Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Long Awaited Second Cheesecake That Didn't Live Up to Expectations

So the week immediately after making my first cheesecake here, I was all excited (and so was Dan) and I was ready to make another. But I wanted to experiment with different flavors, and the next big one on my list was dulce de leche (I’m a huge sucker for the Cheesecake Factory’s dulce de leche cheesecake, I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing). So I looked at a few different recipes, just to get a general idea, but as I said in my first cheesecake posting, you have your base ingredients and you can pretty much play around with other flavorings.

This time I also wanted to do a top layer as I hadn’t before so I wanted to do something different that would compliment dulce de leche. I’m kind of obsessed with goat cheese. Dan kept suggesting things like hibiscus or star anise, but I thought maybe a tangy goat cheese would go well with sweet dulce de leche. So I thought.

That’s one of the reason’s this post has taken so long, I made this well over a month ago, but as it was not a complete success, I debated even posting it. The cheesecake wasn’t bad, it just tasted like plain cheesecake, but lacking in something. It was an experiment, and I think I learned what to do from it, but I’m going to post the original recipe and go ahead and give my tips for what I would do next time. I think it has potential (I know people out there make really good dulce de leche cheesecakes) but I think my quantities and flavors weren’t right. The one really great part of this was the chocolate crust: most recipes I’ve read call for crushed up Oreo cookies, or similar cookies, but I used my recipe for regular crust and added cocoa powder…turned out really well.

So you win some, you lose some. But I figured I should post my “non-victories” as they’ll be referred to, and maybe someone else can do something better with it. Please let me know! Here’s the recipe, suggestions follow.

Dulce de Leche and Goat Cheese Cheesecake

150 g Mari Lu cookies
100 g butter
cocoa powder

dulce de leche
300 ml milk
200 g sugar

first layer
600 g cream cheese
75 g butter
dulce de leche
150-200 g sugar
3 eggs

second layer
1 log of goat cheese (about 100-150 gr)
100 g crème fraiche

First crunch up the Mari Lu cookies or graham crackers, and mix with melted butter and then add cocoa, mixing well. Press on the bottom of a springform pan and bake at 170 Celsius for 10 minutes.
Now comes the real experimental part, one of the key ingredients (or the key ingredient) so maybe I should have paid more attention to quantities, cooking time and temperature. So I poured milk and sugar into a pot and cooked, stirring a lot over medium-low heat until it reached a light brown color, about 40 minutes. The problem was, when it cooled, it hardened, so upon reheating it to add to my cheesecake mixture I added more milk and think I lost some of the flavor. I had never made my own dulce de leche before, so I suggest following a recipe, or doing what I’m going to try next time: use a couple cans of sweetened condensed milk and boiling that for about 45 minutes, also something I’ve never done, but will sometimes soon. I also think a problem was not having enough dulce de leche, because the cream cheese will neutralize the flavor, so make sure you have lots of it, you can always find something to do with the extra…put it on ice cream, eat it with a spoon, whatever your fancy.
Next, mix the cream cheese, butter, and dulce de leche together. Next add the sugar and mix, then the eggs and mix, and finally a pinch of salt. Please taste and make sure you don’t need something else, of course, if it’s dulce de leche and you don’t have any more, there’s nothing you can do immediately, but you could add more sugar, or lemon or something and try and spice it up a bit. Otherwise it comes out not tasting like much (mine tasted like sweetened cream cheese…not dulce de leche).
Pour this batter over the crust. Now if you want two completely separate layers of dulce de leche and goat cheese, bake this at 180 for about 40 minutes. I thought I did, but I also wanted the goat cheese layer to be more substantial than just that thin, barely cooked sour cream layer a lot of cheesecakes have. So I decided to cook it along with the dulce de leche layer so it would get browned. Turns out, my dulce de leche layer was not thick enough to stand up to a second layer and instead it sunk through, but made for a nice swirling of two layers.
So, mix the goat cheese, crème fraiche, and sugar to taste and pour over the dulce de leche batter, evenly over the whole top, out to the edges, so that you get a swirl effect throughout the whole cheesecake.
Bake at 180 for 40-45 minutes until it’s browned, or if you’ve already baked the dulce de leche layer, back for another 10 minutes or so.
Now, how would I make this layer better? I need to experiment more (hopefully it will lead to good things), but I’ve been thinking about adding some lime juice, perhaps even some zest because that would bring out the tartness of the goat cheese and if you have a very good, sweet, dulce de leche, I think it might achieve the flavor combination I was looking for. But as I said, I need to try this again and see if I can make it work. I’m dying for some good dulce de leche cheesecake, so next time, I will try with the sweetened condensed milk, at least two cans, probably three. And squirt some lime and maybe a bit of salt into the top/swirled layer. If anyone has any other suggestions, please let me know, and good luck to you. At least the pictures came out alright, not to mention that chocolate crust.

