Sunday, February 27, 2011

GustOrganics, New York City

Yesterday, Jeff and I went into the city to see American Idiot on Broadway. Since this was our Valentine's present to each other, we also wanted to have a nice dinner. With a little research, we managed to find GustOrganics, the first (and only, sadly) 100% organic restaurant in New York. 

We wanted a nice, leisurely dinner, so we got into the city early. We arrived at the restaurant around 5:15. Although they only opened at 5, the place was already mostly full. By the time we finished eating there wasn't a table to be had. I think we were lucky - the next time we go there I'm definitely getting a reservation, just in case.

The decor of the place was very nice, with natural wood tables and chairs and a wall of plants near and over the bar. The flowers on the table were all fresh, and it was a pretty arrangement. I'm sorry to say that the service was only so-so - between taking our order, bringing food and the check and clearing away dishes, we had every server in the restaurant visit us. We were left alone for long periods and servers were slow to bring silverware and fill up water glasses. The servers themselves were very professional and courteous - it seemed like a management/organization issue. Perhaps we got them on a bad night?

The food, however, was just spectacular. We started with some empanadas, which seem to be one of their specialties (the website discusses the Argentinian owner's obsession with the perfect empanada). Jeff ordered the jamon y queso and I ordered the humita (sweet corn, red pepper and oregano).

I wasn't terribly impressed with the dough - it seemed like quite ordinary pizza dough to me - but that may have been due to the preparation. I think this is the first empanada I've ever had that wasn't fried - it was grilled, so rather than tasting the oil, I tasted the dough itself. I tasted a bit of Jeff's first, and thought it was quite ordinary. Mine, however, was awesome. I think the sweetness of the corn was able to compete with the dough flavor better than the ham and cheese did. The corn itself tasted fresh and delicious, with just a touch of red pepper for contrast. I would definitely order this again.

They also had a nice selection of fresh juices. I'm always pleased to see something like this - since I stopped drinking soda and don't drink alcohol, restaurants tend to have little but water to offer me. Now, I'm not a juice bar person, and I've certainly never had a real green juice before, but I figured it was time to try one. I ordered the Tropical Paradise, a blend of pineapple, beets, strawberries, carrots and orange juice. I figured that the flavor of the fruits would mitigate the root vegetables. I was right, to a point. My first sip tasted mainly of pineapple and orange, but as I drank it, the beet taste grew stronger. I'm not a huge fan of beets. I've heard them described as earthy - I think that's a euphemism for "tastes like dirt." As a first-timer, the beet flavor was too strong for me. But I think if I got used to drinking this sort of thing, I wouldn't find it so bad. The other down side was that it was incredibly filling! I had to make Jeff drink the last few ounces. One of these drinks would be a pretty excellent lunch substitute - I'm sure it could hold me over until dinner. And definitely healthy!

For an entree, Jeff ordered the special: papardelle pasta with pesto and asparagus, topped with grilled chicken (which came on the side after I took my picture). The chicken portion was reasonably sized (maybe 3-4 oz?) and was delicious. They pounded it very thin before it was grilled, so it could cook quickly and not dry out. The pasta was definitely handmade and had a nice texture. The best part was the asparagus, though - Jeff said that it was like he was tasting asparagus for the first time. It was cooked perfectly, so that it was bright green but still crisp. I think it is clear that this is a restaurant that takes the quality of its produce seriously.

I ordered the tropical grilled pizza. It came on this lovely slab of wood (I really enjoyed their plating design). It is very fresh and rustic looking. The crust was slightly crispy with a little char to it. If it was the same dough as the empanadas, it wasn't obvious - it was rolled much thinner and didn't have a strong doughy flavor. I think they applied the perfect amount of topping as well. I think I'd like bigger pieces of pineapple so the flavor comes through better, but the thin slices of ham worked really nicely - especially the slightly crisp edges. What will make me go back to their pizza again and again, though, is the sauce. If Jeff had never tasted asparagus before, I had never tasted tomatoes. The sauce had a concentrated sweet tomato flavor that could only come from really high quality tomatoes. Obviously, the sauce I have been buying for myself is garbage. My new quest is to learn how to make this almost paste-like sweet sauce.

