You'll find some affiliate links within my blog posts, which means I get a small commission from anything you purchase that I recommend (at no additional cost to you). Thanks for helping to support my sewing hobby!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The good, the bad and the ugly

As I had mentioned on Thursday, this weekend was all about lots of time in the kitchen. As in, everything else basically fell by the wayside. Granted, I did manage to call my brother on his birthday and straighten up the livingroom tonight, but that is about it. But I sure did cook. A LOT.

Friday I woke up pretty late. Jim and I, along with our Peru travel companions M and T, had gone to get our travel vaccinations on Wednesday afternoon -- 5 for each of us. It was a lot of shots. :( We were told we may feel like we were coming down with the flu for 1-2 days, but then we should be fine. I was good until Thursday night, when I felt like I'd been hit by a mack truck. Booo! But I was determined to get started, whether I was or wasn't feeling like crap. After a dose of ibuprofen and some caffeine, I felt somewhat human again and I was off and running!

To start my little cooking project I chose a recipe from The French Laundry Cookbook (TFL) that I thought would be a bit of a softball. You know, a warm-up of sorts before the real fun began. The selection was Staff Lasagna and salad with Staff Dressing. "Staff" referring to the fact that this is a meal made for and consumed by the restaurant staff before the restaurant opens for the evening. I've made lasagna before and while it's time consuming, it's not particularly difficult. Especially in light of the fact that this recipe calls for pre-bought lasagna noodles (unlike the rest of the recipes in the book).

The sauce, however, is a combination of oil, onion, garlic, fresh tomatoes and herbs. Mmmmm..... I've never made homemade tomato sauce and was excited to give it a whirl. After bringing home what felt like a ton of tomatoes (okay, 14 to be exact), they needed to be peeled, seeded and chopped. Simple, yes, but it just takes a while to get through all the steps.

All the ingredients get added to the pot in various stages and then you have a choice -- finish it on the stovetop or in the oven. Now, I wanted to use the oven method, however, I didn't have 3-4 hours to let the sauce hangout and cook. Thus, stovetop it was. And there I was faithfully, every 10 minutes scraping the bottom so it wouldn't burn. Wheeee.

Once it's reduced down to about a quart or so, it's off the heat and the herbs are stirred in. At this point my apartment smelled just amazing.

The cheese filling was mixed up while I was waiting for the sauce to cool. And then it was time to layer it in a baking dish, throw it in the oven and wait for it to get all mushy and yummy.

While the lasagna was doing a great job of making the apartment smell like an italian restaurant, I tackled the dressing. Now, I've made the ocassional vinaigrette that basically just calls for shaking a bunch of ingredients together, but never a dressing that requires an emulsion. Gulp. I got all the ingredients together, added the first few to the blender and started it up. And then came the egg. And then the oil. Lots and lots of oil. Now, had I, at this point, re-read the instructions, it would have been clear to me that while the recipe called for a certain amount of oil, it should only be added to the point where the dressing is thick and creamy. However, I neglected to read that part. So, while the blender whirled away, I just kept drizzling in the oil... and drizzling... and drizzling... til the thing broke! I've never actually witnessed a dressing "break" before Friday night, but I knew what had happened immediately. After a few choice words not suitable for the blog, I got my head together and tried again. This time catching the part about not just dumping a ton of oil into the poor thing. Success! Not only did it not break, it tasted great! I'll let you figure out which one is the oops container:

From there, the dressing was tossed with some romaine and joined the lasagna and garlic bread (recipe not in the cookbook) on the plate. Dinner was served!

Overall, the dinner was delish! But, like most recipes I try, there were some user errors. I got a little over-zealous with overlapping the pasta noodles and didn't do a very good job of seasoning the cheese mixture, so it was a little too noodle-y and the cheese didn't have a ton of flavor. Things that I'll fix next time. Also, I used pre-grated mozzarella for the topping (I can hear the cringing from some of you) which was okay, but I'm willing to bet the fresh stuff is a lot better. Lastly, hubs and I tend to like our pasta with a lot of sauce. While the sauce itself was absolutely fantastic, I just wished there had been double the amount.

[I just couldn't bear to use a jarred sauce on the leftover lasagna, but at the same time, it needed a little help. So... I might have gone back to the grocery store. And I might have bought another bushel or so of tomatoes. And I might have gone through the million steps to peel, seed and dice them up so that I could make another batch of sauce. :/ Yup. I just might have done that.]

