Wednesday, February 22, 2012

nostalgia wednesdays: winter

It's a gorgeous, amazing, blissful 62 degrees and sunny right now, and predicted to climb to the high sixties again tomorrow. I walked to and from mass with my boss, and even though we went nearly half a mile out of our way by accident, it was the perfect day for the adventure. I can't wait for happy hour on a patio somewhere later on today. 

I'd say 99.5% of the time this "winter," I've been thrilled with the weather. I absolutely hate being cold, and find snow to be magical only until it becomes dirty and dingy and hinders my commute to and from work (spoiler alert: that happens really quickly).

But I have to say that a tiny part of me is nostalgic for real winter. This is the season when you're supposed to pull on a pair of cute rain boots and go sledding with your neighbors on an unexpected snow day...

Or when you're supposed to venture out in a historic snow storm in search of gelato with your roomate...

Stopping along the way to yank arm-sized icicles off buildings and climb to the top of tree-height snow piles. 

It's easy to be all nostalgic now about the snowmen-making and hot cocoa sipping, and to forget about the bitter cold and lack of paycheck for the week the government was shut down. And I do love that I can walk down the street without a coat on February 22(!). But next winter, I'd like just one good snow, ok, mother nature? 

In the mean time, I'll just have to pretend it's chilly outside to enjoy some of winter's more hearty go-to recipes, like the little dinner I made last night. I bought a bag of brussels sprouts at Trader Joe's Monday, intending to make this dish. I didn't want to buy, or use, heavy cream, so I decided to search for something different. 

I came across this food network recipe instead, and heavily adapted it for what I had on hand (and for what I personally like best). It ended up going something like this: 

-handful of baby carrots, sliced lengthwise
-handful of baby potatoes, cut in half
-half a bag of brussels sprouts, cut in half
-half a red pepper, cut in to medium size pieces
-clove of garlic, minced (seriously, every savory recipe should include this, in my book)
-sprinkling of rosemary & thyme (maybe tablespoon of each)
-pinch of sea salt
-a few cranks of black pepper from the grinder
-just enough olive oil to coat everything lightly and keep it from sticking to the pan

I baked it all together in my pretty pyrex pie pan at 400 degrees for about 35 minutes, stirring it with a spoon halfway through. A cookie sheet would do just as well, but I'm trying to make a more concerted effort to treat dinner less like an obligation and more like something nice I can do for myself (and whoever might be at my house at the time), which means using the nice pans, plates, and wine glasses!

Even though it wasn't all that cold outside, it was the perfect winter weeknight dinner, with a little salad on the side, and a Trader Joe's ice cream sandwich for dessert (yes, I'm one of those weirdos who prefers ice cream in winter).

ps-Sorry to be so MIA (I know everyone has really missed me. REALLY). I had one of my closest college friends and her boyfriend in town for the long weekend, and I spent three straight days totally crashing their touristy weekend, which was a real gift, but didn't lend itself to cooking much! 

Thursday, February 16, 2012

the one that got away

So not that I think anyone noticed/cared, but I'm a good two or three weeks behind on the whole nostalgia Wednesday thing. I know, I'm a total slacker when it comes to my self-instituted routines. I could belatedly tell you about the long weekend I spent on the Canary Islands nearly five (five?!) years ago to the day, because it was awfully beautiful...

But instead, my mind is much closer to home these past few days. "Home" has been a bit of a moving target since I started living in this area. I've been here for over two years now, and buying a place has been on my mind since last summer. I even found an apartment that I loved, in an area that I liked, for a price I could stomach. Because I was still a contractor at the time, I wasn't comfortable taking on a mortgage with my somewhat up-in-the-air job status. In June I got my slightly more stable current job, but I was a few weeks too late. The apartment had sold. It has haunted me ever since, with its insanely low price (it was a short sale) and relatively manageable coop fee and lax bylaws. 

When I found out right before my road trip that I was basically being evicted from my old apartment so they could renovate it and charge much higher rent, I re-initiated my real estate search in a more formal (i.e. realtor-supported) fashion. I found a great agent who at least pretended not to be put off by my beer budget/champagne taste dichotomy, and who happily traipsed all over town to help me find "the one." 

We saw some tee tiny places. We saw some places that straight up lied about being one bedrooms. We saw some places with original 1960s kitchens. I tred on more parquet floors in the span of a few weeks than I have in my young life. And even though I was convinced I'd never find a single thing I liked, my agent kept saying "we can do better for you," with enthusiasm that I struggled to match, but appreciated nonetheless. 

And then we did do better. In short order, we figured out my "type." I'm wholeheartedly a pre-war girl. Yes, pre-WWII.  The units tend to be bigger and have higher ceilings. The hallways are wide and full of light. Everything is just so much more charming than in the rash of buildings that popped up in the 60s, and I'm a sucker for the little details. 