Our clean plates stand as a testament to how much we enjoyed our entrees.

The desserts were nice and small - the perfect complement to the meal and not a sweetness overload. We got the tortita - a yellow sponge cake with whipped cream and a strawberry and dulce de leche center. The cake was light and fluffy, the whipped cream fresh and delicious. The dulce de leche was good on its own, but there wasn't much of it so it got a bit lost when I took a bit of everything. The strawberry was delicious. There was just a thin slice or two inside the cake, but its strong, perfectly ripe flavor penetrated the whole bite. I definitely regretted letting Jeff have the strawberry on top.

Our other dessert was the chocolate alfajora. It was two shortbread cookies with a dulce de leche center, covered in chocolate. The chocolate was the perfect consistency - not so hard that it cracked off, but not so soft that it melted on everything. Again, the dulce de leche was good on its own (the milky flavor was delightful), but the chocolate overpowered it a bit. The shortbread cookies had a nice buttery flavor and a texture that reminded me of the Stella d'Oro breakfast cookies my grandfather always has around. It was a nice, and not overpowering, bit of sweetness to end the meal. (Though I do regret not ordering the apple tart - based on the other produce we had, I'm sure the apples would have been delicious!)

Overall, I was thrilled with our meal. I was hoping to find a decent restaurant that shared my values. I ended up with a truly delicious meal. I am definitely going back. And when I do, I think I'll find a way to order even more vegetables, since they clearly know how to select the best and cook them beautifully. Their website calls this their "flagship location," despite not having any others. I would encourage them to open more locations. Maybe Princeton next?

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Squares

I have a confession to make. I got way too excited about pumpkin in the fall. Seriously. You may remember this post, where I raved about the tasty pumpkin-flavored things I was going to make. Well, most of them didn't happen. Oh, I made a loaf of pumpkin bread or two, and a pie for Thanksgiving, but the crazy pumpkin supply I accumulated is still mostly here. And since many of my recipes don't even use a whole can, it becomes difficult to use up.

This is why I decided that late February would be the perfect time for a pumpkin recipe. Those cans were staring me down from the back of my pantry, so I figured I'd put a dent in the supply, at least. And that is how I came to use a whole 15 oz can of pumpkin for a recipe that called for a cup. I was in using-up mode - I didn't even notice until I was copying down the recipe later. But there are certain advantages to this.

These pumpkin squares positively explode with pumpkiny flavor. What may have been a subtle note and texture in the original product has expanded into an Alleluia chorus. The large amount of pumpkin makes them incredibly moist - in fact, I think I ought to have baked them a bit longer to reduce the moisture. The amount of chocolate is what really puts them over the top, though. This recipe is very generous with the chocolate chips, and the dark, bittersweet notes really play off the pumpkin nicely. These make a really nice snack, fall or not.

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Squares
Adapted from Slow Like Honey.

2 c flour
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp salt
1 c butter, softened
1 1/4 c sugar
1 egg
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
15 oz can pumpkin puree
12 oz bittersweet chocolate chips (I use Ghirardelli 60% cacao)

Preheat the oven to 350° F. Line a 9x13 pan with parchment paper, leaving an overhang on each side (this will help you lift them out neatly later). In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda and salt.

In a stand mixer, cream the butter and sugar together. Beat in the egg and vanilla until well combined. Then beat in the pumpkin puree (the batter may appear curdled - don't be alarmed). Reduce the speed to low and add the dry ingredients until just combined. Stir in the chocolate chips.