One last note: this cheesecake was in no way horrible, but it wasn’t great. It could have been, but was lacking in a few ways. It was still consumed in about 24 hours between two people, but it had no personality. It needs someone to give it some personality.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Breakfast Tacos, 'nuff said

I don’t have enough good things to say about brisket. I love it, that’s all there is to it. Now I don’t know if there are any ways to improve brisket (although you’ve gotta have tender, juicy, sliced brisket, of course) but my favorite brisket accompaniment? Not barbeque sauce, or ribs, or sausage, no potato salad or cole slaw, not even more brisket. Instead I prefer mine with eggs, cheese, potato and a big flour tortilla. Brisket Breakfast tacos. Few things in life can match that.

The first time I was introduced to this holy union was sometime in high school at Jim Bob’s Trading Post at Bee Caves and Hwy 71 in Austin. Breakfast tacos in Austin are quite common, you can get them at many different restaurants, whether they’re Tex-Mex or not. The usual meat (if you are a carnivore) is sausage, bacon, or chorizo. I had never before seen breakfast tacos with brisket as an option, and to this day still haven’t. I don’t know if I’d try them though, I think it would just be a let down in comparison to Jim Bob’s. I’ve also, strangely enough, never tried the barbeque at Jim Bob’s. I’m there for one thing and for one thing only.
They pile the tortilla full of whatever ingredients you want, to name a few egg, cheese, potato, bacon, jalapeño, chorizo, mushrooms, bell pepper, beans, onions, and the list goes on. I never veer from my brisket. Brisket, eggs, and cheese is my usual, if I’m extra hungry I’ll throw potatoes in there, but trust me when I say these are a commitment, these breakfast tacos. They’re not messing around here.
I’m not one of those people who likes to muck it up with salsa, although I’d say more often than not salsa is a must when eating breakfast tacos, but to each his own. On a particularly promising looking morning when I was in Austin, I awoke with angels singing ‘Jim Bob’s’ in my head, and an emptiness in my stomach. Off to the Trading Post I took Dan, with requests from my mom and dad also. We placed our orders, hit the salsa bar (for the others, of course), and in true Austin fashion, took our aluminum foil wrapped tacos to go.
The following pictures do not come with scratch and smell, unfortunately, or better yet, scratch and taste. It took everything I had not to scarf down mine in the car, but as you can see, I got half way through it before I remembered I should be taking pictures to make readers jealous…

my taco of brisket, egg, and cheese

Dan's brisket, cheese, and jalapeño, along with a dollop of salsa

my mom's bacon, egg, potato, and cheese (I guess not everyone is obsessed with brisket)

Some food to make from home, such as gorditas, might not be the first thing to come to mind, mainly because of their complexity (I’ve made them once, so maybe I’m not a master yet, but I think they might take some practice), but breakfast tacos, now that’s something that can be done, almost on a whim. And it was a whim that took me one afternoon when shopping at my local fruit and veg place here in Barcelona. One problem: brisket not so common. Actually, I don’t know if it can be done here or not, I don’t know what cut of meat or how to do it (should I be ashamed? With so many great places like Jim Bob’s, or my mom’s brisket, I haven’t needed to cook it myself…). I just have a feeling even if I were to get the beef, it wouldn’t turn out the same. They do pork here, not beef. So, next best thing, of course was sausage. Some really good sausage actually, called xistorra (I’ve talked about it before, greasy, red, Catalan).
The other ingredients I can find: tortillas (although I don’t love buying the flour tortillas from the package when I know there’s something like Central Market or Ninfa’s tortillas out there) but at least they’re available in Barcelona. Eggs, cheddar cheese (which is also pretty scarce, except some unknown brand that comes a few square slices to a package, but hey, it works), potatoes, even jalapeños (or some similar, mildly spicy pepper). Cook everything, assemble, wrap in foil and have yourself a good breakfast. Or in our case, a nice picnic dinner in the Maritime Museum courtyard.

