I received free products from Sitka Salmon Sharesin order to facilitate the writing of this post. All opinions are my own. The first thing you need to understand is that I grew up in the desert. You know what there's not a lot of in the desert? Seafood. I mean, other than Red Lobster. In addition to being a desert dweller, my mother was not really a fan of fish. I have vague recollections of breaded fish sticks coming out of a toaster oven at some point, and on occasion, she mixed up a bit of tuna salad using stuff from a can, but that was really it. Add to that the fact that my only other experience with seafood was wrinkling up my nose as we passed the fish counter at the grocery store, and you have the makings of a 20+ year aversion to anything with gills.
When I started this food blogging journey so so so very long ago, I began to think about my food phobia. I hated fish, but why? I'd never really had it. I'd certainly never ordered it in a restaurant. And I liked shellfish well enough, so what was the real problem?
Everything came to a head when I was at an event in which a very famous Chicago chef was cooking a meal live in front of a small crowd. That meal was a take on bouillabaisse, a tomato based fish stew, and he was chucking just about every type of aquatic life into his pot. "It's ok," I thought, "I'll just pick around the fish and eat the mussels." Then, much to my horror, the chef himself began ladling soup into our waiting bowls, and with a smile, he gave me a huge chunk of fish meat. "Want to make sure you get a little bit of everything," he said with a wink. I steeled myself for the worst as I lifted a spoonful of fish to my lips and... it was actually quite good! Then and there, I made a deal with myself: if I was ever offered fish, I was going to accept it, and I have been happily surprised by many delicious fish dishes ever since.
Now that brings us to the present and my first interactions with Sitka Salmon Shares. When they first approached me about trying one of their boxes full of freshly caught Alaskan seafood, I was admittedly apprehensive. Having seafood presented to you by a master chef was one thing; preparing it myself was quite another. But now that I have a proper kitchen and my cooking skills have increased beyond that of a starving college student throwing things together in the vein hope they will be edible, I decided to be brave and give cooking fish a shot.
When I received the box from Sitka, I was immediately impressed with everything. Not only did the vacuum packed cuts of fish look vibrant and clean, they had also included several recipe cards, information pamphlets, and a small cedar wood plank, presumably for grilling the fish on. The even had an insert informing how to properly remove pin bones from the fish, something I had been worrying about doing wrong! Each individual cut of fish was portioned and cleaned, and then clearly labeled with its species, date caught, and even the name of the fisherman who had caught it! Best of all, everything arrived frozen solid with not even a hint of odor.
Sitka Salmon Shares works much like a farm co-op; subscribers sign up for a period of 3-9 months, and are then sent a box each month containing a portion of an individual fisherman's harvest. This system not only ensures that the fishermen get to keep a higher portion of the sale than they would by selling their wears on the open market, it also gives the subscribers access to the most seasonal varieties of fish.
I decided to start my fish cooking journey by tackling a small cut of Coho salmon. I made a quick little marinade out of soy sauce, honey, garlic, and ginger, then steamed the fish in my Instant Pot along with some mushrooms, peas, and onions. The result was a nicely flavorful fish, but a little over cooked and dried out. Next, I decided to attempt a salmon quiche. I oven roasted a cut of Keta salmon, then shredded the meat. This time, I cooked the salmon to a perfect consistency, so it remained moist and flavorful. I added the meat to a pre-cooked pastry shell along with some sauteed onions, spinach, and Swiss cheese. I then poured a mixture of eggs and heavy cream over the whole thing and baked it for about 35 minutes at 350. Now, I know some people are squeamish about fish and cheese, but I thought the nuttiness if the Swiss and the butterines of the salmon worked really nicely together!
Feeling a little more confident, I decided my next task was to tackle the two pieces of Wild Alaskan Pacific Cod. The first thing that popped into my mind was fish and chips, and following that, fish tacos, so I decided to combine the two. I cut the cod into small chunks, beer battered it, fried it, and combined with with a simple slaw (cabbage, red onion, and carrots mixed with mayo, sour cream, and lime juice), and did a quick pickle on some apple sticks to add a bit of brightness to everything. I was pretty happy with the results, and the softness of the cod inside the crispy batter was so perfect with all the crunchy toppings!
