Misadventures in cookery: Watermelon sherbet

It seemed like a great idea at the time: making watermelon sherbet to serve at a vaguely Southern-themed dinner party in the height of summer. Just four little ingredients.

How hard could it be? But something went very wrong.

First I made a puree out of fresh watermelon. Simple enough. Squeeze in a little lemon juice and chill it until it’s really cold. At the same time, make sure that your ice cream canister is frozen. Checkity check check check.

Now for the potentially trick part. But I followed the recipe to the letter, I swear.

I threw two egg whites and a little salt in the stand mixer and gave them whirl. Beat them just to the stiff peak stage.

Meanwhile, I cooked a four-to-one sugar-and-water mixture to the soft ball stage (238 degrees). I used my candy thermometer. I watched it a like a hawk, I tell you.

When it reached the right temperature, I slowly poured the sugar syrup into the egg whites while the motor was running. This is Meringue Making 101, and it results in some really cool sugar sculpture on your whisk as it flings the sugar syrup around.

When the meringue is done and whipped until it’s cool, you’re supposed to “gently fold” it into the watermelon mixture. Great. I can “gently fold” in my sleep. I am the queen of “gentle folding.” So I put the meringue in the bowl with the watermelon.

So purty! But “gently folding” did nothing but make a big gloppy mess. The meringue was too thick–plasticky even–and after beating the crap out of it for five minutes, all I had was this sickly looking disaster.

I could have beaten this thing all day and never gotten any further than this. I briefly considered pulling out my immersion blender and having a go, but by this time I figured it was time to cut my losses and move on to the other dishes I needed to cook.

So, oh pastry cooks, what the bleep? My only guess is that the sugar syrup got too hot (maybe the hard ball stage) and messed everything up. So maybe my thermometer is calibrated incorrectly? I guess it’s back to making vanilla ice cream for me. Sigh.

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A triple birthday celebration: As sweet as Oreo cupcakes

Last night I had the pleasure of having five of my favorite gal pals over for a decadent dinner. We were celebrating the recent or upcoming birthdays of three of them, and the remaining two are radiantly pregnant, so there were plenty of reasons for clinking glasses of wine, or sparkling blood orange soda, as the case may be. Unfortunately I didn’t think to snap photos of the charming ladies themselves (*smacks forehead*), but as usual, I’ve written myself some notes about the event.

I’ve been in the habit of jotting down post-party notes for years, but I became more organized about it a handful of years ago, when Chronicle Books hired me to write the text for The Hostess Diary, a cute little journal with fun retro illustrations and spaces for keeping notes.

I ramble on far too long to keep my notes in the journal itself, but it gave me some ideas of categories it would be useful to track. My usual notes cover some subset of the following:

  • Guest List
  • Menu
  • Decorations
  • Party Highlights
  • Triumphs and Disasters
  • Remember Next Time

So, for this party, it goes something like this:

Menu

Cherry Sidecars
Sparkling cherry-ade (for the moms-to-be)
Rosemary-scented spiced pecans
Heirloom tomato salad with lemon-basil pesto and burrata cheese
Grilled corn
Town Hall Barbecue Shrimp
Cupcakes!

Decorations

None to speak of, but I threw some place cards on the table. Actually, I didn’t have any place cards in the house, and didn’t have time to make any out of cardstock, like I sometimes do, so I just folded up some origami paper and grabbed some press-on letters from my craft box. Once I decided on the paper I wanted to use, it took me all of about a minute.

I’m always thinking I should do something clever, like write people’s names on beautiful flat river stones or dried leaves, but apparently I’m just not that organized.

Party Highlights

There was a lot of happy news shared (babies! South American vacations! friends’ improving health!), so is it wrong to say that I was very, very excited that one of my guests brought me a dozen eggs from the chickens in her backyard? Yes, I really, really adore super-fresh eggs, with those dark orange yolks you only get from free-range, naturally fed hens.

Triumphs and Disasters

Well, you can’t really go wrong with heirloom tomatoes topped with ooey, gooey burrata cheese, can you? And this time I decided to gild the lily by topping them with a lemon-basil pesto I made. In the right season (i.e., now), this dish gives you the most dramatic salad for only a few minutes of work.