A month ago, we saw a unit that had just come on the market (in the building above). Even though another couple was viewing it at the time, I apparently sent them enough "stay away, this one's mine" vibes for it to stay on the market for a solid 30 days. And then on Monday of this week, the seller dropped the price. Panicked emails to my agent ensued, and he advised that I make an offer, and quickly. Even more panicked emails to my mortgage broker followed. I politely but forcefully extracted a prequalification letter from the bank, and the agent and I submitted our offer. 

Yesterday, in fact, was full of frantic phone calls, insane volumes of paperwork, and general chest-constricting anxiety about the biggest check I've written in my young life. There was some back and forth, a last minute escalation clause, and finally, the surprisingly crushing disappointment of learning that some joker outbid me with his ALL CASH OFFER. 

The bottom line is, I lost the apartment. The guy who outbid me overpaid, a fact that both my realtor and I are well aware of, but it's still a complete downer. The apartment, and perhaps more importantly, the location were perfect for me. The neighborhood was the most "me" area in DC, and I would have moved there happily and without hesitation.

The speed with which this disappointment made my little shoulders sag is a cruel reminder of just how dangerous my imagination is. I had already envisioned my furniture spread across the beautiful wood floors of the apartment. I picked out paint colors, light fixtures, and my new route to work. I saw my friends gathered around my table in my new dining room. I googled "how to make your own built in bookshelves" with a specific wall of the living room in mind. 

Because of my active imagination and propensity for nostalgia, I have so many "ones that got away." Job opportunities passed up, apartments lost, relationships ended, trips not taken, one liners thought of a moment too late, killer shoes not purchased. You name it, I can romanticize it.

But as with some of the other moments that have brought swift but decisive disappointment in to my life lately, I actively try to remind myself of the line "whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should," from the poem "Desiderata."

Sunday, February 12, 2012

(molten) hot chocolate

This weekend I added possibly the most dangerous recipe to my arsenal yet: molten chocolate cake. When we lived in Winston-Salem, NC, for several years growing up, my sister and I used to drag our parents to Chili's with frightening regularity. In our defense, the culinary scene in Winston was dominated by chain restaurants and fast food joints at that point in time. 

Anyways, we'd always finish the meal with a molten chocolate lava cake for the table, and fight each other for the last bites of warm, fudge soaked cake. Our tastes have become a little more sophisticated over time (not that there's anything wrong with a trip to Chili's now and then), but our love for molten cakes has not waned. If anything, it has only grown more fervent, much to the dismay of our hips. 

So when Mom and I decided to bring the dessert to the first of her casual birthday dinners this week(end), I'm not sure why our minds didn't go directly to the gooey confection. We hemmed and hawed and grew increasingly apathetic in the face of a half dozen uninspiring recipes. I don't even remember exactly how we landed on this recipe on Epicurious. But when we did, it was like a whole house's worth of light bulbs went off. 

It honestly seemed too good to be true. Short ingredient list, incredibly easy prep, quick baking time, ability to make ahead. So I read the first few pages of reviews, and realized that, aside from a few people who weren't fans, the recipe was a smashing success. We decided we might as well go for it, and headed off to the grocery for the goods (and for three pints of ice cream to complement the cakes). 

First we separated half a dozen eggs to get the requisite 6 egg yolks (for a double batch), then threw another 6 whole eggs in with the yolks in a big old bowl. On top of that went 10 tablespoons of sugar (which equals 1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons, in case you're curious). Then we set that aside. 

Next we melted 3 sticks of butter (did I mention this was a double batch?) and 16 ounces of high quality chocolate over low heat on the stove. Maybe I shouldn't have started listing the quantities, because they sound a little prohibative, but we did the math, and split amongst 12 ramekins, it comes down to something like 1.5 egg and 2 tablespoons of butter per cake. Speaking of math, we bought chocolate chips instead of chocolate bars, which led to some seriously questionable mental math between Mom and I. But we agreed to never speak of that again, so I'll just warn you that it's trickier than expected to figure out how to measure 8 ounces from a 10 ounce bag. Anyways...

While the chocolate and butter, once melted, cool a bit, you steel yourself and turn your attention to the egg/sugar part. You beat the eggs and sugar on high with a mixer for 8+ minutes (we had to do it for 10). They practically double in volume, and get pale yellow and thickish. And while that's a pain in your arm, it's really not that bad, and comprises the most taxing part of the prep work. Once you finish that task, you fold in the warm chocolate/butter and the prescribed quantity of flour. 

Once you've carefully folded the mixture together until it's all a lovely chocolate color, you pour an even amount of batter in to each ramekin, which you lovingly coated first in butter, then a sprinkling of sugar and, finally, a dusting of dark cocoa powder. You want to serve these as close to their exit from a toasty oven as you can, so either pause here, cover the ramekins in plastic, and refrigerate them until it's dessert time, or go ahead and pop them in the oven at 400 or so for 11 to 14 minutes. If you chill them prior to baking, just bring them back to room temp before popping them in the oven. 