I saved the best and most daunting fish for last. My box had included a beautiful piece of sea bass, and I fretted for a while about what I was going to do with this delicate fish. I just so happened to have picked up a sous vide circulator, and after a bit of research, I discovered that using a sous vide machine to cook sea bass was a very good idea. I placed the fish into a ziplock bag along with some butter, garlic, salt, and pepper, the cooked it in the water bath for 30 minutes at 133 degrees. In the meantime, I whipped up a quick gnocci side dish with some wilted baby kale and Parmesan cheese. The sea bass out of the bag was so tender that it began breaking apart as I plated it! This was definitely my favorite preparation of them all, if only because it made me feel so dang fancy!
It really surprised me how comfortable I've become with cooking fish over the last few months. I've gone from completely intimidated to completely enthusiastic. It just goes to show that when you are working with a product of such high quality, you really can't go wrong. Whether you are an experienced fish chef or a curious beginner like me, I cannot encourage you enough to consider signing up for one ofSitka Salmon Shares' subscription plans. Let me know in the comments what your favorite way to cook seafood is!
I was sent products free of charge by Pirro's Sauces in exchange for an honest review of their line. All opinions are my own.
My life was forever changed when I received a pasta roller as a Christmas present last year. Since then, I have been obsessed with perfecting my own fresh made pasta recipe. I started very basic, trying different combinations of flour, eggs, oil, and water, and I quickly discovered just how many variables there are in pasta making. Do I use whole eggs, or just the yolks? Do I salt the dough, salt the water, or both? Does adding oil to the dough actually make a difference? Should I rest the dough, or work with it straight away?
After much experimentation and research (ie, late night Googling), I arrived at a method I felt comfortable with, but I couldn't quite get the texture I wanted. I started trying different flours; semolina, whole wheat, tapioca, and on and on. Finally, the answers I was seeking came in the form of bread flour, which is essentially all purpose flour with more protein. This added protein promotes the formation of gluten, which in noodle making terms, gives a chewier, stronger product than just using the regular old white stuff. Once I discovered bread flour, I was making fresh pasta pretty much every week.
With my new found ability to produce copious amounts of carbs tucked neatly into my culinary tool belt, I was thrilled when Pirro's Sauces reached out to me to see if I'd like to sample their line of all natural, authentically Italian products. Pirro's Sauces are based on the recipes of owner Brianna Pirro's grandmother, handed down through her father, who founded Pirro's Restaurante in Woodstock, IL. The sauces were so popular at the restaurant that customers used to request jars of them to take home, so the move to professionally bottle and sell them was a natural progression. Though the restaurant may have closed in 2012, the Pirro legacy lives on through their lineup of delicious, high quality sauces; Marinara, Pesto Pomodoro, Bolgnese, Puttanesca, Rustic Vodka, and Pizza Sauce.
When I first got my hands on the sauces, I decided the simplest way to get an idea of their flavors and quality was to first try out the classic Marinara with some hand made noodles and fresh mozzarella (this has literally been my go-to meal for half my life. I literally eat it once a week). I was really impressed to see that there wasn't a single chemical, preservative, or artificial thing listed in the ingredients; just veggies, olive oil, and spices. The sauce itself had a bit of a chunkier texture to it with a thinner base than what I usually see from a jarred pasta sauce. This was actually perfect for tossing with the fresh pasta, as the noodles absorbed much of the flavorful liquid, and the finely chopped ingredients were able to disperse evenly throughout. The flavor was so wonderful; no metallic or overly acidic notes, but lots of sweet tomato goodness with a little bit of a crunch from the celery and carrots and an aromatic hit of garlic and basil.
