I think you can split people into two groups, based on their preference for chocolate or vanilla. I'm a vanilla person. But that doesn't mean I would order vanilla ice cream. That's boring. I like a lot of stuff in my ice cream.
But my friend Mike brought me some Madagascar vanilla beans back from a trip to Mauritania, with the proviso that I use it to make him vanilla ice cream. Here's roughly how the conversation went:
Mike: Make me vanilla ice cream.
Me: Sure. What do you want in it?
Me: Right, but what else.. oreo, heath bar, a caramel swirl?
Him: Nothing else. I want plain vanilla. Don't mess up my vanilla ice cream with basil, pepper, or any other nonsense..
And then he trailed off into a stream of invective sufficient to convince me he really wanted vanilla with nothing in it.
So that's what he got, and I have a new flavor- Mike's Plain Vanilla.
See those little black bits? Those are vanilla bean seeds. Cool, huh? Here's a close up, from the mostly-eaten final product. (Sorry for the crappy quality; my camera was on the fritz, so I took these with my phone.)
Keep those in mind next time you order ice cream somewhere.. vanilla ice cream should have those little black specks. No specks = they didn't use real vanilla beans. Maybe they steeped the pre-frozen base with the bean (sans seeds) or something like that, but real vanilla ice cream has those flecks. The same thing applies to banana ice cream. Banana should be gray, not yellow. (Go peel a banana and look at the fruit.. gray, right?)
Vanilla beans, hand-carried home from Africa. Now that is the way to get me to make you ice cream. (Okay, fine.. all you need to do is ask. But bringing my something cool from your trip doesn't hurt).
All vanilla ice cream recipes call for cutting open the bean and scraping out the seeds. But they don't tell you it's kind of a pain. Cutting it open is pretty straightforward, but when I tried scraping it out, I got the seeds everywhere. I bet Williams Sonoma has a Vanilla Bean Scraper for $14.95.
Steeping the base. All this ice cream is is my standard base, steeped with the bean overnight. Easy.
Here's what I don't get.
Everyone knows I love ice cream. And I'm more than happy to make some and bring it over to your house, so long as that's immediately followed by us eating it. I've even been known to trade some freshly made Chocolate Hazelnut icecream for a haircut.
And so when someone invites me over, I usually offer to bring some ice cream, and ask for flavor requests. And here (yes, sorry, this was a long intro), is what I don't get: I rarely, if ever, actually get a request back.
So I was pleasantly surprised when I finally got a flavor request, for strawberry ice cream. Okay, sure, that's not terribly exciting, but it's a classic. And it may have been my first time making it, which is always fun. I've made strawberry sorbet a lot, and strawberry frozen yogurt a couple of times. But ice cream? I don't think so.
Now, I have to admit, I didn't actually make strawberry ice cream. No, I decided that was too boring (cough- my friend Mike asked for plain vanilla! cough). I made Strawberry Basil instead. Doesn't that sound cool and refreshing? No? Well.. in the event, the basil flavor didn't really come through very well. But, the strawberry was good, and I got these cool layers from the strawberry syrup.
Stawberry syrup, cooking down
Here's the ice cream base all mixed up, ready to churn.
The finished product. Are there specks of green (basil) in there? I can't tell. I'm red-green color blind. Apparently I didn't take a picture from the side, where you can see the layers. Next time.
Bottom line? Did you eat some really good ice cream recently, or an unusual flavor? Let me know, and we can probably work something out.
It's okay, it's a good surprise.
Here it comes. See this?
I know, that looks just like my standard cornbread muffin. The one with creamed corn and chopped jalapeno. But it's not. It's in disguise. It's hiding a secret. Wanna guess?
<your guess goes here>
No, no. That's a stupid guess. I'll tell you anyway. Ready? Maybe you should sit down.
No, really. Grab a seat.
Fine, don't. Just don't blame me if this knocks you over.
That, my friends, is a cornbread muffin.. with BBQ Pork inside!
Isn't that awesome? I saw it on Food Wishes (Kernel Porker's Barbecued Pork-Stuffed Corn Muffins
) a few weeks ago and knew I had to have it.
Two of my favorite things: cornbread and bbq, together in one neat little package.
Really, I don't have anything else to say. Maybe no one else will think this is as awesome as I do, but I'm okay with that. This is the coolest thing I've seen in a long time.
Let's be clear about something: I don't know how to bake.
Every once in a while I'll make a pan full of brownies, but that's just following the directions on the back of a box- that's not real baking.
My mom is a great baker. I've been in the kitchen while she works, double-checking the recipe and carefully measuring out the ingredients. Her baked goods inevitably come out great, but the secret to her success (in my opinion, anyway), is that she's a perfectionist. Once she let me help her drizzle chocolate on a batch of chocolate- and caramel-covered pretzels (which are, of course, outstanding), and if she was anyone other than my mom, she would have thrown me out of her kitchen.
