Showing posts with label baking. Show all posts
Showing posts with label baking. Show all posts

Friday, August 27, 2010

Walk Without Flinching

So. How are you then? Me, I've been on an extended pout and am quite ready to see the back of summer, if not 2010 in its entirety. You know those times in your life when people you otherwise sort of enjoy say things like "God doesn't give you what you can't handle" or "Even the darkest clouds have a silver lining" and you kind of want to punch them except you don't because your sainted charm school instructor might well rise from the dead and haunt you, thereby resulting in even less sleep then you've recently enjoyed? You know those times? That.

The less said the better.

In between pouting and the occasional dainty tear poised ever-so-fetchingly at the corner of my right eye, I've spent a good amount of time this summer trying to feed my family in ways that won't kill them. Oh, yes, that's right. You haven't heard. I say "not kill them" instead of "not kill him" because we now have in hand the Girl's allergy assessment and blah blah blah, it turns out she's nearly as unfeedable as her father albeit in a slightly different way.

Because nothing thrills me as much as solving a problem in a way that involves as many trips to the library as possible, my recent list of check-outs reads like someone with a very troubled constitution, indeed. With allergy-free and celiac-aware publications hitting the shelves at what seems to me to be a rapid pace - perhaps it is less so to people with more experience in these matters than I - there is plenty from which to choose for guidance. One would think that there would be no trick at all to ridding oneself of troubling foodstuffs. At home, anyway. Let's not talk about restaurants for a spell, as we're not really speaking at the moment.

Vegan and vegetarian cookbooks are near useless for their reliance on wheat and soy products. Gluten-free resources often feature bean flours and nightshades heavily, both of which are very strictly limited for us. I found one book I adored, only to discover that it called in nearly every recipe for an ingredient that is priced upwards of $27 a pound. Then there are the recipes that sound wonderful but turn out to take not unlike library paste (which, now that I think on it, probably has a wheat binder and therefore cannot be eaten by at least two people with whom I live).

Interestingly, among the cookbooks most useful in retooling my kitchen and dining table weren't intended specifically for special diets at all. Jamie's Food Revolution: Rediscover How to Cook Simple, Delicious, Affordable Meals, in particular, was helpful for reminding me that simple is better and there are few - if any - of my family's problem ingredients in fresh food, humbly prepared. Likewise, Everyday Food: Fresh Flavor Fast: 250 Easy, Delicious Recipes for Any Time of Day, helped me retain the notion that a decent, healthy meal prepared and served sometime this century (even when I've had a bad day at work and tonight is riding night and...) is not necessarily an impossible mission. No need for special or shockingly expensive ingredients, no need for deprivation, and no need for substitutions when a bit of redirection is possible and even desirable.

Hey, is that a silver lining I see?

P.S. If you're looking for a bit of inspiration for simple, seasonal meals, I recommend these for clear and concise directions and a refreshing lack of jargony references to specialty products:

Saturday, February 20, 2010

A Piece of (Red) Cake

Is there anything that you buy, convinced in the moment of purchase that it is 100% a needed and rational purchase, only to arrive home to discover that - damn and blast! - you already own, say, 8 or 10 identical specimens?

Brainiac had this thing a while ago when every time he left the house he came back with a set of queen size sheets. Because I am, myself, a somewhat eccentric person, I didn't say a word until one day I was putting a newly cleaned set away on top of the pile (we never got to the bottom) and the whole of the linen closet collapsed on my head. So I managed to get him to stop buying and only last year managed to divest us (thank goodness for the preschool rummage sale and its needed donations) of seven sets, leaving us with four - two flannel, two sheeting.

Somewhere in the middle of the sheets he had a thing for lamps and bought five in the space of six weeks or so. And I - because this is not a bash Brainiac post - once went through a very regrettable velour tunic phase, ending up with nearly a dozen. Then there's my completely irrational need to purchase each and every magazine featuring a lemon cake and, really, there are only so many recipes for lemon cake.