Pour the batter into the pan and even out with a spatula (try to pour it fairly evenly - it is quite thick and won't spread nicely on its own). Bake until the edges begin to pull away from the pan and the center is set, about 35 minutes (it might even need 40, but definitely keep an eye on it for the last five). Cool completely in the pan. Then, using the parchment overhang, lift the squares from the pan, cut into squares, and enjoy!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Blue Tortilla, New Hope, PA

This past Sunday, Jeff and I drove out to Bucks county to see a lady about a dog. The dog is a sweetheart and gorgeous to boot - we'll be taking her home in a few weeks. (I'd post a picture, but it was getting dark, so the few I took didn't do her justice.)

On the way home, we decided to stop in New Hope for dinner. (Well, actually, this was decided well beforehand. I shouldn't make it sound like we come upon these places by chance - there is plenty of planning involved!) Since we've gotten good at cooking for ourselves, going out to dinner has lost some of its attraction. I no longer want to go to a mediocre restaurant and pay $15 for an entree that I could have made (or worse, that I could have made even better). I want delicious food. I want food made from scratch. And I'd prefer organic ingredients. This means more planning is needed.

In looking up restaurants, I've started relying on the Eat Well Guide on my links page. Unfortunately, it has nothing for the Lambertville/New Hope area, despite its plethora of interesting restaurants. Instead, I had to wing it. This ended up working out quite well, though, because a Google map search of the area brought me to the website of The Blue Tortilla.

This quaint little place is just north of the bridge on North Main St, and right next door to a public parking lot. The restaurant is pleasantly decorated with Mexican artwork, including some cool statues. The front window displays jars of their homemade salsa. I was a little dismayed at how empty it was - we were there around 6:30 on a Sunday. When we got there a group of four were finishing their meal, and in the hour we stayed, not a single customer walked in. This could be chalked up to the weather, though - it was rather cold out and there were very few people on the street (New Hope generally has crowds of pedestrians). Despite being the only people there and being able to choose our table, I sat us in a place with no overhead lighting, so pardon the dark pictures.

When I saw homemade corn chips on the menu, I immediately ordered them. Both the chips and the two salsas that came with them (which, unfortunately, I neglected to get in my picture) were great. I thought the chips needed a little more salt, but they were perfect for the combo of salsas. I don't normally have salsa verde, so I can't critique it well, but I enjoyed it. I really liked the salsa roja, which had a rich heartiness to it. Both salsas had a fair bit of heat to them.

Jeff ordered the chicken chipotle soup as a starter. It had a generous amount of chicken, beans and avocado. I only had a taste, but I really enjoyed the mild spiciness of it. While my mouth was on fire from the salsa (I'm a weakling when it comes to heat, though I'm trying to work on it), this was a very different sort of heat that I felt in another area of my mouth. It was refreshing to have all of those different areas activated, rather than just continually burning one.

For my entree, I ordered the chicken in molé. I was very excited to see this on the menu, since it's something I've wanted to try for some time. The waitress asked if I'd ever had a molé before. When I said no, she offered to bring me a taste before putting in my order, to make sure I would enjoy it. I really appreciated this - and it was indicative of the rest of the service (although, with one table to deal with, the waitress could afford to be attentive). The molé had a rich chocolatey flavor at first that built into a medium sort of heat. Again, this heat seemed to rest in a different location in my mouth than the others. The texture was velvety and smooth. I devoured the sample - I could have eaten a whole bowl. When it came out on the chicken, it didn't disappoint. The chicken breast was juicy and practically fell apart on the thinner end. The molé was really the star, though - I would have thought chocolate and chicken didn't go together, but this was not a desserty chocolate, it was a rich, hearty chocolate. It came with homemade corn tortillas, a side of rice, and a side of delicious mashed black beans. I usually don't eat the beans at Mexican restaurants - I hate refried beans - but these were very different. They were very smooth, almost like mashed potatoes, with only a bit of that mealy bean flavor at the end. Instead of pushing them away, I ate the whole portion. It was more than I could eat at one sitting, but the leftovers reheated well, and I got to enjoy the delicious sauce once more. I wish I'd saved a bit for today!

