Thursday, May 29, 2014

Savory Bread Pudding with Warm Tomato Jam

Bookstores are places I can spend hours. There is something about being able to wander through the various sections of a bookstore, picking up and leafing through books, that feels soul soothing. One of my most favorite bookstores closed several years ago, but I am still mourning its' loss. Borders Books had a feel, a kind of magnetic pull to it, I have yet to find in any other bookstore, large or small. Although the Boulder Bookstore on Pearl Street in Colorado has an ambiance I find incredibly compelling, it is a thousand miles from where I live, so it feels as inaccessible as Borders.

Whenever I have purchased a book, I usually stick the receipt in it. Not only does it serve as a temporary bookmark, it also tells a story or evokes a memory. When I opened up the cookbook Harvest to Heat: Cooking with America's Best Chefs, Farmers and Artisans, the date on the receipt was New Year's Day in 2011. I guess I celebrated the new year by hanging out in a bookstore (I am not a day after New Year's Eve nursing a hangover kind of girl). But more than three years have passed since I bought this book and I had yet to try out any of the recipes. As I re-thumbed through the book, I found myself wanting to make almost everything in it. It had me wondering 'what was I waiting for?'

The epiphany came when I walked into the grocery store and saw a huge table filled with the most beautiful heirloom tomatoes. Immediately I knew exactly which recipe I would make first. However, if you would have told me in 2011 and up until a few days ago that I would be making a Savory Bread Pudding with Homemade Tomato Jam, I would have looked at you and simply said 'not happening'. If you also told me I would be deboning my own chickens, I would have made the 'you know not to ask that twice face' (but that is a story for another time). For whatever reason, I shifted from being dismissive to actually salivating at the thought of tasting the flavors of both the bread pudding and tomato jam.

In the spirit of full disclosure making the Savory Bread Pudding with Warm Tomato Jam is on the time intensive side. But before you say 'not happening in my world', this is not labor intensive, but cooking and cooling time intensive (not all good things, not all great things come quick and easy). But wait there is a reward for your time. If making for a brunch or serving for dinner, the tomato jam and savory bread pudding could/should be made the day before. On the day of serving all you will have left to do is warm the jam and brown the bread pudding slices in a skillet (which takes only minutes). The reward for your perseverance is that the entire dish is assembled for serving in less than 10 minutes. 

The aroma coming from the tomato jam simmering on the stove was intoxicating. Where have you been all my life tomato jam? Either warm or chilled, it is like nothing I have ever tasted. It is without a doubt one of the easiest jams I have ever made. And if there was ever a case to be made for simplicity, the tomato jam makes it.

The lemons are thinly sliced (seeds removed of course) and one and a half pounds of tomatoes are cut into quarters. Placed in a medium-sized heavy saucepan along with the brown sugar and granulated sugar, these four ingredients are slowly simmered. The transformation of tomatoes, lemon slices, brown sugar, and granulated sugar (along with a half cup of water) takes just a little more than two hours.

This is a bread pudding perfect for breakfast or brunch or dinner. And again, after a little more than two hours, bread, a soft cow's cheese, bacon, milk, whipping cream, eggs, thyme, butter, salt and pepper are transformed in the most incredible savory bread pudding.

Bacon is cooked crisp, a day old loaf of Italian or French bread is cut into large cubes, and the ingredients (milk, cream, eggs, thyme, salt and pepper) combined make the wet mixture. A tablespoon of the bacon fat and four tablespoons of melted butter are mixed in with the bread cubes before the milk/egg mixture is poured over it. After mixing it all together, it sits for two hours. I let it sit (unrefrigerated) for a little more than two hours.

In a 9"x5"buttered loaf pan, the bread mixture, bacon and cheese are layered. After putting the loaf pan in a roasting pan, enough boiling water is poured in so that it comes up to the halfway point of the pan. In a 350 degree preheated oven, the savory bread pudding is baked in the water bath for 1 3/4 - 2 hours or until a knife inserted in the pudding comes out clean. My baking time was closer to 2 hours and I wasn't completely certain it was done when I took it out of the oven. But after allowing the bread pudding to cool completely, all of my fears were allayed.

