Monday, August 1, 2011

Mixed Plate: Keep Calm and Have a Brown Butter Bar

The health experts usually say it's an unhealthy sign when you have an emotional relationship with food, but sometimes you just need what you crave to get through a tricky time. While the going gets tough, the tough make rich and creamy macaroni and cheese and a tray of brown butter bars. It's way cheaper than therapy, right?
Macaroni and cheese, better than Prozac - Photo by Wasabi Prime

It must be something cosmic or a sign that summer and I don't have the best relationship; I remember around the same time last year, things were so hectic, I had to put a hard-stop to everything and just hole-up for a bit, just to recharge and tamp down that moment of, "What the hell am I doing? Maybe I should've been an x-ray technician." I don't really know what an x-ray technician does, beyond fiddling with x-rays, but it sounds like the sensible sort of job that one takes to make the family feel more at ease than the current answer, which is, "living 'in-the-now' as a graphic designer/blogger/writer/photographer." That's the answer that makes Mom and Dad ponder in bewildered silence: four year university... for this? Self-doubt and personal crisis aside, this latest bout of excitement in Wasabi-World has been a combination of usual workaholic shenanigans, topped with the 1-2 punch of a wee car accident. No major injuries, everything's fine, but it's the Supersized Big Meal Deal of Compounded Crap no one needs that really takes the Mickey outta you. But I had the Power of Carbs to see me through. Glory Hallelujah!

It gets kind of annoying how many recipes for macaroni and cheese are out there. There's a million "ultimate," "best," "greatest," or "most amazing" mac n' cheeses in cookbooks and on restaurant menus, to the point where you want to scream. But maybe it's a case of not blaming the messenger -- there's a good reason this comfort food is so ubiquitous. Maybe we all need a little comfort now and then, and having a bowl of cheesy, noodle-y comfort at every turn makes it a lot easier to take a moment to get centered and eat heartily. While I didn't go out to a restaurant to order this cheese for my whine, I can see why it's such an easy, quick meal to make from scratch, since you probably have the basic ingredients handy: pasta, milk, flour, and cheese. This version had some bacon crumbles, but even without the smoky divine swine, making a basic bechamel sauce and loading it full of different cheeses was a pretty direct route to a happy, calm state of food coma-ville. And at least for a little bit, I didn't have to think about anything beyond the feeling of a full stomach.

Great book and tasty methods for getting to one's happy place (with help of Miss Indy) - Photos by Wasabi Prime

Another big savior for my sanity was this dessert from Keren Brown's new book, Food Lovers' Guide to Seattle. It's a great insider's guide to all the great restaurants, specialty ingredient shops and even a calendar for food events. It's also got the extra bonus of recipes shared by local chefs. Highly recommended by the author herself, I had to try the Brown Butter Bar recipe from Pastry Chef Heather Earnhardt of Volunteer Park Cafe, which is like the classic favorite Blondie Bar, but with a sophisticated twist, browning the butter to give the batter a toasty, nutty flavor. The finished bar is an ooey-gooey sweet treat. The recipe reminds you to not overbake the bar, and I tend to extra-underbake things like brownies, so my resulting Brown Butter Bars were probably heavier on the ooey-gooey factor, but I didn't care. We don't make treats like this to be some impossibly perfect dessert. Much like the pasta and cheese combination, we want our food to mainline Happiness into our system and spare the window dressings.

It was also a delicious reminder over how amazing brown butter, aka beurre noisette is. The toasted, nutty flavor is distinctly rich and hazelnut-like. I tend to use it more in savory dishes, but I forget how lovely it can be for baked goods. Turn off the Calorie Counter Voice in your head as you throw a few sticks of butter into a saucepan, and simmer n' bubble your way to golden-brown deliciousness. But this isn't something you walk away from -- butter goes from brown to yucky-burnt in the blink of an eye. It doesn't need babysitting, it needs P-Diddy/Diva-like attention and nurturing. It's a bit like making ghee or clarified butter, as you're cooking the butter itself, toasting the milk solids, developing that nutty flavor, but you stop the process before the butter is totally separated. The basic stages were captured on-camera: the butter will melt down to a foamy, golden elixir before starting to slowly darken, and when you can smell that nutty (but not burned) fragrance, shut the burner off and take the pot off the heat, as it will continue to cook just from the residual heat of the butter itself. I mean it when it says it goes from brown to burnt in an instant -- when the color starts to develop, it's wicked-fast and you have to make sure you're quick on the draw to remove it from the heat. But the extra step is worth it, and it's what makes the bars from Keren's book so worthwhile for your sanity.

So take a moment when you need it. Keep calm, carb-out, and if you have a fuzzy friend like Miss Indy who will quietly listen to your woes and likely drool for a nibble of pasta or brown butter bar, all the better. And when you see Keren Brown's book on the shelf, by all means pick it up! Get twelve copies and send to friends who may be considering a trip to the Northwest, as there's great restaurants and insider-track notes about what to order or buy when you're letting your stomach be your guide in a city. Whether or not you live in Seattle, the recipes alone are definitely worth it, as I think the Brown Butter Bars speak for themselves.

It's like BUTTAH! - Photos by Wasabi Prime

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1 comment:

  1. thanks Denise! I love reading what you write, you have such a great voice


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