Sunday, May 23, 2010

Resurrection and Relocation


For various reasons, I'm consolidating this blog with my old blog and moving them both to another site. Please visit my new blog at marriedtothemasala.wordpress.com.

Thanks!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Curried Potato Pizza


 Potatoes and cheese, what could be better?

I've seen them in magazines and heard people talk about them with raptuous light in their eyes. On Thursday night, I decided to see what all the fuss was all about. I took the potato pizza plunge.

My previous exerience with potatoes has been limited to boiling, mashing, roasting, and parboiling followed by frying, so as I peeled and sliced, I pondered how to approach putting tubers on top of a pie. Since I don't have a mandoline, my slices weren't thin enough to just toss with oil and lay on top of the dough as I'd read about some pizzeria in Brooklyn doing. A concern about blandness led me to fry them in ghee and Indian spices to give them some zip.

And now, my friends, we come to the part where if you're scrolling down and looking for a recipe, you're going to be disappointed. I didn't write anything down. I could approximate the amounts for you, but that would be pure conjecture, and then if your potato pizza turned out horribly, and oh, say, you made it for company, and that magnified your disappointment, you'd hate me forever, and I just can't have that.

So I will tell you this: I fried the slices in a few tablespoons of ghee with a large amount of ground cumin, and lesser amounts of ground coriander, turmeric and nutmeg. Naturally, I didn't make a note of how hot the burner was or how long they were in there. I just made sure they didn't burn, turned them over a few times, and took them out when they were easy to pierce with a fork.

Cheese-wise, I used what I had on hand: panquehue, a very mild, buttery Chilean cheese. I cut it into little chunks and scattered it aound and under the potato slices, and it melted in an aesthetically pleasing way.

After about 12 minutes at 425 degrees, the pie was done. My pressing need for comfort food made it difficult to wait for it to cool enough to try, but the memory of pizza burns past made me patient. The crisp dough (I use a pizza stone) was a nice balance to the softness of the cheese and potatoes, and I definitely could have used more spices, but overall, it was a fine meal for a Thursday night. The hubs' feedback was that he couldn't taste the potatoes against the crust, so perhaps I'll try it with thicker slices next time.

Deliciousness: Not quite spicy enough for me, but crispy and satisfying. Once I put some Clancy's Fancy on top, it was just fine.

Difficulty: Moderate; I make my own dough, otherwise I'd say easy.

Do-over: Yes, but I'd like to get a mandoline and I'll definitely use sharper cheese and maybe some hot peppers, caramelized onions or salt-cured olives.

Details: Sorry, Charlie, I've already told you everything I can.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Pudding, Indian Style

Last week, I messed around with instant pudding, and since I once again had a slightly crazed week, I decided to take it easy on myself and make the other more or less instant dessert we had in the pantry: Brown & Polson custard. My husband has often spoken reverently of the custard his mother would make him every day using this mix; I suspect it's a fixture in many Indian and Indian expatriate homes, and I've long been curious about it.

Mmm, just like Amma used to make!

As background, B&P has been considered the go-to corn flour (corn starch, basically) since at least 1879, when this ad appeared. You can find it in most Indian groceries and international food stores; mine's been in my pantry since I moved in with my husband two and a half years ago.

My best guess is that his mother bought it during one of her intending to make it for him, but never did -- the package was sealed. Additionally, the nutrition facts sticker on the back was so stubbornly adhered to the box I had to peel it back in layers to get at the directions:
My favorite line: "Let it cool and your delicious custard is ready."

My first challenge was converting 500 ml to cups; I am most definitely a word girl first and a math girl last, and since I was making a childhood favorite of my husband's, I didn't want to take any chances. After using my phone to go online and triumphantly finding the answer (2 cups!) I noticed that my measuring cup lists ml on one side. Good to know for future tussles with metric conversions.

The powder itself is extremely fine and velvety, pale yellow with orange flecks in it, and smells like artificial vanilla, but only if you get up close. The ingredients are corn flour, flavoring, and coloring agents (reassuringly, the box says they are "allowable" coloring agents). It mixed into the milk easily, with no lumps whatsoever, and turned it an appealing shade of saffron. 

Before long I had a lava-hot batch of viscous, vanilla-scented golden yellow goodness cooling on the counter. An hour later I spooned some into a dish and gave it to my husband, who took care of in about a minute flat. He actually drank most of it, as this is "free-flowing" custard -- slightly thicker than creme anglaise. I asked him if it was comparable to what his mom used to make. In between gulps, he said it was.

Deliciousness: If you like the center of custard-filled donuts and wish it were sweeter and not so thick, you will love this custard. Compared to last week's effort, this tastes much richer and thicker -- but I also used 2% milk this time.

Difficulty: I'm starting to think I should do away with this category.

Do-Over: Most definitely; it's easy, tasty, and makes my husband happy. I might try to make it thicker next time, and/or use a bit less sugar.

Details:

2 T. custard powder
2 cups milk, divided
3 heaping T. sugar

1. Get ye to an Indian grocery and pick up a box of Brown & Polson custard powder (vanilla flavour).
2. Mix the powder with 1/4 of the milk and set aside.
3. In a saucepan, heat remaining milk with sugar, almost to the boil. Add the powder mixture, lower the heat to prevent boiling, and cook 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly to prevent burning. Cool before eating.


Monday, May 3, 2010

Tonight: vanilla pudding, plus a special guest.

