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Dexter Themed Cupcakes: A Gig

5 Feb

Friends come to me with various food questions quite regularly. This project started in much the same way. One friend wanted Dexter themed cupcakes for a friend of hers that is a huge Dexter fan.  Her inspiration was from a picture of cupcakes that were made for Magnolia Bakery for the show’s premier.   I gave her some names of local bakeries I knew of that did custom and theme cupcakes, but as she called around, it became obvious that no bakeries would make it. One offered to make it without the “glass,” but that just took the drama out of it.

I looked at the picture, looked around for sugar glass recipes, and concluded that I could absolutely make these cupcakes.

And so my first “paid gig” for baking began.

Since this was my first “professional” assignment, I decided it was absolutely necessary to make a test batch first.  The cupcake recipient actually was not a fan of chocolate, so my red velvet idea went quickly out the window.

First, I found a Martha Stewart recipe for the sugar glass, but I long ago realized that Martha’s kitchen staff makes everything look a whole lot better than I could ever get out of my kitchen. So I went on a quest for a “normal person” recipes and once again, AllRecipes.com came to the rescue.

I combined them both (and the use of 2 different thermometers to check on the temperature) and made my attempt at sugar glass.

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I was really excited when it actually worked! It was ever so slightly yellow tinged, which was disappointing, but I deemed it good enough to work.

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And made a few batches of varying thickness.

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And just for fun, I dyed some blue and made some Breaking Bad Blue Sky (and put it all chopped up into a baggy for the friend who made the order, knowing she is a huge Breaking Bad fan.)

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It was a bit rippled when I made the thick one.

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But the thinner one was very clear and shattered just like glass.

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And cut like it!

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(Just kidding! Sort of…) It was definitely sharp, but it made for some great gag glass with just a bit of red food coloring.

For the cupcake itself, I decided to go with a very basic cupcake that I added some spices to (ginger, cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg) and then used the Bailey’s frosting that everyone loves.

Then it came time to figure out how to fill these bad boys. I wanted them to be filled with a blood colored jam of some kind that when cut into, would look like it was oozing blood.

First I tried a cherry pie filling (without the solids) in a squirt bottle.

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And while it looked a bit like it, the narrow amount just didn’t have the impact I wanted and it absorbed into the cake in a few minutes, so it didn’t really ooze all that well.

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So next I tried the “cone” method where you cut a cone out of the cupcake…

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… then remove the section…

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… fill the hollow with the filling…

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… then replace the very top of the circle to fill the hole. This proved to be a pretty good method and I declared the trial a success. (The hole also let me drop a cherry into each, which I hoped would add to the flavor a bit).

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And then it came time to assemble.  I used a pastry bag to pipe the frosting on, stuck the sugar glass on it, then splattered the top with red food coloring.  And then… we had a Dexter cupcake.

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We tried a few different “splatters.”  Red food coloring, red gel icing, cherry filling, jam… But the good ol’ red food coloring was really the best.

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And cutting into the inside wasn’t as oozy as I wanted, but the cherry inside was a really nice addition.

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And since I had a few extras from the trial, I filled a few with jam and topped them with peanut butter instead of frosting.

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Have I mentioned that I am a sucker for all things peanut butter and jelly?

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So then came the day of the actual party.  I had ordered some specialty accessories including blood spatter cupcake liners, bone sprinkles, and bloody cleaver toothpicks.  (More on those later)

While the cone cutting was working, I decided to look through my stock of random kitchen accessories to see if I had something better. Sure enough, an old fashioned apple corer was perfect.

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It pulled out a good well to add the cherry and cherry pie filling.

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And left the top circle intact for replacing on the top.

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All ready for frosting!

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We decided to go with a spread frosting instead of a piped frosting, and then put the shards of sugar glass in them.

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Then set up an elaborate blood spatter lab where we coated everything in saran warp, dropped the cap into the sink, and used pastry brushes to splatter the food coloring blood.

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Then put them into the cupcake holder (which is never stable enough… why don’t they make the sides of those things just a bit higher?)

Ready for delivery!

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But I figured I could get even more creative.  So I took a piece of sugar glass that looked like a knife, molded a chocolate handle, inserted a birthday candle and made an edible knife/candle holder.

Then I took a “naked” cupcake, strapped it down under plastic wrap, and stabbed it with the knife.  I hope Dexter fans will appreciate.

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I also wanted to create some different kinda of decoration, so I decided to use the meat cleavers and bones in red topped cupcakes.

This is where I caution you… it is just about impossible to make RED frosting. I wound up with a whole lot of very pink frosting.  I then proceeded to dump every red colored thing in my cabinet into this (which included just about every fruit jam in history) and yet… it was still pink.  So Mike popped out to the store and got an industrial sized bottle of red food coloring and I dumped it in. I was concerned that the high concentration of red food coloring would change the flavor, but as it turns out there was so much fruit in there from all the jams that you couldn’t taste it (though no promises it wouldn’t dye your teeth red!)

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The bar where they set up was dark, but I was told that they were the hit of the party.

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And I’m very glad to have done such a fun project and make a Dexter fan happy.

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Butter for Restaurant Week Winter 2013

28 Jan

Even if Executive Chef Alex Guarnaschelli (who just won Next Iron Chef) has nothing to do with Butter at this point in her career (which I am not sure about at all… I’ve heard she doesn’t do much with the restaurant anymore, but it’s hard to tell), you would never know. We have been meaning to go to Butter for years, and just never got around to it. I had heard it was good, but no one raved about it so it never made it high up on my list. But when we were trying to find a few new places to try for Restaurant Week this winter, we decided that in light of Chef Guarnaschelli’s recent win, we would check it out.

