A couple of years ago, Tim and I ran the length of the Thames River. It was one of the most magical adventures I’d ever been on. Whenever given the choice of vacations, I always prefer an active one. I’m not much for museums or shopping, and really only enjoy sightseeing when it is done on foot. My favorite part of any trip is always my morning run through an unfamiliar town before the crowds are up and about. So, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that running from pastoral town to pastoral town in southern England would be at the very top of the list of my dream vacations.

But, I was surprised, to be honest. I really don’t like “dirty” vacations – animals, mud, bad weather – and England has those things in spades, so I was a little reticent. I had initially signed up to do a race on the Thames Path, which for me is a whole different kettle of fish than a multi-day slogfest. But then Tim said he would love to run the Thames Path. The problem was that Tim was not in good enough shape to tackle the 124 mile trek in one fell swoop. If we were going to do it together, we’d have to do it in stages. I couldn’t decide if I was relieved I didn’t have to race the 124 miles all at once by myself, or if I was disappointed. It was rare moment, though, that Tim wanted to join in one of my adventures, so I agreed with zero hesitation. Slogging through the English countryside with him would be way more fun than racing by myself under any conditions.

And it was magical.

We arranged our accommodations to give us between 25 and 35 miles per day. Our goal was to reach the next town by late afternoon, while having plenty of time to stop for breakfast, lunch, and coffee. We wanted to be challenged, but we still wanted to enjoy this part of England. Other than hotels, we made no plans for where we were going to eat, relying on the novelty of discovery – if something sucked, so be it, that would be part of the adventure.

But absolutely nothing sucked. Amazingly, just through word of mouth as we trekked through the countryside, people were more than happy to give us suggestions for great places to eat in the next town. We ate at a Michelin star restaurant, The Coach, just by accident after our waiter at our first stop for lunch told us that one of the best chefs in England, Tom Kerridge, just happened to have a couple of restaurants in the town we were staying in on the first night, Marlow. And our luck continued through the whole trip. Each stop brought with it another chance to try some spectacular food. We were truly blown away.

Now that we’ve been more or less locked down for the past 8 months, Tim and I have been pining away for a vacation and an adventure. Saturday night, we sat side by side on the couch, sipping cocktails, and scrolling through our photos from our Thames adventure. At the very end of our adventure, after we ran through our last field to touch the rock at The Source, signaling the end of our journey, we made our way to the pub down the road that had been recommended in the last town. The special that day was a parmesan risotto with peas. I love risotto. I mean, LOVE risotto. But it can be a bit fussy, so I don’t make it often. The bowl of warm, cheesy rice that I got that day after running through the mud in the pouring rain for hours has stayed in my brain for two years. Sometimes (no exaggeration here), I will lull myself to sleep thinking of that dish and how comforting it was. We were both sopping wet, covered in mud, wearing packs, and basically looking like someone had just dragged us out of the sewer, but the people in this pub could not have been nicer. They didn’t look twice at our bedraggled selves, dripping water and mud in the foyer. The English know bad weather, and seem to just accept that even people going out to a nice meal are often going to look like they haven’t seen a shower in a few days. We were seated at a nice table (not even out by the kitchen or the “loos”), where we proceeded to practically weep with joy at all the choices in front of us for the last meal of our adventure.

But then the waiter discussed the risotto, and that was all it took. Tim was shocked. I am a huge sucker for Sunday Roast when we are in England, and it was Sunday, but I was not going to be deterred. He asked me three times if I was sure that I “just” wanted risotto. Yes, yes indeed I just wanted the risotto.

And it was glorious. Perfectly cooked arborio rice, soft but not mushy, bathed with just the right amount of parmesan so that you could still taste the rice and beautiful English peas. Oh. My. Goodness.

