Tag Archives: on the edge of the great midwest

Meet Our New Pastry Chef: Sarah Mispagel

Last month, we welcomed a new member to the Nightwood family — executive pastry chef, Sarah Mispagel. And now, we’d like to tell you a little bit about her, her desserts … and her tattoos.

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Background:

Sarah, 27, was born in San Diego and raised in a nearby suburb (Oceanside) by her “California hippie” parents, who encouraged a very organic, vegetarian lifestyle. She later attended culinary school at the Art Institute in Orange County, and after graduation, she took a job at a local vegan, gluten-free bakery. After a year there, she moved to Portland, Oregon, and worked at Delphina’s Bakery (which is considered Portland’s oldest artisanal bakery), where she worked extensively with breads, and croissant and Danish doughs. Then, it was on to Cincinnati; she not only baked for a restaurant group, primarily doing bread production, but she also made wedding cakes part-time at a bakery called SugarPlums.

It wasn’t until 2010 that Sarah and her husband decided to move to Chicago. “We were visiting some of my husband’s family on the North Shore, and I totally fell in love with the city. My husband always knew he wanted to move here at some point, and we needed a change from Cincinnati, so we packed up the U-Haul and drove to Chicago on July 5th.”

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 Life in the Windy City:

Though Sarah didn’t immediately jump into the restaurant scene, her husband, who is also a chef, encouraged her to submit her resume to mk, which led to her first stage ever. “Honestly, I had no desire to work at a restaurant, and just never thought about trying it since all of my experience had been in bakeries. The idea of fine dining was just really weird to me!” Needless to say, Sarah staged a second time and was offered a pastry assistant position two months later. “I worked closely with Tony Galzin, the head pastry chef at the time, and he was a wonderful mentor. It was the first place that I had experienced the camaraderie of a kitchen; it was like a second family for me.”

After a year and a half of working with Galzin, learning how to conceive a menu and transition her knowledge as a baker to that of a pastry chef, Galzin left for Nashville, so Sarah applied for — and immediately landed — the pastry sous chef position at Sofitel in September 2012. “I did things there that I never thought I could do, like learning how to properly temper chocolate and make beautiful truffles and macaroons, but it was definitely a different environment; more corporate and sterile.”

Next stop … Nightwood:

Missing that feeling of “family” in the kitchen, Sarah soon began seeking out new opportunities; so when the executive pastry chef position became available at Nightwood, she jumped on it. “Whenever I had a night or Sunday off, I’d come in to Nightwood for dinner or brunch. It had always been one of my favorite restaurants in Chicago, so I applied for the job right away.”

After a tasting and extensive interview process, Sarah was officially offered the job. “I was a little worried at first because JV told me there had been a lot of chefs in and out (applying for the position), who obviously weren’t making the cut. I kept saying to myself during my tasting: “Please don’t let this be a pastry one-night-stand!’.” And lucky for her, it wasn’t.

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Her Desserts:

“I like that the menu at Nightwood is focused on seasonality, because it keeps my job really interesting. I’ve been used to menus that only change every few months, so it’ll be fun not having months of preparing the same things.”

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Sarah also likes to play with savory elements, as long as they’re thoughtful. “I cook by flavor, not color, so everything on the plate has its purpose.”

Chocolate Bombe - Mast Brothers 73% Chocolate, Cherries, Bourbon Caramel Ice Cream

Chocolate Bombe – Mast Brothers 73% Chocolate, Cherries, Bourbon Caramel Ice Cream

And now that she’s landed her first position as a head pastry chef, she knows she’s 100% accountable. “I’ve always held myself to a very high standard, but now it’s really just me. I think the biggest difference is that my name is now attached to every single dish I put out there, and even though I have to be prepared to take any criticisms that come my way, it also makes me really happy, as any successes will be mine, too.”

Apple Upside Down Cake - rhubarb, oat streusel, buttermilk rhubarb ice cream

Apple Upside Down Cake – Rhubarb, Oat Streusel, Buttermilk Rhubarb Ice Cream

Fun Facts about Sarah:

  • An Elvis impersonator married her and her husband in Las Vegas.
  • She has two dogs – a pug named Mochi, and an English bulldog named Bacon Samwiches.
  • Speaking of bacon, the first time she ate bacon was while living in Cincinnati: “We had been out drinking all night, and on our way home from the bar, I told my husband I was ‘bacon curious’ … so he ordered me a BLT. It was great.”
  • She ate her FIRST burger (ever) at Kuma’s Corner when she moved to Chicago in 2010.
  • She has countless tattoos, many of which are food and cooking-inspired. Check out her Kitchen-Aid stand mixer!