Jeff's entree was the picaditas with cochinita pibil - thick, lightly fried corn tortillas topped with marinated pork. The pork was delicious, with a citrusy edge to it. I didn't get to taste the tortillas, but since Jeff all but licked his plate clean, I believe they were great too.

So overall, I think this place is a winner. If you're ever looking for homemade, authentic Mexican food in eastern Pennsylvania, this is the place to go. Despite being in a town that's packed with great restaurants (and just across the river from another), I think I'm going to give this one a lot of repeat visits.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Sausage, Spinach and Ricotta Stuffed Shells

Finally, a recipe good enough to share! I've been cooking consistently this month, but I've either neglected to photograph my recipes or decided they weren't worth it. Tossing shredded carrots and broccoli with store-bought dressing doesn't warrant a blog post (seriously, Bon Appetit?). 

This is a great recipe for this time of year, when you're still craving winter's comfort food, but are trying to shake off some of its heaviness. I found that the spinach took up a lot of space in the filling that might otherwise have been taken up by cheese and sausage. That made for a much lighter shell. I think it's also a good recipe for busy people. Making the shells did take me forever - around two hours - but the recipe makes four dozen, which will last quite a while. And the prep time was my own fault. I took my time and went the long way about prepping some of my ingredients. For example, I used fresh baby spinach where the recipe suggested frozen, which meant I had to spend a good 40 minutes stacking tiny leaves and chopping them up. Halfway through I realized that this is what food processors are for. But really, the rhythmic nature of chopping can be relaxing, so I pushed through to the end. The sausage took a long time, too, because mine refused to crumble. It was a little tricky to get it out of the casing, but then it just sat in the pan, foiling my efforts to break it up. I ended up taking it out of the pan and dicing it, which also took awhile. Next time I'll go for butcher-fresh sausage, rather than the packaged national brand for easier crumbling. 

But despite these hangups, I ended the day with a lovely tray of shells baking in the oven and two more in the freezer for later. I find that stuffed shells freeze very well. I make them in my glass pyrex oven dishes, pop the lid on and freeze the whole thing. They'll just need a few extra minutes in the oven later on. 

And the immediate payoff, apart from a tray of shells for dinner, is a house smelling like sauteed sausage and onions and an oven full of sweet, concentrated tomato sauce (I love what time in the oven does to tomato sauce!) rather than burnt popcorn. That's a definite win.

Sausage, Spinach and Ricotta Stuffed Shells
Adapted slightly from Simply Recipes.

12 oz package of jumbo shells
1 tbsp olive oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped
3/4 lb sweet Italian sausage, casings removed and chopped
2-3 large garlic cloves, minced
1 egg
16 oz ricotta cheese (I think I used 22 oz, because I was trying to get rid of some leftovers, so I ended up with a bit more filling)
10 oz fresh spinach, rinsed well and chopped
1 c grated Parmesan
1 tsp dried basil (or 1 tbsp fresh)
1/4 c plain bread crumbs
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
2 jars tomato sauce

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the shells according to package directions. Drain, rinse in cold water, and set aside.

Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook about 5 minutes until softened. Add the sausage to the pan and cook about 5 more minutes (until no pink remains). Add the garlic and cook about 30 seconds, until fragrant. Remove from the heat.

In a very large bowl, beat the egg lightly. Then add the ricotta, 1/2 c Parmesan, basil, bread crumbs, salt and pepper. Mix this well, then add the spinach and the sausage mixture. (You could combine all this at once, but I found it easier to work with the cheese mixture first, and then add all the extras. I think that gave me a more even mixture.) 

Spread some sauce in your baking dish (I used about half a jar of sauce for a 9 x 13 dish - my other two baking dishes were smaller, so I adjusted accordingly. The idea is just to give your shells something moist to sit on). Fill each shell with about 1 tbsp of cheese mixture and arrange in the pan (it's hard to judge how much each shell needs. I think 1 tbsp is a good start, and if there's any filling left over, you can go back and add it to any shells that look skimpy). Spread the remaining sauce on top.

