Game of Thrones Dinner Party

***I wrote this post a month ago. And it has taken a month for wordpress to allow all the pictures to be uploaded because something is weird with the upload process. But, better late than never. Enjoy medieval -fantasy-cooking nerdery***

The mistake was staying up til four in the morning dancing. Well, more to the point, the mistake was drinking; one spiked bubble tea, several jello shots, too much champagne to think about, and a couple whiskey  ginger ales. Mostly regretting the champagne. But, it was a bachelorette party, so some excess had to be exhibited. But four thirty was stupid. China isn’t kind to the hungover.

Gray morning, thick concrete slab sky somehow glaringly bright. Not exactly warm, but uncomfortable, oppressive air. The streets reek of urine, raw sewage, the stench of unwashed bodies. The sidewalks are spattered with vomit, shit, and garbage. Twenty minute wait for a cab, which lurches its way through start-stop traffic.

Street corner in front of the KFC. It weirdly reeks of pot, which is decidedly not helping the nausea. Ten minutes waiting, until a man on a motorbike pulls up to the curb and approaches.

Aye. You. Laowai. This your goose? He grunts out in thickly north-accented Chinese. And, this, this bag of quail? This yours too?

He hands the bag over with a flimsy receipt, which is quickly stuffed into a backpack, takes the proffered bills, and disappears on his motorbike.

That is how my day began. I got back to my apartment, and unwrapped the goose and quail. I put the goose in a brine, and opened up the quail. They were frozen into a solid block of ice. I put these into a brine as well, to thaw.

While the birds steeped, I got to work on the rest of the menu. The plan was for me to make all or most of the food prep in my nice kitchen, and then ferry it all over in the evening to my friends’ apartment to finish up in a space that could hold all the guests.

Fancy menu of the evening

Fancy menu of the evening

The bread and salt and Umma’s Olive Loaf from the House of Black and White are from http://www.innatthecrossroads.com, except that I switched in half the amount of regular flour for whole wheat. I baked the olive loaf in the morning and the bread and salt at the second apartment, and made both loaves on Tuesday and kept in the freezer after the first rising. Both were tasty, although I preferred the olive bread and will definitely be making it again for regular consumption. Once everyone was present, I brought the bread out so everyone could break into it, dip a piece in coarse sea salt, and be assured of safe hospitality!

bread and salt, bread, scotch eggs

Square-ish braided bread loaf with salt dip, free formed olive loaf, and a bucket of scotch quail eggs.

The Dothraki Dormice skewers I made out of empanada dough (using half whole wheat flour), and stuffing circles with sausage and cheese (mixed gouda, mozzarella and cheddar). I shaped them into simple mouse-like shapes, used black sesames for eyes and nose, sliced almonds for ears, and pinched up little dough tails. They were adorable and tasty, although really only special occasion food because making them was annoying. They do store well in the freezer except the almond ears fall or break off.

Dothraki "dormice" skewers. Cheese and sausage stuffed rolls pastry.

Dothraki “dormice” skewers. Cheese and sausage stuffed rolls pastry.

For the “dragon” eggs, I made scotch quail eggs. I boiled and peeled the quail eggs on Thursday evening, and kept them in a tupperware with a damp paper towel. I seasoned about one pound of ground fatty pork belly with sugar, salt, pepper, white wine and a splash of cooking wine, paprika, five spice, minced garlic and toasted fennel seeds. After chilling the pork sausage mix, I rolled it flat between two sheets of plastic wrap. Dust the eggs in flour, wrap with meat, dust with flour, dip into beaten egg, dip into panko crumbs, then deep fry in oil until golden. This was the last thing I cooked before packing up and moving apartments, as they are supposed to be served at room temp. Although, they were really just amazing straight out of the pan when I tested the first one–the sausage was perfectly spiced, the quail egg yolk creamy, just an amazing mix of flavors. Possibly my favorite dish of the entire evening.