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Sarah often plates desserts on Friday and Saturday nights, so if you happen to stroll past the counter and see her, be sure to say hello! We are thrilled to have Sarah as a part of the team and can’t wait to see what she has in store for us.


A Closer Look: Cured Foie Gras Appetizer

The weekend is nearly here, and if you’ve got plans to dine at Nightwood, keep an eye out for our new foie gras appetizer.

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We start out by curing the foie gras and then pass it through a tamis (fine-meshed sieve):

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The foie is then whipped, rolled tightly in cheese cloth and hung for a week. When it comes time to plate, the roll is sliced into smaller pieces and our housemade fish sauce caramel is melted over the top of each piece. The dish is completed with several components, including almonds, baguette crisps, an apple puree and freshly cut pea tendrils.

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Almost looks too good to eat …

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If foie gras isn’t exactly your cup of tea, don’t fret — the menu is full of new, mouth-watering dishes that are sure to please any palette. Think fresh prawns, chicken-fried sweetbreads, hand-rolled fregola sarda and more. So if you don’t have dinner plans yet, we suggest coming in and checking out the menu for yourself … there’s a lot of delicious food waiting for you!


Spaghetti alla Chitarra

For those who have been to Nightwood, you know that handmade pasta is an important part of our menu. While the shapes and styles change every week or two, our spaghetti alla chitarra remains pretty constant. I asked JV how this particular type of pasta came to be at the restaurant, and he explained that when his parents moved to Italy for a brief period of time, he asked them to send him some authentic pasta equipment … instead, they went online and found a Chitarra from a company in Pennsylvania and sent it to the restaurant. Authentic? Yes. Directly from Italy? Not quite.

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Regardless of how it got here, we’re thankful for it: this type of pasta has been a steady customer favorite over the years and lends itself well to an array of ingredients and flavor combinations. The rich, all-purpose egg yolk dough is perfect when it comes to crafting hand-cut shapes like ravioli, pappardelle — and of course the spaghetti alla chitarra.

In Italian, “chitarra” (KEY-tarra) translates to guitar, and you can see from the photo above how this piece equipment resembles a small guitar — strings and all. The origins of the spaghetti alla chitarra appear to come from the center and southern regions of Italy, particularly the region of Abruzzo. There, they like to serve the spaghetti with a simple meat ragu. Though the chitarra may look slightly intimidating at first glance, it’s actually quite simple to use: sheets of handmade pasta are placed directly on top of the strings and pushed through with a rolling pin. Easy, right? Be sure to check out the video below, as JV makes the pasta and shows how to use the Chitarra.

:: INGREDIENTS ::

(yields approx. 4 servings)

  • 1/2 lb. all-purpose flour (~2 cups)
  • 7 egg yolks
  • Pinch of salt
  • Warm water (~1/3 cup, give or take)

:: METHOD ::

In a large bowl, combine the flour and salt and create a well in the center. Add the egg yolks and some of the warm water to the well. Begin to mix with fingers, slowly pulling the flour into the center of the well. Add more water as needed until dough begins to come together. Start to knead the dough in the bowl (it’s okay if there’s extra flour left in the bottom of the bowl). Once you get a good chunk of dough, remove it from the bowl and knead it by hand for about 30 minutes to develop the gluten. Now that your arm feels like it’s ready to fall off, tightly wrap the dough in plastic wrap and allow it to rest at room temperature for at least 30 minutes so the gluten can relax.

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When the dough is done resting, take a rolling pin and begin to roll the dough out on a floured surface until you’ve achieved a smooth, almost leathery consistency without any cracks or crumbles. Finally, cut the pasta into desired shapes and briefly cook in salted boiling water (time depends on thickness/shape) — the spaghetti alla chitarra should take less than 1 minute to cook.

Watch the video to see JV make the dough from start to finish, plus how to use the chitarra:

A few final thoughts … this pasta dough also freezes great, so you can easily double or triple the recipe and keep it frozen until ready for use. Kitchen Tip: we suggest freezing the dough in thin discs rather than large chunks — it’ll thaw much faster when you’re ready to use it. Also consider using good quality eggs when making this dough; fresh, deep orange yolks will result in a beautiful looking pasta. If you’re interested in purchasing your own Chitarra, check out the Fante’s Kitchen Shop here.