The cooling time for the savory bread pudding is at least two hours. The longer the cooling time the better and easier it will be to unmold and cut into half-inch slices. And actually I ended up refrigerating the bread pudding which made cutting it into slices even easier (it also allowed the flavors to more fully develop). To serve, half-inch slices are sautéed in a non-stick skillet until each side is slightly crisp/browned and completely warmed through (if you are not using a non-stick skillet, sauté slices a little bit of butter). The tomato jam is warmed up (if it thickens too much add one tablespoon of water at a time) and served alongside or on top of the slices of the bread pudding. Like most bread puddings, it is rich and satisfying comfort food. It is the complete meal (eggs, bacon, bread, and cheese) for brunch/breakfast or the perfect accompaniment (to grilled chicken) for dinner.

The Tomato Jam served warm, however, it is insanely delicious (my word of the month is insane, not the best culinary descriptor, but one of two favorite words at the moment). Any leftover Tomato Jam can be served on toast or a bagel spread first with either cream cheese or ricotta cheese. If you are not ready to take on making both the Savory Bread Pudding and the Tomato Jam, at least take the proverbial baby step and make the Tomato Jam. I am thinking that once you taste the jam, you might just be wondering how it would taste on the Savory Bread Pudding. No whispering 'not happening' under your breath allowed.
Savory Bread Pudding with Warm Tomato Jam (inspired from a recipe created by Matthew Gennuso and Karl Santos and shared in Harvest to Heat: Cooking with America's Best Chefs, Farmers and Artisans)

Bread Pudding
1 pound loaf of day old Italian or French Country Style Bread, crusts removed and cut into large cubes
4 Tablespoons of unsalted butter melted, plus additional for sautéing bread pudding slices if not using a non-stick skillet
1/4 pound smoked bacon, cooked and crumbed, 1 Tablespoon of fat reserved
1 cup heavy whipping cream
3 cups whole milk
3 large eggs
2 egg yolks (from large eggs)
1 1/2 - 2 Tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 pound soft-ripened cow's milk cheese, broken off into small pieces

Homemade Tomato Jam
4 large ripe tomatoes or 4-6 Heirloom tomatoes (or 1 1/2 pounds), cut into quarters (Note: the sizes of heirloom tomatoes vary, so the number of tomatoes needed will be based on weight.)
1 lemon, thinly sliced and seeds removed
1/2 cup water
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar

Bread Pudding
1. Put cubed bread in a large bowl. Toss with melted butter and reserved bacon fat.
2. In a separate bowl, combine milk, cream, eggs, thyme, salt and pepper. Pour mixture over bread cubes and allow to sit for at least 2 but up to 4 hours.
3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and lightly butter a 9"x5" loaf pan. 
4. Using a slotted spoon, place 1/3 of the bread evenly in the bottom of the dish. Layer half of the crumbled bacon and 1/3 of the pieces of cheese. Repeat layers finishing top of pudding with the cheese only.
5. Place loaf pan in a roasting pan, add enough boiling water to the roasting pan so it comes up to the halfway point of loaf pan. Bake for 1 3/4 -2 hours or until a knife inserted in the center of the bread pudding comes out clean.
6. Allow to cool completely. Once cool remove from pan, placing on a large platter, and cut into 1/2 inch slices. 
7. In a heated non-stick skillet cook slices until lightly browned and heated through. Serve with warmed tomato jam on the side. If not using a non-stick skillet, add some butter to the pan before browning them.
Note: Cooled bread pudding can be covered and refrigerated overnight. When ready to serve, unmold from pan, cut into 1/2 inch slices and cook as described above.

Homemade Tomato Jam
1. Place the tomatoes, lemon slices, water, and both sugars in a medium sized heavy saucepan. Set the heat to low (simmer) and cook until liquid has reduced and mixture has thickened. Stir frequently, particularly near the end to ensure the jam does not scorch the bottom of the pan. Note: Cooking time may range from 2 to 3 hours, depending your simmering heat setting.
2. Remove from heat and allow to cool. If not using immediately, put in a covered jar and place in the refrigerator.
3. When getting ready to serve, reheat jam, adding one tablespoon of water at a time if it is too thick.

