French Macarons & Life

I must confess at the outset: I have never had a true French macaron. I am not even a big fan of meringue – it is often too sweet for my taste. Plus I have never been to France, nor have I been to a restaurant/bakery that prides itself on macarons. I, however, did have to make them in Introduction to Baking and Pastry while in culinary school.

But this past week, I was in possession of perfectly good egg whites from making hollandaise sauce at work. Not wanting to waste them, I began to think about what I could do with them. Kris, my boss at work, and I are always trying to think of desserts, so I thought about macarons. Right outside one of the kitchens at Forest Home is a thriving rosemary plant, which made me consider the flavors of lemon and rosemary, which I absolutely love together.

(I sometimes think that there is something wrong with me when after working for eight hours cooking, I want to go home and cook and experiment in the kitchen more. Either that or maybe I am where God has called me.)

Anyway…back to making French macarons. How hard could making this cookie be? I mean the ingredients are pretty basic: egg whites, powdered sugar, granulated sugar, and usually finely ground almonds. However, since Forest Home is a nut-free camp, I left out the almonds. (I need to figure out if the almond does anything other than add flavoring to the macaron). Then one adds the flavoring he/she wants.

I could not have been more wrong. These are tricky little cookies to make. Everything has to be just right – from the stiffness of the egg whites to the folding in of dry ingredients to even the humidity in the air.

What a macaron should look like

The flavor of the cookies and the lemon curd was what I was looking for, but the macarons themselves were nowhere near what I had seen in pictures. It did not help that I over baked the meringue, nor that it was raining that day, which meant that the macarons became soggy soon after taking them out of the oven. Therefore, my attempt at Lemon-Rosemary Macarons was far from successful. I would not say that it was a complete failure, but nor would I have been willing to serve them to paying guests.

That night as Claire and I lay in bed, I began to reflect on the process again and my own journey. I attempted something that I really had no idea what I was doing, and at times I found myself second guessing myself and what I was doing. And yet when the macarons did not turn out as I had hoped for, I did not beat myself up; instead, I thought about what I would do differently next time, and tried to really learn from the experience.

As I reflected on this, I was somewhat surprised by my response, seeing as how I tend to be very hard on myself. I think that a year ago, I would not have been so gracious with myself. But nor do I think I would have even attempted such an endeavor.

For instance, three years ago, I took a personal retreat centered around feasting (which really pushed me to consider pursuing my culinary passions), culminating in me making a four course dinner for three friends. During dinner, one of the friends asked me, “Andrew, how would you have felt if the whole meal had failed?” I was almost horrified by the question; I actually had not even considered the question. And thus I responded, “I don’t think I could have handled it.”

Far from perfect results is one of the beautiful things about cooking because the next morning, I had to wake up and go back to work and cook for guests who are paying a lot of money to be at Forest Home. I have no other option. And I am 100% sure that a lot more failures lie before me as I continue to cook and experiment with new flavors and foods.

On my three week retreat (a requirement for my master’s program and a whole story onto itself), my psychologist/spiritual director pointed this very thing out to me: how apropos a metaphor cooking is to the spiritual life. No matter how many times I fail, I still have to eat the next day, and, chances are, still need to cook for others. So it is with the spiritual life. No matter how many times I miss the mark (sin) during the day, tomorrow or even the next moment affords me a new opportunity to open to Jesus and live in the power of the Kingdom instead of my own flesh. Like with cooking, I can either beat myself up and quit over every little failure, or I can consider the situation and learn from it.

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Black Bean Soup with Chipotle Chiles

We are having bizarre weather in Southern California right now. One day it is 90 degrees and the next it is 55 degrees and drizzling all day. The past few days have thankfully been those of the cold and dreary type, which in my mind makes me crave a rich, soul-satisfying soup.

A Facebook friend had mentioned making a spicy bean soup on Sunday, which led me to remember a black bean soup recipe that I had come across a little while ago. What made this soup even more appealing was the fact that it was made in the CrockPot, which meant that I was free to enjoy my day without tending to a soup.

