Sunday, November 24, 2019

the pre-Thanksgiving dinner

All in all, the food I served for our pre-Thanksgiving get-together was... edible. The chicken roulade was disappointingly dry, despite assurances from my friends that it was okay; the pecan pie ended up being a bit too burned on the bottom and sunburned on top from broiling in the oven. The foods that passed muster, at least by my standards, were the stuffing, the cornbread, the apple pie, the pumpkin pie, the corn pudding, the mashed potatoes, and the peas-and-carrots. The latter dish was barely touched, though, because only two out of three of us ate vegetables. (My buddy Tom refuses to touch most veggies, although he makes exceptions for beans, potatoes, and garlic cloves that have been fried in sesame oil to the point where they're nearly unrecognizable.)

Suffice it to say that I wasn't the happiest camper as I assessed my own efforts. (Charles brought over some perfectly made cranberry sauce and dinner rolls. The sauce was great, but the dinner rolls were perfectly crafted works of art, and I spent a few minutes marveling at them.) So, dissatisfied with my efforts, I'm only reluctantly taking you on a tour of yesterday's food, which ran the gamut from great to bad.

The "pecan" pie wasn't a true pecan pie: I used Sahale brand nuts, which I found at the local SSG Food Mart. Specifically, I incorporated Sahale maple pecans and Sahale pistachios, and I made other alterations to a standard pecan-pie recipe—enough to make the recipe my own. The original recipe called for dark corn syrup, for example; I didn't have that, so I used Korean mulyeot (clear corn syrup) plus brown sugar, molasses, and maple syrup to darken everything. This worked out perfectly.

But as you see below, the pie came out a bit suntanned on top, and the crust was burned on the bottom. I wrote up my own recipe for this pie, and I've now adjusted the oven temps and cooking times to reflect what I've learned from this experience. Charles gave some good advice re: burned bottoms: make a tin-foil shield that forces the heat of the oven's burners to reach the pie along an indirect path.

My verdict is that the pie's filling tasted great, but the top surface and the bottom crust were burned enough to de-motivate me from eating a second slice of pie right away. I could tell that, had I tried eating two slices in a row, the burned taste would have accumulated in my mouth and would have eventually dominated (and ruined) the pie-eating experience. Grade: D+. Below mediocre and not very inspiring. A good dessert should make you want more.

Here's the pie below. The pitch-black spots are raisins, not burns:

I can't serve the above pie to my coworkers this coming week, so I'm going to break it up and incorporate it into a bread pudding.

Next up is my motnani (misbegotten) apple pie—one of two apple pies that I'd made. The nice thing about baking the pie in the rectangular dish is that you need only half of your complement of dough, and you can fold the remaining flaps of dough over to form the pie's top—sort of. In this case, the pie started out with the apples piled high, but as the apples cooked during baking, they shrank and sank while the pie's top shell remained puffed out like a covered stadium's dome. Still, the pie tasted fine, and the crust wasn't burned, so I'll count this one as a win. Grade: B.

With the remaining apple filling, I made the pie you see below. It sat under the broiler a little too long, so one part of the top is slightly burned, but the smell coming off this pie is fantastic. Grade: B. I'd give this a higher grade if it weren't a bit overcooked on top.

Next up: a pic of my mashed potatoes and the cornbread. Both of these came out the way I wanted them to, although it was rough going for the mashed potatoes at first: I had made them early in the week and had stashed them in the freezer; I allowed them to thaw at room temperature on Thursday or Friday night, and the taters separated, as they melted, into liquid and solid parts, which I found disconcerting. I pondered whether I should just drain out the liquid and keep the solid part, which seemed to be the correct texture, but instead, I went the harder route and whisked everything together, then poured the runny mix into a bokkeum pan, where I heated the taters up to boiling and stirred them constantly until they firmed up. I should probably have just drained the water off earlier: cooking the taters amounted to the same thing as draining them. No matter: the result was perfect mashed potatoes. As for the cornbread: it came out way blonder than I expected, but I didn't mind: the bread's texture was firm, and the rough-ground cornmeal added a bit of crunch to the mouth-feel. Most important: the bread went well with butter and honey. Cornbread that fails the honey/butter test can't be considered real cornbread. Grade for both: A. The cornbread has the extra advantage of both freezing and microwaving well.

