Chicago Style Deep Dish Pizza

When I was a junior in high school, I joined the show choir.

This was both a totally expected and yet bizarrely unexpected development. In high school, I absolutely belonged to the “music kids” clique. I had been in the band since my freshman year, and played in every group available, including something called the “Hobo Band” which was exactly as ridiculous and awesome as it sounds. I joined the choir finally after spending several months singing at the top of my lungs with my friend Nathan on our commute to work, who then pushed me into first joining the concert choir, then the show choir. But I was also an overweight and uncoordinated buffoon who had foot surgery right before the start of the school year. So I not only joined this song and dance crew as a horrible dancer, I joined it as a horrible dancer with a gigantic cast on his leg. I literally managed to dance off the back end of the stage at one point, and had the risers collapse on me at another.

However, the rest of the group was very very good, and I managed to make nominal enough improvement (as well as being strategically placed in the backstage of every routine) that we were accepted to go to a competition in Chicago. This was a massive event for me at the time, and for years represented the furthest from home I had ever been. There were so many memories from the trip that lived with me for ages, including my first ever latte followed by my first espresso, my only trip to Medieval Times (which remains my favorite restaurant experience), and most relevant to today’s discussion, my only taste of Chicago style deep dish  pizza.

This memory was then haunting me lately for some unknown reason, and I became increasingly determined to revisit that lost flavor. However, as should not surprise, Chicago deep dish pizza is not exactly easy to find in northern Kentucky. So I turned to the internet and looked over several recipes to get a feel for what I would be needing, then set out to make it happen, setting aside an entire Saturday for the mission. I had decided that as much as possible, I’d make the pizza from scratch myself, with homemade sauce and a homemade crust. So it was that at 10 o’clock in the morning, I was starting my dinner with this:

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Looks delicious, doesn’t it?

Two cups of warm milk, mixed with an envelope of instant dry active yeast. I allowed the yeast to sit and bloom for a half hour before I began the rest of the process.

I have freely admitted my admiration for a man by the name of Father Dominic Garramone, known by many as the “Bread Monk” who not only has a series of baking cook books available, but also his book on prayer “Bake and Be Blessed” is one of the most formative books on the spiritual life I have ever read. (check out his blog here!) So it’s no surprise he was on my mind this morning as I began baking. I took a page from his book and utilized a technique he often recommends, incorporating leftover mashed potatoes into my bread dough. Though I certainly chose a more low class version than his leftover made from scratch mashed potatoes, as I wanted to use up a packet of instant roasted garlic mashed potato flakes I had from a previous attempt to make mashed potato-breaded fried chicken. (That recipe may get posted at some point down the road, but I need to work with it a bit more) I took the warm milk and yeast mixture and added it to my instant mashed potato flakes in a large mixing bowl.

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You can tell it’s high class because of the shiny plastic packaging.

From here I’ll begin incorporating the rest of my crust ingredients. Now I’ll be honest, I don’t have an actual recipe for this. I’ve been trying to bake more often by touch and feel, which is taking some practice. I started by adding two eggs, some all purpose flour, a tablespoon or two of honey, and a few glugs of olive oil. I then started mixing using a metal spoon, ensuring that I’m scraping up the bits stuck on the sides of the bowl. As the dough comes together, I’ll add a few splashes of water and flour as needed to keep it together, letting a shaggy dough form.

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This is a shaggy dough. A Scooby dough would look completely different.

Once this dough as formed, I’ll cover with a tea towel and let it sit for a few hours to let the yeast do it’s magic. I’m expecting the dough to double in size. I go sit in the living room and binge watch a few episodes of Bojack Horseman when I should be getting caught up on my Bible reading or my book club selection “A Gentleman in Moscow” which is due next Friday. I will repeatedly walk back into the kitchen to lift the towel and check on the dough, looking forward to the opportunity to start kneading.

This is the part of bread baking that is actually the hardest for me. I hate letting the dough rise if I don’t have something to distract me. (Bojack is great an all, but doesn’t do the trick) Rest is all too often hard in life. Kneading the dough is great, because I can feel active and a part of the process. There’s a  visceral joy I get from having my hands on the dough and smashing the flour and water particles together to form a nice strong gluten. (My vigorous enjoyment of the kneading process is a part of why my home baked doughs always come out a little on the tough side) But resting is an entirely different story. It just has to sit while some microscopic flora (or is it fauna) does all the work. Our part as the baker is just to sit and anticipate, hopefully while enjoying the yeasty smell of rising dough as it permeates the entire household.

