S'more please!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

I have been DYING to blog one of my recent baking adventures...it's the perfect fall treat and worth every single calorie! It also fits in with one of my favorite things about being an somewhat good baker - making something that most people will just buy at the store. Going for the homemade version not only is a fun challenge, but always tastes a million times better.

I've been wanting to make marshmallows for the longest time, so I figured I may as well make up some graham crackers and fix up some homemade s'mores. Mmmm. I searched the holy grail of recipes - Baking Bites - and found two perfect recipes (see the bottom of the post).

Making marshmallows honestly was like a science experiment. You soak plain gelatin and cold water in the bottom of your mixer, while heating granulated sugar, water and corn syrup on the stove top. Once boiling, you add the mixture to the gelatin and beat away for 12 minutes. In that time it transforms to white fluff. You add in some salt and flavoring (I opted for vanilla, but you could do peppermint or any other flavor you want).

Once you've beaten in the flavoring, line a pan with saran wrap, lightly oil it and pour in your fluff. Cover up the fluff with an oiled piece of saran wrap and let it sit for a few hours.

Once the fluff has set (I left mine for about 4 hours), you can just flip it out of the pan. This is where it got really ooey so I have no pictures. You can either take clean kitchen scissors or a knife to cut up your loaf-o-mallow. I used a big kitchen knife, cut the marshmallow into strips and then cut the strips into cubes. Take the cubes and dredge them in a bowl that has equal parts powdered sugar and cornstarch and voila! You have marshmallows.

While my marshmallow was setting, I'd made my graham crackers. The dough is a bit odd tasting and I really questioned how they were going to turn out, but I plugged along. The dough was supposed to be rolled out to 1/8" thick (I think mine was a lot thicker than that) between two pieces of parchment paper, chilled in the fridge, and then cut out.

I opted to just cut out circles instead of the traditional rectangles as I figured these would be perfect for s'mores. Mine turned out really dark, which I assume might have something to do with the molasses I used, but the overall result was just right.

Once these babies came out of the oven, it was all I could do to not devour the graham crackers! They were more of a cakey cookie than a cracker, but 100% delicious. Mmm.

I made up my plate of goodies - homemade graham crackers and marshmallows alongside some Green & Black's mint chocolate.

All we had were bamboo skewers on hand, so I was on fire patrol while I toasted the marshmallows. These definitely are as substantial as the store bought variety, so it took me a few tries before I learned that if I held the marshmallow pretty far back from the flame I could brown it up without having it melt off the skewer.

See the ooey gooey marshmallow?

I quickly smooshed the marshmallow between two crackers with some chocolate, and it was time to devour! Honestly, it was by far the best s'more I've ever had. I think the homemade graham cracker really sealed the sealed the deal - it was soft and flavorful and didn't crumble apart at first bite.

Of course, what's better than sharing with friends? We packed up a little s'more to go container for our downstairs neighbors and shared the s'more love.

I highly suggest making up some homemade s'mores no matter what your level of baking skills may be. Both recipes were super easy and I only invested a few hours from start to finish to make everything. And of course, the end result was so worth it!

Homemade Marshmallows
{recipe from Baking Bites}

.75-oz unflavored gelatin (3 envelopes of Knox gelatin)
1/2 cup cold water
2 cups granulated sugar
2/3 cups light corn syrup
1/4 cup water
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