Haven't we all dug our heels in or whined about something at least once in our lives? If there are any of you who answer that question 'no not ever', I would say you are an outlier (notice I did not call your ability to tell the truth or your ability to honestly self-reflect into question). Have you ever known someone who has dug their heels in or whined about something? Now, I am thinking you are going to answer that question in the affirmative (notice I didn't say I am not surprised). Admittedly, digging in one's heels and whining are not necessarily admirable qualities but it is our reaction to those behaviors that can either help or hinder us (or others) from moving past them as well as moving through them.

Personally there are a few things in my life I have had difficulty processing, getting past, letting go of. So what might take someone a minute, day or week to work through might take me weeks, months, even years. But my friends who know me, know this about me (one of the downsides of being a first born Virgo) as well as understand the phases of grieving don't have a clearly defined time limit. Is there such a thing as too long? I suppose there are many answers to that question. How a friend pushes or helps us to end the whining, see possibility where none could be seen before, or move from being the victim to being the victor, often depends on what they say and what they do. At the end of day we are the only ones who can make those choices about change for ourselves, but we can't always do it alone. Sometimes we need a friend to help us, not to judge us for our less than endearing shortcomings.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Coffee Granita with Whipped Cream

The first time I tasted coffee I was in the fifth grade. After only one sip and as only could be spoken in the kind of pure honesty a 10 year old, I declared I did not like coffee. It would be decades before anything coffee would pass my lips again (this could be a lesson why we should not always let ten year olds make important life decisions as possessing honesty and wisdom are two very different things). Fast forward to a few years ago. I tasted coffee again, only this time it wasn't a hot coffee with milk and sugar, but an iced coffee with extra non-fat (aka skim milk) and one Splenda. And after one sip, let's just say I found it unfathomable I could have waited so long before giving coffee a second chance (sort of). As much as I have a new love and appreciation for iced coffee, I am not yet ready to give 'hot' coffee a second chance. Consider me an outlier, but I still don't understand how anyone can drink 'hot' coffee on 'hot' weather days.

As much as I have not yet gone over to the dark side of 'hot' coffee, I realize not everyone is a fan of iced coffee. And that got me thinking. Remember Venn Diagrams? (this isn't as much of a tangential detour as you might think, so bear with me just a bit longer). They are two overlapping/intersecting circles used to illustrate the similarities, differences and relationships between groups. Could it be possible that in the center of a hot coffee and iced coffee Venn Diagram would be coffee granita? In my world, the answer to this hypothetical, yet somewhat rhetorical question could be 'yes'. Some of you might emphatically say the answer is 'no' because Coffee Granita is not a beverage, but rather a semi-frozen dessert made with coffee, sugar and additional flavorings. Since I am way past the fifth grade where my Venn Diagram answers are no longer subject to the subjectiveness of my English teacher as well as being a self-admitted outlier, I, without hesitation, would put Coffee Granita in the center of the overlapping circles. 

If you have never had a Coffee Granita or even a granita before, well you might just consider not waiting years or even decades before trying it. I seriously believe Coffee Granita with Whipped Cream could become my new summer addiction. Without a doubt, this granita has the potential of becoming as habit forming as that morning morning cup of (hot or iced) coffee.

If simplicity, decluttering, back to basics, downscaling, and minimalism fits your way of life, this granita was made with you in mind. As hard as it is to believe, the coffee granita is made with only four ingredients: freshly brewed (strong) coffee, granulated sugar, vanilla and some additional flavoring (I used Dave's Coffee Syrup in Mocha). If this syrup isn't accessible in a store near where you live (or you feel compelled to make this granita now and cannot wait to order any), you can always use Kahlua or Tia Maria to further enhance the flavor of the granita. The quality of the coffee you use in the making of the granita will matter, so choose your favorite medium, medium-dark, or dark roast variety, the one you indulge yourself in or the one you buy when having guests.

A half-cup of granulated sugar, a teaspoon of vanilla and a teaspoon of the flavoring of your choice are mixed in to two cups of hot freshly, strongly brewed coffee. Stir until the sugar has completely dissolved, then pour into a 9x9 baking pan and place in the freezer  the pan needs to sit flat in the freezer). After an hour, stir the mixture (ice crystals will begin to from) and return to the freezer. Then stir every 30 minutes for at least the next 2 to 3 hours (or longer, depending on the temperature of your freezer). At this point you will have a slushy, icy mixture. Once your granita gets to this consistency, it is ready to serve or you can continue to freeze (no more stirring required) for serving later. Then when you are ready to assemble/serve, use either a fork or spoon to scrape the frozen granita into shavings.

