Friday, October 31, 2008

Charleston Cuisine: A Heavy Dinner

Here's a line from Louis Osteen's recipe for herbed dumplings: "Add the chilled butter, working it into the flour with a pastry cutter, a fork or your fingertips until the butter pieces are a little larger than an English pea, but smaller than a lima bean."

That's a line that makes me fawn over a cookbook. The dumplings themselves were mediocre, but maybe that's the nature of dumplings.

In Marilynne Robinson's new novel, Home, there's a passage about dumplings that I just spent the last 20 minutes trying to find so I'm going to quote it:

"The dumplings were tacky on the outside and doughy on the inside, but that might just be how they are, she thought. How they have always been. Her father said, 'Excellent,' and ate one.

Jack said, 'There's really nothing like a good dumpling.'

'Except a bad one,' she said.

He laughed. 'True, they are pretty similar.'"

Here's a picture of my wicked-ugly rendition of Osteen's dumpling-like herb dumplings:

My father-in-law, David, arrived for a visit yesterday and the rains started for real. I made a huge dinner. In addition to dumplings:

-Osteen's short ribs. Usually you serve short ribs straight out of the braising pot, but Osteen has you remove them from the sauce, let them dry a bit, then top with a puree of braised onions and egg yolks. Broil until crusty. Fabulous. 

-Stewed apples. See top photo. Painfully sweet, but kind of great. Reminded me of something. I lay in bed later trying to figure out what it was, and finally got it: the apple cobbler that came in fried chicken TV dinners circa 1978.

-Butterscotch pudding. Rich.

David asked to be in the blog. I guess he wants to be famous. So here he is.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Charleston Cuisine: A "Light" Dinner

My mother told me she wanted me to make something light for our weekly Wednesday night dinner, which was to include our cousins Luis and Ana Maria who are visiting from Guatemala.

Light. What does that mean exactly? And was my mother trying to tell me something? Has my cooking become overly rich? Has she been leaving my home feeling bloated and ill? Is she on a diet? 

Louis Osteen isn't really about light, but I finally settled on his preserved duck and lentil salad as the lightest option in Charleston Cuisine. First I "preserved" the poultry which meant marinating two duck legs overnight in an elaborate spice mixture, then simmering them in peanut oil for an hour and a half. This is duck confit and if it doesn't sound very light, rest assured: two duck legs, even if simmered in oil, constitute decidedly light fare for a party of six.

After the duck was preserved, I cooked lentils, chopped a lot of vegetables (turnip, tomato, mushroom, carrot, etc.), shredded and crisped the duck meat, and tossed it all together with a vinaigrette.

That was it. Everyone got two shreds of the excellent, salty duck, several lentils and a few vegetables. I noticed people cleaned their plates. My mother kept reaching for the cheese platter that I put together at the last minute after I realized how very light this dinner actually was.

For dessert: Osteen's lemon-mint ice cream. Mint + lemon = refreshing = light. Correct? No cookies because they are not light. It was wonderful ice cream, and even after a bowl of it I felt energetic and light and kind of skinny!

But just before the party broke up, I took a group portrait and I thought everyone else looked a little hungry and heavy-hearted. No, I didn't tell them to pose like that for laughs.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Charleston Cuisine: Buttermilk Biscuits

"Buttermilk biscuits have always been the staple breakfast bread of the South," Louis Osteen reminisces in his Charleston Cuisine. "I remember my grandmother, up early on her farm, gently kneading the lard into the flour. . ."

Biscuits have recently become the staple breakfast bread of a household in Northern California. I will always remember my daughter, up early in her suburban home, gently kneading lard substitutes into flour. . . 
Isabel's biscuit-making began this summer with the 1-2-3 biscuits (fat: vegetable oil) out of Best of the Best from Alaska, which we loved. Then she moved on to the cream biscuits (fat: butter) from Alice Waters' Art of Simple Food, which we loved even more. I would describe Waters' cream biscuits as possibly too delicious.

Today Isabel baked Osteen's buttermilk biscuits (fat: butter; what happened to granny's lard?) which were tall and fluffy and tasty, though probably not too delicious. I consider this a point in their favor.  

Monday, October 27, 2008

Too Delicious?

I love cardamom cake because it is delicious. But I love it even more because it is not too delicious. By which I mean, you eat a slice and it's wonderful, but you don't need another slice right away. It's perfect, and it's enough, and you can move on to other things. 

Then there are those desserts that are too delicious. Like Rice Krispie treats. Like the chocolate chip cookies I baked last night (recipe source: Dorie Greenspan's Baking) and which are ruining my life. I don't even like chocolate, and I can't stop eating them. It's not just me. Isabel -- the most restrained eater I have ever known -- had six of them for breakfast. (Yeah, I know. Wrong. Whatever.)

And so I have a new theory: This is why Americans are fat! Our desserts are too delicious. Cardamom cake is a Swedish dessert, and aren't most Swedes pretty fit and healthy, skiing all over the place and jumping in and out of saunas? The Italians are skinny because. . . biscotti. Has anyone ever been tempted to eat too many biscotti? And French desserts -- mousse, fruit tarts, macaroons, fruit jellies. Lovely! But not more-ish in that demonic way of homemade chocolate chip cookies.

Along with the moderate wine drinking and modest portions, those wily Europeans really do have it all figured out: Make sure your national desserts aren't too delicious.

Ugh. Can not bake these cookies ever again. 