Unfortunately, this did not go according to plan, after an hour or so, the dough had not risen at all. So I decided to take some matters into my own hands. I added some warm water and honey to a small glass, then let that sit for about ten or fifteen minutes while it got nice and bubbly, then added it to the dough with some more flour. I’m guessing when I heated the milk to make the mashed potatoes I heated it too hot and killed the yeast. I’m hoping a second dose will save the day. I’ll knead the dough a bit on a floured kitchen counter, then toss it back into a mixing bowl lightly coated in oil, then cover back with the tea towel and wait.

This time definitely does the trick, the whole house now smells like fresh bread and the dough has doubled in size. I’ll punch it down lightly, then turn back onto a floured surface to knead some more. I’m also adding in some Parmesan cheese (the cheap stuff that resembles sawdust) as well as dried oregano and some corn meal for a deeper flavor and texture. I’ll then let it sit again for a while, then get started on my sauce.

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Seriously, not only is kneading bread dough a great upper body workout, there’s something amazingly cathartic about it. And unlike other expensive workouts, you get fresh bread at the end!

Now, I had intended to get some photos of my sauce process, but it honestly slipped my mind. I started by cutting up some sweet Italian sausage, then cooking it in the pan with a touch of olive oil and a few tablespoons of water. The water lets the fat render out of the sausage to help fry without burning the meat. Once the water has evaporated, enough sausage fat has rendered out to not only cook our sausage, but serve to cook our vegetables next. I’ll remove the sausage just before it’s completely cooked through, leaving all the fat in the pan. Next, I’ll use that fat so sweat some diced onion, carrots, and garlic. The carrots may surprise you, but I take it from some traditional recipes for bolognese I’ve used, and merely a tablespoon or two of finely diced carrots will bring some balance and sweetness to the sauce you’ll appreciate. Once the vegetables are sweated, I’ll add a can of crushed tomatoes, fennel seeds, oregano, and parsley. I should also be adding basil here, and I swear I had some but after searching through the kitchen, none can be found, so we’ll do without. Also add back in the par cooked sausage, and I’ll cook this on medium high heat until it starts to bubble, then reduce to a simmer for an hour.

 

Once the sauce is done, I’ll start preheating the oven to 450 degrees, then get out my favorite kitchen tool, my cast iron skillet. I’m going to coat the inside with a liberal amount of olive oil, dust with some corn meal, then set it aside. I’ll roll out my dough to be just a few inches larger around than the skillet, then place it inside. Layer directly on the dough some fresh mozzarella and provolone cheese, about a half a pound each. Shake on a liberal layer of the Parmesan cheese, then ladle in our sauce. We’ll take the sauce to just below the top of the cast iron (I was lucky enough to have made EXACTLY the correct amount of sauce!) then we’ll fold over our remaining dough to cover, making an open pie construction. Brush this extra dough with some olive oil and shake on some dried herbs like oregano, parsley, or basil (if you have it, I didn’t) and some Parmesan cheese again.

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A romance more important than Romeo and Juliet, pizza and cast iron

I had some extra dough, (side effect of needing to add the extra yeast) so I rolled out the extra dough and tossed it on a sheet pan, docked it, then brushed on some olive oil, dusted with some of my herbs, and a healthy sized layer of cheese. Delicious bread sticks!

Put the deep dish pizza in for about 25-30 minutes, checking every ten. If the top crust gets too brown, cover with aluminum foil and let it continue cooking. About ten minutes before it’s done, put in the breadsticks. Once everything is completed, pull and allow to rest for at least 20 minutes. This will allow the pizza to set so that we can cut the pieces without the lava hot sauce flowing all over the place.

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If patience were easy, it would not be a virtue

Now we’ll slice up the pizza and serve. The breadsticks were a bit dry, so I recommend melting down some butter and warm olive oil with garlic to make an excellent dipping sauce, but your carb and fat heavy dinner is now ready to roll!

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Be sure to set aside a nice dry bottle of red wine to go with, and then put in an hour at the gym.

Bacon Cheese Potato Soup 

Years ago I was a student in college, but struggled to pay the tuition. After two years of constantly struggling, I dropped out and took a full time job working for the food service company that ran the campus cafeteria. This meant that I could stay on campus, still have access to the library, and occasionally audit classes. 