It’s right by the Public Theater in the East Village. We were seated downstairs and enjoyed the wood tree trunks and sticks that decorated the room. It had a nice, loungy feel with low couch benches in the bar areas and music playing in the rooms.

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Here was the Restaurant Week menu for dinner on Sunday, January 27th.

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And the regular menu.

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And of course, since it’s butter, here is the butter shot.

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And some more butter porn. (The butter itself was decent, but nothing too special and I could have used with a larger portion to cover off on the bread that was on the table.

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But the pumpernickel and sour dough breads were top notch.

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We decided to start with cocktails, and since they were so good, we continued drinking them throughout the meal (rather than switching to wine, which is our usual MO). I got the Pearadise with pear infused Bacardi rum, fresh pear puree, St. Germain liqueur, muddled limes and mint. It was fantastic. Perfectly sweet without being cloyingly so. Mike got the Mickey Blue Eyes, which was a martini made with Grey Goose Vodka and blue cheese stuffed olives.

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Mike started with the House Made Charcuterie Platter. This came with house-cured bacon, duck breast mortadella, and chicken liver toast with spicy napa cabbage. This was awesome. The mortadella had a great flavor, and the chicken liver was packed with flavor and had these perfect crispy onions on top. But the bacon… ohhh boyyyy the bacon.

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I got the soup of the day, which was a butternut squash soup. I have had butternut squash soup all over the world at this point, and I am a fan simply because I really love butternut squash soup. You don’t need to get fancy with it to be delicious, but that also means that most people serve butternut squash soup that tastes just like everyone else’s version. Sure, some people put in some toasted pumpkin seeds or some basil oil (and I sure do love it when they do) but the soup itself usually just tastes like squash, or squash and apples.

But this… this butternut squash was The Shit. I never knew squash soup could have this much depth of flavor. A bit of brown butter flavor and sweetness (from what I assume was brown sugar but not sure) with a layer of fresh squashy goodness. And the salted popcorn to accompany it was just perfect. I actually asked for more bread so I could lop up every last drop of soup. It was, hands down, the best butternut squash soup I have ever had.

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As we started the entree portion of our meal, the additional side of cider glazed roasted parsnips came out. These had thinly sliced apple chips on top and the cider glaze was superb. It was the perfect compliment to the roasted parsnips and it was great comfort food without being heavy.

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Mike chose the House Made Ricotta Ravioli with roasted oyster mushrooms, chili flakes (which they nicely served on the side so that I could eat it), and pecorino cheese. I thought the sauce and mushrooms went very well with the ricotta in the ravioli, which was fluffy and a tad tart, with great flavor. Though in the end, I never order cheese ravioli because I just find myself hard to impress with any version.

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I ordered the Braised Pork Shoulder with a pretzel crumb crust and buttered rutabega. This was also outstanding. A great pork flavor over a bed of creamy rutabega. The little salty crispness of the pretzel with the cabbage on top was delightful. It was perfectly tender so you could just pull it apart with your fork. Fantastic.

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For dessert, Mike chose the Ginger Cookie Ice Cream Sandwich with vanilla ice cream and spiced pecans. It was very good, with a well flavored ginger cookie and what I think were golden raisins with orange zest. The pecans were spiced with something pepper related that I couldn’t have (but Mike enjoyed) and while the cookie was a bit hard to cut, the dessert was very good.

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My dessert came out and the first thing I noticed was that it was tiny. It’s hard to tell in this shot, but the piece of chocolate cake was about 3 inches tall and wide and less than 1/2 an inch thick. But BOY was this big on flavor.

The chocolate was rich and decadent, the pomegranate seeds adding a little bit of lightness to it, and a shmear of awesome salted caramel. The entire dish was so fantastic, and so packed with flavor, I didn’t miss those additional bites.

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As the meal ended, I told Mike how I wanted to lick my plate for every single dish I had. (That is one of the highest compliments I can give a place!) The execution was flawless and I didn’t feel like we lost anything by ordering off the Restaurant Week menu. Portions weren’t huge, but I walked away totally satiated.

Overall, this was a standout meal not just for Restaurant Week, but overall. I was truly impressed and look forward to returning again in the near future. I can’t believe it took us that long to go!

Total Nom Points: 8.5 out of 10

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Riverpark for Restaurant Week Winter 2013

20 Jan

We have been to many restaurants for NYC Restaurant Week at this point, and we’ve found some great choices and some poor choices, which makes it hard to find new places worth sampling each year.  But this year, we decided that Restaurant Week (through Februrary 8, 2013 so far this winter) was a great opportunity to try one of Tom Colicchio‘s newest choices, Riverpark

I really like how many Colicchio restaurants handle Restaurant Week. Rather than serve a “wedding food” (beef, pork, or fish) version of their menu, they serve their regular menu and the items that require a higher price to produce include an incremental charge, noted on the menu (base price is $38).  Here was the menu on January 20, 2013:

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For the Restaurant Week price of $38, we were able to choose an item from the left side plus an item from the main section, with a dessert.  You could substitute pasta (a larger portion for entree) for either course.

The building was a bit hard to find.  It is located near the East River on 29th Street and the FDR, in a complex called the Alexandria Center.  Our taxi wasn’t sure where to find it, so he dropped us off on the corner of 30th Street and the FDR access road and we walked down what looked like an industrial part of the city near the back of the hospital.  We took a chance and walked up some stairs and found it there at the top,  inside the building.

