forget cake. let’s eat steak!

Forget cake. Let’s eat steak!

If I had to pick one last meal, I would have my dad cook me a steak.  His treatment is simple and, for him, fool proof. When I was a kid I remember him making it in the oven under the broiler and only venturing to the charcoal grill during nice weather. Nowadays he’s got a big gas grill out back that I think he uses year-round.

Being a Manhattanite, I’m limited to the oven. And until I read an article in the New York Times some years ago and discovered Mark Bittman (How to Cook Everything), I had been unable to duplicate Daddy’s perfectly charred-on-the-outside, pink (or bleeding!) on the inside results. (Keep in mind, my dad would probably throw a person out of his house if they asked for a well-done steak. He spent part of his childhood in France and used to eat something they call “Bleu” for blue. As I understand it, this is a hunk of meat just barely warmed on the outside, so rare you can still see any blue stamp of quality approval certifying the meat passed inspection.)

Anyway, I digress. As I recall, my attempts at cooking steak in my 20s fell flat in comparison to Daddy’s. I now realize I never got the timing right, and probably steamed or baked the meat rather than broiling it. My pan wasn’t hot enough and the surface of the meat never dry enough.  Plus there’s the whole matter of choosing the right cut. For pan-seared steak, I personally like a bone-in ribeye because the bone helps retain flavor and moisture and the extra fat imparts flavor as well, but this recipe would work just as well for a T-bone, porterhouse, filet or New York strip. Flank steaks and some other cuts are better off being marinaded to tenderize them.

On to the recipe. (Note, for a little extra guidance, google “New York Times steak cast iron recipe.” You’ll find a few options that may clarify the thinking here. In my experience, trying about three times taught me how to work perfectly with my own oven.)

Lightly oil a cast-iron skillet. Put it on your top oven rack and crank the temp up to broil.

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As the pan heats, unwrap the steaks and THOROUGHLY pat them dry on both sides using a paper towel. Make sure to sop up any liquid that accumulates on the surface you’re working on. I like to use a plate rather than a countertop or chopping board so that I can just pop the plate in the dishwasher and not worry about any contamination on my board or counter. When I was younger, I used to rinse all meat under running water before I cooked it, but then a pro told me that was pointless since any bacteria on the surface of the meat would be killed in cooking and anything inside won’t be helped by water on the outside. Really, splashing all that water around just creates the possibility of spreading bacteria around your sink.

The important part about patting the meat dry is to get rid of any surface moisture that would prevent the exterior from essentially carmelizing, meaning getting a nice char on beef or pork, or crispy skin on chicken.

Next, I stab the steak all over with a fork to tenderize it. (Honestly, I don’t even know if Daddy still does this, or if it works, but he used to do it and I always have. Now that I think about it, I wonder if creating the holes might actually release juices during cooking, which would be bad. Must investigate!)

Apply small smears of butter to both sides, as well as AMPLE salt and pepper. Under-seasoning is big mistake here. And here’s a thought I just had. Traditionally I have splashed the meat with liquid smoke, but I just realized as I typed – BAM! – that this adds moisture and may impede charring. Must eliminate and see what happens. In any case, I do recommend a sprinkle of lemon pepper for added flavor. Again, full coverage of all seasonings on BOTH SIDES of the steak. (Okay, maaaaybe I went a little overboard with the butter here.)

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Now, the pan that has been heating in the oven should be smokin’ hot. Don’t add the steak before the oven reaches broil!

Then quickly open the door, slide the pan out and lay the steak in the pan, being careful not to splash yourself with the oil. Quickly slide the pan back in and close the door.

Here’s the tricky part. This really depends on your oven and the thickness of the steak. Bittman calls for three to four minutes per side. In my experience, the steak needs to be a little more than an inch thick for this to work. SET A TIMER! Don’ t estimate!

A novice won’t usually be able to detect perfect doneness without cutting into the steak, but please make only a tiny cut with the tip of a knife to keep too many juices from seeping out. Otherwise let the meat rest for five minutes before cutting to seal in the juices and maintain moisture. Et Voila:

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lovin’ me some biscuits

or will they be hockey pucks???

Here’s the thing about me and biscuits: Like any good Southerner — yes, this thoroughly indoctrinated Manhattanite is a Southerner by birth —  Like any good Southerner, I love me some biscuits. But I also hate them. I hate them because I’ve never mastered the art of making them. So what better place to embark on my quest for biscuit perfection that to throw down in front of y’all and see if I can’t overcome this most embarrassing handicap.  (I know, I know, keep the ingredients cold and don’t overwork the dough. But mine STILL turn out like hockey pucks! Every. Last. Time.)

Daddy makes terrific buttermilk biscuits and my friend Michael – my cake baking advisor from last week’s post – has revived my envy of the skill. Year after year, weekend after weekend at a little piece of paradise in Upstate New York, Michael makes biscuits that leave me in awe. Although he has encouraged me many times, I don’t dare touch the dough lest my hockey-puck curse take hold in his kitchen.  So Michael mixes and rolls and bakes and I watch and gobble up a little more than my share of the biscuit bounty.

Now it’s time for me to try. Again. So this past weekend, my sweetie amassed this collection:

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And proceeded to try and teach me. A WORD ABOUT THIS RECIPE: IT’S GOOD, BUT IMPERFECT. I have a call in to Michael for some extra tips and thought I’d peruse some other recipes this week to try a variation or two this weekend. So there’s more biscuit intel to come.