For vegetable side dishes, I served roast root vegetables (potato, sweet potato, carrot, turnip, and watermelon radish) and spiced squash. The vegetables I baked in batches (a large tupperware of them, since there were 15 people at dinner and at least two vegetarians) simple tossed with olive oil, salt and pepper. It took about an hour for each small roasting pan (three total) at 375F. The squash I cubed, tossed with maple syrup, nutmeg and butter, and baked for 35 minutes at 375.

The oxtail and mushroom soup was amazing. Like, hands down delicious, perfect, something I will eat many more times. It has the added benefit of being actually really simple, unlike some stews and soups that have a million ingredients. I sliced up a small onion, a carrot, and three cloves of garlic. First, I rinsed, patted dry, and browned the oxtail on all sies. Removed from the pot, I added a bit more oil, and tossed in the onion and garlic. Once those had softened for a few minutes, I caramelized half a can of tomato paste in the pot, then added in the oxtails, deglazing with a dash of wine, then pouring in one can of beef stock and about 6-8 cups of water.  I let this simmer for about an hour and a half. At that point, I added in the carrot and a mix of sriracha, oyster sauce, fish sauce, a dash of soy, salt and pepper, and a pinch of red chili flakes. Dried shrimp would also add in a nice depth here. After about twenty more minutes simmering, I added in three types of mushrooms; enoki, oyster and small fresh shiitake. I cooked this on Thursday evening and stored it in giant tupperware. It only got better for the wait–a really rich, complex broth, tender, falling-off-the-bone meat, and earthy chewy mushrooms. I served a bowl of barley along side it, simply boiled and dressed with olive oil, salt and pepper. Some people, like me, ladled the barley into the soup, while allowing for the vegetarians to eat it without meat.

Seriously Good Food: Oxtail and Mushroom Soup

Seriously Good Food: Oxtail and Mushroom Soup

Now, the quail and the goose. The goose had been mostly prepped, but it still had its head and feet, and the heart and liver were remaining in the cavity. I was planning on trying to make a tiny batch of foiegras with the liver, but my fridge broke down while I was having the dinner, and by the time I opened the fridge the next morning, it smelled dubious. Such a waste. Anyway, geese are kind of creepy and terrifying, particularly when dead. Their beaks have serrated teeth, their eyes are huge and full of judgement. I was not mentally prepared to have to chop off the feet and hack through the neck while it glared at me. I butchered it, brined it, rinsed it, dried, stuffed the cavity with two green apple cores, orange rinds, half a lemon, some celery, garlic salt and pepper. I pierced the skin all over through the fat but not through the flesh, then used twine to tie up the cavity and truss it together. I don’t have a baking rack, so I propped it up on chopped up vegetables in a big baking dish. At 350 F, I roasted it for about an hour and a half, at which point the breast meat registered at 130F. I removed the dish, carefully carved off the breasts, and set them aside. Pop the goose back in the  oven for another 30ish minutes, until the thighs registered 160F. I let it rest for ten minutes, then carved it up into pieces: legs and thighs, getting off all the edible bits, and packing away. I used the carcass for stock, and the pan drippings for gravy. Once at the second apartment, I seared the breast and thighs skin side down in some goose fat until nice and crispy, carved the breast, and served on a platter with gravy on the side.

This goose is totally judging my life choices.

This goose is totally judging my life choices.

Quail. Oh quail. I won’t be cooking you any time soon. OK, here’s the thing, I’m not that squeamish when it comes to animal butchery, or so I thought. I cook, I handle raw meat all the time. I’ve gone fishing, dealt with filleting fish and boiling lobsters and such. I’ve gone hunting, shot my own birds, plucked them, what have you. But the lead hunter did all the dressing, and my dad let a butcher dress the deer he’s shot in the past (might as well have an expert help you). These quail, well, I assumed they would come dressed (ie, neatly packaged with all the bits removed and prepared for cooking). Well, you know what they say about assumptions.

It...sort of looks like they're doing the can-can?

It…sort of looks like they’re doing the can-can?