My Breakfast Tacos, a little on the Spanish side

5 flour tortillas
1 smallish white onion
2 big potatoes
5-6 eggs
1 jalapeño
Cheddar cheese (or some yellow cheese)
Xistorra (easy substitution: any kind of meat you want, sausage, bacon, or heavenly brisket)
Butter/oil, or if you’re lucky like us, leftover grease from cooking xistorra before (which looks like completely smooth carrot puret. it's very orange)
Salsa (if you must)

First, boil the potatoes until they’re tender, but not falling apart because you’re essentially making hashbrowns to stick into the breakfast tacos. While these are cooking, you can prep the other stuff, like the jalapeño. I cut in half, and then according to where the veins are, de-vein them, or cut the halves into two strips and then de-vein. Along with the veins, scoop all the seeds out too. This way, I get my mild-spicy taste, but I save the veins and seeds and chop them for Dan because he likes really spicy. But I make sure and set those way aside. Chop up your strips of jalapeño for later. I like to add mine in the egg, but maybe you want a little more control of how much you get, so you can sprinkle on after assembly of the taco.
When the potatoes are ‘fork tender’ as cookbooks like to say, drain them. While they cool, chop the onion into little dices. Over medium-high heat on a burner (side note: using non-stick is a lot better because you can brown things without having to scrape all the burned potato off the pan), heat up the xistorra grease (as you can see below), or butter or oil, whatever you're using, and add the onions. You’ll cook these for about 10-15 minutes, until they become soft in the grease, but you don’t want them to brown before putting the potatoes in, so if they do, turn the heat down. Stir occasionally.

When those are about done, cut the potatoes into chunks and add them to the pan. I think in total, I cooked these for about 20 or 30 minutes, stirring a lot at first but then letting them sit and brown, then stirring so they could brown on all sides. Don’t forget to salt and pepper. When they’re nice and browned, turn off the heat. While these were cooking, I chopped the xistorra. Then, get your tortillas ready. If you’re making one breakfast taco, you can probably get away with scattering cheese on top of the hot ingredients as you add them and it will melt, but when making multiple ones to be taken somewhere else, I suggest zapping them for a bit. So I tore the cheese and put it on half a tortilla.

Now cook the xistorra. These don’t need any extra grease, and they only take about 5 minutes. Shake them around a few times until the look a little browned on the edges and they firm up. Put the xistorra on a plate, drain most of the grease and save it for next time…makes really good hashbrowns. Save just a bit in the pan to cook the eggs in. Crack all the eggs into a pan on medium heat and stir, add salt and pepper (I think everyone knows how to make scrambled eggs). The only difference? At the very end, when there’s about one minute left, throw in the chopped jalapeño and give in another good stir, then turn off the heat.

Now it’s go time: heat one tortilla at a time until cheese melts and fill high with eggs, potatoes, and xistorra. Then roll in foil. This really does help them stay warm, and you’re ready to go “in true Austin fashion” with your foiled-up breakfast tacos to a park and marvel at their goodness and wonder how they’re not part of every cuisine, not to mention brisket.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Gooey Goodness (Banana Chocolate Peanut Bourbon Bars)

One day I was wanting to make some blondies, which I’ve eaten plenty of in my day, but have never made. I thought it’d be a nice variation from chocolate chip cookies or brownies, or more accurately, a nice marriage of the two. As is custom now, the first thing I turn to for recipes or inspiration are food blogs. I came across Smitten Kitchen’s blondies recipe and the simplicity and flexibility of the recipe convinced me. That and the pictures. The base recipe is six little ingredients, two of them being salt and vanilla, and then she gives suggestions for all kinds of things you can add.