Thinking about it now still makes me a little weepy. So after spending last Saturday going down English Memory Lane, I decided I wanted, no NEEDED, some risotto. I had a quart of chicken stock in the freezer, and a little white wine left from cocktail night. It was serendipity, right? I remembered that Spencer had told me about making risotto in the Instant Pot, but at the time, I scoffed (silently, of course, because I’m his mother), but when confronted with a busy day and no extra time, I decided I might as well give it a try. And it worked! I couldn’t believe it, to be honest. No, I don’t think it is exactly like a risotto you tend to like you would a small child, but is perfect for a quick weeknight dinner when you MUST have risotto. And it is beyond simple, which is what we all need right about now – especially since we aren’t going to England any time soon. Sigh.

 

Instant Pot Risotto with Parmesan and Peas

(adapted from Delish)

4 cups chicken broth (homemade, preferably since the rice itself is a blank canvas)

4 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 onion, finely chopped

3 cloves of garlic, minced

1 tablespoon fresh thyme

2 cups arborio rice

1/4 cup dry white wine

1 cup grated parmesan

1 cup peas, cooked

salt and pepper to taste

 

In a saucepan, bring stock to a low simmer. You want to add the stock while it is warm.

Turn the Instant Pot on to saute. Add 3 tablespoons of butter and 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Add chopped onions, and cook until very soft, about 7 minutes. Add the garlic and thyme, and saute for one minute.

Add rice and stir. You want the rice to just toast very lightly (if you like a soupier risotto, skip this step) – about one minute.

Deglaze the pot with the wine, and allow to simmer until almost all of the liquid is absorbed.

Turn off the Instant Pot and add the warm stock.

Put the lid back on and seal. Turn the pot on manual for 5 minutes.

When the Instant Pot is done, wait one minute and then do a quick release. If you do a natural release, you will end up with really flavorful rice, but it will not be creamy like risotto is meant to be. I learned this the hard way.

Mix in the cooked peas and parmesan. Season with salt and pepper.

{ 0 comments }

Basic Brown Butter Vanilla Pound Cake

by Carilyn on November 16, 2020

Calling something “basic” these days is seen as an insult. Pejoratively, basic connotes “bland,” “uninteresting,” or, at its worst, “unworthy”. But the reality is, without “basics” nothing else could flourish and become unique and interesting. We need to understand basic techniques and foundations, both as humans, and as bakers, before we can go off in quirky and wildly imaginative directions – and make something uniquely ours. Or at least something weird. Weird can be good.

But only after you’ve mastered the basics, got it?

This Basic Brown Butter Vanilla Pound Cake is just that, a fundamental cake that is simple to execute, but yields swoony results. It is the type of cake you can make in the morning and turn into the most glorious berry and whipped cream accompaniment to your eggs and bacon (Who am I kidding? – I’d totally skip the eggs.), or in the afternoon with and extra stout cup of coffee. It is both robust and soothing, which can be a great thing in a cake. It will appeal to everyone. No, there are no unicorn sprinkles or exotic ingredients, but sometimes (many times in this pandemic situation we can’t seem to escape) you don’t want food you have to think about. You just want food that tastes really, really good. This is that cake.

Yesterday, when I made it (for the 34th time – it is one of my go-tos), I chose it because I was coming off a two week nougat bender where I’ve been maddeningly trying to perfect a recipe. Candy is no joke. There is very little room for error, so riffing on a classic takes many, many, tweaks and binned batches. I needed something simple. Something soothing. Something that wouldn’t have me waking up in the middle of the night to scribble notes of nougat ideas in illegible handwriting. No. This Basic Cake was going to be the recipe that was going to bring me back from the Nougat Brink.

I set out my mise en place, preheated the oven, buttered my pan, and started the brown butter. I even had classical music playing in the background, better to create the atmosphere of “serene baker” in the kitchen. (I normally listen to Jeff Lewis Live or Reality Checked, but don’t tell anyone. I want to appear to be a “serious” chef.) After calmly creaming the sugar and the eggs, adding in the vanilla, and cream, and then whisking in the dry ingredients, when it was time to drizzle in the brown butter, I lost my mind. Brown Butter! Brown Butter! Brown Butter! I love butter in all forms, but brown butter is hard to beat. The toasty nuttiness that comes from just ten minutes of swirling around in a pan is transformative, not just in this cake, but in life. Brown butter pancakes. Brown Butter poured over vanilla ice cream. Brown butter green beans. Really, I can think of very few things, sweet or savory, that would not be improved by adding brown butter.

