisk the icing extra well, since the nuts help to break up the sugar lumps.)

When the cake is done, immediately pour the dreamy icing over the top of the cake (it should spread itself quite nicely but may require a little extra help from you). Do your best to let the icing set a little. Just a little. That's all the icing asks of you.

Also...I am super happy to announce that next week I Ate Everything will have its first guest blogger! So fun, right? Be nice to her; she'll introduce herself next time as I will be tied up, enduring one of the inescapable joys in life...standardized testing. Completely unfabulous. See you in two weeks!

Monday, March 15, 2010

spontaneity becomes me?

(or not)

I'm a planner. I think I already established that at some point in this blog. I like schedules and structures and organizing and lists and writing lists of organized structures of schedules in my planner. How dorky is that? Anyway, that puts me firmly on the J (for judging. Not judgmental) side of the Myers-Briggs. As far as I can remember, I have always been this way. I have a lot of friends though on the P (for perceiving) side, and to be honest...I have always wanted to be a P. P's seem to have more fun. They're flexible, adaptable, and what I would call free-spirited, rules-be-damned sort of people. I have friends who can wake up, throw on any number of random items in their closet and look amazing, and bound out the door looking for adventure. I want that. I've been practicing, but it doesn't come naturally.

(spoiler: this is not the blog post of a reformed P. As if you could change your personality type...!)

Anyway, I royally failed at biscuit making the other day. I'm not exactly sure what went wrong, but I'm pretty angry at shortening right now for no apparent reason, so maybe that was the culprit. (Anyone reading this have a biscuit school? I'll come!) I looove biscuits, so this was disappointing. However, I was able to cheer myself up with the idea that I could just make biscuit bread pudding, but with lame stale biscuits.

No, I couldn't. I made it all right, but it was not so good. I kind of wantonly threw some milk in a pot, some cinnamon in with that, tossed some things measuring happened (problem #1). Problem #2: they were terrible, horrible, no good, very bad biscuits. Problem #3: it came out dry and completely not worth it.

But I found an antidote. Please don't hate me because I think it's better than Nutella.

Problem #4 is that the biscuit pudding went bad (I know, bad?!) before I got to photograph it. But all is not lost--I've found many other wonderful things to spread this dreamy stuff on like...

my morning English muffin! Yay for rule-breaking!

And then I decided to abandon all social practices and went running around in a valley of springtime wildflowers! It was so life-giving, so freeing and magical to soak up the orange and yellow around me and just be.

And then we (Damapie and me) got hot fudge chocolate chip cookie dough milkshakes.

And then my grammar police tendencies took over, and I couldn't resist taking a picture of this:

(It kills me. You are only allowed to butcher the English language, in my opinion, if you're doing it on purpose. And not at World Market...)

Does the randomness of this entry count as spontaneity? If so, I've achieved my purposes for today. If not...tack on a spontaneity class after biscuit school; I could use some help in both!

Are you a Myers-Briggs J or P? And do P people really have more fun? (If you don't subscribe to this school of thought, you are welcome to tell a funny story in your comment instead.)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

fire + roll

Profuse apologies to start. Oh, I know I promised 3+ weeks ago that I'd post every Monday, but time has been marching along, and then all of a sudden Monday, March 8th marched right across my face, as did March 9th and 10th. Whoops. Thanks to those who have been nudging (or prodding) (or kicking) me to update. I have a really good note from my doctor to explain my absence. Her name is Dpie, I hadn't seen her in almost 2 years, and we just spent a REALLY fabulous weekend (+ 3 days) together!

How, you ask?

Well...there was Cheeseboard. Fenton's. Lobster noodle/dim sum. The Dairy. And s'mores.

(Una and I enjoyed getting our knees seared by the crazy person-eating fire!) (Thanks to The Ranch brothers for being our Boy Scouts...and for the picture)

Dpie and I then proceeded to my lovely hometown, where we promptly got put to work on one of the most delicious things I've eaten thus far. Exaggeration? Hardly.

One day, The Mother and I were sitting around watching afternoon TV, and that hot mama of Italian cooking came on...yes, Giada and her ginormous head filled our small screen, and we were transfixed. As she talked, our eyes grew bigger and bigger, and we quickly jumped in the car the second the episode ended to get the necessary ingredients for dinner that night. Say what you will about Food Network celebrities; Giada knows what she's doing, and I'm so on board.

The Mother also makes her own sauce, so that just equals double delish. (Here, I am attempting to document the remains of our taste testing) (PS most of these photos are by Llamapie; isn't she talented?!)

I'll be honest with you; the lasagna rolls are mildly labor intensive. But I want you to know this, from every taste bud in my mouth to yours: worth it. Worth it, worth it, worth it!!!

Lasagna Rolls
(adapted from Giada's hotness)

marinara sauce
The most I could get out of the Mother (she's a secretive one) was this: chop up a bunch of onions, celery, carrots, and garlic pretty finely. Saute that all in a pot with some olive oil. When the veggies are soft, dump in 2-3 big cans of whole tomatoes (crushed is fine as well). Smash them with the back of the spoon you're stirring the sauce with. Simmer on low for a couple hours, season with salt and pepper as needed. At some point, pop in a couple cubes of frozen basil (or fresh if you've got it, of course).

lasagna part
1 15 oz. container ricotta cheese
1 10 oz. package frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
1 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
3 oz. prosciutto, chopped
1 egg
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
somewhere between 2/3 and 3/4 of a package of lasagna noodles
1 8 oz. ball of fresh mozzarella, sliced

Preheat oven to 450. Grease a 13x9 pan.

