In The Clear...

Mom's surgery went smoothly yesterday, and so did Aunt Dolly's. Mom is in a lot of pain, and she is very weak and tired, all of which is more than understandable, but her vitals and the function of her remaining kidney look good. Her road to convalescence will be long, so if you could continue to keep her in your thoughts, we would all really appreciate it. Thank you to everyone who prayed and sent positive mental energy on her behalf yesterday. It is amazing to know that so many people love my mom, and our family, and we are all truly blessed.


A Favor To Ask...

I am not a religious person, though I do have some spiritual inclinations. I find it comforting to think that there are forces at play in the universe that are larger than myself. Either way, whether you belong to an organized religion or profess a faith of your own devising, I would appreciate any thoughts/prayers/good vibes/positive mental energy you can send my mother's way today.

This morning, my mother is going into surgery to donate her kidney to a complete stranger, and in return, someone associated with that person, of whom all we know is that they live in Minnesota, will donate a kidney to my great-aunt, Dolly. Mom has been on this donation journey for over a year now, before we even knew that Aunt Dolly was sick, because she wanted to do something incredible for another person, as if being an amazing mother, wife, daughter, sister, and aunt wasn't enough.

Selfless and altruistic as this act is, I can't help but worry for her. Major surgery comes along with significant risk, and her recovery will be long, so I would really appreciate it if we could all pull together for her today. Good luck, Mom, we love you very much and we will all be thinking of you.


They Grow Up So Fast...

Two months ago, I reported that Justin and I had brought a botanical life into the world by successfully sprouting an avocado pit from a fruit given to us from some family friends from their garden in Florida. We had been trying to conceive for quite some time, so we were ecstatic to become plant parents. Like any new mom and dad, we are so proud of our fledgling tree that I wanted to share a photo and an update:

We repotted our baby after its first month of life, since it appeared to have stopped growing. It really wasn't a moment too soon either, as the plant was already becoming root-bound. In accordance with advice we read online, Justin conducted some extensive pruning that reduced the plant to just the stem and a single leaf, in hopes of forcing it to grow in a more aesthetically pleasing manner.  While it was nerve-wracking to see it looking so bare, it was definitely the right call, as the tree is looking fantastic now.

I sense another repotting is in our near future, as our baby is continuing to grow every day. I also fear that my initial concern that the massive size of the seed would lead to the growth of a massive tree may ultimately prove correct. We'll have to cross that bridge when we come to it, but for now, we are simply enjoying this new addition to our houseplant menagerie.


Stop The Presses - Part Eight

"Dining Due Diligence" has been on quite the roll lately, with three editions in the past two months. For the curious, here is my latest column, from today's Chicago Daily Law Bulletin:
Sequestered away in a sleepy corner of River North, Baume & Brix — with chefs Thomas Elliott Bowman, Ben Roche and Nate Park — creates a design-conscious space where the food vies with the decor for diners' attention.

The chic, yet industrial loft-style space might easily double for one of the designer lighting stores surrounding Merchandise Mart, given the no less than eight different fixtures we spotted.

Baume & Brix, 351 W. Hubbard St., is plagued by another "no seating until the party is complete" policy that was inconsistently and annoyingly applied, with some diners being seated right away while others were forced to languish at the bar. If you plan on visiting Baum & Brix on business, keep your fingers crossed that you make it into the former category.

Service was similarly inconsistent; the wait staff was obliging to the diners' every whim, though our table was not offered the wonderfully fragrant bread that was served to the tables surrounding us.

The trio of chefs divide the menu into contrived sections such as "explore," "summit," "conquer" and "divide," corresponding roughly to appetizers, entrees, desserts and shared desserts, respectively.

To "explore," the shrimp and grits bisque was lacking the traditional southern flavor profile that the name implies, but was brimming over with intensely concentrated corn flavor instead. The grilled octopus was perfectly cooked without a hint of chewiness, and the play on "fun-dip" created by the addition of flavor powders for dipping was novel and delicious — a rare combination.

On the less successful end of the spectrum, the "naked" lobster called to mind a breadless lobster roll, with off-putting textures as well.

Portion sizes for the entree course were somewhat miserly in scale, but what they lacked in quantity they made up in quality.

The black cod was accentuated by a slightly sweet mirin and sake marinade, and was served in a flavorful, but delicate, broth with a delightful edamame dumpling. Red curry-flavored short ribs were fork-tender and surprisingly well matched by Okinawa sweet potato puree and a vinegar-laced kale. The butterfish was also a highlight, with flesh that was especially rich and succulent.

Only the duck went astray — though cooked to the requested temperature, it was unpleasantly gamey, and the squash and barley "risotto" had a musty, earthy flavor that was not entirely pleasant.