A pile of plump, stuffed little quail

A pile of plump, stuffed little quail

The roasted quail with butter-wine sauce poured over and a platter of sliced gooseThe roasted quail with butter-wine sauce poured over and a platter of sliced goose

When they thawed completely, I discovered that the birds were whole. Complete. Heads, feet, full body cavity. Still a little shaky on my feet, taking careful sips of water, I discovered that they hadn’t been opened up, and that they would definitely need to be disemboweled. I was…not prepared for this. In fact, hungover Robot gets a little queasy when she has to chop off head, feet, make an incision in the belly, insert her fingers into and scoop out the innards of a bird. Robot does not particularly enjoy the growing pile of disembodied heads of the cutting board staring back with beady little eyes while she’s hands deep in heart, lungs, gizzards, livers, and parts she doesn’t particularly want to identify.

I rinsed them all off, patted them dry, and stuffed them. The stuffing was made of finely chopped onion, carrot, celery and garlic sauteed in butter, mixed in with a cup of stale bread pulsed through the food processor, mixed into a paste with white wine and chicken stock, and seasoned with salt, pepper, and paprika. I stuffed each little guy, and at the second apartment, laid them in a baking dish, drizzled honey over each one, and baked at 350 for 20 minutes until a nice golden color. Then, I whipped up a sauce of 1/4 cup butter, white wine and honey, and poured this over the finished birds.

I baked the weirwood cake base of red velvet on Wednesday and froze it. Frosted it with cream cheese frosting after it had thawed for a few hours on Saturday. I created the white chocolate tree on Friday night. I lay down a silpat on top of a cutting board, and poured two melted white-chocolate-vanilla-bean bars into a tree shape, as well as some triangles to support it on the cake. I let the main trunk cool a little bit, and built up a rough face shape. On Saturday, once it was fully hardened, I used a tooth pick and knife tip to carve out the eyes and mouth, and then paint in red gel food coloring. I colored some leftover frosting to pipe on leaves, but I need to work on my piping technique.

Sad creepy weirwood tree. Red velvet cake under the white frosting.

Sad creepy weirwood tree. Red velvet cake under the white frosting.

Sansa’s lemony lemon cakes used my lemon tea cake recipe, although I upped the lemon juice and zest. they were sticky, moist, and very lemony. I topped with icing made from lemon juice and powdered sugar. Last minute, I poached pears in red wine, sliced them thin. The plan was to top with mascarpone cheese, but the container of cheese had inexplicably spoiled in the two days since I had bought it.

I had a little glass bottle of purple rock sugar as the poison “the Strangler,” made cider for the Wildling cider, drew everyone a House Sigil with Motto (for example, House Robot is represented by a unicorn and our motto is “Lets Run Til We Can’t Feel Feelings.” House Quizmaster is a Sphinx with the motto “Riddle Me This” because I’m clever. Or something. House Ginny was a Satyr with the motto “Mischief Managed”).

Ginny and another friend came around 5 to help with last minute touches and to sherpa all my stuff over to the second apartment, which saved me from many tears. It took all of our hands and back

I drew the sigils on fancy card paper as party favors for everyone to take home. We watched the first two episodes of the season and it was amazing. The food was great, I have to say. We may have been a bit subdued, as most people in attendance had also been out at the bachelorette party the evening before, but it was fun.   Conclusions: I like cooking. I hate dishes. I pretty much outdid myself this time, and before the last guest had even left, passed out on the couch. The quail was probably too much effort for me to want to cook again. The goose meat was tasty, but a bit tough to eat. Scotch eggs and oxtail soup were definitely the winning dishes of the evening and will be featured on my table many more times. I’m probably not going to do another dinner party where I cook everything for a while because I was still exhausted three days later.

Magic Cake

Magic Cake has been making the rounds on the internets in the past couple months. I had never heard of it before, and all of a sudden, all these pictures of delicious looking custardy white cakes, magical cakes, started to appear.