The decorations are very modern, with clean, perpendicular lines, much like Colicchio and Sons.

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The lights above our table were kind of cool and modern, but also a bit seizure inducing after a few drinks.

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We started our night with cocktails. Mike got the “Colonel Mustard” with mustard infused white rum, thyme honey, lime, and candied bacon. It was fantastic.  Heavy on the thyme and a perfect balance of flavors.

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I tried the “Spiced & Spiked” though without the “spiced” since that was homemade hot sauce (which would have peppers, which I’m allergic to).  It had hot apple cider, Goslings Rum, and clove.  Even without the hot sauce, this was very delicious and well balanced. I wanted something hot on this very cold night, and this hit the spot.

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We added a half-dozen oysters to our Restaurant Week selection, with 3 East Coast (Barnstable) and 3 West Coast (Shigokus). They were both divine, but the west coast Shigokus were especially fantastic.

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We then decided to try a bottle of wine. There was a section dedicated to Orange Wines which were described as “interesting and funky.”  We have a love for Russian River Valley wines (especially Chardonnay and Pinot Noir) so when we saw one on the menu under the Orange variety, we decided why not try something interesting and funky.  We really enjoyed this wine. It was easily drinkable, dry without being puckering, and went well with food and stood up on its own.  A very enjoyable wine.

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I then tried the Kabocha Custard & Crab Fondue with crispy black trumpet mushrooms and spiced pumpkin seeds (which I went without in my dish due to my allergy).  This was sensational. A touch of sweet, delicious squash, fresh crab, and a slight crispy from the mushrooms.  A great balance.  This is the second custard from a Colicchio restaurant that really impressed.

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Mike tried the Testa Tortellini with pears, walnuts, sage, mustard seed, and spiced consomme.  Sadly, I couldn’t try it due to my allergy, but Mike said it was a great balance of flavors. The waiter said he should try everything in one bite and he would realize why the pear, tortellini and consomme was put together and sure enough, the layers of flavors were fantastic with the rich broth and the fresh pear.  Everything together was delicious.

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For our entrees, Mike chose the 20 oz. bone-in dry aged sirloin, which came with a $20 supplement charge. It was with cipollini onions, charred shisito peppers (which they put on the side so I could try it), and tempura hen of the woods mushrooms.  The char on this was fan.freakin.tastic.  And the tempura-ed mushrooms were really fantastic on this. An all around awesome cut of meat. If you order this when it is not Restaurant Week, the steak alone is $50.  So for the $38 base price of Restaurant Week and the $20 supplement fee, the value of the app and the dessert came to a mere $8.  Not too shabby.

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These were the peppers that were put on the side, which Mike said added a nice depth of flavor without being too spicy.

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I chose the Berkshire Pork Chop with Brussels sprout apple hash and parsnip puree.  This was absolutely incredible.  A slight sweetness from the apples complimented by the slight bitterness of the sprouts. And the pork itself was a perfect foil to both.  Incredible. So incredible, in fact, that I picked up that bone with my fingers to get off any last morsel.  Totally worth it.

 

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Then we had our choice of desserts (a tough choice indeed) and we also chose to order dessert wine (Domaine des Schistes, a muscat).

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I chose the Chocolate Souffle Cake with coffee ice cream and chocolate crumble. This was a lovely dessert with warm souffle cake, with a nice balance of bittersweet and sweet with the chocolate and a great compliment with the coffee ice cream.

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But Mike chose the Beer Sundae with Guinness Cake, oatmeal stout ice cream, butterscotch, chocolate pretzel, and candied walnuts.  While my chocolate souffle was very good, this was just damn special.  It was unique flavors with a perfect balance of salty and sweet. It was a fantastic, inspired dessert.  Really, really fantastic.

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Our food throughout the meal with simply spectacular.  We paid a number of up-charges, but I am very certain that we would have enjoyed our meals just as much had we stuck with the Restaurant Week prices and not paid for any of the supplements or additional drinks/supplements.  But half the fun of Restaurant Week is being able to save money so you CAN pay for those lovely extras.

This is how you do Restaurant Week. Offer your regular menu so no one feels that they are missing out and just give people a chance to really enjoy your restaurant with a nice introduction.

Well played Riverpark.  You have made the list of “where to eat for Restaurant Week.”

Total Nom Points: 8 out of 10

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Peter Luger Steakhouse

15 Jan

Peter Luger is probably the most famous steak house in all of NYC, which is why I find it strange that it’s in Brooklyn. I’ve long wondered if that adds to the allure… “it must be good if people will brave the L train for it!”

I had been to Luger once before and hated to say I was underwhelmed. I mean, it was a very good meal, but I didn’t think it was better than places in NYC and didn’t think it was worth crossing the East River to eat.

But when friends from out-of-town wanted to try it, I was excited to go on a food adventure with them.

I certainly love the inside. It’s beautiful without being fancy.

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Someone suggested we try the bacon. And BOY am I glad they did. This was probably my favorite part of the whole meal. It was thick cut, perfectly cooked, a little charred on the ends. Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmmm.

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And they are famous for their tomato and onion salad. This… I do not understand. I mean I like tomatoes and onions just fine… but why is this special? 

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Though they did advise that we pour the Peter Luger Sauce (which is on every table) on it, and I will admit, it made the onions and tomatoes very tasty (and added great, but not overpowering flavor to the steaks, too).

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The steak ordering is incredibly easy from the menu. You tell them if you want steak for two, three, or four and out it comes. It’s a beautiful Porterhouse that they serve nicely carved and dish out to each person at the table.

