Sunday, October 12, 2008

Happy Birthday Papa Muffin!

Those of you who claim my father was born in Florida in the 1940's rather than Russia in the 1870's can go to hell.

It was my father's birthday on Friday. He officially has (IMHO) the best birthday, as it always falls on 10/10. Now, I know a lot of people who have interesting favorite numbers: 17 (my mother's favorite number, and apparently the most commonly chosen 'random number'), π, e, 1084... My favorite number, on the other hand, is 10. 10 is finished in a very satisfying way—it almost feels symmetrical. Having gone to all that trouble of counting up to 9, I get to resolve back to 1 (with a zero on the end). It might be a boring number, but I like it all the same. Exciting numbers are overrated. So how it came to be that my father was born on 10/10 and not me, I'll never know.

Anyway, I make the mistake (a few weeks back) of asking him what he wanted for his birthday. "Mumble mumble gurgle," he says. Great. Buying a present for my father is always hard; he's picky but won't provide any helpful clues. The only idea that comes to mind is a six-foot paper-mâché wrench*. When your best idea involves a giant structure of the variety that might have been constructed in third grade art class, you're in serious trouble.

*One of the few successful gifts I can recall is the enormous wrench I bought at Sears for Christmas one year. He's never used it, but says it makes him feel more like a man. He likes the idea that he could take down a lamppost if he really wanted to.

Upon consultation with my mother, my only idea is shot down. "Why not just make him a nice dinner?"

Bah. Fine.

I spent all day yesterday cooking. My father requested:

Salad (tomatoes and radishes home-grown)
Fresh corn
Mashed potatoes
Filet mignon
Key lime pie

My father, generally speaking, likes scary food. He likes to squirt ketchup over everything on his plate, and then mash it all together to make red goop. As a child, I found it impossible to eat dinner with my family unless I carefully averted my eyes. So you might think that I would have the good sense to make something relatively simple, given the terrible red fate awaiting my culinary endeavors. But did I? Absolutely not. The salad was modest, the corn was just corn on the cob. But then came the potatoes and steak. Or should I say, iron mashed potatoes?

I don't have a great recipe for mashed potatoes. Thus the beginnings of iron mashed potatoes. It's a daring contest, pitting mashed potatoes against more mashed potatoes in potato combat. In the arena for the first round we had my mother's mashed potatoes, caramelized shallot mashed potatoes, and garlic mashed potatoes with chives. Only the winner of the first round advances on to round two. Results at the end of the post.

I also made what was, I thought, a very nice filet mignon. Part of it was the recipe, and part of it was just that I did a better job of cooking the steak to G's exacting specifications. I reduced the sauce more slowly than recommended, which was definitely a good idea.

Finally, I made key lime pie. My father is from the Florida Keys, so he's more than a little picky. It's his favorite dessert, and over time it's become mine as well. I was quite pleased when we both said it was officially good key lime pie.

Key Lime Pie
1 package (151 grams) graham crackers
25 grams (2 tablespoons) sugar
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
71 grams (5 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted

4 large egg yolks (2 whites reserved)
14 ounces sweetened condensed milk
188 grams (¾ cup) freshly squeezed key lime juice
1½ teaspoons finely grated key lime zest
¼ cup sugar
2 large egg whites (reserved)
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar

Food processor
Electric mixer
9-inch pie tin
Medium mixing bowl
Plastic wrap
Aluminum foil
Flat-bottomed measuring cup
Pastry bag fitted with large star attachment (optional)

Place graham crackers, sugar and cinnamon in food processor. Blend until mixture resembles fine crumbs. Add melted butter and pulse ten times, until butter is well-distributed and mixture begins to clump.

Pour mixture into a 9-inch pie tin. Cover with plastic wrap to prevent crust from sticking to fingers; press crust into bottom of tin. Using a flat-bottomed measuring cup (or another object with a similar shape), lightly pound graham crackers flat. The crust should begin to move up the sides of the tin as the bottom becomes thinner. Continue pounding until thickness is roughly even throughout tin, pressing sides of tin as needed to ensure that crust sticks together and does not run over sides of tin.

Place crust in refrigerator.

Gently whisk together the egg yolks and sweetened condensed milk. Slowly whisk in the lime juice (the mixture should thicken slightly), followed by the lime zest. Continue whisking until mixture is well-blended.

Preheat oven to 350°F; set a rack in the middle of the oven.

In the clean, dry bowl of an electric mixer, whisk egg whites until foamy. Add cream of tartar and continue whisking until soft peaks form. Gradually add sugar, whisking until egg whites are shiny and form stiff peaks.

Measure out 2 cups of egg white mixture, and gently fold into lime mixture. (Any excess may be disposed of or baked to make hard meringue cookies.) Remove graham cracker crust from refrigerator and gently spread mixture into crust. Avoid the temptation to overfill—the egg whites in the mixture will rise during baking (though they will fall again during cooling) and too much filling may lead to disaster.

Bake 20 minutes, covering the top with foil if it begins to brown. Remove from oven and allow to cool to room temperature. Place in refrigerator at least four hours before serving.

Place cream in clean, dry mixing bowl (mixer fitted with whisk attachment). Add vanilla and powdered sugar to taste and whisk to make whipped cream. Place cream in pastry bag fitted with large star attachment, and decorate top of pie.

Serve cold.

And the iron mashed potato winner (round 1) is...

Caramelized shallot mashed potatoes

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