This soup could not be easier. The only work required is chopping up the onions, bell peppers, garlic and chipotle chiles. I had the soup in the CrockPot within 30 minutes of starting. The soup is then cooked on high for six hours. Recipes like this one convince me that anyone can cook.

After being out with friends for the afternoon, I returned home to a house filled with the rich aroma of earthy black beans with a hint of the smokiness from the chipotles.

The soup not only smelled really good, but tasted amazing too, especially considering the ease with which it is put together. As you can see in the picture, I topped the soup with diced tomato and avocado, a dollop of sour cream, and chopped cilantro. The soup had a great black bean flavor but the various components of the dish are what made it in my opinion. The chipotle chiles contributed a smoky spicy flavor, while the cilantro and lime added a lively fresh component. The sour cream and avocado added a creamy richness to the dish.

Claire took some of the leftover soup for lunch today and said it tasted even better today.

To entice you even more, the soup is really healthy, especially if you use the nonfat yogurt as the recipe calls for. According to the website the nutrition facts per serving are: calories, 314; total fat, 4 g; saturated fat 1 g; cholesterol, 1 mg; fiber, 18 g.

BLACK BEAN SOUP WITH CHIPOTLE CHILES

6 main course servings

Ingredients

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 medium-size red onions, chopped
1 medium-size red bell pepper, chopped
1 medium-size green bell pepper, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
4 teaspoons ground cumin
1 16-ounce package dried black beans
1 tablespoon chopped canned chipotle chiles*
7 cups hot water (or chicken stock for added richness)
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 teaspoons coarse kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 cup plain nonfat yogurt
1/2 cup chopped seeded plum tomatoes
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

Ingredients

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 medium-size red onions, chopped
1 medium-size red bell pepper, chopped
1 medium-size green bell pepper, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
4 teaspoons ground cumin
1 16-ounce package dried black beans
1 tablespoon chopped canned chipotle chiles*
7 cups hot water (or chicken stock for added richness)
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 teaspoons coarse kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 cup plain nonfat yogurt
1/2 cup chopped seeded plum tomatoes
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

Preparation

Heat olive oil in large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions and both bell peppers and sauté until beginning to brown, about 8 minutes. Add garlic and cumin; stir 1 minute. Transfer mixture to 6-quart slow cooker. Add beans and chipotles, then 7 cups hot water. Cover and cook on high until beans are very tender, about 6 hours. Transfer 2 cups bean mixture to blender; puree until smooth. Return puree to remaining soup in slow cooker. Stir in lime juice, salt, and pepper.

Ladle soup into bowls. Spoon dollop of yogurt into each bowl. Sprinkle with tomatoes and cilantro and serve.

Camps Hosting the Camps

My parents had yet to see Claire and my home. Fortunately, I was working a Saturday breakfast and lunch shift at work, which meant I would have a free Saturday evening, which Claire and I took advantage of to invite my parents up.

A few months ago, my dad had purchased four bottles of Vellum’s 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon. Jeff Mathy, the proprietor of Vellum, grew up in Fullerton, and attended Fullerton High School where we overlapped two years. We tried the 2006 vintage at Christmas of last year and really enjoyed it, so my dad and I were both eagerly anticipating opening another bottle, but the right occasion had never surfaced…that is until now.

Knowing that my dad had this wine, I immediately figured steak was the way to go. Also for a few months now, I had seen at Costco prime beef, mainly New York Strip and Rib-Eye Steaks. They are about four dollars more a pound than the choice cuts, but I figured that the prime were worth the splurge. And the steaks were only twelve dollars per pound, which all things considering, is actually a great deal on such a beautiful cut of meat. I should have taken a picture of the prime next to the choice, because there is a huge difference in the marbling.

 

Look at that marbling...so beautiful and tasty!

I lightly seasoned the steaks with pepper and Yakima Salt. On the package, Yakima Salt is described as “a naturally smoked salt with a subtle fruit applewood flavor from the Yakima Valley in Washington.” I reasoned that since I was going to cook them on cast iron inside, the smokiness of the salt would add a little more flavor than just regular salt.

