Rites of Spring

Although I wasn’t particularly thrilled about “springing ahead” and losing an hour of precious sleep (yeah, who’s lame idea was it anyways and why are we still doing it when it’s universally acknowledged to being rather pointless in the modern world?!), I was, nevertheless, done with Winter.  And you know what really puts me in that “springtime” mode?  It’s the sight of gorgeous, vibrant stalks of crisp rhubarb.

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The first wave of rhubarb at the produce markets tend to be the hot-house variety and a little pricey.  But if you’re like me, you won’t mind splurging on these jewel-like beauties…especially if you’ve got some yummy things in mind–like strawberry rhubarb pop tarts, or tender, melt in your mouth rhubarb crumb coffeecake or rhubarb creme filled lemon cookie sandwiches…

What I love to do with the rhubarb is to cut it up into chunks then quickly poach it in simple syrup, just until the pieces have a little “give” when pinched.  I then shock the rhubarb in ice water to stop the cooking and allow the poaching syrup (which has turned a lovely shade of pink) to cool to room temperature before adding the poached rhubarb back into it.  The poached rhubarb in syrup will keep quite well refrigerated in an airtight container or mason jar for up to two weeks.  You can spoon the poached rhubarb over vanilla ice cream, add it to coffeecake or muffin batter, toss it with strawberries or raspberries and top with streusel for an easy pie.  Best of all, you can use the flavorful rhubarb syrup to make all kinds of drinks…alcoholic or otherwise.

I’ve come up with two…call it my salute to spring.  Both feature my homemade rhubarb syrup and my latest obsession–“make it yourself” fizzy water.  I love sparkling water and fizzy drinks…just don’t like the cost and the ridiculous amount of sugar in most store-bought sodas, so I got myself an inexpensive handy-dandy compact soda maker on Amazon. And, voila…homemade craft sodas!   But getting back to the drinks, the first one is a refreshing non-alcoholic spritzer (yeah, weird I know, me making something without booze!) I’m calling it Rhubarb Spring–basically 2 oz. rhubarb syrup topped off with chilled sparkling water, a squeeze of fresh lime juice, garnished with frozen raspberries and a slice of lime.

IMG_4086The second one is a gin-based cocktail I’m calling Rosie Cheeks.  At first I wanted to name it “Think Pink” after that musical number from one of our favorite musicals Funny Face (1957).  But then Laura came up with “Rosie Cheeks” which better describes what happens after you’ve had a few of these cocktails.  Still, I can’t resist referencing Funny Face.  It’s springtime in Paris, stunning couture (by Hubert de Givenchy), and the s’wonderfully divine Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn.

Rosie Cheeks

  • 2 oz. Gin
  • .75 oz. St. Germaine Elderflower Liqueur
  • 1.5 oz. Homemade Rhubarb Syrup
  • 3-4 dashes Rhubarb Bitters
  • .5 oz Lemon Juice
  • 4 oz. Chilled Sparkling Water
  • slice of lemon for garnish

Combine gin, elderflower liqueur, rhubarb syrup, bitters and lemon juice in a cocktail shaker with 3-4 ice cubes, then shake to blend.  Strain liquor into a chilled glass and top with sparkling water and sliced lemon.

The start of Spring also heralds the coming of Easter.  Now having been subjected to one too many religious movies around this time of year during my Catholic high school days (and I’m not EVEN Catholic!), I tend favor more secular cinematic fare…like the classic Easter Parade (1948) starring Judy Garland and (once again everybody’s favorite) Fred Astaire, with music by the incomparable Irving Berlin.

In keeping with my secular tendencies, I opted to make Easter Loaves–sort of like hot cross (un)buns so to speak.  I used a simple brioche dough and layered in lots of fresh orange/tangerine zest mixed with sugar and dried currants.  I formed the dough into mini loaves (mainly because I was too lazy to form a bunch of little individual buns), proofed them until doubled in size, then brushed the tops with heavy cream before baking the loaves at 350°F for about 35 mins.  or until they were golden brown and tested done.  When the loaves had cooled to room temperature, I made a light glaze with fresh tangerine juice and powdered sugar and dipped the surface of the loaves into the glaze.

Another thing that makes me think of Spring, is the abundance of asparagus.  I love it in all forms–grilled, blanketed in hollandaise, in frittata, on pizza, tossed in pasta.  For those of you who’ve followed this blog, it should not come as a surprise that one of my favorite ways to cook is to deep-fry.  I’m not ashamed to admit that if it’s battered and deep-fried, I’ll probably eat it (okay, maybe not a Twinkie…I draw the line there!).  So, of course I felt compelled to make asparagus tempura…along with red bell pepper, shiitake mushroom and shrimp tempura (hey, I like a balanced meal!).  The process of making tempura is really pretty easy.  The batter is a simple ratio of 1 part all-purpose flour to 1 part cornstarch, whisk in just enough sparkling water or club soda to make a batter that is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, and season with salt and pepper.  I added a little bit of toasted sesame seeds to my batter.  Make sure that your vegetables and shrimp are patted dry before dipping into the batter.

