Did you hear the news? Well, if you are late to the party (and I don't mean the actual party where we had this amazing cake), then I can let you know right away that I am officially out of Project Food Blog. Yes, after more than three months of hard work and nine rounds of competition, my run has come to an end. I would be flat out lying if I said I wasn't disappointed (there was $10,000 and title of food blog star at stake!), and when I heard the news on Friday, I did get a little emotional. But, here's the thing: I surprised even myself when I realized I wasn't feeling sad about actually being eliminated. There were no tears, I didn't have a breakdown, and I didn't feel like life was falling apart.** And here is why: I am still a winner. Participating in this contest has brought only good things to both my life and this blog. I thought to myself, "Ok, well, I am just going to go back to what I was doing before. Only better."
And then almost immediately, my phone started ringing, my email inbox filled up, and messages came flooding through on Twitter; new blogger friends, loyal readers, and real-life family and friends from near and far were all contacting me to share their feelings with me, to tell me that they were proud of me, or just to let me know that they care and still think this blog is awesome. And that was when I started feeling a sort of aching in my chest that was just overwhelming. It was as if the huge support I had received throughout this process was all being distilled into one perfect crystalline moment. I knew I had given it my all, I had put my heart into each and every moment of this contest, and I hadn't let anyone down; all the way through to the end, YOU, my loyal readers and friends have supported and encouraged me every step of the way. There really are not sufficient words to tell you just how much that means to me, so I will just offer you a simple and giant
I started out in the contest thinking that if I made it to the second round, it would be amazing (not kidding, I really said this to all of my friends) and then somehow I managed to find myself in the ninth round with only 11 other phenomenal bloggers left. (I still sometimes find this unbelievable.) At that point, I took a good hard look at my blog, and realized that it had undergone an incredible transformation into almost exactly what I had hoped it would be when I started it earlier this year: a place for friends to gather and share in the beauty and goodness of great food and great people. Because Project Food Blog not only challenged me to grow and make The Cilantropist a better place, but it also brought together a like-minded community of people who support each other and revel in deliciousness. I got to meet and be inspired by so many talented bloggers, and most importantly for me, I got to experience everything with constant encouragement from family and friends.
So, at the end of the day, even though I lost the competition, I think I have more than enough reasons to celebrate. I especially wanted to show those nearest and dearest to me how much I appreciated all their help... and so naturally I showered them with food.
I threw a party which I aptly titled, "Raise your Glass, a Celebration of Food and Friends!" and I invited co-workers, friends, and their families for an afternoon of good times and great eats. Though I won't go into lengthy detail about each of the dishes, suffice it to say that making all this food was a labor of love. I paid my respects to Project Food Blog by recreating some of my favorite dishes (see cheese straws, Italian pressed sandwiches, and homemade marshmallows below), I experimented with a few new things, and I also relied on some tried-and-true favorite family recipes. The whole meal was a great representation of what I consistently do here on this blog, and I was thrilled to be able to prepare everything for friends.
So what all did I make??
Well, for starters I made hummus by soaking and cooking dried chickpeas for the first time, and I LOVED IT. Everyone else thought it was great too, and they commented that they liked the bright lemony flavor. I served the hummus with some healthy veggies and my favorite Middle Eastern flatbread (from Trader Joes!) and it was the perfect thing to have on the table for snacking.
Along with a large bowl of California mandarin oranges, I also put chips and my Aunt Brenda's Famous Dip out on the table as finger foods. Maybe it's old school, but everyone likes chips and dip right? Unless you desperately want to know, I am hesitant to reveal what is in the dip. (It is too easy, it will make me look like a cooking fraud.) But I will tell you, it is fat-free and highly addictive. No this doesn't mean the secret ingredient is crack, but it is so delicious that you just can't stop snacking on it.
For main course foods, I served a salad of baby greens topped with crumbled gorgonzola, pine nuts, and pomegranate seeds, all dressed up with My Mom's Sweet and Tangy Poppyseed Dresssing. The salad was a big hit, and almost matched in color to the Sopressata and Provolone Italian Pressed Sandwiches. If you missed it the first time around, be sure to check out my Project Food Blog post for challenge number 6 where I made food that looked good and transported well. These sandwiches were the star, but I also made Parmesan and Gruyere Cheese Straws which are so popular that I make them for almost every party that I have. You should do the same, trust me. (Before I get on to the meatballs, can I just tell you something? I was such a hot mess after getting up late the morning of the party, that I put the cheese straws in the oven to bake, and 10 minutes later, wondered why I had the oven on and promptly turned it off. Yes, these are things I do. Don't think for a second that things operate smoothly in my kitchen.)
And last but certainly not least, were the Bacon Meatballs with Marinara Sauce. Oh lordy. The recipe for these meatballs came from MIHO's chef Courtney Bryant (check out my video interview and review!), and if you follow me on twitter, you might have heard me shouting from the rooftops about the glory of meatballs made with tiny bits of bacon, and cooked in bacon grease. There are so many things that made these meatballs my all time favorite, so I will be telling you more about them in another post, there simply is not time or space here for their praise.
