pie beta kappa

this blog is for the servantless but professional overachiever who is concerned with assignments, deadlines, and changing the world, and still wants to find the time to enjoy producing something wonderful to eat.

Month: August, 2012

croque madame

DURING THE YEAR of my life that I spent in DC, I didn’t splurge much. I tried to keep meals at five dollars or less, without resorting to the peanut butter and jelly solution. I did a lot of the classic cooking-one-pasta-dish-to-be-dinner-for-the-week technique, I balanced a lot of home-brewed cups of coffee on very crowded metros, and I knew everything that was on sale at Safeway every day.  That said, there were a few occasions for loosening the purse strings: the Super Bowl and the world’s greatest seven-layer dip, my roommate’s birthday, and the weekends when M. would visit.  Those were the luxurious weekends when I got my fundamentals from Safeway but wandered the wonderland of Whole Foods for everything else.  On those weekends, I felt rich.

The very first time M. visited after I moved to DC is the one I remember most, gastronomically speaking. I puttered around the kitchen (as much as one can putter in a tiny apartment kitchen) while M. slept off his red eye flight and created a daunting Saturday brunch with cinnamon blueberry muffins, hash browns, and asparagus and leek frittata, all homemade, with mango blueberry fool for dessert. I couldn’t afford a test run, so I was as careful as I could be and prayed it would all work out. And it did, for the most part.  As much effort as I put  into it, though, my brain remembers the recipes but my senses don’t remember  the taste.

No, it was the one-dish Sunday morning breakfast that my taste buds remember from that weekend.  There are some cooks who find a very difficult meal with lots of preparation to taste better than if the same meal was made by another.  There are others for whom all that work somehow psychologically detracts from the meal, as though the labor has tired their taste buds.  I am neither here nor there. Good food is good food.  I live to eat.

And so, when I tell you that the croque madame that I made (and made, and made, and made) was just perfect, I am not telling you this from behind butter-tinted glasses.  Yes, I made it, but the making does not enhance the taste.  And yes, butter is a key ingredient.  You might not want to eat this every day, three times a day, for the rest of your life.  (Well, you might want to, but you shouldn’t.)  But taking a classic French grilled cheese (croque monsieur) and adding a roux-based cheese sauce and fried egg on top is absolutely brilliant for an occasional and delightful breakfast/brunch/lunch/dinner.

A few words of advice.  As the cook, you have the singular benefit of having all the ingredients at your disposal while you create.  If you have a recipe whose sauce recipe makes more than you will use, and a crusty loaf whose ends are not sandwich material, seize the day and do what any self-respecting cook would do.  Dip crusty bread in wonderful roux-based cheese sauce and nibble while you cook.  Consider it the home field advantage.

CROQUE MADAME, adapted from Gourmet

5 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
2 cups shredded Gruyere cheese
small loaf freshly-baked artisan bread (recommended: sour batard)
4 teaspoons Dijon mustard
8 slices black forest ham
4 large eggs

Preheat broiler, and lightly oil a shallow baking pan large enough to hold four sandwiches. (This will depend on the size of your loaf.)

Melt 3 tablespoons of butter in a saucepan over moderately low heat. Add flour and whisk constantly for no more than three minutes. Add milk, bring to a boil, still whisking constantly.

Reduce heat, simmer for five minutes while whisking on occasion. Whisk in salt, pepper, nutmeg, and 1/2 cup shredded Gruyere. Stir until cheese is entirely melted. Remove from heat and cover.

Cut eight slices from the loaf approximately 1/2″ thick each. Spread mustard on four of the slices and top mustard-covered slice with two slices of black forest ham.

Spoon roux-based sauce on the remaining four slices of bread. Sprinkle approximately 1/4 cup cheese on top of each sauce-laden piece of bread. Invert mustard-and-ham slices onto sauce-and-cheese slices to form sandwiches.

Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a large skillet on moderately-low heat. Cook sandwiches in skillet, approximately three to four minutes per side, until cheese is melted and bread is golden-brown. Transfer sandwiches to baking pan.

Remove skillet from heat.

Spoon sauce on top of each sandwich. Sprinkle remaining cheese on top of sauce and place in oven inches from broiler for several minutes until sauce is bubbly and top cheese is melted.

Heat remaining tablespoon of butter in skillet over moderate heat and crack eggs into skillet. Season with salt and pepper. Fry until whites are set and yolks are still runny.