 

I cooked the steaks on the cast iron griddle, which was great, save for the billows of smoke it created. Our kitchen is not equipped with a hood fan, so the smoke eventually set off about every fire alarm in our house. But at least we now know that our fire alarms work. The steaks did turn out amazing. The meat was very flavor and super tender.

As Claire and I discussed what else to fix, Claire suggested mashed sweet potatoes. I peeled and cut the potatoes into smaller pieces and boiled for 20 minutes. After draining them, I whipped them, adding ¾ stick of butter, a couple tablespoons of real maple syrup, nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom, and cayenne – I really love the little heat from the cayenne with the sweetness of the dish. (I did not measure how much of the spices I put in, as I just added until I liked the taste.) I then put the potatoes into an oven proof dish. Shortly before we were ready to eat, I topped the sweet potatoes with brown sugar and baked them in a 400 degree oven for 20 minutes. They turned out amazing, basically tasting like pumpkin pie.

The steaks and the potatoes made a great combination, a very nice alternative to regular potatoes which is what I am used to serving with steak. And the Vellum Cab was great as well. It was very easy drinking, yet had a great fruity flavor to it. I found it to be nicely balanced between being too earthy, like some European wines can be, and too fruity, like some California wines.

 

To start the meal, I made a simple salad of fresh green beans and heirloom tomatoes from Jacinto Farms, sitting on a bed of arugula, topped with a homemade sherry vinaigrette. It was quite the lovely salad, from the colors, to the flavors (I am still amazed at the flavor of these tomatoes!), to the contrast in texture between the green beans and tomatoes. I guess you really don’t need much when you have such great produce to begin with.

 

Finally for dessert, I made Salted-Caramel Budino, which is Italian pudding. The recipe was an email sent to me from Tasting Table’s Chef Recipes. The pudding was rich and smooth. I especially loved the hint of saltiness that seemed to help make the dessert not too sweet.

It was a great evening for the Camps to host the Camps. After they left, I felt a stronger sense of pride in who Claire and I are becoming and the house we are making. While I am so grateful to everything that my parents have provided for me, and now Claire as well, there was something very good and special about hosting them. It is hard to describe, but very good nonetheless.

Fruit Trees and Spiritual Growth

Claire and my first house as a married couple is far from perfect (namely we don’t have real doors into the bedrooms, but rather accordion-style faux wood doors), but one thing Claire and I love about the house we are renting is that it has fruit trees – an orange tree, a Meyer lemon tree, and a tangelo tree to be exact.

Even before Claire and I started looking for a place to call our first home, Claire asked me, “When we own a house, can we have an orange tree and a lemon tree?” It was a dream for one day, down the road. As we began searching, I would scour Craigslist daily for any leads. One day, I came across a listing for a two bedroom house for rent in San Bernardino. I immediately called the rental office to inquire about it. They told me that they did not have the keys yet but that we were welcome to drive by the house.

As we approached the house for the first time, I saw fruit trees behind the house, but could not tell if they were on the house’s property or the neighbor’s property. So we snuck into the backyard to have a closer look. I was literally floored when I saw that the fruit trees were on the house’s property. A lemon and an orange tree in our first house! Another instance where Jesus knows the desires of His children’s hearts and earnestly wants to give them good gifts.

Even before the wedding, which was August 21, new fruit was beginning to grow on the orange and lemon tree, which got me very excited. What I saw at that point was more than just buds, but actual fruit growing. I began to think about how soon enough we would have more Meyer lemons than we would know what to do with and fresh oranges to make whatever our hearts desired.

Yet still now, almost two months later, the fruit is nowhere near to being ripe. A couple of times a week I check the trees to see how the fruit is coming along as if me checking is going to help the fruit ripen any quicker.

In some ways I feel like a little kid waiting for Christmas. I am not good at waiting. As a child, I would snoop around trying to find Christmas presents.

