Oh what a year it's been (and a pumpkin bread pudding).

Tom sent me flowers at work!
On Sunday, Tom and I celebrated our 1-year wedding anniversary. And, I have to say, this has been the most hectic year yet. Which is why I am also here, begging your forgiveness for my 9-month hiatus. A lot has happened since my last post--which I'll explain in brief . 
After we sobered up from the Mardi Gras festivities, Tom and I decided to set some roots down in Mobile for at least a few more years--we bought a house. We decided to stay in in the Oakleigh neighborhood, where we were renting. It's a historic neighborhood, less than a mile from downtown and completely charming.  Full of live oaks and historic homes--we had to stay. We moved in on May 1st and ever since we've been painting, planting, updating, refinishing, and cleaning. Lots of cleaning. I'll post before and after photos in an upcoming post. But, here's a glimpse at what our house looked like when we moved in: 
We've made some epic changes, stay tuned.
During the downright hellish process of buying a house (apparently they don't just hand them out like they used to), my mother's health was in a serious decline. I flew up to visit her in the hospital in April, and I wish I had known that would be the last time I would see her. On the fourth of July, she passed away. I won't burden you with too much emotion, (because quite frankly I don't believe a blog is the appropriate forum for personal issues) but needless to say, I haven't felt like posting in the past few months. However, thanks to the support and encouragement ("are you ever going to post on your blog again"!?!?) from my husband and friends, I decided to rejoin the online community. And, what better way to return than with a super-indulgent bread pudding? 
I used a combination of two different recipes, one from Deb at Smitten Kitchen and another one I found on Epicurious. I started by cutting up a baguette on Saturday and leaving it out overnight. The bread was perfectly stale the next day. 
Rum and Bourbon? Yes please.
I followed Smitten Kitchen's lazy method by melting the butter in the oven while mixing the above cast of characters. I also decided to add some golden raisins and pecans to the dish--for texture--and I love pecans. 
I primarily followed the recipe from Smitten Kitchen, but I added the caramel sauce from the Epicurious recipe. I think it really set it over the top. And, what anniversary brunch is complete with out a  mimosa or two? Tom cooked some bacon as I was finishing the sauce and we sat down to one of the best brunches we've ever made...if I do say so myself. 
More Prosecco, please. 
Pumpkin Bread pudding: adapted from Smitten Kitchen
1 cup whole milk + 1/2 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup canned solid-pack pumpkin
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 large eggs plus 1 yolk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
Pinch of ground cloves
2 tablespoons bourbon

1/2 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup chopped pecans
5 cups cubed (1-inch) day-old baguette or crusty bread
1 stick unsalted butter

Preheat oven to 350°F with rack in middle.

While preheating oven to 350° melt butter in the bottom of an 8-inch square baking dish. Once it is melted (watch it, it will burn quickly), take it out of the oven and toss bread cubes with butter, coating thoroughly. In a separate bowl, whisk together all the remaining ingredients (except raisins and pecans) and pour over bread cubes. Add raisins and pecans and stir to make sure all the pieces are evenly coated. Bake until Custard is set, 25 to 30 minutes. 
While the bread is in the oven, make the following caramel sauce. You won't regret it. 

Caramel Sauce: nabbed from Epicurious
1 1/4 cups packed dark brown sugar
1 stick unsalted butter
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon dark rum

Heat the butter and the brown sugar in a heavy bottomed pot until the butter is melted. Add the cream and stir until all of the sugar has dissolved.Stir in rum. Keep warm and serve over bread pudding. Or, better yet, just eat it by the spoonful.


'Tis the most wonderful time of the year.

It's finally the beginning of festival season here on the Gulf Coast. Once Christmas and New Years were over, I immediately switched to Mardi Gras mode. Mardi Gras (which originated in Mobile in 1703) starts at the official end of the Christmas season (Epiphany, or the twelfth night) and continues to Fat Tuesday, or the day before Ash Wednesday. Since Easter falls in April this year, 2011 has the longest Carnival season since 1943, spanning a total of 61 days. Which means, we have a lot of celebrating to do.
King Cake in its full, tacky glory
I decided to kick off Mardi Gras season this year by attempting to make my first King Cake.  A King Cake is essentially a braided cinnamon bread topped with icing and sprinkles in the colors of Mardi Gras. Often the cake has a cream cheese or praline filling, but I decided to stick with the original for my first attempt. A small trinket, usually a plastic baby, is baked inside the cake and rumor has it, the one who finds the baby is to be treated like a king for a day and then he/she buys the cake next season. Of course, Tom found the baby. 
I had been searching for a recipe to make my own for a while, but I never really decided on one, until Tom and I went to New Orleans this past weekend. On Sunday, we did a bit of shopping in the French Quarter and we stopped in Beckham's Bookstore where I came across my new favorite book: The Encyclopedia of Cajun and Creole Cuisine by Chef John D. Folse. This is an incredible book which includes hundreds of recipes, detailed history, and amazing photography (have I sold you yet?). It's a large, heavy book, but if you're interested in Cajun or Creole cooking, I definitely recommend it.  I flipped through to the desserts and I found the recipe for the King Cake and I had to try it. I followed the recipe as is, and it turned out very well, it was delicious. There are a few changes I would make the next time: less icing, less almond oil, smaller cake. The recipe follows below. 