Place an egg on each sandwich and serve immediately.

happy birthday julia

JULIA CHILD would be 100 today. I know, this isn’t the only food blog pointing out this out. But come on, people. Just because something is this celebrated doesn’t mean that it’s not cool to cover it. It would be like a law blog failing to cover Sandra Day O’Connor’s 100th birthday. How could you?

My generation wasn’t revolutionized by Julia Child’s work. By the time we came of cooking age, the (first) world believed that gourmet cooking was accessible to everyone. Cookbooks abound, food has multiple channels devoted to its craft full-time, and food blogs are popping up everywhere. Cooking is a friendly, social, approachable activity. And so, before Julie Powell and Hollywood and the media reminded us of her importance and her impact, we didn’t fully know what we owed her.  But, perhaps, the best legacy a person can leave is to so transform a field that those who come after don’t realize how far it has come, because the changes you make become normal and the revolution becomes invisible.

Confession time. I grew up watching a lot of cooking shows with my mother. Julia Child’s “The French Chef” was one of them; however, my single-digit self favored “The Frugal Gourmet.” (Why? I have no idea. The six-year-old heart wants what the six-year-old heart wants.) She was so far off my radar that, while I like everyone else picked up a copy of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” when “Julie & Julia” came out, I didn’t actually cook anything from it. Until this week, I had never cooked a single Julia Child recipe.

Not only that, but I had never baked a cake.

So yes, this post is a doozie.  First Julia Child recipe, first cake.  I chose the butter spongecake (biscuit au berre) complete with buttercream frosting (creme au berre).  And, while I didn’t drop the cake on the floor or make some other drastic yet comical mistake a la the great Julia Child, I learned a very important lesson.

You may be thinking, wow that frosting looks easy.  Its recipe involves only four ingredients and one short paragraph of description: what could go wrong? Soft creamy buttercream frosting, my friend, becomes a solid very, very easily. And then you are left with creamy-looking buttercream frosting that is frozen in place: beautiful and untouchable until it warms back up.  A word of warning: when cooling buttercream frosting, keep a very close eye on it.

Beyond that, the butter spongecake and the buttercream frosting was delicious.  Very simple tasting in a good way, replete with lots of butter (as all good desserts should be).  M. isn’t big on desserts, but he ate this right up.  The cake can also be served with just a dusting of sifted powdered sugar, but I recommend the buttercream frosting.  Unfrozen, that is.

Happy birthday, Julia, and bon appetit.

cantaloupe margaritas

FRUIT IS ART.  I don’t mean an oil canvas of a bowl of oranges, or a black and white photograph of grapes in a vineyard.  I mean, fruit.  A simple bowl of fresh green limes and bright yellow lemons, clusters of deep red cherries punctuated by light green stems, and shiny piles of apples.  My personal favorite is a pineapple.  There are days when I am not in the mood to eat pineapple — perhaps, as is all too often the case, I’ve recently eaten too much of it and my mouth still aches with the tart memory — but I still end up buying one just to place the beautiful, tropical piece of art on the counter above my sink until I give in and slice it up and eat too much of it once more.

Vegetables have featured prominently here at PBK to date (they are oh-so-photogenic, after all), but both vetegables and fruit had (and still have) a strong place in my mother’s kitchen.  The crisper was always filled with fresh produce from the garden or store or farmer’s market, and a beautiful tiered basket displays to this day apples, bananas and peaches.  It was always there, right in front of us, always accessible.  Growing up, the fruit was like the proverbial girl or boy next door: you never want the good-for-you, heart-healthy option.  Instead, you dream of breaded potato wedges dipped in thick ranch dressing at the nearby market where you got a 32 ounce soda for fifty cents if you said hello to the owner, Rob.  (He was always there, always at the register, and always said hello first.)

Despite our childish tendencies, my brother and I grew up eating a lot of fruit.  Cantaloupe was always one of my favorites, and remains at or near the top of my all-time fruit list.  When I discovered amazing cantaloupe-based melon agua frescas sold at a hole-in-the-wall taqueria near M.’s old apartment, I knew it would be a project.

First I tried Bon Appetit’s cantaloupe basil agua fresca, but the basil added too much of a different flavor.  I wanted that fresh cantaloupe taste, not an herb that detracted from it.  So I began experimenting with basic agua fresca components: cantaloupe, lime, water, sugar, ice.  And somewhere along the way, trying to emulate the taqueria’s aqua fresca turned into “ooh, let’s make it a margarita!”