As I look at this fruit on an almost daily basis, I cannot help but think of my own life and my growth into Christlikeness. Spiritual growth is never quick and easy, yet so much of American culture screams at us that life should be about quickness and ease and comfort. If I am dissatisfied with my job, I can look for a new one. If I don’t like the church, there is another church just a few blocks away. If I don’t like the neighborhood, I can find another place to live. And according to American culture, if I grow dissatisfied with my partner, find a new one.

Currently I find myself in a period of personal ripening. I am learning what it means to be a husband, to love Claire as Christ loves the church, to sacrifice for her, and most difficult of all, open my heart to her and let a person be part of my life in ways I have never allowed another. No book, no sermon, no ten-step program can speed up this progress. Even more…this process will never end. I will never be able to say, “I have arrived at the place where I know perfectly what it means to love Claire.” For an impatient person, who prides himself on learning things easily, this will be very difficult for me.

While I enjoy certain aspects of my job, it is not where I want to be long term. My dream is not to cook for 600 high school students. My confidence as a cook has grown tremendously since I have been there, but part of me wants to work with a top chef and learn really good techniques. I have thought about looking for another job, but is it right to leave just because I want to and feel restless? Or is God calling me to stay because He some important reasons for me to be there?

To add to this, Claire is still in graduate school, which puts her in her own waiting/ripening period. The next three years are about getting her/us through graduate school. Yes we can dream and talk about the future, but to a certain extent we are being forced to wait.

But like caring for fruit trees, Jesus’ work in me is never passive. There are certain disciplines that I do for the trees, and there are certain disciplines that I do for my own growth. The disciplines are tough, and many times I am left wondering if I am doing anything right both in caring for trees and in caring for my own soul. Then I remember that I am not ultimately responsible for the growth – Jesus is – and even though I am far from an expert in caring for fruit trees and myself, Jesus is still at work in me, and He will bring about fruit in my life in due season, whether that be in a few months or a few decades. So I have hope.

“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building” (1 Corinthians 3:6-9).

“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).

Butternut Squash + Chocolate Chip Bars with Cream Cheese Frosting and Candied Bacon

Thursday, I had the day off; however, Claire was going to be gone until 8:00pm, which meant that I had a day to myself, yet with no ideas on how to utilize my free time. Therefore, I did what any reasonable person would do, post my quandary on Facebook. A friend suggested making a dessert to enjoy with Claire once she got home. The more I thought about it, the more the idea began to resonate with me.

With cooler, Fall-like temperatures finally returning to Southern California, I could finally turn on the oven again. And with butternut squash in the fridge that needed to be used, I figured that butternut squash could easily be turned into bread/cake/bars of some kind.

A quick Google search yielded a recipe on My Baking Addiction’s website that the author described as perfect. Good enough for me. As I ran some errands that morning, my mind was turning as to how to make this into a dessert.

My idea finally coalesced into this. Instead of making a loaf of bread, I would make bars. And chocolate always makes a dessert better, so chocolate chips should be added. Cream cheese icing is my favorite, and I figured if it is good on spice cake, it would definitely be good on this cake, since the cake has cinnamon, nutmeg and cardamom in it. And finally, for some reason, as I thought about butternut squash, I kept thinking of bacon, so why not add bacon to the top? Bacon makes everything better.

So after I returned from my errands and picking up the ingredients needed to make such a dessert, I went to work. I roasted the squash with a little butter and brown sugar for close to an hour, after which I pureed it, adding a little cinnamon and nutmeg to it as per Baking Addiction’s recipe. (I only had four ends of the butternut squash, so I adjusted my recipe accordingly.)

I then followed her recipe, adding a half cup of semi-sweet chocolate chips (I think the cake would be even better with mini-chocolate chips, but I had the regular size in my pantry already). I baked the cake in a nine inch square pan at 350 degrees for 35 minutes. I think the baking time would be anywhere from 30-35 minutes. Just don’t make my mistake of not having any toothpicks to check the cake. But just be warned: as you bake this cake, your house will be filled with scents that scream Fall. You will be tempted to dive straight into the product as soon as it is finished baking, but stay strong my friend, for the finished product is so worth the wait.