Of course I was intrigued. I pinned a few recipes to Pinterest, then forgot, then remembered that I wanted to try this sorcery/science.

The theory being, you mix a bunch of ingredients together in one bowl, pour it into a baking dish, put it in the oven, and while it bakes it separates into three distinct layers.

Sorcery, I tell you.

Or science. Whatever.

Ingredients: 1/2 cup butter
2 cups milk
4 eggs, separated into yolks and whites
1 1/4 cup powdered sugar
1 Tbs water
1 cup flour
1 tsp vanilla extract

First, heat the oven to about 160C (325 F), and oil a baking dish. Melt the butter and let it cool slightly. Also, warm the milk slightly. Beat the egg yolks and sugar until light, then mix in the melted butter and 1 Tbs of water. Use a handmixer or egregious force and whisk to whip the egg whites until they form stiff peaks, and set them aside. Mix the flour into the yolk-sugar-butter mix, and slowly beat in milk and vanilla. Slowly fold in the egg whites in about 2-3 batches. Pour this very liquid batter into the baking dish and carefully set in the oven. Bake for 45-60 minutes, until the top is a beautiful golden color. It’s going to be very jiggly still. Let it cool completely. I made the cake as my contribution to a informal little pizza party at my friend’s apartment, and was running late, so I stacked the still piping hot cake pan into an empty glass baking dish to be able to carry without melting my hands off or accidentally burning bits of me in the cab ride, and then popped it into the fridge for about an hour.

Magical Cake. Custardy, cakey goodness.

Magical Cake. Custardy, cakey goodness.

Cut and serve. It’s delicious. Like, really, really good. The top layer is sort of like soft, fluffy white cake,  the middle layer is custardy goodness very reminiscent of Cantonese egg tarts, and the bottom layer is a dense, moist, chewy cake layer. Science actually worked for me, and it was really cool. Definitely making again.

Hai Di Lao

For the past couple weeks, I’ve had this unending craving for hot pot. And, I’ve heard many things about must-go hot pot spot, Hai Di Lao. They’re one of the more famous chains, and purportedly better than Little Lamb or Xiabu Xiabu. I’ve never been, and have been putting out hot-pot as a suggestion any time a group dinner comes up for the past month.

Finally, a friend had some friends in town and the timing aligned so that I was able to get my fix. We went to what I believe is their newest location, in the basement of the mall of Taiyanggong Station on Line 10. We arrived at 8:00. This is incredibly important for a decent hot pot experience.

The problem is this incredible Chinese phenomenon. People go to the restaurant with a line, because a line means its good and the best and worth waiting for. People also all eat like clockwork. Seriously. Everyday at my office, at 12:00, all the Chinese colleagues stream out, joining the mad rush of Chinese officer workers from every office in the vicinity, and hordes descend on all the restaurants and cafeterias and cafes. Should you leave, say fifteen minutes before 12, you’ll beat the rush. Should you go to lunch at 1, it’s empty. In this office, we all choose our own lunch hours, it’s pretty flexible, and yet I rarely see anyone leave later than 12:15. This also applies to dinner. Between 5:30-6:30, you will wait for a minimum of one hour to be seated at Hai Di Lao. I’m not sure any hot pot is worth me sitting and waiting for an hour. Outside the actual restaurant, Hai Di Lao has about 50 small tables set up just for the people who wait. There’s even a manicurist right inside their doorway who will PAINT YOUR NAILS WHILE YOU WAIT TO BE SEATED. Read that, and think about how ridiculous this is. This isn’t just even on Thursday or Friday nights. This is every night. But, should you go at say, 8:00, that waiting area will be completely empty, half the restaurant will be empty, and you’ll be ushered in immediately.

