Sunday, December 15, 2013

Holiday Gift Guide: Good Food Reads

I thought it would be fun to put together a list of some of my favorite food related books that would make wonderful holiday gifts for the cook(s) in your family. After all, there's more to read than the now consummate Omnivore's Dilemma, Blood, Bone's and Butter, Kitchen Confidential, and the great works of M.F.K. Fisher. In general, I find it's hard to buy gifts for people who enjoy cooking because you don't know what cookbooks or cooking gadgets already live in their kitchen. If you're desperate for some last minute gift ideas, hopefully this list will help! For more good food reads see here. Here's the list (in no particular order) of 10 books that will make great gifts this holiday season:

The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen
By Jacques Pepin

Jacques Pepin's bestselling memoir traces his life from his childhood working in old world French kitchens to becoming one of the most celebrated and famous chefs in the world today. Pepin sheds light on being a pioneer in America's coming of age in the world of food. An insightful and inspiring firsthand account of what it takes to become a great chef.

As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child & Avis DeVoto
Edited by Joan Reardon 
As Always, Julia, is a collection of letters between Child and her close friend and pen pal, Avis DeVoto. Their correspondence sheds light on the struggles and frustrations of publishing 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking' and reveals a very personal and private Child just before the success of her first cookbook and becoming an American icon. A fascinating and informative read for Julia Child fans.

Bringing It to the Table: On Farming and Food
By Wendell Berry

Long before "organic produce" was available in every American supermarket, Wendell Berry was the embodiment of mindful eating and farming. 'Bringing It to the Table' is a collection of Berry's educated, direct, and thoughtful essays from the past thirty years, which explore the responsible practices and principles of eating and farming well. His eloquent writing answers many difficult questions pertaining to the often confusing and misunderstood world of modern agriculture. A must read for anyone who enjoyed Omnivore's Dilemma

Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen
By Laurie Colwin
Laurie Colwin's memoir on cooking and food will have you laughing out loud. Published in the late 80's, 'Home Cooking' has since become a classic for many cooks. Colwin's often irreverent humor celebrates both her triumphant and disastrous meals.  Whether an amateur or professional cook, Laurie Colwin feels like your best friend in the kitchen, and is a constant reminder to have fun and not take cooking (or life) too seriously. 

Ideas In Food: Great Recipes and Why They Work
By Aki Kamozawa & Alexander Talbot

'Ideas in Food' by husband and wife chefs Aki Kamozawa and Aki Kamozawa, shares newfound knowledge and recipes that break the rules of many traditional cooking techniques. This book takes a unique in-depth look at many aspects of molecular gastronomy from the home cook's perspective. It's the perfect handbook for the experimental cook.

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing
By Anya Von Bremzen
Anya Von Bremzen's recently published book has garnered a lot of buzz in the food world, and with good reason. Her intensely personal and intimate memoir of life and eating in the USSR is paralleled in stark contrast with her eventual move to the US years later. Von Bremzen's thoughtful and observant writing weaves food, family, and politics together in an unforgettable way.

One Souffle at a Time: A Memoir of Food and France
By Anne Willan

Anne Willan's memoir recounts her creation and time as an instructor at the legendary La Varenne Cooking School in France amidst a male-dominated food culture. Willan recounts the birth of the modern day food obsession and brings the sights and smells of French cooking to life. A fascinating look into the life and teachings of an influential chef. 

Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste
By Luke Barr
'Provence, 1970,' written by the grandnephew of M.F.K. Fisher, pieces together the intimate dinner parties and private thoughts and letters of some of America's most influential culinary minds. The cast of characters includes M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard and Richard Olney. A fascinating page-turner that takes place on the eve of America's culinary reinvention; it's so engaging it reads like fiction. This was one of my favorites of the year!  

Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch, and Irish Whiskey
By Fred Minnick 

'Whiskey Women' tells the story of influential women throughout history, from Mesopotamia to Prohibition, who have shaped the liquor industry as we know it today. An empowering and informative look at the way women have influenced, developed, and marketed the liquor industry. This is a great read for the whiskey drinker in your family!

Wine & War: The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France's Greatest Treasure
By Donald & Petie Kladstrup
'Wine and War' takes a historical look at the wine industry in Nazi occupied France during World War II. It tells the story of many winemakers who risked it all to protect their wine from falling into the hands of the Third Reich. An inspiring and triumphant look at one of the darkest chapters in French history. This is a perfect read for the wine and history lover in your family.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

End Table Makeover

Living in New York City I hear myself say all too often, "If only I had a garage I could_____." As every New Yorker knows, space has its limitations which requires most of who live here to get creative. If it can't be suspended from the ceiling, hung on the wall, or stored in a suitcase inside another suitcase under the bed, it probably has to go. Sometimes I feel having an apartment in the city is akin to living inside a set of Russian nesting dolls. In any case, I'd been determined to refinish an end table which Aaron and I've had since college. We bought it at a used furniture store in Boston off of Boylston St. for a whopping $30 and has since become the perfect table to hold our record player. It has just enough drawer space to hold takeout menus, a small flashlight, and the occasional safety pin. Over the years we've become attached to it, knowing it was a well-made piece, but fully aware it was an eyesore with its chipped and scratched finish. It had great potential and just needed a little love in the form of sanding and a fresh coat of paint. However, my lofty plans were always discouraged by the blatant reality that there just wasn't any space to take on such a project. If I only had a garage…. 

