Thanksgiving: The First Dinner

Happy Thanksgiving! May you be gently resting off a delicious meal and your digestive system not be giving you too much grief after all the abuse and pie you stuffed yourself with.

Another Thanksgiving away from my family. I’ve gotten kind of used to it, I suppose. But, the upside of being an expat, is that there are multiple Thanksgiving feasts to attend. So on actual Thanksgiving, I was invited to dinner through work, and I brought my now-traditional dish of baked mac’n’cheese, and tried something new with bourbon and chocolate pecan pie bars. Saturday I’ll be hosting and cooking most of the meal at my friends’ apartment, because of course.

Baked Mac’n’Cheese. I mean, we all know I’m a sucker for childhood-friendly chemical blast of Kraft mac’n’cheese, but I was convinced I didn’t like “real” mac’n’cheese for a while. Not exactly sure why…but this recipe is a bit of a hybrid between my aunt’s lobster mac and Alton Brown’s standard recipe. I haven’t found a good replacement for the lobster my aunt uses, however.

1 package macaroni, cooked al dente.
1/2 pound bacon, cooked and crumbled
2 cups milk
1/2 onion, diced
Green pepper, tomato, diced
2 – 3 cups shredded cheese. I used a mix of cheddar and smoked gouda.
Paprika, bay leaf, butter, 2 Tbs flour, 1 egg
Optional panko and grated parmesan

I cooked the bacon, set it aside, and used the same pan with a bit of the grease left in, melt in better. Whisk in the flour to start a roux.
Slowly add the milk, whisking it in to incorporate slowly. Then add the onion and bay leaf. After a few minutes, add the chopped pepper, tomato, and paprika.
Let that simmer for 5-10 minutes on low heat. Pour the cooked pasta into a baking dish, and mix up the bacon in there.
Beat one egg in a small bowl. Bring this and the cheese near the stove, and slowly stir in the cheese until its melted. turn off the heat, and beat the egg into this mixture.
Pour this all on top of the macaroni, and stir it up so its equally distributed. Then cover the top with panko crumbs and parmesan, then pop into a 350F oven for 30 min.

It’s hard to go wrong with this, and it can be tweaked a lot to fit people’s preferences. I’ve also fried leftovers, but that seems to be a little bit over the top.

On to the pecan pie. I don’t have a pie dish, and this was for a pot luck, so I thought maybe pie-bars might be a good solution. I went to Sanyuanli and was flabbergasted by the price of pecan (side note, no one uses the word flabbergasted  enough). RMB 50 for just about 2 cups. A bit steep, and I wanted to make a second batch over the weekend. I almost didn’t buy them. The stall keeper suggested I buy walnuts instead. I don’t particularly like walnuts, but I thought that I could mix them with the pecans. So, if you’re in a place where pecans aren’t terribly expensive, go for all pecan, or try with a different selection of chopped nuts.

1 1/4 cup flour, 1/2 cup powdered sugar, 1/2 cup butter
2 cups pecans (or whatever nuts you can actually afford)
3 Tbs butter
3 eggs
1/2 cup maple syrup, honey, or corn starch
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 Tbs bourbon
2 cups chocolate, melted

This smells so good I could eat the bowl as I was making it. First, make the crust, mixing flour and powder sugar with softened butter, placing it in a parchment-paper lined baking tray, and baking at 350F for up to 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, crumble or chop the nuts, and melt the butter in a pan. Toss the nuts over low heat for about 2 minutes then set aside.
Beat the eggs in a large bowl. Add the brown sugar, syrup, bourbon and vanilla.
Mix in the melted chocolate, and lastly, fold in the nuts. Pour this mixture over the cookie crust, and smooth with a rubber spatula until even. bake 20 minutes at 350F until set.

Ok this was less of a pecan pie and more of a fudgy nut chocolate brownie. But it was delicious. And someone else, who had a trusted family pecan pie recipe, also brought one, which was probably superior to anything I would have attempted.

Dinner was amazing, with all the right sorts of things, three different macaroni and cheeses, turkey and gravy and an AMAZING sweet potato souffle and surprisingly fantastic cherry-jello-based cranberry salad, among many other dishes and more desserts than you could shake a stick at, and a lot of booze, including a fantastic whiskey. I ate enormous amounts, traded recipes, lurked in a “dark children’s table” with other anti-social people avoiding talking to (perfectly nice) strangers, and eventually toddled home and went straight to bed.

