Ladies & Gentlemen, may I proudly introduce the secret project I've been working on for the better part of a year:
Philadelphia Cheesesteak Dip
|My Cheesesteak Dip has THE authentic Philadelphia taste youse only get within driving distance of the Liberty Bell.|
|Made from real shaved steak, not industrialized meat mush pressed into sheets.|
This particular batch has onions & sweet peppers. Yes, I've already figured people are going to want as many varieties as there are ways to order a cheesesteak, so the future holds at least: Chicken Cheesesteak Dip, Buffalo Chicken Cheesesteak Dip, and Veggie Steak Dip made with Portobello mushrooms and grilled peppers and onions.
|Frozen, microwaveable. This is the 1-pound package, I also do a half-pounder.|
I am not someone who can keep my mouth shut very easily, so when I spend the better part of a year working on a project, one that has been such a labor of love for me... and I couldn't TALK about it... OMG, the agony!
So, now I can finally say how I came up with the idea itself. Last year, building the Shore House Shoobie Menu, I knew I needed frozen dips to be one of the components. But most popular party dips that I could think of, like hot artichoke & crab, or buffalo chicken dip, are made with cream cheese. And you have to make them fresh and heat and serve them; they don't hold, and they don't freeze. Cream cheese breaks when you take it to extremes of temperatures, leaving blobs swimming a pool of oil. Yuck.
And looking around in the appetizer section of the grocery store freezers, you find mostly starchy things, like little hot dogs, puff pastry, mini pizzas, or empanadas...but dips? Creamy dips? Not that many. And those that are out there tend to be inferior to what a home cook can make fresh. The cream cheese problem.
So I looked online and you wouldn't believe how long I searched, all in vain. I spent days combing through articles on entertaining, recipe databases, and general cooking websites for make-ahead entertaining, but the best "make-ahead" recipes for hot dips seemed to be only to mix the ingredients and put them in the fridge 1-3 days before your party.. I needed something that would stay in a freezer for a month, and come out perfect afterwards. And ready-to-serve - no adding ingredients or fussing around with it. AND, knowing my clients well, it couldn't take forever to heat up, either. 25 minutes was my original goal, for a pound of dip to go from freezer to table. I wasn't thinking of being microwaveable at all at that point, since I've always made dips in the oven, not the microwave, I was focusing on freezer stability and excellence of serving quality.
But I had an idea, about using a cheese other than cream cheese. Many cheeses freeze beautifully, and melt perfectly well. There are a ton of cheese products on the market that take advantage of this. And I was thinking about my most popular dip that I'd gotten the most compliments on when I made it fresh - Buffalo Chicken Dip, the kind that is creamy and hot and has shredded chicken meat in it. Lots of recipes for this dip, it's very popular. Most of them include both cream cheese and blue cheese. It's delicious. Very satisfying as an hors d'oeuvre, you get the meaty, the creamy, the hot and the crisp of the chip that brings it to your mouth, all in one Perfect Bite. Strangely, I started focusing on how meaty the dip is - you shred up at least three big boneless skinless chicken breasts to make a batch - and THAT was when it hit me that the shredded chicken meat itself was what makes that dip so good. And I thought about this constantly, most especially when I was cooking. I love cooking. It's like meditating, at times, I feel so connected with the Divine. I was actually stirring a pot of another dip I make when all of a sudden, it was like BONG! meat-and cheese --Hello, CHEESESTEAK! of course then, having grown up here and loved steak sandwiches my whole life, the idea for a Philadelphia Cheesesteak Dip had just popped up right in my head. I could practically taste it already.
I ran back to the internet to search to find a recipe, specifically, and I was shocked it didn't already exist in the universe. Oh, there was some lady from the Midwest who had obviously never seen a real cheesesteak in her existence on this mortal plane, who obviously had gone to Denny's or some other bastardization that has "Philly Steak flavor" on the menu, and she was mixing browned ground beef with (hello, mine adversary) cream cheese and cheddar and I think some taco sauce, calling it "Philly Steak". Seriously....ugh. Don't get me started. I actually recoiled when I read it. Poor Brent and Zizi watched me stomping around on a righteous rant for days after that.