They come out looking like this. Well, like this if you work at Bon Appetite, I suppose. If you are like us, you get so caught up in the whole affair that you totally forget to photograph a post-oven mini cake, even though you've now sampled three over the past 24 hours. 

Anyways, this is all to say that the molten cakes were spot on, just as the plethora of comments on Epicurious suggest they will be. We mint, vanilla, and chocolate peanut butter ice creams to plop on top, and although we'd had a huge and delicious dinner care of my "Aunt" Susan, the entire group all but licked their ramekins clean. 

We used half bittersweet Ghirardelli chips and half semisweet Ghirardelli chips. We also only dusted the ramekins with about half a teaspoon of sugar versus the recommended 1 1/2 tsp. Other than that, the only thing we tweaked was the oven temp (400 instead of 425) and cook time (11 instead of 14 minutes), but that depends entirely on your oven (ours cooks hot/fast). This recipe is so simple and quick that you, like me, will probably be tempted to tweak it. Do not. It is sinfully, incredibly, perfectly divine exactly how it is. 

Take it from the girl who is a self-proclaimed expert on all things molten cake. And who is on her third cake in the span of a day. 

ps-happy birthday, Mom! 
pps-I apologize in advance for ruining the far inferior restaurant version of molten cake for you. And for making you gain five pounds. But we're all in this cake cult together, ok? 

Monday, February 6, 2012

second annual girly super bowl party

Last year, in an attempt to avoid the crazy bar scene on Super Bowl Sunday, I had a few girlfriends over, and we enjoyed a ridiculous spread of unhealthy food as we watched the game, and more importantly, critiqued the commercials and sipped champagne. It was so cheap, easy, and laid back that we realized there was absolutely no reason to break with tradition this year.

I had two recipes in mind when we decided a few weeks ago to officially make this an annual shindig. On the sweet front, I was drooling over this peanut butter chocolate layer thingy. I think topping it with hot fudge would be the only way to make it more of an encapsulation of all of my favorite things. Ultimately, though, this savory recipe for mini spinach dip bread bowls won, since Sophie was holding down the fort on the sinful dessert front with cream cheese brownies.   

This isn't the best photo, but they turned out really well...the perfect two-bite snack to inhale while watching the Pats flounder pathetically.  

The spread was impressive, considering there were just five of us to polish it all off throughout the night.

I don't have too much else to say, as I'm completely exhausted from my spontaneous weekend trip to NJ to see a few of my Venice friends. It was a whirlwind of trains, buses, local bars and coffee shops, and long overdue catching up. I was definitely at that point where I desperately needed to get away from DC after a long month of hard work, marathon illness(es), and general post-holiday discontent. It was exactly what I needed, even if it means I'm woefully behind on sleep. In fact, I'm already craving another little weekend adventure...

Friday, February 3, 2012

patio picnic

On Tuesday, I went to the ballet with a few friends. As you'd expect, food and drinks are ridiculously overpriced in places like the Kennedy Center, and so while we've subjected ourselves to the price gouging before, we decided this time, we'd have a picnic in which be brought our own food. 

We weren't entirely sure of the Kennedy Center's policy on such things (we knew you couldn't take anything in to the theaters, but the lobby?), but decided to risk it. It just so happened that Tuesday and Wednesday of this week boasted temperatures in the high 60s, so we ended up enjoying our picnic on the patio and didn't need to worry at all about getting nabbed with mini bottles of champagne inside the lobby.

It was such a perfect day to sit on the expansive stone patio overlooking the Potomac, watching the last touches of pink fade from the sky. Once it got dark, you could see all the lights from the surrounding neighborhoods, and stare at the innumerable flights floating in to National airport. Although we're wearing our coats in this picture, it was actually beyond balmy by January standards. I love it.

I had a really busy few days, so I didn't manage to bring anything too creative to eat or drink. Instead I just picked up a pre-made noodle concoction from TJ's, and a few mini bottles of champagne and some OJ from a store near my building. I had every intention of a homemade touch coming in the form of these peanut butter nutella cookies, but they were a bit of a flop.

When I first found the recipe and read through the comments, I was aware of the potentially dry dough situation, but wasn't prepared for what I ended up with. My dough was a crumbly mess, even after the prescribed 15 minutes in the fridge. I tried my best to form the dough in to balls and press them on the parchment paper as suggested, but that's pretty much how the cookies remained. They never flattened out, and the resulting cookie was just...odd.

My friends ate a few and claimed they were tasty, but I was underwhelmed. Adding insult to injury, I also set off the smoke detector in my apartment for the second time in as many weeks, which is a horrifyingly harsh experience. I think the issue is the parchment paper, which I also used when I made the ginger spice molasses cookies and set of the smoke alarm. But really how do you get around that? Guess I need to add silpat mats to my birthday wish list...