Now that I was certain Pirro's knew what they were doing, I took their Pesto Pomodoro and made a quick and easy take on a Shakshuka with it. Basically, I just poured the whole jar into a non stick skillet, heated it up to a simmer, cracked a few eggs into it, sprinkled in some goat cheese crumbles, and let the whole thing cook over medium low for about 5 minutes. Lastly, I toasted up some naan bread, then sat down and started scooping into my concoction. Because the pomodoro has a good bit of Parmesan cheese in it, the flavor of this sauce was a little richer and the texture a little more hearty. I think it's a testament to how good this sauce is that I was able to really enjoy it basically straight out of the jar with very little alteration.
Finally, the sauces having proven their worth to me, I dived into something I had not yet attempted; a stuffed pasta dish. Deciding to use the Rustic Vodka sauce to make my pièces de résistance, I whipped up a batch of spinach pasta dough (recipe below), rolled it into thin sheets, and stuffed it with a simple mix of ricotta, mozzarella, Parmesan, and a few spices. I lined a few of my little makeshift manicotti into the bottom of an enamel lined Dutch oven, covered the tops of them with some of the creamy tomato sauce, then added the next layer of pasta, then sauce, and continued layering until all the pasta and sauce was in the pot. I put the whole thing in the oven for about an hour at 400 degrees, took it out, and dived in. The Rustic Vodka may have been my favorite sauce of them all because it was just so rich and buttery. I don't know if I've ever had a better version from a jar (or in a restaurant, for that matter).
So that settles it for me: Pirro's might now be my official favorite jarred pasta sauce brand ever. Not only are they delicious, I love that their story started right here in Illinois and that they are female owned. This is exactly the kind of company I want to clear room on my shelves for.
Spinach Pasta Dough
2 cups bread flour 1 teaspoon of salt 2 cups of spinach 3-5 whole eggs
In blender or food processor (I use a bullet blender), add the spinach, eggs, and salt, then blend until the mixture is smooth and a vibrant green.
On a counter top or large cutting board, mound the flour and make a large, wide hole in the center of the mound (I use the base of a measuring cup) so that it resembles a volcano. Slowly pour about half of the egg and spinach mixture into the middle, making not to let the liquid leak outside the flour mound. Using a fork, slowly begin whisking flour into the liquid until it forms a paste. Keep adding more liquid until a solid dough can be formed (a bench scrapper is great for this stage when the dough is prone to stick to hands). You may not need all of the liquid, but you also may need to add flour if the dough is becoming too sticky to kneed. Once you have a smooth, non sticky ball of dough, wrap it in a dry kitchen towel and let it sit for at least 15 minutes before putting it through a pasta roller. If the dough sticks at all to the roller, add more flour, kneed, and rest again.
This dough will keep for a while in the fridge, but be aware that the longer it sits, the more the color will darker. Alternatively, you can freeze the dough for later use.
I've always heard that panna cotta is the lazy chef's fancy dessert. You'll see this thick, creamy, molded custard dessert on menus quite often, mostly because it requires very little cooking or baby sitting. Just heat, mix, and leave it in the fridge. Lazy or not, I love it. I am an unrepentant dairy addict, so if you offer me something creamy, most likely I'm gonna be ok with it.
This year, I have promised myself to be more adventurous when cooking at home and try things I've never done before, so I decided it was time to give the panna cotta a go. Now, the secret to making a perfect panna cotta is having a perfect base recipe to layer flavors on top of. That's one of the reasons this dessert is one of my favorites; it's versatility. It can be fruity, it can be chocolaty, it can be floral, it can be boozy, or any combination one could dream of.
When I started to build my panna cotta recipe, I knew immediately that I wanted to flavor the base with Nielsen Massey Vanilla Bean Paste. This stuff is a staple in my baking cabinet, mostly because it adds the touch of those little vanilla speckles that always make a dessert feel more elevated. They even recently released a new version of the Vanilla Bean Paste, made with Tahitian vanilla, which carries fruity and floral notes (as opposed to the Madagascar Vanilla Bean Paste, which is more rich and creamy in flavor).
Since my vanilla of choice was a little more on the fruity side, I chose to make my first ever panna cotta a passion fruit panna cotta. Instead of making my own passion fruit curd, I opted for one I already knew was great, but maybe next time I'll be brave enough to try making one from scratch!
