February 16, 2010

Sweet and spicy penne with cauliflower

I found this recipe on a really cute blog called Pink of Perfection. I love her tagline: "A thrifty girl's guide to the good life." I admit I have had to be much more thrifty than usual lately. So much so that my dinner parties have almost ceased to exist. But I got the idea from her to do a dinner for 8 people for $50. That's right. $50. Tips she shared and implemented were not going too heavy on the apps and asking guests to bring the beverages. And it worked! I threw a birthday dinner for my friend and 8 others (okay, so I went a little over with the guests) and spent around $60 total. I made spaghetti with meatballs, a big spinach salad and two kinds of cupcakes for dessert. People could not have been happier. So, thanks, Pink, for the inspiration and the tips on how to scale it down. After all, comfort food is always a winner and so is keeping things simple.

Thus my new favorite pasta dish, also from Pink of Perfection by way of How to Cook Everything. If you don't mind linking away (but not yet!) you'll find the recipe here.

I've made it twice and not only is it really economical (a $5 dish), it's really tasty too. There is nothing better in winter than the spicy zing of red chili flakes, garlic and oil, combined with mashed anchovies, cauliflower and golden raisins thrown in for a little sweetness. These flavors really do something to lift the mood in winter, while showcasing a great (and under-appreciated) winter vegetable like cauliflower. Recently I've been seeing this curious yellow cauliflower in the grocery store and I'm hoping it didn't get that way because of some weird genetic engineering. I like the way it adds color to an otherwise boring palette and the taste is somehow milder than regular cauliflower.

I've made this dish once with whole wheat pasta (originally called for in the recipe) and once with regular pasta. We preferred the regular pasta but the whole wheat made us feel more virtuous. I figure, with the amount of pasta that we eat in my house, it wouldn't hurt us every once in while to switch to a whole wheat version. But the only kind I like and buy is Barilla brand. In my limited experience with "healthy" pastas, I like theirs the best.

Feel free to kick up the dish even more and add more anchovies, more chili flakes and lots of fresh-grated parmigiano at the end. And, for another recipe using this combination of garlic, oil, chili and anchovies (and cauliflower too!), see my "orecchiette from Puglia" post. There's nothing like Southern Italian flavors to spice up the middle of winter.

February 4, 2010

Birthday Cakes

I recently was asked by a friend to bake three different birthday cakes for a party she was hosting. Three different people, three different ages and three different tastes.

If you have been reading my blog you know that I love to bake. I bake a lot. And I even sometimes sell what I bake! It is a funny thing to take something that is a hobby that you love doing for yourself and your loved ones and turn it into a business, however small that business may be. I enjoy the process of baking, but even more I think enjoy making things for people that I know will make them happy. So I put a lot of work into these cakes. And I think they were really appreciated. My friend emailed me the next day to tell me they were a big hit at the party and a great conversation piece.

One of them was a carrot cake with cream cheese frosting. It's a great recipe from my baker/partner Tom and it has walnuts and spices and comes out very dense and moist. The frosting is the best part: loaded with cream cheese and butter and flecked throughout with orange zest to give it a little color.

I colored some of the frosting with some edible orange decorating powder and piped some little carrots. For the leaves I used parsley and for the numbers, I had some fruit jelly candies on hand left over from Christmas and I cut an orange one into strips to form the number 35. I loved the bright orange color and I'm sure they tasted good too!

For the next cake, for my friend's husband, she requested his favorite kind of cake: vanilla with mocha buttercream frosting. I had never made a buttercream frosting but thought I could just add a little bit of espresso and some chocolate to plain buttercream and it would do the trick. Not only did the color seem great but it tasted so good. Yes, I licked the bowl.

I kept the decorations simple and masculine for him, piping chocolate ganache dots and just the numbers. I may have added a few squiggly lines here and there at the last minute after I took the photo, but left it pretty sparse. She said he loved it.

The last cake was requested as well: red velvet with cream cheese frosting. I'm not gonna lie, this one was decorated by Tom who is an excellent cake decorator and helps me out from time to time, thus the more frilly piping and perfectly executed borders. But it turned out that this cake was for a girl who likes frilly things so it all worked out in the end.

While this was a paid assignment, I enjoyed it as much as if I were making a cake for my family or my best friend. I think that's the key to making quality products that people will love. If you'd make something with love for your favorite person or yourself, why would you make it any differently for a customer?

I'm making a cake and some cupcakes for a dinner party this weekend for my friend's birthday. I know she'll love whatever I make for her, but I'll enjoy the process just as much. I'm thinking coconut-vanilla cupcakes or chocolate-buttermilk cake with raspberry filling.... mmmm