But then it was all I could obsess over, for weeks. I constructed and deconstructed every permutation of a cheesesteak dip in my head a million times. From 10-layer dip structures (way too crumbly, there would be crumbs of meat falling all over people's floors making a damn mess) to chunks or slices of cheese mixed in with the meat (would burn people's mouths when hot enough to spread, then coagulate into a greasy solid brick in minutes after coming out of the oven -- wouldn't "hold" for the length of a party, not to mention the hell of scrubbing out whatever bowl it was served in.) This is where being a chef in the kitchen, and my "other" side of my career fundraising and planning events came into play... if you want to make a party dip, it really helps understanding the logistics of how food works at parties. You need something that can be put out and picked-at, over extended periods of time, and still is as fabulous if a guest comes back for a second (or 10th) bite 45 minutes later. You want something that people love so much, each bite makes them want to take another bite.
So I tinkered. I played. I wasted untold amounts of different cheeses and pounds and pounds of shaved beef, finding the right ratio of meat-to-cheese, finding the right "structure" that will hold itself together. For that flash of inspiration, Edison had it right... I really did need to put in the other 99% in perspiration. Not a brick, not a soup.... a real party dip. That didn't crumble or fall apart. A stable mixture that holds its emulsion, thin enough to scoop right out of the bowl with a thin slice of crusty bread (I confess, I like bread rounds better than crackers myself - crackers are stronger than sliced baguette, though) and thick enough that if I heaped it up on the bread, I could lift it to my mouth without it running down the back of my hand, or falling on my outfit.
And then, the unexpected happened. Well, part of it I should have seen coming: my beloved fiance, a man who's never met a slab of steak he didn't love, came home from work, when I was not physically present in the kitchen. (GASP!) The next thing I knew, I come down to an empty bowl that had been full of dip, in the sink. He'd found it, heated it, and eaten the whole thing in the time it took me to finish up a Facebook comment,"I thought it was for us since it wasn't down in the garage freezer!" (This was his story and he's still sticking to it.) A-hem. "For a guy who wasn't raised Catholic, someone's certainly caught onto the better-to-ask-for-forgiveness-than-permission concept quickly enough around here. Marrone." Sez I. It screwed up that batch's experiment. I had been testing ratios of meat to cheese at the time, and I had, as all the rest of my experiments, been reheating them from frozen on a sheet pan in the oven, which usually took about a half hour. There had been 4 ramekins with different meat-to-cheese ratios I'd made that day, that I was freezing to reheat the next day to check the results.
But... wait....I was puzzled on two levels. First of all, he'd just eaten 12 ounces of cheesesteak dip, all by himself, in less than 5 minutes as a "snack" less than a half hour before our family dinner was to be served... (MEN! SHEESH!) but then... how the HELL did he heat it up?! The oven had a chicken roasting in it! Answer: he'd microwaved it.
It worked in the microwave?? It didn't break or separate into grease?
That lead me down the path to testing all of my samples both ways. I even gave the "beta testers" double samples - additional ones to try in the microwave when they also did a sample in the oven, to see the difference it made outside of me controlling the experiments.
THAT lead me to researching microwaveable packaging, and doing more batches... until I got a good master recipe that worked exactly as I wanted, that was thick, and rich, and meaty, and succulent and savory and everything it should be to be a real Philadelphia Cheesesteak, in party dip form. Freezable and microwaveable. And I was kinda in LOVE with the microwaveable cooking of this for one very big reason... I KNOW my client base, and one thing when you have a party, you want your kitchen to be clean when people see it. If you cook cheesesteaks from scratch, the wonderful greasy meat, onions, peppers, they have a very strong, distinctive smell. It's mouthwatering at first, but it's strong, and it lingers, and most people don't want their house to smell like a bar & grille at a party and for days later. Instead of heating the dip up for the long time it would take in the conventional oven (especially from a frozen state) heating it up int he microwave frees up the oven for other hors d'oeuvres to bake. That shorter heating time also cuts down on cheesesteak smell perfuming the whole house - definitively more attractive to me and my clients for entertaining purposes.
The other thing I noticed was that the recipe, when I didn't freeze the samples, stayed creamy and soft in the fridge. So I froze some and then thawed them before using them.. and it held up nicely. Which lead me to thinking about how this could be used at cold temperatures for things that hadn't been cooked yet - like putting it into stuffed crust pizza. Or another beloved Philadelphia traditional delicacy: soft pretzels. Yum.
And of course the little devil on my shoulder has given me other ideas. For deep fried cheesesteak balls, like risotto arancini, but so much more sinfully delicious. Or chicken breasts, stuffed with chicken cheesesteak mix and then grilled. Or those little baby bell sweet peppers... wouldn't they be fabulous filled with cheesesteak dip, then topped with breadcrumbs and baked?
