Sunday, February 10, 2013

See's Blondies: Infatuation

This past summer I went to a fancy viewing party at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood -- the type of affair where there was complimentary valet, a hosted bar with real champagne and cocktails, and lots of miracle mascara.

I actually wore heels.

And a dress that didn't have food stains on it.

It was a very big deal.

Throughout the evening, servers were coming through with trays filled with highfalutan nibbles like burrata with bagnet vert; kale salad with pancetta bread crumbs; and mini-sliders topped with blue cheese, Nueske's bacon and housemade bread and butter pickles. There was a full dessert bar with trifles and layered budinos dusted with sea salt and all sorts of precious things that would make any food tooth weak in the proverbial knees.

As someone who is not typically inclined to attempt the awkward plate, fork, champagne flute, purse juggle (see: dress, food stains), I wasn't particularly interested in the lofty spread on this evening. I bypassed the burgers and kale for industry gossip and wine, perfectly content to steer clear of all edible entities until I was home and safely ensconced in something that would not need to be dry cleaned.

That is until the guest-of-honor's father began weaving his way through the high-heeled crowd with a telltale white and black box.

See's Candies.

My head immediately snapped up to attention, like a soldier standing erect under the scrutiny of a drill sergeant.

"See's! "It's See's!" I wanted to shout, as I not-so discretely excused myself from my conversation to intercept my friend's father before someone could stake a claim on the highly-coveted scotchmallow or dark nougat.

"Would you like one?" My friend's father asked, at the time completely unaware he was dealing with the Augustus Gloop of the cocktail party. 

I made a big show of indifference, as though I could care less that I was face-to-face with a treasure trove of memories from my childhood -- years of fighting over the milk chocolate butterchews, faux gagging over the less-desirable raspberry cream and screaming when my brother got the caramel once again. Yet, as I giddily extracted a scotchmallow, my decorum broke down. Before he could walk away, I reached in and snatched a second one.

As I devoured my two selections, no longer concerned with the sanctity of my freshly laundered orange dress, my fellow partygoers remained completely engaged in their conversations, ignoring the now multiple white boxes that were circulating throughout the room.

"Are you people crazy?!" I felt compelled to shout. "There's still peanut nougats and dark caramel patties and milk buttercreams in there!"

I found myself going back for thirds. And fourths. And as I tore into my fifth piece in less than fifteen minutes, the friend I had come with, looked over at me, half-amused, half-appalled, and said, "You really like See's, don't you?"

By the end of the evening, the guest-of-honor's father had publicly declared me a "chocoholic," my previously pristine dress was ceremoniously streaked from an errant piece of butterchew, and I had acquired the type of stomachache that one usually only encounters at the age of eight on Halloween.

Because, you see, I don't just like See's, I'm completely, head-over-heels, in love with See's.

To the point that when I get a box, I'm not content to just pick my way through my favorites and be done with it. Oh no, I sit on my couch, tea cup in hand, cramming pieces in my mouth like my brothers are in the next room threatening to steal the last caramel.

And even at the end, when all that's left are molasses chips and toffee and milk bordeaux, I still can't just throw the box out -- or even gift it upon someone who might actually like molasses chips. I'll eat the chocolate off the pieces like some weird kid who peels the skins off grapes, or I'll do something completely crazy like chop them up and bake them into blondies.

Because when you love something, you don't set it free.

You horde it all to yourself. 

See's Blondies
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Notes: The general template of this recipe comes courtesy of Deb at Smitten Kitchen, who, for the uninitiated, is the authority on all matters of the oven. And stove, for that matter. I made two adjustments -- adding half a teaspoon of baking powder as I'm inclined to like my blondies a bit less gooey, and rather than just melting my butter, I took it a little further because in my mind browned butter has the same flavor profile as a See's milk bourdeaux.

These blondies are intense -- the type of thing that will make you teeter on the edge of diabetic shock. You'll warm them in the microwave, smother them with full fat vanilla ice cream, and, as you sit, cross-legged on the couch, for a moment you'll feel like a kid again. Or maybe, if you are like me and eat three in a single go, just like Augustus Gloop.

1 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 stick unsalted butter
1 cup golden brown sugar, lightly packed
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 large egg
1/2 cup walnuts, toasted
1 cup mixed chocolates (preferably See's), chopped (I used an assortment of Milk Bourdeaux, Molasses Chips, and Toffee)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Line an 8x8'' pan with lightly greased parchment paper.

Combine flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. Whisk together to lighten the flour, and set aside.

In a small saucepan, begin melting the butter over medium-low heat. Keep stirring the butter while it melts, and continue stirring as you continue heating the butter to prevent it from scorching. The butter will turn clear, and start to foam, but keep heating and stirring until it starts to smell a bit nutty and turns amber in color.  Immediately remove from the heat.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the butter and the brown sugar. Beat with a handheld electric beater until smooth. Beat in the vanilla and then the egg, mixing until well-incorporated and the batter looks smooth and glossy.

Carefully stir in the flour mixture until just-incorporated. Fold in the walnuts and chocolate candy pieces.

Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for 20-25 minutes or until the center is set, and a toothpick inserted comes out relatively clean. Cool completely on a wire rack before cutting into squares.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Rösti: Pure home

For the first 25 or so years of my life, I never buttered my bread at a restaurant. It wasn't because I was doing anything drastic like trying to cut calories or nix all forms of fat from my diet, but rather because my mother isn't particularly fond of butter and never buttered her bread when I was growing up.

Even though in recent years, I've come to realize that there are few things more pleasurable in the world than a thick slice of warm sourdough smeared with salted, room temperature butter, I still can't help but think of my mother when I reach for the butter knife. I picture her cringing face, her dry piece of bread that she is perfectly content to devour sans accoutrement, and I feel the slightest twinge of guilt. 

It usually lasts only a moment, brushed aside as soon as I take that first soul-satisfying bite, but is still something I carry with me, like the memory of the first time I rode a bike or the day I fell down the stairs in front of the Dean of Admissions during a campus tour at Northwestern.

It's weird how we learn to develop certain habits and associations with foods that have nothing to do with personal taste. Things that we pick-up from our parents, like eating toast with peanut butter instead of jam or considering oatmeal cookies a totally reasonable thing to eat for breakfast because, as my mother used to justify, "They have cereal in them."

To this day, I still prefer peanut butter on my toast than straight jam, and while I don't usually eat oatmeal cookies for breakfast, I have no qualms about doing so, all the while picturing my mother sitting at the dining table in the house I grew up in, enjoying her mid-morning cookie with a cup of overly strong, black coffee.

Even with this vivid mental image, the biggest food association I have to my mother is not those mid-morning chocolate chip oatmeal cookies nor those dry slices of white restaurant bread.

It's to the potato.

Nicknamed "Spud" in college because of all the potatoes she ate in the dining hall, my mother always made the humble starch a staple in our household when we were growing up. Whether baked whole, roasted in meaty wedges, or pan-fried into "raw fries," they were one of the few foods that my brothers and I all liked -- likely because we'd been trained to be potato-eaters since birth.

Today I don't eat nearly as many potatoes as I did back in those days, but whenever I do, I feel instantly comforted. It makes me think of home -- the ratty-edged blue placements on our family room dining table, the hamburgers my dad used to burn for me on the grill to go with those potato wedges, the twice-baked potatoes coated in bright orange Tillamook cheese that we always ate, and continue to eat, on Christmas Eve.

When I stumbled upon this recipe for Rösti on Lottie & Doof via Saveur, I was instantly taken back to those visuals. Christmas. Burnt hamburgers. My mother, standing over the stove, gingerly turning over thin-slices of russet potatoes with an olive green plastic spatula.

Even without Tim's high praise of the recipe, I felt compelled to make it, as though by tenderly attending to the potatoes -- boiling, chilling, grating, frying, and flipping them -- I was paying tribute to my mother. Or at the very least, my childhood.

This recipe is exactly as Tim describes it -- "pure comfort."

And pure home. With just a little bit of butter. 

Adapted from Lottie & Doof via Saveur

Notes: The original recipe calls for approximately 2 1/4 pounds russet potatoes (about 3 large) to be prepared in an 8'' nonstick pan. Since my cast-iron pan measures in around 6'', and I didn't trust myself to be in the presence of that much potato as one solo person with questionable willpower, I opted to cut down the proportions slightly. I used a little less than a pound and a half of potato, which equaled out to two russets, and cut down the proportion of salt, butter and oil just slightly to my own personal taste.

Finally, while this ultimate version of the best hash brown you've ever had is perfectly delicious on it's own, or perhaps served simply with sour cream and scallions as Tim so presciently suggests, I felt inclined to top my wedge with a fried egg. I would recommend you do the same.

1 1/2 lbs russet potatoes (about 2)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil (or canola if you have it)
1/2 teaspoon sea or kosher salt

Place potatoes in a large pot and cover with cold water. Bring it to a slow, but steady boil, and then cook, uncovered, until the potatoes are just pierceable with fork. The time will vary based on the girth and size of your potatoes, but will take around 30 minutes. [Something to note: If you prefer to have a little more texture to your rösti, boil the potatoes a few minutes less -- cooking them all the way through will make for a rösti that will remind you more of a mashed potato fritter rather than a hash brown. Both forms are perfectly suitable, so it's really an issue of personal preference.]

Once potatoes are done to your liking, drain and rinse with a blast of cold water to help hasten the cooling process. Continue to cool for ten minutes before carefully peeling. Cut out any brown spots that you see.  Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes to an hour before proceeding.

Once suitably chilled, grate the potatoes using the large holes on a cheese grater. Toss the potatoes with the salt.

Heat butter and oil in a 6'' cast iron or other non-stick pan over medium-low heat. Once the butter has melted, add the potato and stir in the butter and oil. Once the potatoes have been thoroughly coated, mold them into a fat disk. Cook, shaking the skillet from time to time to ensure they aren't sticking, until the edges are browned, about 20 minutes or so.

Cover the pan with a large plate, and invert the rösti onto the plate. Slide it back into the pan, cooked side up, and continue cooking until the bottom is equally golden brown, around 20 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board and cut into fat wedges. Eat topped with a fried egg, with sour cream and scallions, or as is -- pure potato.