Perhaps you recall the movie “Mermaids” with Cher, Winona Ryder, Bob Hoskins and a very young Christina Ricci. And if you do, maybe you remember that one of Ryder’s character’s chief complaints about her mother was that her dinners were nothing but long strings of bite-sized hors d’ouvres. (This, for the record, was a gripe I could not relate to. At all.)

The scenes of Cher’s trays of artfully assembled tidbits came to mind as I made myself a late dinner on Saturday night; goat cheese on tiny toasts, eensy sweet-hot peppers from Culinaria’s olive bar, leisurely mouthfuls of microwave popcorn.

But I am one of those people who also needs, or more precisely craves, something sweet at the end of a meal. Meanwhile, I am trying to be more conscious of what I put in my body, calorically speaking, and so lately my need for sweetness has been fulfilled by smaller bits of satisfaction. Minute hunks of dark chocolate are a perennial favorite, but sometimes I want something more satisfying, something I can really sit down with.

I was more or less pacing the kitchen when I remembered the box of instant vanilla pudding I’d picked up at Trader Joe’s. It had been somewhat of a whim, but I’d also wanted to see if it would satisfy my husband’s never-ending craving for bland sweets.



As I was making it, and I use the verb “make” loosely, I hit on the idea of throwing some ground cardamom in half of it. Only half, because historically, my husband is so devoted to the idea of vanilla as a flavor that I assumed he wouldn’t go for the cardamom thing (I was right).

If you’ve had Indian rice pudding (kheer) it’s probably had cardamom in it; its flowery, anise-tinged flavor makes it a natural friend to milk. Most international groceries will have it, and I haven’t looked, but some of your fancier groceries might, too.

Rather shocked by the country of origin.

Ten minutes after my craving for a dessert I could spend some time with, I was covering four lovely little footed ‘60s dessert cups with bits of plastic wrap. Later, it occurred to me that this pudding was edible proof that a modern invention had the power to improve my life – if only for as long as it took to unwrap and empty a dish.
Deliciousness: Not crazy about the bubbly, loose texture, but that’s probably a function of the skim milk. The cardamom, however, was great.

Difficulty: I won’t even dignify that with a response.

Do-Over: Probably, at some point, after I take a stab at the Brown & Paulsen’s custard powder I have in the pantry.

Details:
1 Packet Trader Joe’s instant vanilla pudding

2 cups milk

2 pinches ground cardamom (optional)

Whisk, chill, enjoy, divide into individual dishes if you like.

Put it in a bowl, you'll enjoy it more!


Monday, April 26, 2010

Messing with Mom: Quiche semi-Lorraine


My mother's been in town, staying with us while she moves here from the Baltimore area. This week I had the pleasure of cooking with her for the first time since Christmas.

She offered to cook dinner one night, and because I married a man who could easily win the Picky Eater of the Century award, she suggested quiche. By the time I got home from work, she'd been through my kitchen bookshelf and settled on the New York Times cookbook’s recipe for quiche Lorraine.

What is that asparagus doing there? And where's the bacon?

As you may know, this recipe calls for bacon, which my lovely husband does not eat, so that was where the messing began. It continued in full force when she declared her allegiance to premade pie shells and I agreed to that semi-blasphemy because I have long been intimidated by the idea of making pie crust from scratch. And then we decided to use the pristine asparagus she'd brought home. So basically, we ended up making swiss-asparagus quiche.

Step one was a confab over whether to pre-bake the pie shell, for how long and at what temperature. Here I should explain that my mom is the eldest of nine, a former camp counselor who put herself through nursing school as a single mother of three when she was my age. Meanwhile, I went to college a year early, lived in a very small fishing and mining town in Northern Japan when I was in my early 20s, and once ordered breakfast in Poland using extremely rusty French. In short, we’re both used to doing things on our own, in our own way. But our respective mothers also taught us how to play nice, and soon enough we were laughing over our little episode of When Virgos Collide.

Once we started working with the properly pre-baked pie shell, we realized it was so shallow that we'd have enough liquid to fill at least one more. Since she'd also brought home some baby spinach, we hit on the brilliant idea of doing one pie with that, and one with asparagus. After a brief discussion about whether to precook the additional shell, we decided against it in the interest of time.

The resulting pies were tasty, though the texture of the top layer was not as dense as I expected (maybe because I’d also reduced the amount of cream and used 1% milk). We hadn’t cooked the baby spinach, so it floated to the top and acquired areas of brown crunchiness. These issues notwithstanding, the asparagus pie was gone within 24 hours (my hubs said it was better the second day).


I believe that's the pre-baked shell on the right.

Deliciousness: What’s not to love about eggs, cheese, cream and pastry?

Difficulty: Use prebaked crusts, and you won’t even break a sweat.

Do-Over: Yes, though I’ll try homemade crusts next time, and precook any spinach.

Details:

1 cup grated Gruyère or Swiss cheese (we used Emmenthaler)

¼ c. grated Parmesan cheese

1 ½ c. asparagus, washed, trimmed and cut into ½-inch pieces

4 eggs

1 ½ c. milk

½ c. cream

¼ t. grated nutmeg

½ t. salt

1/8 t. ground black pepper


Preheat oven to 375. Prebake 2 pie shells according to package directions.

Prepare an ice water bath. Steam asparagus until bright green, immediately cool in the ice bath, drain and pat dry.

Lightly beat eggs, add milk, cream and spices, and whisk together. Put this mixture into something with a spout (so you can pour it more easily).

Divide the cheeses and asparagus between the shells. Open oven and pull top rack out; place shells on rack and fill with egg mixture. Carefully slide rack back into oven and bake for 45 minutes or until a knife inserted 1 inch from the pastry edge comes out clean. Cut and serve immediately (a spinach-strawberry salad is a nice accompaniment).