I am never going to be thin again. Nope. Not a prayer. There are too many delicious ideas that I've had that I still have to figure out the recipes for. The world is going to have to wait the 7 1/2 years for my gorgeous Zizi to turn 21 for there to be a real Hot Mama Tarditi at Hot Mama Tarditi's Gourmet-To-Go-Go... and I'll just happily be Hot-Flash Mama, the one who cooks up the magic in the kitchen and shops in the plus size department.
I love how my cheesesteak dip has turned out. I made hundreds of batches until I got it just right. I had a few very close friends and family sworn to secrecy and taste it and test it for consistency and flavor and how it heated up from frozen. This was NOT a year of successful dieting... but I just thought, "Screw it, I'll sacrificed my body for the good of my Art!" Totally worth it.
And yes, I knew what I had when it proved to be microwaveable. Back when I lived in Seattle for 6 long years, and had to wait 6 months between visits back East to satisfy my cheesesteak cravings, I dreamed of cheesesteaks many dark, rainy days and nights. Trying to make them there, from Steakums and crusty french breads for rolls just didn't cut it. It wasn't right. It wasn't the real true experience for which my Philadelphia soul yearned. It's something about the water here, and the air, and the way the meat gets shaved so thin, by the skilled hands of people who can slice deli ham so thin you can read the newspaper through it. There is a taste that nobody can duplicate, and it tastes like Philadelphia, like my beloved Philadelphia, my home, and I missed it so much, I was so homesick and heartbroken for it, that I wished someone WOULD bottle it and sell it. Or freeze it and ship it. And so I knew the minute I nailed it: God had used me to answer my own prayer, years later. This is the true taste of Philadelphia, and it can go anywhere in the world where thing can go frozen, finally. Created with pure love, for my beautiful, beloved Philadelphia.
That was why I suddenly clamped down my mouth, and my little typing fingers, and this blog went silent. And my Hot Mama's Facebook presence all but disappeared, too. I couldn't advertise or sell it or show off my beautiful dip to anyone, even though I was so happy and proud of it I wanted to shout it to the whole world from the rooftops. I only had a year to do the next step. I had to change my whole business plan, too. I was formerly married to a software engineer who at this point has probably lost count of how many patents his work has generated, and in the years of our marriage, when I lived in Seattle during the Dot Com Boom, boy the thing everyone was talking about was Intellectual Property. What it is, how you prove it's yours, how you maintain your claim to it, how you protect it. Only unlike software code jockeys, I have no legal team down the hall, just waiting for my fingers to pause... I had to go learn about patents, then research the Prior Art, and then I had to face the scariest part - to take the chance that I will fail to secure the rights to what I've created. THAT CAN STILL HAPPEN. You don't buy a Patent, you just apply for one, and many, many, many get shot down. Even after you've paid a lawyer the last scrapings of your savings, the last hope that you won't be homeless and destitute a year from now, I am still gambling and this could still lose.
But I hope it doesn't. And now that the application's in, I can finally put "Patent Pending" on my packaging, and sell this, my delicious Cheesesteak Dip, as a real product, to customers and in stores.
I want the whole world to taste the majesty and wonder that is a true Philadelphia Cheesesteak. And I want to be able to go anywhere, anytime, and never be 5 minutes away from being able to HAVE an honest-to-God-Himself real Philadelphia Cheesesteak. And I think I've nailed it. I do.
So in the rest of the months since I last posted, I've worked hard to find commercial kitchen space, and I'm working with two labs testing the product as part of my patent application, and getting the FDA food label, so that it can be sold across state lines. I feel like I've been cramming for and taking a final exam 5 days every week for the past 10 months - US Gov websites for the Patent and Trademark Office, FDA, and USDA are not exactly light fluffy reading for my little blonde head. I'm especially paying attention to the health and safety regulations and requirements, because I want to do everything by the book and with the strictest and highest standards. No slacking or cutting corners for my precious creation - the integrity of my product and my practices is absolutely crucial. I've also got to finish designing the packaging itself, which I have absolutely not talent or skill for in the graphic arts.
So much I've had to learn, and it's been a bit overwhelming to say the least, and there were times I wanted to pour it all out here on the blog, but I couldn't, until now. YAY!
Neil Gaiman. One of my favorite authors, he gave a Commencement Speech to the University of the Arts Class of 2012 that went viral on the internet, "Make Good Art" and I think I've watched it dozens of times now. His soft, calm voice has kept me sane when I would have run mad. Someday, I hope I can meet him and thank him, and offer him a bowl of Cheesesteak Dip, that speech got me moving forward again many times when I'd get frozen with fear.
So, one final look at the cheesesteaky goodness of Philadelphia Cheesesteak Dip, my art, my creation, my homage to my home.
|Youse hungry? Jeet?|