short rib and dried porcini lasagne

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I am in the mood to braise. It must be like the leaves changing in the fall; it’s based on the length of the day, not the temperature, because our temperatures here have been getting up to the high 70s. But I don’t care; I want to run the oven for three hours anyway, if the result is tender rich meat in a savory sauce.

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Now this recipe – it’s an endeavor. Because that three hours of oven time? It’s after 10 minutes of browning meat and 20 minutes of chopping vegetables and before, oh, about 2 hours of meat shredding, béchamel whisking, pasta rolling and cutting and boiling and rinsing, and lasagna layering. Then there’s an hour of baking while you clean up after the tornado that seemingly passed through your kitchen.

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It’s a different sort of lasagna than you might be used to, with tomatoes and cheese just playing backup roles to the meat. There isn’t a large volume of meat left after shredding the non-fatty portions of the short ribs after braising, but because the sauce spends three hours soaking up flavor from the ribs, the whole lasagna is deeply beefy. It’s just perfect. Maybe more so if you can justify four hours of oven use to warm your house, but even if you hadn’t had to turn the heater on yet, this dish is a treat.

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One year ago: Berry Chocolate Ice Cream
Two years ago: Beef in Barolo
Three years ago: English Muffins
Four years ago: Buttery Jam Cookies

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Short Rib and Dried Porcini Lasagne (adapted slightly from Fine Cooking)

Serves 6

Complete instructions on how to prepare fresh pasta for lasagna can be found in this recipe.

¾ ounce (1 cup) dried porcini mushrooms
2 pounds beef short ribs
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 bay leaf
½ cup dry red wine
2 cups canned crushed tomatoes
¼ cup minced parsley, plus more for garnish
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups whole milk
Pinch nutmeg
¾ cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (about 1½ ounces)
1 batch fresh pasta, rolled, cut, boiled, and rinsed

1. Adjust a rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 300 degrees. In a small bowl, soak the porcini in 1½ cups warm water until softened, about 10 minutes. Drain, reserving 1 cup of the soaking liquid. (There will probably be some grit settled to the bottom of the soaking liquid. Be careful to leave this behind.) Coarsely chop the mushrooms; set aside.

2. Season the short ribs with 1 teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper. In a 5-quart Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the short ribs, in batches if necessary, and brown all over, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate. Pour off and discard all but a thin layer of fat.

3. Reduce the heat to medium and add the onion, carrot, celery, and a pinch of salt and cook until the vegetables are tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the tomato paste and bay leaf and cook, stirring, until the tomato paste darkens, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the red wine and simmer, stirring and scraping up any browned bits with a wooden spoon, until syrupy, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the reserved mushroom liquid and the tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Add the porcini and the short ribs with any accumulated juices; cover, transfer the pot to the oven, and cook until the meat is fall-off-the-bone tender, 2½ to 3 hours.

4. Transfer the ribs to a plate to cool. Pour the sauce into a heatproof bowl and discard the bay leaf. When the fat rises to the surface, skim it off and discard. (If you have the time, refrigerate the sauce at this point so you can just pick off the hardened fat from the surface.) Mix in the parsley; season to taste with salt and pepper. When the meat is cool enough to handle, remove and discard the bones and any fat or cartilage. Shred the meat; set aside. Increase the oven temperature to 350 degrees.

5. Melt the butter in a 2-quart saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and whisk constantly until light golden, about 2 minutes. Gradually whisk in the milk and cook at a gentle simmer, stirring often, until the mixture thickens, about 10 minutes. Season with 1 teaspoon salt and the nutmeg. Stir in ½ cup (1 ounce) of the parmesan. Mix this béchamel sauce into the short rib sauce.

6. Spread about ¾ cup of the sauce on the bottom of a 9×13-inch baking dish. Mix the shredded meat into the remaining sauce. Cover the sauce in the dish with a layer of cooked noodles, cutting them as needed to fill any gaps. Alternate layers of pasta and sauce until you run out of sauce, ending with a layer of sauce. Sprinkle with the remaining ¼ cup (0.5 ounce) of parmesan.

7. Cover the baking dish with foil and bake for 40 minutes. Remove the foil and bake until the top is browned and bubbly, 15 to 20 minutes. Sprinkle additional minced parsley over the top of the lasagna. Cool for at least 10 minutes before serving.

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eggnog cupcakes

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Eggnog is sort of ridiculously bad for you. I think of it as a Christmasy milkshake. I enjoy it, but moderation is key. Dave, on the other hand, learned a hard lesson about moderation recently, as he poured himself a big glass of the nog and topped it off with a generous pour of Bailey’s Irish Cream. Declaring it delicious, he went ahead and poured himself another big glass, while I attempted to point out without being too terribly annoying that that there is a whole lot of eggnog. An hour later, lying on the floor clutching his stomach, he agreed.