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And you don’t get more perfectly Medium Rare than this:

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We also ordered the lamb chops so we could try some different things.  These were delicious and I’m glad we had some variation (as much as I love steak!)

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We got a side of creamed spinach, which I thought was really tasty and heavier on the spinach flavor than the cream (which I prefer).

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Mmmm… meat.

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Even though we were all totally stuffed by the end, we just had to try the ice cream sundae (which came with a chocolate cow on top).  This was heavenly.

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As was the pecan pie.  It was super pecany and not overly sweet. And don’t even get me started on that homemade schlag!

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As you leave, everyone gets some chocolate gelt to take home.  A nice little way to be reminded later of the great meal you had.

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I certainly enjoyed my meal this time more than last time, and I think the key was variation. Definitely get the bacon, try some sauce on some tomatoes and onions (why not?) and then order up some amazing steaks with some lamb chops.  Leave a wee bit of room for dessert and you’re perfect.

Do I feel the need to travel to Brooklyn for this on a regular basis? No.  I still think the novelty is good for tourists, but as a local, I’ll stick with Keen’s. (Though my arm could certainly be easily twisted to return to Peter Luger!)

Total Nom Points: 8 out of 10

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Thanksgiving 2012

8 Jan

Thanksgiving in my family is a pretty epic event.  There are about 40 people every year, and we bring pretty much the same dishes ever year. I love the traditions and I love the food.  We’re one of those few families that actually get along and it’s the day I look forward to most every year.  

And even though we walk to the train station (through the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade) and take a train, I still can’t resist baking up a storm.  I last blogged about our Thanksgiving in 2009, but I realized that there are a few recipes that I consider classic to my repertoire that I haven’t yet blogged about.  Also, 2012 was the year of the Brownie Battle.

Thanksgiving is also a time of experiment for me. While I bring a lot of the same things, in the weeks prior I try to refine them and make them better, and I try to bring something new each year.

My peanut butter cups are pretty much set in stone at this point, but I did have an accidental experiment when a drop of water splashed into my chocolate cups. They always warn you that water is melted chocolate’s worst enemy. But here I had some side-by-side proof.  Check out the consistency of the one cup that got a single drop of water (center of the shot) versus the rest.

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And Thanksgiving also happens to be a time when I am very thankful for my KitchenAid (Thanks again, Mikey! Best gift ever!) One of my favorite moments is when the chocolate hits the batter and makes perty swirls.

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I have been making a family brownie recipe for years (from my Grandmother’s recipe folio) that was noted as being from my (totally awesome and inspiring) great Aunt Dinah (who is currently in her late 90s, but you would never believe it).  I actually made the one’s from Grandma’s recipe when I was on the Wendy Williams show, and you can find that recipe on the Wendy site.

I always assumed that the recipes were the same, but my cousin (Dinah’s granddaughter) noticed some differences between our recipes.  So… what else to do besides an epic Brownie Battle?

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I put a sprinkle on Grandma’s recipe to differentiate, but turns out the color and texture were different enough to be able to tell.

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Aunt Dinah’s was a bit fluffier and fudgier. And while I love Grandma’s recipe, Aunt Dinah’s recipe won hands down (recipe at the end of this post).

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I also made my Drunk N’ Nutty Pie, but I have refined it a bit and replaced the chestnuts with pecans (for texture, added after the slow cook but before the crumb topping).

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I could eat this filling with a spoon! Slow cooked apples and cranberries in red wine. SOOO good. And such a beautiful scarlet color.

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I also changed out the crumb topping for a new blend and cooked it a bit longer (until the top browned, about an hour) at a lower temperature (350 degrees) to get it a little crisper. The new topping is simple to remember:  1 cup brown sugar, 1 cup all purpose flour, 1 stick unsalted butter cut into 4 or five chunks, and 1 cup pecan halves. Pulse a few times in the processor to make a coarse meal.  I definitely liked this new topping even more!

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And then there are the meringue kisses.  I absolutely love these and they are a family favorite. My grandmother used to make them, and I took them over for Thanksgiving to make sure they would always be around.  They sit in the oven overnight (which made for some fun times the next morning when I preheated the oven and forgot they were there… but luckily only lost one tray and not all!) This recipe also at the end of this post and I also posted about how NOT to make them and did a tutorial on making meringue in a vlog. The vlog is instructions how to make a meringue torte, but the same principles apply to the cookies, just with different ingredients and ratios.

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So we schlepped peanut butter cups, Drunk N Nutty pie, meringue kisses, two sets of brownies, apple cider salted caramels, and Mike’s famous butternut squash souffle up to White Plains.

My dad’s cousins host every year, and they always set a beautiful table and we all get name markers.  The rule of Thanksgiving is that if you bring a date (which must be approved by Dinah, by the way), you get to sit with them during year 1, but after that, they’re on their own.  

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And my cousin Eric and Aunt Linda are our expert turkey carvers each year.

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Mike was kind enough to go in early and grab a turkey leg for me. (Awww)

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And the dessert table always just looks like something to dive into, mouth first.

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Here is the final Drunk N’ Nutty pie:

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And brownies.

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And meringues with other brownies.

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And the peanut butter cups.

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 With my cousin adding a sign to remind the family that these were famous peanut butter cups.

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And the final apple cider salted caramels (with a spice cake behind that my aunt made). (IT”S JUST ALL SO GOOD!)