Now, I get to figure out how to cook my own turkey and all the fixings tonight and all day tomorrow.

Eggplant Quinoa Salad and Baba Ganoush

Apparently I’m on an eggplant kick this week. My next wholesome-healthy dinner was eggplant and apple quinoa salad and miso soup with brown rice and silken egg tofu. I like egg tofu better than regular tofu, it’s slightly sweeter and custardy, and when the dashi was ready, I simply spooned pieces straight from the container rather than messing about with chopping small cubes.

The quinoa salad was rather simple, but amazingly tasty. One of those surprising recipes that I looked at and thought, hmm, well, that sounds decent, I’ll try it, and then I was surprised at HOW DAMN GOOD IT IS. I brought the leftovers for lunch today and it’s seriously making me want to do a happy dance at my desk. Considering my work persona is that of a grumpy robot who has been anonymously suggested to “make more friends,” something that makes me want to do a happy dance in a professional setting has to be seriously delectable.

The recipe calls for 1 cup of quinoa, cooked in 2 cups chicken stock, 1/2 green apple, eggplant, olive oil, cider vinegar, cumin, cinnamon, and salt and pepper.

I forgot the stock but mixed a pinch of chicken bouillon into the pot as the quinoa boiled. My fruit stand didn’t have any green apples and what they did have looked kind of withered and were expensive, so I bought fresh dates instead (also a nice snack post-workout pre-dinner).

I roasted the eggplant chopped into 1-inch cubes tossed in olive oil at 180C for about 25 minutes until golden and soft. I tossed them in a bowl with the quartered and pitted dates, the drained quinoa, 1 clove finely minced garlic, and a handful of fresh, torn coriander leaves. Then, I whisked one tsp. of cider vinegar with 2 Tbs olive oil, a pinch of cumin, 1/4 tsp cinnamon, salt, pepper, and a squeeze of lemon juice, and mixed it all together.Fresh dates are a good substitute for the apple, crisp and sweet and subtle. Serve warmed or cold, and get ready for ALL of the noms and happy feelings. IMG_0541

I had bought several eggplant at April Gourmet, so I roasted it all at once, and what I didn’t mix into the quinoa, I decided to turn into baba ganoush and eat it as a snack at work instead of chips or crackers and cheese, which, while tasty, probably isn’t the best snack to have every day. I actually spent a good amount of time Monday evening washing, peeling, and chopping a boatload of fresh veggies and separating into bags for the rest of the week. Green pepper, carrot, celery and cucumber neatly packed in ziploc to take to work or to eat when home. A much better option than devouring an entire baguette with butter, which I am slightly ashamed to admit to doing last Sunday, coming home from tutoring after having eaten nothing but oatmeal that morning.

The 2 eggplant for the dip I roasted quartered, and then scooped out of the skins all creamy and delicious. I can’t believe I refused to eat eggplant for the first 22 years of my life. Guess I’m making up for it now. Anyway, put all the eggplant innards into a bowl, and with a fork, mash it up, and then stir in 1/4 cup of tahini, 1/4 cup of lemon juice, 3-4 garlic cloves finely minced, cumin, salt, olive oil and chopped up coriander. Some recipes add yogurt, which I think I would do but didn’t have any on had. If you can control yourself, let it sit in the fridge overnight, and the flavors develop and meld and get all delicious.  Then, go at it with pita or crudite. Nom. Healthy, tasty, an alternative to hummus if you just can’t stand to blend one more chickpea (hey, sometimes it happens), and way better for you than blue cheese or ranch dressing.

Pork Chops in Garlic Wine

I got really sick last week. I mean like, deathly ill. All right, maybe not deathly ill, but it felt like it. Bad enough for me to go to the doctor AND take 3 1/2 sick days. Apparently some sort of respiratory infection has hit Beijing this past month. I blame the pollution. I couldn’t eat for several days, lost my voice, felt like I coughed up a lung…it was all very unpleasant. I spent five days in bed, except for when my ayi came several hours before I expected her to be there, and the place was an embarrassing mess. I’m still not exactly comfortable being at home while I pay someone to clean up after me, so even though I could barely breathe, I still rolled out of bed and tried frantically to put away laundry and tidy the worst of things before she could. But that effort entirely wiped me out and I had to take a nap while she cleaned around me.