Below: glazed ham. My buddy Tom likes this particular Costco ham because it is, as he puts it, a good value for your dollar. A 1-kilo ham of this brand costs only W9900 at Costco, or about $9, US. That is indeed a good deal, but by my lights, this ham is something of a fixer-upper. When you cut into it, you instantly see that it's actually a pressed-together monstrosity composed of several different muscle groups (rather queasily, the image of meat glue comes to mind; I wouldn't be surprised to find out that this ham is actually a meat-glue creation); you can, in fact, feel the textural inconsistency through your knife as you're cutting. Be that as it may, I salvaged the ham by painting it with a fairly standard honey-maple-mustard glaze and baking it for 35 minutes. No one complained about the end result. Grade: B, mainly because of the less-than-ideal quality of the meat.

Next up: the chicken roulade. What a beautiful failure. It looked good on camera, I think, and the taste wasn't all that bad, but the texture or mouth-feel was disappointing: I had baked the roulade for too long, as it turned out, so the resulting chicken (breast and tenderloin) was unpleasantly dry and mealy—at least to me. Neither Charles nor Tom complained about the roulade; Tom, in fact, had seconds and even asked for the recipe, which was nice of him. Charles said the chicken wasn't as dry as I thought it was, but I know that, if I ever make this recipe again, my approach is going to have to be radically different. If anything, I think the time has come to buy a probe thermometer so I can yank the chicken out of the oven at the correct moment of doneness. (Thanks to the phenomenon of "carryover heat," your meat will still be cooking, and may even rise in internal temperature, after you remove it from the oven just before peak doneness.) I'm also going to switch to a fattier chicken meat, like the thigh. If I stay with breast meat, I might avoid grinding it and instead pound it out to do small roulades instead of one big roulade, pan-cooking the meat in lieu of baking it.

Anyway, here's the roulade, looking simultaneously appetizing and maggot-like:

A slightly more food-pornish angle:

The all-important cross-sectional view:

Before we move on to the gravy below, let's talk about what went into the roulade. The meat was a combination of chicken breast and chicken tenderloin, ground up, with salt, pepper, and fresh rosemary (finely minced) added. The filling was crumbled bacon, goat's cheese, fig spread, and roasted pine nuts that had been crushed. The exterior was simple bacon, wrapped around the roulade. When I did this with turkey a few years back, the result was a major success at the office. I think, this time, I ought to have cooked the roulade at a lower temperature, and for a bit less time. The flavor combination was fine; that wasn't the problem. The lack of fattiness and the cook-time snafu were the culprits here. Mea maxima culpa. Grade: C-. Slightly below mediocre.

But one good thing to come out of the chicken dish was the gravy. I took the fatty drippings, added flour to make a roux, sifted in a bit of chicken bouillon, and poured in a steady trickle of milk as I heated the mixture while stirring constantly. The gravy was good while hot... but then again, what gravy is good when it's cold? Grade: A-. I'm weirdly proud of the gravy, which was a quickie, almost impromptu effort:

We interrupt this list of dishes to give you a picture of Old Man Tom, now with glasses since he's almost 50 like so many of my friends (Charles, a young'n, has a few years to go before he reaches the half-century cliff):

And now, we turn to the matter of things that are round and firm. Charles invited us to feel his little buns which, as I said earlier, were exquisite works of art. It takes hard work to have buns like that, and I'm sure Tom appreciated Charles's soft-yet-tight little globes as much as I did.

On a serious note: the bread really was perfectly made. Charles left me with three of the dinner rolls, and I pan-toasted two of them with butter today. Amazing. Grade: A+.

Charles also made cranberry sauce for the occasion. He told us that the standard recipes for cranberry sauce generally call for twice as much sugar as he deems necessary, so he cut way down on the sugar and allowed the sauce's other flavors (e.g., lemon juice) a bit more prominence. I admit I have a sweet tooth, which means I normally prefer a sweeter cranberry sauce, but Charle's sauce wasn't overly tart by any means, and the sauce's consistency was perfect. I just enjoyed more of it today. Grade: A.

I think it was Tom who wanted to take a group shot of him, Charles, and our mutual friend Patrick, who couldn't make it to the get-together because he's in the States with a Korean baseball team. As you see in the pic below, Patrick nevertheless appears in proxy thanks to a cell-phone pic:

Charles, who was hung over après une nuit bien arrosée, arrived uncharacteristically late to the party, but when he served himself, he composed his plate very artistically, so I took a pic of his meal. This is also, apparently, the only clear pic taken of the peas-and-carrots. Dr. Atkins would definitely not approve of this carb-heavy repast:

My guests came bearing gifts and left bearing gifts as well. I just heard that, over at Charles's place, the verdict on the whole "pecan pie versus apple pie" affair is that apple pie wins "hands down." That sounds about right. Who wants an over-caramelized pecan pie, anyway?