Monday, April 19, 2010

Messing with Family: Warm Milk Chocolate Cakes

There are several recipes in my family that have entered permanent heavy rotation. Chruscik, the Polish Christmas pasrty commonly known as angel wings or butterfly wings, is one of them. Another is warm chocolate cakes, originated by my late aunt Antonia, who could make a gourmet meal out of an empty room. I wish I could say I originated that phrase, but it was her ex-husband who said it -- after they were divorced.


The messing begins to the right of the original.

I would love to know what she'd say about the blasphemy I've inflicted on her masterpiece, but I like to think that once she understood it was done in the name of love, she'd get on board. Surely she'd see that when one finds one has married a fantastic man who has very few flaws, one of which is a hatred of dark chocolate, it is better to adapt than attempt to convert.

All you need to make two ramekins of caramelly deliciousness.


The beauty of this recipe, regardless of the depth of the chocolate, is twofold. First, there is the elemental simplicity of the methods involved; second, the wow factor of putting it front of someone. Also known as lava cakes, much of the pleasure of eating them comes from the fact that they're only partially cooked, so you get gooey, liquid chocolate fun along with your crispy brownie-edge heaven. 

 Done to perfection, more or less.

Deliciousness: In spades.

Difficulty: The two tricks to these are knowing when they're done and getting them out of the ramekins in one piece, which is mostly a function of generously buttering them. The good news here is that eating your mistakes is not exactly a sacrifice.

Do-Over: Yes, at least a thousand times yes.
 
Details:
(Amounts in parentheses are for the original dark chocolate version, which makes four cakes.)
 
3.5 oz. milk chocolate (4 oz. bittersweet or dark chocolate)
3 T. unsalted butter (6 T.)
1/4 c. sugar (1/2 c.)
1 egg plus 1 yolk (2 eggs plus 2 yolks)
2 T. flour (3 T.)
Pinch of salt (omit if using salted butter)
 
Preheat oven to 375. Chop the chocolate and butter into small pieces and melt, either in a double boiler over low heat, or in 10- to 15-second bursts in a microwave, stirring frequently until completely smooth. Please, please be patient if you go the microwave route and do not set the timer for longer, lest you explode the butter like I once did.
 
Whisk together the eggs, yolk, sugar and salt until foamy. Add the chocolate mixture a bit at a time, then add the flour and sitr until combined.
 
Pour into two large, generously buttered and floured ramekins set on a cookie sheet, and bake roughly 18 minutes, until tops are puffy and solid but have some give to them.
 
Carefully invert onto dessert plates (try loosening the sides with a butter knife if they don't fall out), split to let the gooey goodness run out a bit, and serve with ice cream, freshly whipped cream, caramel sauce, or whatever your little heart desires.
 
Note: Batter can sit in molds for up to three hours before baking, and any leftover cakes are delicious cold or warmed slightly.



 

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Inheritance

Last weekend my older brother and I went through our father's earthly possessions. He died four years ago, and since he lived in Phoenix but none of us three kids do, this was the first opportunity to pick through every box, pile and folder. As an aside: Waiting that long might not be for everyone, but it did make the task more administrative than anguishing.

The first hour or so was spent digging through his clothes, from overcoats to underwear, while making faces at Huxtable sweaters and cringing at jokey T-shirts. A two-inch-long mummified scorpion clung to the furry lining of an overcoat, tail raised permanently over its back; we paused to remove it and take pictures. Between swallows of beer, we wondered aloud whether we'd finally find his will, and then let out short, knowing laughs.

We were sifting through a box of office things -- scratch pads, a stapler, a grown-up Trapper Keeper -- when I spotted a file marked "To be entered on computer." When I opened it, the first thing I saw was a stack of recipe cards with my dad's writing on them. The design on the left-hand side was not new to me; these were the cards he'd pull out when we cooked together.

If my dad had ever gotten around to typing all those cards up, I would never have received my inheritance.




Monday, April 12, 2010

A Guest Mess

This week's post is being ably handled by the lovely and talented Brandi Wills of The Good in Food. (And no, she did not pay me to say that. She's far too much of a nice Midwestern girl.) Enjoy!

-----------------------------
Hello all! Sorry you had to wait a few extra hours to get your "Messing" fix, but I don't get up as early as Ms. H. 

On my blog, I chronicle my mission to be an educated cook and consumer of foods. Awhile back, I taught myself to make pancakes from scratch for the very first time. I used a recipe for Spanish Pancakes with Olive Oil from a Spanish cooking show. Later, while making cornmeal muffins, I realized that the recipes for Spanish Pancakes and cornmeal muffins were nearly identical. So when Heidi asked me to guest-blog for her, I decided this was my chance to create my very first recipe: Cornmeal Pancakes. I have never cooked something without following someone else's recipe, so merging these two into one of my very own was exciting.

I started with the Spanish Pancake recipe, turned 1½ cups of flour into 1 cup of flour + ½ c. cornmeal. Plus, I left out the chopped chocolate and omitted the olive oil on a whim.


As I worked with the pancakes in the skillet, I found that the cornmeal in the mix made the batter a little more cohesive than the Spanish pancake batter. It held together better during pouring and was much easier to flip and keep in its circular shape. Plus, they left less mess in the pan, meaning it didn't need to be cleaned as often between batches.