The issue then, and now, is that I am not a perfectionist. Rather, I subscribe to another school of thought, characterized by, among other things, the 80/20 rule, 'perfect is the enemy of good enough', and my favorite, 'I'm hungry, when do i get to eat'.
This leads to the topic of today's post- baking bread. See, I love bread. I really love bread (and my occasional bouts of low-carb dieting only serve to make me crave it more). But actually baking it.. well, that has always seemed like a Sisyphean task, and worse, one with a razor-thin margin of error.
Sure, I read Mark Bittman's review of Jim Lahey's No Knead Bread
in the Times, but .. flour? All over my kitchen? And having to clean it all up afterward? Worst of all, given my oft-observed complete and total lack of patience, coupled with baking's need for exactitude (closely related to chemistry, which has beaten me before
), the end product would likely not be very good. And one thing I hate is spending a lot of time and effort on something that comes out badly.
My one prior attempt at baking bread was a perhaps over-ambitious challah recipe that came out so badly that neither Dave (my then-roommate) nor I would eat it. Stop and think about that for a second- a bread so bad that two single guys in their early twenties wouldn't eat it. That should give you a sense of how bad it was.
How did this change? I'm not totally sure. At some point, I came across this video of Belgian Beer Bread
, and saw how easy it was. (Okay, fine, that's not quite true. My first thought was one of annoyance, since they made me watch the video to get the recipe. But then I watched it, and realized hey! this is much better than skimming yet another recipe. The video lets me see exactly what he does, and how and when he does it, mitigating the vague instructions too often found in written recipes.)
So on a quiet Sunday, I threw it together, and wouldn't you know, it came out great. Well, great for my first time. (Yup, you heard me, first time. I've decided that since no one but me remembers that infamous challah episode of several years ago, I can just pretend it never happened. Don't like that? Too bad, get your own blog.)
This early success was probably beginner's luck, since I've had mixed results with my breads since then. A similar loaf with whole wheat didn't rise at all. Another attempt, with a mix of white (2/3) and wheat (1/3) flour was barely better. Most recently, a dough of 100% white flour and no beer, but with rosemary and dried cranberries, came out much better. Good enough, in fact, for Katie to make sandwiches for her lunch. She's the true barometer for the final product in my kitchen, since I'll eat just about anything.. except the challah that never happened.
Here are some pictures from the Cranberry-Rosemary bread. (Special thanks to Mike and Rachael for giving us their rosemary plant when they moved to San Diego.) I used cornmeal so the dough wouldn't stick to the pan, and it came out looking like a mutant.. tasted good though.
What does this mean for you, dear reader? You're a witness to the start to a glorious new chapter: baking bread.
I've come to a momentous decision. And like all such decisions, some people won't like it. But I think this will, eventually, turn out for the best.
Ready? Here it is: I'm going to write about something other than ice cream.
Hey, ice cream, where are you going? Wait, I can explain. It's not you, it's me. Can we still be friends?
Oops. Looks like I'll be sleeping on the couch tonight.
Where was I? Oh right.. Don't worry- ice cream is still my favorite thing to make, and it will maintain its rightful prominence here. Don't think of this as a betrayal- think of it more as answering the question 'What can i serve WITH all this incredible ice cream?'
Besides, you and I both know that you'll eventually get bored of reading yet another 'I made some ice cream (albeit pretty awesome ice cream), and then I ate it' post.
Obviously, for my first non-ice cream post I had to go big. As luck would have it, we went to H Mart on Sunday, and picked up:
Crabs. Stone crabs, to be precise.
And before you ask, yes, I made Katie put them in the boiling water. Why? Because they were still alive and moving, and I wanted no part of that.
Before you start questioning my masculinity.. two things. First, yes, of course Katie wears the pants around here. I've never made any secret of that. And second, a couple years ago we got some whole squid from a market in Chinatown, and she made me clean and prep them because they grossed her out.
So really, this wasn't about my not wanting to kill some poor crabs before I cracked opened their shells and ate their delicious meat. It was about maintaining the balance of power in my kitchen.
Hey, stop shaking your head. Don't judge me!
Fine. You know what? Let's just move on.
This is what it looked like after we opened it up. Like something from Alien, huh?
They were really easy to make:
- Fill a pot with some water and bring to a boil.
- Add the crabs, and once the water returns to a boil, lower the heat to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes.
- Remove the crabs from the water, and once they're cool enough to handle, remove the shell and eat. They're delicious.
Except.. while their effort:meat ratio is better than it is for Maryland Blue crabs, but considering that we had to take showers after dinner (due to the splatter from cracking the shells), I'm not sure it was really worth it.
And before someone goes into ice cream withdrawal (yes that's a real thing, look it up), I made Peanut Butter & Honey ice cream a few days ago. Check it out:
Mmmm, tasty goodness.