As for the disasters … the watermelon sherbet had to be dumped down the sink before it ever made it into the ice cream maker. More on that later, because I’m curious if anyone can tell me what went wrong. Luckily, I didn’t have a lot of confidence in the recipe to begin with, so I had already asked someone to bring dessert. Disaster averted. Cause otherwise we would have finished out meal with something that looked like this.

Looks delicious, no? Ahem.

Next Time

Note to self: always ask KD to bring dessert! She lives near an adorable bakery called Baked and had the exquisite taste to bring these little treats, the cutest little chocolate cupcakes ever, frosted with Oreo, chocolate, and espresso buttercream frostings.

Please ignore the little smudges of frosting. I’m not saying that sometime felt compelled to taste the frosting before this picture was taken, but then again, it’s possible.

Attack of the killer shrimp

Yesterday I sent my honey to the seafood market to buy shrimp to make the Town Hall barbecue shrimp, whose recipe I beat to death on this blog yesterday. I asked him to get shrimp with the heads on, since I needed them for the stock, and explained what size I wanted. He soon called me from the market to tell me that the only shrimp with their heads at the market were very large and asked what I wanted him to do. “Get the big ones,” I said, since they’re key to a good stock, but I was totally shocked when I was confronted by huge monsters with big blue legs.

You see, where I come from (the Texas Gulf Coast), shrimp look like these. I mean sure, I often buy them with the heads on, but they don’t look that different when I buy them.

But D came home with these crazy beasties.

I should have taken the picture next to a ruler so you can see how truly out-sized they are, but you can get a little bit of sense from seeing one perched on my stock pot.

So apparently everyone else knows that this is what a freshwater shrimp looks like. Everyone but me, who grew up south of Houston a few miles from the Gulf of Mexico, where we could buy Gulf shrimp straight off the boats.

The verdict?  A little scary-looking but very tasty. Despite their size, most of that size is in the heads, so they make a very rich and delicious stock.

I detailed the recipe for a shrimp stock in yesterday’s post, but for those who are visually inclined, or don’t get too hung on precise proportions and just want to throw everything in a pot and go to town, here’s the short pictorial guide to making a great shrimp stock.

Cut up some onions, celery, carrots, and lemon, and throw them in your stockpot. Add some peppercorns and bay leaves.

Remove the heads and shells from a pound or two of shrimp and rinse in a colander.

Throw the whole mess into the pot with the veggies and cover with water.

Bring a simmer, simmer for about 45 minutes, and then strain. Now that wasn’t so hard, was it? Having a rich shrimp stock made a world of difference in my barbecue shrimp, and I can’t wait to see what else I can sneak it into.

Town Hall Barbecue Shrimp

Last week, when I was dining out with my sweetie at Town Hall, I had the most outrageously decadent shrimp appetizer. Although it’s called “Barbecue Shrimp” (as it is throughout the South), it has nothing to do with barbecue at all and mostly involves smothering shrimp in a rich sauce that contains a fearsome amount of butter.

I had made barbecue shrimp before, but the dish I had at Town Hall was so much better … so much, well, shrimpier … that my sweetie correctly concluded that it must be made with a shrimp stock.

I decided to re-create something similar for the birthday dinner I’m planning next week and was happily surprised to find the Town Hall recipe online here (the same recipe is here). However, like a lot of recipes that restaurants hand out when begged for instructions on re-creating their dishes, it’s not exactly user-friendly. In addition to omitting the instructions for making a shrimp stock, it also uses measurements by weight rather than volume (which I don’t mind, but isn’t the way that most home cooks think). It’s also missing a few important details about cooking times and cues for doneness. (Yes, I’m a sort of stickler for this stuff. It’s an occupational hazard of being a cookbook editor.)

So here’s my version of the recipe, which is hopefully easier to follow successfully, includes some of the missing information, and has a few minor adjustments based on my own preferences. Yes, it’s a lot of steps, but once the shrimp stock is made, it comes together pretty quickly, and the stock recipe makes almost a couple of quarts of stock, so once you’ve made that, you can keep it on hand in the freezer and use it in the future.