One of the unplanned benefits of this arrangement was that I got a chance to learn a variety of recipes I hadn’t come across before, plus had the opportunity to learn how to create new ones of my own. I learned an especially important lesson for life, which is that in the workplace if you are ever asked if you can do something, say yes. You can always learn if you are willing to. When I was hired on, it was actually to be a “stockboy” putting away the daily deliveries of dry pantry goods or frozen foods. Within the first few days though I had a moment that probably changed my life more than a number of planned decisions ever did. The morning breakfast cook called in late and the manager came out and asked if I could make breakfast. I didn’t hesitate to say sure, despite the fact that I had almost no professional cooking experience whatsoever. I’d seen how the regular cook made the scrambled eggs in large batches, and pretty much everything else was self explanatory if you read the directions on the boxes they came in. I screwed up quite a bit, including overlooking the eggs, but I made sure to listen to the critiques of the manager (who’s patience was likely driven by the fact that there wasn’t anyone else available at 6 am) and each new pan of food I made that morning was a little better than the last. From that day on, I got to cover other occasional shifts until one day I just got added to the schedule as a full time cook. After a few months, the woman who had the full time job of Baker for the campus kitchen announced she was pregnant and I volunteered to cover. Again, I hadn’t made more than a small handful of dessert recipes, but I was willing to learn. 

Overall, I worked in that kitchen for three years. I got to learn not only how to cook, but also learned the hard way how to work with a team, and how to manage time. I learned Excel for the first time, and perhaps most importantly I learned the importance of always being willing to learn. All of that sits in my head then when I start to cook this recipe in particular. It’s my own version of a dish that I first learned working in that kitchen, and like so many others, I change it almost every time. I didn’t create the recipe, but I learned how to make it my own by always being willing to change and learn something new each time. 

We’re going to start by cutting up two or three pounds of red potatoes. You can use any variety of potato for this really, but I find the red ones keep a great texture and hold together well. Idaho russets occasionally work for a variation on this recipe that I refer to as “baked potato soup” where I add chives and sour cream, and I allow the potato to fall apart and create a more granular texture and a thicker soup overall. 

Once we’ve cut up the potatoes, we’ll put them in a bowl and cover with water. This will keep them from turning brown while we get the rest of the ingredients together. With that done, we’ll dice up three stalks of celery and one medium onion. We’ll also need some carrots. You can dice up three large carrots or do what I did and buy a pound of shredded carrots. I like the final texture of the shredded carrots better when cooked, but you can certainly go with the hand cut instead. I also like to dice up a few garlic cloves, but you can skip those if you want.  With these vegetables prepped, we’ll take a pound of bacon and dice that as well and we’re ready to start! 

Put a large stock or soup pot on the stove and add your bacon. Turn on medium heat. By starting with a cold pan we’ll give the bacon a chance to slowly render out its fat. Stir regularly and cook until the bacon is completely crisp. Remove the bacon but leave the rendered fat in the pan. Add your celery, onions, garlic and carrots and stir in with the fat and add a healthy sized sprinkle of kosher salt. We don’t want to brown these veggies, so you may need to reduce the heat to medium low. Stir occasionally until the onions are semi-translucent. Add two tablespoons of all purpose flour sprinkled over the veggies and stir until it’s completely absorbed. Cook for a few minutes then add your potatoes followed by two or three cups of low sodium chicken broth. Let this build to a slow simmer. In a large mixing bowl, pour one pound of shredded cheddar cheese and two cups of whole milk. Slowly add some of your soup one ladle full at a time, mixing with each addition. One the cheese looks like it’s starting to melt, pour everything back into the soup pot. Bring to a low boil then reduce to a simmer. Let this cook another 20-30 minutes. Final seasoning to taste, I like to add some fresh cracked black pepper and salt if needed. (what kind of bacon you used will affect this) Serve with the bacon pieces either added back into the pot or you can sprinkle them over each bowl. 

I like the fact that this recipe is incredibly easy to change up. Like I said, I rarely cook it the same way each time. If you want a vegetarian option, skip the bacon and use mild olive oil to sweat your vegetables instead of the bacon drippings. I occasionally will add some peppers to the vegetable mix. Corn is great in this too. Like I said before, use some Idaho russets instead of the red potatoes for a thicker and more granular texture and sour cream and chives can give you a more hearty baked potato flavor. You can swap in some low fat buttermilk instead of the whole milk for a tangy flavor change. And of course try different cheeses for different tastes too! Always remember, no matter what recipe you’re looking at, you can always change it around to make it yours. And anytime someone asks you if you can do something  give it a try! 

Chinese Twice Cooked Pork 

This week I decided I wanted to try something a little more involved than a lot of what I’ve done lately. I’ve been working a lot of overtime in the past few weeks, and this week was the first time I decided to take my regularly scheduled days off (don’t worry though, I worked extra shifts on my other days to make up for it. I don’t want anyone thinking me lazy)  so I actually had some time to do a little more preparation than usual. 