So. When it came time to produce the birthday cake to complement the Girl's Chinese Dragon-themed party, I was reasonably confident that I had enough of Wilton's red paste to execute the iconic dark red, black and gold design because red icing paste is one of those things that I buy whenever I find myself within a mile or two of a Michael's.

Turns out that I emptied a jar of paste - using the remaining 2/3 of an ounce - along with a drop of black getting to the red I envisioned in my head. A quick (albeit messy rinse) and the jar ended up in recycling, accompanied by my realization that I have never seen one of those jars completely used up. My first jars (lavender and daffodil in color), bought 14 years ago, are still good and quite full even after multiple uses. My mom has jars that are probably not much younger than I. So, you know, that's a lot of red.

(A note on the design: a colleague prepared for me a Chinese New Year-related design that he suggested would be considered good luck for a birthday cake. My attempt to reproduce it came to a bad end almost immediately and thus we ended up with something described by the one person in attendance who might have been relied upon to know the difference - a five year old boy - as "a tiny bit Chinese looking but not really." To this I smiled and asked if he'd like an extra big piece. He did.)

Later that weekend I prepared to make the cupcakes I promised to the Boy's class as part of their Valentine's Day celebration. I told him I'd make any kind of cupcake he desired as long as the recipe did not require a special shopping trip. After a week of snowbound togetherness, his sister's birthday party and holiday weekend company I was in no mood for special acquisition errands and set him down with a pile of cookbooks. Some time later he wandered into the family room, where I sat with a glass of wine and a novel involving oddly modern-minded Dukes and the maidens they love.

"Red velvet!" he declared, smiling and pointing to a recipe from a 50s era church cookbook. I looked, noticed the buttermilk requirement and shook my head. Allrecipes to the rescue with a perfectly doable, no-shopping required alternative, provided by the McCormick company.*

The result, after dipping well into a second jar of red paste:

Adorable, even pre-iced. And very delicious...and a bit like crack to the child who is generally deprived of food color of all types (I am a soft touch when it comes to the combination of holidays and Childhood Magic). I only needed 24 for the classroom, teachers and assorted helpers so was delighted to keep a few back, purely in the interests of research. Thinking to make a batch to take to work, I wasn't sure I really had enough red to pull it off. Turns out, I have nothing to worry about.

Nothing at all, with three jars of red left to plunder. Red velvet for everyone!

* As delightful as the folks at McCormick no doubt are, I feel compelled to mention that I did and do not actually possess any of their own brand of red food color. I used paste I already bought (see above) and used much more than the equivalent of the one ounce of liquid called for in the recipe.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Seeing Stars

Although I posted that I'd be making the White Wine-Sage Mustard next, I've had so many e-mails looking for the spiced honey that I'm going to put that up this week and save the mustard for the the first week in December. I've actually been a little afraid of the honey idea - honey being so sticky and hard to control - and I'm glad that the interest is there to keep me on task. I'm going to make two kinds; one with cinnamon and clove and one with star anise. Both are insanely delicious, really not at all hard to make (stickiness aside) and wonderful to give (or not). Watch for the honey post by the end of the day Thursday.

In the meantime, I've been also trying to finish up some crafty gifts in time for my Thanksgiving trip to Buffalo. The kids and I are heading up for the long weekend and I'm very keen to be able to have all the presents wrapped and ready to go. I'm way more organized this year than in the last few and that makes all the difference between good intentions and actual gift production. Being organized! I'm amazed someone didn't think of it sooner.

We'll be arriving back from the trip up north on the first day of Advent and in the spirit of organization I'm putting together plans for the activities and projects that truly add to our observance and am being very bold about declining to participate in engagements that would diminish our enjoyment of the season. The short list so far includes a nice balance of private reflection and friendly togetherness with people I don't see nearly enough. I've decided this year not to have a big gingerbread house party - we've had a few shindigs this year and I don't think there's harm in skipping just this once (maybe I'll defer that energy to a 2009 Easter egg hunt?). Similarly, Brainiac and I have decided to forego work-related events, instead demonstrating collegiality and all-around fitness for continued employability by sharing the results of what I hope will be marathon and highly pleasurable cookie- and candy-making sessions.

