Monday, March 15, 2010

One day Joseph laid an egg…

I don't really remember how we came to own a do-it-yourself countertop chicken incubator but I do remember the day Joseph was born, I mean hatched. You see, Joseph thought she was people. And, we thought she was a he...until he, I mean she, laid an egg.

I do know that it was a fall morning in 1973. I remember because that was the year that my brother Greg was in eighth grade…the year he received his Sacrament of Confirmation. Who would have known that on that special morning the Holy Spirit would descend upon him in the form of a baby Rhode Island Red. Wasn’t it supposed to be a ball of fire and a dove or something? A red chicken? Close enough.

Anyway, rewind a few weeks earlier when we approached Villia, the Peruvian lady up the street, to part with three fertilized chicken eggs so we could conduct our home hatchery experiment. Her daughter Susan was in my class and we knew that she’d probably have a randy rooster or two willing to donate to the cause as their house was this wild wacky menagerie perched high atop the Fairfax hills. In fact, Mom, still a city girl at heart, was convinced that if she actually piloted our wood paneled Country Squire up the windy ascent that she’d never be able to turn it around and navigate back down. I remember many a birthday party at that house (carpooled by a friend’s mom of course) playing pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey surrounded by real live chickens, goats, ferrets a pony or two and I think a couple of monkeys until the Feds put 'em in cuffs and hauled them away.

So, the precious eggs made their way down the hill and into the heated plastic dome that sat on our counter until one morning…crack…Josephine, the sole survivor of our in vitro trio, made her entrance. At our request, Villia promptly bombed down the hill in her red 1964 Rambler station wagon to show us how to properly tend to a newborn baby chick. With her bright red comb and feisty demeanor, we were certain that we had hatched a rooster and promptly named our baby bird Joseph, in honor of the name my brother would take at confirmation that afternoon. What did we know, we were city folk after all?

Check out those sideburns (on my Dad...not Josephine). That's her in my Dad's arms.

Joseph thrived as the newest member of our brood and was the happiest free range rooster a family ever had. We held her, pet her, fed her table scraps, and soon she became fast friends with our German Shepherd named Brian Patrick (no wonder he had issues). They were the two coolest dudes ever to cruise a suburban backyard, despite their severe identity crises. Here they are both ready to be let in for the night. Yes, Josephine slept inside.

Until one day… Joseph laid an egg (in my toy box, thank you very much).

From that day forward, Joseph became known as Josephine and each day she rewarded our family with one luscious, speckled brown egg which she carefully deposited atop my baby doll’s former blankie. Ever since then, I haven’t been able to fully enjoy the runny, pale-yoked excuses for eggs that I resort to purchasing in 18 packs at my local market. Until today…

You see, my neighbor Laura told me that my other neighbor Natalie had taken to raising chickens in her backyard and was willing to share the love. Now, in some of my weaker wanna-be-Martha moments, I toyed with the idea of building a coop myself, but just didn't have the time, energy, know-how, money…everything…to do it. Get fresh eggs delivered on demand from the neighbor instead? Heck ya!

So, today I received my first delivery, and to celebrate, I decided to make a creamy, custardy whacked-out ice cream recipe that I concocted a couple of months ago during a fleeting whim to enter a Häagen-Dazs create-a-flavor contest...which apparently no longer exists. Oh well...another plan foiled. But I must admit, the French Toast Ice Cream that I cooked up was worthy. Here's what I did...
Start by making the "french toast" by cubing a few slices of nice firm white bread.

I melted some butter, brown sugar and cinnamon and drizzled it over the bread, then toasted them up in the oven.

While the french toast was toasting, I concocted some maple caramel sauce to swirl into the ice cream. Here's the brown sugar and maple syrup ready to melt down.

The experiment worked! I poured it into a gravy boat to chill while I made the custard for the ice cream. This makes more than you will need. Save the extra to pour over store-bought ice cream or to eat by the spoonful while standing in front of the fridge.