Chai Bitters

A few weeks ago, two of our front-of-the-house staff members — Georgina and Eric — were busy at the bar making house-made chai bitters. I was intrigued by what I imagined would be a heavenly smelling concoction, so I decided to stick around and snap a few shots to document the process … just in case I ever wanted to try this at home.

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While bitters used to be marketed as medicines, today they’re used as flavorings in cocktails, as well as aperitifs and digestifs. The bitters are prepared through infusion or distillation, using aromatic herbs, barks, roots and/or fruits, which are not only used to provide that bitter/bittersweet flavor but also for their natural stomach-soothing qualities. So even though we’ve come a long way from this … its general medicinal qualities have remained constant.

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Though there are numerous types of bitters, it seems nothing could be more comforting and warming during these cold winter months than chai bitters. To start, Eric and Georgina used a mortar and pestle to grind several different types of spices, including: grains of paradise, Jamaican allspice and cardamom pods.

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Here’s Georgina grinding the spices and then adding them to a jar already filled with some star anise, cloves, a few cinnamon sticks cracked in half and wormwood herb.

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After that, Eric added a sliced vanilla bean, fresh orange peel and candied ginger. The vanilla provides a hint of sweetness while the orange peel gives it that natural bitterness.

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While the candied ginger also adds a certain level of sweetness (primarily because it’s candied!), it has always been known for its soothing properties — particularly calming an upset stomach.

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Eric finished it off by adding a high strength rum; he said it would sit and infuse for a few weeks … and well … it’s definitely been a few weeks.

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So whether or not you need a “cure” for jaundice, a loss of appetite, sour stomach, body aches, fever, sores, liver trouble or just general debility — bitters might just be your new best friend. Who knew drinking could be so good for you …

Now, who’s thirsty?


The Secret Behind Our Burger

Not to toot our own horn or anything … but our burger is good. Like, really good. And even for someone who rarely eats red meat — it’s pretty darn scrumptious. Maybe it’s the high quality ground beef we use from Slagel Family Farm in Fairbury, IL, or maybe it’s because we add our own house-made worcestershire sauce to the beef.

Ok, maybe it’s both.

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Every week, we receive our meat delivery from Slagel, which always contains ground beef. After all, the burger does grace the menu every day of the week — even on Sundays for brunch. The ground beef we use is made up of 85% lean beef, 10% pork fat and 5% beef fat, which is then combined with our special worcestershire sauce — which is the big secret behind our burger. Nonetheless, we can’t ignore the fact that we’re using super high-quality beef, so let’s get to that first …

Check out this bit of information from Slagel’s website; they talk about their beef and what makes it so good:

 “We raise Batavian cattle on a diet of grass, grain and alfalfa, hay and wheat straw. We do not strictly feed all grass or all grain to our cattle since we feel some variation in their diet is beneficial. Our cattle do not receive hormones or implants, so they must be fed for 18-24 months, which is considerably longer than industry averages. By combining this breed of cattle with properly managed production techniques, we result in premium quality beef which generally grades high choice and prime. This prime beef is then dry aged at our processing facility approximately 25 days to enhance the product quality even further. The carcasses are then hand-cut to order into steaks (which can be dry aged even further if desired), dry aged ground beef, roasts and many other cuts.”

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Even if you can’t get your hands on Slagel’s ground beef, try making our worcestershire sauce at home and adding it to your own burger the next time you’re grilling. It’s a bit of a process but totally worth it.

:: INGREDIENTS ::

(yields ~1qt)

  • 6 oz. fresh horseradish
  • 1 oz. sardine filet; soaked and cleaned of bones
  • 2 onions
  • 2 jalapeño peppers
  • 6 cloves of garlic
  • 3/4 tsp. coarse black pepper
  • 2 c. water
  • 4 c. champagne vinegar
  • 1 c. dark molasses
  • 12 cloves
  • 1 T. salt
  • 1 lemon; peeled and chopped

:: INSTRUCTIONS ::

Add horseradish, sardine, onion, jalapeño, garlic and pepper to a food processor. Puree until smooth. Then, add the puree to a heavy-bottomed pot and cook until this mixture has caramelized. Be careful not to scorch the bottom! Once it has caramelized, add the water, vinegar, molasses, cloves, salt and lemon to the pot. Simmer over low heat and allow to reduce. Check the seasoning. Remove from the heat and cool. Then, blend it once more until very smooth. Strain through a fine-meshed sieve and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for several weeks. This also freezes great!