Speaking of cookies, I'd be remiss if I my annual tradition of sending you all to Susie J.'s Christmas Baking site. The Advent Calendar alone will make you weep and Sue makes her own mixed peel for fruitcakes, an activity I wholly and enthusiastically endorse. When I last saw her during a run to Penzey's, I obtained her promise that the site is backed-up thoroughly because I would be lost without several of the recipes (despite being too lazy to actually write them down anywhere), specifically gingerbread, Albertle, Ausstecherle and mokka. In case she needs proof that no good deed goes unpunished, I may just invite myself to her house for a lesson in zimtsterne since I remain in total paralyzing fear of making them on my own.

You know, now that I think of it, zimtsterne and tea sweetened with cinnamon honey would make an excellent winter snack. The combination might be just the thing to bring into our respective offices to promote a little goodwill toward men, not to mention peace on Earth (or at least the Philadelphia suburbs).

Thursday, March 13, 2008

I will sum up my quietude of late with seven words: Brainiac's doctor has ordered a chest x-ray.

She is merely being cautious in light of his history and none of us is particularly worried but the directive is indicative of the general state of affairs around here. Between what looks like a mild (but still) secondary infection for him, an on-pins-and-needles situation for me and the general schedule-busting mayhem that comes with spring break we're all a bit spent. As I type this it's nearly a quarter to nine at night - the first night in three that I've been awake to see this time tick-tock past. That I'm still up and energetic enough to start a load of laundry and cruise the blogs a bit, I'd say that things are looking up.

None of this is to say that I haven't managed the odd burst of household productivity. The children's au pair turned 25 years old on Monday night and we celebrated with this:


O.K., you know, that doesn't look so hot all big and blown up on my screen like that. Trust me when I tell you that it was really quite yummy. Yummy makes up for a number of aesthetic issues, yes?


The essential idea came from Clotilde Dusoulier's Chocolate and Zucchini cookbook, after the blog of the same name. Because I can never leave anything alone I made some changes to the core recipe, gilded the lily a bit and ended up with what seemed like the very essence of indulgence.

Instead of Clotilde's pate sable I used a regular old American-style pie crust - I had no time for a learning curve and knew my recipe to be perfectly acceptable. Over the crust which had been baked at 400 degrees for 15 minutes, I poured a caramel of dark brown sugar (the original recipe called for light brown sugar). This was allowed to set for several hours.

Over top the caramel is a bittersweet ganache made with heavy cream and nine ounces of dar-ar-ar-ar-ark chocolate. After that set I topped the whole thing with sweetened whipped cream. The original recipe doesn't call for such tarting (ha!) up, but I don't need heavy cream just sitting about the house begging to take a swim in my coffee.

You can see from the pictures that this tart/pie was strictly amateur hour. Unlike the wildly talented Clotilde I will not be offered a book deal on the basis of my capacity for turning out delicious and beautiful confections. It was wonderful to eat, though, smooth and creamy and just sweet enough between the caramel and whipped cream. The very dark chocolate added a deep note that kept the whole thing from being too cloying. Best of all, the celebrating recipient loved it as I hoped that she would.

Monday, April 30, 2007

My grand hopes that I would post pictures today of all my completed projects were, by all appearances, wildly over-ambitious. Brainiac distracted me from my planned achievements with a day-long outing on Saturday, us and the kids, exploring new areas, cavorting on new playgrounds and making new connections. I am always happy surrender to his occasional zeal for aimless meandering, knowing that when it strikes he will take great delight in bringing me to as yet unknown (to me) garden center, used book store or fabric store (sometimes all three). Saturday brought a visit to a Revolutionary War-era house, beautifully restored and now for sale, in addition to other sundry delights and I just never quite got to doing whatever it was that I had meant to do.