When you're ready to bake, preheat your oven to 375° F. Cover the pan with foil and bake about 30 minutes, until hot and bubbly (remember to add a few minutes for frozen shells). Remove foil, sprinkle with remaining 1/2 c Parmesan and bake uncovered for 10 more minutes. Let cool slightly before serving.

Like I said earlier in the post, this made about 4 dozen for me, even with some broken shells. If you aren't making this for a large group, just freeze the rest until you need them.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Links Page

I did a bit of tweaking to my blog's design last night. Besides cosmetic changes, I've added a page with useful links. I've done a lot of research into the products I buy, and I figured it's silly not to try and share this information with the wider world (at least, the tiny portion of it that might stumble across my blog). There are sites that help you find local farmers markets and restaurants, that give information on organic food production, and links to the makers of some of my favorite sustainable products. So check the page out, explore and enjoy!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Organic, Sustainable, Local - Oh My!

I've been sitting on this post for over a week, so I figured it was about time to get it out there.

I posted a few weeks ago about the difficulty of finding sufficient organic options at the grocery store. Since food labeled "organic" can still be produced in a wide variety of ways - some better than others - I would ideally like to buy from companies that are willing to disclose their production methods. Add to that my commitment to buying locally - that means I prefer companies that not only tell me where they're located, but the areas where they source their products. Finally, there are considerations like buying fair trade, or products with the least amount of packaging, or packaging made from recyclable materials.

When you think about all of the different considerations involved in eating in a sustainable, ethical way, it's no wonder that most people don't bother to think about these things. It seems impossible to truly know what these companies are doing, and to know whether you are making the best possible decision.

The canny readers among you might have noticed that I haven't mentioned money. That's because I don't believe that, at this time at least, there are products out there that fit all these criteria AND are inexpensive. As Mark Bittman pointed out in a recent New York Times op-ed (thanks Maggie!), the government currently subsidizes processed food rather than small, organic farmers. That's why a bag of Doritos and a fast food burger made with corn-fed beef is such a cheap lunch option. But the problem is, it's only artificially cheap. There are other costs to be factored in: medical expenses to fix the health problems such a diet will ultimately cause; the toll on the environment (as well as the animals!) that a large-scale concentrated animal feeding operation takes, not to mention the people who live in the same neighborhoods; the list goes on - I'm sure you get the point. Conventionally-produced, processed food is artificially inexpensive. I am thoroughly convinced of this and am trying to take responsibility for changing my own eating habits to remedy it.

This month, I switched to Whole Foods. But I am still trying to get over the sticker shock. Don't get me wrong - I'm thrilled about this. They label their produce well, so I can choose the most local products available. They have organic everything, and a great selection of non-toxic, environmentally-friendly cleaning products. I know the choices I'm making are better - not only for me, but for the people who produced them, the people living near the factories and farms, the animals, and the environment. Definitely a win-win-WIN. If, that is, I can get over the sticker shock. I am literally spending twice as much as I was on groceries - and that's with a reduction in our meat consumption. I suppose it means I might have to start shopping smarter and planning more inexpensive meals. I know it's worth it, so the price is just something I'm going to have to get over.

One thing that will help is the new dairy I found. I mentioned above how difficult it seems to find a company that meets all of these criteria. Well, I found one. I mentioned in my previous post on organic food that I started buying Organic Valley milk. I still think Organic Valley is a great company and will continue to buy their products, but I found an even better milk supplier: Trickling Springs Creamery. For me, this option is even more local than Organic Valley - the facility is under 200 miles from my house, and they get their milk from local farmers in southern Pennsylvania. They make sure their suppliers treat their animals ethically and use organic farming practices. Even better, since they only supply milk locally, they use low temperature pasturization, which kills off bacteria without destroying all the helpful enzymes in the milk. It has a shorter shelf-life (2-3 weeks), but it is healthier and much better tasting. Their chocolate milk is to die for! And what really sweetens the deal is that they use reusable glass containers for the milk, which I can return to Whole Foods for a deposit. Their website says that each glass bottle can take the place of 40 plastic ones. And as you can see in the above picture, they're also pretty.