A couple months ago, I finally bit the bullet and decided to tackle this table once and for all. Luckily for us, we have a small "balcony" (in reality it's just a glorified flower box, which is only accessible by climbing out the window) with just enough room to shove the end table into a 2 foot space. We refer to it affectionately as "the terrace." By New York standards, it ain't bad! The so-called terrace is where was able to sand down the entire table with a bandana covering my nose and mouth, looking like a wild west bandit (I'm sure our neighbors have a delightful opinion of us). 

Since the table was in such bad shape, and we already have enough mismatched wood furniture in the room, we decided to paint it rather than re-stain it. The entire project only took me two days to complete from start to finish.  I thought a crackle finish would suit this piece well and give it some added character. It's a process that seems like it would take a long time, but is actually quite simple and only takes three coats of paint. 

Here's how to achieve a crackle finish on a project in 10 easy steps:
  1. Choose two contrasting colors of flat-finished paint (the greater the contrast the more intense the crackle finish will be) at your local hardware store, as well as clear crackle medium finish (if your local hardware store doesn't carry it, your local craft store will). Also purchase a clear satin finish, if desired.
  2. In a well ventilated area, sand your piece of furniture to remove any existing stain or finish. 
  3. Wipe the piece down with a damp cloth to remove any dust or debris.
  4. Place your piece of furniture on a drop cloth and remove any drawers. Remove any hardware from the drawers and set aside.
  5. Paint your piece with a single coat of your desired base paint and allow it to dry completely, preferably overnight.
  6. Apply a coat of crack-medium and allow it to dry for 30 minutes to 1 hour, but not more than 4 hours (follow the manufacturer's directions for best results). 
  7. Paint the piece with your chosen top coat in long even stokes and let it dry completely (you will see that the top coat will begin to crackle immediately).
  8. Allow the piece to dry for at least 24 hours before replacing any hardware or putting anything on top of it. 
  9. If desired, use a fine-grit sandpaper to gently sand the edges of the piece, giving it a worn look and further exposing the base coat. Wipe the furniture clean with a damp cloth.
  10. If desired, paint the piece with a clear satin finish to protect the finish (however, leaving the piece unfinished will give it the most authentic worn appearance). Let the furniture dry for at least 24 hours before placing anything on top of it. 

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Salted Caramels

I've been making these salted caramels for a number of years. There's nothing quite like homemade rich and creamy caramel. I've made them for practically every occasion under the sun, and still never get sick of them. I love this recipe because it's consistently reliable and always turns out perfectly soft, chewy caramel. 

The sea salt adds another depth of flavor to the candy, making it a bit more sophisticated than just pieces of cut caramel. If you're new to making caramel, the most difficult part is knowing when the sugar mixture is the right color before adding the cream. The best way to learn is by trial and error. If you add the cream too soon, you'll end up with a light taffy-like candy. If the sugar darkens too much, it will begin to smoke and burn. The only thing to do is let it cool and toss it; clean the pan and start again. You only need to burn caramel once to know your boundaries, and it's a good learning experience. You can use a candy thermometer as a guide while cooking the sugar syrup, but I prefer to eyeball it; the color is what's most important. If you decide to use a thermometer, the closer the sugar gets to 325 degrees F, the darker and richer the caramel will be, but do not exceed 325 degrees F, or it will burn.

Homemade candies are such a special treat, and perfect for a grown up Halloween party. Aaron and I are having a few folks over Halloween night to get into costume before we hit the town. I thought it would be fun to provide some homemade sweets to get us in the spirit. For more Halloween treat ideas check out my recipes for: homemade candy corncracker jackscaramel applespumpkin ice creamcinnamon red hots, creepy witch's fingersganache covered brownies, and s'mores. Trick or treat!

Slightly adapted from Ina Garten, Food Network Magazine 

Butter, for greasing
Vegetable oil, for brushing
1½ cups sugar
¼ cup light corn syrup
1 cup heavy cream
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon sea salt (preferably fleur de sel), plus more as needed 
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Grease an 8 x 8-inch or 7 x 11-inch baking pan with butter and line with parchment paper, allowing it to drape over two sides (the butter will hold the parchment in place and keep it from curling in the pan). Very lightly brush with oil and set aside.