My sickly efforts to nurse and nourish myself left tons of dishes from attempt at making soup–Beijing has absolutely no good delivery options for sick-person soup. It’s disgraceful. Basically all I ate for several days was broth, toast, rice gruel, and melon popsicles. I dragged myself to the doctor and they gave me a truck load of antibiotics to take, and for good measure, a coupe bottles of Robitussin, which has the wonderful side effect of making me feel like a reanimated corpse. Seriously, it puts me to sleep, but a horrible, crazy-dream filled d

eath-nap, makes my brain sluggish and my limbs unresponsive to trying to move, and weird heart sensations. Basically, awful.

I’m finally alive again, although still with lingering symptoms. It’s troublesome because I have a week left until my fight, and I went to training and found all my strength that I had worked up in the past three months had fled in five days. SO discouraging. But I’m on the mend and determined to get back to shape…in a week. Totally possible!

In that respect, I spent Sunday afternoon planning out a week of good, wholesome meals. The first of which being this pork chop dish.

I bought a package of pork shoulder chops and gave them a quick brine, about 30 minutes, in salt, sugar, whole peppercorns, bay leaf, garlic, and herbs. A quick brine works, or if the meat is frozen, however long you need to thaw the chops. I made a pot of brown rice and roasted frozen broccoli–straight from the freezer to a baking pan, removing any chunks of ice, tossing in a little bit of olive oil salt and pepper, and roasting at 200C until golden-toasted on the edges.

Pat the pork dry and season with salt and pepper. You’ll need 5-6 whole cloves of garlic, 1 cup red wine, 1/2 cup chicken broth, olive oil, butter, bay leaf. I was trying to use up an old bottle of wine, that was on its way to vinegar, so I also used a couple tablespoons of molasses.

Heat up a pan, and add the oil and some butter. Sear the pork a few minutes on each side, then remove. Add in the garlic. Let it get some nice color, then add in the wine and bay leaf. Let this cook down, then add the chicken stock and molasses (or not). Place the pork back in the pan and the heat on low so that the pork sort of braises. About 4-6 minutes per side. Remove the pork (it should be a nice, juicy,  just-barely-pink color when cut open) and reduce the wine until thick and the garlic is soft. Add in another tablespoon of butter to finish it off and season to taste. Spoon over pork to serve.



Lamb Chops with Couscous and Roasted Eggplant

Halloween came and went and I totally nerded out and sewed a blue dress from scratch and made a cute Tardis costume. If you don’t know what a Tardis is, well, we shouldn’t be friends. OK, that’s not remotely true, but if you do recognize it, I like you better. It’s a time travel device from Doctor Who, which at one point gets channeled into a woman’s body and says things like “biting’s excellent, it’s like kissing only there’s a winner” so of course it’s my favorite. I totally overestimated my skill with a needle and underestimated how much time it would take me to sew a whole goddamn dress with decorative things on it. So the costume that I had planned in my mind and sketched out at work looked 100% better than what I actually produced, but it actually didn’t turn out too badly. Cute-ish, and the skirt part of the dress turned out great,  and it was not ‘sassy’ or whatever euphemism for slutty the stores used this year. Plus, I made myself a little hat that actually lit up, I WORE A GLOWING HAT which was fun and whatever. Only about six people recognized me, which was totally fine, because one of those six was the bartender who decided I should get free drinks because it was his favorite. There are perks to hanging out with other  obscure nerds.

Also this weekend, I attended the Hilton Wine and Food tasting with several friends. Amazing. Really. Seriously. An excellent way to spend money. It started at 1, but I had to go to boxing, so I didn’t get there until a little bit past three. I went right after boxing (epitome of class? taking a five minute ice cold shower, putting deodorant on in the elevator of an office building, and applying make up in a cab….) and scanned floors for food first. There was a dumpling table and a Italian-pizza-esque-puff table, some noodles, cheese, bakery tables, and gelato! I was a little saddened by the dumpling table, who gave everyone big paper plates, and very assiduously placed ONE dumpling on each plate. And then mine promptly fell to the floor. Saddest panda.

