I love baking.

In the past few months I’ve made 4 or 5 birthday cakes and probably a dozen batches of cookies. I absolutely love it (even though a few times, I put the cake off until the last minute…and got really stressed…and drove Jarom crazy).

Seriously, baked goods make people happy. A really good cookie or slice of cake exists in its own moment – even if I am miserably unhappy, orange chocolate chip cookies bring some actual measure of joy to my life. It’s small, and it doesn’t cancel out the anguish of, say, having one of my kids die, but still. Have you eaten one of those cookies?

I think delicious baked goods are also akin to reading a fantastically good book. The kind where you’re only a page in and already telling yourself, This book is going to be so. So. Good. (My best examples of such books are Mistborn – specifically the first of the trilogy – and The Name of the Wind. Oh, and Elantris. Read them all!) There’s a feeling of giddiness: I’m experiencing something incredible. It happened to me when I went to the Harry Potter theme park with Jarom last month, and it happens to me every single time I use a tried-and-true cake or cookie recipe.

And I can’t ignore the aspect of “I made that cake, and now someone else is having that wonderful giddy feeling. I did that for them!”

So if I offer to make a birthday cake (or anytime cake) for you, or bring you a fresh batch of cookies, I mean it. I love baking.

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Orange chocolate chip cookies

This is one of my all-time favorite cookies. It’s so good that I even wrote down the day I first made them on my one-line calendar. I have yet to make these for someone without them asking for the recipe. So, because I’m feeling nice today, here it is:

Orange chocolate chip cookies

1 c butter, softened
1 c sugar
1 c brown sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp orange extract
1 Tbsp orange zest (about 2 oranges’ worth)
3¼ c flour
2 tsp cornstarch
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 c chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper. Cream butter and sugars. Add eggs one at a time. Stir in vanilla, orange extract, and orange zest. In a separate bowl, combine dry ingredients. Gradually add to dough. Mx in chocolate chips.

Drop by rounded spoonful onto cookie sheet. Bake 9-11 minutes, until bottom edges are barely browned.

Of course, you can cook them more if you prefer crunchier cookies. I use a cookie scoop (I’m not sure of the size) and end up with about 4 dozen delicious cookies.

Enjoy!

Recipe via Cooking Classy


Black velvet cheesecake

Yesterday was our first attempt at trying a recipe at random from our chocolate cookbook. It took a spectacularly long time to make, possibly because I was still limping around a bit and possibly because it’s hard, for me at least, to combine attentive parenting and attentive food prep.

The resulting cheesecake wasn’t nearly as spectacular as I had hoped, given the effort I put in. Also, I’d skimmed through the recipe beforehand but not thoroughly enough to realize I should have made it on Sunday in order to eat it yesterday – or gotten up much earlier than I did. Oh well. Unless I have a fancy dinner party coming up and someone to entertain Evan and June while I get the cheesecake ready, I won’t be making this again anytime soon. That’s not to say it wasn’t good; it was rich, fluffy and creamy. If I did make it again, I would serve it with berries and possibly some lightly whipped, lightly sweetened cream. Also note that I omitted the topping because it didn’t sound great.

Black Velvet Cheesecake
from The International Chocolate Cookbook by Nancy Baggett

Crust
8 oz chocolate wafers, coarsely broken
2 oz chopped walnuts
2½ Tbsp unsalted butter, melted
pinch of cinnamon

Filling
16 oz bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 c + 2 Tbsp sugar, divided
¼ c cocoa powder
2 lbs cream cheese, softened
5 large eggs + 1 egg white
½ c sour cream
2½ tsp vanilla extract

Topping
1½ c sour cream
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 Tbsp sugar
1½ tsp cocoa powder, for garnish

To prepare the crust:
Position a rack in center of oven and preheat to 350°F. Very generously grease a 10- by 3-inch springform pan. Combine wafers, walnuts, butter, and cinnamon in a food processor and process for about 1 minute or until nuts are ground and mixture begins to hold together. Pat crust evenly and firmly into the bottom of springform pan and about 1¼ inches up sides. Bake for 7 to 9 minutes, or until tinged with brown and slightly firm when touched. Cool on a wire rack. Do not turn off oven.

To prepare the filling:
Melt chocolate in top of a double boiler over about 1 inch hot but not simmering water, stirring occasionally. Set aside with double boiler top still over bottom to keep chocolate arm. Combine ½ c + 2 Tbsp sugar, cocoa powder, and cream cheese in a large mixer bowl. Beat on medium speed until very well blended. Separate eggs, keeping whites absolutely free of any yolk. Set whites aside. One at a times add yolks to cream cheese mixture, beating on high speed until yolks are well blended and batter is very light and fluffy. Beat in sour cream, then melted chocolate and vanilla, until very well blended and smooth. In a completely grease-free mixer bowl, beat egg whites on mum speed until frothy. Raise speed to high and beat just until soft peaks form. Gradually add remaining ½ c sugar and continue beating until firm but not dry peaks form. Fold egg whites into cream cheese mixture until evenly distributed throughout but not over mixed.