For the desserts, I might have gone a little bit overboard because I decided to make four different things. I had worked hard and both myself and my friends deserved some indulgence.
So for starters, I knew I wanted to make My Grandmother's Christmas spritz cookies, or Spritzgebackenes. Every year my Omi makes hundreds (actually it possibly might be 1,000) spritz cookies, both with her basic recipe and also with another recipe where some of the flour is substituted with ground nuts. For me, it would never be Christmas without these cookies, and these bite-sized treats somehow just manage to make me feel happy and close to home even when I am 2,000 miles away.
Next, I had been dying to try to make Salted Butter Caramels at home, and I realized there was no time like the present. Making these caramels was surprisingly easy, and imagine my delight when I found I could transform the perfect shiny cubes of caramelized sugar into candy-shop-like treats with just a little square of wax paper! Packaged in a cute jar or tin, these would be the ultimate Christmas gift. I am really hoping I have time to do a separate post on these caramels, but just in case I don't, I barely adapted the recipe from David Lebovitz. I figured it was a good idea to learn from an expert.
I can't tell you exactly why, but I also felt compelled to make bite-sized Homemade Marshmallows for the party, which will smartly kick some pre-packed jet puffed marshmallow ass any day. They are phenomenal. And then a party wouldn't really be a party without a multi-layer Chocolate Cranberry Layer Cake (see photos at the top of this post!). For this cake, I riffed off my Salted Caramel and Chocolate Layer Cake, and merely replaced the filling with vanilla buttercream and a spiced cranberry jam. I also added some cinnamon and cayenne to both the cranberry jam and the chocolate ganache to give the cake a subtle undercurrent of warmth.
And then of course, we needed something wash down all these foods and desserts, so we toasted with a glass of champagne (yes, my friends forced me to make a speech) and then warmed up from the inside out with Lutz's German Gluhwein. *sigh* Oh hot, spiced wine, how I love thee... If you have never had traditional Gluhwein (made by a German for authenticity of course) put it on your to-do list for this holiday season. I would offer to lend out one of my many German friends to make you some Christmas Gluhwein, but I am pretty sure they will be busy with their families or drunk on the wine themselves.
The entire day was a blast, hanging out with friends and eating good food, and it definitely was made even better by the fact that my friends Lutz and Tanja were gracious enough to host the party at their place. They have a beautiful home with a great open backyard where we could bask in the San Diego sunshine and the kids could play to their hearts content.
Overall, the party was definitely a celebration of food and friends, and I hope those people that could not be there or are hundreds of miles away, know that they were there in spirit and I appreciate them just as much.
I know I have probably used up your attention span already, but I just wanted mention one last thing. At one point or another, many people (including myself) have expressed frustration about about this contest, and have lamented about the reasons for elimination, the judging criteria, and the inherent problem that it is a bit of a popularity contest. Each of these issues deserves attention in the future and is a valid concern.
However, I am positive that anyone who participated in this contest with integrity and heart has pushed themselves beyond what they thought they were capable of, and can count themselves among the honorable ranks of phenomenal bloggers who did the same.
I am also positive that each of us has discovered new blogs, and that friendships were formed and solidified that will outlast Project Food Blog by years.
And lastly, I am positive that I did my best, and I hope that each person appreciates that and feels same. I plan on continuing to bring quality content to this blog and to keep improving day by day.
Basically, what I am trying to say is that the result of participating is overwhelmingly positive for me, and hope it is the same for all my friends. So lets keep finding joy in life, in food, and in family and in friends... and celebrate!!!
My Project Food Blog Entries:
Challenge 2: Tom Yum Goong with Homemade Nam Prik Pao
Challenge 3: A Luxury Dinner, with Lemon, Leeks, and Lamb
Challenge 4: Making S'mores from Scratch: Homemade Marshmallows and Graham Crackers ***Most commented post!
Challenge 6: A Presidio Picnic, and Italian Pressed Sandwiches ***Most popular post!
Challenge 7: Homemade Ladyfingers, and a Pomegranate Charlotte (Video)
Challenge 8: Pumpkin Bread, and Rum Raisin Pumpkin Bread Pudding
Challenge 9: HOMIs meet MIHO Gastrotruck (Video)
Homemade Hummus- (NEW post in the next two weeks)
Aunt Brenda's Famous Dip- (secret recipe...shh!)
Baby Greens with Gorgonzola and Pomegranate, and Mom's Sweet and Tangy Poppyseed Dressing- (Recipe below)
Italian Pressed Sandwiches- (link here)
Parmesan and Gruyere Cheese Straws- (link here, from Ina Garten)
MIHO's Bacon Meatballs with Marinara- (NEW post in the next two weeks)
My Grandmother's Christmas Spritz Cookies- (NEW post TOMORROW)
Salted Butter Caramels- (David Lebovitz's recipe)
Homemade Marshmallows- (link here)
Chocolate and Cranberry Layer Cake- (recipe below)
**Oh and one last thing. There were times during PFB when I was having a breakdown and I did feel like life was falling apart. And you know what? Somehow my boyfriend was always the glue that held me together, calmed down, and assured me that I could finish whatever needed finishing, and accomplish whatever I set my mind to. He is THE best. So from 6,000 miles away, I just want to send him a virtual hug and the biggest thank you.
