Saturday, October 29, 2011

German Chocolate Cake

I don't make cakes just to make cakes.  Although I would love to wake up every Saturday and make a cake, letting it sit prettily upon my countertop, an open invitation promising hospitality to all who come near my kitchen, my sense of responsibility towards the health of my family prevails and cake becomes an occasional treat while a bowl of apples harvested from my generous neighbor's fruit-laden tree sits on the counter.

I read about a word association study once, where researchers asked Americans what they thought when the heard the words "chocolate cake."  The most common response was one of guilt.  The researchers asked French citizens the same question on chocolate cake, and the common response was one of celebration.

I'm with the French response on this one.  Cake is not an everyday, even an every week food, as much as those frequent office parties with those terrible supermarket cakes like you to think otherwise. The idea of snack cake, something my grandmother would often make, keeping extra pieces of that frostingless sweet (yellow and chocolate cakes) in her chest freezer, does not make a frequent appearance in my household.  Instead, cake is usually reserved for celebration, and when cake comes around, it is something to be relished. I love to make a layer cake on birthdays, flavor of the birthday boy's choosing.  Making a cake from scratch in preparation of a celebration is a joy unto itself.

Kent always wants German chocolate cake with coconut pecan frosting.  It's a funny cake, really; I don't think coconut is considered a traditional German food along with bratwurst and schnitzel.  This combination is undoubtedly a product of the 1950's domestic era of America, when coconut probably became widely available and seemed exotic to home-bound housewives. But it is good.  Really, really good.  And as a nod to that 1950's cooking mentality, I swiped Kent's birthday cake recipe right out of Better Homes and Gardens. You can get the recipe here.

Happy birthday, love.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Harvest Restaurant Mandan

See that handsome fella?  That's my brother.  Smart, sweet...and newly single!  As his big sister, I will commence taking applications for his new girlfriend, as of course they must have my stamp of approval first.  Right bro?  Right?  ...Dude?

Whenever a new restaurant opens in town, there's an audible buzz. "Have you been there yet? What's it like? Is it good? How much does it cost?" During a family gathering last night, some were talking about the new Harvest Brazilian Grill opening on Main Street on Mandan. In case others are wondering the same thing, I was there on opening night, and I'm here to tell you - it's good. Really. Go. Try it. Please.

I've been a big fan of Harvest ever since they opened their original restaurant in Linton. The restaurant in Linton was like a secret treasure, with warmth and surprising elegance in a small rural town (you can read more about the old Linton location here, which has since closed for relocation to Mandan). Zila, a kind, elegant Brazilian woman, found herself in rural North Dakota after her husband took a medical job here and decided to open a restaurant, demonstrating an energy and zest for life that belies her age. Her son Edgar had the idea to add a Brazilian grill to the restaurant and it blossomed into what you'll find today on Main Street in Mandan.

The star attraction is the Brazilian grill.  It runs $30/person, but it's all-you-can-eat meat.  And we're talking top quality meat.  Steaks, chicken, sausage, parmesan pork, even pineapple are all brought to your table on big skewers and sliced off onto your plate.  The servers come around quickly and frequently to refresh your plate and offer different items to try.  If you need a break from the servers, just flip a card on your table to red and they'll stop coming to your table until you flip your card back to green again, indicating you are ready for more.

Of course, there is always room for improvement.  In my personal opinion, the salad bar is just average, I was hoping for more variety there - except for Zila's famous rice and black beans, don't miss those! And making the dining area more inviting will be a work in progress as it's a huge space, different from the cozy warmth I remember from Harvest in Linton (I missed the tablecloths).  But overall, it's new, it's different, it's locally owned - and it's delicious.

