Today is Presidents’ Day. This usually kicks off a week of vacation in my profession. Most people escape the cold, dreary, New York winter by heading to tropical islands to take the chill out of their bones and add a sun-kissed glow to their skin. I usually head to Eastern Europe. I’m sure you’re shaking your head and wondering why anyone would EVER want to go to former USSR satellites, much less why one would go there in February. You should know, first of all, that the parts of Eastern Europe I’ve been to and lived in are actually quite beautiful. You can read about some of my adventures here. I’ve met some wonderful people, learned interesting customs, seen amazing history and geography, and even eaten some incredible food. (J is reading this thinking, “They have no cuisine.” J, I offer you a complete meal of deliciousness: shopska, doners, and tikvenik. Def.) Ah, but I digress…. This year, there is no vacation, and thus, no traveling. Instead, there is only a 3-day weekend and I chose to spend my break away from teaching as a student. Today I attended two classes, cooking and yoga (I like to think the yoga gives me serenity, grace, AND burns the calories from all the cooking, baking, and eating.) My cooking class was a citrus class, which was a lovely follow-up to the citrus dessert I made yesterday. I didn’t plan it this way in advance, but I guess I did my best to bring the tropics to Brooklyn.
So let’s get down to the reason why you came here – dessert. Yesterday was my first foray into lemon bars. Usually I go for chocolate-based desserts, particularly those laden with sugar and flour. (Chocolate cake is my all-time favorite, followed closely by chocolate-chip-cookies, chocolate souffle, and brownies.) Perhaps it’s the mid-winter blahs, perhaps even my sweet tooth has been satiated, perhaps it was simply the subconscious effect of having lemons sitting on my counter, but something inspired me to deviate from my usual path and bypass the chocolate for the citrus.
I’ve mentioned that lemon desserts aren’t usually my thing. You should also know that J thought they weren’t his thing either. This matters, because as anyone who cooks or bakes knows, much of the fun in creating food is in watching someone else enjoy eating it. But I am determined and J is a good sport, so lemon bars made the agenda, albeit with a dusting of skepticism. Part of this was because the recipe was a little unusual, which of course is what drew me to it. The recipe came from my Smitten Kitchen cookbook, and was an updated version of the one on Deb’s website. (I feel like this is a good time to mention that Deb Peralman and I have never met. I feel like we’re friends and thus on a first name basis after reading her book though, so there you go.) The update is great! Instead of zesting and juicing the lemon(s), which is a pain in the neck, all you do is throw the whole thing (pits removed) into the food processor. Genius. J was worried the rind would be too much and make the bars bitter, but they turned out to have the perfect amount of tartness to them. This was a surprisingly simply recipe: the crust was made in the small food processor bowl, and the filling was made in the large bowl. Few ingredients, few directions, and even fewer dishes–you really can’t beat that. The ONLY downside to this recipe is that you have to wait for the cooked bars to cool completely before you can cut into them. (Fully aware of my lack of willpower, we went to the movies during this time.) And though a simple recipe is nice, the real test is how the finished product tastes. I think these are delicious. Even J, who did NOT say yippie or yahoo when I said I was making them, was pleasantly surprised. He was expecting them to be drier and cakier, but instead found them to be soft and jelly-like. We decided these are a lemon bar version of key lime pie. Yum! And J, who hears me tapping away from another room just said, “and by the way, they are better the second day.” We’re storing them in the fridge, which also adds to the pie-like quality. (I should mention that I did make a slight adjustment to Deb’s recipe. I only had salted butter, so I used it and omitted all of the salt from the recipe. I also added 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract to the filling, because everything is better with vanilla.) Behold, my variation on Smitten Kitchen’s lemon bars:
Then, today my friend, N and I took a class at Cook&Go in Chelsea. The school originated in France and opened its first NYC outpost about four months ago. We had a Groupon and figured it would be a fun reason to head into the city. Details of the class are available here. We met up a little early and hung out at Chelsea Market, where I was pleased to discover Amy’s Bread. It’s a funny coincidence since J was reading one of his favorite cookbooks last night and looking at the dessert recipes. He’d never looked at that section in all these years. (To which I say, “Ha! My plan is working!”) Some day when I try one of the recipes from the book, I will tell you all about the delightful treats I tasted at Amy’s.
But back to my class. Silvia, who is from Brazil (yet another place I want to go,) was our instructor, and she was lovely. We were lucky to have only four of us in the class, so there was plenty of personal attention and time to chat. The school provided all the tools, aprons, and even wine while we worked! The space was bright and open, and everyone who worked there was really nice. I have to admit though, J and I have had quite a laugh tonight about the name “Cook” & Go, as we didn’t actually do any cooking in the class. We did a lot of prepping, but the actual cooking part was all done at home.
Even the salad that was completed in the class was all cold. Though the name is a bit of a misnomer, the class was fun and N and I will certainly be going back for a second. (I’m hoping Silvia creates the healthy baking class we talked about with the gluten free menu and yoga component. See, I’m not the only one who thinks yoga and cooking belong together!)
First, we made our entree: Haddock a l’orange in papillote with a spiced oil garnished carrot puree in papillote. (Because I knew I’d be bringing food home to share with J, who has a shellfish allergy, and because shrimp are just gross, I actually made a vegetarian version of this meal. Instead of haddock, I used tofu, which meant instead of white wine, I used red-wine vinegar.) Otherwise, everything was the same. It was cool to learn the technique for cooking in parchment, as well as to learn that a simpler alternative of aluminum foil could be used:
As a side, we made a simple carrot puree. It’s always a party when we get to play with small appliances!
Next we made our appetizer. This may sound backward, but as our teacher explained, it is logical to prepare the driest ingredients first, so as to minimize the number of times you have to wash your cutting board. This dish was a grapefruit and prawn Thai salad, where again, mine was tofu. It was described as: A refreshing appetizer to start this citrus menu. Prawns and grapefruit marry together with soy, cilantro, and mint for a delicious pop to start this meal! J and I weren’t so thrilled with this one. It was more of a relish than a salad, and we weren’t crazy about the soy sauce flavor with the grapefruit. But it was fun watching everyone have to clean those nasty shrimp!
And then came dessert. Even though I strongly believe fruit should NOT masquerade as dessert, the idea of a citrus fruit soup was appealing to me. It was like a smoothie with the added delicious bonus of puff pastry on top, a smoothie pot pie. YUM! The soup was VGE style, which I had never heard of, but like the nerd that I am, I was excited to learn the history of this name: “this dessert pays hommage to Chef Paul Bocuse’s savory soup created for France’s 20th President Valery Giscard d’Estaing.” The important lesson here is that if you are ever in a restaurant and the menu says “VGE,” it means there is a puff pastry cover!
I should have taken a final picture of everything plated at home, but I didn’t think of that until I put the last bite in my mouth. Oops. Sorry. For the record, because the course is portioned for a single serving, J and I added some baby bok choy and slices of Italian bread to round out our meal and make it enough for two for dinner. (And perhaps it was the cold, winter’s night, but in our oven, both the tofu entree and the dessert needed to cook longer than the directions from the class had indicated.) All told, it’s been a lovely long weekend of learning and a tropical touch to chase away the winter blues. Here’s hoping spring comes soon!