I’ve been told that they have a curry broth that is amazing, but it’s off menu and only occasionally available. We settled for the spicy hot pot (plain broth with a large bag of hot chili oil poured on top) and a mushroom based broth, which, to be honest, was a bit bland. We also only let them pour about 3/4 of the spicy oil in, and it was still too piquant for my taste. There is a self serve bar to make dipping sauces, but they charge per person (not per bowl, it’s help yourself to as many as you want, but per person). We told them three of our party of six would want sauce, but then all went up one by one. I personally enjoy crushed garlic, chives, a whole bunch of sesame paste, sesame oil, and crushed peanuts, with a little bit of soy sauce and vinegar. Hotpot at home, I’ll throw an egg yolk in there (very Taiwanese) but they didn’t seem to have any. Ginny made an excellent discovery with a western red pepper sauce drowned in sesame paste.

The highlight of this experience is the noodle dance. We ordered the hand pulled noodles. A chef will come over with a tray of wide thick cut noodles, and then start wildly flinging them around and ribbon-dancing with the noodle. Miraculously, the noodle never touches the ground. I’ve been told that sometimes, the noodle-dancer will have a little music player clipped to his belt. Unfortunately, our noodle-dancer must have been the apprentice, because he was not equipped.

The out of town guests also got to experience a little bit of China via our table neighbors. Clearly, they had been dining and drinking for many long hours, as one guy was…just obliterated. The rest of his companions were respectably behaved, but this guy…well, he stood up in his booth and saw us, and then shouts “LAOWAI! Foreigners!” And proceeded to shout “Hello!” “Beautiful Girl!” and “I LOVE YOU” over and over in succesion. Funnily enough, hello and beautiful girl were directed to the ladies, but the ‘I love you’ was very clearly directed at Bambi. He and Bambi proceeded to have a short, inebriated-on-one-end conversation, and he wanted to toast us all with baijiu. Despite this conversation being entirely conducted in Mandarin, he still turned to his friends, to ask, “Hey, how do I say ‘baijiu’ in English?” and when Bambi was like, nope, we know what that is, he was just utterly flabbergasted and surprised that he could understand Chinese.

To reiterate, entire conversation in Mandarin, then surprise about understanding one vocabulary word in Mandarin. I’d like to blame it on his intoxication, but seeing as how we’ve all had this exact sort of conversation with an entirely sober Chinese person, I can’t.

…And then, two days later, another friend with an out of town visitor invited me to hotpot, this time, to the Baijiazhuang  location. Obviously, I could not turn down the opportunity to stuff my face with more deliciousness. What really makes the meal is the sesame sauce. I ate pretty much an entire bowl of just sauce in the dipping of all of the tasty items from the hotpot. A new item, which I had never heard of before, is some sort of shrimp paste in a bag. A waitress comes over and pours it out like piping from a pastry bag. It puffs up in the soup, and is served with its own tasty soy sauce based sauce.  Also a very satisfying dinner, and when it started raining, the restaurant offered all the departing patrons free plastic ponchos. A+, Hai Di Lao, A+. I’m impressed.

Happy Star Wars Day (May the Fourth Be With You)!

I have made no secret about the magnitude of my nerdiness. I’m mean, ok, my parents never let me play video games so I’m less than educated on that aspect, holy crap do I love me some science fiction and fantasy. And this bothers me not one iota. I like being that weird girl who reads about dragons and spaceships and wizards and timelords. Except, that, so, sometimes, people look at you like you’re an absolute McNutterpants.

So, my dear friend Bambi had a birthday, and besides being an avid Star Wars fan, it also happens to fall on May the Fourth. His girlfriend asked if we could put together a Star-Wars themed cake and bring it to Tianjin to surprise him at his frisbee tournament (sidenote, Tianjin is stupid and smells like poop, more on that later).

I gave it some thought and decided to use fondant to decorate the cake, and was having trouble deciding between Admiral Ackbar (Bambi’s team name from summer league, and  favorite just for the ITS A TRAP quote) and Boba Fett, fan-favorite for badassery. In the end, I decided to go with Ackbar, but not before showing a few preliminary sketches to my coworker. He’s a what, twenty six some-odd year old typical white American guy, I figured that he might have some insight into the psyche of a twenty five year old white boy.