To close out the meal, we ordered the "divide" course — a batch of baked-to-order chocolate chip cookies served with vanilla-infused milk. Because we ordered the cookies at the start of the meal, the interminable 45-minute wait for them seemed inexcusable, and when they finally arrived, they were hardly warm at all.

If you wish to linger after the meal discussing business, feel free to order this poorly paced course, but if you have other pressing matters to tackle, you are better off "conquering" your meal instead.


Happy Blogiversary...

Four years ago today I sat down at my computer, created a Blogger account, and said "hello" to the world. My cousins had started blogging as a way of sharing pictures and stories about their growing families, so I decided to jump on the bandwagon with tales from my single, childless life in the city. My life has changed a lot in the past four years, but I have managed to keep blogging through all of it, no matter how far behind I got, and no matter how much I felt like quitting and getting all of that time back.

I had started blogging as a way of holding myself accountable; I figured I couldn't just sit at home living a boring life if I expected anyone to be interested in reading about it. Blogging forced me out into the world, and gave me a greater appreciation for my city and all it has to offer. It also motivated me to tackle bigger and more complicated projects in the kitchen, leading me to not only expand my repertoire, but to increase my skill set as well.

Finally, the past four years here at "The State I Am In" have helped me to keep my writing skills sharp. After college, I felt like I was squandering all of the writing talent I spent my life honing up to that point, so blogging gave me a means of self-expression, and a way to keep my writing skills up to date. Those writing skills helped me land a new full-time job in November, and the small portfolio of restaurant reviews that I had compiled over the years led me to my gig writing "Dining Due Diligence" for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. Truly, my persistence over the years has paid off.

In the past year, I managed to crank out 187 post, down just slightly from the 191 that I generated in my third year of blogging, but certainly not shabby by any means. That works out to a post every 1.95 days - a number of which I can definitely feel proud. To celebrate, I decided to keep up my tradition of trying out a new cake recipe, only this year, I found myself tempted to cheat a little.

You see, this year, I didn't actually bake a cake to commemorate my blogiversary. The same cake-related lack of inspiration and motivation that struck a few weeks ago for my birthday seemed to be plaguing me still, and I just couldn't settle upon anything I wanted to conquer. Meanwhile, I couldn't stop thinking about an icebox-style chocolate cheesecake that boasted four simple ingredients and was calling to me from my Pinterest baking board like a siren's song.

Last year, I happened to discover the joys of Nabisco Famous Wafers while making the crust for the Mexican Chocolate Tart I made for the Cinco de Mayo-themed dinner I prepared for Justin's family the first time they came over to see our new home. I only needed part of the package of cookies to make the crust, and I idly grabbed an extra to munch on while I was working. That proved to be a mistake -- I had soon eaten the entire rest of the package, even though I was in the process of making a separate dessert. 

An obsession was born that day; imagine if you will, a slightly crispier version of an Oreo without the frosting, and you can envision the experience of eating a Nabisco Famous Wafer. Given my fondness for Oreos, which dates back to my childhood (they are the only pre-made cookies I spend my money on), and the fact that I have never been a fan of frosting (in fact, while most people twist open their Oreos to scrape out the filling and eat it, I twist mine open to scrape out the filling with a knife and throw it away), Nabisco Famous Wafers are pretty much my dream dessert.

Later that summer, after one of the early game nights we hosted with our friends, Jess and Brad, I found myself with a huge surplus of whipped cream left over from an angel food cake and strawberry dessert that Jess had brought over. I didn't know what to do with it (it was seriously a lot of whipped cream), so I did the sensible thing and Googled "leftover whipped cream," and found the same suggestion on multiple food forums: turn it into an icebox cake by layering it with Nabisco Famous Wafers. I was sold.

I was skeptical that a dessert consisting of cookies and whipped cream would be good, in spite of the fact that cookies and cream was my favorite childhood ice cream flavor. Internet wisdom turned out to be spot on, however, as I was blown away by how delicious my results turned out. Evidently, the magic of the icebox cake occurs when the cookies sit overnight in the moisture of the whipped cream. They absorb some of the liquid, acquiring an almost cake-like texture, and the whipped cream sets up as some of its moisture is absorbed. The thin cookies turn into thin striations of cake between light and fluffy cream, and the result tastes far lighter than its actual caloric content would lead you to believe. 

Hence, when I spotted a recipe in Food and Wine for an icebox cake that substituted a combination of cream cheese and chocolate syrup thinned with a bit of water, I knew I had to make it happen. I've never been tempted to tackle a real cheesecake, which must be baked in a water bath and still has a tendency to crack, but this shortcut version proved irresistible. 