Postscript - I returned to Harvest for dinner in December 2011 and it was even better than I remembered.  The restaurant was bustling with customers, the service was smooth, the lighting was dimmer/better, the salad bar had a few upgrades, and the blank walls were filled with some nice prints.  Still $30/person, or you can do a mini version for $25, which is exactly the same meatastic experience except you don't get a couple of the red meats.  I had the mini version, my husband had the full version, and frankly, I didn't notice a difference. So glad to see fresh, innovative restaurants filling downtown Bismarck-Mandan!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Gun Cart

I guess I should be upset that my husband converted our child's stroller into a gun cart to use at the shooting range.  But I'm ok with it.  Hey, at least it's recycling.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Moscow Bar

See the woman in the picture? Her name is Victoria and she is a Russian ballerina, straight out of the Nutcracker or Swan Lake, or Black Swan, except without any of Natalie Portman's psychosis. Victoria has opened a bar in Mandan called Moscow Bar and it's such an interesting contrast that I wrote an article about it for a local paper, but I like the story so much, I'm reprinting it here.

I had no idea when I sat down to interview Victoria about her business that she was a ballerina. I guess I should've had a hunch, with her teeny-tiny physique and excellent posture. We ended up talking about ballet for two hours.  She is so obviously devoted to the art, her whole heart and soul involved in dance, her eyes gazing wistfully at the carefully-saved newspaper clippings, flyers and posters promoting her performances, all with glowing reviews.

To be honest, I'm still not completely clear why she decided to open a bar.  I don't know if she really knows herself. A recent car accident slowed her down from dancing, and after spending a lifetime in dance, how could you not have some longing for the stage?

(Article reprinted from The Prairie Independent, October 2011)

“Russian-born Victoria Luchkina, who danced the role of swan princess Odette (in “Swan Lake”), performed in a way that was anything but human…. She was poignantly beautiful from the moment she bounded onto the stage. Dressed in a white tutu adorned with feathers, Ms. Luchkina used her round, soulful eyes to her advantage – it was with a look of heart-stopping sadness, as if she had given herself to the fate of being a swan for all eternity, that she glided around the lake scene…”   - Santa Barbara News-Press, October 14, 2008

Victoria Luchkina, owner of Moscow Bar in Mandan, walks in the bar with her arms full of papers. A tiny wisp of a woman with large doe eyes filling her small face, she smiles brightly and is eager to tell me about herself and how she arrived in North Dakota.  “These papers will help me tell my story,” she explains in a soft voice with a thick Russian accent, spreading out articles, posters and pictures from the ballet. As we sat down on one of the leather couches in the bar, sipping coffee, little did I know that not only was I talking to the owner of Moscow Bar; I was also sitting next to a prima ballerina.

Moscow Bar is Mandan’s newest nightspot, located on Main Street and drawing a young crowd with its techno dubstep music and fruit concoctions such as strawberry shots and drinks served in pineapples. “We tried coconuts too, but they were a pain to open,” says Luchkina’s partner and bartender Tema Bold, laughing.  The walls are lined with a brick-like fa├žade to represent the walls of the Kremlin in Moscow’s Red Square and a dance floor by the DJ booth invites guests to let loose.

Opened in March 2011, Moscow Bar is Luchkina’s first venture into the bar business. “If I do something, I don’t just do it 100 percent; I do it 200 percent,” she says. “I like to make people happy. I’m just trying to do the best I can, do the maximum good.”

Her determination to always do her best is rooted in her disciplined childhood.  Born in Kazakhstan in what was then part of the Soviet Union, Luchkina’s mother sent her away to ballet school at the age of 9. “My mother didn’t want me to work in a factory,” says Luchkina. “She wanted something better for me and sent me to be a ballerina.” Her training in ballet was strict and intense, starting each day at 8 am and sometimes not ending until 8 pm. “The school was hard and sometimes I didn’t want to do it,” Luchkina admits. “But my mom encouraged me to keep going.”

And keep going she did, all the way to principal dancer with the Grigorovich Theatre Ballet in Russia, under director Yuri Grigorovich, former director of the celebrated Bolshoi Ballet. “I love ballet. I love the culture of ballet, the classical music. It’s where my heart is,” she says.