Here’s how this went down.

Robot: Hey. You’re a boy. Imagine if you were having a ten years old birthday party and liked Star Wars, which of these characters would you prefer on your cake? (for the purposes of this conversation, I said Bambi was 10, because…reasons)

Coworker: Hmm. Wait, what are these? Who are these? A helmet and a…squid? These are…”Star Wars” characters? Um, I guess that one ::makes eyes like he’s talking to an insane person::

Ah well, can’t win them all, I guess. So cake. First, I tried to make a vanilla cake Thursday night, but it collapsed into itself and wasn’t very tasty, so I scrapped it (put it in the freezer to make cake pops on a future occasion) and on Friday, made a pear cake. It was much denser and baked into two even layers, which is good, because fondant is difficult.

Homemade Rolled Fondant: 1/4 cup cold water, 1/4 oz. gelatin, 8 cups (2 Lb) powdered sugar, 2 Tbs shortening, 1 tsp vanilla, 1/2 cup glucose syrup and 1 Tbs glycerin.

I did not have glycerin, and couldn’t find glucose syrup OR corn syrup, so I used golden syrup instead. There seemed to be no problem, although I did end up using a lot more shortening.

Sprinkle the gelatin over the water, let stand and soften for 5 minutes, then over low heat, stir until dissolved. Add the glycerin, glucose and shortening, stir until melted, then remove from heat and add the vanilla (or whatever oil/extract flavor you desire).

In a large bowl oiled with shortening, dump the sugar and make a little volcano crater in the middle. Pour in the syrup mess, and use a wooden spoon (also covered in shortening) to incorporate as much as possible. As this point, I donned a pair of clean rubber gloves, liberally rubbed shortening over them, and lightly greased a silpat. Then, kneaded the fondant mix until all one big doughball. Mine was a little dry and didn’t keep together well. I added more shortening, then wrapped it tightly in saran wrap and a ziploc bag. Let it cure 8-12 hours.

The next morning, I unwrapped, donned the gloves, and worked the fondant in small batches, kneading until pliable (requiring, you guessed it, more shortening). To cover the cake I rolled out a big sheet of plain white fondant. I used gel food color to make pinkish-red for Ackbar’s head, and yellow to make some stars with tiny cookie cutters.

I cut out the basic shape of Ackbar’s head, and then used a Q-tip and black liquid food color to draw in detail (would have preferred a small paintbrush). I cut out part of his uniform out of white. I also dipped a Q-tip in green liquid color, and painted the red fondant to give a little contrast.

Pear Cake: I made the cake early in the morning and stuck it in the freezer to cool it off in time. I made two batches, and prepared the dry and wet ingredients all at the same time, and only incorporated jsut before baking each batch separately (hazard of an oven that only fits one pan and only owning one pan)

Sift together 1 1/4 cup flour, 1 cup sugar, 1/2 cup cornmeal, 1/2 tsp baking soda and 1/4 tsp salt. In another bowl, beat together two eggs, 2/3 cup buttermilk, 1/4 cup olive oil, 1 tsp vanilla extract, 1 tsp grated ginger, and 1/2 a lemon zest. Dice about three pears into small, thin pieces.

After mixing the wet into the dry, gently fold in the pear pieces, pour the batter into a parchment-lined and greased cake pan, and bake at 350F for about 45-60 minutes. The top being golden is not indicative that it’s finished–the first cake looked great and passed the knife test but was in fact actually still gooey at 45 minutes requiring another 15 in the oven.

On it’s own, this cake would be great drizzled with a little bit of caramel sauce. Since I was putting Ackbar on top, I made caramel sauce, let it cool completely,  and then blended it into a classic American buttercream.  Take 1 cup of brown sugar, 1/2 cup of cream, 4 Tbs butter, a pinch of salt and a splash of vanilla extract in a small saucepan, bring it to a boil over medium low heat, let it boil while stirring for about 3 -5 minutes, and then remove.