Here’s an excellent first start:

Preheat oven to 450 degrees

Use these ratios:

2 cups flour to 1 cup buttermilk
6 tbsp butter to 1 tbsp baking soda
1 tsp salt to ½ tsp baking powder

Sift the flour and combine the other dry ingredients into a large bowl. Stir with a fork. Cut the very cold butter into chunks about the size of a square centimeter, being careful to keep it cold. Pop it back into the refrigerator if necessary. Better yet (I just thought of this) maybe cut it into cubes the night before and put it back in the fridge. Add the butter to the flour mixture and lightly combine with a fork so it looks like this:

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Use the fork to mash the butter thoroughly into the flour until the pieces look like the size of small canned peas (not to be confused with big, plump FRESH peas.) Using the fork keeps the mixture cooler than mixing it with warm hands would allow. When finished, it should look like this:

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Next, add the buttermilk in a stream while stirring until just combined into a dough that’s slightly on the wet side. Add a little more buttermilk if needed. It should look this way:

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Flour the counter or a cutting board and turn the dough out onto this surface. Turn the dough over just once, until it’s covered lightly with flour. Now this is the part everyone emphasizes: DON’T OVERWORK THE DARN DOUGH!!!  If you do, you’ll get HOCKEY PUCKS!

So my sweetie’s trick is to do only this: press the dough into a disk about 6 inches around:

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Then trifold it, folding 1/3 of the disk into the center, then the other 1/3 over that. Turn it over, press out into a disk about 6 inches again and repeat the 1/3 fold-over five times and STOP! Press the dough out until it’s about ¾ inch thick and use the rim of a glass or an empty can with the lid cut off to cut out the biscuit rounds. It helps to dip the rim of the glass in water, periodically wiping the rim of clumping dough.

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Butter a cookie sheet, keeping in mind that a true cookie sheet is flat at the edges, allowing air to circulate better around the base of whatever you are cooking. This is not to be confused with a sheet pan that has ridges all the way around, but a sheet pan will do in a pinch. Arrange the biscuits on the pan. We experimented here, positioning some together and some apart from one another and found those with distance between them rose more. Here are the final results:

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Definitely not hockey pucks. And better yet:

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So here’s the thing. I never actually TOUCHED this dough. This was a lesson, and an overall success. I’m curious to hear and read what others think about using Crisco rather than butter. There was also something just a little tiny bit dry about these to me, maybe just a tad too much baking soda. Thoughts? So this week I’m reading up, gathering advice from my Daddy, my pal Mikey and my friend Dolores. Then it’s time to take what I learn and get my hands dirty again, or doughy, as the case may be.

Stay tuned!

let him eat cake

My neighbor Doug expressed a titch of shock when I made the following confession: I’ve never made a cake from scratch before. Well, before last weekend, that is. Let me explain. I do cook. I’m told I even do it pretty well. But generally when I’m looking for a kitchen challenge my thoughts wander to savory sauces and hunks of meat. Maybe a creamy gratin. I like dessert, mind you. I’d just rather grab a cupcake from Magnolia Café than wait two hours to eat one I made myself. And they’re cheap. A cupcake costs about $2.50, but the rib-eye I plan to order this week at Quality Meats is $48. MUCH cheaper to make it myself.

But I digress. The topic is cake. Specifically this cake:

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I’ve been staring at this baby on the back of my Barefoot Contessa Cookbook for YEARS. So when a special guy said the only thing he wanted for his birthday was homemade cake, I knew exactly where I was headed. What I didn’t know was that it would take SEVEN HOURS to produce. That’s right. Started at noon. Wrapped up at 7 p.m. Now, to be fair, I did busy myself with chores while the cake baked and maybe blew off another half hour somewhere, but basically, undertaking a new recipe from the unfamiliar land of baking just took me a REALLY LONG TIME.

First I sifted dry ingredients (flour, cocoa, salt and baking soda.) Then came creaming the butter with the eggs. Whoops. Butter not warm enough to cream. The recipe calls for room-temperature butter, eggs, buttermilk and sour cream. I set the eggs out the night before, but didn’t have enough butter in the house, so I had to run to the store in the morning. Stores, you may have noticed, keep their butter cold. I waited about an hour after getting it home, but it needed longer. I wasn’t worried since no chemical reactions were at issue in the creaming process, so I figured it was fine to let the bowl of lumpy butter and sugar sit. It looked like this:

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So I waited. I gathered frosting ingredients. I changed my vacuum bag. I called my baking-crazed friend Michael for reassurance. “Beat the heck out of it,” he advised. Done:

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Then it was on to combining the wet and dry ingredients. Here the Contessa is very specific. Combine the ingredients only 1/3 at a time, starting with the liquid ingredients and ending with the dry. This proved a little awkward for some reason. More time passed. It was at about this point that I realized why people buy stand mixers. I was using a little hand-held Sunbeam from about 1993. I don’t even remember why I bought it.

Anyway, the batter went in the pans and the pans went in the oven. (BTW, when I went to my cabinets I discovered I had two nine-inch cake pans but only one eight-inch pan. Doug across the hall loaned me his. I love my building!)

While Michael had urged me to let the cake cool, then wrap them in plastic and refrigerate for as long as possible (one to eight hours) to ensure smooth icing, my guy was pretty anxious for his cake by this time.

Icing was quite interesting. We started by making a meringue that I’m not convinced ever set up as it should. Then I added melted chocolate, a mix of bittersweet and semisweet. Lots and lots of icing resulted. Like this:

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Which required this much butter:

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But it ended up like this:

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And this:

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Personally I like a high icing-to-cake ratio, but I noticed my birthday boy left spoonfuls of icing on his plate after every serving. Something to keep in mind. The cake was very dense and the icing very light, despite all that butter. A great recipe over all. Never a doubt when you’re following the Contessa.

I’m not sure of the legalities of posting other people’s recipes, so I’ll just reiterate that this cake is from the “Barefoot Contessa Cookbook,” which I think was Ina Garten’s first. See page 195. Conclusion? The Contessa got her toes all in that cake and it was DELICIOUS!

Thanks for reading!