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Perhaps iced tea glasses are not the best way to enjoy eggnog, and cupcakes, instead, are. The ingredients are similar anyway – eggs, sugar, dairy – and because eggnog is so thick, you can add a decent amount to cake batter without hurting the texture of the cake. I started with this recipe, but it’s clearly based on a vegan source, with its lack of eggs and butter. That’s fine, but I like the structure eggs give to batters, and I thought butter would be a good match with the dairy-flavored cake. I’ve always had good results with this vanilla bean cupcake recipe, which is a pretty standard cake batter, so I combined the two. For the frosting, I used an easy American-style buttercream, with just a couple ounces of cream cheese added to enhance the pudding flavor of the eggnog.

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The batter, with just 2 tablespoons of bourbon, was like a sweet cocktail, with alcohol fumes dominating the flavor. Of course most of that burns off in the oven, resulting in tender, moist cupcakes with just a hint of bourbon. The frosting was particularly dangerous, and I had to be careful that I didn’t eat so much that I had to join Dave in stomach-clutching. Powdered sugar-based American buttercream can be one-dimensionally sweet, but the cream cheese, eggnog, and bourbon give this one plenty of extra flavor. A generous grating of nutmeg brings home the Christmasy overtones. This is definitely the right way to enjoy eggnog, although I wouldn’t be opposed to a small glass of the stuff with a shot of Bailey’s either. I’m not sure Dave is recovered enough to join me.

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One year ago: Spelt Crackers
Two years ago: Bolognese Sauce (comparison of 3 recipes)
Three years ago: Thai-Style Chicken Soup (Tom Kha Gai)
Four years ago: Cranberry Orange Muffins

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Eggnog Cupcakes (adapted from Annie’s Eats and these Vanilla Bean Cupcakes)

Makes about 15 cupcakes

I included butter for flavor and a couple tablespoons of oil because it does a better job making cakes tender and moist than butter does.

1¼ cups (5 ounces) cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ cup eggnog, at room temperature
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons bourbon or dark rum
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ teaspoon salt
¾ cup (5.75 ounces) sugar
3 large eggs, at room temperature

For the frosting:
16 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 ounces cream cheese, softened
Pinch of salt
2½ cups (10 ounces) confectioners’ sugar, sifted
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
2 tablespoons eggnog
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 teaspoons bourbon

1. Heat the oven to 350°F. Line two cupcake pans with paper liners. In a medium bowl, combine the cake flour and baking powder. In a 2-cup measuring cup, whisk together the eggnog, oil, vanilla, and bourbon.

2. Place the butter and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on medium-high speed for 3 minutes, until light and creamy in color. Gradually add the sugar to the butter mixture. Mix in the eggs one at a time, until incorporated. With the mixer on low speed, add one-third of the flour mixture, followed immediately by half of the eggnog mixture, mixing just until incorporated. Repeat with another third of the flour and the rest of the eggnog, then the last of the flour. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and mix for 15 seconds longer.

3. Divide the batter between the prepared paper liners, filling each about ⅔ of the way full. Bake for 18-22 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow to cool in the pans for 5-10 minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack to cool completely.

4. To make the frosting: Place the butter, cream cheese, and a pinch of salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat on medium-high speed until creamy, about 1 minute. Gradually add the powdered sugar and nutmeg, and mix on medium-high speed until smooth, about 2 minutes, scraping the sides of the bowl as necessary. Add the eggnog and whip on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, 4 minutes. With the mixer on medium-low speed, blend in the bourbon and vanilla. Frost the cupcakes as desired.

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mussels fra diavolo

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Dave took to mussels before I did. They, along with all the other bivalves, weren’t even on my radar when he came home from a dinner with coworkers raving about them. It was one of the first foods he’d tried before I had.

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Not long after, we went to a Belgian mussels and beer restaurant, and after that I was hooked. It took me a few bites to get past the slightly boogery texture, but I was sold when I tasted the liquid they were served with. It was buttery and winey and briney, and the housemade ketchup didn’t hold a candle to it as a dip for the crisp French fries served alongside.

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We’ve eaten mussels many, many times since then, but this is our favorite way. It’s garlicky and spicy, and the pasta is the perfect vehicle to mix with the sauce the mussels cook in. And the best part? Dave likes it so much, he’s willing to make dinner. This makes me love mussels at least as much as he does.