Custard can be a little tricky. William helped me separate the six, yes six, eggs...

...then I tempered the yummy yokes with hot milk, put the mix back in the pot, whisked and watched the temp till it reached 170 degrees. Don't scramble those eggs!

Strain out any little scramblies then chill it up before freezing it in your ice cream maker.

Uh huh...

French Toast Ice Cream

For the "toast"

Slice into 1/4" cubes:

  • 4 slices of firm white bread (you will probably only use three but will want to snack on the extras)
Whisk together:

  • 4 Tbs melted butter
  • 2 Tbs. brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
Drizzle butter mixture over cubes, toss to coat and toast in a single layer on a baking sheet at 300 degrees for 20-25 minutes until they are crispy and golden.

For the maple caramel sauce

Melt in a saucepan until dissolved:
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup REAL maple syrup
Add and bring to a boil:
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
Gently boil until sauce is reduced by about 1/3, about 20 minutes. Chill.

For the ice cream custard

  • 6 egg yolks
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
Bring to a gentle boil:

  • 2 cups of whole milk
Add half of the hot milk in a stream to the egg mixture, whisking the whole time. Then, add the egg mixture back into the pot and. cook over low heat , stirring constantly until the mixture is thick and the temperature is about 170 degrees. Slower is better and don't leave the pot to put the laundry in the dryer. The eggs will scramble in a blink if they get too hot!
Stir in:
  • 1 cup heavy cream
Strain the mixture through a fine sieve and stir in:
  • 3 Tbs. REAL maple syrup
Transfer to a stainless steel bowl and chill in the fridge or set over ice if you are in a hurry to get it into the ice cream maker (like me).

When the custard is nice and chilly, freeze the mixture in your ice cream maker* according to the directions. When it's ready, fold in the crunchy "french toast" cubes. Drizzle in the caramel sauce to taste and swirl it around without mixing it in entirely. Place in a tub then into the freezer to harden. Give it at least 2 or 3 hours (or just eat it soft with a spoon right out of the ice cream maker). May I recommend doing both...

Makes a little over a quart.

*Having an ice cream maker at home is fun! You can get one for as little as $25 or so at Target which is the model I used for a million years. Kids love it and it's very "cool" to be able to serve home made ice cream to guests. Last year, Mom bought me the freezer attachment for my Kitchenaid standing easy. As long as I keep the canister in my freezer and heavy cream in my fridge, I can make ice cream on the fly any time.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

I think I need a good cry...

Man oh, man oh, man...I have GOT to stop watching the news.

Looting in Chile, car arsons in Richmond, record foreclosures, health care in crisis and...dag nab looks like another five days of rain!

Where did my rerun of I Dream of Jeannie go? That's what I always watch while I sit holed up at my computer doing my morning bookkeeping. Guess I wasn't fast enough at the draw to click over to Bewitched before the 11 am newscast snuck it's way into my 1967 heaven.

I'm telling you, this real life stuff sucks. That's why I think today I'll grab a bag of onions and let it all out. I'm not kidding.

Some might turn to the bottle, others might hit the gym and there are those who might resort to a pint of Ben and Jerry's, a box of Kleenex and Steel Magnolias On Demand. Me? I think I'll grab a 5-pound bag of onions, arm myself with my weapon of choice and revel in the beautiful, salty, sweet flood of tears that will run down my face as I slice and dice my way to cathartic release.

Here's the bonus; when I'm done, I'll be left drained, but gazing before me at a pile of pungent goodness that, when coaxed, will become a steaming bowl of some of the best soul food I know...french onion soup.

The good news is that generally I have almost everything I need on hand to prepare my prescription: onions, stock, a little booze, some cheese and a loaf of bread (even better if it's a day or two old).

Do note, however, that this is what will happen if you let your first-grader engage in Jedi light saber warfare with your baguette. No worries...even a little guy needs to release a little pent-up stress after a hard day at the office.