IMG_4100For added crunch, I like to double-dip–that is dip the product into the batter, then dip it into panko bread crumbs.  Fry the tempura in batches (3-4 pieces at a time depending of the size of frying vessel) at about 365°F until golden.  Drain the excess oil off on paper towels.   Arrange on a plate and dust with furikake (seasoned seaweed topping).

Nothing says "Spring" like Vegetable and Shrimp Tempura
Nothing says “Spring” like Vegetable and Shrimp Tempura

To make myself feel slightly less guilty about the tempura, I served it with a side of cold soba noodle salad, which is just cold cooked soba noodles, julienned carrots, sliced cucumber, diced red bell peppers, and chopped scallions, tossed in a light dressing of soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, pickled ginger juice (aka the pickling liquid), sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds.

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Spring is about renewal and optimism, and viewing the world from a fresh perspective…or at the very least from a different angle.  On that note, here are two funny, somewhat “unorthodox” takes on Spring.

 

 

Comic: You DO That Little Thing!

Meet Me in St. Louis is unexpectedly one of my favorite movie musicals ever. I recommend you watch it, not just because you’ll understand the following comic better as it references a lot of scenes and quotes from the movie, but it’s just so GODDAMN good and it’s the holidays!! Make Mimi’s Irish Coffee, tuck yourself under a warm blanket and start watching! It will seriously change your life. I guess I am exaggerating. Anyway, enjoy!

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Meet Me in St. Louis…or Tootie never gets in trouble even though she’s a liar and almost kills people

Most people watch It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Story…or Miracle on 34th Street to get into the holiday spirit.  As followers of this blog should know by now, we like to approach things from a different angle…even with old Hollywood classics.  Though technically not a Christmas movie per se–it takes place over the course of four seasons in the life of the Smith family– we all agree Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) is one of those movies we must watch during the holidays…though if it’s on any other time of the year, we still couldn’t pass it up.  To be fair, Rina wanted us to feature it on Halloween because of the great “Tootie the Most Horrible” sequence, but I wanted to save it for December because I love that song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and the whole climatic scene where Tootie (Margaret O’Brien) has her epic meltdown and whacks away at the snowmen–jeez that kid had a homicidal streak…remember all those dead dolls buried in the backyard and her diabolical plan to derail that streetcar on Halloween?  Fortunately for the Smiths, Tootie’s breakdown convinces Mr. Smith to change his mind about moving his family to New York City (God knows they can’t turn that little psycho loose on unsuspecting New Yorkers!).

The whole dramatic sequence ends with the family celebrating on “Christmas Day” with joyous relief that they will be staying in St. Louis after all–Esther won’t have to elope with John, John can go to college, everyone is going to the World’s Fair…crisis averted!

This whole sequence of events had me thinking, what would Katie (Marjorie Main) make for their celebratory “yay, we’re not moving to New York!” breakfast?   Since the Smiths were clearly in the process of packing up and moving, she probably didn’t have as an extensive a larder as she normally would have…not to mention the fact that it really was the middle of the night and where the heck would she go to get supplies anyways?!  The resourceful Katie would most likely whip up something tasty with whatever she happened to have on hand.   This line of thinking invariably led me to look into my own frig for ideas.  What I came up with was some leftover homemade tangerine-scented cranberry relish, cinnamon apples (surplus from the crostata I made for Thanksgiving), half of a small butternut squash, and one leek.

So what did I come up with, you may ask?  Well, for starters, I knew I had to bake something…something warm and inviting…something worthy to be called (Yay, we’re not moving) Celebration Rolls–a rich brioche slathered with cinnamon browned butter, rolled with cranberry relish and cooked sliced cinnamon apples, and drizzled with a glaze spiked with homemade bourbon vanilla extract.  The brioche dough recipe is very simple and basic…lots of butter worked into an egg-enriched dough.  Once the dough has proofed, you simply roll it out into a rectangle and proceed to layer on the “filling,” then roll it into a log and cut it into 12 pinwheels, which are then placed into greased muffin pan molds, allowed to rise again until doubled, then baked and glazed.  These rolls will guarantee you’ll have a “Merry Little Christmas.”

 

Celebration Rolls

Yield:  12 rolls

Brioche Dough:

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/4 cups bread flour

1 package Rapid Rise Yeast (instant yeast)

1 Tbsp. Sugar

1 tsp. Sea or Kosher Salt

1/3 cup Whole Milk, lukewarm

3 Eggs

12 Tbsp. Unsalted Butter, softened to room temperature

In a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine the dry ingredients on low speed.  Whisk together the eggs and milk, then add them to the dry mix.  Mix everything on low for about 4-5 mins. until the dough comes together, scraping down the sides of the bowl about halfway through.  Increased the speed to medium low and begin adding the butter a little at a time until it is all incorporated into the dough.  Kick up the speed to medium and continue mixing for another 10-12 mins.  The dough should be somewhat sticky and shiny.  Transfer the dough into a greased bowl large enough for double its size, cover with plastic wrap and let the dough proof in a warm space.  Punch down the dough and turn it out onto a floured surface.  Roll dough out to a rectangle about 1/4″ thick.

