Saturday, November 30, 2013

Downtown Christmas, Visit 1

Yesterday, James bought me a much-needed and even more appreciated new bicycle! It's an absolute wonder, feeling like my ride is working *with* me instead of against me! And I'm riding it everywhere I can find the excuse to ride.

This morning, my brother-in-law, Ken, dropped my sister and their kids off downtown and came over to park at our house. Then we both rode our bikes downtown to join them at the Chuy's Children Giving to Children Christmas Parade.

We had a very cool adventure before the official parade even started! We needed to clear the Capitol from the north before heading down toward 3rd, because Congress south of the Capitol was closed for the parade. Brazos doesn't go through, so my plan had been to take San Jacincto, which was also closed to traffic. There was a police officer standing there, and I asked if it would be okay for us to bike through. He said, "Sure!" There were people walking, too, from wherever they'd parked.

As Ken and I made our way down San Jacincto, we passed the Angry Birds balloons, cheer teams, a unicycle club, and other parade participants. They were actually starting on San Jacincto, getting the bands geared up, getting the kids psyched up ("Let's smile! It's show time!"), and making sure that they were all on the same page before they burst onto Congress.

The organizers were very intent on what they were doing, and we almost got run into several times, but we weaved in and out of the parade entrants. There were people taking pictures and filming, so I was glad I had on my festive zebra-print Santa hat, because maybe it helped me fit in.

We rode past the 501st Legion and Darth Vader and some friends... and finally broke clear of the parade route after several blocks. It was fun, though!

We met up with my sister's family and watched the parade from a lot closer than I'd anticipated, having gotten there literally as it was starting (obviously). 

Shades of "The Music Man." Anyone?

If that were diet and if I weren't already married, we might have something special.

Excited to see a greyhound adoption group representing!

After the parade (actually, a bit before it was officially over, but we were all about beating the crowds), we went a couple of blocks over to the Four Seasons. Every Christmas season, they have a gingerbread display in the lobby. They actually have open houses with cider, and where you can chat with the pastry chefs, on December 4 and 5 from 5-6PM.

This year's theme is Whoville from "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas." Each of the pieces is for sale, with proceeds benefiting Seaton Shiver Center, which treats cancer. Here are pictures of the village and each piece, in case you want to decide on which to bid before you head over.

Stay tuned! There are more Christmas festivities to come from...

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Pi Squared!

'Tis the season. The season for pies. I like pies. I mean, the same way I like hamburgers. They're good. But I don't usually seek out pie, unless it's maybe Key Lime pie. Or cheesecake. (Is that a pie?)

I can't remember making much pie, ever... although I've made a few quiches. And I did make a sweet potato pie once that was surprisingly delicious, and which I made mostly because James thought it'd be a funny thing to do to torment his brother, who really likes sweet potato pies.

However, James had a pecan pie "contest" at work, and since I don't like pecan pie at all but have had a recipe a friend of mine found and made several years ago, I was eager to give this recipe a try: Beezer's Bourbon Bacon Pecan Pie.

You can see the recipe at the link, but here are a couple of highlights:

There is literally as much bacon as pecans.
The only difference was that James had this whiskey he wanted to use. FYI, all bourbon is whiskey. But not all whiskey is bourbon. Anyway, we used this stuff.

The pie turned out marginally attractive, but amazingly rich and tasty. This was a surprise to me, because, as I mentioned, I'm not a pecan pie fan.

I blind baked the crust and even added an egg wash at the end to keep the filling from leaking through. When the crust was empty, it was loose in the pan, having shrunk just a bit even though I'd put weights in it. However, once the filling was baked in, the crust glued itself to the bottom of the pie pan. I think that if I made this pie again, I'd line the pie pan with parchment.

For taste alone, though, I highly recommend the recipe.

The cherry pie didn't have to be pretty at all. That's why I didn't worry much about the crust edges. The reason that tin *is* lined with foil is because I needed to be able to take the entire pie out and move it...