Turn out mixture into prepared crust, spreading evenly to edges. Jiggle pan to level the surface. Bake cheesecake for 15 minutes. Reset oven temperature to 250°F and continue baking for 50 to 60 minutes or until cheesecake is barely set in the center when lightly tapped.

To prepare the topping:
Stir together sour cream, sugar, and vanilla until well blended.

Remove cheesecake from oven and spread topping evenly over surface. Return to oven and bake for 4 to 5 minutes or until topping is smooth and melted. Transfer to wired rack and let cheesecake stand until completely cooled. Cover and refrigerate for at least 6 hours or until very cold. Carefully run a thin-bladed knife around cheesecake to loosen it from pan sides. Gently remove pan sides. Decorate entire top with a light, even sifting of cocoa powder. If desired, arrange some chocolate curls or leaves in cheesecake center and dust them lightly with powdered sugar.


Root Beer

I like root beer, or as Evan calls it, root beard.  I think part of why I enjoy it is that I feel root beer is a soda that has not lost its heritage.  I have always found the history of soda to be interesting, particularly that sodas began as medicine, and that the first soda fountains were in pharmacies. Root beer heralds from a time before sodas were fruit-flavored sugar delivery systems.

A couple years back, I began a quest to find an absolutely fantastic root beer   It would need to have the right combination of flavors and fizz to make it.  Starting a while back, I began to keep notes on the different root beers I tried.  Here are some of my findings so far.

Cool Mountain Root Beer

This soda had a strong, fruity flavor, reminiscent of the national brand Barq’s.  The fizz was very strong, to the point that it began to have a numbing effect and was hard to drink.  Overall, not a very memorable soda. 2/5

Dr. Brown’s Root Beer

This soda had the quintessential “root beer” taste, but was very strong.  The primary notes were anise and wintergreen, and it had a definite caramel aftertaste.  This soda was very fizzy, and between the wintergreen and strong fizz, I only got through half of the bottle before the tip of my tongue started to feel numb. 3.5/5

Frostie Vanilla Root Beer

This soda was an enjoyable blend of flavors!  It tasted like a root beer float, more than a straightforward root beer, so if you don’t like root beer floats, this is one to avoid.  This soda went easy on the carbonation  and so had a smooth finish.  Overall, an enjoyable experience.  4/5

I’ll keep you posted as I go through more!


Potatoes

At the end of 2004, I was getting ready to leave BYU and spend some time at home. I’d had some health problems and I’d gotten far behind in school – I was overwhelmed and needed a break, and thankfully my parents were understanding when I said I wanted to move back for a while. Before the semester ended, I wanted to go see The Nutcracker with friends, and I planned a nice steak dinner.

The dinner didn’t go as planned, but I made a side called “creamy potluck potatoes.” (Side note: I wrote down the recipe with the title “Egypt potatoes.” I’d made a cake for a ward auction shortly before this dinner, and the person who bought it asked if I was from Egypt. Aside from my name sounding not-white, I’m pretty much white as white gets. But I wanted to pay tribute to the ridiculousness of Mika-the-Egyptian somehow.) As Jarom was on his mission at the time, I invited another guy to be my date. He described the potatoes as “luscious” (and his comment was immortalized in my recipe book). I wanted them recently, but I also wanted funeral potatoes*. So yesterday I tried combining the recipes. They’re essentially similar – tons of cheese, a cream-of-something soup, potatoes in a casserole dish. The Egypt potatoes go so far as to have sour cream, cream cheese, AND butter (plus a few other things). I thought I could just toss some cornflakes on top and call it good.

Yesterday, I was almost ready to put the potatoes in the oven when the power went out. It had started snowing Monday night and didn’t let up until late last night, but thankfully the power was only out for 40 minutes or so, during which I fantasizes about the potatoes. Are you surprised that when I eventually made them, they weren’t that great? Apart from needing more salt, they just didn’t have much flavor. (There was seasoning in the recipe – but not nearly enough, I think.)

So now I’m on the hunt for the best cheesy, creamy potato recipe. Have one?

* Funeral potatoes are commonly brought to funeral luncheons, brunches, and family meals in Utah and Idaho. I’m sure they exist in other areas with a different name. Everyone seems to have their own version – some use shredded hash browns, others potato chunks; some have onions or green onions; most have cornflakes on top. Always baked in a casserole dish and almost always delicious.