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One year ago: Normandy Apple Tart
Two years ago: Pumpkin Oatmeal Cookies
Three years ago: Herbed Lamb Chops with Pinot Noir Sauce
Four years ago: Truffles (chocolate brand comparison)

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Mussels fra Diavolo (adapted from Cook’s Illustrated’s Shrimp fra Diavolo and Gourmet)

Serves 4

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
12 cloves garlic, minced or pressed through a garlic press (about ¼ cup), divided
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained
1 cup medium-dry white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc
salt
¾ to 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
½ teaspoon sugar
1 pound linguine
3 pounds mussels, cleaned and debearded
¼ cup minced fresh parsley

1. Bring a large pot of water to boil.

2. Heat a 5-quart Dutch oven over medium-low heat. Add 3 tablespoons of the oil and 9 cloves of garlic. Cook, stirring frequently, until the garlic is sticky and light golden and begins to foam, about 7-10 minutes. Mix in the tomatoes, wine, 1 teaspoon salt, the red pepper flakes, and sugar. Increase the heat to medium-high and simmer until thickened and fragrant, about 8 minutes.

3. While the sauce is simmering, add 1 tablespoon salt and the linguine to the boiling water and cook according to the package directions until al dente. Drain; return the pasta to the now empty pot and add about ½ cup of the sauce. Toss well to coat.

4. Add the mussels to the remaining sauce and cook, covered, until they just open wide, checking frequently after 3 minutes and transferring to a bowl. Discard any mussels that remain unopened after 6 minutes.

5. Stir the remaining garlic and the parsley into the sauce. Stir in the remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Divide the pasta among warmed serving bowls, topping with the mussels and sauce. Serve immediately.

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strawberry champagne cupcakes

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I loved how these cupcakes came out, but still, I’m not so sure about this idea of baking with champagne. On the one hand, it certainly sounds fun and fancy, doesn’t it? On the other, it’s awfully hard to get the flavor of alcohol to come through after a dessert is baked, so adding something as pricey as champagne to cupcake batter is quite a splurge.

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Sure enough, I couldn’t taste the splash of champagne that I added to the cupcake batter. On the other hand, the full cup of champagne that I reduced to just 2 tablespoons and then added to the frosting, that flavor was very evident. It made the powdered sugar-based icing, which can often seem overwhelmingly sweet, tangy.

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Between the champagne cake, the champagne frosting, and the glass of champagne I drank to finish the bottle, my favorite was the pure bubbly liquid, but I couldn’t bring that to work for a coworker’s bridal shower. In that setting, the only way to include champagne is in dessert, which makes strawberry champagne cupcakes the perfect festive, not to mention delicious, way to celebrate, even if it is a splurge.

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One year ago: Tapioca Pudding (comparison of 3 recipes)
Two years ago: Stuffed Squash Flowers
Three years ago: Brioche Plum Tart
Four years ago: Pain a l’ancienne

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Strawberry Champagne Cupcakes (adapted from Sky High’s strawberry cake and Cook’s Illustrated’s white cake recipes)

Makes about 36 mini cupcakes or 12 regular cupcakes

2 egg whites, at room temperature 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ cup (3 ounces by weight) strawberries, pureed
3 tablespoons champagne
½ teaspoon vanilla
1 drop red food coloring
1 cup + 2 tablespoons (4.5 ounces) cake flour
¾ cup (5.25 ounces) granulated sugar
1½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon table salt

1. Adjust a rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line muffin wells with paper cups. In a large measuring cup, beat the egg whites, strawberry puree, champagne, vanilla, and food coloring.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a large mixing bowl if using a handheld mixer), whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Add the butter; beat at slow speed until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. With the mixer running, pour in the strawberry mixture and continue to beat on medium speed (or high speed if using a handheld mixer) for 2 minutes, stopping to scrape the bowl once or twice.

3. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared muffin cups.  Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of a cupcake comes out dry, 11-14 minutes for mini cupcakes or 18-24 minutes for regular cupcakes.  Transfer the pan(s) to a wire rack to cool for about 5 minutes, then remove the cupcakes from the pan.  Let cool completely before frosting.

Champagne Buttercream (slightly adapted from Love and Olive Oil)

Makes enough to frost about 36 mini cupcakes or 12 regular cupcakes

A few comments on the original recipe note that their champagne reduction came out bitter, which seemed to be a result of using dry (brut) champagne. Stick to a sweeter champagne like demi-sec to avoid this.

1 cup demi-sec champagne
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
pinch salt
2½ to 3 cups (10-12 ounces) confectioners’ sugar

1. In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, bring the champagne to a simmer.  Reduce the heat to medium and simmer until the champagne is reduced to 2 tablespoons, 15-20 minutes.  Set aside to cool to room temperature.