I was almost shaking when I un-molded my little rounds of creamy goodness for the first time, but they turned out PERFECTLY! Fruity, floral, just a touch of sourness, and a silky smooth texture that makes you never want to stop eating them. Don't like passion fruit? You can literally use this base recipe with any kind of flavor! Fruit jams, infused syrups, spice blends... the possibilities are literally endless!
Passion Fruit Panna Cotta
2 cups heavy cream 1 cup half and half 1/3 cup granulated sugar 1 cup passion fruit curd 2 tablespoons Nielsen Massey Tahitian Vanilla Bean Paste 1 envelope un-flavored gelatin 2 tablespoons any sweet white wine (can also use white grape juice)
Add two tablespoons of white wine to a small sauce pan and sprinkle gelatin over the surface of the liquid. Leave to bloom.
Add heavy cream, half and half, and sugar to a medium sauce pan. Bring the mixture to a soft boil, then take off the heat. Add in the passion fruit curd and the vanilla bean paste and whisk slowly to combine.
Heat wine and gelatin mixture over a medium heat. Remove immediately once gelatin is completely dissolved. Very slowly, pour the gelatin mixture into the cream mixture while whisking. Once everything is combined, pour into small ramekins (should fill about 4-8, depending on size). Cover with plastic wrap and chill for at least an hour (over night is best).
To un-mold, unwrap the ramekins and run a thin knife blade along the edge. Dip them into a bowl of hot water for a few seconds, then invert them onto a plate. Garnish with fresh berries and serve.
These spots feature fun activities to keep the more energetic members of the family happy while everyone gets a chance to chow down. From pictures with the Easter Bunny himself, to face painting and egg hunts, these are great options for families large and small.
I was sent products free of charge by Java House in exchange for an honest review. Well hello there, my poorly neglected blog audience! I know it's been a hot minute since I last posted here. But what with the Insatgrams and the Twitters and such, I've needed to take some time off from this poor old blog to really understand what it is I liked about food blogging in the first place. And you know what? The truth is that I really missed discovering new things that give me the culinary tingles. So let's talk about one of those things, shall we?
I've been a big cold brew fan for a while now. This is mainly due to two factors: 1) I've become an absolute coffee addict in my 30's, and 2) I have a decent amount of regular acid reflux. Cold brewed coffee is less acidic than hot brewing, and I find that the smoother flavor generally appeals to my particular palate. From big chain coffee houses to my local cafe, whenever there's cold brew on offer, I'm very likely to order it.
I've tried cold brewing at home, but I can never seem to get a strong enough flavor for my liking. Generally, I end up having to buy a really expensive super dark roast just to get any sort of enjoyment out of it, and if I should want to add a splash or milk or a little flavor, the coffee just disappears into nothingness. This is why when Java House reached out and asked if I would like to try their liquid cold brew concentrate pods, I immediately said yes.
The Java House cold brew pods come in four varieties: Sumatran (dark roast), Colombian (medium roast), Ethiopian (light roast), and Decaf (medium roast). They are sized to fit into any K-Cup coffee machine, so you can actually enjoy them hot, cold, or anywhere in between. The cups contain a perfectly portioned amount of liquid cold brew concentrate, so you just need to add water to them (or shoot them straight, if you want to. I won't judge you. Actually I will. Add some water, you heathen). You actually don't even need a K-Cup machine to enjoy them because you can literally just crack them open and pour them into a mug or over ice. Or, if you're me, you can add them to some bourbon cream liquor and start your morning off right with a Kentucky Coffee Cocktail.
I very much liked the versatility of these little suckers, and the flavor on all the roasts was top notch. Of course, my favorite was the dark roast. Because I like my coffee black as my soul. But the others were perfectly enjoyable. If you happen to be down the K-Cup isle of your local grocery store, I would highly encourage you to pick up a box of these and give them a try.
