Thursday, July 29, 2010

Sprinkles Cupcakes (Chicago)

Finally, the official Sprinkles Cupcakes post. I had no idea what a big deal Sprinkles is until I went. I tried to go last Saturday for the invitation-only (sounds more exclusive than it was) party, and encountered a crazy line. No thanks. Tried again on their third official day of business at lunchtime, and found a line of probably 25 people out the door. Oy. Finally I went back at about 4:30, sucked it up and waited in line (shorter than earlier that day), and got my prize.

I'm sure a big part of why it's been so busy is because it just opened, but also because it's a big Hollywood celebrity thing which I was not aware of. While you wait in line outside they have three little tvs in the wall showing clips the owner (I'm guessing?) of Sprinkles making tv appearances, and clips of celebrities mentioning Sprinkles on late night shows, MTV Cribs, the Oprah show, etc.

The line outside Magnolia on Bleecker Street can be attributed to one quick scene in Sex and the City (and of course because the cupcakes are great), but Sprinkles seems to have its own little media empire.

Once I finally got in the door I started studying the menu. They have a big menu on the wall of every flavor and a quick description, but with a little trademark Sprinkles dot next to the flavor if it's actually being served that day. Decisions, decisions.

I chose cinnamon sugar - lightly spiced buttermilk cake dusted with cinnamon sugar, and key lime - tangy key lime cake with key lime-vanilla frosting flecked with zest. It's kind of assembly line style, you walk in right in front of the cases, place your order, move down and wait for your name to be called.

Everyone working there was so happy! I guess I would be really happy if I got to make cupcakes all day, too. Really happy and really plump. This was the line by the time I left.

I brought my spoils home for an after dinner treat. Cinnamon sugar on the left, key lime on the right.

Time to break it all down. These cupcakes were...well, pretty perfect. Very fresh, soft cake and not a lot of icing. If you're an icing fan, these might not be your favorite. Here's my beef with NYC cupcakes from Magnolia, Billy's, etc: way too much icing. A veritable mountain of icing. I always have to scrape some off, especially if it's vanilla buttercream icing because there's just too darn much and it's very sugary. Even though that key lime cupcake looks like it's got a pile of icing on top, it's really mostly cake under there. Exhibit A:

I can't wait to go back and try the carrot and chocolate peanut butter. And all the other flavors.

And now, I must say goodbye. No, not forever! Just for a week. Actually, a little over a week. Come on, a girl's gotta take a vacation once in awhile! I'm going to a very exotic place called Massachusetts. So yes, I am taking a brief hiatus from writing...but not from eating delicious food. So don't worry, there will be lots of things for me to share when I get back.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Pizza, Pizza!

I'm not one to toot my own horn, but...I think I'm getting pretty good at making pizza. I feel like I've really gotten to know the dough from the Smitten Kitchen recipe, what it should feel like and look like, and how it cooks on different racks in the oven. So at this point I like experimenting with different toppings. Yesterday I went to the farmers market in Streeterville and found some new fun ingredients.

I saw these red Tropea onions at Nichols Farm, they looked so pretty and I knew I had seen them on a menu at a restaurant recently (can't remember which one).

I just googled Tropea onions and learned that they're native to the village of Tropea in Calabria, Italy (southern Italy). They're a little sweeter, so I thought they should be paired with something spicy. For this pizza I did some light tomato sauce, a soft pecorino cheese, and spicy capicola.

I put this one on the bottom rack of the oven so it got very crispy. The onions and capicola were perfect.

For the other pizza, I wanted to use these cute little tomatoes also from Nichols.

This one was pretty traditional - tomato sauce, buffalo mozzarella, and tomatoes. The tomatoes were small enough that only 10-12 minutes in the oven (at a very high temperature) was long enough to roast them. Then I added fresh basil after it was cooked.

So good. When I first started making homemade pizza dough I never thought of it as a quick weeknight meal, but it really is. Making the dough is very easy, yes you have to let it sit for 1-2 hours but in that time you get your toppings ready and make a side salad, read a book, watch tv, vacuum, chase kids around the house, whatever. And then the pizza only has to cook for 10-12 minutes. Yum!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Odds and Ends

I know, I know. I've been slacking. Between a busy work schedule and lots of friends in town, I haven't had much time to cook or write. This is going to be kind of a mish-mosh of a post, but better than nothing - right? I'll go in chronological order here.

In preparation for the opening of Sprinkles Cupcakes in Chicago, last week there was a Sprinkles truck in Chicago serving up a preview of what's to come. I didn't actually see it, but Peter did and got us a couple cupcakes. Aww.