I started with a large roast of pork loin. This is a really nice piece of meat you can usually pick up for relatively cheap. Seven or eight dollars will get you a few pounds, and it’s a very lean cut. I have a pretty standard practice when it comes to pork, and it always starts with a brine. In this case, I stuck pretty simple with some water mixed with salt and sugar, along with a mix of some dry spices, namely garlic and onion powder and some crushed red pepper. I cut the roast into four pieces and let it sit in this brine for 4 hours in the fridge. With that done, I drained off the brine, patted the meat dry with a paper towel, then seared it on all sides in a heavy skillet. (cast iron would be best here, but mine is still in storage, so a plain steel one will have to do) 

Once the roast pieces are seared, I’ll rub on a coating of garlic chili paste and then wrap them in raw bacon strips and place in a crock pot. Add apple juice to almost cover the meat, place the lid on, and let the crock pot cook for 6hours on high. 

Once the meat is in the crock pot, take several whole carrots. Clean them and peel them. We’re going to want to slice them very thin, like ribbons. You can use a knife if you’re incredibly confident in your knife skills, or you can use a mandolin if you’ve got a nice sharp one. I do not fit either of these qualifications however, so I’m just going to use my peeler to shred the ribbons. I won’t be able to quite get all of the carrots this way, but I find the leftover nubs make a nice snack anyhow. Put all your carrot ribbons in a large Tupperware container. In a small sauce pan, mix some honey, brown sugar, sriracha hot sauce, soy sauce, and a good heaping bit of minced ginger. Stir over low heat only long enough to combine everything  then remove from the heat. Add cold apple cider vinegar, mix, then pour over your carrots and place the container in the fridge. We’ll stir this occasionally over the next few hours. 

By wrapping the meat in bacon, we’re going to get a nice basting without needing to babysit our meat. The garlic chili paste is a really great flavor to add here, while it’s definitely heavy on the spice by itself, in this case the heat will get diffused throughout the dish. 

Once the roast has cooked for six hours, we’ll pull it out of the crock pot along with all the liquid and place in the fridge for 6-8 hours. This will let it firm back up, the fats will solidify, and I’ll get some sleep. (heading out to see Rogue One during this time is also highly recommended) 

When we’re ready to start cooking, we’ll begin with getting our veggies in place. Slice up some mushrooms, green onions, red and yellow peppers, napa cabbage. Then pull our meat out of the fridge. Drain all the liquid into a small sauce pot and place on medium high heat on a back burner. Stir occasionally and let it come to a boil, reduce the heat to a low simmer and we’ll let it cook while we put everything else together. 

Scrape off all the solidified fat from the meat and put it in a large wok along with a few tablespoons of vegetable oil over medium heat. Slice up your meat and set aside. Once the fat has liquefied, stir it a bit to mix up and wait for it to ripple. Toss in some minced garlic and ginger along with your sliced green onions. Stir for a bit till you start to smell your aromatics, then toss in your meat by handfuls. We’re wanting to let this get a little crispy, so don’t overcrowd it. Stir frequently. Once you’ve got your meat going, add the napa cabbage. Stir to combine everything then reduce the heat to low. In a separate pan, stir fry your peppers with some olive oil and sesame oil. 

This can be served with rice or noodles. I went with maifun rice noodles, which you don’t see as much, and they’re super fast to cook. Just pour hot  water over them and let sit for a few minutes and drain. I like the different texture they bring to the plate, and the bright white color contrasts well with the rest of the dish. Right before serving, take out some of your carrots, which should be nicely pickled by now and use them to top your pork. The crunchy sour and sweet flavor will also be a really nice contrast here. 

I was really happy with this dish. It’s balancing a lot of different aspects and came together rather nicely. I think it’s a pretty solid weekend project for when you might want to try something a little special, and it’s certainly a nice change of pace. 

Japanese Fish and Noodle Soup 

It’s officially winter here in Kentucky, with temperatures getting below twenty degrees Fahrenheit and snow finally starting to stick. Thanks to that, I’ve been on a soup kick lately, and there’s one I particularly like, both because it’s pretty healthy and also because it’s rather easy to put together. 

This recipe is inspired in part by my local Japanese market, Sakura Mart. This locally owned business is a great way to explore some new products, from the wall of Japanese language movies to beauty products and of course the food. There’s soups, spices, snack mixes, and some of the best rice you can buy. 