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The day after Thanksgiving every year, we have a leftovers party at my dad’s house in New Jersey. We invite our friends and ask everyone to just bring some leftovers for everyone to share. It’s a great gathering and I look forward to this every year (almost as much as Thanksgiving itself).  And every year I make a cider recipe that is an absolute crowd pleaser.

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And my favorite breakfast the day after: leftover sweet potatoes with melted marshmallows on top!

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Gosh I just love Thanksgiving!!!

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RECIPES
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Aunt Dinah’s Winning Brownie Recipe

Ingredients:

  • 1 stick butter (softened)
  • 1 stick margarine (softened)
  • 1 3/4 cups sugar (it used to be 2 cups, but at some point in history it was changed)
  • 4 ounces unsweetened or bitter Baker’s chocolate
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 cup bread flour
  • a pinch of salt
  • 3/4 to 1 cup chopped walnuts

Directions:

  1. Melt 4 ounces unsweetened or bitter Baker’s chocolate.
  2. Mix together 1 stick butter, 1 stick of margarine, 1 3/4 cups sugar.
  3. Add 4 eggs, one at a time, beat well after each egg.
  4. Slowly pour the melted chocolate into the sugar/butter/egg mixture.
  5. Add 1 cup four, 1/4 cup at a time.
  6. Add a pinch of salt.
  7. Add 3/4 cup (or 1 cup) of walnuts.
  8. Bake at 350 degrees. (The recipe says for 18-20 minutes, but it took me 25-30 each time, so just bake it until a toothpick comes out clean)

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THE Peanut Butter Cups

Ingredients:

  • Good quality chocolate (I like Ghiradelli and frequently make milk, semi-sweet, and white chocolate versions to please everyone’s pallettes) 
  • Creamy Peanut butter – 1/2 cup
  • Salted butter- 1 stick melted
  • Confectioners Sugar- 1 & 1/3 cups
  • Graham Cracker Crumbs – 1 cup

Directions:

  1. Prepare either mini candy cup molds (these are my favorite and I use them for all sorts of things) or cupcake liners (full size, cut down in about half)
  2. Melt chocolate and pour half into prepared molds (you can use your finger to spiral it up the sides of the cups so it makes a mini dish)
  3. Put these in the fridge until hardened
  4. Combine the peanut butter, butter, confectioners sugar, and graham cracker crumbs in a mixer until blended
  5. Put peanut butter mixture into the chocolate cups (Only put in enough peanut butter mixture so they are below the top level. You can smooth out the top of the chocolate with a bench scraper or knife)
  6. Top cups with the other half of the melted chocolate and put into refrigerator until set
  7. Pop out and try not to each all of them in one sitting (but I will totally understand if you do)

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Meringue Kisses

Ingredients:

  • 2 egg whites (room temperature)
  • pinch of cream of tarter
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 6 oz. chocolate chips
  • 1 tsp vanilla

Directions:

  1. Preheat to 350
  2. Beat egg whites until frothy
  3. Add pinch of cream of tarter and salt and beat until stiff
  4. Add sugar 1 tsp at a time
  5. Fold in chocolate chips
  6. Slowly add vanilla
  7. Put cookies on silpat
  8. Turn off oven and leave off over night

Apple Cider Salted Caramels from SmittenKitchen

3 Jan

One of my favorite food blogs is SmittenKitchen. Her recipes are great and she does a great job of describing how to make certain things. Also, I find her recipes pretty crowd pleasing so I usually go to her site first when it comes to baking.  She released a book recently and when asked to pick out her favorite recipe, she managed to point to her Apple Cider Salted Caramels.

I read the post during Hurricane Sandy (while we somehow got insanely lucky and kept our power) and knew immediately I had to try this recipe. I love salted caramels and I love apple cider. This sounded like everything wonderful about fall.

So the day after the storm, I put on my boots and went a few blocks away to the grocery store in search of cider. By some odd fortune, there was one, single carton of cider left… laying down on an empty shelf.

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The recipe is actually incredibly easy. I know that a lot of people are intimidated by caramels and making candy, but it really just comes down to a bit of patience and a good thermometer.

I put mine into a silicon baking dish and they came out perfectly.

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I sprinkled some flake salt on top of mine as well.

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And I used my bench scraper to cut them into perfect squares.

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And managed to get through the cutting only eating one… 

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But these little nuggets of heaven didn’t last long as I rolled them in parchment paper.  I think I ate almost half during the next hour.  They were freakin’ amazing. 

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And they got accolades from my office. Perfect little candies.

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I made them a second time and I think that the cider I used impacted the final texture.  It just refused to reduce to the same syrupy consistency of the first time, even after I cooked it for twice as long.  I went with it, and they still tasted GREAT, but they were a bit stickier and harder to handle.  I had to keep them in the fridge just to make sure they could be peeled from the wrappers.  But still… delicious.

The recipe specifically says to use unpasteurized cider, but I couldn’t find that, so both times I used pasteurized cider that was in the refrigerated section.  I’ll have to try a few more times (damn!) The first time around I used Red Jacket cider, so if you find that, I’d scoop it up for this recipe.

This recipe is going straight into the KEEPER section.

Top Noms of 2012

26 Dec

2012 was an amazing year. We went to some incredibly restaurants this year, so narrowing it down to 10 will be very tough.  It was also an amazing year personally, since Mr. and Ms. Nom Nom got engaged in Maine (where we had quite a few of our Top Noms this year!)

For the Top Noms of years past, check out the posts from 2011, 2010, and 2009.

The Top Noms really comes down to the meals that we found most memorable and enjoyable when we reflect on the past year. It’s hard to compare brunch to dinner in a ranking, but I always think about this as what I would recommend to my friends when they ask me the best places we ate this year, overall.