Because I can't just make a cup of coffee and be happy, I decided I wanted to try using some of the Java House cold brew in a recipe. I've heard that adding coffee to brownies brings out the chocolatiness, so I did some experimenting and OH MY GOD. Best idea EVER! A basic brownie suddenly became the fudgiest little hunk of deliciousness to ever come out of my oven. Once again, I can't leave well enough alone, so I decided to pay homage to the coffee by giving my brownies a frothy topping to mimic the foam on a latte. This turned out so incredibly well that I am halfway tempted to quit my day job and start selling these suckers on a street corner like Famous Amos did with his cookies. Seriously, if you're a choco-holic like me, you have got to try these!
Mocha Latte Brownies 3/4 cup unsalted butter, melted 3/4 cup cocoa powder 1 1/2 cups sugar 3 large eggs 1 teaspoon vanilla 2 Java House Cold Brew Liquid Pods (any roast, but I prefer the Colombian for this) 1 cup flour
Topping: 1 cup heavy whipping cream 1 packet of unflavored gelatin 2 tablespoons cold water 1 tablespoon granulated sugar 1 Java House Liquid Cold Brew Pod (I prefer the Ethiopian for this)
Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. grease a 9x9 square baking dish with cooking spray and set aside.
In a large bowl, combine the melted butter, sugar, and cocoa powder and mix until smooth. Add vanilla, cold brew pods, and eggs and again stir until smooth. Lastly, add in the flour and combine into a thick, smooth batter. Pour the batter into the greased baking dish and bake in the oven for about 35 minutes or until the top feels completely solid. Let cool to room temperature.
For the topping, add the heavy whipping cream to a pre-chilled bowl and whip with a stand or a hand mixer until the volume has doubled and soft peaks have begun to form. Set into the fridge to keep cold. In a small sauce pan, add the Java House cold brew pod and 2 tablespoons of cold water, then sprinkle the gelatin on the surface of the liquid and let sit for about 2-3 minutes. Heat up the liquid over medium heat. Once the gelatin is completely dissolved, add the sugar and stir until no more granules are left. Remove from heat. Bring out the chilled whipped cream and begin whipping again with a stand or a hand mixer. Slowly stream in the gelatin mixture. The cream will deflate some, but should begin to look foamy and glossy. Quickly spread the cream over the top of the brownies in an even layer, then cover the dish and set in the fridge to set up for a few hours or over night. Cut and serve.
The following is a sponsored guest post from our friends at Illinois Party Bus.
There are some great upcoming brunch events to consider checking out in Chicago! Here are four of them coming up in March. If you need a convenient way to get around town after enjoying a brunch with friends, head over to Illinois Party Bus.
Start your day with yoga and bottomless brunch, along with complimentary mimosas for $5 at this event hosted at Pinstripes. Yoga runs from 10 to 11AM, and brunch is served until 3PM. Bring your own yoga mat and get ready to have some fun! All levels are experience are encouraged to attend.
The brunch buffet includes a yogurt bar, crab deviled eggs, beignets, jambalaya, mimosas, shrimp and grits, as well as sweet potato has and french toast. With ticket choices that offer unlimited drinks and a DJ spinning beats, this is sure to be an awesome pop up brunch event. It's $35 for brunch, and $50 for brunch with unlimited drinks.
This brunch is unique, because it's a round table discussion. There will be multiple panelists at this engaging discussion. With crafted beers and brunch at the end of the discussion, there's a lot to look forward to at this event. Tickets range from $5 to $10, so it's an affordable option as well.
Here is an awesome option for women who are interested in wellness. This brunch and healing workshop focuses on nutritious brunch dishes, mimosas, and personal wellness. There will be a life coach giving an inspirational talk and an awesome Goddess buffet. Tickets are $50 for this event.
I was invited to dine at the restaurants mentioned free of charge in exchange for an honest review.
As much as I love staying inside the week between Christmas and New Year's, usually snuggled under my down comforter with my dog noisily snoring beside me and a cup of some boozed up hot beverage clasped between my hands, eventually I start to get a little cabin fever. And with this year being unseasonably warm (seriously, Chicago, what the hell? I could go back home to Arizona for 50 degrees in December!), I'm feeling the itch to get out for a few more meals before 2018 ends. So enjoy this quick roundup of some of my recent favorites for brunch, dinner, and everything in between!