2. In a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (or a large bowl if using a handheld mixer), beat the butter and salt on medium speed until smooth.  Reduce the mixer speed to low and slowly add the sugar, then increase the mixer speed to high and beat until the mixture is light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.  Reduce the mixer speed to medium and slowly add the reduced champagne, mixing just until combined.

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tiramisu

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I got confused when my coworker told me, while studiously avoiding eye contact, that the only thing they needed to figure out for another coworker’s rehearsal dinner was the dessert. I started trying to evaluate our previous history of eye contact. Was the lack of eye contact normal between us, or was that a hint? I was willing to help her out, but I was going to feel awfully silly if I jumped in to bake for thirty people I’d never met if it wasn’t necessary.

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Well, I did volunteer, of course, because it was an opportunity to make desserts without eating them all myself! The dinner had an Italian theme, with big pans of lasagna, loaves of garlic bread, and pots of Italian wedding soup, so tiramisu was a natural choice. It didn’t hurt that I’d made this recipe once, years ago, and had wanted a reason to make it again ever since.

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It’s the perfect balance of sweet and bitter and tinged with alcohol. The ladyfingers soak up just enough of the coffee and rum to turn soft and cakey, but not enough to get mushy. The creamy mascarpone layer is like a rich custard filling between layers of cake. The cocoa and grated chocolate (optional, but I added it) provide a welcome hint of chocolate, but it doesn’t dominate.

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I made a double batch for the party (and was lucky enough to have a friend come over to dip and arrange nearly a hundred ladyfingers in the pan) and kept a tiny taster serving for myself. It was a smart move, because there wasn’t one bit leftover from the rehearsal dinner. Savoring my tiramisu at home that night, I didn’t regret volunteering to bake this dessert one bit.

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One year ago: Lemon Ricotta Strawberry Muffins
Two years ago: Slaw Tartare
Three years ago: Chocolate Amaretti Torte
Four years ago: Breakfast Strata with Sausage, Mushrooms, and Monterey Jack

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Tiramisù (from Cook’s Illustrated)

Cook’s Illustrated’s notes: Brandy and even whiskey can stand in for the dark rum. Cook’s Illustrated prefers a tiramisù with a pronounced rum flavor; for a less potent rum flavor, halve the amount of rum added to the coffee mixture in step 1. Do not allow the mascarpone to warm to room temperature before using it; it has a tendency to break if allowed to do so. Be certain to use hard, not soft ladyfingers.

2½ cups strong black coffee, room temperature
1½ tablespoons instant espresso powder
9 tablespoons dark rum
6 large egg yolks
⅔ cup (4.67 ounces) sugar
¼ teaspoon table salt
1½ pounds mascarpone cheese
¾ cup heavy cream (cold)
14 ounces ladyfingers (42 to 60, depending on size)
3½ tablespoons cocoa, preferably Dutch-processed
¼ cup semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, grated (optional)

1. Stir coffee, espresso, and 5 tablespoons of the rum in a wide bowl or baking dish until the espresso dissolves; set aside.

2. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the yolks at low speed until just combined. Add the sugar and salt and beat at medium-high speed until pale yellow, 1½ to 2 minutes, scraping down the bowl with a rubber spatula once or twice. Add the remaining 4 tablespoons rum and beat at medium speed until just combined, 20 to 30 seconds; scrape the bowl. Add the mascarpone and beat at medium speed until no lumps remain, 30 to 45 seconds, scraping down the bowl once or twice. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl and set aside.

3. In the now-empty mixer bowl (there’s no need to clean the bowl), beat the cream at medium speed until frothy, 1 to 1½ minutes. Increase the speed to high and continue to beat until the cream holds stiff peaks, 1 to 1½ minutes longer. Using a rubber spatula, fold one-third of the whipped cream into the mascarpone mixture to lighten, then gently fold in the remaining whipped cream until no white streaks remain. Set the mascarpone mixture aside.

4. Working with one at a time, drop half of the ladyfingers into the coffee mixture, roll, remove, and transfer to 13 by 9-inch glass or ceramic baking dish. (Do not submerge the ladyfingers in the coffee mixture; the entire process should take no longer than 2 to 3 seconds for each cookie.) Arrange the soaked cookies in a single layer in the baking dish, breaking or trimming the ladyfingers as needed to fit neatly into the dish.

5. Spread half of the mascarpone mixture over the ladyfingers; use a rubber spatula to spread the mixture to the sides and into the corners of the dish and smooth the surface. Place 2 tablespoons of the cocoa in a fine-mesh strainer and dust the cocoa over the mascarpone.