Away we go:

#10 – Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune was an awesome brunch.  I was dying to go after reading her book, and it lived up to all the expectations and hype (and totally worth the wait). We really need to get back there for dinner.

#9 – Gramercy Tavern was a really great experience. It is known as a top place in New York and it did not disappoint. It didn’t have a dish that really wowed me, but it was a totally solid and great meal.

#8 – Our meal at Sublime in Gladstone, NJ was incredibly surprising.  The apple crisp was out of this world.

#7 – Hugo’s in Portland, Maine was an awesome meal. The tasting menu with the wine pairings really made for a special birthday treat.

#6 – We had a great meal at Boulud Sud while trying to make our way through the Platt 101 of top restaurants in NYC. Everything was memorable, but I can’t stop thinking about the grapefruit dessert that was unlike anything else I have ever had.

#5– While we can’t remember every detail of our meal at Girl & the Goat, it made enough of an impression on us that we had to include it. That Pig Face alone was Top 10 material, maybe of all time!

#4 – Arrows in Ogunquit, Maine was an amazing dining experience. We went because we enjoyed watching the two chefs cook on Top Chef Masters and wound up thoroughly enjoying our meal.  We were impressed with the creative dishes and great flavors.

#3– Anita Lo’s Annisa was a long anticipated meal that lived up to everything we hoped it would be. The dishes tasted so rich and were made with such love, it was hard not to enjoy every single bite.

#2 – Michael White’s Ai Fiori was our first Valentine’s Day stop this year. The pasta was out of this world, and can you really top scallops and bone marrow? Two of my favorite things in one dish.

#1 – Our meal at Eleven Madison Park (Part 1 and Part 2!) was the best one we have ever had ever! It was an adventure, a journey, an experience, and one delicious meal. I can’t imagine anything better. And it got the one and only 10 out of 10 Nom Points in NYC Nom Nom history.

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Special mentions go out to Cannibal for the awesome Pig’s Head, Smush for a great take on dessert, the pasta with the roast drippings (Tajarin with Sugo d’Arrosto) from Manzo, Eventide in Portland Maine for the awesome new take on the lobster roll, and the Tap Room at Colicchio and Sons for continuing to impress everyone we bring there. We also had quite an amazing time at our “secret” Chef’s Table at SD26, since we got to watch them cook while having a chef’s selected meal. I went back with coworkers a few months later, and it managed to impress the hell out of them, too.

What a year!

Girl and The Goat: Chicago

24 Dec

I am long, long overdue for posting about Chicago. I’ve been twice this year and keep trying to find time to post all 13 (!) of those posts.  Unfortunately (and fortunately), this was one heck of a year, so a full Chicago review won’t come out for a bit.  But I would be remiss if I didn’t post about our amazing dinner at Girl & The Goat on a very cold evening back in January.

We decided to go because we just love Top Chef and have no shame in trying every Top Chef restaurant we can find, especially when traveling.   Girl and the Goat is led by Top Chef’s only female winner (to date), Stephanie Izard. (I also kind of love her because she’s a fellow curly girl, and I feel like that bonds us in some way. I like to pretend that if we sat next to each other on a plane, we’d become great friends… a girl can dream, right?)

We couldn’t get a reservation last minute, so we walked in and crossed our fingers. Within 20 minutes, we had a table for 4.

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I thoroughly enjoyed this kind of creepy, kind of awesome mural on the wall.

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The restaurant is definitely industrial, with a full view of the kitchen.  We saw Stephanie Izard a few times throughout the meal, and she was very gracious when I went up to talk to her afterwards and thank her for an incredible meal.

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I really enjoyed the goat theme throughout.

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We started with a nice hunk of bread with some delicious spreads.

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This was a long time ago (almost a year!) so I apologize that we don’t have great memory for what we ate (besides the pig face… more on that later). And while I can’t remember all the details, what I do remember is being insanely impressed over the entire meal. And I remember thinking throughout the meal that this was an epic dining experience. One of those meals that you just know will be hard to find one better. To make it worse, we were in a really dark corner, so the pictures aren’t great. Basically, this review is not the best, but I couldn’t let this year pass without mentioning how much we truly loved Girl & the Goat.

We started with what we think was a cracklin’ salad.  I remember as soon as the meal started we all started “Mmmming” and we knew we were in for a great meal.

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I remember the waiter recommended we try this, and it was nothing I would have picked myself but we wound up really enjoying it.

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We also had a cauliflower side that everyone really loved.

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And the restaurant was SO accomodating to my allergy. One of the very few places we have been where they actually made separate versions of dishes we were sharing just so I could eat it. Here was my pepper-less cauliflower.

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The octopus dish was really incredible. A perfect blend of textures and flavors that really showed off the delicious octopus.

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The next few dishes are fuzzy, but I can say that we enjoyed every bite…

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And then, at the very end of the meal, the piece de resistance… the wood roasted pig face. This had peppers in it, but I tried a tiny bite anyway. And even though my tongue was itchy and starting to blister, I ate a full portion. It was that good. It was so delicious, so tender, and so packed with flavor that I didn’t care that my mouth was blistering.  It was 100% worth it.  And, as the last dish, this took an already amazing meal to a whole new level.  It was one of the best single dishes I have ever had in my life.  Very impressive.

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Girl & the Goat overall was incredibly good. Every dish added depth and excitement to the last, and each one alone could have been the best dish on a restaurant’s menu, but this restaurant had them all. And then when the pig face came out, all bets were off.  An incredible meal. One of the best of the year.