I got the idea here by checking out a soup base mix they sell. It’s got several items you might find out of the ordinary if you’re used to stereotypical American cuisine, including fish stock and seaweed broth, but I promise you that you’ll be surprised by the deliciously warm flavor. 

While there I also grabbed a package of udon noodles. These are only a couple bucks and they come pre-cooked. It’s a great item to keep in your pantry for any quick dinner need, and they have a hearty texture that I particularly enjoy in soup. 

The rest of the items we need are found at the more typical grocery store. I grabbed some green onions, roma tomatoes, mushrooms, and two pounds of fresh tilapia. One of the great things about this soup is that it’s pretty flexible ingredients wise. You can also toss in any variety of squash or greens, and for protein you could use shrimp, chicken, or even tofu just as well. It’s a recipe that adjusts well based on what you already have in your kitchen so it’s handy for days when the weather has you not feeling up to driving out for food but reticent to get delivery pizza for the third day in a row. 

When I got home my first step was to cut the fish into chunks and start it marinating in a mix of apple juice and soy sauce. This will give it time to pick up some flavor. I generally find tilapia to taste a little flat so this will help give it some dimension. 

Next I’ll slice up the mushrooms and stack them in a bowl with a sprinkling of coarse kosher salt. This will pull out some of the liquid to the mushrooms and begin building our broth. I’ll set the mushrooms aside and slice the green onions and tomatoes as well. Once everything is cut up, we’re ready to start. 

In a large soup pot, set over medium heat and drizzle in some regular olive oil and a tablespoon of minced garlic. Once the garlic begins to cook, add in your mushrooms along with any liquid that’s drained out if them. Cook over the medium heat until they finish breaking down, should take about five minutes. Mix in your green onions and then the tomatoes. Now get out your soup base. This stuff is pretty concentrated, so we’ll pour in one cup of concentrate and three cups of water. Mix the whole thing, wait for it to come to  a light boil, then reduce it to a simmer. Let this go for about ten minutes, then we’ll turn to the fish, which at this point should have been marinating for about thirty to forty minutes depending on how long it took you to cut your vegetables. 

Remove the fish chunks from your marinade and save the liquid. Pat them dry. Place a large skillet over medium heat and add enough regular olive oil to coat. Add some minced ginger and stir toss for a few seconds before adding the fish. Once all the fish is in the pan it’ll probably be a little crowded and that’s okay. Cook for about two minutes before flipping the fish. Wait another minute then pour in the marinade liquid. Let it come to a light boil, then reduce to a simmer and cover with a lid. We’ll let this cook for about five to ten minutes, until the fish is firm. 

Finally, we’ll open up our noodles. As I said, these are pre-cooked, so they’ll be added here right at the end. They’re packaged with liquid that I don’t necessarily like though, so open the noodles into a colander in the sink. Rinse them off with some cold water, and use your fingers to lightly loosen them up. The noodles will probably come out of the package pretty tightly packed together and loosening them like this will allow them to cook more evenly. Once you’ve rinsed them pretty thoroughly, let them set in the colander until we’re ready for them. 

We’ll check our fish to make sure it’s done, then add it to the soup along with all the liquid. By cooking the fish separately we had an opportunity to get  a little more control over the flavor and texture profile of the final dish. Once the fish is added in, taste your soup and add flavors like salt and pepper to taste. I usually like some spice here, maybe some chili paste or sriracha, but I’ll hold off because one of our diners this evening is three and she may not enjoy the heat. Once you’re satisfied with the soup’s flavor, add in your noodles. Let it sit on that low heat for about five minutes, just long enough to bring the noodles up to temp. Serve! 

I hope you enjoy the chance to put together some warm and filling like this while still feeling like you’ve been a little adventurous with your flavors. Keep in mind, little grocery stores like Sakura are found all over the place, and they’re a great way to try new cooking styles. In addition to the Japanese market, I’ve got African, Hallal, and Mexican grocery stores close by too, and I’ll definitely be playing around with ingredients from all of them! When I do, I promise to share the experiences and recipes with all of you! 

Exploration of a Mistake (Chocolate tiramisu cheesecake)

So it’s been several weeks since I’ve posted at all, not mention several “Food Fridays” that have gone by. I’ll talk more some other time about why, but for now, I’m fighting through the procrastinatory glory to get back on track.

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Pictured: “Procrastinatory Glory”

Last time, I shared a little bit of the process of how I made a recipe when I gave it some structured thought. This time, I think it’d be interesting to show you how that works when I make the mistake of failing to give that kind of structured preparation.