Saturday started off with a little culinary field trip to Surfas, a gourmet kitchen and restaurant supply store. The place is just loaded with tons of fun stuff, but I managed to keep myself in check and just bought the few items on my list. But, I know I'll be back soon. :)

Dinner was seared sea scallops (Cooking Light recipe), salad and dressing leftover from Friday night, garlic bread and baked cucumbers, courtesy of Julia Child. I was so intrigued when this dish was mentioned in Julie & Julia that I just had to try it out. Hubs and I both thought it was just so strange to be eating baked cucumbers, but they were really good! Neither of us was wild about them paired with the scallops, but they were tasty nonetheless.

The other recipe that I tried from TFL this weekend was "Peanut Butter & Jellies" -- Peanut Butter Truffles and Concord Grape Jellies. Try is the key word folks. Let's start off with the bad and ugly first and then end on a high note, shall we?

I had read in Carol's blog about the awful time that both she and many of her readers had making these little jellies. So at least I had been forewarned. However, I thought that I would be in the clear since I had advanced knowledge of the problems and how to fix them. The recipe is simple enough, but getting the little guys to actually set seems to be an issue. My first go was a miss. Even after 4 hours, they never became more than a syrupy liquid.

So, I scraped the whole mess back into the saucepan and heated it up again. Once I thought I had heated it up enough, back to the pan it went. And even after hanging out over night, the sucker still didn't set. Grrrr....

Early this morning, for a third time, it went back to the pan and I boiled and whisked the heck out of it. At this point though, I'd lost so much of the original product that I had to put it in a much smaller pan.

And it sorta set. Sorta. Well, more so than the prior 2 attempts, but it was still sticky enough that I couldn't get it off the plastic wrap. The few bits I peeled off with my fingers were tasty. And I bet they are even better if they set properly. But after a full weekend of cooking, I just couldn't start over again. I'm working up the nerve to try it again in a week.

Okay, now on to the good part of the recipe. The truffles are so. freaking. yummy. Chock full of peanut butter, sugar, butter and chocolate they were easy to make and their taste makes them well worth the effort. The first step is mixing up the filling in the food processor. Now, I realize that I should probably have had a larger food processor to make them, but since I didn't feel like buying one this weekend, my little 3 cup guy just barely made it.

Once the filling is all mixed, back to the fridge it goes to harden up. From there, you use a small ice cream scoop to make little truffle balls (stop laughing) and then back to the fridge they go to get hard. (no really, stop laughing)

While they are cooling off (snort), you melt a bunch of chocolate in a metal bowl. Mmmmm, chocolate....

The truffles are then double-dipped in the chocolate and set back in the fridge to harden. To finish, they are supposed to be rolled in unsweetened cocoa powder, but since I was a dumbass and bought the sweetened kind, I just left them as is.

Super easy. Super tasty. They even sorta make up for the fact that the jellies were such a complete and utter failure.

I would say the whole weekend was a resounding success! I'm a little tired from standing so much, but I had a great time tooling around the kitchen this weekend. Even with the snafus, I still feel like I'm learning so much and I forsee many more weekends like this. And what does the hubs think about all this? He thinks this all bodes very well for his stomach ;)


  1. You are my cooking hero. The homemade sauce sounds especially tasty!

  2. all of that sounds so good. i now know what to do with my thin skin tomato peeler, if i should ever venture to make sauce from real scratch.

    congrats on your first TFL recipes. :)

  3. I have so much to say here so forgive me for rambling:

    1) I adore making homemade pasta sauce. I make a ton and freeze it so there's always some on hand. I don't know why..okay, I do. It's because as you pointed out it makes the house smell great, is incredibly easy, and kinda impressive.

    2) I always double the sauce on lasagnas. What good is dry lasagna?

    3)I made a lime gelee a couple weeks ago and had a similar problem to your grape jellies. The gelee actually solidified fine (but I made a much smaller quantity) but it stuck the the plastic wrap making it nearly impossible to get out/use. Bah.

    4) I have the same food processor. But it's on its way out. The food processor makes the WORST noise when I try to use it (the hubs comes over to cover my ears because he's worried about damage. And last week the blender bottom broke off. Seriously, this thing is a year old!!!! I need something bigger anyway so I'm debating about demanding a new one versus getting a grown up food processor.

  4. I like a lot of sauce on my lasagna too. And I might have done the same thing as you might have done and bought more stuff to add to the finished product. ;)

    Congrats on your "you" weekend. You needed it. :)

  5. Wow! I'm so impressed! I totally need to try to make a lasagna. I've never done it but really want to.

  6. I'm so impressed and in awe of your trial and error. I would've have given up at 14 tomatoes and bought the jarred ones.

    I can't wait for more stories.

  7. lasagna is on my v-day menu. i'm still looking for a good recipe.

    and, like kate, i like to make and freeze homemade marinara sauce. i've got bags and bags of the stuff in my freezer!

    whew, you DID do quite a lot of cooking! you go!

  8. I am more and more impressed with your cooking efforts. You {almost} inspire me :)