In a large bowl, combine the ricotta, spinach, parmesan, egg, salt, and pepper.

Bring a large pot of water to boil, salt it and add a little oil to it (I never do this normally, but it really does help for lasagna noodles). (You can pull out the noodles a couple minutes short of the recommended cooking time, since they'll be spending some time in the oven anyway. Just make sure they're pliable enough for rolling.) While the noodles are boiling, make the bechamel.

bechamel sauce
2 tablespoons butter
4 teaspoons flour
1 1/4 cups milk
salt to taste
pepper too
pinch of nutmeg

Melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Add flour and whisk for a couple minutes until golden brown. Whisk in milk and increase heat to medium-high. Keep whisking, add the salt, pepper, and nutmeg. At some point the sauce will thicken and become wonderful and creamy. When that happens, remove from heat and pour the sauce into the prepared 13x9 pan to coat the bottom.

Back to the rolls. As the noodles finish cooking, remove from water with tongs and lay on a plate or other large flat surface. Take a big spoonful of the ricotta spinach mixture and drop it toward the end of one noodle, rolling the rest of the noodle around the ball of ricotta. (I find this easier than spreading the mixture down the length of the noodle before rolling.) Arrange lasagna rolls in bechamel-lined pan.

Spoon marinara sauce (homemade or otherwise) on top and around the lasagna rolls. Lay slices of fresh mozzarella on top and sprinkle with additional Parmesan. Cover with foil and bake until sauce is bubbly, around 20 minutes. Uncover and let the cheese melt and get all golden and melty, maybe another 15 minutes. And yes, you should probably make plans to double this recipe now. Go ahead and buy the 30 oz. container of ricotta!

Name a place/person of random inspiration for you! (I know, Giada is not the most random person, nor the Food Network the most random place in the world for inspiration, but humor me, please!)

Monday, March 1, 2010

brain food

It was an exceedingly wonderful weekend. Friends came to see me! We kicked off the weekend as every party should be started: with the spoils of some free cheese (thanks, mom and the SMSA), slushes from America's Favorite Drive-In, deep talks, and laughs. Lots and lots of laughs. My heart is warm. Thanks y'all!

Brother also came home this weekend to be studious. Kind of completely different from how I've ever seen him go at it before. But such is the life of a typical college student: long periods of slacking punctuated by brief, intense times of self-flagellation for said slacking by burying oneself alive in books and other study materials. I miss the days. Anyway, I wanted to do my part to help him study, so I googled "brain food" to see what I could cook up. Wheat germ...pass. Brewer's yeast? Who comes up with this stuff? But then...chocolate?! Yeah, I'll admit I kind of skimmed/didn't really pay attention to the rest of the findings once my eyes landed on chocolate (can you blame me?) I knew his favorite baked goods usually include oatmeal and nuts, so out of the pantry jumped chocolate chips and oats and walnuts like magic (seriously). My work was cut out for me.

Dorie came to the rescue, as that miracle-working wonder woman tends to do. (PS: I kind of want to be Dorie when I grow up. But that's just a dream.) Upon first chew, I observed that they tasted a lot like the oatmeal carmelitas introduced to me by the lovely Arijaan...minus the caramel (which I don't always have laying around), but plus three of my favorite words in the English language (which I do always have laying around)--Sweetened. Condensed. Milk. We have been ensconced in blissful unity since last year's southeast Asia sojourn, and my life (and morning coffee) has been so much sweeter (literally) because of you, sweetened condensed milk. Never mind that one can of you used to cost me the equivalent of three bowls of noodles or chicken sandwiches. Worth it!

Brother, here's hoping your study snacks helped you ace your test today!

Brain Food Bars
(adapted from Dorie Greenspan's Chocolate Oatmeal Almost-Candy Bars)

Preheat oven to 350. Line a 9x13 pan with foil, then butter/Pam it well.

oatmeal layer:
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
2 cups packed brown sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla
3 cups rolled oats (I used quick cooking, but I'm sure old fashioned would be fine too)
1 cup walnuts, chopped (or your nut of choice)

Sift together the flour, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon in a medium bowl.

Using a stand mixer with the paddle attachment (or hand mixer), beat the butter on medium speed until soft and creamy. Add the brown sugar and beat for 2 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating for a minute after each one. Beat in the vanilla. Stir in the flour mixture on low until just combined. Still on low, stir in the oats and walnuts.

Set aside 1 1/2 cups of the mixture, then press the remaining dough evenly into the prepared pan. Set aside and prep the chocolate part!

chocolate layer:
1 14 oz can sweetened condensed milk (note: not evaporated)
2 cups chocolate chips (can also use 12 ounces chopped semisweet chocolate)
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup walnuts, chopped (again, you can use your nut of choice. Dorie also says to add raisins, but I put my foot down.)

In a double boiler, stir together the condensed milk, chocolate, butter, and salt. Keep stirring occasionally until everything is melted together. Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla and nuts.

Pour the warm chocolate mixture over the oatmeal layer and spread evenly. Scatter the reserved oatmeal mixture over the chocolate.

Bake 25-30 minutes, or until the top is golden brown (it will still be gooey in the middle). Cool in the pan on a rack for 2 hours. At this point, you have a couple options: chill in refrigerator for an hour or so to firm them up some more, or eat as is. Dorie likes them cold, but I opted for the latter. Cut into rectangles, squares, or other brainy shapes.

What are some things that help/have helped you study? (Your answers will be especially helpful because I've got a little GRE action going on in approximately...4 weeks. Oooohhhh no.)