6. Repeat the dipping and arrangement of ladyfingers; spread the remaining mascarpone mixture over the ladyfingers and dust with the remaining 1½ tablespoons cocoa. Wipe the edges of the dish with a dry paper towel. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 6 to 24 hours. Sprinkle with the grated chocolate, if using; cut into pieces and serve chilled.

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homemade mustard

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My sister got me hooked on fancy mustard by buying me a jar of champagne mustard for Christmas a couple years ago. I had had no idea that mustard could taste so good. It was tangy, a little spicy, maybe just a bit sweet. We slathered it on bread, no other toppings necessary. It’s still the best mustard I’ve ever tasted, despite a newfound appreciation for the variety and quality that was possible in mustards. Right now I have four mustards in my fridge – a whole grain version, a smooth French Dijon (this one is sharp!), red chile mustard, and a generic Dijon I use for cooking.

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But then my sister took my mustard fixation one step further when she started mixing up her own mustards. While I’d always had some vague idea of the relationship between prepared mustard and the mustard powder I add to my roux for mac and cheese, it had never occurred to me to take it to the next step and make homemade mustard. But the types she was making, flavored with herbs, cognac, or beer, sounded too good to pass up.

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The article she led me to had six mustard recipes, and never one to be able to make a decision, I opted to make three of them. Mustard is easy enough that this was reasonable – to make, although it was far too much mustard for us to eat. All of the recipes required several days of soaking mustard powder or seeds in vinegar, but then one just needed to be blended and the other two were cooked briefly over a double boiler.

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The thing about making condiments (or anything, really) from scratch is that they really need to be better than a storebought version to justify the effort.  On that note, the rosemary thyme mustard was by far my favorite. Not only was the texture just right – thick with fun mustardy bits when you pop the seeds in your mouth – but this was a flavor you don’t often see for sale.  The other two mustards I made, which both required an egg and a trip over the double boiler, ended up too thin, but I still loved the sweet flavor of the agave version. The bright yellow beer mustard certainly wasn’t bad, but it had a lot more bite than the others.  And if I thought I was fixated on mustards before, that was nothing to how I am now that I know I can make any flavor I want.

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One year ago: Scampi fra Diavolo
Two years ago: Chicken Mushroom Spinach Lasagna
Three years ago: Lemon Poppy Seed Waffles
Four years ago: Whole Wheat Pasta with Greens, Beans, Tomatoes, and Garlic Chips

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Rosemary Thyme Mustard (from Sunset magazine)

3 tablespoons yellow mustard seeds
1 tablespoon brown mustard seeds
3 teaspoons minced fresh thyme, divided
2 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary
⅓ cup apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon light brown sugar
¾ teaspoon salt

1. Stir together the mustard seeds, 2 teaspoons thyme, the rosemary, ⅓ cup water, and the vinegar in a bowl until seeds are submerged. Let sit at room temperature, covered, 2 to 3 days.

2. Put the mustard mixture in a blender along with the brown sugar and salt and blend until mixture is thick but still coarse-textured. Stir in the remaining 1 teaspoon thyme. (Can be made 2 weeks in advance. Cover and refrigerate.)

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Seeded Agave Nectar Mustard (from Sunset magazine)

¼ cup Colman’s dry mustard
½ cup white wine vinegar
¼ cup agave nectar
2 teaspoons canola oil
2 tablespoons black or brown mustard seeds
1 large egg
1 teaspoon salt
2½ teaspoons cornstarch

1. Stir together the dry mustard, vinegar, 2 tablespoons water, and agave nectar in a medium metal bowl until smooth. Chill, covered, overnight.

2. Put the oil and mustard seeds in a small frying pan and heat over medium heat, covered. As soon as the mustard seeds start to pop, about 3 minutes, remove from the heat. Let cool.

3. Bring a medium saucepan filled with 1 inch of water to a simmer. To the mustard-vinegar mixture, add the toasted mustard seeds in oil, the egg, salt, and cornstarch and whisk to blend. Set the bowl over the simmering water and cook, whisking constantly, until the mustard thickens, 3 minutes. (Can be made 2 weeks in advance. Cover and refrigerate.)

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Ballpark Beer Mustard (from Sunset magazine)

¼ cup Colman’s dry mustard
½ cup light-bodied beer
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 egg
1¼ teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon cornstarch
½ teaspoon lemon juice
½ teaspoon sugar

1. Whisk together the dry mustard, beer, 2 tablespoons water, and turmeric in a medium metal bowl until smooth. Chill, covered, overnight.

2. Bring a medium saucepan filled with 1 inch water to a simmer. To the bowl of the mustard mixture, add the egg, salt, cornstarch, lemon juice, and sugar; whisk to blend. Set the bowl over the simmering water and cook, whisking constantly, until the mustard just thickens, 4 to 6 minutes. (Can be made 2 weeks in advance. Cover and refrigerate.)