For the cream cheese frosting, I beat one eight ounce package of cream cheese along with six tablespoons (3/4 stick) of butter until it was light and fluffy. I added one cup of sifted powdered sugar to that and beat until incorporated. This made the perfect amount of frosting for the cake – enough to taste, but not too much as to overpower the other flavors.

Finally for the bacon I coated seven pieces of bacon in brown sugar and baked for 30 minutes at 350 degrees. The bacon did not crisp up as nice as I was hoping. I think that next time I will simply pan cook the bacon until crisp, as the added sugar on the bacon is not needed. Claire also suggested that chopped pecans, spiced or not, would be a great addition instead of bacon.

The finished product was amazing! The cake was very moist. The chocolate plus the spice nicely counterbalanced the sweetness of the cake and the icing. And then the bacon added a touch of saltiness/savoriness to the dessert. I was also hoping for the textural contrast of the bacon with the moist cake, but alas, I did not succeed this time.

It is a dessert definitely worth making with Fall descending upon us. And plus it is something other than all the pumpkin and apple desserts that you will be eating this time of year.

Most importantly, it was so pleasant to sit down at the table together with Claire and talk about our day together over a nice dessert. In the midst of the busyness, sometimes just taking the time to sit at the table and enjoy dessert together is special not matter what type of dessert it is. It was a way of saying: “This is our time to be together and no one can interrupt that.”

Bon Appétit!

Butternut Squash + Chocolate Chips Bars
Adapted from: http://www.mybakingaddiction.com/butternut-squash-bread/

Ingredients
1 cup butternut squash purée
2 eggs
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup water
1 cup white sugar
½ cup brown sugar
1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground cardamom

Directions
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease one 9 inch square pan.
2. In a large bowl, mix together the butternut squash puree, eggs, oil, water and sugars until thoroughly combined. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and cardamom.
3. Stir the dry ingredients into the butternut squash mixture. Combine just until incorporated; do not over mix. Pour into the prepared pan.
4. Bake at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes or until a wooden skewer inserted into the center of the loaf comes out clean.

Cream Cheese Frosting

Ingredients
1 8 oz. package of cream cheese (softened)
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) butter (softened)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup powdered sugar, sifted

Directions
1. Cream cream cheese and butter in mixing bowl until light and fluffy.
2. Mix in vanilla extract
3. Slowly added the powdered sugar and mix until well incorporated.
4. Cover and chill in refrigerator until ready to use.

Candied Bacon

Ingredients
7 strips of bacon
½ cup packed brown sugar

Directions
1. Coat each strip of bacon with brown sugar.
2. Bake on a foil lined rimmed baking sheet at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until bacon is crispy.
3. Chop bacon and sprinkle over frosted cake.

Sunday Night Dinner: Risotto with Butternut Squash and Blue Cheese

Because of both Claire and my schedule, being able to sit down and enjoy dinner together does not happen too often. Whether it is because of Claire’s classes or me working evenings, both of us at home around dinner time is rare, not to mention one of us actually having time to make dinner.

However, Sundays have become our days. I have asked not to work Sundays because I knew that we could both be off on Sunday to spend the day together going to church, studying, and simply enjoying each other’s company. And with Claire needing to study on Sunday afternoons, I have ample time to cook dinner for us.

At work on Friday, we had some extra butternut squash that was not going to be used, so I took it home with the idea of using it for Sunday night. I was originally going to make soup, but then I remembered that I had always wanted to try the Butternut Squash Risotto with Gorgonzola Cheese recipe from Perfect Pairings: A Master Sommelier’s Practical Advice for Partnering Wine with Food by Evan Goldstein with recipes by Joyce Goldstein.

If you are already familiar with making risotto, then this recipe is fairly easy. After you sweat the onions, add the butternut squash and cook for one minute, then add your rice and proceed as normal. At the end add the blue cheese as you add the parmesan cheese. Season after you add the cheese since the cheeses will add some saltiness to the dish.