Filling:

1/2 cup Browned Butter (or just softened butter)

1/2 cup Brown Sugar

pinch of Sea or Kosher

2/3 cup Cranberry Relish

1 cup Sauteed Cinnamon Apple Slices, cooled to room temperature

Mix together the butter and sugar to form a spread, then slather it evenly onto the rolled out dough.  Next, spread the cranberry relish on top of the butter, then arrange the apple slices end to end to form 3 rows lengthwise.  Carefully roll the dough, tucking in the apples as you go along to form one uniform log.  Cut the log into 12 pieces and place them into greased muffin tins.  Cover the pan lightly with plastic and allow the rolls to double in size before baking in a pre-heated 350°F oven for about 20-24 mins. or until the rolls are a golden brown.  Let the rolls cool in the pan for about 5 mins. before unmolding.

Glaze:

2 cup Powdered Sugar

1/4 cup Whole Milk

1 tsp. Vanilla Extract

pinch of Salt

Whisk together the ingredients until smooth.  Drizzle glaze over the warm rolls.

 

The other dish I came up with plays upon an earlier scene in the movie where the family is sitting down to a dinner of corned beef and cabbage.  Mr. Smith thinks it’s going to be a nice, relaxing meal, only to discover much to his aggravation that the entire family, including Katie the cook, are conspiring to speed up dinner in order to facilitate a private phone call between Rose and her erstwhile suitor Walter Sheffield.  My Christmas Morning Corned Beef Hash makes great use of the butternut squash, leek, and herbs I had leftover from Thanksgiving.  The only things I had to buy were a few little Yukon gold potatoes and some corned beef.  I chopped up the squash and leek, along with half of a small yellow onion, sauteed them in my trusty cast iron skillet with some olive oil and a couple sprigs of sage and thyme until they began to soften, then added in the potatoes, which I had cooked until just tender the night before and quartered.  When the potatoes developed some nice color, I tossed in the chopped corned beef and cooked it until was warmed through.  To serve, I topped the corned beef hash with a sunny side up egg.

 

Now while I imagine the Smith children would partake in hot chocolate,  I think the grown-ups might want something with a little more kick (especially if you had to listen the Tootie and Agnes blathering on about their Christmas gifts or Rose and Esther dithering about their romances all morning).  For them, I concocted a coffee drink spiked with homemade Irish Creme and Creme de Menthe–a few of these Merry Irish Coffees work better than earplugs!

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Homemade Irish Creme:

(courtesy of Saveur)

Yield:  2 quarts

2 cups Heavy Cream

2 tsp. Dutch Processed Cocoa

1 Tbsp. Espresso Powder

1-1/2 cups Irish Whiskey (e.g. Jameson)

2 cans (14oz.) Sweetened Condensed Milk

1 Vanilla Bean, split & scraped

Combine the cream, cocoa, espresso powder, whiskey, sweetened condensed milk and scraped vanilla beans (reserve the pod) in a blender and blend on low for about 30 seconds.  Transfer the liquid into a 2-quart mason jar, add the vanilla pod and refrigerate.   The liqueur should last up to two weeks in the refrigerator…if you’re not tempted to drink all of it by then.

Merry Irish Coffee

3 oz. Strong Brewed Coffee or 1 Double-Shot Espresso

3 oz. Steamed Whole Milk*

1 oz. Irish Creme

1/2 oz. Creme de Menthe

mint sprig and chocolate shavings for garnish

Pour the liquors into coffee cup, then top with the hot coffee and foamy steamed milk.  Garnish with a sprinkling of chocolate shavings and a fresh sprig of mint.  *If you don’t have an fancy espresso machine to steam your milk, just vigorously whisk the milk in a small pot as it is heating to create the foam.

 

And finally, no celebration can be complete without a dessert (no, the rolls don’t count as dessert!).  I present my interpretation of the infamous “Hickory Nut Cake” Katie makes for Halloween…which Rina insisted we had to have…otherwise known as Maple Pecan Cake (because hickory nuts aren’t available at Trader Joe’s and I hate walnuts).   I essentially took a basic white cake recipe, subbed out some of the butter with browned butter (which I also used in the rolls), then added some finely chopped toasted pecans and a little maple extract.  Instead of the very sweet and heavy traditional boiled frosting, I added maple extract and a little bourbon to some vanilla Italian buttercream I had in the freezer and layered in some more chopped toasted pecans for the filling and frosting.  And voila….

 

Not completely satisfied with my pink ombre flourish…Rina added this.

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