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Sadly, I had to punt on the mozzarella I had originally hoped to make this month, because I haven’t figured out where I can get milk that isn’t ultrapasteurized.

guinness chocolate cupcakes with irish cream buttercream

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Despite my penchant for baking, I’ve only very rarely baked by request. So when a coworker asked me to help plan for another coworker’s bridal shower, mentioning while studiously avoiding eye contact that one thing they needed someone to do was prepare dessert, I jumped at the excuse to bake, but then I got nervous.

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It’s one thing to bring extra crumbly rice krispy treats to set out in the office kitchen, where nearly anything sweet is appreciated during a long work day, but the standards are significantly higher for someone’s bridal shower. Complicating matters was the timing, because the party was scheduled for after work on a Thursday, so I would need to do everything during weekday evenings. (I know you can freeze cupcakes, but I haven’t tried it myself and wasn’t ready to experiment.)

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Neither the bride nor the host had any suggestions, so I decided that cocktail-inspired cupcakes would be fun for a bridal shower. I wanted a chocolate option and a fruit option and settled on Guinness cupcakes with whiskey ganache and Bailey’s buttercream (based on the controversially titled Irish Car Bomb drink, in which a shot of whiskey and Bailey’s is added to Guinness, and the whole mess has to be chugged before it curdles) and margarita cupcakes – lime cupcakes brushed with tequila and triple sec and topped with tequila lime swiss meringue buttercream.

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A couple days in advance, I mixed up the Bailey’s buttercream and attempted the whiskey ganache. Unfortunately, I learned that if the cream is too hot when you mix it with the finely chopped chocolate to make ganache, the mixture will curdle. I went home at lunch the next day to try to save my curdled ganache, but it remained curdled. (It’s in my freezer now. Does anyone have any suggestions on what I can do with broken ganache? Some sort of cake with chocolate and cream maybe?) Wednesday evening, I still needed to bake both batches of cupcakes, make the swiss meringue buttercream, remake the ganache, brush the margarita cupcakes with alcohol, fill the chocolate cupcakes, and frost both. Thursday I would go home at lunch and apply garnishes.

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One problem I consistently have with cupcakes is the wrappers pulling away from the cake, and I’ve finally figured out that this is a result of moisture building up, probably in large part from the frosting, while the cupcakes are stored tightly overnight. I only loosely covered these overnight, because loose wrappers would not do for the party, and only a few wrappers separated just slightly.

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Surprisingly, everything went off without a hitch, and I wasn’t even up all night on Wednesday. Even the hardest part of preparing cupcakes, getting them to your destination without mussing them, went smoothly. My first attempt at baking for an event was a definite success that gave me more confidence to do it again – which is good, because I had agreed to make dessert for the rehearsal dinner just a week later.

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One year ago: Baked Reuben Dip
Two years ago: Masa Pancakes with Chipotle Salsa and Poached Eggs
Three years ago: Spinach Bread
Four years ago: Almost No-Knead Bread

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Guinness Chocolate Cupcakes with Bailey’s Buttercream (slightly adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

Makes 24

For the cupcakes:
1 cup stout (such as Guinness)
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter
¾ cup unsweetened cocoa powder (preferably Dutch-process)
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
1½ teaspoons baking soda
¾ teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
⅓ cup sour cream

For the filling:
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
⅓ cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons butter, room temperature
1 to 2 teaspoons Irish whiskey (optional)

For the frosting:
4 cups (16 ounces) confections sugar
8 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
6 to 8 tablespoons Irish cream (or milk or heavy cream)

1. Make the cupcakes: Adjust a rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350°F. Line 24 muffin wells with liners. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, bring 1 cup stout and 16 tablespoons of butter to a simmer. Add the cocoa powder; whisk until the mixture is smooth. Cool slightly.

2. Whisk the flour, sugar, baking soda, and ¾ teaspoon salt in a large bowl. With a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large bowl with a handheld mixer), beat the eggs and sour cream to blend. Add the stout mixture to the egg mixture and beat just to combine. Add the flour mixture and beat briefly on slow speed. Using a rubber spatula, fold the batter until completely combined.

3. Divide the batter among the cupcake liners, filling them about ⅔ full. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of a cupcake comes out clean, rotating the pan once front to back if your oven bakes unevenly, 18-22 minutes. Cool cupcakes on a rack completely.

4. Make the filling: Place the chocolate in a heatproof bowl. Heat the cream until just simmering and pour it over the chocolate. Let it sit for one minute and then stir until smooth. (If this has not sufficiently melted the chocolate, you can return it to a double-boiler to gently melt what remains. 20 seconds in the microwave, watching carefully, will also work.) Add the butter and whiskey (if using) and stir until combined.