My risotto did not turn out as creamy as I had hoped, and both Claire noted that I slightly undercooked the rice to which I agreed. (Can I just say that I love that my wife can tell that risotto is undercooked?) The butternut squash added a little sweetness to the dish while the blue cheese was subtle enough not to overpower the dish but added a great savory/salty component to the dish.

Considering the recipe came from a book on wine and food pairings, you are probably curious as to what we drank. Mr. Goldstein suggests a Pinot Gris for this recipe. In the book he writes:

There are so many directions to go when pairing this flexible white with food. Here the wine’s balanced acidity is put into play in several ways. First, it will indeed cut through the richness of this dish and refresh the palate between bits. Second, the bright acidity frames the sweet, rich squash and cheese, and, third, any excessive saltiness from the Gorgonzola will be effectively neutralized (p. 98).

We had spent the morning up in Lake Arrowhead, and found a little wine shop called Vino100 and bought a Pinot Gris from Punt Road in Australia. Both Claire and I found the wine to do just what Mr. Goldstein had written about.

With the weather finally starting to cool off and butternut squashes coming into season, I would definitely recommend this dish for a fall evening at home.

Date Night and Dinner at Eureka!Burger

Claire’s usual Thursday evening class was cancelled, and I had the day off from work, so we found ourselves with the strange phenomenon of an evening to spend together. The night before, Claire voiced her opinion of wanting to go out of the house, so on Thursday I tried to come up with options on where we could go.

Friends at work had been encouraging me to visit Eureka!Burger in Redlands, telling me that the burgers are good and that they have a good selection of beers on tap. When I told Claire about Eureka!Burger, she agreed that it sounded good, so off we went. Plus we had heard that on Thursday nights in Redlands, there is a Farmers Market, so we figured we would walk around the market after dinner (we actually never made it to the market as I assumed it was in a certain place and it was not).

We arrived right before 6pm, so we were able to get the Happy Hour prices for beer ($2 off), so I started with the Rogue Hazelnut Brown Nectar, which is an English Brown Ale, and really enjoyed it. It had a great flavor and was really smooth, like a Newcastle, but a lot better. Claire ordered the Hanger 24 Orange Wheat, and absolutely loved it. I am not a huge wheat beer fan, but with the slight taste of orange, I find the beer very enjoyable.

I had perused the menu online, and so knew that I was going to order the Fig Marmalade Burger. The burger is topped with homemade fig marmalade, melted goat cheese, crispy bacon, chopped tomato and onion, arugula and a spicy porter mustard sauce.

The burger arrived a really nice medium rare, which is how I ordered it. The bun was soft yet did not fall apart. The fig marmalade added a great sweetness to the burger. Occasionally I would taste the goat cheese and the brightness it yielded to the burger. The bacon added a great texture contrast and saltiness to the burger. A couple bites into my burger I had to reach for a menu to remind myself all that was on the burger because the dominant flavor on the burger was the spicy mustard sauce. The mustard was great, but it seemed to overpower the other parts of the burger, the parts I was actually most excited about. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the burger, but I think the burger would have been that much more special without the mustard sauce.

Claire ordered the Turkey Cobb Burger (I unfortunately did not get a picture of her burger).  The turkey patty is topped with all the workings of a traditional Cobb salad – bacon, lettuce, tomato, avocado, and blue cheese. However, her burger, like mine, was also topped with the spicy porter mustard sauce, which again dominated the flavors of the burger.

Every burger comes with handcut potato fries, which I found good, but again not great, as they were not crispy enough. I wonder if they single fry their fries, like In-N-Out. So if you like In-N-Out fries, I think you will like these. Claire opted for the sweet potato fries, which are $1.25 extra, and they are quite tasty. The fries are glazed in honey and cinnamon. I especially loved the cinnamon flavor, as it balanced the sweetness of the fries.

The best part of it all was just being outside the house. Claire and I are natural home bodies who need quietness especially with all that is going on in both of our lives. Not to mention that we have been trying desperately to save money. But on Thursday night it was great just to connect over a dinner out. Every now and then we need a change of scenery, and Eureka!Burger provided just that for Claire and me.