I was thinking to myself, “why not? A basic bar recipe and then I can throw in whatever I want?” I think I got a little carried away, as you’ll see, I didn’t end up making blondies (which I consider strictly a chocolate chip bar, a cookie in the bar form, or a brownie that’s blond, although that one I probably don’t need to explain). So when you start to add all that other stuff, like dried fruit, nuts, whiskey, etc., I think it moves out of the ‘blondie’ classification and into the larger ‘bar’ realm.

Obviously, I had no problem with this, the final baked product lasted maybe a little longer than 24 hours, but I wasn’t the only one snacking on them. Also, with all the extra things, I can no longer call them blondies and sleep at night, therefore, I present to you my Banana Chocolate Peanut Bourbon Bars. They’ll do the trick too, I promise.

Banana Chocolate Peanut Bourbon Bars

16 tbsp butter
2 cups brown sugar
2 eggs
2 cups flour
pinch of salt
1 cup peanuts
1 cup chocolate (I used 50% chopped into pieces, chocolate chips would work too though)
2 pretty ripe bananas (I only had one, so threw in a little Crème de Bananes to substitute)
Jim Beam (or some good bourbon) until you stick your finger into the batter and can taste it (that’s how I test, or you can measure something like ¼- ½ cup)

Now peanuts are a nut you don’t normally see baked in cookies or bars or most sorts of sweets, and I kind of discovered why. The day that I made the bars, the peanuts were soft, not as hard and crunchy as normal, but by the second day they had firmed up a bit, and my roommate told me I should have put more in. I did it because the flavor of peanuts goes so well with bananas and with chocolate.
First melt the butter, to some point between beginning to turn liquid and completely melted. Add the sugar and mix with a fork. Add the eggs and beat in well. Now add the flour and salt and mix everything to form your base dough. Mush up the bananas and when that’s done, add them along with the peanuts and chocolate to the dough. Remember, the amounts are all rough guides, if you want to throw in more chocolate, by all means, do so. Finally, pour in the Jim Beam. Like I said, I didn’t really measure mine, just kept pouring in until I could barely taste it. Because I put in a fair amount, I added some more flour to get the dough almost back to the consistency of the original dough so it wasn’t too liquidy. In a buttered glass dish (Smitten Kitchen says 8x8 for half the recipe I used, but here in Barcelona I’m limited with my equipment and grabbed an egg shaped dish whose measurements I have no idea about. My main concern is that they be thick.) pour the batter and put into an oven at 350 F. Cook for 20-25 minutes. I say that, although for me cooking times are completely variable, of course from oven to oven but also from person to person. I just checked on them every so often, sticking toothpicks in and finally took them out when the top was pretty browned but the insides were still gooey. Very gooey actually. Like I needed a spoon to eat them. I prefer things underdone and these definitely met my standards. On the day I cooked them, it was like eating warm batter with a cooked crust, which suites me just fine. The next day, they firmed up and held their shape more, but I’m happy eating the batter before it’s cooked, so gooey bars have never been a problem for me. If you don’t want so gooey, be careful because mine were underdone but still very brown. Move them to the bottom wrack of the over if the top is getting too dark. Or you can take them out and serve them the next day because after the melted chocolate cools down as well as the bars themselves, they're less gooey and more of just a good, really moist bar.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Sundays at Fonda San Miguel

Sunday brunch. I have trouble most Sundays waking up and realizing I don’t get to eat a hearty brunch. It’s such a beautiful collocation, Sunday brunch, and such an important part of American life. I had a Sunday at home last month and I had to decide where to go for brunch. Although there are many that tempted me (Stubb’s was right up there), I couldn’t get Fonda San Miguel out of my head. Truthfully, I still can’t get Fonda San Miguel out of my head.

It has one of the most well-known brunches in Austin. It’s often referred to as “authentic, interior Mexican cuisine.” Its décor amazes the eye. I just call it plain good. There’s no other way around it. Endless amounts of Mexican food (by saying ‘interior Mexican’ they just mean not Tex-Mex, but I promise you, there are still chips, and they are homemade, and they are good), paintings and tiles and lamps and colors surrounding you, and little women pressing tortillas in the back by the bar. You know it’s good when they’re making their own tortillas. There are certain dishes that you can expect at every brunch at Fonda San Miguel, and then some things that change occasionally. The buffet stands in the center of the main dining room, four-sided. The first side is hot starters, and one of my favorites is the corn pudding: a yellowy, creamy, sweet corn casserole. There’s also chilaquiles, a spicy dish of chips smothered until they get soft with, in this case, a green chile sauce (I’ve made them before with red chile sauce); black beans with a drizzle of white cheese and sour cream; mushrooms sautéed with chiles, but not too spicy; a sweet potato dish; migas (eggs scrambled with onion, corn tortilla, and peppers. Very delicious dish, but strangely I haven’t tried Fonda San Miguel’s yet). I think the list goes on, but I can’t remember it because if you want any chance at getting around the whole buffet, you’re going to have to be somewhat choosey.