What it was that I had meant to do included finishing a dress for Entropy Girl, made out of a beautiful toile, blue and cream, with a scene of pastoral childhood of the kind that is usually found only in books and consists of kids fishing, flying kites, dancing around a Maypole, that sort of thing. It has made, as I thought it would, a very sweet non-fussy dress that I hope now to finish tonight and which the recipient has flat out refused to accept. No matter, for the truth is that I made the dress for me, even if I have long since left size 3T behind, and my daughter wearing it is not required for my complete joy in its creation. Nice, but not required.

And then there is the unmade Sun Bread, from a recipe found in the book of the same name wherein a town of clever animals convince the sun to make an appearance by baking bright yellow bread to relieve a long, gray winter. I've been begged for Sun Bread for weeks (to be served alongside cherry and pineapple upside down cake conjured from Eight Animals Bake a Cake) and, well, perhaps tonight is the night.

Monday, February 12, 2007

I have a confession to make.

For all my enthusiasm about real cooking and baking from scratch (not to mention my zeal - bordering on the annoying, I realize - in encouraging others to do the same) I have long nursed a deep, dark secret that is in direct opposition to these ideals. I hope you will not think less of me when I reveal that...

...I use (and enjoy) those Jiffy corn muffin mixes. I've managed not to feel to much guilt about this, what with the mix priced at roughly 3 for a dollar and the fact that David Rosengarten himself once declared their perfection for certain applications (although plain old corn muffins weren't among them). Plus, the mix and its results clearly pass the Michael Pollan Great-great-grandmother food recognition test." With these justifications in my corner I could remain blissfully unrepentant.

Well, maybe not so blissful nor so unrepentant. The idea of homemade cornbread nagged at me. I knew that it would not be hard to make and I knew that I already had even single necessary ingredient in my kitchen. I wish I could say I also knew why I never actually made my own, but I do not. Last week I stumbled upon the push I needed.

I don't recall how I found Stop the Ride but I am glad that I did. Stephanie, bless her heart, is sponsoring a Make it From Scratch contest and upon reading her proposition I almost immediately came up with two ideas (one being cornbread and the other being a tutu for Entropy Girl, but that is a subject for another post).

And that is how I came to make cornbread.

To make a 9X9 pan of cornbread, mix well together one cup each of all-purpose flour and cornmeal, 1/3 cup white sugar, 4 teaspoons baking powder, 1 t. salt, 1 cup milk, 2 eggs and 1/4 cup softened butter. Pour batter into a prepared pan and bake for 20-25 minutes in a pre-heated 425 degree oven. The bread should be slightly golden brown on top and a skewer inserted into the center will come out clean. Allow to cool for 5 minutes or so before attempting to remove from the pan. This is nearly as fast, just as easy and even better tasting than the mix.

That I silenced that nagging voice reminding me that cornbread is easy and delicious is even more satisfying than this simple recipe. Oh, and if you're balking at purchasing cornmeal on the ground that it makes no sense to have a single-use ingredient on hand (a very logical argument) go ahead and buy some anyway and later this week we can talk about empanadas. In the meantime, enjoy the cornbread and the accompanying pleasure of having made it from scratch with your very own hands, no boxes involved.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

When my sisters and I were young our mother was a Cake Lady. You know who I mean, every town has at least one. She was the woman that other moms would turn to for their Holly Hobby, Mickey Mouse and Garfield cake needs (those of you who weren't alive in the late 70s/early 80s would be surprised at just how large those needs were - and this was before the surge in children's party character licensing we see today when it's possible to find a pan for the most obscure of interests and virtually every movie short of Boogie Nights). She made wedding cakes, Christening cakes, graduation cakes, end-of-softball-season cakes and other confections in such numbers that my memories of childhood are practically themselves sugarcoated. It was rare that there wasn't a cake around either baking, being decorated, cautiously carried to the car for delivery or cast aside as a dud. We got the duds in our lunchboxes.

Our friends, of course, thought this was fabulous. Cake all the time! What's not to love? Except, of course, constant exposure even to the awesome dulls and after a while we collectively stopped eating much cake at all. Duds sat around uneaten and undesired until they hardened sufficiently that they could be thrown out without the attendant guilt of wasting food and, once it became possible by the early 90s to buy an airbrushed cake in virtually every supermarket, mom gradually went into Cake Lady retirement.