Dinner at Le Sud This French/Mediterranean inspired addition to Roscoe Village has gotten great buzz ever since it opened earlier this year. Me? I like a bit of non pretentious French cuisine, so I was very interested to check it out. The inside is the perfect kind of cozy without being overly cramped and the perfect kind of vintage without feeling artificial. This isn't the kind of place you're going to find Americanized French staples, like onion soup or coq au vin. Instead, you will find things like house made charcuterie, a decadent fois gras tart (that is so perfectly balanced between sweet and savory that it could easily be an appetizer or a dessert), a perfectly simple steak frites, and a very inventive vegetarian seared pumpkin entree with leeks and fregola. Everything here is incredibly thoughtful and uncomplicated, while demonstrating an immense amount of skill and care. Go any night you can, or check out their special service for New Year's Eve.
Dinner at Bobby's Lincoln Park Bobby's recently opened their first location in the city in hopes of replicating their beloved Deerfield location's success. The menu boasts a lot of meat and seafood focused plates as well as handmade pasta dishes, but the vibe is surprisingly casual. The space is open and airy, a rarity in crowded Lincoln Park, and the service is exceptionally friendly and personable. It's may sound ridiculous, but I was impressed right from the start with the bread service, which came with a simple roasted garlic butter that I would have happily bought a bottle of if they had been selling it. The Shrimp Bobby was an excellent take on a scampi, the Steak Tartar was gloriously delicate (I also mixed that delicious garlic butter into it and by God, it was amazing), and the scallops with cauliflower puree and orange zest were a delight. If you want a little taste of everything Bobby's has, order The Mark Miller, which is a platter of sausage, roasted chicken, tender skirt steak, peppers, and onions. For a lighter (by comparison) plate, the Linguini Nduja is also wonderful, with a rich egg yolk sauce, crisped panchetta, sweet onions, and a little kick of heat.
Having dined at The Kitchen a few times, I knew to expect only the best. Of course I wasn't disappointed, and despite some minor Instagram drama (don't ask...), I found myself more impressed than ever before with the inventiveness coming out of The Kitchen's kitchen. Highlights for me included a collection of awesome non-alcoholic cocktails (something I'd love to see more of at other restaurants), a succulent southern style Shrimp and Grits with andouille sausage, an earthy Mushroom Toast with red kale and scrambled eggs, an impossibly creamy yogurt panna cotta with blueberries and housemade granola, and poached eggs with green shakshuka, chickpeas, and toast points. They will actually be serving brunch on Boxing Day (December 26th) from 10:00-3:00 and all day New Year's Day, so if any of this sounds good to you, get on that. Also, they will be featuring an exclusive holiday donut flavor (pst... it's chocolate spice with cranberries and candied ginger!) in addition to their already stellar line up of freshly made pastries.
Tea at Vanille Taking family to a relaxed tea service is just the kind of tradition I'd like to add to my already packed list of holiday traditions. After all, who can resist tiny sandwiches and delicate tea cups? Vanille Patisserie recently launched a beautiful tea service at their Lakeview and Hyde Park locations, offered at 12, 2, and 4 Mondays through Thursdays. The service consists of as much Benjamin's Tea as you can drink (my personal favorites include the Forest Berry and the Roasted Almond) accompanied by mini sandwiches, scones with a variety of spreads, freshly baked madeleines, Vanille's signature macarons, mini cupcakes, and other delightfully tiny treats. At just $28 a person, I think this might be one of the best tea service deals in town. Pinkie's up!
Brunch at Parley @ Joy District I think we all know that I have very mixed feelings about brunch buffets, but if you're looking for a spot to drink away your holiday stress with a group of fun loving friends, this might be the place for you. Especially if you have a sweet tooth! The dessert table at Parlay is a little overwhelming with it's donut wall, platters of cereal treats, and legions of layered pudding cups. Fresh pizzas and chaffing dishes with various savory dishes help to balance out the glucose, but I'm tempted to tell you to skip them all together and just go in on the sweets. Calories don't count in December, after all. $50 gets you access to all the food as well as bottomless mimosas in a variety of flavors, but if you STILL haven't uped your insulin levels enough, there's the brunch cocktail menu that features giggle inducing large format cocktails, like the Scumdilyuptious served in a gumball machine with rubber ducky floats, or the Mega Mimosa and the Mega Mule; giant sized versions of the classic cocktails that are perfect for using as selfie props.