I’ve been sitting in a training class for my new job all week, and for our final day, I thought I’d make a dessert to bring in to share. I’ve been playing around in my head all week with an idea for making chocolate blintzes. However, I couldn’t think of a way to prepare that ahead of time for a group to bring in. I also had a craving to make tiramisu. I decided to try and mix these two ideas to make a new dessert. It’s with this vague idea in my head that I started in to prepare the dessert.

I started with two blocks of cream cheese at room temperature. I whipped these to both soften them and make it easier to incorporate other items. I then mixed in one container of ricotta cheese.

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So much dairy. So much flatulence. So worth it.

At this point, in another mixing bowl, I took four eggs and blended them with sugar. This allowed me to cream the eggs and add the first dose of sweetness to the dish. The eggs will deliver protein and thus structure to the final dish, as well as adding to the overall mouthfeel.

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Incredible, edible, sugar

Once both of these items are blended, I mixed the bowls together. With ricotta cheese, cream cheese, sugar, and eggs, we’ve got our basic custard constructed. This basic mix would work well for any number of recipes. We could bake it up for cheesecake, run it through an ice cream maker for a rich frozen dessert, or take it any number of other directions.

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Ladies and gentleman, magic sauce.

I let this custard sit for a bit while I laid out my cake pan and began to prepare it to receive the magic that would eventually be coming. Again, my primary inspiration here was tiramisu, an Italian dessert that consists of custard layered with espresso and rum soaked ladyfingers- a light, cake-like cookie. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find lady fingers at the grocery store the night I went shopping, (On a later trip I found them right where I swore I’d been looking, they must have been hiding) and I definitely didn’t feel like making them from scratch, (I’ve never actually done that and it sounds like too much work for not enough reward) so I bought a container of sugar cookies instead. I then soaked these in cold strong coffee blended with sugar before laying them out on the pan. Normally, I’d also be adding rum to the soak, but since the plan was to take this dish to work, I’m skipping that.

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Resist the urge to simply eat the cookies soaked in sugar and coffee. Not because that’s bad for you, but because once you start, you won’t stop.

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Now back to the custard. I had an idea that I wanted to prepare this over a double boiler. I thought this might make for a smoother texture, with the end product being closer to tiramisu-which is what I ultimately wanted. I set up the glass bowl over a pot of boiling water, stirring regularly. This is an incredibly useful tool setup in the kitchen when you need to heat something gently. It’s great for some sauces (hollandaise for example), melting chocolate, or for cooking a custard. You’re allowing the heat to seep into your dish slowly and more evenly, which is important to keep sauces from breaking- both by letting proteins coagulate at a more controlled rate as well as letting fats and liquids emulsify while preparing your dish.

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Please ignore the fact that I really need to clean my stove top. I’m…not great at cleaning up after myself.

The downside to this method is that it…is…so…slow. After a half hour, my custard was not setting up. In fact, it had done the opposite. The fats had liquified and turned it runny. Despite cooking on the double boiler for almost half an hour, I was getting no results. It was getting late and I really wanted to go to bed. My impatience was beginning to play factor in the cooking process. This generally doesn’t go well.

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C’mon, c’mon, c’mon. I need sleeeeep

So I poured this warmed custard out into the pan with the cookies and put it in a 350 degree oven. Also, somewhere along the line between when that picture was taken and when I actually poured the custard out, I added several tablespoons of cocoa powder to the custard to turn this into a dark chocolate dish. Why? Because chocolate. I’m not sure what other reason you’re wanting here. I baked the dish in the oven for about 45 minutes, checking it every ten, then pulled it to set. I put it in the fridge to sit overnight and it would be ready to serve in the morning.

Except that didn’t happen. The cheesecake (which is what the dish is at this point) set up fine, but by the time I got up and was moving around in the morning, I looked at it and I just wasn’t satisfied. It was cheesecake sure, but it wasn’t what I was looking for. I think if I’d laid out the cookies more thoroughly, making a crust, I might have been happy with that as a final result, but with them spaced out it was this weird cheesecake tiramisu hybrid that just didn’t seem to pull together. I didn’t want to take it in, especially since this would be the first time I brought in food to my new job. As you can probably guess, my cooking plays a part in my personal sense of identity. I’m ok with the fact that not everything I make turns out great, and I usually just try to approach my failures as an opportunity to learn. When it comes to introducing my food to someone, however, I consider that to be a way of showing a part of who I am to that person. If I don’t know them, I’m going to edit myself far more than I would for someone I’m more comfortable with. I’ll write a blog post about my views on the Appalachian Trail for all the world to see, and I may even mention some of my struggles in that post. But I’ll only write to a dear friend about how personal some of those struggles may have been. If I’m going to bring in food to a work gathering where I don’t know everybody, I’m not taking in something that’s half finished. I’ll serve a dinner to family at home that I feel didn’t come out quite right, but I wouldn’t serve that to strangers. That’s too personal.

