Friday, December 28, 2007

Two People and Half a Cow

Now there are about 1001 things I love about living in this city, but I have to say the best is living just around the corner from Murray's Cheese and from two of the city's best butcher shops - Faicco's and Florence Meat Market.

Faicco's on Bleecker is not unlike stepping into a butcher shop in Italy, complete with flirtatious Italian men behind the counter who act like they'd slice up their co worker up for you if you asked them to.

Florence is even more old world, or old school - so tiny you can barely squeeze yourself past the chopping block by the front door. Plus there's sawdust on the floor to make it even more of an experience.

Going there on Christmas Eve to pick up my Prime Rib, I got a little emotional. I was the youngest person in there by about thirty years and I got the distinct impression that the other customers had been going there for at least that long. People were coming in left and right handing the owner and two ladies behind the counter bottles of Christmas wine and liquor wrapped in festive ribbons. While I waited, I studied the many newspaper articles and awards on the wall behind me. Apparently they shipped their prime rib all over the world. And I was lucky enough to just walk a block to pick one up.

But back to the beef. Let's get something straight. On the phone, I had asked them for the smallest Prime Rib roast I could get (it was just for Kris and I) that would still be considered a roast. "No problem," they'd said. We'll have a nice two rib roast for you."

Well, as I stood there waiting for my petite two ribber, I noticed one of the butchers wrapping up what was no less than half of a small cow with butcher paper. "Wow," I thought to myself. "That's a lot of meat."

Imagine my surprise when they handed it over to me, along with the price written write on it - $82. The whole staff beamed proudly and expectedly at me, and in a very Seinfeld moment, I handed over my credit card and paid then ducked out the door, too embarrased to protest the size and price, with them still smiling excitedly at me.

Kris wasn't too thrilled about our new 'investment', but it was Christmas so by default he wasn't allowed to say anything.

On Christmas day, I set out 'the cow' on my new butcher block (thanks dad!) to come to room temperature. After the turkey debacle on Thanksgiving, nothing was going to ruin this wonderful, once a year holiday treat.

Meanwhile, I made up the marinade. I had researched about 400 rubs and marinades for Prime Rib - from the kosher salt crust you break off before eating to the traditional horseradish and garlic to the simplest (and some say the best) salt and pepper. I went with none and all of them, creating my own. And since I don't usually measure as I cook, here's what I recall it being to the best of my knowledge:

Alisa's Cow Rub:

2 cloves garlic, chopped and smashed to a pasty constistency
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
1 1/2 tsps sugar
1 tsp hot English dry mustard (Coleman's)
2 1/2 tablespoons whole grain mustard
1 tspn prepared horseradish
1 very large (nearly small onion sized) shallot, minced (my guess is 3 tablespoons, give our take)
3-4 tablespoons olive oil (enough to make a spreadable mixture of it all but not too much that it won't stick to meat)
few grounds of fresh cracked pepper

Smear mixture ALL over prime rib, including bones and fat, nooks and crannies.

Allow meat to 'marinate' at least one hour with its new dress clothes on (if longer just stick it in fridge removing at least one hour before roasting again.)

Now it was time to roast this mythical, massive thing. The marinade smelled so good it had already filled up the whole house with a sweet yet savory rosemary perfume. All I had to do was salt it by liberally sprinkling a tablespoon and a half of kosher over my former farm resident.

I put it in the oven and let it go for twenty minutes at at 425 then reduced it to 350 for an hour and checked it. Though the crust was lovely and golden, it was still pretty much rare flesh internally at that point so I put it back in for another 45 minutes, until the outer pieces were medium and the inner medium rare (I understand cooking any part of a prime rib to medium makes us unworthy of eating prime rib in some circles, but at $82, we were going to eat it any damn way we pleased.)

Finally, I pulled it out and let it rest for twenty minutes while I sauteed my blanched asparagus and re-heated my roast potatoes (which will be featured in another post.)

At last we set down to eat. I'm not sure if it was the marinade or the cut of beef or both, but Lordie oh Lordie this was the most incredible Prime Rib ever.

Merry Christmas indeed.

A Freezer Full of Cookies and Cakes

I have been putting off writing this for two reasons. One - sheer laziness. And two - I've been waiting on my chocolate Kahlua fruitcakes to 'marinate' for the proper amount of time to test them. I know, I know "fruitcakes - horror!" But more about them later.

I began my baking this year a hair later than I'd planned - last Wednesday morning to be exact. Our cable had gone out in one TV and in order to stay happily married throughout the holidays, Kris spent a total of about nine hours (I wish I were kidding) on the phone with Time Warner to get someone out here to fix it (we also wasted an entire day waiting on a phantom cable guy who never arrived but that's another story.)

So, in day two of waiting for the cable guy, I decided to knock out my baking. Shortly after whisking together my first batch of the season - five mini chocolate Kahlua fruitcakes - I remembered there would be no 'knocking out' at all. My oven, the size of most children's play ovens, was only going to be able to handle one sheet of cookies at a time. This was going to be fun.

But back to the fruitcake. What in God's name inspired me to make fruitcake, you ask? Well, it was chocolate for one thing and destined for a bath in Kahlua straight after being removed from the oven. I was intrigued, maybe even a little cocky about the whole thing, thinking that I was going to be the one to make the world's first actually good tasting fruitcake. I only strayed from the Southern Living recipe a little. Instead of pitted dates, I used dried cranberries. Otherwise I was faithful - using the suggested chopped pecans and apricots.