Some of the butter cream I colored green and blue to write with. The rest I spread between the two layers, and applied first a crumb layer, then an even layer all around the outside. After that, I rolled out the white fondant, and draped it carefully over the cake. This was my first time ever working with fondant. First of all, I did not roll the fondant large enough, and had to patch on pieces on the sides. There were also a few tears as the excess pleated over itself. I covered all the flaws with the yellow stars (attaching them with a dab of the blue buttercream), wrote the birthday messages with the green and added a few details to Ackbar, and called it a wrap.

Admiral Ackbar "It's a Trap"

Admiral Ackbar “It’s a Trap”

It looked great, if I do say so myself. Huge hit. The people of Beijing who witnessed this cake were astonished (we took the high speed train to Tianjin Saturday afternoon, the cake safely ensconced in a disposable Hefty tin foil tray with plastic lid). The security guards at the Beijing South station loved it. The ladies at the cheap Chinese restaurant in the station loved it. The people sitting around us waiting for the train to arrive stared at us like we were crazies.

High speed train? Too cool. It took us less time to get to Tianjin then it does to get from one ring road to the next. I’m sure Tianjin has its charms, but I experienced none of them. First of all, the people in Tianjin  forgot to send us the relevant information (ie, where the fuck they were located) when they said they would, so we had to chill for half an hour in the station in Tianjin with no idea where we were headed. Then, gypsy cab drivers got all up in my face about the cake. I don’t like strangers, and find most gypsy cab drivers to be pushy, rude, and generally terrible. Then, in the real taxi line, a police man actually, really, truly took the damn cake out of my hands. As in, grabbed the tray and started walking away from me. I nearly cut a bitch. Except not, because he was a Chinese cop and I don’t fancy the idea of Chinese prison, but I was NOT pleased. He did give it back, but it was a thoroughly weird interaction.

Then, our cab driver turned out to be a complete and total moron, coupled with frisbee organizers being space cadet assholes. Apparently street addresses are not a thing, because not one goddamn person from Tianjin who organized the event could give us an accurate address. “Just go to the south gate of this place it’s near there by some street food vendors” Bitch, do you KNOW how many places in any Chinese city that that describes? ALL of them.  Our cab driver translated South as North and went the long fucking way, and told us we’d “be there soon” fifteen minutes before he actually made us get out of the cab. Which, at that point, was the West gate and about half a mile from where we should have been. We had to walk, carrying a really heavy cake and someone’s forgotten athletic gear, because there were no cabs in the middle of nowhere, and this is where Tianjin started to smell like manure. Just the sweet, lovely smell of poop hanging in the air. But, in the end we made it, to a second tier third rate hotel with bathrooms that strongly smelled like urine and underwear and other…things…for sale in each room…uh sketchy.

The dinner was good, at least, and devolved in the way that tournament festivities devolve, the cake was unveiled to everyone’s pleasure, much cake was consumed by people (much love declared for the cake and the baker, excuse me while I preen) and then when the restaurant kicked everyone out at 10, we took over the parking lot.

The next morning at stupid o’clock we had to wake up, find a cab. It still smelled like poop, which, after all the beverages imbibed the evening before, was severely unhelpful. The first cab picked us up, yelled some things into a radio, and pulled over about thirty seconds later, telling us to get out and into a cab that was behind him. Sketch as fuck. The Tianjin train station had it’s very own pollution smog cloud in the first part of the terminal that came very close to making me vomit–literally breathing in burning tire fumes. Also, apparently the train station has a contract with Pepsi, because there was not a single goddamn Coca-Cola to be found in the entire place, and Pepsi is stupid (also, it was possibly fake because I thought I was going to die when I drank it).

In other words, wow I missed Beijing and was so happy to come home again.