After the first batch was done, I took a taste. It had a very light cornmeal-y flavor and slightly grainy texture that was slightly weaker than your average cornmeal pancake, but I liked it. 


I could have happily stopped here. However, I didn't think this constituted enough "messing" to live up to Heidi's standards. So, with half the batter left, I added another tablespoon of cornmeal to see if I could match the expected flavor and consistency. Even thicker and grainier, you could really see the cornmeal in the finished product.


For my third and final trick, I decided to reintroduce the chopped chocolate from the Spanish pancake recipe just for fun. The result was an interesting mixture of flavors and textures. The gritty, earthy cornmeal paired nicely with the sweet, creamy melted chocolate. It was surprisingly good, yet unsurprisingly heavy. The weight of the cornmeal and the sweetness of the chocolate made it an alteration I would only consider if really in the mood for such a thing. 


Ok, time for the Ds—

Deliciousness: All three versions yielded different results, though all were tasty.
Difficulty: Actually, easier than your average pancake.
Do-Over: Next time, I’d stick with the original recipe I created and top it with butter and powdered sugar for a lighter version of a classic.

Details:
1 c. flour
½ c. cornmeal
2 T. sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
touch of salt
1 ½ c. buttermilk
1 beaten egg

Stir gently from the middle outwards, just until the ingredients are blended. Don’t over-mix.

Drizzle olive oil in skillet (or on griddle if you have one) and heat to medium-low. Use a ladle to drop batter onto skillet and spread into a circle with the back of the ladle. When tiny bubbles appear along the edges of the pancake, it is ready to be flipped.


Thursday, April 8, 2010

Two Composed Salads



Above, we have the salad that came as part of the Valentine's Day meal at Aya Sofia. Simple, beautiful, delicious, and I won't lie, I gave a little gasp of delight when it arrived. Not being familiar with the precise definition of "composed" when it comes to food, I don't even know that it counts as such, but to my mind, this is a gorgeous, logical way to arrange a salad. Top it off with olives, a slice of grilled summer squash, and one of the best house dressings I've ever had, and it's a lovely way to start a meal, romantic or otherwise.

Below, the Crossings roasted beet salad at The Terrace View, the Fiala venture that overlooks downtown's Citygarden sculpture park. No gasp, because for $8, I was expecting it to look as good as it tasted. And it was indeed delicious -- both varieties of beets were roasted to their full glory, and I'm convinced that the roasting made it easier to appreciate the differences between the two. The goat cheese and sprouts provided a gentle tang and crunch, both necessary counterpoints to the earthy-sweet beets.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Week 10: Double Lemon Chicken





Ah, Christmas. Fraught with the perils of gift-giving etiquette and emotional landmines. Also one of my favorite times of year because oh dear Lord the pounds of butter, the rivers of heavy cream, the mountains of kielbasa and potatoes. Last Christmas, I gained five pounds in the space of a week. About two years before that, my older brother bestowed a most excellent gift: A box of Penzeys spices.

It was my first Christmas as a newlywed, so it, um, took me a while to get around to using all the items in the trip-around-the-world box of wonder. Penzeys' soothing, clean typeface adorned bottles of Indian peppercorns, Dutch process cocoa, French thyme, and what I think of as an American favorite: lemon pepper.

I don't think I had ever purchased a bottle of the stuff; I just wondered what people did with it when I encountered it in the spice aisle. Thus, it languished the longest of all the spices in that box, until I was looking for something to enliven my never-ending hunks of of lean protein, i.e., chicken breasts. Somewhere in my reading and Food Network watching, I had picked up the idea that chicken and lemon are good friends, so it seemed only natural that chicken might at least like to meet lemon pepper.

Sprinkled over a few pinky-beige slabs of poultry, it saved me from being bored to death by my diet. And when I paired it with lemon juice, the chicken went from yay-it's-not-bland to oh-wow-this-is-delightfully-zingy. I use it on pizza, in salads, and for sandwiches, and I'm not sure I'll ever get tired of the flavor. Which is good, because I'm in a wedding Labor Day weekend and I have more than a few pounds to go before I reach my goal weight.


The Hipstamatic app makes even raw chicken look fab.


Deliciousness: It's tangy, versatile, and low in fat. What more do you want?
Difficulty: None to speak of.
Do-Over: At least once a week.

Details:
 
1. Preheat oven to 425.
 
2. Juice one lemon and remove the seeds. Briefly rinse as many frozen chicken breasts as you want to make (and will fit in a single layer in your baking dish). I only do this because it helps the lemon pepper stick. Sprinkle one side of the meat with a fair amount of lemon pepper and drizzle with half the juice. Turn over and repeat.
 
3. Bake for 25 minutes, turn over, and start checking for doneness 10-15 minutes later. Most cookbooks will tell you that you want the juices to run clear when you cut into the thickest part of the meat, and who am I to argue with experts?
 
NOTE: Next week I will be unable to post due to a prior engagement, but my friend Brandi, who happens to be a fellow food blogger, has agreed to take the reins. You'll be in good hands. Thanks, B!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Oranges at Mizu


A while back I met a friend at Mizu for a sushi lunch. I was seated against the wall and noticed the staff's constant attendance and contribution to a line of plates. They turned out to be what every patron receives for dessert -- an end-of-meal amuse-bouche. Each cross-section slice was peeled and sliced into quarters for ease of consumption, and the fruit itself was perfectly ripe.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Week Nine: White Chicken Chili


Midwestern springs are never a linear affair. They trot out days or weeks of weak but warm sun, then plunge us into cold grey drippiness, just to show us who's boss. (I think of those icky stretches as Mother Nature's version of a swirlie.) During those winterish bursts, I wear my favorite sweaters one more time and scramble to make soups and stews before the weather gets too nice again.