That's red velvet on the left and chocolate coconut on the right. They were so, so good. The cake part was really fresh and soft, and the icing was perfect. If I'm eating a Magnolia or Billy's cupcake with their traditional vanilla buttercream icing, I often scrape part of it off because it's just too rich and sugary to eat the whole heap they put on each cupcake. But the Sprinkles icing was really fluffy and not too sweet. They had an opening party last Saturday afternoon that was by invitation/RSVP. I found out about it on Facebook so it's not like it was that exclusive, but I didn't think it would be as crazy as it was. We walked over there about halfway through and it was such a madhouse we just turned around. They are officially open for business now so I'll try to go back soon.

Friday night we ventured out to a new place called Rootstock. It's near Humboldt Park. I can't take credit for finding it, we met up with Jacquilyn and a bunch of other people who decided to go there. We had a great table outside, enjoyed some drinks and appetizers, placed an order for dinner, and then the storm of the century arrived (almost 8 inches of rain!!!) and we made a dash for inside.

Sorry, no pictures of food. It was very dark at both our table outdoors and inside, plus I didn't want to freak out my new acquaintances with my food photography. But the food was great - charcuterie, small flatbread pizzas, a great burger, PEI mussels, delicious fries, and lots of other goodies. It was a fun to try a new place that I never would have found on my own.

After the restaurant we made a mad dash through the monsoon to the California Clipper, a bar just across the intersection. It turned into one of those great nights you just can't plan for, and couldn't recreate if you tried. We all got to the bar soaking wet, and because of the rain it was pretty empty which was nice. They had a great country band playing, and then to top it off this man in a rain slicker carrying a small cooler walked in. What was in the cooler, you ask?

Oh, just some amazing tamales. $5 for a baggie of 5 cheese and poblano pepper tamales, with some green salsa.

Last Sunday we went to the Publican for brunch. I had only been for dinner and was excited for a different experience there. And it didn't disappoint. I ordered red wine poached eggs over sourdough toast, with bearnaise sauce and prosciutto.

Oh man. I ate everything on my plate.

And Sunday night we went to Table Fifty-Two. I didn't get any photos of food, it's a real classy joint plus we had a big group. I did take a photo of the outside of the restaurant because it's a cute little house. I guess I have a thing for restaurants in houses.

I feel like only showing the outside of the restaurant is like saying "I have a secret but I'm not going to tell you". I'll just say that a couple of my favorite things I ate there were fried green tomatoes, fried pickles, and a vegetable and manchengo wood fired pizza. I guess I'll have to take one for the team and go back so I can get more photos.

Wow, busy weekend. All this eating has left me wiped out.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Balsamic Chicken Drumettes

Feeling like I haven't made anything new in awhile, I started looking around online for a new recipe yesterday. My search eventually lead me to the Food Network site where I looked at the most popular recipes for Bobby Flay and Giada de Laurentiis. Not even the top 20, but the top 40 most popular recipes for both chefs were ALL chicken! All of them! Do people eat that much chicken? I don't make chicken very often mostly because I don't have the patience to cook it. It takes so much longer than steak and fish. Medium rare steak or tuna, delicious. Medium rare chicken, not so much. Anyway, I found this Giada recipe that I remembered I had seen awhile ago and wanted to make, but never got around to it. Here goes.

1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup soy sauce
5 sprigs of rosemary
5 garlic cloves, halved
10 to 12 chicken drumsticks
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Combine the balsamic, honey, brown sugar, soy sauce, rosemary sprigs, and garlic cloves, in a large, re-sealable plastic bag. Shake and squeeze the contents of the bag to dissolve the honey and the brown sugar. Add the chicken drumsticks to the bag and seal with as little air as possible in the bag. Place in the refrigerator and marinate for 2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

Place the chicken drumsticks on a foil-lined baking sheet. Bake until the skin is caramelized and very dark in spots, about 30 to 35 minutes.

Meanwhile, place the marinade in a small saucepan. Bring the marinade to a boil (in order to kill bacteria). Reduce the heat to simmer and cook over low heat until thick, about 15 minutes. Reserve.

Use a pastry brush to brush some of the cooked marinade on the cooked chicken. Place the chicken on a serving platter. Sprinkle with the sesame seeds and the chopped parsley.

I used black sesame seeds so they're a little harder to see, but they're there. Yum! The chicken was really good. Sweet and flavorful. The honey, brown sugar, balsamic, and soy sauce worked so well together, and brushing more of the marinade over the cooked chicken really made it perfect. I actually only marinated it for about an hour and 15 minutes and it was fine since I brushed more on at the end, but I would have liked to go the whole 2 hours. Oh, and the chicken drumsticks were very inexpensive - at $2.49/lb, I bought 10 which was about 1 3/4 lbs so it cost around $4.50. Doesn't get much better than that.

