Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Baking with Booze

Incorporating alcohol into one's cooking and baking can make you seem like a lush... or it can be awesome! I am famous for my top-shelf jello shots but I also like baking boozy cakes and cupcakes. Baking also seems daunting and time consuming but it can be just as easy to bake from scratch or modify a mix as it is to bake straight from a cake mix; it just happens to be more delicious, fresher and better for you. I'm more of a savory cook than a baker or pastry chef so these recipes are easy enough for any dude to don an apron and bake away. Feel free to sip on any extra alcohol as you bake.

Chocolate Stout Cake

This is one of my favorites that I make for St. Patrick's day every year - although this cake is a delicious way to indulge any time of the year. I use this amazing recipe which has been foolproof each time. It results in an irresistibly moist, rich and decadent cupcake without being too sweet. Recipe notes:
  • I've made it in the past using only whole-wheat flour which usually makes it denser and poundcake-like. If you want this cake to be on the lighter or fluffier side, you can use cake flour or use half all purpose and half cake flour.
  • I subsitute sour cream with Greek yogurt because I eat a lot of Greek Yogurt.
  • My favorite beer so far is Young's Double Chocolate Stout. It works really well and has a great and smooth chocolatey finish. I love Guinness but I didn't think it tasted as good and I've tried other Oatmeal Stouts and most recently, a Cappucino Stout but Young's has still been the best.
  • This recipe makes A LOT of batter. It will easily make four dozen cupcakes or a bundt cake and two dozen cupcakes so unless you want to make a layered cake like in the recipe, you'll want to half the recipe.
  • If you make a bundt cake, I use the slighty cooled chocolate ganache icing as an icing drizzle over the cake. This year, I drizzled the icing over the cupcakes, then frosted them with a Bailey's frosting using a modified version of this recipe. I added some cream cheese to the frosting because I like the richer taste and texture you get instead of only using butter.
Miracle Margarita Flan Cake

This cake is also incredibly delicious yet deceptively simple. You would think a fancy baker made it but you can enjoy it for Cinco de Mayo along with some margaritas or micheladas. I got the recipe from a great margarita cocktail book I got for my 21st birthday but I also found the recipe online here. It combines two delicious desserts - a caramelly rich flan with a coconut yellow cake - but tastes like a glorious margarita. Making this cake is like pure magic; it makes you seem like a fancy and skilled pastry chef but requires the skill of a drunken frat boy. And if you're taking swigs from the tequila bottle as you're baking, that may very well be you.
Go bake. It will be a fun and delicious alternate way to consume alcohol. If you're further interested in baking with booze, I recommend this book which my cousin Jennifer so generously bestowed upon me one Christmas. My dad isn't much of a dessert person so for his birthday one year, I made him a cake incorporating some of his favorite things: beer and nuts. He adored it and its hefeweizen icing goodness.

Monday, April 1, 2013

I said YES to many things at Willows Inn

Sometimes you enjoy a tremendous meal and it goes down in your head and on your tastebuds as one of the most memorable experiences of your life. We had such an experience this weekend that was a little more special than just the food... more about that later...

I bought Nick a new pair of skis this past Christmas and he got me a Willows Inn reservation. We had both been dying to eat at this raved-about restaurant and Nick knows that I prefer experiences over material presents.

We started with a couple of old fashioned cocktails which they make with a hint of walnut while we enjoyed the sunshine and view before heading into dinner. Willows Inn does a six course fixed dinner that seems to proceed endlessly because you are regaled with a ton of snacks and bites before and in between courses. Servers poured champagne glassed filled with local fresh, sparkling apple cider which was a crisp palate cleanser. Then a pretty wooden box was set before us which contained sunflower root baked slowly with locally foraged lichens and mosses to help impart additional earthy and smoky flavors. The root's texture was a little reminiscent of Vietnamese candied yams but its center was soft and rich like a roasted eggplant. The second bite was a crisp crepe surrounding a salty and sweet burst of cream and salmon roe brightened up with chives. Then we were served a slab of stone with something that looked like it was plucked from the woods; toasted kale with black truffles and rye. While it looked like fungus growing on a dried leaf, the kale chip was a heavenly salty crisp that could have perfectly accompanied a cold beer and some Sunday night football.

Oysters on river rocks frozen in water in a dish. Elegant & beautiful.
The next snack had a gorgeous presentation: a pickled oyster sprinkled with sorrel. Nick usually doesn't love oysters like I do but this was soft and creamy with a hint of the ocean and herbs without tasting murky. Keeping with the delicate shellfish theme, the next bite was a weathervane scallop in dill milk served with herbs that imparted a grassy flavor. We delighted in the campfire taste of fire-roasted shitakes that were impossibly juicy and smoky before getting served the most complex and buttery chardonnay from Walla Walla to kick off our actual courses.