The brown butter in this cake is the magic, the ingredient that makes this Basic cake the thing that turns the insult into something you will use as a foundation to elevate many, many other recipes. Trust me. Unlike regular pound cake, when you pull this one out of the oven, the outside is crispy while the inside is still beautiful and tender like a good pound cake should be. So, despite my intentions of making something that would be a nice treat for after dinner, I ended up slicing off a piece right when it came out of the oven, and then proceeded to get off the treadmill about twelve more times to have “one more bite.” By the time Tim got home, I’d eaten a third of the cake.

“So I see you took a break from the nougat,” was all he said, but the judgment was plainly clear on his face. And then he took a bite of the cake. And then another.

This morning, when I went down to the kitchen, there was only a third left.

Basic for the win.

 

Brown Butter Vanilla Pound Cake

(adapted from Dorie Greenspan)

1 stick unsalted butter (8 tablespoons; 113 grams)

1 3/4 cup (238 grams) AP flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/4 cups (250 grams) sugar

1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

4 large eggs at room temperature

1/3 cup (80 ml) heavy cream

 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter/grease/spray a 9 x 5 inch loaf pan (if using butter or grease, make sure to dust with flour and tap out the excess – you don’t want this to stick).

Put the butter in a small saucepan and bring to a low boil. Swirl occasionally to make sure it doesn’t burn. You want brown bits in your deep golden butter, but you don’t want BURNED butter. This can take anywhere from a few minutes to 10-12, depending on your pan, the heat, and the water content of the butter. Be patient, and stay right in front of the butter. It can burn in an instant.

Once your butter is a deep golden color, remove from the heat.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

In a stand mixer, with the whisk attachment, beat the sugar and the eggs until they are completely blended – about 2 minutes. Add the vanilla, then the heavy cream.

Add the dry ingredients gradually, until fully incorporated, but do not overmix. You want a smooth batter, but not an overworked one. Slowly pour in the melted butter, beating until just blended.

Pour batter into your prepared pan. Bake for 50 – 60 minutes, or until a toothpick or knife comes out clean.

You want a nice golden crunchy top, from all the delicious butter, but if it is browning to quickly, tent with a loose piece of foil.

 

*This cake is amazing on its own, but it is over the top if you use if for the base of a trifle, french toast, or a bread pudding. Let your imagination run wild!

 

{ 0 comments }

No Hard Feelings, Pizza

September 23, 2020

  I don’t LOVE pizza. At least not in the way other people do. In fact, when Tim and I were first married, it drove him crazy that I was not a pizza person. Pizza was cheap, easy, and filling – a perfect triumvirate for two starving law students. But I had not grown up […]

Read the full article →

Lemon Meringue Bars (or, Bribing My Baby)

July 18, 2020

I don’t love lemon meringue pie, but Grant was about to head back to D.C. after being stuck with us for three months, and he loves lemon meringue. So, there it is. Poor guy, the courthouse was evacuated, and his judge pushed all her clerks to get out of D.C., and even though he was […]

Read the full article →

An Apple Spiced Bundt Cake a Day Keeps Anxiety Away

April 20, 2020

I’ve spent most of this quarantine swinging between seeking out the comfortable (doing loops and getting miles on the TM while watching Food Network) and craving things that make me feel like this isn’t the end (hard trail runs and long swims). The same holds true in the kitchen. One day I’m trying to crack […]

Read the full article →

Cooking in the Time of Lockdown

March 27, 2020

Like many others, we have been on lockdown for the past week, trying to stem the tide of the tsunami that is Covid-19. Fear, sadness, helplessness, and rage seem to have taken over the internet. For the first few days of captivity, I followed the news almost obsessively. But as the days marched on, and […]

Read the full article →