This company meets all of my criteria. Yes, it is also expensive, although if you take the bottle deposit out of the equation, it's comparable to other organic milk producers. And it delivers so much more. This gives me hope that there are more companies like this out there. It is possible to make sustainable, ethical food choices (if you're willing to spend a little money, but hopefully that will change as more people do it). You just have to be willing to pay attention and do a little research.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Lemon Ricotta Cookies

I threw the best dinner party yesterday.

Jeff and I love to cook for people. We keep making delicious food that we'd love to share with other people. Unfortunately, we live over an hour from any of our relatives and most of our friends. It takes a lot of planning to get anyone down here. So we don't throw parties as often as we'd like.

The last dinner party we threw was in December, for a group of close friends. We decided to make several of the most delicious recipes we had in our repertoire. Unfortunately, we planned things poorly. Our guests began to arrive just as I started the béchamel sauce for my roasted vegetable lasagna. I ended up being tied to the stove until dinner was ready, and Jeff had to be in the kitchen for most of that time, too. The food was delicious, we had fun, but we made it very stressful for ourselves at the beginning.

When I decided to throw a collective birthday party for my parents and my brother (all within two weeks of one another - my birthday's the odd one out in my family), I knew we had to do things differently. I decided to make an entree that would just sit on the stove for hours and be ready whenever I needed it: I settled on beef stew (after some negotiation with my brother, who is food-critic picky - he agreed with this on the condition that the meat wouldn't be tough). I did three side dishes, one of which was a casserole that we had prepared before the guests arrived and could pop in the oven whenever. I made biscuits the day before. My only duties once people arrived were two side dishes, one of which was just roasting in the oven, that took about 20 minutes. So I actually had time to go out and talk to people, which was lovely. I definitely plan on going this route again.

The other great thing was the food, which got rave reviews. I'm sorry that I'm not posting about the beef stew - I will someday - because that went over extremely well. First of all, it was a good entree for a crowd with different needs. There were multiple requests for bowls of stew with no meat in them. Meanwhile, my brother wanted extra meat but few potatoes. And he ended up having three servings and leaving us with a few tiny vegetables at the bottom of an empty pot. The side dishes went over equally well, since there's almost nothing left (and I tend to overcook). It's a wonderful feeling to know that you've worked hard to make something delicious and that everyone really enjoyed it.

But I digress, since I'm here to tell you about dessert. I really restrained myself here. Last year when I did this, I made a layer-cake (since it was a birthday party). But everyone on my family seems to be on some kind of diet and not want that kind of sweet. So this year, I went with some apple pie bars and lemon ricotta cookies. The lemon cookies are becoming a staple in my kitchen. I actually am not a huge fan - I prefer my baked goods with chocolate, not fruit. But my mom, grandma and brother love them, so I find myself making them a lot. This is the first time, however, that they have not been devoured! I chalk it up to the amount of food everyone ate at dinner, though - the cookies themselves were light (because of the ricotta) and absolutely packed with lemon flavor. The lightness makes them a nice change for this time of year, when we've begun to turn back to the heavy, chocolate-laden Valentine's Day sort of desserts.

Lemon Ricotta Cookies
I actually got this recipe from a cooking class at Rutgers, but I think it's originally from Giada.

for the cookies:
2 1/2 c flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 stick butter
2 c sugar
2 eggs
15 oz whole milk ricotta cheese (I started using organic ricotta, which seems to be a bit more watery than the regular kind - this made my cookies spread a bit more than usual)
juice from one lemon (~ 3 tbsp)
zest from one lemon (if you end up with long strips like I did, chop them a bit to break them into small bits)

for the glaze:
1 1/2 c powdered sugar
juice from one lemon (definitely use fresh lemons - the flavor will be much better!)
zest from one lemon

Preheat the oven to 375°. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream together the butter and sugar for about 3 minutes, until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, scraping down sides after each one. Add the cheese, lemon juice and lemon zest and stir until combined. Stir in the dry mixture until just combined.