Luchkina made her way to North Dakota via California, where she danced with the State Street Ballet in Santa Barbara. There she met Tema Bold, also a professional, classically-trained ballet dancer who had spent time teaching at Let’s Dance Studio in Bismarck. When Bold got an offer to return to Bismarck to teach, he asked Luchkina to come with. “He told me North Dakota is a nice place with good families who have lots and lots of kids. I wanted to have a family too!” she says with a big smile. “The people here make this place beautiful.”

After opening and later closing Victoria’s Dance Studio in Hazen, Luchkina decided to open Moscow Bar. “I think this work will make me stronger,” she says thoughtfully. “It is hard work, and sometimes you feel like…” Here Victoria struggles to come up with the word in English and speaks to Tema in Russian, asking for a translation.  “…sometimes you feel like a blind kitten, that’s it, but life and time are the best teachers. I’m very, very grateful for all the people that have helped me here.”

Ballet will always be a major part of Luchkina’s life, as she feels the dance has given her so much, and she dreams of someday opening a beautiful theater or producing a full-scale professional ballet in North Dakota. “I want to do something for the (ballet) culture in return,” she says. 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Apple Frangipane Galette

Meet my breakfast this week.  And my after-work snack. And my 10:30 pm oh-just-a-bite-won't-hurt nibble. I literally could not stay away from this thing, but why would I want to? Fat, schmat, I'm here to enjoy life while I've got it, buttery galette and all.

So let's dissect the name of this thing, shall we?  Apple - you got that. The oft-cited forbidden fruit of Eden, the modern symbol of knowledge, technology and mid-to-late 20th century British rock, the apple my eye. Frangipane is a sweet, buttery almond paste - think marzipan, but with a stick of butter mixed in. You'll wonder how you made it this far in life without it. And galette is a fancy French word for tart.

Now that we know what this is, let me tell you why you need to make this right now.  Now.  Right now.

1. It's apple season. It's been unseasonally warm here for early October, and usually we'd wait for a good hard frost before harvesting apples, but I've been picking apples from our backyard tree and the neighbor's tree (with their permission, of course) for the past couple weeks.  I just can't resist, and for baking, I actually like apples on the tart side.

2. Despite the long recipe, this is easy-peasy to make.  You can make the frangipane and the dough in advance, both made with just a quick spin in the food processor. When you're ready to bake, just roll the dough out (this dough is amazingly easy to work with), spread the frangipane over the top, spread the apples over, drizzle with butter, sprinkle with sugar, and bake.

3. This galette is a multi-tasker.  It's sweet enough for dessert, but not too sweet for breakfast. I am not above eating this for lunch and/or dinner, too, but that's coming from a woman who happily eats oatmeal for dinner. And although it's best the day it is made, the frangipane does a good job keeping the apple moisture away from the pastry, so the bottom doesn't get soggy, even on day 2.

4. Perhaps the most important reason of all: if you make this, you'll invite me over for a slice, right?

Apple Frangipane Galette
From Ready for Dessert by David Lebovitz - LOVE him! Check out his blog. The only mystery ingredient here is almond paste. You'll find it in the baking aisle at your local supermarket. 

4 ounces almond paste, crumbled
1 1/2 tsp. sugar
1 1/2 tsp. all-purpose flour
1/8 tsp. almond extract
6 Tbls. unsalted or salted butter, at room temperature
1 large egg, at room temperature

In a food processor, mix together almond paste, sugar, flour, and almond extract until almond paste is in fine pieces. Add butter and mix until completely incorporated, then add egg and continue mixing until frangipane is as smooth as possible. Don’t worry if there are a few tiny bits of almond paste; they’ll disappear with baking.

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tbls. sugar
1/2 cup butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces and chilled
About 1/3 cup ice water

In a food processor, mix together the flour, sugar, and salt. Add butter pieces and process until the butter is evenly distributed but still in large, visible pieces. Add the ice water all at once to the flour and butter. Mix the dough just until it begins to come together (be especially careful not to overmix the dough). Gather the dough with your hands -- don't worry if you see streaks of butter -- and shape it into a disk. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. (Recipe can be doubled, storing extra disk in freezer for up to a month.)

