Saturday, October 18, 2014

Madison Farmer's Market

Fall is supposed to be a season for change. So I guess it makes sense that I made a big change in my life recently.

I moved! To Madison, Wisconsin!

Yup, that's right. I now reside in America's Dairyland. A place where fried cheese curds and bratwurst are diet staples, craft beer is never more than a short stroll away, and a lot of towns are named after their Northern European heritage (which my Norwegian mother greatly enjoys). Also, since the town is surrounded by two lakes, it has some great running paths with awesome views of the town (like the one posted above).

But while most of those facts may be pretty common knowledge about Wisconsin, there's one part of Madison in particular that I did not know before coming here. Namely, that the city has one of the best farmer's markets in the country. 

Every Saturday from 6am to 2 pm, vendors line up on the sidewalk surrounding the gorgeous capital building selling everything from fresh vegetables to baked goods and cured meats.

Of course, cheese curds can be found in abundance. While I prefer them fried, many people are find just eating them straight out of the bag!

One of the most popular merchants, the Brunkow Cheese tent, smells heavenly as pieces of their thick and delicious cheese spit and sputter on a hot griddle. Interested shoppers fight for toothpicks to sample some of the tiny pieces of thick, yet melt-in-your mouth pieces. As a frequent customer, I can attest that their cheese pan-fries beautifully at home and should be enjoyed with generous amounts of crackers and wine.

My favorite raw honey vendor features a large glassed-in beehive. If you look closely enough, you can even spot the queen!

Baked goods are always in abundance, and particularly tempting on chilly mornings.

Of course, samples must be tried whenever the opportunity arises. 

Unlike many other farmer's markets I've been to, the prices of vegetables are often unbelievably cheap. I can always count on being able to purchase squash, eggplants, onions, and peppers for $1 or less.

It's difficult to tell from this picture, but the cookies shown here are ENORMOUS. Easily 6 inches in diameter. Note the size of the M&Ms in the cookies on the bottom row.

And one of the main talking points of the market is Stella's bakery. Always busy, this stand churns out warm pull-apart spicy cheese bread that's a favorite of UW-Madison students and locals alike. 

I prefer their mini-breads, smaller versions of the large loaf, because they have more cheese. And it's very likely that I'll be posting a copycat recipe soon, so stay tuned!!

I'll keep you posted on the goings-ons of Madison as the leaves begin to fall and the beer changes flavor.

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Friday, July 11, 2014

The Best Mocha Brownies

Hello everyone!

It's summertime, which means as the heat ramps up, the food cools down. As families and friends gather to grill up some hot dogs and hamburgers, these main dishes are generally served with a crisp salad, juicy fruit, and a chilled dessert to combat the summer heat wave. Which means that during my family's Fourth of July barbecue, I needed to bring out the big guns.

I made the BEST Mocha Brownies EVER.

Now I know what you're thinking - are these really the best?


The answer to your question is yes. 

The base is made of simple boxed brownie mix which is topped with a rich and fluffy mocha and Oreo mousse blend. The brownie is then finished off by a quick piping of whipped topping, which really ties the light and cool theme together. An absolute MUST if you're a coffee-lover looking to enjoy your favorite flavor in chilled dessert form.

If you're feeling a bit skeptical, I guess you'll just have to make some for yourself to try. It takes a few rounds of work to assemble, but it uses fairly basic ingredients that can be picked up on a quick trip to your neighborhood supermarket. Trust me, one bite of these and you're never going back to regular brownies again (and you'll be the star of any summer party if you bring these along with you!).

To make these brownies, you will need:

1 package brownie mix, plus ingredients to make cake-like brownies (eggs, water, oil)
1 cup milk
1/4 cup instant coffee granules
16 oz frozen whipped topping, thawed and divided into halves
2 packages Jell-O cheesecake flavored instant pudding
20 Oreos

Start off by pre-heating your oven to 350 degrees and greasing a 9x13 pan.

Begin by assembling your brownie base. As mentioned in the instructions, it's important to choose a boxed brownie that has the option to cook cake-like brownies. Usually, this means adding an extra egg to your batter, but each boxed mix is different.

Follow the instructions on the box and stir your ingredients together. Scoop them into your pan and place them in the oven to cook for as long as your package says.

This next step takes some patience on your part - when the brownie base has finished cooking, remove the pan and set it somewhere to cool completely before moving on to the mousse step. Otherwise, the whipped topping will melt into a soupy mess. This usually takes about 2 hours, but if you're in a hurry you can place the partially cooled pan into the fridge for the second hour to speed up the cooling time.

When your brownie base is ready, it's time to begin assembling your mousse. Start by mixing your instant coffee and milk in a large bowl until all the granules are dissolved. Then, add your cheesecake pudding mix.

Next, stir in 8 oz of the thawed whipped topping until fully combined into a light and creamy coffee mousse.

Now it's time to add the Oreos. If you have a food processor, you can blend them up into roughly chopped 1/2-inch crumbles. If you don't, place your cookies in a bag and crush them into pieces with a rolling pin.

Add these cookie pieces to your mousse and fold to combine. Then spoon the mousse onto your brownie and spread this heavenly layer across the surface. Be sure to lick the spatula after you're done - there's no use wasting any!

Next comes the additional whipped topping. If you're feeling fancy, you can use a cake decorator attachment for frosting to pipe your topping in fancy lines. If not, you can always use the eloquent and foolproof put-it-in-a-bag-and-cut-the-corner method.