Let me digress to the use of a 9"x9" pan for a bit. Some recipes for granita call for the use of a 9"x12" baking pan, some call for a 9"x5" loaf pan, and some say don't use metal pans only ceramic pans. This would be what I call a 'gray' versus 'black and white' granita making decision. After having granita success with a 9"x9"metal pan, it will be my go-to granita pan but in a pinch, I will leave my pan size options open.

The coffee granita on its own is absolutely delicious, but the combination of the coffee granita with sweetened whipped cream can only be described as insane deliciousness.

Serve the coffee granita in a coffee cup, espresso cup, irish coffee cup, a parfait cup, Pots de Crème cup or any other cup/glass of your choosing. For smaller cups, top the granita with a generous dollop of the sweetened cream. But for larger cups/glasses, create two layers of the granita and sweetened whipped cream (see photo below).

If you love the flavor of coffee, this may be the most perfect warm, perfect hot weather dessert you will ever make. Granita virgins will be wondering why and how they had never tried it before.

Besides being a perfect ending to any meal or just a perfect end of day indulgence, one taste of this coffee granita might be enough to convince 'hot' coffee only drinkers to reconsider 'iced' coffee. But regardless, the coffee granita will make kindred spirits out of both the only hot and only iced coffee drinkers. The Venn Diagram validates this.
Coffee Granita with Whipped Cream (inspired by Ina Garten's Coffee Granita with Sweetened Whipped Cream)

2 cups strongly brewed coffee (recommend Illy coffee or any other high quality medium to dark roast coffee)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon Dave's Mocha Coffee Syrup (or 1 teaspoon of a coffee liqueur such as Kahlua or Tia Maria)
Sweetened Whipping Cream (one cup of heavy whipping cream and 2 tablespoons of confectionary sugar whisked until stiff peaks form)
Optional: Chocolate Espresso Beans

1. Combine hot coffee, sugar, vanilla and additional flavoring stirring until the sugar dissolves.
2. Pour mixture into a 9x9 pan. Place pan on a flat surface in the freezer for one hour. Stir to break up the ice crystals beginning to form and return back to the freezer.
3. Continue to stir the mixture every 30 minutes until the mixture has completely frozen and has a granular appearance (about 2-3 hours). Serve or continue to freeze until ready to serve.
4. Spoon the coffee granita into cups or glasses, topping or layering with sweetened whipped cream. Top each cup/glass with some chocolate covered espresso beans. Serve immediately.

Someone once said to me that I am not aware of all of the things I have bought, saved and collected over the years. Naturally, I vehemently deny this claim and maintain (rather strongly) that if any of these 'things' went missing, I would know. That claim may have been truer before I moved to the east coast for several years, leaving most of things behind in the house in the midwest. This temporary absence somehow managed to give way to an out of sight, out of mind memory rather than the previously committed to memory inventory I prided myself on having. It isn't that my memory is going (not yet anyway), it is possible I have acquired too many things to keep track of, to remember.

The other day when making the coffee granita and deciding on what to serve it in, I rediscovered the antique Mottahedeh Pots de Crème cups I had bought many years back at an estate sale. The thrill of finding a treasure at an antique show, flea market, or estate sale almost pales in comparison to the thrill of refinding it again, this time in your own house. Needless to say, the reassurance of remembering when and where you bought this treasure is enough to make you feel your 'selective' memory is still operational. But just in case anyone wants to test my ability to remember all of those treasures I have bought over the years (being a little competitive I would say game on), I should probably start making more 'permanent' memory space by getting rid of all of those other less than pleasant memories I have 'collected' and been hanging on to. The least of which would be those I still remember from when I was ten.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Creamy Homemade Ricotta with Berries

Memorial Day weekend is synonymous with the unofficial beginning of the summer season. I am one who has been aching for the return of warmer weather, backyard barbecues and picnics. Food served and eaten outside just seems to taste better. The summer solstice and longest day of the year are weeks away, however, when they finally arrive it feels as if summer is almost over, even though it will technically have just begun (maybe that perception is influenced by the racks of fall clothing department stores start putting out even before we celebrate the Fourth of July). For the towns located along lakes and oceans, the arrival of summer also means the return of the 'summer people'. When you live in one of those beautiful towns having both public and private beaches, you learn there are always a few locals that have a kind of love-hate relationship with the 'summer people'. It only takes a day to experience a traffic jam in a two-lane, no stop light town to understand this yin-yang perspective.