5. Fill the cupcakes: Let the ganache cool until thick but still soft enough to be piped, about an hour. Meanwhile, using a 1-inch round cookie cutter, an apple corer, or a paring knife, cut the centers out of the cooled cupcakes about ⅔ to the bottom. Fill the holes with the ganache, using either a piping bag or a spoon.

6. Make the frosting: With a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (or in a large bowl using a handheld mixer), whip the butter very light and fluffy, 2-3 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and gradually add the powdered sugar, then the Irish cream. Frost the cupcakes with the Bailey’s buttercream; serve.

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wine braised beef

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I don’t really consider myself a team player. I’ve never been excited about sharing or compromise (which makes me really fun to live with, as you can imagine). And yet, in the last several months, two good friends have asked me to collaborate with them on big projects.

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The first was a dinner party for twenty women. It didn’t need to be fancy or involved, except that we wanted it to be. Through a long series of emails, discussing the merits of lasagna versus baked stuffed chicken versus braised meat, we finally decided on a “deconstructed stew” theme, with glazed carrots, mashed potatoes, and beef slow-cooked in a pot of simmering wine and broth. And then just for kicks, we added pesto palmiers, cheese and crackers, mushroom farro soup, orange cream tarts, truffles, and cranberry bliss bars to the menu. Also mulled wine and flavored waters.

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Around this time, the call for proposals to present at the BlogHer Food conference was released, and Brady had asked me if I was interested in submitting a proposal with her about free photo post-processing software programs. Of course I was! Brady and I got our proposal accepted, and so we’re traveling to Seattle the second week of June to talk about editing photos, and, most importantly, doing it using free software.

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Surprisingly, to myself at least, both projects have been unqualified successes. The dinner party was great fun, to plan, to prepare, to serve, and to eat, and my friend invited me to host with her again next year, so I couldn’t have been too hard to work with! Brady and I are still in the beginning stages of planning our presentation for the BlogHer Food conference, but just the fact that our proposal was accepted is a positive sign of our ability to work together. Maybe I’m not so bad to team up with after all.

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One year ago: Toasted Almond Scones
Two years ago: Honey Wheat Cookies
Three years ago: Honey Yogurt Dip
Four years ago: Green Chile Chicken Enchiladas

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Wine-Braised Beef

Serves 4-6

The goal was that the main dish be stew-like without being stew. It was going to be served on plates, so it couldn’t be too saucy, but we wanted meltingly tender chunks of beef. A cheaper cut of meat so we could serve a crowd was definitely a bonus. It also doesn’t hurt that there’s no last-minute work and it can be made in advance and actually improves with being stored overnight.

I’m a big fan of Yellowtail’s wine for recipes like this. It’s cheap but pretty good. I used a Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon blend.

1 tablespoon canola oil
1 (3 to 3½-pound) boneless beef chuck roast, cut into 2-inch cubes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 ounce pancetta, diced into ⅛-inch cubes
1 yellow onion, diced fine
1 medium carrot, diced fine
1 celery stalk, diced fine
3 cloves garlic, minced
1½ cups dry red wine
1½ cups chicken broth
1 (15-ounce) can diced tomatoes, with juice
1 sprig thyme
2 tablespoons butter, room temperature
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley, for garnish

1. Heat the oil in a 5-quart Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Pat the meat dry, season it generously with salt and pepper, and arrange the pieces, without touching, in the Dutch oven. (You may need to do this in two batches.) Cook the meat, without stirring or flipping, for 2-3 minutes, until the bottoms are deeply browned. Turn the chunks of meat and brown a second side. Transfer the meat to a plate. Discard any fat in the pan (but leave the cooked-on brown bits).

2. In the same pot over medium heat, cook the pancetta until fat starts to render, 3-5 minutes. Add the onion, carrot, and celery; cook, stirring occasionally, until the edges of the onions start to brown, about 6 minutes. Add the garlic; cook and stir for about one minute. Pour the wine into the pot, scraping up the sticky brown bits on the bottom of the pot. Add the stock, tomatoes with their juice, thyme sprig, and reserved meat back to the pot. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a simmer. Once the liquid simmers, reduce the heat to low, partially cover the pot, and simmer slowly until the meat is tender, about 3 hours.

3. Mix the butter and flour in a small bowl until smooth. Remove the thyme sprig from the pot. Whisk the butter/flour paste into the sauce. Increase the heat to medium to medium-high and simmer, uncovered, until the sauce is thickened. Serve, topping each portion with a sprinkling of parsley.