Total Nom Points: 8.5 out of 10

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Gramercy Tavern for Mike’s Birthday Dinner

18 Dec

Back in October, I surprised Mike with a dinner at Gramercy Tavern for his birthday. I had lunch once at the bar, but had never had a full dinner there, so we were both excited to try it.

The inside is beautiful, with separate but grand rooms and just a really comfortable dining room. We both commented that it was one of our favorite restaurant spaces.

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Our waiter very nicely took a picture of us to remember the occasion.

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We started with an amuse bouche of a polenta cake and some sort of fish topping. I remember it being unmemorable.

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We then started into the Seasonal Tasting menu with a red snapper course that came with sunchoke, shiitake mushrooms, and (not mine) jalapeno peppers.  The snapper was very fresh and the broth around it was quite nice.

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Our next course was lobster with corn, sucrine lettuce, and pickled green tomato. The lobster had great flavor and went very well with everything around it.

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We then had smoked trout with cippollini puree and pickled onion.  The combination of trout and onions was fantastic, and the smoked trout was perfectly smoked, full of flavor, and the thin slice made for just the perfect bite.

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The duck agnolotti were next and came with turnips, carrots, and arugula.  The duck was so flavorful and perfectly sweet, balanced with the arugula.  I wanted more agnolotti, not because the portion was too small, but because they were so delicious.

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Our last savory course was roasted and braised beef with black garlic and farro (was supposed to also have peppers, but mine was without, due to my allergy).  This was a perfectly cooked piece of meat and the jus was perfectly flavored.  Every course was even better than the last, building one after the other for a really fantastic meal.

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We had an intermezzo with raspberries.

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We then were given a free glass of moscato (yum!) with the raspberry dessert

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I don’t remember it very well, but I remember those raspberries being so perfectly fresh.

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Then out came a very nice Happy Birthday dessert with shaved ice. It was quite refreshing.

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We then started into our tasting dessert, which had chocolate mousse tower that I believe came with hazelnuts.

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Then a delicious display of petit fours.  Chocolate mousse cups, macarons, chocolate fudge squares, and their famous toffee (which I actually use the recipe to make my own!)

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All of the bites were very good (though shh… my toffee is better).  I really enjoy ending a meal with these little bites.

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And then they did do one of my favorite things that a restaurant can do… gave us a muffin to eat in the morning. It’s such a great way to enjoy the restaurant a little bit the next day. It’s such a lovely touch.

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Gramercy Tavern was a top notch experience. It was perfectly in line with my expectations as one of New York’s old standbys. I was hoping it would totally WOW me, which it did not, but it was certainly a great dining experience that I would recommend to anyone looking for some classic New York.

Total Nom Points: 7.5 out of 10

Total Nom Points: 7.5 out of 10

The New Champion: Eleven Madison Park- Part 2

13 Dec

Welcome back to our incredible meal at Eleven Madison Park. If you haven’t read Part 1 of our number one meal of all time, please go back there and come back here when you’re done!

So where were we?

Oh yes… we had just had some salsify and realized our cocktails were, sadly, empty.  So it was time for wine (while I was tempted by the wine pairing, I was nervous that I would be too drunk at the end to really enjoy and remember the meal… so we went for a bottle instead).  We told the sommelier that our favorite white wines were Vouvray and Russian River Chardonnay.  He mentioned that we had diverse flavors and we discussed trying something that was interesting. He recommended we try a WHITE Rioja. I hadn’t heard of a white Rioja, but we were game.  It came in netting. How fun!  

The wine tasted great and complimented the whole meal well. Must keep white Rioja in mind!

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But now… back to the meat grinder!

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We were soon given a tray of a whole bunch of mini bowls.  From left to right and top to bottom, there was an apple mustard, sunflower seeds, quail egg, dried blue fish, chives, whole grain mustard, horse radish, apple, and salt (the same special salt as before). In the little squeeze bottles were an apple oil and the other was a horse radish oil of some kind.

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It was also served with slices of rye bread.

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But what was going into the meat grinder?  Never would have expected this…

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Fresh New York carrots were ground for us right at the table into “carrot tartare.”

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It made a great consistency that was neither mushy nor crunchy, but exactly the same texture as tartare. How interesting!

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You then mix in however much of anything you want and enjoy.

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I really enjoyed the taste of the quail egg with the carrot.

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Our next course was one of my absolute favorites. It was lobster with poached leeks, black onion, and a shellfish bisque. I also think one of the waiters mentioned it had black garlic in it (one of my favorite flavors). This was everything right.  The leeks had a delicious char flavor and the lobster was so sweet and flavorful.  It all went so well together and I couldn’t believe how elevated this dish was. (Come on! How do you possibly elevate LOBSTER?! Amazing!)

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As we were finishing up, we were presented with our 140 day aged beef.

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And we saw the duck (that we didn’t choose) presented to the table next door. It was lavender and honey coated.

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While we awaited our beef, we were presented with a roasted parsnip with sesame, parsley, and dijon.  It had a parsnip chip on top.  I am not a huge parsnip fan, but this was a really fantastic presentation and all the textures made it very interesting. I was impressed that a parsnip could be made to taste this good.

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Once we finished our parsnip, a bowl of magic was put in front of us.  I cannot do justice to the smell (and taste) that came from this bowl. It was an introduction to the flavors we would be having next, a beef broth made with the same seasonings as our next course. It was a nostalgic flavor that brought me immediately back to my Great Grandmother’s kitchen. It was a memory I didn’t even know I had. Smell is a magical thing.