Summer also means the return of berry season. Strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries are some of best of nature's bounty and are at their seasonal peak here in the midwest during the summer months. Although locally grown berries are not yet available, the berries in the grocery stores now seem to look and even taste better than the ones sold during the winter. The blueberries and blackberries I picked up at the grocery store the other day were the reason (or I should were the excuse) why I had to make second batch of creamy homemade ricotta.

Some of you know this isn't the first time I have made ricotta.  Last April (2013) I shared Alex Guarnashcelli's Homemade Ricotta recipe. It was a ricotta that had me making the 'after one bite' assertion I was in ricotta nirvana. And I was, really. But after tasting this creamy homemade version, I had the Shangri-la experience all over again. Could there really be room in nirvana for more than one ricotta? Absolutely. However, I think this version of ricotta is my new favorite, possibly my newest obsession.

I have learned much about food in the past year and while I am much more informed, I am also a little confused. Conflicting information as well as the number of variations in how foods are prepared are generally the causes of my confusion. In the larger food world, there is never one right way, rather there are always preferred ways. The art and the science behind the creation of food can be at times both daunting and inspiring.

So before I go on any further talking about this amazing creamy ricotta, I must share with you that technically it isn't really a ricotta. True ricotta is made from leftover whey (a bi-product from the making of mozzarella or farmer's cheese) and not fresh milk. However, a recipe that doesn't meet the technical definition of ricotta isn't enough for me to call it by any other name.

Alex Guarnashcelli's ricotta was made with whole milk, heavy cream and buttermilk. This ricotta recipe is made with whole organic (versus ultra-pasteurized) milk, heavy cream, sea salt and fresh lemon juice. Buttermilk and lemon juice are both considered acids, however, they affect the taste and texture of the ricotta differently. The magic of ricotta happens when the acid is added to the heated milk causing the milk proteins to bind together, trap some of the moisture and fat, and form soft white curds. The curds formed from the acid are what give the ricotta its' texture.

In a medium-sized heavy saucepan, the whole organic milk, heavy whipping cream, sea salt are heated to a temperature of 190 degrees.  If you do not have a thermometer, you will be looking for the milk to come to a simmer or soft boil (there should be small bubbles formed on the milk along the perimeter of the pan). Once it reaches this temperature, turn off the heat and gently stir in three and a half tablespoons of freshly squeezed lemon juice. The entire mixture is allowed to settle for at least five minutes, but no more than 10 minutes before it is poured into a cheesecloth lined colander set over a deep bowl. (The second time I made the ricotta I gave it a rest time of 10 minutes with great results.)

The mixture should be allowed to drain for at least one hour, but no more than two hours. The longer the ricotta drains and sits out at room temperature the firmer it will be. The ricotta was perfectly set up at one hour and the result was a perfect creamy, spreadable texture.

Give the ricotta a light squeeze before removing from cheesecloth and transferring to a bowl. If you are not serving the ricotta immediately, cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for up to 3 or 4 days. Note: The texture of the ricotta will change (it will become firmer, similar to the texture of cream cheese) after it is refrigerated.

I prefer making crostini on a grill pan on top of the stove as it is quick and creates beautiful grill marks on both sides of the bread. However, you can make crostini placing slices of a french or ciabatta baguette in a 350 degree preheated oven until they are golden (baking time ranges from 15 to 20 minutes). 

I love the sweet and savory versatility of this creamy homemade ricotta. It can be part of an appetizer course or it can be the dessert course. Earlier in the week I served the ricotta with a side of honey on crostini made from a french baguette. Today I grilled slices of a ciabatta baguette, then topped the crostini with the ricotta, fresh berries and a drizzle of honey. It was pure deliciousness and it felt like summer had arrived. 

Creamy Homemade Ricotta with Berries (inspired by Smitten Kitchen's Rich Homemade Ricotta recipe)

3 cups whole organic milk
1 cup heavy whipping cream
3 1/2 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon sea salt (recommend Maldon)
Ciabatta or french baguette, sliced and grilled or toasted
Blueberries and blackberries

Other serving options: roasted red peppers, fig preserves, just honey, thinly sliced cucumbers or zucchini, basil chiffonade, roasted grapes, olive oil and fine chopped fresh herbs (e.g., chives, dill, scallions), chopped grape tomatoes, basil and olive oil, etc.