Last week, with the weather in a wintry phase and company in town, I turned to an old standby: White Chicken Chili, made in a crock-pot. It's the only way I've ever made it, and my recipe was developed from one I found online, most likely on the excellent Year of Slow Cooking.

As usual, I had all the major ingredients on hand: frozen chicken breasts, white beans, green chiles, chicken stock, onions, garlic. I'd always wondered, though, what would happen if I sauteed the onions and garlic with the spices instead of throwing them in the pot in all their raw, harsh glory. Usually, I combined the spices with half a cup of flour and tossed the cut-up chicken in it, but I'd never had much faith in the thickening power of that approach. Thus, I decided the time was ripe to double up the messing.

My general approach to any scenario involving onions, spices, garlic and heat is a few glugs of olive oil, medium-low heat, onions first, then spices, then garlic because I've heard it's easy to burn and turns bitter when it does.Once again, I was up early, so I had plenty of time to do all that, handle the rest of the prep, and monitor my and my guest's caffeine levels.

The rest of the recipe was your standard crock-pot affair, so elemental and non-cookish it seems like cheating: thaw the chicken enough to cut into chunks, open a bunch of cans, dump, dump, stir, set the timer, go to work, eat. (A note on the timer: I've found that chicken gets a weird grainy-mushy texture when it's overcooked in a crock-pot, so I put mine on a light timer if I'm using it during the week.)

Aside from the appearance of this recipe, which is so unappealing that I can't bring myself to inflict it on you, it always turns out well. This time was no different, and the sauteed onions and garlic gave it a nice depth. It wasn't as thick as usual, but that didn't bother me or my guest.

Deliciousness: We ate it for dinner three nights in a row, and not just because we were too tired to order takeout.

Difficulty: I suppose not burning the onions, garlic and spices requires some skill, but you should know by now I don't make really difficult stuff.

Do-Over: Duh.

Details:

3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, thawed and cubed
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 can each chicken broth and green chiles
2 cans Great Northern beans, drained
2 t. cumin
1/2 t. each oregano and coriander
1/4 t. cinnamon
1/8 t. nutmeg
2 bay leaves
salt, chili powder and/or cayenne to taste

Ultra-quick way: Stick everything in a crock-pot, stir, cook for 4 hours on low. Serve with sour cream and corn chips.

Slightly longer way:
Over medium-low heat, saute onions in 2 or 3 T. olive oil until soft and a tiny bit brown, about 10 minutes. Add all spices except chili powder, cayenne and bay leaves; saute 5 minutes more. Add garlic and let it go 5 or10 minutes longer, making sure nothing's burning and adding more oil as necessary to prevent sticking.

Meanwhile, put everything else in the crock-pot; add the onion-spice mixture, stir again, and cook 4 hours on low. Serve with sour cream and corn chips.






Monday, March 22, 2010

Week Eight: Poundish Cake


A few weeks back, after making Black-and-White Brownies a couple of times, I began to ponder rejiggering them into cake. The ingredients seemed right, the vanilla portion of the brownies was very cakey, and the other human member of the household had been asking for cake for days on end. Sadly for him, his cake craving hit on the Monday of the week I was leaving town on Wednesday for a funeral.

My Monday and Tuesday evenings were occupied with confirming flights, figuring out what to wear, and performing the heinous algebra and geometry of the quart-size Ziploc bag. When the hubs occasionally brought up the topic of cake, I would make a vague and desperate gesture toward the second floor, whence my wardrobe and toiletry woes taunted me, and/or roll my eyes.

On Wednesday morning I woke up at 4 a.m., not completely awake, but alert enough that I knew there was no sleep in my immediate future. I was fully packed, except for the remaining bits of makeup and creams I would use that morning. Feeding and walking the dogs, as much as I whine about it, does not take very long. And we wouldn’t be leaving the house for four hours.

Determined to thumb my nose at the ridiculous situation, I decided to take a stab at making a cake from the brownie recipe. Once I started measuring and mixing, I realized this was what I had wanted to do all along, every minute I’d been doing laundry and fretting over how my dresses fit (or don’t). Beyond the usual comfort of cooking, I savored the knowledge that this cake would make my husband happy during my absence.

I made a few major modifications to the original recipe: I left out the chocolate, increased the flour to 3/4 cup, added a bit of milk, reduced the sugar to 3/4 cup, and creamed the butter with the sugar instead of melting it – which underscored that fact that I will need a stand mixer at some point in my life if I am to be at all serious about this cooking thing.

When it was cool enough to taste, the straightforward vanilla flavor and dense crumb reminded me a bit of the Sara Lee pound cakes we would get sometimes when I was growing up. We’d put sugared strawberries and freshly whipped cream over slices of it and call it strawberry shortcake. This cake would be perfect for that, or whatever else you felt like putting on top.


Deliciousness: This cake elemental in its simple, comforting tastiness.

Difficulty: None to speak of, unless like me you do not own a stand mixer.

Do-Over: Yep.

Details:

5 T. butter, room temperature

3/4 c. sugar

3/4 c. flour (I think I used cake flour)

1/2 c. milk (I used skim)

1 t. vanilla

2 eggs

Pinch salt

Preheat oven to 350 and grease an 8” x 8” pan (I use Pam). Cream butter and sugar until very smooth. Add eggs, milk and vanilla and beat until well combined. Add salt and mix flour in slowly. Bake 25-30 minutes, until golden on top and/or a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Week Seven: Burmese Tofu



We are lucky to have a local food monthly that's crammed with high-quality writing and photography as well as approachable recipes. This month, the theme is vegetarian food, and one of the recipes caught my attention: Burmese tofu.