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Pictured: Personal

So I went to work, told everyone I forgot my dish, and stewed on it for the rest of the day. On my way home, inspiration struck. Bourbon whipped cream.

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Inspiration

I stopped by the grocery store on the way home (this is when I spotted the lady fingers I couldn’t find the day before. Right next to the freaking sugar cookies. What the heck, Kroger. Taunting me?)  I picked up a quart of whipping cream and some powdered sugar. When I got home, I put the two into a mixing bowl and began to beat them on high, along with about a half a cup of bourbon.

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Were I forest animal, this would be my mating cry.

And this looks good, something I could put on top of the cheesecake. The dark cake topped with white whipped cream would create a nice color contrast and it would look like and complete on the plate. Simple but elegant.

Screw simple and elegant, I’m adding cocoa powder to this whipped cream to make it chocolate.

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Let’s face it, chocolate is almost never a bad idea.

It’ll look like a mess on the plate, the perfect thing for me to eat at ten o’clock on a Friday night, telling myself it’s ok that I didn’t get a chance to bring dessert into work. I’ll get a chance to cook for them later, for now I’ll soothe myself by considering the fact that I have an entire pan of cheesecake to myself for the weekend. Don’t look at me.

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Who needs dating?

Vegetarian Burgers

So I’ve been working on getting into the habit of cooking in a more healthy way for myself at home. While I’ve prepared vegetarian, vegan, and other health-centered options when I was working in the food service industry, I do not usually take those options when cooking for myself at home. Thankfully, since returning from the Trail, I have been staying with a family from church who has made a consistent habit of eating healthy, so I’ve got some great peer pressure to shape up. So this week I took a try at homemade vegetarian burger patties.

A word about how I come up with recipe ideas. I’ve been kicking this around in my head for about a week or two after seeing a similar recipe elsewhere. (Unfortunately, I no longer can remember the original site where I saw the idea) Once I start thinking about a recipe, I search around online and try to look at three or four different recipes for either the same basic dish or a few similar dishes. The goal of this is two fold. I first want to have an idea of how the recipe needs to work. Unfortunately, I am not an actual scientist, so I can’t really figure out for myself how things like sugars, starches, proteins, and fats can work together structurally in a given dish. I do know generally how say, protein gives the needed strength to hold a cake together, or sugars can let a baked good get a golden brown crust, but I need to have a chance to look at these other examples to really get a feel for these ratios are working in other recipes before I take a try to craft my own. It gives me a baseline. The second reason I look at different recipes is because I want to get ideas for what kinds of changes could be made, as well as what other people have already tried. For example, if I see someone else has a recipe for a pumpkin and black bean enchilada (which is delicious, btw!) I’m not likely to try that particular combination myself, at least not if it’s a recipe I’m planning to post online. I feel like even if I tweaked the recipe, that still amounts to me stealing someone else’s idea, so I wouldn’t put it together unless I was making some kind of change that set my recipe significantly apart from theirs. (Pumpkin chili instead maybe?)

So with all of this in mind, I took a try at these vegetarian burgers. I started with some brown rice that I’d made earlier in the week. I usually will make a large batch of brown rice and use it as a cheap meal throughout the week. You can throw a spoonful of leftover rice into some scramble eggs or vegetables to round out a quick meal, it’s a great way to add some body to a dish, as well as some fiber and other nutrition.

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Ladies and gentlemen, a busy bachelor’s best friend in the kitchen. Also helpful for busy single ladies, married couples, or just people who like to eat quickly and cheaply in general

I took the leftover brown rice and put it in a food processor to break it down with four or five pulses. I could probably make this dish without breaking down the rice, but I think this will help the whole thing combine a little better and create a more consistent texture. Once this is done, pour the ground rice into a seperate mixing bowl.

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I might actually try the processed rice in a few other things, I’m wondering if I could make morning hashbrown replacements with this?

Next, I’ll take some cooked black beans and drain them. You can use canned (I did here) but if you have the time to cook your own beans in a crock pot overnight, then allow them to cool, I think you’d get better flavor. You can season the beans yourself that way and pursue a more distinct flavor profile. Canned beans tend to be more bland, not long because they’re processed, but because they need to be able to be used in a variety of dishes.