  1. Line 9 x 9-inch pan with plastic wrap and lightly oil it. Set aside.
  2. In the bowl of an electric mixer, sprinkle gelatin over 1/2 cup cold water. Soak for about 10 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, combine sugar, corn syrup and 1/4 cup water in a small saucepan. Bring the mixture to a rapid boil and boil hard for 1 minute.
  4. Pour the boiling syrup into soaked gelatin and turn on the mixer, using the whisk attachment, to high speed. Add the salt and beat for 12 minutes. After 12 minutes, add in the vanilla extract beat to incorporate.
  5. Scrape marshmallow into the prepared pan and spread evenly (Lightly greasing your hands and the spatula helps a lot here). Take another piece of lightly oiled plastic wrap and press lightly on top of the marshmallow, creating a seal. Let mixture sit for a few hours, or overnight, until cooled and firmly set.
  6. In a shallow dish, combine equal parts cornstarch and confectioners’ sugar. Remove marshmallow from pan and cut into equal pieces with scissors (the best tool for the job) or a chef’s knife. Dredge each piece of marshmallow in confectioners’ sugar mixture.
  7. Store in an airtight container.

Homemade Graham Crackers
{recipe from Baking Bites}

1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 3/4 cups whole-wheat flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup cold butter, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoon molasses
1/4 cup cold water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

  1. In a food processor, mix together the flours, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon. Add the cold butter and process until the mixture resembles coarse meal, about 30 seconds or so. Add the honey, molasses, water, and vanilla. Mix until the dough startes to come together in a ball, another 30 seconds. Scrape dough out of the mixer.
  2. Between 2 sheets of waxed or parchment paper, roll the dough 1/8-inch thick. Chill for at least 1 hour, until firm (I chilled for several hours).
  3. Preheat oven to 350F. Retrieve dough and roll it a bit more if it is not yet 1/8-inch thick. With a sharp knife or pizza cutter, cut into 2-inch squares. Arrange the crackers on parchment lined baking sheets. With a toothpick, prick several holes in each cracker.
  4. Bake for 15 minutes, until lightly browned at the edges. Remove from the oven and let cool on the pan.

Yield: 48 crackers

Note: If you cut the dough through but leave the squares together, you can break them up after they’re baked, just like a store-bought graham!

June Restaurant (& high school reunion!)

Monday, October 18, 2010

A week before Steve and I left on our California trip, I was down in my hometown of Washington (outside of Peoria) for my 10-year high school reunion. The true reunion festivities were a Saturday night, but the Friday night before was a casual get together at a local bar. My friend Darcie and I opted for the more casual trip to the bar vs. paying $40 for a chicken dinner at a local venue. I think we chose wisely.

While it was interesting seeing many people I haven't seen in the flesh in 10 years, I realized what many of you had already mentioned to me: Facebook really has replaced reunions. I didn't feel an overwhelming need to talk to people because I'm friends with the majority of them on Facebook. I know who is married, who lives locally and who has moved away. And if we're not close friends to the point where we catch when we're in town, then why do we need to catch up in person? That may sound very unfeeling of me, but I honestly wouldn't have known what to ask some people because I see what's happening with them in my daily Facebook news feed.

I did see a few people that it was fun to catch up with, but I'm very glad that opted to forgo the official get together on Saturday night. Instead, Darcie and I checked out a new(er) restaurant in Peoria, June. Boasting local, organic ingredients and chef Josh Adams who has Alinea on his resume, we were both psyched to eat here. And, umm, compared to larger cities, their 7-course tasting menu was a bargain at $85. You could add wine pairings for $130 total. We skipped the pairings because in Peoria cabs aren't an option, so we needed to be functional enough to drive ourselves home.

We arrived at 7:20 for our 7:30 reservation. They said our table wasn't ready (really? the restaurant was only half full). So we headed to the bar for a cocktail. The bartender asked us a few questions and we settled on something with orange and not sweet. We ended up with an orangey cocktail that was very sweet. Pretty good, but tart would've been better.

First course was a cold "whipped" carrot and ginger soup topped with wild ikura roe. Underneath was a gelatinous pocket of machta green tea that kind of oozed when you poked into it. The texture of the soup was intriguing but the roe was a little too fishy for me. Presentation was great, but the overall flavor profiles kind of lost me.

The second course was an upgrade from the first. Scallops, perfectly cooked with a delicious dashi broth, black garlic, radish and matsutaki mushrooms. This dish was cooked to perfection.