When I looked through it, two thoughts came to mind: 1) I have all the ingredients in the house, yay! and 2) They should have called this Burmese polenta -- it's really just polenta made with chickpea flour. If you've never made polenta, you shouldn't be intimidated or impressed; it's also called cormeal mush, and if you can stir for 15 minutes, you can make it.

Granted, chickpea flour is not something everyone has on hand; I bought it so I could play around with making pakora (Indian vegetable fritters). You can sometimes find it in the natural foods aisle, or in an Indian grocery, where it will be called besan gram flour.

Just before I decided it was done.

I assumed I'd need to start with boiling water, so I put the pot on to heat while I minced two cloves of garlic, which was the only prep to speak of. But no, the reciped stated that the chickpea flour should be stirred into cold water, so I ditched my boiling water, cooled the pot and started over.

Whisking the flour into the water slowly to avoid lumps is really the only trick to making smooth polenta, so I employed that technique here, then added the spices and garlic, and stirred for 15 minutes. That's really all there is to it; after that, all you need to do is pour the stuff into a pan and let it cool.

Tower of chickpea power.

Deliciousness: A little on the salty and garlicky side, but overall, quite nice, firm and tasty. I had a few cubes straight from the pan, and a few in a salad. The recipe mentioned deep-frying as an option, too.

Difficulty: If you can stir, you can make this.

Do-over: Yes. It's tasty, easy, cheap and high in protein.

Details: Put 2 cups cold water in a medium saucepan and whisk in 1/2 cup chickpea flour. Add 1/2 t. turmeric, 1 t. salt, 1/4 t. ground ginger and 2 minced garlic cloves. Heat for 10 to 15 minutes over medium heat, stirring frequently at first and constantly at the end, until the mixture pulls away from the sides. Pour into a lightly oiled loaf pan and allow to cool.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Week Six: Carrot-Ginger Soup

Don't be fooled by that fancy bottle; I buy the cheapest
vat I can find at the international store and refill it.

To start 2010, Mother Nature decided to impress us with her ability to freeze our patooties off for weeks on end. The one advantage of this was that groceries in need of refrigeration could be safely stored in the trunk of one’s car, which the cold would turn into a giant cooler on wheels. Go ahead, call me Pollyanna – you wouldn’t be the first.

So one day I stopped by the store on my way to work, purchased produce, and left it in the trunk. Among the items was a one-pound bag of carrots. They carrots froze, solid, in the space of nine hours. They must have a low freezing point, because A) I don’t recall anything else turning into vegetable- or fruit-shaped ice cubes and B) there is nothing else approaching the oddity of a bag of carrots in my freezer.

I’d been unable to admit defeat and stupidity by throwing the suckers away, and instead put them in my freezer, reasoning that they’d need to be cooked as soon as they were thawed. Last week, I thawed them and made soup out of them. Carrot-ginger soup, to be precise.

I’d had it in restaurants, and loved it every time. When I perused a number of online recipes, they seemed elegant, simple and easy. The pared-down aspect of it didn’t even seem to require a recipe, so I didn’t use one.

I sautéed a large, diced onion in about 4 T. of olive oil for about 15 minutes, then added about ¼ cup diced fresh ginger, 1 t. ground cumin, ¼ t. turmeric, ½ t. coriander and half a cup of water to keep the spices from sticking. Once the spices had a chance to warm up, I added 4 cups of water and the carrots, which I’d washed and cut into big chunks (I did not peel them because, now thawed, they were carrot-shaped sponges), about ½ t. salt, and about eight turns of the pepper grinder.

How I measure salt. It usually works out.

Half an hour later, with the carrots tasting cooked, I turned off the burner and let the soup cool until I wasn’t afraid that I’d burn myself while puréeing it. When I tasted it, I the ginger levels were on the order of wasabi, i.e., eye-watering. It was edible, but only just, and only if you went slowly.

But I still couldn’t bring myself to throw the stuff away. It had great color, the carrot flavor was strong and bright, and I am a stubborn Polack. So I put it in the fridge and thought about it, and in the morning, I turned to one of the three saviors of all Polish cooks: potatoes. (I ruled out the other two, butter and cream, on the grounds that I have recently begun counting calories, and it’s going well.)

Two of them, peeled, diced and boiled, then pureed with the soup, mellowed the ginger just enough to make eating the (now rather thick) soup as soup, but as I was tasting it, I thought it would be really good as a topping or a filling. For, say, ravioli.

But not this week.

Pretty, cheerful, delicious.

Deliciousness: Very nice, once I got the ginger in hand.

Difficulty: Not even remotely difficult.

Do-Over: Yes, but I might follow a recipe next time.

Details: See above for what few there are...

Monday, March 1, 2010

Week Five: Black-and-White Brownies



I used to be in charge of the editing department at an advertising agency (which still seems to weird to me). My officemates, who were not early risers, found it amusing that I would get up and do things before work. You know, make lunch, watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer, steam-clean my bedroom carpet, that sort of thing.

These days when I’m up early I’m usually either writing or cooking, and last week, I discovered that cooking before breakfast might not be the best idea.