1. Line a colander with cheesecloth and place over a deep measuring cup or bowl.
2. Place cream, milk and salt in a heavy medium sized saucepan. Heat to a temperature of 190 degrees (mixture will come to a soft boil).
3. Turn off heat and add 3 1/2 Tablespoons of fresh lemon juice. Stir gently with a wooden spoon for 15 seconds. Allow to sit undisturbed for 10 minutes.
4. Pour mixture into colander and allow to drain for at least one hour but no more than two hours. Note: The longer the ricotta rests the firmer it will become.
5. Gently squeeze drained ricotta and transfer to a serving dish.
6. Serve immediately or cover and place in the refrigerator. 
7. Slice and grill a ciabatta or french baguette to toast. Spread ricotta on toasted crostinis and top with blueberries and blackberries. Drizzle honey over top of the fruit. 
Note: Ricotta topped crostini can be either sweet or savory, it all depends on the topping(s) you choose.

As much as I have always loved going on a real picnic, it has been years since I have gone on one. I love everything about picnics, from the making and packing up of the food to finding the perfect 'with a view' picnic location. But one doesn't need to pack up a picnic basket to go on a picnic. Takeout from a fast food restaurant or even the grocery store make it possible to go on an impromptu picnic, anytime, anywhere, weather permitting. An hour lunch spent outside can be incredibly more energizing than having that same lunch sitting in a restaurant or anywhere indoors. For me, the picnic experience is not as much about the food as it is about the person or persons you are sharing the experience with. Because every meal shared with a friend is always a better one.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

French Chocolate Cake

It never fails. Making a decision about which dessert to make when having friends over for dinner is rarely a simple one (for me that is). The last course of a meal can sometimes be the most memorable, so I, in typical fashion, put the self-imposed pressure on myself to live up to the memorable dessert expectation. My first thought was chocolate never fails. Something rich, decadent, like Evelyn Sharpe's French Chocolate Cake. My second thought was Panna Cotta (the David Lebovitz version) with Balsamic Strawberries would pair perfectly with the Italian inspired meal. My third and final thoughts were why choose, why not make both, why show restraint. And so that was exactly what I did, I made them both. There are moments when one should exercise restraint, this wasn't one of them.

It is always a risk when you make a dessert for the first time. I have had my share of recipe disasters and of making recipes not living up to the claim of being the best they every ate, best they ever made. But there was something about Evelyn Sharpe's recipe, one created back in 1969 that me think it really would live up to the claims by others as a cake to make your cavities ache and the best chocolate cake they had ever eaten. And if by some chance I messed up the perfection of chocolate decadence, I always had the Panna Cotta as my back-up plan (aka Plan B).

Four eggs, 10 tablespoons of unsalted butter, a tablespoon of sugar, a tablespoon of flour, a pinch of sea salt, a pinch of espresso powder, and a pound of chocolate create a cake I will simply describe as wicked. After reading the impressions of others who have made Evelyn Sharpe's cake I decided to add a pinch of sea salt rather than change out the unsalted butter to salted butter. As if a pound of chocolate is not enough to create an intensely chocolatey cake, I decided to ramp up the chocolate just a bit by adding a pinch of espresso powder. I can't explain why just a hint of espresso has the effect of further enhancing the chocolate without imparting a coffee flavor, however, I can tell you that it was Ina Garten who shared this 'secret' years ago. It is one of her best non-kept secrets.

Sharpe's recipe called for one pound of semi-sweet chocolate with no specificity as to the percentage of cocao. In 1969 the number of semi-sweet options accessible to home cooks may have been limited.Today the choices range from 42% all the way up to 72% (often called bittersweet). As the percentage of the cocao increases the less sweet the chocolate it. Considering there was only one tablespoon of sugar in the recipe, I followed the advice of another food blogger and went with chocolate containing 55% cocao. This turned out to be great advice and an even better disaster avoidance strategy.