As you might expect, this was the easiest recipe that I've ever selected for my blogiversary. In fact, the hardest part was trying to keep the plastic wrap in place while I was spreading out the layers of cookies and cream cheese filling without making a huge, sticky mess. Simple as it was, however, it was also one of the tastiest desserts I've ever made for this occasion. My one-year blogiversary cake was largely forgettable; my two-year cake gave me my beloved maple cream-cheese frosting recipe; and last year I mastered Grandma Betsy's red velvet cake, which will probably always be my sentimental favorite. This chocolate icebox cheesecake is easily the second-best dessert that I have created in honor of this joyous occasion. 

I think this cake will be making a comeback sometime soon. Not only is it quick and easy, it is a great make-ahead dish for entertaining, since it needs to sit overnight, and it doesn't require any oven time, making it great for the summer. I'm already mentally penciling it into a cookout menu a few months from now, and I think you should plan on doing the same. 

Until then, Happy Blogiversary to me, and stay tuned to see where year four takes me here at "The State I Am In!"

Icebox Chocolate Cheesecake
adapted from Food & Wine

70 Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers (from 2 packages)
Three 8-ounce packages cream cheese, at room temperature
1 c. chocolate syrup, such as Hershey’s
1/4 c. water

1. Put 20 of the chocolate cookies (reserving 50 whole cookies) into a zippered plastic bag and, using a rolling pin, crush them to fine crumbs. Line an 8-inch round cake pan with enough plastic wrap to extend by 4 inches all around.
2. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese at high speed until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in the chocolate syrup and 1/4 cup of water and beat the chocolate cream for 2 minutes.
3. Arrange 9 cookies in an overlapping ring on the bottom of the prepared cake pan and place 1 cookie in the center. Spoon one-fourth of the chocolate cream (about 1 1/4 cups) over the cookies, being careful not to disturb them. Repeat with the remaining cookies and chocolate cream, ending with a layer of 10 cookies on top. Fold the plastic wrap over the top of the cake. Lightly tap the pan once or twice on a work surface. Refrigerate the cake for at least 8 hours and preferably overnight.
4. Peel back the plastic wrap and invert the cake onto a serving plate. Carefully peel off the plastic wrap. Press the cookie crumbs onto the side of the cake to coat evenly. Cut into wedges and serve. 

Cake should be consumed within 3 days of preparation.


Such a Flake...

As much as I haven't been inspired by cake baking lately, I haven't been able to get cookies off my mind lately -- specifically the cookies from Momofuku Milk Bar. I keep justifying my preoccupation to myself with the thought that I need to work through the book so that we can return it to the library, or in case somebody puts a hold on it and we have to return it, but in reality, I think the book has just awakened my dormant obsession with cookies.

For example, all I wanted to do last week was bake Tosi's Cornflake-Chocolate-Chip-Marshmallow Cookies, but I was just too busy. I needed at least two consecutive evenings at home to make them - one to make the cornflake crunch and the cookie dough, and another to refrigerate the dough overnight and bake them the next day. Between a doctor's appointment on Monday night, going to the theater on Wednesday, and being at the office until 9:15 on Friday for an all-day meeting and dinner, there was just no time to dedicate to baking until the weekend, and I finally got the chance to make my cookie dreams a reality.

I was intrigued by this recipe, not only because of the drool-worthy photo in the book of a pair of hands tearing apart a gooey, melty cookie, but because I've not encountered a cookie recipe before that calls for adding marshmallows directly into the dough. According to what I've read, adding marshmallows too early results in them melting into the dough and disappearing, so most cookies that feature them call for pressing marshmallows into the surface of the cookies midway through the baking process. When I have baked with marshmallows myself, that is the technique I have followed as well, so I was curious to see whether Tosi's novel idea would pan out.

I must confess, however, I was a little intimidated by these cookies at the same time, not because they seemed especially difficult, but because the reviews I'd read of the recipe on other blogs were full of stories of disaster. The cookies spread too much, or they burned, or they cooked unevenly. My last two batches of Milk Bar cookies turned out perfectly, and I was sure to follow all the directions carefully, so I decided to roll the dice and see if my baking prowess could lead me to success where so many others had failed.

When I set out to start preparing the dough, I was faced with another one of Tosi's nested recipes, but the cornflake crunch was less labor intensive and dangerous than the peanut "brittle" had been, and even better, since I wasn't dealing with molten sugar, I was able to scale down the recipe to make only as much cornflake crunch as I needed so I wouldn't have to figure out what to do with leftovers. I was able to prepare and cool the cornflake crunch in the time it took my Plugra to soften to room temperature, so it hardly even seemed like that much of an extra effort.

The dough came together without incident, though I did vary slightly from Tosi's instructions by using regular chocolate chips instead of the mini-version she prefers for better distribution throughout the cookie, mainly because I'd already had to buy cornflakes, marshmallows, and powdered milk and I didn't want to have to invest in mini-chips too. I did, however, decide to add more chips than the recipe called for, since I had the remnants of an open bag hanging out on my cabinet and I wanted to finish it off. After finishing the dough and portioning it out to chill overnight, it would be 24 hours before I would discover if my change to the recipe would prove to be my downfall.