Ordinarily, I make the sort of brownies that come in a box, but it occurred to me that I had all the ingredients I needed to make them from scratch, and probably wouldn’t be terribly difficult or time-consuming. In fact, I reasoned, it should be so easy that I could knock out a pan of brownies before work. And there were two brownie-worthy occasions on the roster: Book club (which we really should re-name “food-and-wine club”), and my boss’ birthday pig-out festival.

One of the reasons I chose the recipe I did, aside from the use of buter and the lack of fussy instructions, was the option for “black and white” brownies. The directions looked friendly and simple: Make the batter, pour half in the pan, add the melted butter and chocolate to the remaining half, pour it on top of the white batter and spread evenly.

The only ingredient I didn’t have was unsweetened baking chocolate, but Joy of Cooking’s “equivalents, weights and measures” chapter assured me that 3 T. of cocoa plus 1 T. of “fat” would stand in perfectly well for one of those waxy, bitter blocks.

On Monday night, indulging in visions of cleanly striated brownies, I pre-measured what I could (flour, sugar, cocoa, salt) and pre-cut the butter to speed Tuesday morning’s process. Around 6:15 Tuesday morning, I whisked the eggs with sugar, added flour, salt and vanilla, melted the butter, and combined it with the cocoa. I poured what I judged to be half the batter into the pan and added the chocobutter stuff to the remaining half.

I was pouring the chocolatized batter into the pan and watching it disappear under the delightfully light and fluffy vanilla batter when I realized I’d put all the butter into the chocolate mixture, and none into the vanilla part. After pausing to slap my forehead, I recommitted to black-and-white brownies, poured the rest of the chocolate stuff in, and hoped for the best as I closed the oven door.

35 minutes later, the chocolate part occupied the middle of the pan, ringed by a delicate, hollow vanilla crust that rose a good inch or so above the level of the chocolate. It was an arresting sight, but I decided I’d taste it before I declared it a failure.

Cutting the crust was the biggest issue; it tended to separate from the chocolate part and broke easily, This bummed me out, because it seemed like an interesting texture combination. Once I tasted the crust, I worked even harder to keep it attached to the outer pieces; it reminded me of the amaretti cookies you can do that cool paper-burning trick with.

The interior had a density on the order of a flourless chocolate torte, and tasted like the outside of an Oreo (I’d used dark chocolate cocoa). Both parts were delicious, so I carefully moved most of the pieces to a plate and wrapped it. On a smaller plate, I arranged a few pieces for the hubs, who ate a few and promptly demanded I leave him with more. The ladies were similarly enthusiastic, and I came home with very little in the way of leftovers.

On Wednesday morning, I took my second stab at the recipe, portioned the butter properly between the vanilla and chocolate batters, and got a much more brownie-like result. The chocolate part was still a little denser than I wanted it, probably because I left myself with less than half batter when I added the chocolate, but that didn’t prevent my co-workers from going apey over them.


The Four Ds:

Deliciousness: Oh heck yeah, especially if you use Hershey’s Special Dark Cocoa. The texture is denser than box brownies, but the richness of the butter and chocolate are the big payoff. If you’re worried about fat and calories, you’ll be happy to know that according to Sparkpeople.com’s recipe calculator, one brownie has about 100 calories. (That’s assuming you cut your pan into 16 brownies. )

Difficulty: Easy-peasy. Despite the fact that I don’t own a stand mixer, I hereby pledge that I will make these instead of box brownies unless I’m in an absolute rush, or craving the plasticky goodness that can only be achieved via Duncan Hines.

Do-Over: Most definitely, though I’ll try an all-brown version, and maybe a vanilla version, and may play with a margarine/butter mix and noodle with the flour/egg ratio to lighten the texture a bit.

Details:

Black-and-White Brownies
Adapted from Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cookbook, revised edition, ©1990, page 715.

Preheat oven to 350 and melt 5 T. butter. Whisk or beat ¾ c. sugar and 2 eggs in a large bowl until foamy. Add 1 t. vanilla, ½ c. flour, a pinch of salt, the butter, and mix well. Melt 2 T. butter, add 6 T. cocoa, and stir until smooth (it will be thick). Pour half the batter into a greased 9” x 9” pan, add the chocolate to the remaining half, and pour in, swirling and spreading as desired. Bake 30-35 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out nearly clean.

For all-brown brownies: Increase butter to 9 T., use 12 T. of cocoa, and add to entire batch of batter.

To substitute unsweetened baking chocolate in the black-and-white recipe: Melt 2 squares; add 5 T. melted butter to batter before dividing, then add melted chocolate to remaining half.

To substitute unsweetened baking chocolate in the all-brown recipe: Melt 4 squares with 5 T. butter; add to batter just before pouring into pan.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Week Four: Potstickers


Pork and cabbage, friends forever.


There is nothing quite like a half a day of manual kitchen labor to chill you out. Or chill me out, I should say; I can’t presume to speak for the entire cooking population. But for me, getting my hands busy with chopping, kneading, and frying is one of the best things I can do for my head.

This weekend, I got to do just that, with good friend and fellow blogger Brandi as my copilot. A few weeks ago, she’d said she wanted to cook with me as part of her quest to become a better cook, and when I pondered what to make with her, I immediately thought, “meat.” We are both meat-eaters who live with non-meat eaters, more or less, and the chance to cook a meat-based meal that isn’t mostly destined for the freezer is rare.

From meat, we made the leap to potstickers, gyoza, jiao xi – whatever you call them, they are a treasured staple of both Chinese and Japanese cuisine, simple dumplings of pork-and-ginger goodness that are both pretty to behold (when made by a pro) and lovely to eat.