The third course was salmon with sea beans, radish, purpelette onions, and a cucumber creme fraiche. This was a good dish but not a stand out for me.

For the fourth course we were served veal sweetbreads. Piping hot, tasty and fresh off the skillet, served with Parisian gnocchi, baby fennel and picked fennel. The sweetbreads were just perfect. I'm about the world's pickiest eater, but I love, love, love sweetbreads.

Fifth course? Beef! Skirt steak served with a rich sauce of white truffle-roasted beef fat aioli (yum!). I usually don't like fresh green beans (I know, I'm a horrible person who loves canned green beans), but I devoured these. And on top? A ton of black summer truffles!

Want a closer look? Mmmmmm....truffle. It was a truffle lover's delight. Our server who brought out this dish was a little on the younger side and was so excited to explain this dish. She said she had just had it herself that week and loved it. She explained the truffles as "very exotic." I got the feeling that was her first truffle experience, and she was smitten.

Course number 6 was the first of two desserts. It was a plum cake with a million thin layers paired with a homemade vanilla ice cream. The cake was just perfect: light and tangy and lively flavors. I've never really had plums, and this cake totally won me over.

And finally, lucky number seven! A chocolate bread pudding paired with a homemade hazelnut ice cream. Divine. I wouldn't have thought I'd have room for more dessert at the end of this meal, but I definitely devoured this bread putting. It was more homey vs. fancy, but that was fine in my book.

Here's a shot of the open kitchen, as seen from our table. The atmosphere was very serene as the dishes were prepared. Having the kitchen in full view was fantastic. However, we were there for a LONG time. We were seated at 7:30 and didn't walk out until 11pm. Yes, 3 1/2 hours. While the time didn't exactly drag on, there were lengthy gaps between courses as well as periods where we didn't have wine yet when we were served a course (we ordered wine by the glass, and were rewarded with some extra splashes due to the delay, but still).

All-in-all, it was a great meal and overall experience and a good value. A 7 course tasting menu, 2 glasses of wine and a cocktail ran me about $140 (with tip). Service definitely needs to speed up, especially when the restaurant isn't fully booked, but overall this is a great option for fine dining in Peoria!

Our Californian Anniversary-Moon: Part 2

Sunday, October 10, 2010

We last left off as Steve and I were speeding down the coast of California on Amtrak (seriously, the best and cheapest way to go!). Check back here to see the first part of our trip if you missed it!

Day 3 {continued}

My sister Cheryl kindly picked us up at Union Station in San Diego and we headed back to her apartment to chill out after our travels.

When dinner time rolled around we headed over to a nearby Mexican restaurant for some good food and fabulous drinks. They had the most amazing frozen mojitos. Umm, yah, I'm pretty sure I had three of 'em - oops. After dinner it was time for more drinks at a nearby Irish pub.

I love a good Guinness and the cleverly crafted designs they put on top are a bonus. What I didn't love was Steve continually filling up my glass with his when no one was looking because Cheryl's boyfriend Tim bought Steve another round before he was ready for it. So his extra round ended up in my glass, making it look like I hadn't had a sip. Hmph!

However, it all ended in my favor when Tim bet me $200 to finish my pint in 90 seconds...me, the girl who could never chug a drink EVER finished that pint off in 50 seconds - woot! Cold hard cash is the ultimate motivator, and our first night in San Diego left me $200 richer and a heck of a lot drunker!

Day 4

When we (umm, meaning me) finally rolled out of bed, we headed over to a nearby brunch placed called Cafe 222. My hungover self only wanted the most basic pancakes and a lot of orange juice. Steve ordered and devoured their peanutbutter and banana stuffed French toast (picture below) that was featured on "The Best Thing I Ever Ate" as Bobby Flay's favorite breakfast. It was pretty tasty.

We later headed over to La Jolla and watched all of the seals. They were playing around, hopping in and out of the water, pushing each other off of rocks - so fun to watch!