...Into here.
Yes. It's true. This is the Cherry Bomb, a recipe from a site that warrants a second look or third, the concept being that this dude made a pie every week for a year. There are some fun ones, and this is another that was found by the same friend. I never need to look at the internets for pies myself! I'll just keep stealing these.

So, basically, you lightly bake a layer of the cake and then you put the cherry pie on top of it.

Then you cover the pie with the rest of the batter.

Bake it, and you end up with a cake that doesn't even wink to the presence of a pie inside it.

A very simple, soft-hardening icing (softer than straight chocolate chips, harder than a ganache, still pliable when cold, but not runny), which I just used on the top instead of icing the whole cake (a move I will explain shortly), and here was the finished product.

This is a cross-section of the cake.


This cake/pie "(or "pake," may "Drop Dead Diva" rest in peace) was a bit challenging, and I think that if I make it again - and I likely will make it again - here are some things I will bear in mind and/or change. Consider this a complement to the recipe.

1) If you have a 9-inch Springform pan, you're going to need an 8-inch pie pan. Fortunately, I had a left-over tin from Marie Callendar's, which was perfect. Otherwise, you need a much bigger Springform pan. The diameter of the pie has to be quite a bit smaller than the cake. How close this was made me nervous. I was very afraid that after I pulled off the Springform side, that cherry pie filling was going to ooze out. It did not. But I want more of a margin of error.

2) The cook times in the recipe are a LOT faster than my experience. It says to bake the bottom layer "5 to 10 minutes." Mine was still liquid at that point. You can tell it's still very raw when I did remove it from the oven, which was at about 20 minutes. Fortunately, the sides were solid enough, and the pie slid down into the goo, which made some room for it.

3) I would use 2 crusts for the pie. I thought about blind baking one crust, then blind baking a second on top of that for structural support. The pie basically flopped open once I depanned it, and I was fortunate to have it sploop into the chocolate batter as well as it did. It was literally falling apart. The two bottom crusts was my first idea, but on second thought, after baking the cake, I decided something different. Which I'll tell you in #5.

4) The baking of the cake is supposed to take "40 to 50 minutes" after you top the pie off with more chocolate batter. I cooked mine for at least an hour and a half, and it was still a little jiggly on top, but the edges were drying out so much and it was smelling so done that I was afraid that it would burn.

This applies both to 4) AND 5)...

After the cake sat in the refrigerator for several hours, I found that this had happened.

It's possible that the cake was undercooked and fell, but there wasn't any chocolate goo under the sinkhole; it was cherry pie. However, this is why there wasn't enough frosting for the sides. I had to use it as Spackle. It looked beautiful and made the cake decadent, plus being able to see the sides of the cake was kind of fun, since I knew there was pie in there but you couldn't tell from looking.


5) I'd actually made the second crust on top, and be sure to seal the two crusts together very well. This would help both with the structure of the pie in moving it, and hopefully offer some support for the cake on top of it. As you can see from the cross-section of the pie, the crust almost melts into the pie, anyway, so I think it'd work.

That's it! It was still delicious and pretty enough. I was just very nervous about it.

Now go make some pie!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Homemade Gnocchi

The grocery store where I shopped last time did not have gnocchi, but I wanted to use my full eMeals menu for the week, so last night decided to try making gnocchi myself. It looked labor-intensive, but fairly straight-forward.

1) Overbake potatoes on a layer of salt (this is so that the heat can get all the way around the potatoes.

2) Peel the potatoes. Literally every recipe I saw, whether it was for boiling or baking, included leaving the peel on until after the potatoes were cooked.

3) Shred or rice the potatoes. I used a cheese shredder (as recommended in one recipe) and think, in hindsight, that I need a ricer to do these correctly. Another recipe recommended using a fork and a light touch to shred the potatoes, leaving them still light and fluffy. I really think the cheese grater and using a fork means a high potential for "chunkage," which I feel is the enemy of good gnocchi.

4) Make a well in the potatoes and add your eggs and whatever else. In this case, it was nutmeg, garlic, and shredded Parmesan cheese.