I received free product from Nielsen Massey in order to facilitate the writing of this post.
Christmas time and baking are pretty synonymous. Who thinks of Christmas time and doesn't conjure up memories of delicately iced sugar cookies, warm gingerbread, or boozy fruit cake? Sometimes on wintery weekends, I start feeling the impulse to just get up a bake. It keeps my hands busy, it keeps me warm, and it gives me something to do while binging Great British Baking Show for hours on end. Well, one of these impulses over took me this past weekend, and it resulted in something I'm actually pretty proud of.
I had a vision, you see. It was of a cake my mom made once, long ago. A sort of yellow sheet cake with icicle-like drips of red and green running through the slices. I don't remember how old I was when she made it, nor do I remember how many times she made it. But the memory of those magically colored squares of cake popped into my head and I decided I wanted to make a Christmas Poke Cake of my own.
Now, because I can't do anything the easy way, I realized I was going to have to improvise a little. Nearly every recipe I found for poke cakes called for boxed cake mix for some reason. Does no one make their own cake mix anymore? I don't know about you, but I like begin able to control the salt levels and types of flour I'm using for my baking recipes. I also didn't want to make a sheet cake because... well... I don't really know why I didn't want to make a sheet cake. So I decided to make it a bundt cake instead. Because bundt cakes are prettier. And more festive. Lastly, I decided not to use pre-flavored gelatin. This was mostly down to the fact that red and green gelatin look great, but don't exactly make a very Christmas-y flavor combo (but if lime and cherry are your idea of Christmas flavors, I'm not judging).
For my Christmas Poke Cake, I wanted to highlight a trio of the best flavorings on earth: Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Extract, Pure Almond Extract and Pure Peppermint Extract from Nielsen-Massey Vanillas. I've been working with Nielsen-Massey Vanilla's extracts for many years now and it would be a horror to open my cabinet and not find them. It's so great that a family owned company from right here is Illinois has become world renowned for producing such excellent products (seriously, you can even spot their bottles on the contestant's stations in Great British Baking Show!). Obviously, these three extracts in particular play an important role in Christmas baking, which is why they have bundled them all together for super convenient baking supply shopping. The Nielsen-Massey Vanillas Holiday Flavors Bundle is available exclusively on Amazon in 2 oz and 4 oz options.
I started off by using the basic pound cake recipe from Nielsen-Massey Vanilla's website. The only modification I made was to not use the almond extract in the batter. I baked the cake in a bundt cake pan, then let it cool. Once the cake was at room temperature, I used a wooden skewer to create holes down the center and sides of the cake. For the first syrup, I brought 1 cup of water, 1 cup of sugar,and 1 packet of gelatin to a simmer. Once everything was dissolved, I removed the mixed from the heat and added a few drops of red food coloring and 2 teaspoons of the Peppermint extract. I did the same for the second syrup, except with green food coloring and 1 tablespoon of the almond extract.
Now you have to work kind of quickly with this next step. I used plastic pipettes to inject the syrups into the guide holes I'd created with the wooden skewer, making sure the syrup got at least halfway down into the cake. I did one half of the cake with the peppermint syrup and one half with the almond. Once all the holes had been injected, I carefully spooned what was left of the syrup over the top of the cake, making sure the whole top and sides were coated. This will create not only a wash of color around the edges of each slice, but will help to seal the moisture inside your cake and keep it from drying out.
Once I was ready to serve my masterpiece, I covered the whole thing in a dusting of powdered sugar and sliced away! So what are your favorite holiday baking projects? Head on over to my Instagram page and look for the post with the picture of my cake, tell me your must have holiday goodies, and you will have a chance to win a Nielsen-Massey Vanillas Holiday Flavor Bundle of your own! And for more great baking ideas, make sure to follow the hashtag #NiesenMasseyInspires across social media.
