Friday, March 4, 2011

Dinner Soiree!

Last month, B and I had the honor of hosting two of our favorite friends over for dinner. Liz and Nikki are this fantastic couple who are creative, funny, unique, and really down to earth. Our conversations are never dull, and whenever I'm with them I secretly hope they'll never leave! B and I always feel so great after hanging out with them, and our dinner with them was no exception!

Liz and B hanging around the dining room.

Liz is gluten-free, so I wanted to create a menu that was utterly delicious, but also completely safe for her to eat as well. For a while I freaked out about this, not knowing what to make, and scoured the internet for gluten-free recipes. There's some pretty cool stuff out there, but a lot of the recipes just weren't things that I wanted to eat (or that I knew B wouldn't like - he's a fairly picky eater). Lying in bed a few nights before the dinner, I confessed to B that I still had no idea what I was going to make, and that I needed his help in brainstorming what would be okay. We finally realized that French Onion Soup is gluten-free, and unbelievably delicious, so we decided on that, with a fruit, cheese, and meat tray to start, and a little mixed green salad with homemade dressing on the side. It felt like the perfect meal for a frigid winter evening!

B and I in our dining room with the cheese platter. Maybe one day I'll get around to posting an apartment tour, but as much as I love interior design our first place isn't much to look at!

For the cheese platter: sharp cheddar cheese and manchego; organic, grass-fed salami (I can't remember the brand now but it was from Whole Foods and SO delicious); rice crackers, ritz crackers; gala apples and purple grapes. We served the appetizers on a silver platter that my Grandmother gave me for my wedding - a family heirloom with a 'D' engraved in the center, and a low china bowl that was my great-grandmother's 50th wedding anniversary present. It felt great to be able to take these heirlooms out of the hutch and actually use them!

Me in our very messy kitchen, preparing the last of the cheese platter. The apron I'm wearing was made by my dearest friend, Hannah McBride, for my bridal shower! I wear it every time I make something!

For the soup: I basically followed Deb's recipe for Onion Soup, but I tweaked a few things. Here are my Bench Notes:
- I used a lot more onions than what is called for. In fact, I used closer to 10-15 CUPS of onions (5-7 very large yellow onions) in my soup. I peeled and quartered the onions, and then used the top/vegetable slicing blade on my food processor to slice them up to the perfect size.
- I use the largest and widest pot I have to make this soup - it helps cook everything down quicker.
- Because I'm using more onions, it takes a little bit longer for them to caramelize and cook down, so I leave myself 1.5-2 hours to make this whole recipe.
- I generally don't simmer it for the last 30 minutes or so. If we're ready to eat, we just eat it about 5-10 minutes after I add the beef stock to the onions (also, I use Better-than-Bouillon - never the actual bouillon cubes).
- I used dry vermouth instead of cognac because I didn't have any, but it didn't make much of a difference. I've made it before and left the alcohol out and it's come out fine.
- For cheeses, I do a mix of gruyere and mozzarella, with maybe a sprinkling of freshly grated parmesan.
- We serve this with slices of crusty baguette that we dip in, and it's absolutely divine. To make this gluten free, I bought some frozen gluten-free stuffing pieces from Whole Food's (it's in their frozen bakery section). I just let them come to room temperature, and they were crunchy and delicious!! That was the only part of the meal that we got a special thing just for Liz, but we all ate the 'croutons' (as we dubbed them) because they were THAT good!
- For the vinaigrette, I followed Deb's recipe that she has underneath the Onion Soup recipe, but I made it all in the food processor. I didn't have any champagne vinegar, so I used regular vinegar, and I softened it with some lemon juice. Instead of a clove of garlic OR a shallot, I did both, and it came out magnificently. The dressing looked creamy but tasted light and fresh, and had a bit of a kick to it. It was enjoyed by all!

And that was our evening! Delectable food, endless wine and fabulous company. I can't wait to get together with Liz and Nikki again!! :)

ps: All photos taken by the incredible Nikki Jarecki, hence why she isn't IN any of them!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Monkey Cake!

A day late and a dollar short - but at least I'm posting today, right? Progress.

March 22nd happens to be none-other than T-dubs FIRST birthday. I'm so excited! I cannot believe this little guy (who is getting bigger and bigger every day - make it stop!!) is turning ONE YEAR OLD!! Just the other day he was a tiny nugget in my arms. Now? Babbling, walking, hummus-loving crazy boy, who is such a sweetheart. To mark the occasion, I wanted to bake him a very special birthday cake. Deb at Smitten Kitchen created this Monkey Cake for her son's first birthday, and I thought it was absolutely perfect for this little monkey's big day, too. :)

I enjoy making cakes, but I'm not the best at assembly and decorating (bundt cakes are my specialty), so I wanted to make sure that I could pull off creating this cake before I went ahead and committed to making it for his birthday party. This past Saturday I decided to do a test-cake, to see how long everything would take me, to make sure it tasted good, and to practice my decorating skills. It took me the whole day to make (including cooling times), but I was also taking it slow, enjoying my Saturday off, and making sure I was doing everything Just Right.

Here you can see the large cake and the miniature (which is still quite large!) 'smash' cake.

I essentially followed Deb's directions to a T, so I won't re-post her recipe. Click here to view the recipe. Below are my bench notes:

- I did the Option One, which is for one two-layer big cake, and a smaller 'smash' cake (for T-dubs)
- Since I did the Option One, I also opted to make the larger (7 cups!) batch of frosting. This made A TON of frosting, and my 9 cup food processor had a little trouble with it at first, but with a little coaxing it all came together. We had a lot of frosting (both white/vanilla and chocolate) left over.
- I only had 3 cups of cake flour on hand, so I made my own cake flour for the other 3-3/4 cups using Joy the Baker's recipe. I ordered more Cake Flour from King Arthur Flour for T-dubs actual cake (because I didn't want to spend time aerating and sifting it later).
- I did not color the white/vanilla frosting as Deb suggests. It was getting late in the evening (hence the yellow fluorescent-light-glow of the pictures)and I figured the white was fine enough, and I thought it turned out fine, too.
- I didn't have two 9-inch circle pans (I have no idea where the other one went...) so I used one 9-inch circle pan, and a 9-inch springform pan, and when the cake was cooled I removed it from the circle pan, washed, and reused it to bake the last/third layer. It seemed to work fine.

The cake turned out DELICIOUS and it had The Best chocolate fudge frosting I have EVER eaten in my life. T-dubs family tried some, and they loved it too! My plan for his big birthday party is to make this cake again, but change it up ever so slightly. I'm still going to make it according to the large proportions, but instead of doing a two-layer banana cake plus a banana smash cake, I'm going to make it a three layer cake (two layers vanilla, one middle layer banana cake), and a banana smash cake. I'm going to use the rest of the banana batter to make banana cupcakes, and I'll also make some vanilla cupcakes too, and decorate them with monkey faces as well. I'll let you know later this month how the whole project turns out! :)