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This Saturday was The 1st 8th Annual Grilled Cheese Invitational, and Choo and I came ready to eat, grill, and hopefully win.  The morning was my kind of morning, with a nice overcast sky that would help keep the day somewhat cool once the marine layer burned off. We arrived at 9 AM to sign up with the other competitors:

This year, there were categories for professionals and amateurs;  even though it’s been about six years since I’ve cooked professionally, I decided to play fair when the application asked if I had ever worked as a chef or cook.   This did, however, allow for more awards, so more people had chances to win, which I consider a good thing.  Then again, it did put me in the pool with The Big Boys, which meant I needed to bring my A-game.

Since we arrived well before the Invitational was open to the public, Choo and I took a little time to explore the site.

The competitor’s area, just before the storm:

Some of L.A.’s popular food trucks arrived to sell their versions of grilled cheese and other fabulous snacks:

Even though I didn’t get a picture of their truck, I hit the Sweets Truck to get a caffeine fix for the two of us, along with a Red Velvet and a Carrot Cake Whoopie Pie (I sampled both, and chose the Carrot Cake, which was fantastic)–perfect for a mid-morning sugar rush while we settled in to a nice spot under a tree.  We camped out until our heat rolled around at 2:55, getting a chance to hit all the free samples supplied by the fantastic people of Tillamook and meeting some of our fellow competitors.

 

Some of my friends remember my run-in with The Chicken.  He was back. 

And he brought a friend.

Oh, great.  A double batch of nightmares!

Finally, it was grilling time.

Setting up my station:

Now, let’s talk about my sandwich.  I called it Peary’s Got The Blues, and entered it into the Honey Pot (the dessert category).   The PGTB had a homemade Vanilla Pound Cake, Mascarpone & Cambozola cheeses, homemade Pear-Port Butter, homemade Dulce de Leche, and Toasted Hazelnuts.  It took some work to create the perfect sandwich–in theory, I knew all the flavors would make a perfect mesh, but my problem was when I grilled the sandwich, by the time it was browned, the cheeses broke and when I sliced it, everything would squish out into a puddle.  I finally came by a solution (which I’m not going to share, but it’s what I spent 2 years and $32K for culinary school for) and it worked.   I mean, how could pound cake fried in butter not be awesome?

No, we didn’t win, sadly.  I gave it my best shot, and we had a good time, which is really what it’s about, right? 

I do have one thing I really need to get off my chest, because the action of one person really burned my britches.  See,  there was a group of people from the general public who signed up to become judges; they were responsible for getting samples and checking off on the ballots they received.  Most everyone we encountered was polite and curious about our sandwich, and we received a great amount of positive feedback.  Unfortunately, there was one guy who collected samples, ate his share, then dumped his stack of plates with the ballots untouched at the corner of my station.  This was so wrong on so many levels, since, first of all, dumping a stack of used plates right next to where I’m preparing food is disgusting.  Then, for not just myself, but speaking for the other competitors who lost a ballot due to this jerk’s actions lost a vote, when we compete, we’re putting our time, our energy and our money into being a part of this competition.  To not vote for our entries is theft, plain and simple. 

So, Mr. “Judge,” you’ve won this very special award:

Go on, hang it on your wall.  You earned it. 

Other than that hiccup, it was a great day, and I was thrilled to see Jodie & Sparky, who we hung out with before the competition, win first prize in the Amateur Kama Sutra category (a mini-ciabatta stuffed with a bbq-ish chicken, bacon, and some lovely super-melty cheese that really deserved the win). 

Now it’s time for me to start plotting for next year’s event.  I’m already thinking the keyword there just might be pralines.

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So, let me tell you what’s happening on Saturday:  The 1st 8th Annual Grilled Cheese Invitational will be going on near Downtown Los Angeles, and I’ll be competing.  I was there last year (in fact, here’s a picture of Choo while I was grilling my sandwiches), and this year, I’m back and In It To Win It.  Or, something like that–it’s more about the fun and the cheese, especially since the prizes pretty much amount to plastic trophies and bragging rights. 