We ended the day with a fabulous trip on a boat! Cheryl and Tim have a couple of friends who own a boat, so we had an evening cruise and grilled out. Fortunately for everyone involved, I didn't get sea sick. However I did avoid the booze.

Day 5

After bumming around during the day, eating fish tacos and going for a run along the water, we decided to make tortellini...yum! Cheryl and I both forgot how time consuming making each tortellini can be, so it was great to have Steve's extra set of hands - he's proved himself a skilled tortellini folder.

Day 6

The tortellini gave us the energy we needed for....DISNEY LAND! Steve had never been to anything Disney before, so we fixed that with a trip up to Anaheim.

We first said "what up" to Pluto.

We went on a raft ride that looked like fun, until we got drenched from head to toe. Cheryl and I were not amused.

Everyone went on California Screaming a few times. Did I mention I don't do any fast rides? Yes, I'm that girl. So I hung out while they went on this roller coaster that I called "terrifying" and Steve called "peaceful." If you look closely you can see Steve in the front row of the roller coaster in the plaid shirt. Zoom!

Since it was almost October, Disney was Halloween-ized. Pumpkins, pumpkins everywhere!

Day 7

Since we were at Disney until about 1am so that everyone (but me) could ride Space Mountain at the very end of the night, we rolled into San Diego in the wee hours of the morning. We finally dragged ourselves out to the fabulous San Diego Zoo.

I could have watched the flamingos all day. Loved them. I especially loved this guy, who bent his legs in the opposite direction of all of the other flamingos. I watched him for at least 10 minutes hoping he would get up, but he kept on snoozin'.

The big highlight was the pandas! Horrible pictures, I know, but that's a baby panda and her momma. They were too cute.

That afternoon, we headed out so that Steve could shoot this engagement session. The couple was so much fun!

Then, we headed to Brian Malarkey's Seersucker. Chef Malarkey's new restaurant is fun, homey, has a fabulous open kitchen and had Chef Malarkey visiting the tables. Finally, a celebrity sighting in California for me! Unfortunately, I was so starstruck that I closed my eyes - sad face! Please disregard the fact that I look super creepy in this photo.

There were a lot of small plates on the menu, great entrees and fabulous desserts. We shared some awesome shrimp and grits and delicious short ribs. I ordered the beef cheek (below), topped with greens and goat cheese dumplings. The cheek was SO tender!

We ordered three fabulous desserts. Cheryl and I split the red velvet cake, Tim ordered the (super yummy) cinnamon sugar donuts, and Steve got the biggy...The King Sundae: "Peanut butter cup ice cream, bacon and honey caramel, bananas, whipped cream and candied peanuts."

Bacon caramel? AMAZING.

Days 8 & 9

Our last full day in San Diego Steve and I took it easy and had a truly lazy day. That night we all made pizzas, including a fabulous prosciutto, pear and goat cheese pizza that I can't wait to make and blog! The next day, we said goodbye to San Diego's sunshine (and 100 degree weather!) and headed back to Chicago.

Day 10

We couldn't wait to pick Charlie up from Canine Crews - it was the longest we'd ever boarded him! His report card said "I made some great new friends and went to bed at night nice and tired, ready for some serious z's."

Ready for z's he was - the poor pup could have slept for 3 days straight!

Our trip was fabulous - we were lucky that Steve had fabulous clients to bring us out there, and we got to spend so much time with Cheryl and Tim - thank you for hanging out and showing us the city!

Our Californian Anniversary-Moon: Part 1

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Sorry for the absolute blogging silence:

Work + Vacation = A Very Hectic (but happy) Life

Steve and I enjoyed a blissful 9 days in California at the end of September - primarily a work trip for Steve (shooting a wedding in L.A. and an engagement session in San Diego), but we had plenty of time to just hang out together. It was SO much fun!