There were many wines and beers and brandies and bottles of prosecco to try. It was a lovely event, which included a rather ridiculous dinner, for which we inveigled some of the wine sellers to donate to us the opened, half-finished bottles. We scored quite a few, including a nearly full bottle of $75 cabernet, which I ended up with at home.

I couldn’t let it go to waste, and I wanted to make a meal to do such a lovely bottle justice. I went to April Gourmet after tutoring and perused the butcher counter. I decided to be a little extravagant and buy lamb chops. Remembering a bag of couscous at home, I also picked up some nice shiny eggplant.

I cut eggplant into quarters, tossed with plenty of olive oil, and a sprinkle of salt, pepper and minced garlic, spread out on a baking dish and popped into the oven at 200C. While I let that roast away until creamy soft in the middle with crackly-toasty scorched skins, I put couscous on to boil in chicken stock. Then the lamb chops. Pat the lamb chops dry with a paper towel. In a small bowl, mix salt, pepper, garlic powder, and Tuscan herbs (any mix of dry herbs you want really), then liberally sprinkle both sides of the lamb chops. Place in baking dish under the broiler. 500F for about five minute per side. My oven doesn’t get quite hot enough to broil, so after the time in the oven, I gave the chops a quick sear on the stove. Finally, I tossed the steamed couscous with oil, salt, a sprinkle of parmesan cheese, and four cloves of garlic that I had roasted in the bulb and then smashed up into a lovely paste. Scooped the eggplant out of its skin and onto the couscous, and finished with the lamb and a nice glass of the wine. A really nice treat for myself!

Red Velvet Wedding Cake

I’ve already covered red velvet here, for Ginny’s welcome back to China party last year. But it was requested as a flavor for a wedding cake that I’m making (practice for my sister’s next year!)

The bride went with very simple (it’s more of a Beijing-centric friends celebration than a big wedding ceremony) design. White vanilla buttercream, red, red velvet cake.

I used a fairly standard red velvet recipe.

I made the two layers of the cake on Tuesday evening, and froze them, and let them thaw on the counter early Saturday. Friday evening I was going to make all the cupcakes, but I fell asleep almost as soon as I got home–long week! And, with over 80 people in attendance, I had a lot of cupcakes to make. I woke up at 5:30 in a complete panic, remembering that not only did I need to bake 60 cupcakes and decorate them all plus the cake by 11:30, but that I hadn’t cleaned my apartment, and a photographer/journalist was coming over to take pictures of the frosting process as a part of his background story on the participants of White Collar Boxing.

I flew around making sure everything was spotless, hid all the weird stuff, and tried to make the place look sort of cute, then started on the cupcakes. I finished a couple batches, and whipped together the American buttercream frosting. Butter and powdered sugar was spun out everywhere, including all over me. I mean, not a huge surprise, and generally I wear big t-shirts that aren’t damaged by a little mess…but then I remembered, high-resolution photos. I had to change shirts to my cutest/most respectable pajamas (yoga pants and a t-shirt, and a cute apron) and did my makeup, feeling slightly ridiculous. Vain and ridiculous. But there’s already a photo of me mid-pushup being circulated out there, and several that look like they’ve been lifted from an ’80s training montage, so forgive me this little vanity.

The reporter showed up at 9:00  when I was about 75% done with cupcakes and had successfully put together the frosting. He took many, many photos of my house (so glad I took the time to clean!) including my adorable pantry book shelf, and my neurotic fridge with grocery list written in chalk pen, as well as many close ups of me putting together the cake, frosting the cupcakes, putting cupcakes in the oven, etc. As slightly unnerving as it was to try to create newsworthy frosting flowers with a  giant camera poking in at all angles, it was a better experience than the interview during class. Sure, the sparring photos are badass and I hope he got a few great shots of punches landing, no one really needed that attempted-push-up-facial-close-up photo.

The bride requested red velvet with plain white vanilla buttercream, no specifications on the design other than simple. So I made one 8-inch circular layer cake, with a layer of frosting in between. I had to make a triple batch of frosting (3 cups of butter, lost track of how much powdered sugar).

Carefully frost the cake with a crumb coat, and then use a clean spatula to add another thick layer, and smooth it all around. I piped a line around the edge, smoothed it over, then piped little drop-rosettes around the edge and where the cake met the platter. It looked rather elegant if I say so myself.