Using whatever method you've chosen, pipe the whipped topping in diagonal lines across your brownies. Switch sides and pipe another set of diagonal lines going in the opposite direction, creating a diamond lattice pattern. Finish by piping a ring of whipped topping around the whole dish, covering up any stray ends.

Take a moment to admire the beauty of your coffee-cookie mousse...

...before digging in and cutting yourself a hefty slice.

Cool and creamy, infused with chocolate and mocha. Is there really anything else you need in life?

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Friday, June 20, 2014

Heading West (in Ireland)

While the group and I spent our first couple of days in Dublin, the rest of our time was spent on the west side of the country. We took an afternoon train out of the city and spent time catching up on work and enjoying the beautiful countryside.

We spent some time in Limerick, splitting our attention between castle-gazing and frequently dining at The Cornstore (honestly one of the best restaurants in Ireland IMO).

We then spent an early morning driving even further across the country to visit The Cliffs of Moher, a sight which I honestly believe none of us were fully prepared for. The seaside wind was sharp and cold, spraying mist in all of our faces while we trudged up the enormous hill from the parking lot. After a quick detour in the visitor center's cafe, we finished our climb and were greeted with the largest drop I've ever seen. The dark rocks had been jaggedly cut by the wind and water for years, looking like giant stacks of plates on the verge of teetering over and crashing into the sea below.

But I digress, let's get back to the food. After all, this is a food blog!

On the advice of a trusted mentor, we beelined for the Burren Smokehouse visitor center, where the lovely owner Birgitta explained exactly how the shop makes its famous salmon. After sampling pieces of her hot and cold smoked salmon, I promptly purchased a 700g pack to take home to my parents.

We then headed several yards down the road to the smokehouse's famed restaurant. Fortunately for us, we'd arrived on the first day of the spring season that the restaurant was beginning to serve lunch. Call it the Luck of the Irish, eh?

I opted for a bowl of seafood chowder, which was delectably creamy without being too rich. The accompanying homemade Irish soda bread was equally impressive, and I'm determined to re-create it after doing some research on proper bread recipes.

But the pièce de résistance of the Burren Smokehouse was the salmon entree, a perfectly cooked piece of fish atop an herbed mash mound and decorated with an herb cream sauce. This dish could easily be proclaimed as the best salmon in the world. Ever. 

And while I don't normally do dessert with my lunches, the fact that the smokehouse has a Michelin star decorated pastry chef working in the kitchen was easily enough to persuade me. I chose the coconut macaroon layer cake.

Let me put it this way: I don't even like coconut, and this dessert was DELICIOUS. The mark of a truly impressive chef is one who can make literally anything taste good to even the pickiest eater, and I can honestly say that this chef won my complete and total respect.

If you ever find yourself in Ireland, I highly recommend a morning trek to the cliffs followed by the best salmon meal you'll ever have. And if you can't get across the pond, feel free to order salmon online here!

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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Guinness, Guinness, Guinness (and Prison)

Don't let the title disturb you - I promise that my group's second day in Dublin was completely thrilling and decidedly legal. But we'll get to that part later.

After sleeping off the majority of my jet lag, I woke up with Sylvia and Neha in the hotel room to a bright Dublin morning. While Neha got ready to take on the day, Sylvia and I beelined to the breakfast bar. She opted for a light and healthy breakfast of granola and yogurt, while I opted for the full spread.

What can I say? "When in Dublin..."

The group gathered our bearings and headed out for one of the major tourist attractions in the area - the legendary Guinness factory. Sure, some might question our decision to go get beer at 11 am, but we feel we were simply trying to economize our time.

The tour was self-guided, which definitely cut down on the wait time. Not to mention, like most things in Europe, having a student ID gives you a generous discount on ticket prices. 

While we walked through various waterfalls and barrels, we stopped into an optional part of the tour - the tasting room. Surrounded by barrels of beer-scented aromas, we were explained the four primary flavors that go into creating the complex taste of a Guinness. Then, to fully appreciate this combination, we were given mini glasses of beer and instructed how to appropriately taste them.

After becoming true taste connoisseurs, we headed for the big boy room - the pouring station.

Joined by another group of travelers from England, we each got to try our hand at the pump in order to pour the perfect pint of Guinness. Spoiler alert - you need the Guinness glass to really get it right!

With perfect pints in hand, we headed for the elevators to enjoy our beers in the skybar.

A full glass of Guinness, tasting and pouring lessons, and a tour of the factory certainly make the ticket price worth paying. But what really seals the deal is the phenomenal view of Dublin from the top of the factory.

Downing our pints, we headed outside to hop onto a tour bus and find the nearest restaurant. Although Guinness is filling, it couldn't replace a meal.

After detouring through the park and seeing several prominent political buildings, we stopped off at a strip of restaurants and stumbled into the first one that sounded good and could fit our large party.

Let me just say that we made the right decision. I promptly ordered the Guinness pie (I know, I said Guinness wasn't a meal but just go with it), and was given this delicious platter of goodness.

Flakey pastry filled with pot roast and topped with a Guinness-infused gravy, plus a side of buttery mashed potatoes. Absolutely heavenly, and a meal I hope to re-create soon using this recipe by the masterful Jamie Oliver.

After our meal is when the prison portion comes in. Our party split up, and I went with the portion that chose to check out a restored Klimainham Gaol Prison. Not only did we end up on the last tour of the day, but the student price was a fantastically affordable 2 euros.

Beautiful architecture and a phenomenal tour guide made this a great stop on our trip.

The evening consisted of downing fish and chips, then accidentally stumbling into the biggest tourist bar in Dublin - Temple Bar.

Which, of course, involved more Guinness. Gotta love Dublin!

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