Town Hall’s Barbecue Shrimp
Serves 4 as an appetizer or 2 as a main course

Shrimp Stock
1 onion, coarsely chopped
2 carrots, coarsely chopped
2 stalks celery, coarsely chopped
1 lemon, sliced
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
4 dried bay leaves
Shells and heads from 1 1/2 pounds shrimp

Herb Butter Toast
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 clove garlic
2 green onions, white part only
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 loaf crusty French or Italian-style bread, such as a sweet batard

Barbecue Shrimp

1 tablespoon olive oil
3/4 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup unsalted butter
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon Paul Prudhomme’s Seafood Magic
1/2 cup lager
1 cup shrimp stock
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 green onions, green part only, slivered lengthwise

To make the shrimp stock, combine all the ingredients in a stockpot and cover with water. Bring a simmer, skimming any foam that rises to the surface. Simmer for 45 minutes. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer, pressing on the solids to extract as much liquid as possible. Strain again through a fine-mesh strainer or cheesecloth. Refrigerate, or freeze for later use.

To make the herb butter, combine the butter, garlic, green onions, parsley, and a pinch of salt and pepper in a small food processor and process until smooth.

To make the herb toasts, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut the center of the loaf into four large slices, each about 1 inch thick. Save the end of the loaf for serving alongside the dish to sop of the juice. Spread each of the four slices with the about 1 1/2 teaspoons of the herb butter mixture. (Save the remaining herb butter for another use.). Place the bread slices on a baking sheet and toast in the oven until golden brown and slightly crispy, about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare the barbecue shrimp. Heat the olive oil in a sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add shrimp and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the shrimp turn bright pink and just barely cooked through, 3 to 4 minutes.

Add 1 tablespoon of the butter to the shrimp and let melt. Add the garlic and Seafood Magic. Stir to combine. Add the lager and deglaze the pan, scraping up any bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. Cook until the liquid is reduced by half, about 3 minutes.

Remove the shrimp from the pan and set aside. Add the shrimp stock, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, and Tabasco to the pan and continue to simmer until the liquid is reduced by three-quarters, 5 to 8 minutes.

Turn the heat to low. Cut the remaining butter into pieces. Add the butter, a few pieces at the time, whisking constantly to emulsify the sauce.

To assemble the dish, place one of two of the herb toasts on an individual plate and pile the shrimp on top. Ladle a generous amount of the sauce on top. Garnish with the parsley and slivered green onions and serve at once. (And step on it, before you lose the marvelous crisp-but-moist texture of the bread, which will soon turn soggy.) Serve the remaining pieces of the loaf alongside for sopping up the additional sauce.

Girls’ night out

I just got home from book group (which always involves dinner and copious amounts of wine), which tonight was hosted by the Working Cook, a.k.a, Tara, the one of my closest friends who just happens be a James Beard Award-winning food writer and a very talented chef.

Dinner at Tara’s is never an event to be missed, but tonight it was an especially happy, chaotic little estrogen fest. When I arrived there were four little girls (two are Tara’s) between the ages of three and seven eating their buttered noodles at the dinner table, and we attempted to chop and sauté in the midst of their questions, conversation, and display of pink princess outfits.

Later, one of the book groupies arrived with her five-week-old baby girl, whom I snatched away from everyone else so I could cuddle her all evening. I think my ovaries may have exploded, but I’ll be fine in a minute, thank you. Sorry the picture is so blurry. I blame it on the quaking of my reproductive system.

I went to Tara’s house an hour early so I could help out with the last-minute dinner assembly. Of course, she had done all the menu planning, shopping, and prep herself, so there wasn’t much for me to do but follow her directions for the coconut-milk curry sauce and grill the tofu, which was already marinated. Yes, the tofu was that bright yellow-orange. It’s not just the photograph.