Dinner

I’ve found that the Romgi and I are likely to eat fast food, expensive (but delicious) take-out, or cereal for dinner unless we plan a dinner menu at least a week in advance. But there’s always the question of what dishes to put on the menu. A while ago, I sat down and made a list of all the meals I could think of that we like, and I used that for a while. Then I sorted the meals by main component (like chicken, beef, pork, seafood) and tried to get a good variety every week.

Recently I took things a step further. You know how much I love spreadsheets, right? I created a spreadsheet with a tab for each component – now chicken, pork, vegetarian, beef, seafood, and miscellaneous – with the dishes and links to recipes. We have a rotation now where each of those 6 components shows up once per week on our menu, with Sunday being a chance to toss in an old favorite meal. Then I used my handy Google calendar to plan out weekly menus through November. Yes, I’m like that.

I had to do a lot of hunting to find more recipes to fill up the calendar. We’ve tried a few new tasty meals recently, and I thought I’d share.

Chorizo hash

Cuban pork tenderloin with soffrito rice

Lemon ricotta pancakes

Moroccan-style tilapia

Balsamic mushroom chicken

Pork chops with apples

What are some of your favorites? How do you plan your dinners? This week I’m looking forward to chicken-tomatillo chili, barbacoa pork burritos (a Cafe Rio knockoff), steakhouse shepherd’s pie, and blackened catfish. The Romgi caught a couple catfish not too long ago and we have a great seasoning for them. Incidentally, the seasoning is usually used for “blackened red snapper” or “blackened red fish,” which I always heard as “black and red fish.” So when we made a batch of the seasoning early in our marriage, I labeled the jar “Black & Red Spice.” Much hilarity ensued. I may have been embarrassed, but let’s just say that we all thought it was hilarious.

The end.


Communal Restaurant (Breakfast/Brunch) – Provo, UT

Communal has been generating a lot of buzz in the Provo area.  With its focus on local, sustainable foods and quality presentation, those who have eaten there were most likely not surprised when Communal won the Best of State award in the New American category.  Communal offers separate menus for brunch, lunch and dinner.  Roni and I decided to give the Communal brunch menu a try, and we were largely impressed with our experience.

Every time I tell somebody about about Communal, the question inevitably comes up, “Why is it called Communal?’  I think a quick glance at the menu and the decor of this establishment can quickly answer the question.  The first reason I would guess that restaurant is named “communal” is that whenever possible, the menu items come from local or community farms.  Much of the meat seems to come from Christiansen Farm, while much of the produce comes from Jacob’s Cove, both local endeavors.  The second reason I conjecture the restaurant is called Communal is that a large portion of the dining area is taken up by a large community dining table, as opposed to individual dining tables.  This allows individuals to sit around a joint table, much as a family would gather around the dinner table.  Finally, the dishes themselves lend themselves to community eating.  Instead of each individual getting their own plate, one large plate of the ordered item is brought out and everybody shares from the plate.

In general, the service was responsive and helpful.  Our server did take quite a while to come and get our order, but once he did he was quite good about making sure our glasses stayed full and attending to our needs.  On a less awesome note, I did find that several mystery bits floating in my water, and Roni’s fork had several bits of food stuck to it.  Considering that the water is supposed to be super-filtered pH balanced water, it was a bit disappointing to see bits floating in the water before we even received our food.

By far the best part of the experience, however, was the food.  Roni ordered the eggs Benedict and I ordered the sausage and biscuits with a side of bacon.  The eggs Benedict were perfect.  The poached egg was expertly executed with a warm and creamy yolk that spilled out with the first bite.  I thought the lemon in the hollandaise sauce nicely balanced the richness of the yolk, but Roni found the lemon a bit strong.  The eggs came with a side of potatoes that were perfectly seasoned and cooked.  The biscuits and gravy were perhaps even better than the eggs  Benedict.  The biscuit was crisp on the outside and tender on the inside.  The biscuit was large, but the gravy was generously supplied.  The gravy was savory, and wasn’t overly peppery (as I have found many country-style gravies can be).  The house-made sausage was slightly sweet and provided a nice contrast to the savory gravy.  The bacon, which is cured and smoked on site, had a full smoky flavor which was quite pleasant.  It was, however, a bit tough and hard to chew.

Overall our experience was quite good.  Reservations are a generally a good idea, though we have been able to get a table with a short wait.  If we could find somebody to watch our kids in the morning, I think we would go back much more frequently.  On that note, this is definitely not a place to bring young children.  Hire a babysitter (or guilt a relative!) and go to Communal.  It is worth it.

Category: Fine Dining
Food Quality: 5
Taste: 4.5
Portion Size: 4.5
Service: 4
Overall Experience: 4.5
price (per item): $6-16

tl;dr: Leave the kids at home and enjoy the excellent food of Communal.  It is worth the hype!

Communal Restaurant
100 North University Avenue
Provo, Utah 84601