Among the legacies of my cake-filled youth is the ability to produce simple icings for almost any requirement without a recipe or really much thought at all. Mom never taught me (she preferred to keep her kitchen to herself) but somewhere along the line I - and perhaps my sisters, too - picked up all kinds of frostings from glazes to the less tasty but more substantial decorator icing, suitable for roses and borders and other things you need to keep their shape. Come to think of it, the only "icing" I can't make from memory is fondant, which I suspect is because Mom disapproves of fondant and seldom consented to its use.

Last night I made the following chocolate icing for brownies for the Boy Wonder's school holiday party. Recipes for chocolate icing abound and there are probably at least three for everyone who has ever made any - I, of course, think mine is the best. I also think it's the easiest, a feature not to be underestimated as far as I'm concerned, especially this time of year when we're all so busy. This is a general-purpose spreading icing, suitable for brownies, a layer cake, sugar cookies or - let's be honest withourselves here - just spooning directly from the bowl into the mouth. You may see some recipes that require cooking, evaporated milk, separating eggs and so on and while these may produce perfectly pleasant icings I assure you that they are all unnecessary.

For a nice, general-use chocolate frosting, soften a quarter-cup of butter in a mixing bowl. When nicely softened (you can press a finger into the butter with little resistance), add a one pound box of confectioner's sugar and, say, a cup of cocoa powder. Start adding milk (I use 1%, but used both skim and whole successfully) slooooowly, about a tablespoon at a time until the frosting starts to form. Keep adding the milk until you get the consistency you like. If you accidentally add too much milk, mix in more sugar or cocoa powder. Taste liberally! It'll help you adjust the ingredients to get to where you want to be. Some folks like to add a pinch of salt and a bit of vanilla - I find them superfluous but, hey, it's your icing. Your frosted baked goods can sit out overnight or a couple days covered - the sugar and chocolate keep the milk and butter nicely protected for a short time.

Mom comes out of retirement every so often, mostly to make wedding cakes. These she has made for each of my sisters and me, as well as our friends who remember the birthday cakes she made for their own childhood parties. As even the youngest of our girlhood friends is now in her 30s these wedding cakes are becoming fewer and further between and her stretches of retirement longer and longer. The cake-filled bits of our lives exist now primarily in photographs and the ability to make almost any kind of icing, whenever we need that fix of memory combined with necessity. All except that fondant, of course.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Among Brainiac's many charms is that he is an ace gift giver. He has given me all kinds of wonderful presents in our 16 years together - a perfectly red lipstick, lovely earrings, books, music, travel and all kinds of other squee-worthy delights. And he doesn't just pick cool things - sometimes things I didn't even know I wanted - but he's into cool presentation, too. After one particularly tough year of living in separate cities and commuting back and forth on weekends, Brainiac gave me a cruise so that we could spend a solid block of relaxing, sun-drenched time together. Under the tree that year I found a child's bathtub boat, little and red, spiffed up with stickers of smiling faces marked "Brainiac" and "Marsha" and a note attached announing our upcoming trip. Last year brought a letter from Santa himself,on North Pole letterhead letting me know that Brainiac had informed him of my exceptional goodness and his desire that Santa should deliver a Kitchen Aid stand mixer. .

Because of the impending move and rather rustic kitchen arrangements awaiting me in the new house, Santa thought it best to hold off on the mixer's actual delivery. In the meantime, Brainiac has installed a dishwasher, replaced the countertop, put in more lighting and just generally improved cooking conditions. And, true to his word, Santa delivered the mixer about a week ago. Yesterday, I used it to mix up cookie dough.

Squee-worthy, indeed.