For the cupcakes, I found a tutorial on how to frost pansies with a rose-petal tip. I tried, I really tried, to make roses, but I just managed indiscriminate blobs of white. The pansies were much easier. With the round edge of the tip facing down at the center of the cupcake, raise your wrist so the tip moves out to the edge of the cupcake and then back, in a horse-shoe motion. It creates one petal. Rotate the cupcake and repeat. Five petals makes a lovely flower, then squeeze a little blob in the middle and cover with sugar pearls.

Cupcake Tower

Cupcake Tower

Cannoli Bites

Pizzelles. Italian rainbow cookies. Ricotta cake. Cannoli. I miss Italian desserts. Growing up with Mike’s Pastry, Modern Pastry, and the countless other just as good but not as well known Italian pastry shops just minutes away, they punctuate my childhood memories.

It occurred to me several months ago to make cannoli, then I took a closer look at a recipe, and realized I would need special deep frying tube molds for the shells. Time and effort got away from me, but then Pinterest let me know about baking cannoli shells in mini-muffin pans to make bite sized cannoli.

So here goes.

The filling is really quite simple. I used my homemade ricotta cheese mixed with store-bought mascarpone, mixed with powdered sugar.A bit of lemon zest would be a nice addition, but I didn’t have any. It’s 12 oz. ricotta, 8 oz. mascarpone, 1/2 cup powdered sugar, but I sort of just mixed until the consistency seemed right.

The dough:
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus the surprisingly large amount used for dusting while rolling
2 1/2 Tbsp granulated sugar
1 tsp cocoa powder
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 pinch nutmeg (optional, but it really jazzes up the flavor!)
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 cup butter, melted
1 large egg white
6 – 8 Tbsp water (the recipe called for apple juice, which I didn’t have. The first time, I used buttermilk, the second batch used water)
2 Tbsp white  vinegar

MIx the dry ingredient together, turning with a whisk. Then, pour in the melted butter, and after that’s been mixed in, the egg white. Mix the water/juice/buttermilk with the vinegar, and then gradually stir into the flour. Start with 6 Tbs of water, and add more if the dough is too dry. Once a sticky doughball forms, wrap in plastic and stick i the fridge for an hour.

After chilling, roll out to 1/8 inch thick, and cut out circles. The dough gets tough each time you roll it out, so my strategy is to roll out a small circle with a scant handful of dough, cut out as many circles as I can fit, and then set the scraps aside. Once all the dough has gotten it’s first roll out, I combine the scraps and roll it out flat again.

Fit the dough circles into mini muffin pan (ungreased!) to create the cups. Place in the 400F (200C) oven for 8-13 minutes, once theyve gotten golden. Let them cool enough to handle.

I made these twice. The first time, the cookie cutter I used was just slightly too small, and the “cups” came out with bubbles in the bottom and didn’t have much capacity for the filling, but they were tasty, with just the right hint of cocoa, cinnamon and nutmeg. The second time, I went a size up in concentric rings, and the cups came out much better, except I added a bit too much cocoa powder and the color was slightly off from the perfect golden brown I was aiming for. But they still tasted great.

I melted chocolate and dipped them half way in. I tried to just dip the rims, but the pastry cups were too small, or my fingers are fat and clumsy, because I kept dropping them and chocolate got everywhere. But the half chocolate dip worked perfectly well, and I think it’s a nice, decorative touch. Let the chocolate set (or place the tray in the fridge to speed the process along)

Piped the ricotta filling in, and that’s it! I prefer my cannoli unadultered, but you could, I suppose, add chopped pistachio or mini chocolate chips on top.

Chocolate dipped shells cooling

Chocolate dipped shells cooling

Adorable Cannoli Bites!

Adorable Cannoli Bites!

They turned out really well. If I was back at home, or anywhere with a good Italian bakery, I wouldn’t even consider making them, but here in Beijing, they are a well-received treat. I brought the first batch into the office.

The second batch I served at an event we hosted that didn’t have the budget to get catering–most places charge at least RMB200/per person. So instead I whipped up a couple trays of treats–bacon wrapped dates, quinoa fritters, bacon jam spread on baguette rounds with letter, cucumber and tomato, a bowl of hummus with pita bread and crudite, and called it a night.