Baby Greens with Gorgonzola and Pomegranate, and Mom's Sweet and Tangy Poppy Seed Dressing
1 cup olive oil or canola oil, depending on preference
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/2-3/4 cup sugar, depending on how sweet you prefer (I usually go with 1/2 c)
2 tbsp poppyseeds
1/2 tsp W
Large package pre-mixed baby greens
1 small package of crumbled gorgonzola cheese
Approximately 1/2-3/4 cup pine nuts
Seeds from 1 large pomegranate (about 1-1 1/2 cups), to de-seed a pomegranate see how-to video here
First make dressing by whisking all the ingredients together in a medium bowl, or shake in a salad cruet. My mom has something sort of like this one, but the salad dressing mixer I have is from Pampered Chef. Set aside the dressing, and then add baby greens to a large, wide bowl. Top with a few handfuls, or all of the cheese, pine nuts, and pomegranate seeds. (I added some lettuce to the bowl, and about a third of the toppings. After people ate most of the salad, I added more lettuce to the bowl, and more toppings to eventually use it all.) Drizzle with some of the salad dressing, and serve immediately.
Chocolate and Cranberry Layer Cake
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
3/4 cup cocoa powder
2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup water
3/4 cup buttermilk
3/4 cup vegetable oil
3 large eggs
Approximately 18 ounces of bittersweet chocolate (less than 65% cacao), chopped
2 1/4 cups heavy whipping cream
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
Spiced Cranberry Filling:
1 package fresh or frozen cranberries (12 oz)
Zest and juice of 1 medium to large orange
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp each of cloves, ginger, and cayenne pepper
3/4 cup sugar
First bake cakes. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Spray two 9-inch round cake pans with cooking spray, then cut out two parchment rounds to fit the bottom of each pan. Place them on top of the sprayed surface, and spray again with cooking spray. In a large bowl, whisk together all the dry ingredients for the cake, and make a well in the center. In a separate large bowl, whisk together all the wet ingredients; then add them to the dry ingredients, and mix until just combined. Divide cake batter evenly between the two prepared pans, and place in the oven, with one cake in the top third and the other cake in the bottom third of the oven. Bake for about 15 minutes, then rotate the pans between the racks, and bake for another 15 minutes. The cakes will dome up when baking; once they come out of the oven and are cooling on the cooling rack, just press gently on the top of the cakes with a kitchen towel to partially flatten them. Let cakes cool completely, and then continue with the rest of the recipe or freeze cakes by wrapping well.
Next, make the cranberry filling. In a medium saucepan, mix together all ingredients over medium heat, and stir to dissolve sugar. Once sugar is dissolved, continue to cook the cranberries, stirring occasionally, until almost all of them pop and the mixture thickens slightly. Remove from heat and let cool almost completely. Once it is cool, process it in a food processor until smooth. It is ready to use for the cake.
Lastly, make chocolate ganache. Place chopped chocolate in a large bowl. Heat heavy cream in a medium saucepan over high heat until it just begins to boil; remove it from the heat and pour it directly over the chopped chocolate in the bowl. Let it stand for just a minute to soften the chocolate, then stir until everything is smooth. Add spices and stir until smooth again. Set aside until it comes to room temperature.
Now, you have some choices to make for layers:
-First choose your number of layers. If you just leave each of the two cakes intact, you will have only 1 layer between the cakes. Alternatively, you can cut each cake in half horizontally and have a total of 3 layers between the cakes. This is what I did. I will tell you it is much easier to cut the cakes in half once they have been frozen.
-If you want chocolate ganache layers between the chocolate cake, divide the ganache in half and cool 1/2 in the fridge until it is thick enough to spread.
-If you want cranberry filling between the chocolate cake, this recipe calls for enough for 3 layers. You can use all or only one of them.
-I also included two layers of vanilla buttercream. This was just on a whim for fun, and also because I wanted some white frosting to use for writing and decorating the top of the cake. I used half of this recipe and it was more than enough for 2 layers and the icing on the top.
Once you have made these difficult decisions (*wink wink*), assemble the cake according to these instructions from Epicurious, and just adapt the fillings accordingly. When I made mine, I had them in this order from bottom to top:
-bottom cake layer
-Spiced Cranberry filling
-second cake layer
-Spiced Cranberry filling
-third cake layer
-Spiced Cranberry filling
-Top (and fourth) cake layer
---Pour ganache over the top and freeze or refrigerate.
Before serving, let the cake stand at room temperature for at least 2 hours. Enjoy!