Spoon the mixture in tbsp increments onto parchment-lined baking sheets. Bake about 15 minutes, until the middles are set and they're just golden at the edges. Remove from the oven and let rest on the baking sheets for about 20 minutes.

When the cookies are ready to glaze, combine powdered sugar, lemon juice and zest in a small bowl and stir until smooth (I might reduce the amounts next time, because I only used about 2/3 of the glaze). Spoon about 1/2 tsp glaze onto each cookie and spread it gently with the back of the spoon. (I find it easiest to glaze the cookies while still on the parchment, to reduce the mess - I used to do it with the cookies on cooling racks and it was a drippy disaster!) Let the glaze harden for about 2 hours (I did this, and then put the cookies into a tupperware which allowed the glaze to re-moisten. I think the only solution is to not make these too far in advance, so you can keep them out).

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Rustic Cocoa Loaf Cake

I've been grumpy a lot lately. It's weird because so many things are going well. Even on days when good things happen, I find myself discontented and grumbly. I think it's the weather.

I was prepared for this to be a hard semester. I'm spending the vast majority of it home by myself. I figured I'd end up a little stir crazy. But it hasn't been so bad. Jeff's snow days and the job talks I've been going to campus for mean that I've been around people far more than I'd expected. This is good. I think my problem is the winter itself. I want to go outside. I want to watch my plants start to peep up out of the soil. I want to rake flower beds and trim branches to get ready for the new season.

But alas, my garden is buried under a few storms' worth of snow. And today, a fresh coat of ice.

What's a girl to do when the forces of nature are working against her? Bake something chocolate, of course!

Today's recipe came about entirely because I was grumpy. I thought chocolate might cheer me up. It did, a little. That and TMC's late medieval and Tudor movie marathon last night. But I'm sure the cake was a big part of it.

This is an interesting sort of cake. It comes out of the oven looking like a normal loaf, but as it cools the center collapses almost like a souffle. The center of the collapsed bit is a rich, dense bundle of chocolate goodness. The top crust seemed lighter and eggy to me, almost like the top of an angel food cake (makes sense - three eggs is a lot for one loaf). Overall, this was perfectly satisfying for a lousy, icy, grumbly day.

Rustic Cocoa Loaf Cake
Adapted from The Spiced Life blog.

6 tbsp high-quality Dutch cocoa powder (I confess, I just used the normal stuff I had on hand)
1/4 c heavy cream
1 c + 2 tbsp flour
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 stick butter, softened
1 1/2 c superfine sugar
3 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 c chocolate chips (my secret weapon - I definitely think they amped up the cake)
(1/4 tsp espresso powder - The recipe includes this. Espresso powder is often used to enhance the flavor of chocolate. Since I don't like coffee and don't want to taste coffee in my chocolate, I always leave it out.)

Preheat the oven to 325°F. Grease a loaf pan with baking spray.

Sift the cocoa powder (and espresso powder, if you're going there) into a small, heatproof bowl (I confess again, I didn't actually bother sifting. It still came out fine). Add the cream to a small saucepan and put over low heat until it just begins to boil. Remove from the heat and pour over the cocoa. Use a spatula to mash them together into a thick paste.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt. Set aside.

Cream the butter and sugar together in the bowl of a stand mixer until smooth and fluffy. Add the cocoa paste and beat together until the mixture is smooth.

With the mixture on low speed (speed 2 on my Kitchenaid), add the eggs one at a time, scraping down sides between each one. Then add the vanilla and mix well. Finally, turn the mixer down to low and add the flour mixture in three batches, scraping down sides between each addition. After the last addition, increase the speed a bit for a few seconds until the batter looks thoroughly mixed. Add the chocolate chips and stir to combine.

Pour the batter into the prepare pan and smooth the top with a spatula. Bake about 70 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool the cake in the pan for about 5 minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack. (The cake will collapse in the middle. That's what makes it rustic.)