While I, of course, forgot to bring my little point and shoot camera with me, please forgive me for all of the fuzzy iPhone photos.

Day 1

So excited for our early morning flight to L.A. - I'd never been before and was sure I'd see them running through the airport chased by paparazzi - I was not excited for my "window" see that actually looked out onto a wall. Sad face. Thanks, Mr. Pilot, for announcing the Grand Canyon when we flew over it...I definitely couldn't see it!

Doesn't Steve look excited for our 9 whole days spent hanging out together?!

When we got to the airport, I was disappointed it was so quiet. All of the celebrities must not fly American Airlines. Anyway, we collected our bags and hopped the $7 shuttle that would take us to L.A.'s Union Station, where we would then pick up our rental car.

While the shuttle was a breeze, what wasn't so breezy was the rental car desk that closed early even though we had a reservation. WTF? Since it was Sunday, we were pretty much out of luck in getting a car. Steve didn't seem to mind that our plans were completely changed.

He even did a little yoga while we hung out at Union Station. Check out his Royal Dancer posture.

Why were we hanging out at Union Station, you ask? Because we were having a late lunch/early dinner with Dana and Hunter (aka Mr. & Mrs. Meatball, aka the masterful minds behind The Broke-Ass Bride). They took us to a great little restaurant near their apartment and then to a bar for some good German beer. Yum! It was so nice to hang out with them, and we so appreciated them taking a break from unpacking in their fabulous new place (and, umm, for picking us up at Union Station with all of our bags)!

Since our rental car was a no go, we hopped a cab from L.A. to the city of Torrence where the wedding was taking place the next day that Steve was hired to shoot. One very lost cab driver and $100 later, we were finally there.

Fortunately, we had checked into a Doubletree, where they give you chocolate chip cookies upon check-in. Score!

Did I mention that they were warm chocolate chip cookies? That really sealed the deal for me after a long day.

We immediately dropped our bags off in our room, ate the cookies, and headed out to a nearby Pinkberry for my first Pinkberry experience. I opted for the original flavor topped with strawberries, crispy little chocolate things, and animal crackers. I'll be honest, it was a little sour for me on it's own, but the toppings balanced everything out very well.

And that, my friends, is how Steve and I spent our 1 year wedding anniversary! Whew.

Day 2

Up bright and early, I headed over to Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf for some caffeine before the wedding. I thought I loved Coffee Bean, but their drinks are waaaaay too sweet for me. My heart will always belong to Starbucks.

I donned my "I'm assisting my husband at a wedding" get up that I purchased specially for this trip. I'm pretty sure that this is something that 100-pound 18-year-olds should wear, but desperate times call for desperate measures and I needed something to wear.

The wedding was absolutely beautiful (check out a sneak peak on Steve's blog!). High in the hills, overlooking the coast, dreamy and romantic! I'm not the best photo assistant, but (hopefully) I held my own.

Day 3

Up bright and early again after a long day, we got back in a cab to return to L.A.'s Union Station. This cab ride was trickier than the first, as our driver 100% did not know where he was going, took us all around to places we did not need to go (although I did get a good view of the fashion district), and $100 later we finally arrived. Whew.

After a delay with our train, we finally board our Amtrak train headed south down the coast. We sprung for Business Class seats (only $90 for both of us!), so we had more leg room and a nicer ride. Steve took advantage of the free Wi-Fi and did some work.

I checked out the view of the ocean...I won't lie, it was probably the worst weather day we had in California - overcast, gloomy, a little rainy.

And I enjoyed our snack pack! Apparently in Business Class, you get free snacks, wine, and water. The oatmeal cookie wasn't nearly as good as the cookie at the Doubletree, but free is free in my book.

I did leave L.A. with a heavy heart, as I didn't run into a single celebrity. What gives, L.A.? I thought you were teeming with 'em? I would have even accepted a D-list reality star. I guess there's always next time.

Up Next: Part 2 of our Anniversary-Moon spent in San Diego!