Now, I’m not going to tell you what my entry is, but I will tell you that I’m competing in the Honey Pot (the dessert category), and I’m going to share what one of the components of my sandwich will be:  Dulce de Leche. 

Caramel?  With cheese?  Oh, trust me, it works, I promise.  I will reveal all, along with any interesting cheese stories, come next week. 

Anyway, back to the Dulce de Leche. 

I love this stuff.  LOVE.  And if you have milk, sugar, a vanilla bean, a little baking soda and above all, patience, you can have your own, too.  I used Alton Brown’s recipe, even though I made plenty of it during my Border Grill days–it’s essentially the same thing except Alton uses a vanilla bean. 

If anything, do it to make your house smell AWESOME.  No candle could compare to the lovely caramel scent that comes from this. 

Dulce de Leche

  • 1 quart whole milk
  • 12 ounces sugar, approximately 1 1/2 cups
  • 1 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda

Directions

Combine the milk, sugar, vanilla bean and seeds in a large, 4-quart saucepan and place over medium heat. Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sugar has dissolved. Once the sugar has dissolved, add the baking soda and stir to combine. Reduce the heat to low and cook uncovered at a bare simmer. Stir occasionally, but do not re-incorporate the foam that appears on the top of the mixture. Continue to cook for 1 hour. Remove the vanilla bean after 1 hour and continue to cook until the mixture is a dark caramel color and has reduced to about 1 cup, approximately 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Strain the mixture through a fine mesh strainer. Store in the refrigerator in a sealed container for up to a month.

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Over at Chef It Yourself, the lovely Anamaris has started a monthly Top Chef It Yourself challenge, and I decided to be a part of it;  I love a good challenge, and look forward to doing more of these in the future. 

This being the first challenge, it was really a “get to know you” experience–the only request for the dish to be made and blogged was that it had to be about me and my cooking style;  something that brings back childhood memories, or something that gets pulled out for special occasions–perhaps, something that I’m famous for in my circle of friends.  Growing up in Southern California with a Mexican stepfather and eventually marrying into an Ecuadorian family has left a definite imprint on my cooking style.  Many meals in our home reflect the Latin influences in our lives;  rice is ever-present,  holiday breakfasts mean tostones and panela on the table, and when it’s time to make desserts for a special dinner, that’s when I roll out the flans. 

I did a stint at Border Grill not too long after I graduated from Cordon Bleu, and spent my time there as a pastry cook making flans on a near-daily basis.  You know, after making flans after a few months, you get pretty good at it, especially when it’s expected for you to also make not only their signature vanilla flan, but to also make a weekly special flan of another flavor.  One of my successful flavors was this Chocolate Kahlua concoction (lest you think all were successful, the Mango one was an absolute disaster);  a few ounces of chocolate and a bit of Kahlua turns what’s a simple creamy dessert into something remarkably decadent.  

One of the key components of a flan is the caramel.  Don’t be afraid to let that caramel get dark, too–it’s that burnt sugar flavor that adds complexity and depth to the custard.  When preparing the caramel, I’ve found doing it in a skillet is easier and faster, rather than a saucepan, and start with a little water in the skillet, before adding the sugar.  I put in about 3-4 tablespoons worth of water, just enough to create a “wet sand” look once you’ve added the sugar.  Never stir the caramel, as that can cause crystalization, and rather having that smooth, glassy looking caramel, it’ll be a grainy mess–just slowly swirl the pan if the caramelization is happening unevenly (and it usually does–there will be a hot spot or two in the pan where the sugar darkens faster than the rest).  Once the sugar is a dark caramel brown, pour quickly and carefully into the cake pan.  I’m serious when I say to be careful.  This stuff is over 300° and unlike, say, boiling water, it’s sticky.  There’s a reason why pastry chefs have called caramel “napalm”.  I’ve come away with blistered fingers working with the stuff.  If you’re clumsy and new to caramel, keep a bowl of cold water close by if you get any on your fingers. 