Weathervane scallop with dill and milk.
The first course was a dish of organic ancient grains bound in watercress and dotted with geoduck. the dish was as bright as its springy kelly green color; the flavors were herbaceous, fragrant and light while the geoduck imparted a slightly salty chewiness.

It looks like rabbit food but it's delicious.

Then Nick nearly doubled over from an in-between course snack: salmon smoked over green alder. This simple piece was just lightly smoked to impart a delicate caramelly sweetness but balanced so it still retained a soft texture without being too dried out. It was amazing and in Nick's words, "Best piece of salmon I've ever had."
Perfectly, lightly smoked salmon caugh just off the island in reefnets.

We were then served a Poet's Leap riesling with crisp apple flavors along with the most delicious buttery wild onions, caramelized local mussels and toasted breadcrumbs. I was to try to emulate those onions at home... need to experiment. After that, we were served another simple and fantastic snack.: A loaf of whole wheat and rye bread with a sourdough started demonstrated expert baking with a crispy crust and an amazing light chewy and melt-in-your-mouth center served with salted sweet churned butter and a dish of herbed chicken drippings for Nick and onion boullion for myself. Bread can be the most simple and amazing thing and we were excited to devour this loaf.

Our next wine pairing was a bordeaux blend that was slightly sweet with a soft fruity finish that accompanied Lummi Island stewed stinging nettles with fresh milk cheese and magenta salmonberry shoots. The cheese was like a rich milky panna cotta and the dish was bright and floral with the stewed nettles that hinted faintly of a grassier spinach.

Those salmonberry flowers are all over the island.
We got a crunchy snack of halibut skin served with razor clams dusted with seaweed powder. It was reminiscent of a puffed Asian shrimp chip except it was sprinkled with chewy clams.
Our last savory course was served with the most berry and jammy pinot noir from the Willamette valley that was fragrant with a lingering marionberry finish. It wasn't too heavy and paired well with a sablefish served with trumpet mushrooms. They gave us what looked like a dragonglass dagger; it was a rock arrowhead type knife with a deer antler handle and was bound by deer sinew. It was certainly the most rustic cutting utensil I have ever used. The fish was rich, buttery and almost woody with a slight sear but barely cooked so it still melted in your mouth. The chewy mushrooms made this a great amalgamation of earth meets sea umami.

We cleansed our palates with a soft and fresh sheepsmilk frozen yogurt served in wheatgrass and dill. This tasted like the farm in a fresh and grassy way that is hard to put to words with my somewhat poor food vocabulary. It honestly tasted like cartwheels in a field on a bright summer's day.

We had a dessert riesling that was sweet, syrupy with honey tones but it was hard to finish the glass. I was focused on dessert of sweet potatoes served with whipped cream, a fresh melted marshmallow, pine and crunch from sugar and nut crumbles. The pine leant it a uniquely sweet and earthy flavor profile that was piney without tasting like Pine Sol. Then we topped off the most fabulous meal with flax caramels!

This meal ranked among my top meals of all time, if not the top. I've eaten at some of the most delicious and award-winning spots around but what made this restaurant a standout is what they do with fresh and hyper local ingredients. It was all healthy, hearty and absolutely Pacific Northwest fare without being gimmicky, using molecular gastronomy tricks or pulling out the stops with needless ornateness. It was as if Chef Blaine Wetzel woke up, made a fire, got the smoker going, rummaged through the garden, caught some fish and thought - I'll just throw this stuff together for dinner. Obviously it's much more meticulous and well-crafted than that, but we took a stroll around the island and noticed that there were little farms everywhere - goats, fresh egg signs, cows - as well as fishermen a few hundred yards away. We noticed salmonberry blossoms from dinner all around. There was an abundance of great produce and ingredients all around us on that island, which were carefully showcased for us in simple and delicious ways.

Another reason why this dinner was so memorable was just hours before while we were walking along a private beach, Nick got down on a knee and asked me to marry him. And I said yes.

The rest is just gratuitous food porn and includes our breakfast the next day. Enjoy. 

Baked sunflower root with lickens and mosses.
Picked oysters!
Kale chip
Crepe with salmon roe and chives

More kale chip - see why it looks like leaf litter?

Someone is excited for his oyster

Fire-smoked shitakes.

Course one. Simple, delicious, healthy.

Best. Salmon. Ever.

Smoke mussels with that amazing wild onion.

Bread porn.

More bread porn - a piece with butter and dipped in the bouillon.

Bright and delicious fresh cheese over stewed nettles.

Halibut skin chip.

Sablefish with trumpet shrooms.

Cartwheels barefoot in grass on a summer's afternoon. Seriously.

Dessert - sweet potatoes.

Flaxseed caramels.
Breakfast at Willows Inn... worth waking up early for!
Homemade granola over fresh yogurt.

Freshly baked rye bread crisp with salmon, dill and cream.

Poached eggs with creamed spinach and mushrooms

Ham. Nuff said.

Homemade english muffins.

Brekkie of champions.