Challah Bread

Sliced challah

My friend Anna is a terrible influence. If you’ve been following this blog for a while, I’m sure you’ve heard me talk about her, usually by her nickname “culinary-school-dropout.” Even though she didn’t finish the program with me, Anna still loves food and loves to cook and is usually the person accompanying me to various small, ethnic restaurants around the city. The other thing you need to know about Anna is that she’s obsessed with buying cookbooks, that’s where the bad influence comes in.

Brush with egg wash

Last week we ate lunch at TAC Quick (the most amazing tom kha soup, by the way). Afterwards Anna suggested going to Borders to look at the cookbooks. I agreed but on the condition that she didn’t allow to buy any (I have plenty, too). After an hour and a half of browsing the cooking section, I was hooked on a new book that I just HAD to have: The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion: the All-Purpose Baking Cookbook. This purchase was a necessity, I didn’t have any good all-around baking books, besides, Anna bought two!

There are many recipes in the book that I can’t wait to try: the blueberry buckle, herbed dumplings, whole wheat loaf, fudge drops, etc. But I decided to start with my sister’s favorite bread: challah.

Challah loaf

Although I’ve made challah before, I didn’t have a recipe I truly liked. The one we followed in culinary school bastardized this enriched bread by adding lemon and orange zestĀ  – ugh. For me, a great challah should be soft, slightly sweet, and void of any add-ins like zest or raisins. And the few other recipes I’ve tried were a little ‘eh.

So, how did the King Arthur recipe compare? For that I’d have to refer you to my sister, the challah expert, who wrote: “It was very good. I only got a few pieces before Jeff managed to eat it all. I really like it and thought it was sweet. It has my expert seal of approval.”

On that note, here’s the recipe, which is truly much easier to make than it may seem:

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Beef & Barley Soup Yet Another Way to Enjoy a Superfood

Beef and Barley Soup

Beef and Barley Soup

Remember how excited I was to make my Grandma’s Junk a few weeks ago? Not only was the junk delicious, but it also piqued my interest in barley as a superfood and got me thinking about other ways to use this incredibly nutritious grain.

Enter beef and barley soup. This was simple to make, again a one-pot dish, and was so incredibly filling with all the vegetables and barley that it could easily be dinner all on its own.

Look how hearty the soup is!

Look how hearty the soup is!

The recipe is pretty basic: sweat the vegetables (onion, celery, carrot, mushroom) in a bit of olive oil. Add diced beef, then barley, broth and seasonings, and let simmer. But there’s a suprise ingredient that elevates this version over all others by adding tremendous depth of flavor: soy sauce. It may sound like a strange choice for a classic soup but you’ve got to trust me on this, it works.

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Celebrate Mardi Gras with Shrimp & Andouille Sausage Gumbo

Shrimp & Andouille Sausage Gumbo

Mardi Gras is tomorrow and since I couldn’t be there to join the festivities, I thought I’d bring some of the strong New Orleans flavors into my own kitchen. I chose my favorite dish that didn’t include crayfish (I just love those little mudbugs, but it’s near impossible to get them fresh here): gumbo with shrimp and andouille sausage.

A great one-pot dish, gumbo is easy to make yet fairly labor intensive. And be forewarned: because of the long-cooking dark roux, you and your home will smell like the fry station at McDonald’s for at least 24 hours. Here are the various stages of roux (the thickener made from flour and oil):

White roux Blond roux

Brown roux Dark roux

This gumbo has a bit of a kick which will intensify if you reheat it the next day. Serve it with rice and you’ve got a great balanced meal.

I had the great opportunity of visiting New Orleans last April for the IACP convention (see: Eating my way through New Orleans). As I was with a couple hundred foodies, the city really rolled out the red carpet with samples of many classic hometown dishes, everything from jambalaya to calas to po’boys. I was truly smitten with the warmth and soul of the food as well as the people who were truly inspiring.

Holy trinity vegetables

Eating my gumbo with the popcorn long grain rice I picked up during that trip brought back those wonderful memories, and will have to be enough until I can visit New Orleans again.