I made a precious few cookies last year, just the basics without which Christmas would have felt less-than to me. This year, with my brand new (and lightening fast) mixer at the ready, I am feeling a touch more ambitious. Cookie goals for this year include everything from last year as well as tea cakes, peanut butter kisses, regular old peanut butter, oatmeal cranberry (the red of the cranberry is a cool festive change from raisons), shortbread (I use teeny tiny cutters on these so each baking sheet holds scores - very fun), snickerdoodles, rum balls, those coconut and chocolar bar things, linzer torte-type cookies, and probably more. Maybe some fudge? And brownies? And cake? Mama's got a new mixer, after all.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Sugar Cookies, Take 1, Part A

Since I wanted cookies for yesterday's very successful (despite the weather) egg hunt I decided to use the occasion for the first test for my sister-in-law's wedding favors. Although the cookies in the picture look like circles, they are actually egg shaped and, I have to say, I'm pretty pleased with how they turned out. My husband initially felt that we have a winner and no further testing is necessary but when I pointed out that more testing means more cookies he agreed that perhaps in the interests of science it would be a good idea after all.

I used the Butter Cookie recipe from Toba Garrett's splendid Creative Cookies. Toba Garrett is one of those wonderful Manhatten pastry chefs whose cakes and cookies fetch astonishing sums (her store offers a $250.00 cookie that serves six, and this ain't no giant mall cookie, friend). Anyway, her cookie and cake instructional books are among the few that I find are truly well-written and which offer clear, followable directions. Even more attractive, many of the designs in her books can be attempted with gear that most home pastry enthusiasts will have on hand or that is available in your local craft store. Ms. Garrett also offers private lessons, which I think it really just great.

Anyway, the Butter Cookie recipe is notable for two reasons. First, the dough does not require refrigeration before rolling (although it can be make in advance and refrigerated up to two weeks) - a definite plus, in my opinion, since I've always found refrigerated doughs very difficult to manipulate. Second, the recipe includes a small number of ingredients and it's very quick to throw together if your butter is sufficiently softened.

Butter Cookies (after Toba Garrett's Creative Cookies)
    1 cup unsalted butter

    1 cup granulated sugar

    1 large egg

    1 tsp. baking powder

    1 tsp. vanilla extract

    3 cups all-purpose flour

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream the butter and sugar together, add the egg and vanilla and blend well. Add the powdered ingredients and blend into the butter mixture a bit at a time, blending well after each addition. Divide the finished dough into two balls, and wrap one ball in plastic until ready to use. Roll out the other ball on a floured surface to 1/4 inch. Cut out cookies using a knife or cookie cutter and remove cookies with a spatula to an ungreased, non-stick cookie sheet. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, taking care not to let the cookies brown.

Although the original recipe calls for use of a mixer, I made the dough by hand with a wooden spoon and had no trouble.

The glaze and piping was a very simple royal icing. Two pounds of confectioner's sugar, a couple tablespoons of powdered egg white, a half a teaspoon of vanilla or some other extract (I used almond), and a bit of warm water added very slowly, tablespoon by tablespoon until you have a fairly thick, pipable icing. To save time and pastry bags, I decided to pipe the outline of each cookie in white. By the time I finished outlining the last cookie, the first was dry enough to glaze.

Because I wanted to use several different colors of glaze, I removed three-quarters of a cup of the base icing to separate smaller bowls. To these I added a bit of color paste and another two tablespoons of water to create a more pourable icing. The cookies are filled by pouring a tablespoon or so of glaze to the center of the cookie and spreading it out with a toothpick to the borders of the outline and allowed to dry overnight. (Cover the bowl of piping icing with a clean, moistened tea towel - it should stay pipable until the next morning, needing a only a quick stir.)

All that remains is to pipe your designs. Fit a pastry bag with a #2 or #3 tip (I like a #3, personally), fill with the reserved piping icing and have a little fun. Since my piping skills are a work in progress, I stuck to dots, filligrees and swirls. I've seen advanced pipers do really extraordinary designs, but I try not to pressure myself overmuch (yeah, right) and remembered that the four year olds for whom the cookies were intended would likely appreciate even the most rudimentary work.

The next cookie test will involve this same base recipe using almond extract in the dough and another type of glaze - possible a rum version, I'm not sure. I also want to work on using a more firm piping icing since the actual wedding cookies will be almost twice as large as the eggs and I think we'll want the decorations to be more defined after drying.
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