Dinner was delicious, of course, and I especially like the tangy, salty chicken larb. Tara came up with it for a Working Cook column she wrote for last week’s San Francisco Chronicle. If you like Thai food as much as I do, you should definitely give it a try. (The equally delightful tofu recipe she developed for another client and isn’t online yet, but if anyone wants it I’ll add a link when it’s available.)


Looking for a spark of inspiration

I’ve been feeling decidedly uninspired in the culinary department for the last few weeks or so. I blame the season. It’s well past the time for wintry fare like beef daube and Brussels sprouts, but the quintessential ingredients of summer—heirloom tomatoes, basil, fresh corn, figs, berries, watermelon, and zucchini blossoms—haven’t quite reached their peak yet. Add in the weird, wet, chilly weather we’ve been having, and I’ve been stymied almost every time we’ve had guests for dinner in the last few weeks. I’ve been falling back on some of my tried-and-true favorites, like grilled achiote-marinated chicken and refried beans. Tasty, but not exactly exciting.

But now the weather is warming up, and I have a goal in my sights: a birthday dinner I’m cooking for two of my dearest friends next week. These two friends (along with Mr. Manhattan) concocted the most outrageously decadent dinner for my birthday last January, so I’d like to come up with a little something special for them. I just took a peek at the menu they printed out for that dinner five month ago, though, and I was immediately intimidated. I realize that having friends that make such fantabulous food is hardly the worst problem in the world to have, but now I’m spinning my wheels about what I could possibly do live up to the same standard. So now I have my work cut out for me coming up with a menu. Or maybe I’ll just go to bed and dream of pork belly and Calabria cocktails …

All atwitter about cherry Sidecars

I’m so in love with cherries this week. I’ve been eating them for breakfast and as an afternoon snack. I’ve been whirling them with lemon juice in my Cuisinart and cooking them down to a blood-red puree. And I’ve just been admiring a big bowl of them on my kitchen counter. Did I mention I’m in love? And the best thing? My beloved cherries are a ludicrously cheap date this month, going for only a buck a pound at the local produce market.

Until now I hadn’t made too many cocktails with fresh cherries. I think that too often the fresh cherry flavor can get lost in the spirits, or, alternately, that you end up with a drink that’s too sweet and tastes like cherry pop. But tonight I came up with what seems to me the killer app for the fruit: a cherry sidecar.

Friends who come to my house for cocktails know that the Sidecar is my favorite cocktail, bar none, so when I was surfing the web for ideas, I was struck by a recipe I found on the Matt Bites blog. He attempted to re-create a cocktail he had at Hatfield’s, a restaurant in Los Angeles. I tinkered with his recipe a bit more and came up with the following, which, I have to say, I adore. It’s bursting with cherry goodness, yes isn’t too sweet and still has the character of the original classic cocktail. Its only shortcoming is that it requires the patience to leave your cherries and Cognac in the fridge for three days before you can indulge. I used Deau Artisan Cognac, but any decent brandy would probably do.

Cherry Sidecar

1 1/2 ounces cherry-infused Cognac (see below)
1/2 ounce Cognac
1/2 ounce cherry puree (see below)
1/2 ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice

Combine all in the ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice and shake well. Double strain into a chilled cocktail glass. (For those who aren’t familiar with “double straining,” this means straining with your usual cocktail strainer, such as a Hawthorn strainer, but also pouring it through a fine-mesh sieve, the better to reduce the number of solid particles in your drink. If you single-strain it, it will still be delightful, but there will likely be a bit of cherry puree residue that collects at the bottom of your glass.) Serve and swoon.

Cherry-infused Cognac

Pit 1/2 pound of cherries. Place the cherry halves in a glass jar with 1 1/2 cups of Cognac. Refrigerate for three days. Strain and discard the cherries.

Cherry Puree

Pit 3/4 pound of fresh cherries. Combine with 3/4 cup water and 3/4 cup sugar in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer. Simmer until soft and the cherries have released much of their juice, about 20 minutes. Let cool. Puree in a food processor until smooth. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve, pressing on the solids to extract as much of the liquid as possible. Discard the solids and store the puree in the refrigerator.