If I had to choose a single word to describe the first batch, it wouldn’t be a word at all.  It would be the face I made when I tasted it and all my tongue registered was the bite of liquor.  Somewhere along the way, I stopped thinking about the subtleties of cantaloupe flavoring and I forgot the true value of a shot of tequila.  And yet, mistakes beget invention.  It was in attempting to remedy the “I only taste tequila” problem that the two-step combination was born: first, the liquor is mixed with more concentrated cantaloupe juice and put on ice.  Then, a more diluted cantaloupe mixture with sugar and lime and ice water is mixed into the I’m-gonna-need-to-see-some-ID batch to produce a lovely summer drink. 

A word of warning: this isn’t a college margarita.  It doesn’t put on strappy sandals and a low-cut top and stay out until four AM.  It’s a low-key, fresh mix that sits on the porch on a warm afternoon and watches the shadows stretch across the land.


2 ripe cantaloupes, cored and chopped sans rind, divided
3 ounces tequila (2 shots)
1.5 ounces triple sec (1 shot)
2 teaspoons sugar
3 teaspoons lime juice, divided
3 cups cold water
1 1/2 cups ice

Place one cantaloupe’s worth of chopped cantaloupe in a blender.  Liquefy (or blend a lot if you don’t have a snazzy liquefy setting).  Pour through a fine strainer into a bowl.  Discard remaining solids (there shouldn’t be many if you blended enough).

Add tequila, triple sec, and 2 teaspoons lime juice; mix.  Add 1 1/2 cups of ice.

Clean strainer of all solids.

Place remaining chopped cantaloupe in blender.  Add 1 1/2 cups cold water, remaining 1 teaspoon lime juice, and sugar.  Blend/liquefy.  Pour through strainer into a bowl, discard solids.

Combine iced tequila mixture and diluted cantaloupe sugar mixture.  Rim glasses with a small amount of salt (any more overpowers the cantaloupe).  Ladle mixture into glasses, add extra ice if needed, and enjoy.

maple banana pecan bread

TO CALL IT BREAD feels like cheating, somehow.  Sure, it has that quintessential loaf “shape.”  They contain those essential building blocks of baking: flour, sugar, salt, eggs, butter.  But banana bread is so thick, so moist, so sweet.  So fundamentally different from crusty baguettes and rounded sourdough and whorled rye.

And yet.  When I tried some standard banana bread recipes, it just didn’t quite hit the spot.  First I made a loaf of the Cook’s Illustrated The Best Banana Bread.  Then I took the recipe for Ina Garten’s Banana Crunch Muffins and poured two thirds of the recipe into a loaf pan and baked it for a lot longer than the muffins would have required.  And then I decided that, while the former may be the best banana bread I’ve ever eaten, I wanted something more.

My inspiration was butter pecan ice cream.  And the thing is, I didn’t even eat the ice cream recently for it to inspire me.  Its siren song was that strong.  And so I substituted toasted pecans for the walnuts, topped it with whole pecans, and coated the whole thing with a layer of maple syrup for added sweetness.  And it was better than the best banana bread.  It was maple banana pecan bread.

And then it was gone.

MAPLE BANANA PECAN BREAD, adapted from Cook’s Illustrated’s Best Banana Bread

2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups toasted pecans, all but 8-10 coarsely chopped
3 large, very ripe bananas, mashed
1/4 cup plain yogurt
2 large eggs, beaten slightly
6 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4-1/2 cup pure maple syrup

Preheat oven to 350 degrees after adjusting rack to middle of oven.

Butter bottom and sides of 9″x5″ loaf pan and set aside.

Combine flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, and chopped pecans in large bowl, mix until combined and pecans are coated.

Mix mashed bananas, yogurt, eggs, butter, and vanilla in a medium bowl with a wooden spoon.  Lightly fold banana mixture into dry mixture until just combined.  Batter will look thick and chunky.

Scrape batter into prepared loaf pan.  Place remaining whole pecans on top of batter.  Drizzle maple syrup across top of batter until thinly coated.

Bake until loaf is golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, approximately 55 minutes depending on the temperament of your oven.  Cool in pan for a few minutes, then remove and cool on cooling rack.

Serve warm if possible.