In a 4-quart heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine ¼ cup water, the sugar, and corn syrup and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Boil until the mixture until it is a warm golden brown, about 10 to 15 minutes. Do not stir the sugar mixture, just carefully swirl the pan, if need be. Pay close attention to the sugar as it begins to color, as it can burn quickly. (If it begins to smoke and burn, set it aside to cool slightly and discard. Clean the saucepan and start again).

Meanwhile, combine the cream, 5 tablespoons butter, and 1 teaspoon salt in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and set aside.

When the sugar mixture has reached the desired color, turn off the heat and slowly add the cream and butter mixture to the sugar mixture. Be careful, as it will bubble up violently. Stir in the vanilla using a wooden spoon and place a candy thermometer in the caramel. Cook over medium-low heat for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the mixture reaches 248 degrees F (firm ball) then immediately remove it from the heat. 

Carefully pour the hot caramel into the prepared pan. Place the caramel in the refrigerator 
and let cool until firm, but still pliable, 20 to 30 minutes.

Remove the caramel from the refrigerator and lift it out of the pan using the parchment paper and transfer to a cutting board. Roll one side (or the long side if you used a 7 x 11-inch pan) into a log, stopping at the center of the square. Roll the other side of the caramel into a log to meet the other log. Cut the caramel in half where the two logs meet. You should have two logs measuring 8 or 11-inches long, depending on the size of your pan. Cut each log into 3/4-inch pieces. 

Pour some sea salt on a small plate and lightly dip each of the caramels in the salt. Wrap the caramels in 4 x 5-inch parchment pieces and twist the ends to seal. Store the caramels in a zip-top bag at room temperature. Use within 1 to 2 weeks. 

  • Do not substitute waxed paper for parchment, or the caramel will melt the wax and stick to the paper.
  • It is very important to use a 4-quart saucepan to make the caramels to ensure that the hot sugar mixture won't overflow when adding the cream and butter mixture. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

Mashed Butternut Squash with Brown Butter & Crispy Sage

Nothing says autumn like butternut squash. I've always loved roasting and mashing it just like mashed potatoes, but this year I decided to make it with brown butter. A couple of weeks ago, I made butternut squash ravioli with sage and brown butter, which gave me the idea of  browning the butter first instead of simply melting it and adding it to the mash. As expected, it adds a great deal of flavor and a wonderful nuttiness. Browning the butter over low heat allows the butterfat and milk solids to separate. As the milk solids continue to cook, they begin to brown and develop a nutty flavor. 

Sage is a classic pairing with butternut squash. By crisping the sage in the melted butter, it infuses it with a lot of flavor. You can either crumble the crisped sage leaves over the mash and stir it in, or leave them whole as a garnish on top. I think the whole leaves make a nice presentation and add a crunchy texture to contrast the creamy mash. Either way, it's delicious. 

I love mashed butternut squash as a side dish with just about anything, but especially roasted or fried chicken. This dish is extremely versatile and makes a great alternative to ordinary mashed potatoes throughout the fall and winter months. I like to prepare extra butternut squash mash and freeze it to have on hand for a quick weeknight side dish. It makes a perfect addition to the Thanksgiving feast too!

Recipe by Michael Sullivan

1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
2 medium butternut squash (about 5 pounds), stemmed, seeded, and halved
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2o fresh sage leaves, washed and dried
2 to 3 tablespoons heavy cream
1 tablespoon brown sugar
A pinch of freshly grated or ground nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Grease a foil-lined sheet pan with the olive oil. Lay the butternut squash halves cut-side down on the pan and place in the oven to roast for 40 to 50 minutes, until the skins have started to bubble or when the flesh is easily pierced with a knife. Remove the quash from the oven and let rest until cool enough to touch, but still very warm. 

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a small saute pan over medium-low heat. Once the butter has melted, add the sage leaves. Stir occasionally until the leaves are crisp and the butter has browned, about 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove the sage leaves from the butter and transfer them to a paper towel-lined plate. Set aside.

Scoop out the butternut squash flesh and transfer it to a medium bowl. Discard the skins. Use a potato masher to mash the squash, until the desired consistency is reached. Add the brown butter, cream, brown sugar, nutmeg, and salt and pepper to taste. Stir to combine, taste once more to adjust seasoning, and garnish with the crispy sage leaves.

Yield: about 8 servings

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Spooky Halloween Candlesticks

Halloween is just around the corner and things are beginning to get spooky in our apartment! All Hallows Eve has always been one of my favorite holidays; as a kid I used to cover our front porch with cobwebs and terrifying tidings no later than September 30th. My parents were way too nice to let me start so early, but as I recall I put up a fight every year. I was having a great time, regardless of what our neighbors might have thought.