Today, when I pulled the cookies out of the oven, I could see that they were somewhat less attractive than the other Milk Bar cookies I've baked so far, but they were far from a disaster. The marshmallows had indeed melted, as I'd predicted, and the ones that were close to the sides of the cookies created pools of molten candy around the edges that caramelized and turned brown, which made the cookies look less uniformly round and perfect than usual. However, I didn't really mind the melted marshmallow puddles because their caramel flavor proved to be a welcome addition to the cookies.

I was also surprised that, despite sitting in the moist cookie dough overnight, the cornflakes retained their crispiness without getting soggy, and added an extra crunch factor to the cookies that contrasted with the chewiness of the melted candy. The extra chocolate chips didn't keep the cookies from sticking together, as I had feared, but I did notice that the cookie dough itself, while exceptionally buttery, was more crumbly and less chewy than the other two Milk Bar cookies I've experimented with. Though I generally prefer chewy cookies, I didn't really see the crumbly texture as a problem here.

So far, I would rank these cookies between the corn cookies and the peanut butter cookies in my emerging hierarchy of Milk Bar cookies. I still have three more that I want to bake from the book before I return it to the library, so we'll just have to wait and see where it falls in the final rankings...


Through The Years...

Embarking on this cookbook project and working my way through the past decade of my cooking career has been not only a nostalgic experience, but also a pensive one. My recipes, and the stories behind them, reflect not only how I have grown in my kitchen skills, but also how I have grown as a person. I've become more adventurous, more confident, and more open-minded over time. Plus, my recipes conjure memories of people in my life; someone for whom I made a specific dish, someone I learned from, someone who I taught a given recipe.

I think, in part, that this powerful connection to memory is why I don't make today's dish more often. At one point, in college, it was the star of my cooking arsenal -- the recipe I kept up my sleeve for when I needed to impress someone. It was a little unconventional, a bit unexpected, but it was also a huge hit with anyone I ever served it to. I wouldn't say I ever made it often, because its rich, cream-based sauce made it more special occasion fare, but I certainly made it every few months. Now I'm lucky if I make it once a year.

The recipe is for chicken with grapes, and it consists of sauteed chicken, browned and then served with a mustard cream sauce and a combination of cooked and nearly raw grapes, for textural contrast, served over a bed of noodles. I saw it on an episode of Rachel Ray (like I said, I added this dish to my repertoire while I was in college), was intrigued by the marriage of sweet and savory flavors, and decided to give it a try. It became so popular among me and my friends that when a friend asked me for advice on what she could make to impress her boyfriend who was visiting her from out of town for the weekend, I taught her how to make it over the phone, and emailed her the recipe.

Chicken and grapes became a thing between the two of them, and I gradually came to associate the recipe with her because she mentioned it so often. People change, or sometimes fail to change, however, and friendships come to an end, as did ours. I wouldn't say that I mourn the loss of that relationship, nor do I have any ill will towards her, but I did stop making chicken and grapes as often I once did because it reminded me of her, and I felt that I had largely left that part of my life in the past.

Still, this dish is just as delicious as it ever was, and it deserves to be revisited every now and then regardless of the memories attached to it. I shouldn't punish the recipe just because somebody once liked it, and now that I've introduced it to Justin, he's become a fan himself. Hopefully, I can build up new positive memories surrounding this dish, and it will resume its rightful place in the pantheon of my most-beloved recipes. Until then, you should give this recipe a try. Since you have no baggage associated with it, you are missing out on all the comforting, rich, sweet/savory goodness for no good reason.

Chicken and Grapes
adapted from Rachel Ray

2 tablespoons light tasting olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
seasoned salt and pepper to taste
1 cup chicken stock, measured in 1/2 cup increments
1/4 cup stone-ground Dijon mustard
1 cup heavy cream
1 1/2 cups seedless red grapes, halved
2 pounds boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut into 2-inch pieces

1. Heat a large skillet over medium to medium-high heat. Add the butter and olive oil to the skillet and wait for the butter to melt.
2. Season the chicken with seasoned salt and pepper to taste. Place the flour in a large Ziploc bag. Add the chicken and thoroughly toss to coat.
3. Add the chicken to the skillet and cook for 7-8 minutes or until browned. Remove chicken once it is done and set aside.
4. Add 1/2 cup of chicken stock to the pan and scrape up any browned bits sticking to the pan. Allow the stock co cook down for 1 minute.
5. Add the remaining stock, heavy cream and mustard. Stir the chicken and half of the grapes into the sauce, tossing to coat. Simmer for at least five minutes over low heat. Season with seasoned salt as necessary.
6. Add the remaining grapes and serve immediately over egg noodles.