Personally I am not a big fan of melting chocolate in the microwave (at least not at the moment), as I much prefer the melting over simmering water double boiler method (works perfectly every time). Once the chocolate has melted, the bowl of chocolate is removed from the heat. The unsalted butter (cut into pieces), flour, sugar, pinch of sea salt and pinch of espresso powder are stirred in until the butter melts and the mixture looks smooth and shiny.

The yolks from four large eggs are lightly beaten and then slowly whisked into the chocolate mixture (the chocolate mixture will still be warm so whisking in the egg yolks slowly prevents them from cooking).

The four egg whites are whipped until they begin to hold their shape but should still look moist (not dry). The lightly whipped egg whites are carefully and quickly folded into the chocolate mixture until no streaks of egg whites remain.

The entire mixture is poured into a parchment paper lined 9 inch springform pan. Using a springform versus a cake pan makes it so much easier to remove the baked cake and allows for a even more beautiful presentation. The cake is baked for 15 minutes in a preheated 425 degree oven. Keep the cake in the oven but turn off the oven and leave the oven door ajar until it cools.

As the cake cooks it will deflate. If you are not serving the cake immediately run a sharp knife along the  edge of the cake and cover with plastic wrap. The cake can be served warm, at room temperature or even chilled. If chilled it will take on a more fudge-like quality. The French Chocolate Cake is intensely rich and will make any chocoholic very, very happy. A sliver of the cake served with a side of freshly whipped sweetened heavy cream will be appreciated by both the most extreme chocoholics and chocolate lovers alike. On a warm day I would serve slivers of this cake sitting on a bed of melted high quality vanilla ice cream (the semi-homemade version of creme anglaise and another one of the Barefoot Contessa's thankfully not-well kept secrets.)

If I needed any validation that this cake was wicked good it would have been by the lack of even a crumb left on the everyones's plates. And maybe I accomplished the goal of having a memorable meal for a group of fabulous, beautiful, smart, fun, funny women I feel fortunate to have as friends.

If there was ever a reason to love French cooking, the French Chocolate Cake is all the reason you need. I can hardly wait to have a reason to make this cake again. And the next time I make this cake for a gathering, I don't think I need to make two desserts. No, I take that back. I know I don't need to make two desserts as this is cake not requiring one to have a Plan B ready and waiting. This cake may have finally taught me the concept of (dessert) restraint, as this really is a cake that lives up to all of its' hype.

French Chocolate Cake (inspired by Evelyn Sharpe's French Chocolate Cake recipe)

1 pound bittersweet chocolate (55% cacao)
10 Tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into 10 pieces
Pinch of sea salt
Pinch of espresso powder
1 slightly heaping tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
4 large eggs, separated
Sweetened Whipped cream and/or melted high quality vanilla ice cream, for serving

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Prepare a 9 inch springform pan (spray and line with parchment paper)
2. Melt chocolate on top of a double boiler.
3. Remove melted chocolate from heat and stir in the butter, flour, sugar, sea salt and espresso powder.
4. Lightly beat egg yolks and gradually whisk into the chocolate mixture.
5. Beat egg whites until you have very soft peaks and they begin to take form (be careful not to over beat or allow them to get to the dry stage).
6. Quickly fold the egg whites into the chocolate mixture. Pour batter into prepared pan.
7. Bake for 15 minutes. Turn off heat, open oven door so it is ajar and allow cake to cool in oven.
8. Serve with freshly whipped sweetened heavy cream or on a puddle of melted high quality vanilla ice cream. Note: When cutting the cake, run a long thin knife under very hot water and then slice into slivers as this is a very rich cake.

Each of the women at the dinner table were school superintendents. We may have initially been drawn together years ago because we were part of the small minority of women superintendents and each of us had had the common sometimes 'lonely at the top' experience that go with being a school superintendent. We are now all retired from these positions, yet we have stayed together for a very different reason. We all like each other. And as much as our jobs consumed us, our conversations with one another were never dominated by them, then and now.

Individually our paths going into and out of these positions were more different than they were the same. Yet, we each possess some of the same qualities, the kind of qualities that contribute to forming and sustaining friendships. Even though not all of us have seen or been in touch with one another on as regular of a basis, we have that amazing ability to just pick up where we left off. For me, those are the best kinds of friendships, the most enduring ones. Circumstances may have been responsible for bringing us together, but it is our friendship with one another that is now keeping us together.