One more thing. I would be remiss if I didn't share this picture. How beautiful are these tomatoes from Scheeringa Farms?

Thursday, July 22, 2010


Province is yet another wonderful restaurant in the West Loop neighborhood, which we recently tried for the first time. Their menu is made up of mostly small plates to share, but does have larger plates do you don't have to do the sharing thing if you don't want. The cuisine doesn't have one overarching theme or influence - there are several Spanish-inspired dishes, but also some Asian, some Southern, and lots of new American.

The first part of the menu is "Bites", and we chose the house smoked salmon, bagel crisp, and herbed cream cheese.

Our choice from the "Raw" section of the menu arrived along with the smoked salmon bites. This one is hamachi sashimi with sea salt and serrano chiles.

Next we made one choice from the "Small" section of the menu: grilled herbed flatbread with fresh cheese, arugula, and a slow poached egg. I asked what exactly "fresh cheese" is, and the waitress said it was a housemade cheese similar to ricotta. I even got an action shot of this one...

For the main course we did one dish from "Big" and two from "Bigger". I know, it sounds like a lot of food, but the Bigger dishes really weren't that big. Ok, now I'm starting to confuse myself. From the "Big" part of the menu: Spanish Calasparra rice with market vegetables and manchengo cheese. Very cheesy and rich, but delicious.

And from the Bigger section, rare Hawaiian tuna with baby bok choy, spring onions, romesco, and caper vinaigrette...

And ten hour BBQ's lamb with roasted eggplant, chorizo, and cornbread. Mmmm.

Did we order dessert? Is the pope Catholic? Any dessert item with blueberries, and I'm sold. We got a blueberry tartlet with vanilla bean ice cream and blueberry syrup.

Hard to say, but I think my favorite dishes were the flatbread and the tuna. And the smoked salmon bite, it was just a taste but really good. And obviously the blueberry dessert. Ok, was all great!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Ricotta Gnocchi

This has to be the easiest homemade pasta. It's just two ingredients, and impossible to mess up. Ricotta gnocchi is more dense than potato gnocchi, but not in a heavy way. I got this recipe from someone I used to work with a long time ago, and it's a good one to have in your repertoire.

1 cup whole milk ricotta
1 cup all-purpose flour

Combine ricotta and flour in a bowl, and mix with your hands until thoroughly combined and you can form into a ball. Squeezing the mixture through your fingers helps to even mix it.

The dough isn't very sticky so you don't have to flour your counter or cutting board. Cut the ball of dough into slices and roll into long pieces. Some of the bigger slices you may have to cut in half to make them easier to work with. Once you roll the dough out, the long pieces should be about the width of a highlighter or big marker.

Next, cut the pieces into little gnocchis using a sharp knife. Once they're all cut lightly press a fork into the top of each just to give it a little texture.

Cook in salted boiling water for just a few minutes, until half of the gnocchis rise to the top.

That's it! I topped mine with homemade pesto:

This recipe is obviously very easy to double, triple, or cut in half. I usually do 1 1/2 cups flour, 1 1/2 cups ricotta. The 1 cup recipe is cutting it close to being enough for two people, and the 1 1/2 cup version is plenty for two with a little leftover. The recipe is recommended with whole milk ricotta, and I've never tried otherwise. I'm pretty sure it's for the purpose of making the dough hold together and keeping a good density. These gnocchis are also great with vodka sauce, but I was really craving pesto. So good!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Girl and the Goat

Last weekend we tried a new restaurant - not just new to us, but new to Chicago. Girl and the Goat just opened about a week ago, maybe less, and it's Stephanie Izard's restaurant. Recognize that name? She won Top Chef Season 4.

The restaurant is very handsome-looking. I don't want to say pretty because it has a very rustic look, but it's a really cool space with a big open kitchen so you can see everything going on. Upon being seated we were handed a wine and cocktail menu, a regular menu, and a little bread and oyster menu. If you want bread, you have to order it and it's $5. Whaaaat? I know, but trust me - you want this bread. They have an in-house baker making everything fresh, and there are three choices of what comes with the bread. We got the white anchovy butter and roasted garlic in olive oil option. The bread was hot and crusty and the butter tasted like caesar dressing melting into the bread.

I'm never one to pass up oysters, so we ordered the raw French Kisses with some kind of mignonette. I apologize for the lack of details in explaining exactly what's in each dish, but I assumed the whole menu would be online so I could go back and look at it again but it's not.