A word about the pumpkin pie: no one ate any pumpkin pie during the party. I cut myself a slice last night, after everyone had left, and the pie proved to be so soft that it had trouble holding its shape. So I baked it at about 350ºF (roughly 180ºC) for 35 minutes to firm it up, and that seemed to help when I had a second slice of pie today. Costco sells pumpkin pies this time of year; I think their secret for keeping the pies firm is to refrigerate them, which I haven't tried. I'm going to have to, though, if I expect the apple and pumpkin pies to last through next week. As for the pecan pie... as mentioned above, it's going to be reincarnated as bread pudding this coming week, so it's not a completely lost cause.

As I said at the beginning, dinner was edible. There were high points, like the stuffing, the apple pie, and Charles's food, but there were misfires as well, like the pecan pie and, sadly, the chicken roulade. Live and learn, as they say; I'll do a better job next time, assuming I ever replicate this exact menu.


Charles said...

We are always our own harshest critics, are't we. So let me step in now to provide a more--dare I say--realistic assessment of the meal, from the point-of-view of someone who was enjoying the repast.

The chicken roulade seemed to be the biggest sticking point, so I'll get that out of the way first. Could it have been more moist? Yes, it could have. So I will agree that it was perhaps not perfect, and I can understand a measure of disappointment on the part of the chef. That being said, as someone who ate a whole slice with gravy, I think it was still pretty damn good. I hope you try this again, because I'm sure the improved version will be even better.

As for the other protein, the Frankenham, I was already quite familiar with this monstrosity--we used to pick this up at Costco and then dice it up to put in salads and whatnot. Definitely not the best ham you will find out there. But we couldn't have asked for anything more in the preparation.

On to the carbs! The mash and the cornbread were both quite nice, although after reading this I realized that I forgot to butter my cornbread, let alone drizzle on any honey. It stood up just fine on it's own, though--moist and flavorful with a good texture. I don't think you talked about the stuffing, but I thought that was well done, too. I'm a sucker for stuffing, though. We had a brief discussion about mushy versus crispy stuffing, and you said that you land on the former end of that spectrum. I'm not sure if I have a preference, but I do think that a baked stuffing runs the risk of maybe drying out a little. The best stuffing, of course, is the kind that is actually stuffed into a bird, but that was out of reach this time around.

Oh, and the corn pudding! First time I've ever had it. I have to admit that I was a little apprehensive, but in retrospect I'm not sure why. It ended up being quite tasty.

I've already given you my verdict on the pies, but I will add to that that I have half of the pecan pie left, and I've brought that to the office with me today for an afternoon snack. The burnt bottom wasn't really that much of an issue for us, to be honest--whatever burned pastry there might be seems to just flake off. It was more the sweetness--as you know, neither HJ nor I like super-sweet foods. But I am still going to chow down on that last piece this afternoon.

In closing, I will offer the other side of the bread story. I am glad that you enjoyed the rolls! It has been a while since I've made this type of bread, so I sort of recreated the recipe on the fly, but I slightly underestimated the hydration and ended up adjusting during the first knead. Still, it's hard to go wrong with this--eggs, milk, and butter are always going to make for tasty bread. Also, I made the dough a day in advance, so it had a cold ferment of roughly 24 hours, which will also help develop the flavors and texture.

Now for what I did wrong. You may have noticed that most of the rolls split or tore along the base. This happens when the oven spring continues after the crust has formed, which means you got too much oven spring. I know exactly why this happened--because I was death warmed over when I woke up, and I took the dough out of the refrigerator far later than I had originally intended, so it didn't have time to warm up before I shaped it. Even after the shaping, it was still cold, so it didn't get as much of the pre-oven rise as it should have. It wasn't until it hit the hot environment of the oven that the yeast really woke up and started farting out CO2. All in all, this is a pretty minor thing (just call the rolls "rustic" and you're good), but it was still slightly less than ideal.

(See what I mean about being our own harshest critics? Heh.)

Kevin Kim said...

I appreciate the insights. I finished the roulade yesterday by using it two ways: as part of some sandwiches at lunch, then alongside some garlic-butter dipping sauce at dinner. The dipping sauce did a lot to help the dryness, given the butter's natural water content.

The stuffing was actually fun to make. Along with the cornbread, the sausage was a labor of love, and the addition of boiled chestnuts enhanced the texture, I thought. I didn't grade my stuffing in the main blog post, but I'd give it a solid A.