5) Mix that with your hands.

6) Sprinkle 1/2 of a cup of flour over the mixture, and fold. Do not knead. Then keep adding flour until you have a dough.

7) Cut the dough into 4 to 8 pieces, rolling each piece into a 1/2 inch log. Then cut those pieces into gnocchi-sized chunks. 

8) Apparently the most difficult thing about gnocchi is learning how to form them. You don't "have" to do it right, or have ridges, but that's a point of pride and the ridges hold sauce better. I didn't feel too much pressure to form them because I knew I'd processed the potatoes less-than-ideally and they weren't going to look too nice, regardless. There are pages and pages and videos like crazy on YouTube about shaping gnocchi.

9) Let the gnocchi dry. I sat mine in the oven with the light on. It had mostly cooled after baking the potatoes, so it was just warm and really dry. One recipe recommended putting the tray in front of a fan for an hour.

10) Freeze or cook the gnocchi. You boil water and do them in batches. They spring to the surface when they're cooked, which takes only about a minute and a half.

I didn't take a picture of our finished meal, which was delicious, but was very saucy and not-photograph-conducive. They were passable, but it was a lot of work for the one meal. (I do have half of them, unformed, in the freezer.) I have made pasta from scratch, and it's SO much cheaper and it's so easy, I think it's well worth the effort. Gnocchi, maybe not so much. But if someone gave me a ricer, I'd absolutely try it at least one more time.

If you have some gnocchi sitting around and want to try something easy and delicious, here is the recipe we used, courtesy the eMeals Mediterranean Menu. If you haven't checked out eMeals, you should! It's fun and delicious!


½ (17.5-oz) package potato gnocchi
2 tablespoons butter
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon flour
1 cup milk
⅓ cup crumbled blue cheese
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
½ cup chopped walnuts
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cook pasta according to package directions. Melt butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add garlic; saute 30 seconds. Stir in flour; cook 1 minute, stirring constantly. Gradually add milk, stirring constantly with a whisk; cook 2 minutes or until slightly thick. Stir in blue cheese. Stir in pasta; spoon mixture into a baking dish coated with cooking spray. Sprinkle pasta with Parmesan cheese and nuts; bake 20 minutes or until golden. Sprinkle with parsley.

Night Walking

Over the past few months, I've shown you some of my neighborhood, but it's always been during the day. What about nighttime? One of the beauties of living at the Nuthaus is that the nightlife is plentiful. We live close enough to the famous 6th Street that we can walk there and enjoy all it has to offer without having to deal with traffic. But last night, I just walked around our general area to give you an idea of what's going on in the West Campus area at night.

Of course, there are the requisite bars and chains and restaurants, but you know what those look like. Except, I did take a photo of one chain that is near and dear to my heart.

Tiff's already has the Christmas lights up!

This is the ghost of an old dry-cleaning/steam laundry operation, I think. They still do dry-cleaning and alterations and laundry, but they must have a more compact facility in which to do it.
 This next one isn't decorated for Christmas. This is always what the courtyard looks like.

It's the Inn at Pearl Street, and their courtyard is so beautiful and so tranquil. Even though this is just off of Martin Luther King, Jr., they have a number of fountains softly babbling and sometimes, quiet music playing. It drowns out all of the traffic sounds.

Meanwhile, across the street from the Inn, someone was having a fancy party.

The food smelled awesome, the guests were all talking (ignoring the emcee), and while I tried to get the next picture, I got to listen to a sweet jazz singer performing "Summertime."

Austin is growing, so there is always construction.

Another place to stay, Hotel Ella.

This is Rio Grande, one of my favorite streets to bike. It has dedicated bike lanes going each way.

Some of the student residences already have their Christmas lights up, too!

The Rancho Rio Eatery on 26th and Rio Grande.

This next one is on Guadalupe, NOT at the Rancho Rio Eatery, and not a restaurant at all!

Mmmkay... so, were they having problems with people touching/erasing it?

And then there's this guy waiting for me.

Home, sweet home!