Yes, I know, I need to replace my oven light. 

When it comes to baking flans, it is absolutely necessary to do it in a  water bath.  I know it’s an extra step, but the water bath buffers the custard from direct heat so the proteins in the milk and eggs coagulate slowly, creating that smooth texture–too fast and the proteins seize and the end result is rubbery, overcooked flan that tastes and feels more like sweetened scrambled egg.  All you need is a baking pan just a bit bigger than the cake pan, and fill with hot tap water (no need to boil it or do anything special) until the water reaches about 1″ to 1 1/2″ up the cake pan.  Of course, I don’t need to tell you that you need to be careful when you slide your pan in the oven after adding the water–having water splash into the flan kind of sucks. 

Flans are best done a day or two in advance, as they need a minimum of 6 hours in the refrigerator to set.  I think that’s one of my reasons why I like serving them at get-togethers, as all I need to do is take it out and turn it over onto a plate. 

It would be silly for me to say this goes incredibly well with a cup of coffee, wouldn’t it?

Chocolate Kahlua Flan

1 cup sugar

4 ounces dark chocolate

1/2 cup heavy cream

5 eggs

3 cups whole milk

1- 14 ounce can sweetened condensed milk

1/4 cup Kahlua

  1. Preheat oven to 325°.
  2. In a small skillet, add a few tablespoons of water, and the 1 cup of sugar.  On medium-high heat, simmer sugar to a dark caramel brown and pour quickly into a clean 9″ round metal cake pan (2″ depth or deeper).  Set aside to cool.
  3. Break up dark chocolate into small pieces and place into small bowl with heavy cream.  Heat in microwave in 20 second increments, stirring each time, until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth.  Set aside.
  4. In a large bowl, whisk eggs until smooth, then add milk, condensed milk, and Kahlua;  whisk until incorporated.  Add chocolate and whisk until smooth again.  Strain custard base with a fine-mesh sieve to catch any possible lumps.
  5. Pour custard into prepared cake pan and place in larger baking pan for a water bath.  Pour hot tap water to reach at least 1″ high on cake pan, and place into oven. 
  6. Bake for about 1 hour 10 minutes.  To check doneness, give the pan a small wiggle;  a flan that is set will jiggle slightly like jello. 
  7. When done, pull flan from oven and let cool in water bath until cool to the touch.  Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for a minimum of 6 hours, and up to 48. 
  8. To serve, run a small knife along the edge of the flan to release.  Turn out onto a plate with a curved edge to hold the caramel.  Serves 8-10. 

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I kind of went crazy this year with making treats for Kiddo’s pre-school.  I know once he’s out there in the real world next year, his school isn’t going to be as keen about homemade goodies, so this was the year to get a chance to get some of my candy-making and cookie-baking desires satisfied.

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I debated for a while whether I was going to make sugar cookies or gingerbread for the kids.  Choo and several friends talked me off the gingerbread ledge (I can’t wait for December, when I attempt to be knee-deep in gingerbread for the whole month), but I decided to do a bit of a twist on sugar cookies that ended up being a very nice compromise.  It gave the cookies enough character that they were more than just plain sweet.  As for the icing, I like to go with Martha Stewart’s recipe and instructions.  If you do any amount of cookie baking through the year, I would recommend getting the meringue powder–it’s easy to pick up at craft stores like Michael’s or any candy making supply store.  It’s shelf stable, and you’re not wasting egg yolks (well, unless you’ve got plans for, say, lemon curd or pastry cream or hollandaise sauce).