I was invited to dine at the restaurant free of charge in exchange for an honest review.
Back in the summer, I was first introduced to the meat master that is Chef Bryant Anderson. At the time, he was showing off his evil genius brunch creations at Rackhouse, like the Breakfast Waffle Nachos and a $50 Bloody Mary that came adorned with a barnyard's worth of meat products. Since then, he has opened up Broken Barrel Bar in Lincoln Park, a sports bar focusing on house smoked meats in the same vein as Rackhouse, but with a little more of a cosmopolitan feel.
I had a chance to visit them for dinner service just after they opened, and let me tell you that I have never been more excited to stuff my face with meat. Even their vegetable based dishes were spectacular, like the Brussels Sprout Nachos and the customizable mac and cheese (both of which can have meat added to them), and this might be the only non-Cuban restaurant in the city that offers fried plantains as a side AND a dessert. Their beer collection and menu of simple but delicious cocktails is also pretty impressive.
Needless to say, when I found out Chef Bryant was finally launching brunch at Broken Barrel, I was all over it. His brunch service mainly consists of an abbreviated version of the dinner menu along with five (for now) special dishes, only offered on weekends. I took along my buddy Chris so that I wouldn't have to suffer from the meat sweats alone.
Knowing how amazing Chef Bryant's award winning dry rub wings are, I insisted we start with an order of those accompanied by a selection of their house made sauces. Also, you know, if was Sunday and the Bears were playing, so you gotta have wings! Chris is a bit more adventurous in the spice department, so he was curious to sample the two hottest sauces on the menu; The Hellraiser and the Sex Panther. I had the tiniest taste of the Sex Panther, and while the flavor was actually amazing, the prolonged fire mouth that followed had me staying the hell away. Instead, I went for the Sticky Curry, which is the perfect example of something that is spiced without being spicy.
First up on the brunch dish docket was the Hangover Breakfast Sandwich, which I had already tried as part of Rackhouse's brunch menu. This mammoth stack has a foundation of hickory smoked brisket, topped off with Merkt's Cheddar Cheese, chipotle mayo, a pile of crispy fried onions, and fresh peppery arugula. The thing is, when you call something a "hangover sandwich," you would expect it to be greasy, but this thing is actually quite refined and really well balanced. The brisket is definitely the star of the show, and that sharpness from the cheese and the mayo makes for the best kind of contrast.
Next up was the Breakfast Burrito, which came stuffed with eggs, tomatoes, bacon, black beans, scallions, and cheese. I was pretty into this sucker, which surprised me, because beans are usually a huge turn off for me. But with the sweetness of the marinated tomatoes and the really flavorful bacon, I was actually very happy.
On the lighter side was the Smoked Salmon Plate; a pretty typical presentation of lox accompanied by sliced avocado and toasted English muffins. The really unique aspect here was actually the scrambled eggs, which came stuffed with whipped ricotta and scallions. Honestly, I could have been happy with those eggs alone. The salmon just became a bonus!
No brunch menu is complete without a Benedict, and Chef Bryant's version utilizes his amazing house smoked shredded lamb shoulder, topped with a chipotle hollandaise and a maple/sriracha drizzle. Interestingly, this Benedict came with a fried egg on top instead of a traditional poached egg, which gave it more of a "biscuits and gravy" feel. Still, the lamb is the focus, as it should be, and was absolutely melt in the mouth tender.
Finally, the brunch menu features one dish on the sweet side: the Croissant French Toast. The custard the croissants are dipped in actually has a bit of orange flavoring, which brightens up the naturally buttery pastry. They then smother it in a house made berry sauce (that doubles as a dipping sauce for the donut holes on their dessert menu) and top it all off with a mouth watering vanilla whipped cream. This is the perfect thing to order for the whole table to share in between bites of meatier entrees.
Chef Bryant doesn't seem like the kind of guy who sits still for very long, so I'm sure he will be continuously adding and perfecting the brunch dishes at Broken Barrel for the foreseeable future. After sampling his creations several times now, I cannot wait to see what he comes up with next!