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Ah, the magical fruit. Also, please ignore the dirty dishes in the other sink, I was a slacker and didn’t get all of them cleaned before I started cooking.

Once the beans are drained, we’ll spread them out on a sheet pain and put them in a 250 degree oven for about 15-20 minutes. The goal is to dry the beans out so that less moisture gets added to the dish. I baked mine for about ten minutes and it was still too mushy, so I’m recommending a longer drying period here. Once they’re dried, you’ll need to let the beans cool back down to room temperature before doing anything further with them. Fortunately, we have a few other things to work on. Also, turn your oven down to 200 degrees, we’ll be using it later.

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Ladies and Gentlemen, baked beans! *badum*tish*

Next, we’re going to start adding some veggies. I have this container of some red onions and garlic that I had sweated in olive oil and salt a few days ago, we’ll add them to the food processor, pulse for about twenty seconds.

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I’m just gonna tell you now, this recipe is designed to be tasty and a little healthy, it is not designed to make your breath smell nice. Deal with it.

Next, we’ll take some corn and do the same with that. This we don’t want to process too much because I like the look and texture that will come from at least a portion of the corn being whole, however at least some of it needs processed to help hold the burger together. You’ll note we left the onions in the processor bowl when we added the corn. This will help mix the two together. Once processed, we’ll add both to the mixing bowl with the rice.

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Corn!

Next we’ll need to add some bread crumbs, which will help absorb some extraneous moisture and hold the burgers together. You could use some premade croutons that you could buy from the grocery store, but I’m a big fan of making homemade croutons. It only took a few minutes. I took five slices of bread and cut them into cubes. Toss those cubes in bowl with some olive oil, salt, garlic powder, and an Italian seasoning blend. Once the bread cubes are thoroughly mixed with this dressing, lay them out on a sheet pan and place in a 350 degree oven for 10-15 minutes. (Watch them closely to ensure they don’t burn.) Remove from the oven, allow your croutons to cool before throwing them into the food processor for a few pulses to turn them to crumbs. If you need this recipe to be gluten free, replace these bread crumbs with some toasted oats instead, works just as well. Add to your mixing bowl. By now our black beans should be cooled off enough that we can run them through the food processor as well. Unfortunately, I forgot to take a picture of this step, but I’m sure you can imagine was ground up beans looks like.

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Parents, if you love your children, teach them how to make homemade croutons. They’re so much better than store bought and it will give them a reason to think of you at almost every meal.

Now we’ve got everything in the mixing bowl, we’re going to stir a few times to begin ensuring that it’s all mixing together well. Crack a few eggs on top and mix again. The eggs will act as protein to help bind the burgers together and provide some strength and structure. Note, at this point the burgers are no longer technically vegetarian. To correct that, drop the eggs and replace them with silken tofu mixed with a small amount (a tablespoon or so) of almond milk.

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Ignore all that candy in the background, there’s really healthy food in the house.

Mix the bowl completely. Now we’ll scatter over the mix parmesan cheese as well as any seasoning we’d like. (Again, if you want truly vegetarian burgers, drop the cheese from yours) I’d recommend some sriracha sauce, garlic and onion powder, and some smoked paprika. At this point, I’d recommend putting your bowl in the refrigerator  for about an hour or so to let everything come together. Unfortunately, I’m running late for having dinner ready, so I’m gonna go ahead and make the patties right away.

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There is no such thing as too much parmesean cheese.

Alright, almost time for food. I’m using a large electric griddle to cook on, set to 325 degrees.  We’ll take the our mix and portion out into patties. I took a large tablespoon and two spoonfuls to make each patty. Shape them and flatten them out in your hands, then set evenly spaced out on the griddle, with at least a half inch to an inch in between each patty. We’ll let them cook for a few minutes on each side. We’re looking for a nice toasted brown crust. Once we’ve got that, put the burgers on a sheet pan and place in your 200 degree oven for ten minutes to ensure they’re cooked through as well.

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For serving, I liked having some fresh tomatoes. We each tried something different, I put some blue cheese dressing, one friend used barbecue sauce, and a second friend used soy sauce. I actually liked the soy sauce better, which makes sense since rice makes up a significant portion of these. I really liked how these turned out, but I also really like how the recipe can be played around with, used as a refrigerator magnet, tossing in all your random leftovers or hangaround veggies. Try some broccoli, carrots, or cauliflower. The first batch came out a little bland, so I’d encourage you to be as brave with your spices as you want to be, but it gives you some great room to experiment.

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