6 medium apples
2 Tbls. unsalted or salted butter, melted
4 Tbls. sugar

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Peel, core, and cut the apples into 1/2-inch (1.5-cm) slices. Lightly flour a work surface and roll out the dough into a circle about 14 inches (36 cm) in diameter. Transfer it to the prepared baking sheet.

Smear the frangipane over the dough, leaving a 2-inch (5-cm) border. Arrange the apple slices in concentric circles over the frangipane, or simply scatter them in an even layer. Fold the border of the dough over the apples and brush the crust with some of the melted butter, then lightly brush or dribble the rest of the butter over the apples. Sprinkle half of the sugar over the crust, and the remaining half over the apples. Bake the galette until the apples are tender and the crust has browned, about 1 hour. Slide the galette off the parchment paper and onto a wire rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Storage: The frangipane can be made up to a week in advance and refrigerated. The dough can be made up to 3 days in advance and refrigerated. The tart should be served the day it’s baked.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Crusted Squash Wedges

Today we went to Papa's Pumpkin Patch, a fun family outing in Bismarck-Mandan with hay bale mazes, zip lines, slides, pony rides, a cute little train for kids and, yes, plenty of pumpkins for the pickin'.  We go every year, but this year I was pleasantly surprised to walk in and see this:

Squash. I don't remember Papa's having anything other than pumpkins and maybe a few decorative crooknecks in years past. Maybe I can stretch my memory and recall a few butternuts in the mix, but then again, in years past I was a bit more preoccupied navigating the place with the infant version of Ben, trying to get a half-decent picture of my little one.

This time, while toddler Ben played happily with dad in the hay bale maze, I got a chance to pursue these gorgeous gourds and imagine the possibilities. Spaghetti squash, butternut squash, acorn squash, hubbard squash, even ones I hadn't heard of before like the red-and-green-splattered turban squash.  Beauty.

In autumn, I think we can all agree that pumpkin is king.  Jack-o-lanterns, pumpkin pie, pumpkin seeds, pumpkin cake.  But in reality, when it comes to eating, pumpkin isn't the best of the bunch. I've read good things about sugar pumpkins, but they aren't easy to come by in these parts, where most use whole pumpkins exclusively for decoration. Plus, pumpkin is a pain to work with. I've tried many-a-time to process a pumpkin into pulp, and am sorry to say, I'll take a can of Libby's any day instead of going through that ordeal again.

But butternut squash, be still my heart, I declare butternut queen of the winter squashlings. That sweet, soft orange filling is something I wait all year to enjoy. I roast it, I puree it, I chop it and throw it into pasta or risotto, but whenever I work with it, shooting from the hip in the kitchen, it's always something rich in butter or cream and often sweetened with a hefty dose of brown sugar.  This recipe was a refreshing change: olive oil, lemon and a ton of herbs coating the squash created an entirely different experience.  And I'm guessing this would work pretty darn well with most of those other squash lovelies available at Papa's, too.

Crusted Squash Wedges
Adapted from Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi

1 and 1/2 lbs butternut squash (skin on)
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
3 Tbls dried white bread crumbs
6 Tbls. finely chopped parsley
2 tsp. finely chopped thyme
Grated zest of 1 lemon
2 garlic cloves, crushed and roughly chopped
Salt and pepper
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup sour cream
1 Tbls. chopped dill

Preheat over to 375 degress. Cut the squash into 1/2" thick slices and lay them flat on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

In a small bowl mix Parmesan, bread crumbs, parsley, thyme, lemon zest, garlic, a pinch of salt and some pepper.

Brush squash generously with olive oil and sprinkle with crust mix, covering thickly. Gently pat the mix down, but don't expect it to stick to the slices. Place the pan in the oven and roast 30 min or until tender.  If the topping is getting too dark, cover loosely with tin foil during cooking.

Mix sour cream with dill and some salt and pepper. Serve wedges warm with sour cream on the side.