Having decided we would do this “the right way,” the first step was making the dough. 4 cups of sifted flour, 2 cups of water, then, “slowly pour in the water and mix to a firm dough.” I gamely poured the water with one hand and shifted the flour and water around the bowl with the other until my dough-stirring hand became subsumed by a sticky mass of wallpaper paste.

This dough would make excellent handcuffs.

The authors probably meant that you should only use as much of the water as you need to form a firm dough, but with that option gone, I added more flour until it became a workable mass. From there, I kneaded it, had Brandi (who makes her own bread every week) check to see if she thought it was “smooth and soft” as the recipe said it should be, and put it back in the freshly de-pastified bowl to rest.

We then turned our attention to the Napa cabbage, which needed to be blanched, drained and chopped finely. I knew what blanching meant – precooking for a short time in boiling water – but had never done it, and the combination of thick stems and leafy tops made for a daunting first foray into the technique. In the end, we watched until the stems looked soft, took them out and, at Brandi’s prompting, rinsed them with cold water to stop the cooking process.

The filling itself is simple to assemble once you get the cabbage handled: ground pork, soy sauce, sesame oil, brown sugar, fresh ginger, scallions, rice wine or sherry if you have it. I had expressed my distaste for handling raw meat, so Brandi dealt with mixing the filling.

Next up: Wake the resting dough, roll it into a long snake, cut it into 80-90 bits, roll those bits into perfect 2 ½” circles, then fill each circle with 1 ½ Tablespoons of filling and close it with gorgeous little pleats.

The dough, much improved by its rest.

In the interest of brevity, I will only say that we did get the dough rolled and the dumplings filled, and that in cooking, as in life, looks do not always matter. Also, it is extremely important to use enough flour that the uncooked dumplings don’t stick to the plate and stretch like so much melted mozzarella when you try to lift them, causing you to moan and alarm your helpmate.

According to the cookbook, we had several cooking options: Shallow-frying, steaming, or poaching. Steaming was ruled out, as I do not own a bamboo steamer and didn’t think very long about how to rig a reasonable facsimile. Shallow-frying seemed the best bet, so we did that for the majority of the batch and then tried poaching, which gave the skins a texture not unlike rubbery chicken skin.

Brandi handled the dipping sauce: 1 T. each soy sauce and chopped scallions, 1 t. minced garlic, 2 T. hot chili oil, which sadly I did not have. She subbed red pepper flakes, though, which worked to add bite.

And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for I’m sure, the four Ds:

Deliciousness: Holy mother, these things are nothing but succulent goodness. We were both expecting more delicate skins, though I’m sure that has to do with our inexperience.

Difficulty: If you don’t make your own dough, quite easy; but either way, quite time-consuming.

Do-over: Most definitely, though I will try pre-made skins next time, and put more ginger and maybe some garlic in the filling. Also, we discussed adding water chestnuts and some uncooked cabbage to liven up the texture. Finally, I will make sure I have hot chili oil on hand for the dipping sauce.

Details: The filling is equal parts ground pork and cabbage, 1 T. finely chopped scallions, 2 t. salt, 1 t. finely minced ginger root, 2 T. light soy sauce, 1 t. light brown sugar, 2 t. sesame oil, 1 T. Chinese rice wine or dry sherry. We left out the sherry, forgot to add the salt, doubled the ginger and used dark brown sugar.



I can't speak for B, but I ate so many I wasn't hungry for the rest of the day.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Week Three: Snickerdoodles



Snickerdoodle ingredients (dog optional).

Late last week I was seized with an inexplicable and strong craving for the simple, cinnamony goodness of snickerdoodles. I had never made them, and the recipes I found online seemed straightforward enough: butter or shortening, sugar (in shockingly varying amounts), eggs, cinnamon, baking soda, flour, cream of tartar.

Cream of tartar? Weird, I thought, who has that on hand? Not me, I don't think. But surely this must be a fluke. Next recipe: cream of tartar. Every single recipe called for it, so I went to see if I had any. I did not, and with fresh snow on the ground and a generally lazy day-off-work outlook, I began to troll the Interwebs to see if I could substitute something else.

And that's why you see that big jug of vinegar in the photo above. My reserach revealed that cream of tartar is an acid salt, a byproduct of winemaking that inhibits the formation of crystals and is generally used to stabilize beaten egg whites, make frostings creamier, and clean brass and copper. The substitutions of choice are lemon juice and white vinegar, in a three-to-one ratio to the original amount called for.
I knew I didn't have any lemons in the fridge, but because this is humidifier season, and the crusty gunk that accumulates inside them responds well to vinegar, I have the aforementioned jug stting on my pantry floor.

Problem solved, I set about making the recipe I selected for its low cream of tartar content and reasonable sugar-to-butter ratio. I'd decided to use margarine, because A) butter is difficult to work with if, like me, you don't own a stand mixer, and B) many recipes I found called for shortening, so it seemed like a workable substitution.

The dough, even having been refrigerated for an hour, was sticky beyond what seemed reasonable, but I was able to make a full dozen one-inch balls and roll them in the cinnamon sugar. I stuck them in the oven and crossed my fingers, and put the remaining dough in the freezer to see if that would up the rollability factor (it did, but only for the first 2.5 minutes).

The results: Totally delicious, crispy on the edges and soft in the middle, excellent with mid-morning coffee. Next time around, I'll use at least half butter, but I'll stick with the vinegar substitution, or just leave it out and see what happens. FYI, the recipe I used makes about three dozen -- if there are no raw dough fiends in your house.