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After our incredible broth, we were given our beef course.  It was grilled with mushrooms (the likes of which was a variety I have never seen), amaranth, and arugula.  The amaranth is a tiny North American grain that was toasted and added a perfect little crispiness to this dish.  It was served with a sauce with the same flavors as the broth.

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On the side was a braised oxtail with foie gras and potato.  The oxtail was the texture of short ribs and incredibly rich in flavor.  The foie gras and the potato had such a great flavor, and it was all a bit reminiscent of a (brilliant) shepherds pie with that potato/meaty combo.

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The rib eye steak itself was absolutely incredible.  Charred and perfectly cooked, with an amazing sauce.  Every bite made me do the “happy belly dance.”

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What came next was one of my favorite parts of the whole meal. It started with a porcelain plate that perfectly resembled a paper plate.

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And then out came a mystery basket they called a “Greensward.”  

They said everything we would need was in the basket, except we may need a bottle opener, which they provided.

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We took a peak

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Inside was a beer, a soft pretzel, cheese, grapes, and plum mustard.  

I commented that the restaurant was like Christmas, because you just got to keep opening up presents.

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The beer was a special brew from Ithaca Beer Co. and we really enjoyed it. It was perfect with everything.

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I went to Ithaca College and always liked this brewery. I’m so glad it’s growing and now showing up all over the place in NYC!

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The plum mustard was a bit much for me (not a mustard fan), but Mike liked it.

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The cheese was served inside a mystery box…

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… and the cheese smell when you opened it was awesome.

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The grapes and pretzel went perfectly with the cheese and beer.  It was just a perfect picnic basket and totally FUN!

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After we were done with our picnic, they wheeled over a cart and started mixing up their take on the egg cream.  It was made with vanilla malt and fresh seltzer right in front of us.

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I’m not sure if I’ve ever had a real egg cream, but I can tell you that I never have had, nor probably will ever have again, an egg cream as good as this. It was a little glass of heaven.

It was a great conversion from our savory courses to our desserts. 

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Our first dessert came out and looked like autumn on a plate. It was poached pear with honey and acorn. (Acorn?) I don’t know what acorn tastes like, but if that was what we ate, I think I want to be a squirrel.

This was perfect. Everything I could possibly want. Totally my kind of dessert. I absolutely loved this combination.

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And then we had some excellent coffee.

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And started our last course: sheep’s milk cheesecake and port with walnut ice cream. I really loved the walnut ice cream. It was very mildly walnut flavored, but identifiable so.  The port and the cheesecake mixed so well with everything.

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And then Mike cheated.

He noticed that the plate below his dessert was moving around and he lifted it to find a little chocolate in a dish below.

At which point our poor waitress (noticing he made this discovery) ran over (with grace) and asked us to cut a deck of cards. She spread them out and then did some magic and gave us each a card.

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Mike’s card was blackberry… 

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…which was MYSTERIOUSLY the chocolate he had discovered.

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Mine was espresso…

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…which was my chocolate (surprise!)  What a novel and fun way to end such a novel and fun meal!

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And then our meal ended just how it began… with a perfect little pastry box all tied up.

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And inside was another set of black and white cookies, but these were of the sweet variety.  They were apricot and something else, but Mike’s handwriting (he was the note taker for this meal while I photographed) is unreadable at this point (I’m blaming the booze!)

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But then… there was one more.

It started with this homemade apple brandy being placed on our table, with the comment that we could drink as much of it as we wanted… I really enjoyed it, but damn was it STRONG! I only had a couple sips, but I enjoyed it.

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And then out came two perfect chocolate covered pretzels to end the meal.

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We marveled over the incredible adventure of a meal we just had. It was such a journey filled with fun surprises and every single bite was fantastic.  Usually tasting menus are filled with a few memorable bites and some other things you don’t remember.  Even the best ones.  Even a couple days later, we still have moments where we recall a whole bunch of courses from the meal and marvel at how amazing they were.

When the bill came, our server informed us that they had taken the drinks off the bill because they were late. I was really impressed that they went to this level of service to remove the cocktails.  But upon reflect, I think they might have taken the cocktails AND the bottle of wine off the bill.  I almost feel bad about it, because I’m not sure if they meant to do that. I have no idea! 

The service from start to finish was fantastic. There was only the 2 little blips with the cocktails being delayed a bit and then the one egg dish coming out without a description, but I can hardly remember those when put in light of the rest of the meal. Our server, specifically, was impeccable in every way.

As we stood up to go, we were given two cute little boxes to take home.

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In our little boxes was a sweet note for a Happy Anniversary.

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And 2 chocolates to take home. (We ate these a few days later and HOLY CRAP! They were so insanely good. It was like a spark of the meal we had and brought back all those awesome memories).

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Then a final bag with a jar of the chef’s favorite breakfast granola for the next morning.  (It is probably the best granola I’ve ever had and I just love when a restaurant sends me home with something awesome for the morning)

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What an amazing meal! I don’t know if I could say it enough. It was just freakin’ fantastic.

And we had no doubt as we left that it was the best meal we’ve ever had.

WD-50 has been our Number One restaurant for 4.5 years (even after a 2nd try!) and I really didn’t think anything could possibly top that.

But Eleven Madison Park topped them all.

Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200. Go immediately to Eleven Madison Park for the meal of a lifetime. (Okay… maybe save it for a special occasion, but GO!)

And I am giving it a perfect 10.

Total Nom Points:  10 out of 10

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