I have to admit, these smelled so good coming out of the oven, I broke down and sliced into one. Holy Lord, it was good. Kind of like a brownie cake with the nice tang of the cranberries to balance out the chocolatiness. Emboldened, I decided to try a slice on Kris. Now, if I had even mentioned that they had fruit in them, much less the word 'fruitcake', he'd have put his fingers to his chest in the shape of the cross to ward himself from whatever evil spirit had possessed me. So instead, I simply offered him a slice of 'cake.' He liked it, making only a small grumble about the apricots. I was onto something.

Now onto part two - the Kahlua bath. I was supposed to dip a pastry brush in Kahlua and brush the tops generously while the cakes cooled, then wrap and refrigerate them, brushing them with Kahlua once a week for up to a month. I felt slightly bad putting these gorgeous things through a veritable fraternity hazing and at the last minue yanked one aside to freeze just the way it was (i.e. sober.) The rest got a nice alcoholic shower and off to the fridge they went.

Next on my baking list were a holiday twist on chocolate chip cookies. The batter had a tablespoon of cinnamon added to it along with a cup of dried cranberries and a cup and a half of dark chocolate chips (my own addition.) I have to say, these were the cookies I was least excited about baking, but they ended up being the dark horse of the bunch. We couldn't stay away from them. The cinnamon is barely detectable if at all on the tongue, they have a nice chewy texture from the oats, and the dark chocolate makes best friends with the cranberries in every bite. We each ate one for our breakfast the rest of the week (I'd take these over biscotti with my coffee any day.)

Next we got a little fancy pants. Chewy chocolate chip ginger cookies. I had had these years ago (a Martha Stewart recipe) when a girlfriend who wasn't such a girlfriend after all had made them for a party of mine (she was bizarely Natzi-ish about the recipe and it was years before I stumbled upon it myself in of all places,!)

Then we got a little exotic, if not out of season, with a citrusy sugar cookie, also of Martha origin. These were actually my personal favorite as far as treats go, but by the time these babies were born I was 'cookied' out.

By now I was on day two of the baking process (evening two, to be exact) and because of the slow going of my oven, we hadn't even made it to the post office yet to mail them. It would have to be Friday morning, Lord help us.

The next day Kris, love him, headed off early to our local post to gather priority boxes while I filled out cards to the intended recipients. He came back within moments, his mouth in a grim vertical line. The post was 'temporarily closed' in a sort of sick and twisted joke on holiday goers. We'd have to hoof it, cookies and cakes in toe to the one all the way over on Sixth Ave. Kris, in a flash of rational yet self preserving common sense, suggested we forget the whole thing. "NEVER!" I replied scaring him with the whites of my eyes and a spark of estrogen that instantly raised the temperature in our apartment by at least ten degrees.

We packed up the cards and pastries and hoofed it over to the post. Only, in classic Village style, it wasn't exactly where we read it'd be, and we had to ask some locals where the hell it was, lowering our heads in shame as we did so. Finally, we were there. In another Village moment, our local midget cracked a joke at me as we popped in the line that went out the door. "Maybe save it for next year at this point, eh?" he said. Ha! Funny!... I sent Kris to get the priority boxes while I checked addresses and zip codes. He came back less than a second later - the same vertical line down his face.

They were out of priority boxes. We'd have to upgrade, which meant at least $30 a pop. Holy Lord - he and the midget had been right. It was time to pack it in. We headed home and sent the precious bundles to the freezer.

Now, any normal person would have had enough of the whole baking thing for a while. Not me. There was one (okay, two) recipes I was still dying to test out. The first, a vanilla bean loaf cake, again from Southern Living and the second, a dark chocolate pudding from Nigella Lawson.

First - the vanilla bean cake. The recipe said to marinate the sugar overnight with a scraped vanilla bean (with the seeds and pod itself.) I wasn't that patient so I split the difference, marinating the sugar for four hours and adding a splash of vanilla extract. I also decided to make little mini loaves instead of one giant one so Kris and I could pull one out of the freezer for a Saturday breakfast of a Saturday night trifle.

They were embarassingly easy to make, and I couldn't help thinking that as they baked filling up the apartment (and even building) with such a tempting, luscious buttery vanilla scent, that they actually reminded me of being a little girl again, dazzled by the smells my mother could produce from a couple of sticks of butter, flour and sugar. Then it hit me - these were the adult version of a child's fantastical, awe inspired love of all things sweet and homemade. Their intense (albeit expensive) vanilla bean laced base batter pricked the grown up senses the way a simple cake mix awakened a child's senses. They tasted even more lovely with such a delicate yet buttery crumb, I might even make them my signature cupcake recipe. Kris pointed out another bonus - the beans gave them a teeny tiny crunch in each bite - remniscent of my childhood favorite ice cream - Blue Bell's vanilla bean.

Now for the final report on the chocolate Kahlua fruitcakes. I pulled them from the fridge yesterday, alarmed that they weighed at least as much as my biggest purse (a frightening thought for such tiny little loaves. Their weight had at least doubled since their alchoholic binge!)

I was excited - there was no way these babies wouldn't be good. They'd been super yummy coming out of the oven, and they'd had Kahlua poured on them twice since then! How could they be bad?

I took a bite. My mouth went slack, not knowing what to do with it. It was dry, yet sticky at the same time. I tried chewing, thinking that would wake up the flavors. It only made me want to spit it out. The only thing that seemed to have plumped from the liquor was the fruit, and in a bad way. They were the only tender morsels left amidst the now dry, papery cake. A terrible, horrifyingly familiar thought struck me - FRUIT CAKE!

I threw the loaves away, right then and there, so depressed I hadn't just enjoyed them fresh from the oven when they were good.

So there you go. The verdict on the chocolate kahlua cakes is - they make a good 'fruitcake', as long as you skip the whole hazing and aging process. But for my money, I'd stick with what you like baking the best at the holidays. And my vanilla bean cakes.