A couple of weeks ago I was wandering through a thrift store in downtown Manhattan and spotted a pair of overly ornate and somewhat ugly looking candlesticks. They were tucked away in the corner of the shop looking forlorn and forgotten, as they were completely bent out of shape. That's when I got the idea that they would make a terrifying addition to our Halloween decor this year. 

I spruced up the candlesticks by painting them with some silver metallic paint. I stuck some black candles in them and the deed was done! You could also paint the candlesticks black and they'd look great with orange candles. Next to a human skull, they make quite a haunting display.  They're perfect for the mantle or table at an upcoming Halloween feast. Happy Halloween! 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Pink Lady Cocktail

In honor of my dog Lady's 63rd birthday, I thought it would be fitting to share my recipe for the classic Pink Lady cocktail. Drinking Pink Ladies on her birthday has become a tradition for Aaron and I, ever since we threw her a "surprise" birthday party a few years back. It was really just an excuse to gather with friends and celebrate the night away drinking this delicious cocktail (it turns out, pin the tail on the donkey is a lot more fun after a few drinks!). 

Most classic cocktails often have a long and sordid history with unknown origins. So, I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that the Pink Lady cocktail most likely originated during the run of the Broadway musical, "The Pink Lady," in 1911. Of course, similarities or variations of the pink lady cocktail existed prior to the musical and after, but the drink's most popular recipe can generally be traced back to the Broadway show it was named after.


The Pink Lady was written by Ivan Caryll and C.M.S. McLellan, based on the French farce, Le Satyre, by Georges Berr and Marcel Guillemaud. It opened at the New Amsterdam Theater in New York City, starring Hazel Dawn and William Elliott. The show had a huge initial success and even left Broadway for London. After an unsuccessful run there, the show briefly returned to New York in 1912. The cocktail remained popular after the closing of the show and throughout World War I, and by the time Prohibition came about in 1920, the cocktail was well known throughout the country. Some believe that the cocktail became even more popular during Prohibition, as the grenadine and cream helped mask the poor quality of "bathtub gin." But in 1934, just after Prohibition's end, Esquire magazine listed the Pink Lady among its top 10 worst drinks, also known as "the pansies." Later, in the 1940's and 50s, the drink became even more associated with "girly" drinks, due to the cocktail's name and pink color. After the 50's and 60's, the drink fell out of popularity and generally when you see it on bar menus today, it's more akin to cloyingly sweet Kool Aid  than a sophisticated classic cocktail.

The most basic pink lady recipes call for gin, grenadine, and egg whites, while others include the addition of cream and/or lemon juice. Historically, egg whites were a staple for bartenders of the era, as they were a common ingredient for fizzes and other popular cocktails of the day. Today, if you ordered a pink lady at a bar, you'd be hard pressed to find a bartender who'd include egg whites in your drink. But the addition of  the egg whites creates a nice foamy top. 

Below I've created my recipe for the venerable pink lady, by combining several historical recipes. It's slightly creamy, sweet, and utterly delicious. I find the rose and cucumber notes of new western style gins, such as Hendrick's, to be a better match for the Pink Lady than the juniper notes in London dry style gins. If you have a few spare minutes, homemade grenadine makes a world of difference in cocktails. When made from real pomegranate juice, verses the cloyingly sweet sugar and dye variety found at the grocery store, it adds another depth of flavor to mixed drinks. Cheers, and Happy (Belated) Birthday Lady pooch, you're one classy dame!

Recipe by Michael Sullivan

1 ounce (2 tablespoons) grenadine, plus 1 ounce for the cocktail
3 to 4 tablespoons sugar
2 ounces (4 tablespoons) gin 
1/2 ounce (1 tablespoon) heavy cream 
1/2 ounce (1 tablespoon) freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 to 2 tablespoons egg white, lightly beaten (optional)
1 maraschino cherry, for garnish

Place a cocktail class in the freezer, until cold and nicely frosted. Pour the grenadine onto a small plate. On another small plate, add 3 to 4 tablespoons of sugar. Dip the rim of the chilled cocktail glass in the grenadine and again in the sugar. Set aside.

Put a few ice cubes in a martini shaker. Add all of the gin, the remaining 1 ounce grenadine, heavy cream, lemon juice, and egg white to the shaker and shake until very cold. Strain into the prepared cocktail glass and garnish with the cherry. Enjoy immediately. 

Makes 1 Pink Lady cocktail

Recipe by Michael Sullivan

1 cup 100% pomegranate juice (such as Pom Wonderful brand)
3/4 cup sugar
A few drops of freshly squeezed lemon juice 

Combine the pomegranate juice and sugar in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer the mixture until it is slightly thickened and becomes a light syrup, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove the saucepan from the heat and stir in a few drop of lemon juice. Set aside to cool. Transfer the grenadine to a bottle with a tight-fitting lid, label, and refrigerate for up to 2 months. 

Makes about 1 cup