Back to soup...

I've been making French Onion Soup for as long as I can remember but it wasn't until just a couple of years ago that I actually decided to learn how to do it right. I searched the internet, scoured cookbooks and consulted my trusty files of tattered tear sheets hastily yanked from stacks and stacks of beloved magazines that I force myself to ritually part with every couple of years.

As you can see, I sort my files by six categories, "Sweet Favorites", "Sweet Tried and Good", "Sweet-to-Try", "Savory Favorites", "Savory Tried and Good" and "Savory-to-Try". "Sweet Favorites" gets the most action...I just had to replace the manila folder because the spine blew out. It's a far from perfect system but I think I have made substantial improvements over Mom's recipe filing method. Check it out...(more on that another time)!

OK. Back to the soup for real now.

After trying a few different versions, I have decided that good old Julia wins again. This is a version of her recipe from The Way to Cook that I have decided is the most like what I think French Onion Soup should taste like. You decide.

Start by thinly slicing up some onions. I used about a half-a-5-pound-bag of plain old yellow onions. Wipe your tears, blow your nose then move on. This is how the onions will look after you cook them a little but before you add the salt and sugar...

Carly told me NOT to use the photo below since it looks like a pot full of bait. She's right. But, I wanted to show you how the onions change as they cook. These are almost there...

Here is some toasty bread ready to pile with loads of cheese...

Speaking of cheese, I grated some to pile on the bread then I placed slices over everything to cover the surface of the bowl...

Yeah baby...

French Onion Soup Gratineed

Thinly slice:

  • 2 1/2 pound of onions to make about 8 cups
Melt in a soup pot:

  • 3 Tbs butter
  • 1 Tbs. olive oil
Stir in the onions, cover the pan and cook slowly until soft, limp and tender (about 10 minutes).

Blend in:

  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp sugar
Raise the heat to moderately high and let the onions brown, uncovered. Stir them frequently so they don't burn (about 25-30 minutes until they reach a nice dark brown color).

Sprinkle in then cook and stir for another 2-3 minutes:

  • 2 Tbs flour
Remove from heat, let cool a little then whisk in and blend:

  • 2 cups of hot beef stock
Add in:

  • 2 more quarts of beef stock
  • 4 Tbs brandy
  • 1 cup dry vermouth
Cover loosely and simmer about 1 1/2 more hours! Add salt and pepper to taste, if needed.

To gratinee:

Slice into 1" slices and toast:

  • hardy French bread
Ladle the soup into oven-proof bowls or crocks and float one slice of bread in each.

Top with:

  • Grated or sliced sharp Swiss cheese (I used Gruyere). I piled some grated cheese on the bread then placed additional slices strategically around so that it would cover the bread and ooze down the sides a bit.
Place all six bowls on a cookie sheet and place under the broiler until they are melty and toasty.

Serves 6

Note: Feel free to try chicken stock instead of beef if that's all you have or other kinds of booze such as white wine, or red wine for the Vermouth and Cognac or Armagnac for the brandy. I've seen versions using all of these and use what I have on hand.

Adapted from The Way to Cook: Julia Child

P.S. Since we're talking onions here, thought it might be a good time to share my two cents on how to dice one properly. Start by slicing the little stinker in half lengthwise. Cut the end off the stem end (shown on the onion on the right) and peel it leaving the root end in tact (shown on the onion on the left).

Place the flat side of the peeled onion half on the cutting board and firmly hold it down with the palm of your left hand (assuming you are right-handed). If you are going for a 1/4 inch dice, make horizontal slices up the onion, 1/4 inch apart, starting at the bottom. Slice from the stem end toward the root end leaving the root end in tact.

Now, make vertical slices down the onion, 1/4 inch apart, again, not slicing through the root end.

Next, slice across the surface of the onion, 1/4 inch apart until you reach the root and...