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Spaghetti Agli e Olio with Shrimp and Broccoli, AKA My First Kitchen Failure

Spaghetti agli e olio with shrimp and broccoli

Prior to the age of 21 I had rarely cooked. I could manage in the kitchen, usually baking cookies or cake from a mix, reheating food in the microwave, scrambling an egg and even boiling spaghetti and mixing it with a canned sauce. I thought I could cook, but I truly had no idea.

I finally realized this just before my 21st birthday when I moved to Florence, Italy, to study for a semester. I took the usual for-credit but easy classes while I was there: intro to Italian, art history, photography, even some type of political science class I can no longer recall. My last class wasn’t for credit, I signed up simply because it sounded fun and interesting: Jewish-Italian culture through culinary traditions. Basically, a cooking class. At the time I never could have predicted that class would have such a profound impact on my life.

Ponte Vecchio, Firenze

After the first few lessons I felt motivated to cook for myself at home. I chose an American-Italian dish I’d ordered many time in the States: spaghetti agli e olio with shrimp (spaghetti with garlic and oil). And I was going to use raw shrimp. Yes, RAW! And these came from the Central Mercado and luckily they weren’t head-on but certainly weren’t peeled and deveined. I didn’t even know shrimp had to be deveined.

Tuscan country house

I shopped for the rest of my ingredients: a bottle of high-quality olive oil, dried spaghetti, a head of garlic and broccoli to go with my shrimp. And for the first time ever made my own dish by sauteing the shrimp (which I think I peeled), chopped garlic and broccoli florets in the olive oil, boiling the spaghetti separately and adding it to the mix. I’m certain I didn’t use enough salt, but what the heck did I know back then?

At a Tuscan Winery

When I was done cooking, I poured myself a glass of wine (basically because I could) and set it beside my heaping plate of pasta. I was so proud of myself I even took a photograph (again, a warning of what was to come as now I photograph everything I eat). Then, with my mouth watering and stomach growling, I took my first bite.

Replica of the David

Yeah, you guessed it. It was nasty. I don’t remember the specifics of that meal other than an overwhelming sense of disappointment. I believe the pasta was bland, the shrimp were tough and of course still with their veins. And the broccoli made no impression whatsoever.

Duomo in Florence

I wound up tossing the dish and probably ate Ritz cracker and Nutella instead. (That was my favorite snack there – I don’t know how I didn’t come home weighing an extra hundred pounds!) But I didn’t give up on it. I asked my cooking instructor what to do differently – he of course said to use more olive oil, his answer to everything. And I bought an English-language Italian cookbook that remains on my bookshelf to this day. I practiced and eventually got it right, and discovered this was really an easy dish, it just took some trial and error for this novice cook.

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A16′s Pistachio & Almond Cake with Orange Salad

Pistachio and Almond Cake with Orange Salad

Pistachio and Almond Cake with Orange Salad**

I received the gorgeous A16 Food + Wine cookbook as thank you gift from my sister around Christmas but haven’t used it until today. I don’t know what I was waiting for as the pistachio and almond cake with orange salad that I made today was delicious.

Almonds and pistachios in food processor Ground almonds and pistachios

Butter, sugar and lemon zest Adding the nuts

The book is co-authored by A16 restaurant’s chef Nate Appleman, wine director Shelley Lindgren and Chicago-based food writer Kate Leahy. Named for the A16 highway in Italy, the first section of the book focuses on Italian wines while the second section is about the food. I know I said it before but it’s necessary to say again: this book is stunning! The photographs, many of which were taken in Italy, are rich and vivid and make my mouth water.

Adding the flour Baked pistachio and almond cake

Sliced blood orange Heated and thinned marmalade

I could only hope the cake would taste as good as it looked in its photograph. And it did, although my photo above didn’t do it justice. The cake was delicious right out of the oven – moist, aromatic and nicely textured but somewhat subtle in flavor. And it was very filling. But what made it stand out for me was how the flavors really came together with the tanginess of the yogurt and sweet acidity of the oranges (I only used blood oranges instead of mixing those with navel oranges as I accidentally ate the navel orange for a snack yesterday). As I was eating, I actually smoothed the yogurt into a thick, frosting-like layer and cut the oranges into bite-sized pieces and piled them on top of the cake to create the most perfect bites.

The perfect bite!

This is a dessert I’ll make for entertaining. It’s simple and fairly quick to prepare, can be made in advance, and the presentation is impressive. Here’s the recipe: Read more of this >>

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