The menu is designed so that everything is a small plate to be shared. We ordered three and a veggie side dish. The first one to arrive was the pork liver moussaline. I know, crazy. Since I liked the other two dishes we ordered I told Peter he could go crazy and get whatever he wanted for the third even if I didn't like it. This dish is something I would have never ordered on my own, but once I tried was so good. The moussaline is in that little jar and it came with some little buns, a cherry jam of sorts, and housemade pickles which were amazing. I don't even really like cherries, but there I was slathering the pork liver and cherry jam on bread and really enjoying it.

The veggie dish arrived along with the moussaline. Roasted cauliflower with pine nuts, onions, and mint. So, so good.

The next two plates were both seafood. Scallops with caperberries and bits of braised veal:

The scallops were good, but the braised veal was my favorite part of the dish. And here's the other one - crispy soft shell crab with corn and potatoes. Really excellent.

And of course, dessert. What's a meal without dessert? We got two: the "fudgcicle" and the goat cheese bavaroise. The goat cheese dish was kind of like a goat cheese cheesecake substance, but fluffier and not as sweet, with blueberry and brown sugar cake underneath.

So, here's my beef with dessert. Every dessert option, and there were four, had a very big savory component. The fudgcicle had olive oil gelato and a beer butter sauce. One of the other desserts involved fried potato dumplings. It almost seemed like Stephanie isn't a sweets person and reluctantly put a few dessert items on the menu but didn't go all the way into the dessert category with what she chose. Me, I like dessert. The goat cheese thing was good, but I wish it was more cake and blueberries and less cheese. The fudgcicle was ok. I like olive oil gelato, but sometimes you just want a good flourless chocolate cake with some fresh whipped cream or vanilla gelato, you know?

That's really my only complaint about the meal though. The food was excellent, the staff couldn't have been nicer or more excited to be opening a new restaurant, and restaurant itself had a great vibe. I know we'll be coming back for more. And look at this cute little goat!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Vegetable Torte

I started with this:

And ended up with this:

I'm not going to lie, it was a lot of work. But it was delicious. I saw a Mark Bittman article and recipe for a vegetable torte in the New York Times a few days ago, and it was something I had never made or even thought of making before. So, why not?

1 large eggplant, cut into 1/4-inch slices
4 medium zucchini or yellow squash, cut into 1/4-inch slices
2 portobello mushrooms, cut into 1/4-inch slices
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, or more as needed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 plum tomatoes, cut into 1/4-inch slices
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan
1/2 cup bread crumbs, preferably fresh

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Put a grill pan over medium-high heat, or prepare a grill; the heat should be medium-high, and the rack about 4 inches from flame. Brush eggplant, zucchini and mushrooms lightly with half the oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper; if roasting, grease 2 baking sheets with oil. Roast or grill vegetables on both sides until soft.

Coat bottom and sides of 8-inch springform pan with oil. Layer a third of the eggplant slices into bottom of the pan, then layer in half the zucchini, mushrooms, tomato, garlic and basil, sprinkling each layer with a bit of salt and pepper. Repeat layers until all vegetable are used. Press the top with a spatula or spoon to make the torte as compact as possible. Sprinkle top with Parmesan and bread crumbs, and drizzle with about 1 tablespoon oil.

Bake torte in oven until hot throughout and browned on top, about 30 minutes. Let sit for 5 minutes before removing outer ring of pan, then let cool for another 10 minutes before cutting into wedges.

When I read the recipe, I noticed at the top it said "Time: 2 hours, largely unattended". I thought - ok, I can accept that. Two hours is a long time, but if it's largely unattended, fine. Well...not so much. The grilling of the vegetables was by far the most work. Because they are sliced so thin they cook pretty quickly, not to mention that it's just a lot of work to grill about 20-30 slices of squash at once. And I had to do 3 or 4 batches of 20-30 slices. Think about it - an eggplant, 2 zucchini, 2 yellow squash, and 2 portobello mushrooms all cut into 1/4-inch slices...that's a lot of slices.

But once that was done, all I had to do was assemble the tart and bake it. All the work was worth it, the tart came out perfectly and was really good. Also I should say, in terms of his directions - don't worry about preheating the oven right when you get started. It took awhile to chop and grill everything, and I turned the oven on after all that was done. Chopping the tomatoes, garlic, basil, and assembling the tart takes just as long as the oven takes to preheat so that was perfect. Also, for the assembly rather than do exactly as he said I did one layer of eggplant, one layer of squash, some mushroom and tomato, and some basil and garlic. Repeat. Not something I would delve into on a Tuesday night after work, but for a Sunday evening activity it was perfect.