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grapefruit margaritas

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If 2010 was the year of the vodka gimlet, 2011 was dedicated to margaritas. It started with these, and then when grapefruits went out of season, we tried strawberry margaritas, pineapple margaritas, classic lime margaritas, and, most recently, cranberry margaritas. I love them all, but nothing holds a candle to the grapefruit version.

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It’s perfectly balanced – not too sweet, not too sour, not too strong. The light grapefruit mellows any harshness from the lime and alcohol, and the result is perfectly refreshing. As an added bonus, one grapefruit yields enough juice for four drinks – which is just the right amount to split between two people.

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One year ago: Feta and Shrimp Macaroni and Cheese
Two years ago: Apple Muffins
Three years ago: Twice Baked Potatoes with Broccoli, Cheddar, and Scallions
Four years ago: Maple Walnut Cupcakes

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Grapefruit Margaritas (adapted from Confections of a Foodie Bride)

Technically 4 servings, but you’ll be sad if you only get one

Of the many grapefruits I have juiced for margaritas, one grapefruit has always resulted in 4 shots of juice. Two limes will usually give two shots of juice, but not always, so it’s best to buy a third just in case.

As with all things, alcohol quality matters. I’ve used Cointreau, Gran Marnier, Gran Gala, Controy (which can only be purchased in Mexico), and Patron Citronge in these, all with good results. I’ve never used a bargain triple sec. For tequila, I tend to buy whatever is on sale in the $20-25 range.

2 shots lime juice
4 shots grapefruit juice
3 shots orange liqueur
3 shots tequila

In a pitcher or 4-cup measuring cup, mix all of the ingredients. Pour over crushed ice in individual glasses; serve immediately.

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herb roasted pork loin

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Like I believe most moms do, mine would make my favorite meals for me when I came home from college. That usually involved a pork loin roasted over potatoes, so that the potatoes not only become crisp from the oven, they soak up any pork drippings for extra flavor. My mom’s homemade applesauce would round out the meal.

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Simple as it is, I’ve never tried to replicate this meal. It wouldn’t be quite the same, I’m sure. Still, I love pork roast. It doesn’t seem like a popular cut of meat, and while I know it can easily dry out since it’s so lean, when it’s cooked right, it can be really special.

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Surely smothering the pork with shallots and mustard and surrounding it with herbs is “cooked right”, and it’s certainly special. Making a winey sauce from the browned bits leftover after roasting the pork can’t hurt matters either. I was surprised, and pleased, by how much herb flavor the meat absorbed. Maybe it can’t beat one of my childhood favorite meals, but it can certainly compete.

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One year ago: Pumpkin Cinnamon Rolls
Two years ago: Twice-Baked Potatoes

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Herb-Roasted Pork Loin (from Gourmet via epicurious)

For pork:
1 (4 to 4½-pound) boneless pork loin roast, trimmed
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon olive oil, divided
6 rosemary sprigs, divided
8 large thyme sprigs, divided
8 sage sprigs, divided
8 savory sprigs (optional), divided
4 shallots, finely chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped garlic
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard

For sauce:
⅓ cup dry vermouth
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1¾ cups reduced-sodium chicken broth
1½ tablespoons unsalted butter
1½ tablespoons all-purpose flour

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F with a rack in the middle position.

2. Pat the pork dry and season with 1¾ teaspoons salt and 1½ teaspoons pepper. Straddle a flameproof roasting pan over 2 burners, then heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Brown the pork on all sides; transfer to a large plate.

3. Put a metal rack in a pan and arrange half of the herbs down the middle of the rack. Stir together the shallots, garlic, mustard, and 1 tablespoon of the oil and smear over top and sides of roast. Place the roast, fat side up, on top of the herbs. Roast 1 hour. Toss the remaining herbs with the remaining teaspoon of oil and arrange on top of roast.

4. Continue roasting until an instant-read thermometer registers 140 to 145°F, 5 to 15 minutes more (temperature will rise 5 to 10 degrees as it rests). Transfer the pork to a cutting board and let it rest for 15 to 25 minutes.

5. While the pork rests, make the sauce. Remove the roasting rack from the pan; discard the herbs from the rack. Straddle the pan across 2 burners over medium heat. Add the vermouth and mustard and deglaze by boiling, stirring and scraping up the brown bits on the pan, until the liquid is reduced by half. Add the broth and simmer the 3 minutes. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a 2-cup measure. If you have more than 1½ cups, boil to reduce; if less, add water.

6. Melt the butter in a heavy medium saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and cook, whisking, until pale golden, about 3 minutes. Whisk in the vermouth mixture and simmer until slightly thickened, about 3 minutes. Serve pork with sauce.

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