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While other dishes have come and gone over the years, the burger remains a constant on our menu. I do suppose there’s something to be said about the simplicity of ordering a really delicious burger, even when it’s up against other intricate menu items like our milk-streamed brisket with cornbread polenta and a foie gras-tomato vinaigrette, or the spit-roasted half chicken with potato and honey-yeast gnocchi in a dried chili sauce.

Perhaps it’s that “safe” feeling you get when ordering a patty of beef stuck between two pieces of bread: there’s no guesswork — you know you can just sit down, eat something that’ll taste really, really good, wipe your mouth off, and call it a night. So, goodnight.


Wintertime Cooking

I was hanging around the restaurant last week and decided to take a walk downstairs to peek inside the walk-in cooler. Unlike the spring and summer months — when every nook and cranny is packed full with fresh produce — I came across lots of potatoes, salted meats, pickled vegetables, compound butters, Brussels sprouts, radishes and cabbage (just to name a few). Translation: it’s wintertime in the Midwest.

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Though our inaccessibility to certain types of produce year-round can make cooking for a genuine farm-to-table restaurant challenging at times, we accept it with open arms. Because we don’t have the luxury of living in an area where the climate is more temperate, it forces us to be creative, think outside the box and use the ingredients we do have in ways we haven’t before. Every day, the kitchen staff meets up to go over the menu, as it not only changes seasonally, but also daily. That’s what makes dining at Nightwood so unique.

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This time of year, we’re featuring heartier breads and biscuits, potato-based dishes, lots delicious fat (are you ordering the beef fat tacos for brunch today?), and comforting pastas, like our “one long noodle” that’s filled with carbonara and served with mussels, lemon and cured egg yolk. Here’s J.D., our pasta maker extraordinaire, rolling out the noodle:

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So while some might think wintertime cooking isn’t exciting, we beg to differ … just be sure to come on an empty stomach.

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Savory Tart Dough

If you joined us for brunch this past Sunday (1/6), maybe you were one of the lucky guests who ordered our savory tart. It was filled with a custard made from Clock Shadow Creamery quark, which was then topped with Brussels sprouts and a runny egg. Is your mouth watering yet?

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The good news is, even if you didn’t have the chance to try it at the restaurant, I stopped by Nightwood on Saturday while JV was rolling out the tart dough for brunch and snagged the recipe from him … so now you can make it at home.

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:: INGREDIENTS – SAVORY TART DOUGH ::

  • 2 c. all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. of each: dried dill, ginger, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, cayenne pepper
  • 3/4 c. cold, unsalted butter; cut into small cubes
  • 1/4 c. cold water

:: INGREDIENTS – CUSTARD :: 

(Note: This will only yield enough custard base for 1-2 small tarts. Multiply the recipe as necessary.)

  • 5 egg yolks
  • 1/2 c. soft/fresh cheese (we used quark)
  • 1/4 c. grated parmesan cheese
  • Salt and pepper to taste

:: METHOD ::

On a flat, non-stick or floured surface, combine the flour, salt and dried herbs/seasonings. Then, using the “cut-in method,” incorporate the cold butter into the flour mixture (using your fingers or a fork) until it resembles chunks the size of peas. This will ensure a flaky crust. Now, take the cold water and slowly add it to the mixture, carefully incorporating it into the dough. It’s difficult to say whether or not you will need all of the water; you are basically adding it until the dough comes together nicely and isn’t crumbling into dry pieces. Be sure not to over-work the dough. Once you’ve achieved the right consistency, you can either separate it into smaller disks of dough if you’re making individual tarts (yields ~6), or keep it in one large disk if making 1-2 large tarts. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and chill overnight.

Now …  watch JV finish the tart here:

Also, note that the cooking times are dependent on the size of tart that you’re making. The small tart featured here took about 10-15 minutes to blind-bake, and then an additional 20 minutes or so to bake until the custard was set up. Larger, thicker tarts will obviously take longer.

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Please comment below if you have any questions about this recipe! Enjoy!