Blackberry Farm

Tom and I were talking about winning a mega lottery the other day, you know the type where you can't even comprehend the amount of money involved? We asked each other what we'd do with it, how much we'd give to family, etc and we both seemed relatively reserved with how we would spend it. I hadn't really given it serious thought before, but over the past couple of days I thought about what I would REALLY want to do and how I'd really want to live my life (if money weren't an issue). I always came back to Blackberry Farm.
I found out about this place while I was in graduate school in Knoxville, though I've never actually been. It's located in Walland, TN where I spent a large portion of my time sampling streams for sediment and e.coli and teaching elementary students about Africa. And, although I didn't realize it at the time, I was only minutes away from one of the most luxurious places in the country (and I'm not talking about Gatlinburg).
The reason I love this place is not just because it's 4,200 acres of pure Appalachian splendor, but because they do everything that I want to do; they are totally connected to the land.
The whole concept of "farm-to-table" is right there, in your face, everyday. In their gourmet restaurant, they serve their own vegetables and herbs, and fruit from their orchard. They also raise sheep and pigs for meat and cheese. They've even expanded into selling the cheeses, smoked meats, and preserved fruit. I think my obsession culminated with the recent publication of their cookbook: Blackberry Farm Cookbook: Four Seasons of Great Food and the Good Life.  
What would you do if you won the lottery?

Update: Blackberry farm also has Truffles. Not just at the restaurant, on the grounds too. Could this place be any more perfect??   via: Garden and Gun Magazine


The Smoker

Every year for Christmas Tom and I give each other small gifts, usually just stocking stuffers, books, etc (except this year Tom got me this granite mortar & pestle. Swoon. Made the best guacamole ever)
We also chip in and do one big gift. Last year we finally joined the 21st century by switching to a flat screen T.V. (granted, that was made easier by upgrading the free T.V. I won at the company Christmas party). This year we decided to finally get something we've been drooling over for a while: a smoker (Tom longer than I have because he's actually used one before, and I hadn't given much thought to smoked meat until I moved to the south). Smokers come in several shapes and sizes (and everyone who owns a smoker has a reason why their style or their sauce is the best). They can be found on trailers, in back yards, at tailgates etc, and just about all of them are modified to a specific cooking style. They go way beyond your standard grill. The main types of smokers that I've seen are, the bullet style (Webber Smokey Mountain or Big Green Egg), the barrel style, and then the custom, homemade smokers (for the ultra-BBQ master).
Bullet Style
 Barrel smoker with offset firebox

This is just to give you an idea of the custom smokers
BBQ is a religion down here.

We ended up going with a barrel smoker, one that looks very similar to the center picture. Tom took care of setting it up and seasoning it (I'm not sure what goes into that, but I think it involves fire and magic). We tired it out for the first time this weekend on a pork shoulder and we were VERY impressed. We still need to tweak timing and temperature but I think we might have a new weekend pastime. BBQ anyone?

Keeping the meat moist with a mixture of apple cider vinegar and apple cider
Speaking of BBQ, we were able to nail down a pretty awesome sauce for the pulled pork. We loved it, it's tangy, sweet, and a bit spicy, so good you can eat it by the spoonful (but don't let anyone see you). We had a bit of leftover Maker's Mark from our holiday party and I think that really set it over the top. I used a combination of a recipe from All Recipes and one from Epicurious and my own spices (specifically cayenne). The result: Bliss. Here's the recipe

Maker's Mark BBQ Sauce
1/2 onion, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 cup Maker's Mark
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 tablespoon salt
2 cups ketchup
1/4 cup tomato paste
1/3 cup cider vinegar
2 teaspoons of smoked paprika
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup backstrap molasses
2 or 3 dashes of cayenne
1/3 teaspoon hot pepper sauce, or to taste 

In a large heavy pot over medium heat, combine the onion, garlic, and whiskey. Simmer for 10 minutes (the smell is POTENT but just go with it), or until onion is translucent. Mix in the ground black pepper, salt, ketchup, tomato paste, vinegar, paprika, Worcestershire sauce, brown sugar, molasses, cayenne, and hot pepper sauce. 
Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer for 20 minutes. Run sauce through a strainer.