So that’s just the beginning. A waiter comes out when you’re first seated and tells you how things work, brings you a plate, asks you if you want corn or flour tortillas (obviously the answer is both), offers mimosas, bloody marys, whatever your poison may be, and from then on, every time you finish a plate he brings you a clean one. If you have any questions about the food, you ask the chef who stands in the middle of the buffet.

Chef Miguel

Onto side two: the cold starters. This includes different salads, one a nopalitos salad, made from cactus which I didn’t try this time; something with pickled onions surrounded by lime slices (I obviously didn’t try this one either, I’m not a huge onion fan); ceviche (I liked the fresh, sour fish on a salty, crispy chip); fish for tacos to be eaten with a creamy red sauce (looked like remoulade), red onions and a squirt of lime; guacamole and chips; and a spinach salad with smoky-tasting chiles and little nuts that was wonderfully different, that I don’t remember seeing before.

Onto the meats, otherwise known as side three (it must be noted that by now I was wanting to go back and get seconds of many things but knew that I had to persist and get through each of the four sides at least once before heading back for more corn pudding, guacamole, or fish tacos). There were three main dishes: cochinita pibil (a pork dish), quail, and beef (I’m embarrassed…I can’t remember what it was. Carne guisada possibly?). These were served with a spoonful of rice and cilantro sprinkled about. At our table the overall winner was the very tender cochinita pibil. I actually enjoyed the sauce from the beef mixed in with rice, and the rest of my family liked the quail. I thought it was tasty too, but I’m not so big on picking my food apart and eating around its little bird bones and by the time I got to it I was already wanting to put on something with an elastic waist band. I was trying to save room for the fourth side (some of you might guess that much of the food on the last side starts as a dough or masa…)

Desserts: I will admit that the desserts are not the strongest point at Fonda San Miguel, with so many other Mexican goodies to try, and I’m prejudiced by rich American sweets, but they do have a decent selection and I was able to put a few down. Let’s see if I can remember them all: chocolate rum mousse with dulce de leche sauce (had no trouble with that one); tres leches cake; chocolate cake; assorted cookies, bread pudding, a cheesecake which was more a dense, fluffy cake made with cheese than the American cheesecake; poached pears, and as I’m looking at the picture, more things that I actually cannot recall. (I’m very disappointed in myself because my picture of the dessert side came out fuzzy, but I didn’t take another.) I was able to eat my desserts and then pick off other people’s plates. I think we turn into ruminants when it comes to dessert; I always find more compartments to store my food when I had previously thought I was on the edge of bursting. So I found some space for the last little bits before I had to leave my beloved brunch.

I always regret not being able to stuff down more tortillas, especially the corn ones, because when you find fresh, homemade corn tortillas, rather than the dry, gritty things that come packaged at the grocery store, it’s like heaven. So we rolled out of Fonda San Miguel, I looked longingly at the buffet of colorful Mexican delights, some more familiar than others, and knew that in a few short hours, I would want more (although reverting back to a normal one-stomach state, that Sunday brunch could hold you over for a good 24 hours). Through the painted tiles and leather-backed chairs, multi-pointed metallic star lamps and terra-cotta colored walls decorated with portraits, and the sky-lit, plant filled entrance way, we ended our feast at Fonda San Miguel. Dan loves to quote someone or other on the wonderful cuisine that is found south of the border: “The trouble with Mexican food is that in three days you’re hungry again.”

Note: I hope the pictures have spoken for themselves, because I feel I haven’t done it justice simply by listing the foods. I know what they taste like, so I can remember, smile, and salivate, but you, on the other hand, only have words and pictures. I hope they work.