Clam Chowder and Homemade Tortellini

I have a friend who has this amazing full-sized, almost Western, kitchen. I’m talking like, big, standard American sized oven, American size fridge, FOUR burners on the stove, a dishwasher, hell, there’s even space for a kitchen table. People can congregate and hang out in the kitchen while you cook. It’s goddamn amazing. Well, maybe not for you, but my kitchen is about two feet wide and fits one person in it, has two small burners, I had to buy a countertop oven that fits one baking dish at a time,  I barely have space for a dish rack to dry the dishes I hand-wash, and my 3/4 sized fridge and food doesn’t even fit in the kitchen–I keep everything in a bookshelf in my living room.

She also has amassed a great quantity of diverse ingredients while in Beijing, and is leaving shortly. So, on Monday, while I had a holiday and she had to work, she invited me to come raid her kitchen and make anything I wanted to use up some of her stuff. I gladly accepted this invitation. She even has a pasta machine. I’m like a kid in a candy shop.

We invited a bunch of people to dinner and I got there early afternoon after spending the morning to replenish my new fridge (ah yes, the old, broken, ice-filled, useless drippy box got replaced by a shiny new model that is smaller and has blue lights, it looks like a dance party is going to break out every time I open the door, which, let’s be honest, is kind of perfect for me except that blue does not illuminate the contents very well). I made ricotta cheese the night before, and spent the entirety of my afternoon making tortellini.

For the pasta dough: 3 cups of flour, I used a mix of all purpose and semolina. 5 eggs, salt, and 1 Tbs of olive oil. Mixed up into a nice smooth dough, let relax for half an hour, then run through the pasta machine in small batches. The dough dries up quickly, so keep covered with damp paper towels. Gradually roll the dough through the machine from thickest to thinnest setting, then cut out round shapes (or cut squares if you don’t have an appropriate biscuit cutter size).

I mixed 1 1/2 cups ricotta with 1 cup finely grated parmesan, sea salt and fresh cracked pepper, but filling is one of those things that can be anything, really. About a tsp of filling per pasta round in the center, then fold in half and seal. I dipped my finger in water and wet the inside edges slightly to make sure the seal held. Then, form the bonnet shape by tucking one edge under the other and folding. Keep these lined up on a well floured baking sheet, sprinkled with a little more flour, and covered by damp paper towel (they dry out quickly but stick to each other very easily)

For the last ten that I made, people had gathered and were snacking, so I added a smidgeon of bacon jam to the ricotta filling, boiled them just for a few minutes (put the tortellini in a pot of boiling water, gently stir, once they rise to the top they’re basically done), strained out and served plain as a little appetizer. The bacon jam addition was amazing. The rest of the batch I served at dinner in a tomato sauce.

Ricotta-parmesan filled tortellini in tomato sauce. Ricotta-bacon jam tortellini were heavenly and devoured instantly.

Ricotta-parmesan filled tortellini in tomato sauce. Ricotta-bacon jam tortellini were heavenly and devoured instantly.

Earlier in the afternoon before I got all dough-covered by the tortellini experiment, I put on a pot of clam chowder. This is definitely not a traditional New England clam chowder, if I tried to serve it in Boston I might get slapped, but it was quite tasty. There were three cans of baby clams that I had been asked to try to use up, and a chowder was really the only thing I could think to do.

First I diced an onion and softened it in some bacon fat. Then I added four diced potatoes and covered with about two cups of milk with heavy cream mixed in and a cup of turkey stock. I added a cup of sweet corn kernels (this is the very untraditional part!), and let this simmer until the potatoes were soft. I had added a scant pinch of sea salt and a generous grinding of black pepper to season, and then added the three cans of baby clams, which were quite salty, and let it keep on the back burner just staying warm until dinner. It was really, really good–the whole pot was eaten, along with the big pot of tortellini, farro salad, fried chicken, sweet potato fries with Sriracha aioli, cake pops made from leftover funfetti cake, and the magic cake, and really a silly large amount of wine. I liked the chowder the best, and will definitely make again, either as a clam-less summer corn chowder, or once I get back to Boston with fresh steamers instead of canned clams–I can only imagine that fresh clams would make it that much better.