I think I just realized my love of royal icing and brightly decorated cookies comes from them being completely verboten when I was a child.  Oh, sure, we had the occasional Toll House cookie, but a delightfully colored, almost-pure-sugar cookie was an absolute no-no, so I’m sure my inner child is just excited that I can make them now.

Brown Sugar and Spice Cookies

makes approximately 30 cookies

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

1 cup dark brown sugar

1 egg

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

3 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt (skip if you use salted butter)

1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

  1. In a large bowl, beat butter and brown sugar until fluffy.
  2. With a rubber spatula, scrape down sides, then beat in egg and vanilla.
  3. Sift together all dry ingredients together, and add to butter mixture.  Beat until flour is fully incorporated.
  4. Turn dough out onto plastic wrap and press down to approximately 1/2″ thick.  Wrap dough in plastic wrap and chill for a minimum of 4 hours, up to overnight.
  5. When ready to bake cookies, preheat oven to 350°.  Line sheet pans with parchment paper, or butter sheet pans.
  6. Roll dough to just under a 1/4″ thickness, and cut with cookie cutters.  Place on sheet pans 1″ apart.
  7. Bake cookies 11-13 minutes, until golden brown.  Cool on sheet pan for 5 minutes before transferring to cooling rack.
  8. Once fully cooled, they can be frosted with royal icing.

 

 

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Next up were the caramel apples.

One of the biggest complaints that come from home cooks when making caramel apples is that the caramel slips off the apple.  Well, of course:  if you’re buying them from the supermarket, they’re waxed like your cousin Skeeter’s Camaro.  If you have access to a farmer’s market, go buy unwaxed apples.  I know, they’re not as pretty, but your caramel will stick.  If you have to get your apples from the supermarket, then you need to get that wax off.  My method is to put them in a sinkful of water with a drop of Dawn dishwashing liquid (a drop is all you need, it’ll help cut through that wax) and a fresh nylon scrubby or washcloth.  Wash the apples thoroughly and scrub the skins; be sure to dry the apples with a clean towel.  Once the apples are dry, remove any stems, and punch in the craft sticks at either the stem or blossom end.  As I was using baby Gala apples, the bottoms were on the small side, so the sticks went into the blossom end.

Once that was done, it was time to start the caramel.  As you may notice, I’ve got two shades of caramel happening in that picture.  The first batch of caramel I made, I used white sugar–by the time the caramel hit hard ball stage (255-260°, ideally) it was a very light brown–not as dark as I would have liked it, but if I had let it go farther, then I’d have headed into crack stage territory, and there would be no chewy caramel.  The next batch of caramel, I went with brown sugar, and I liked the final result–a much darker “caramelly” color once it reached 260°.

Once the caramel was made, I had my apples ready to dip.  I swirled the apples first in the caramel, then swirled them a second time over the pan so I could evenly coat the apples and any excess caramel could drip off.  A very important tip:  put your dipped apples on wax paper or silpat (if you have it).  It will do caramel-mind-melds with your pans and plates if you don’t have anything in between.  After dipping all the apples, I just did a drizzle of milk chocolate over the caramel, but this is where you can have fun and experiment–dip in different kinds of chocolate, roll in chopped nuts or candies–the possibilities are endless.  Kids can especially help out with the decorating the apples, and you can pretend it’s healthy, “because it’s got fruit.”

Caramel for Caramel Apples

covers 4-5 large apples, 6-8 medium apples, or 8-10 baby apples

1 pound sugar (white sugar for a light caramel, brown sugar for a darker caramel)

1/3 cup corn syrup

1/2 cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons butter

Add all ingredients into a saucepan, and simmer over medium heat to hard ball stage (255-260°).  Take off heat immediately, and working quickly, swirl apples in caramel, and then tilt and spin slowly to let excess drip off and coat apple evenly.  Place on silpat or wax-paper lined sheet pans. While caramel is warm, roll in chopped nuts if desired, or let caramel cool completely and drizzle with chocolate, and roll in nuts or candies.

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