Charleston Cuisine: Grill Baby Grill

The most hideous phrase of the campaign, but I sort of had to use it. 

I bought a grill yesterday. A Weber kettle grill. Black. Shiny. Gorgeous. The last one at the hardware store. I was so excited that I ran to the supermarket and bought briquets and ingredients for a grill dinner, but by the time we got the thing assembled it was so late, so dark, so foggy and cold, that I decided to cook everything on the stove grill, a feature of my range that I have never quite warmed to. Plus, it always sets off the smoke alarms.

And so it did again as I made the grilled tuna steaks with melted onions and mint sauce. A fine, unmemorable entree. See my previous comments on the outrageous expensiveness of Louis Osteen's recipes -- and let me add one further negative comment. The title of this book is Charleston Cuisine, but I'm not sure how this tuna reflects the cooking of South Carolina. In fact, as Osteen writes in his headnote: "This recipe is a variation on an old Sicilian preparation. . . "

On the side: Osteen's grilled portobellos. Delicious, delicious, delicious, and I don't love mushrooms. But, again, how is this a Charleston dish? 

And finally: fresh fennel and rice, which calls for a half cup of Pernod. As Osteen writes: "These are relatively unusual flavors for rice in the Low Country. . ."

No kidding.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Charleston Cuisine: Watch Out, Subway

From Louis Osteen's preface to his (grainy and severe) cornbread recipe:

"I cut the hot cornbread into wedges, slice them in half so there's a top and a bottom, slather the inside of each half with lots of butter, layer paper-thin slices of sweet onion over the bottom half, and replace the top. I then have food for which there is no equal on earth."

I doubt it! (I mean, think about it.) But that description is almost enough to make me want to run to the kitchen and make myself cornbread-and-onion sandwich.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Charleston Cuisine: Six People, Two Veal Chops

Six people, two veal chops. That wasn't the plan, but then Stella came over, and then Juliet. So there were six of us and the two little oven-roasted veal chops. And yet somehow, we ended up with leftovers.

Here's how: 

1. I made cornbread. Louis Osteen's recipe in Charleston Cuisine is the roughest, grainiest cornbread I have ever tasted. No flour or sweetener to soften the effect. It was the kind of austere cornbread you imagine some poor guy in overalls taking in his lunch pail to eat in the cotton field with a chunk of salt pork. It was the kind of cornbread you wrap in a bandana and carry for sustenance as you escape to the North. 

2. I brought out the honey. You know, cornbread and honey.  Stella was so enraptured that she did not want her pathetic scrap of meat, though I gave it to her anyway.

3. Juliet doesn't eat baby animals. Actually, she has two rules: no baby animals, and no liver. 

4. The veal chops just weren't that great. 

What was definitely great was the green bean and potato salad, an Alice Watersy dish, the leftovers of which I am looking forward to having for lunch.

Sadly, the Pawley's Island Pie -- chocolate chips, walnuts, eggs, butter and sugar all baked in a crust -- was kind of mediocre. How could this be? We had high hopes, but it turned out soupy and too sweet, though, like the cornbread, it went over big with kids, who ate giant bowls of it.

So, in the end, I only needed two veal chops. In fact, I could have made do with one.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Charleston Cuisine: Muffy and Esau

So very homely. So very homey. So very much what Roseanne might have trundled of the oven for Dan.

That's Muffy's meat loaf deluxe from Charleston Cuisine by Louis Osteen. The recipe looked affordable and easy -- one of the few such recipes in the book --  and so it was. Except the instructions were a disaster. Osteen tells you to put the meat mixture (beef, pork, cottage cheese, onions, eggs, breadcrumbs, chili sauce) in an 8 x 4 inch loaf pan. It didn't come close to fitting.  He also tells you to bake for one hour, but it took more like two. 

I made the necessary adjustments and it was fine. Nothing special. If you're looking for a truly amazing meat loaf try the Judd (as in Wynonna) family recipe from Ronni Lundy's Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes & Honest Fried Chicken. Or Paul Prudhomme's Cajun meat loaf, the recipe for which you can find right here. Can't decide which is better, but both are better than Muffy's.

On the side: Esau's winter greens (good) and mashed potatoes with sun dried tomatoes. Not enough sun-dried tomatoes to repulse my easily repulsed children, and therefore not enough to excite easily excited me. Not noticeably better or different than plain mashed potatoes.

I'd give the first meal from Louis Osteen's Charleston Cuisine a solid, uninspiring B-. 

Hoping for more from tonight's veal chops.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Charleston Cuisine: Sticker Shock

That only looks like a photograph of two little veal chops. 

Actually, it's a photograph of $25.98. 

I haven't eaten a lot of veal in my life, and I now I realize why. Initially the plan was to buy four chops, but I just couldn't do it -- when I saw the final dollar figure on the digital scale, I had to ask them to put two of them back. The whole experience basically ruined my day. Plus, the butcher was kind of mean about it all. 

Which is the first problem with Louis Osteen's Charleston Cuisine: holy s*** it's expensive! He's all about veal, New York strip steaks, crab cakes, fresh tuna, and squab. All these lavish "fat of the land" recipes. I forgot how much I resent fancy chef books. Should be an entertaining week.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Arabesque: Earnest Summation

We had friends over -- he's for McCain, she's for Obama, don't know how that possibly works but they seem happy and we successfully avoided the topic for the entire meal which was a small/ENORMOUS miracle -- and finished the Arabesque experiment last night. 

The highlight: Turkish layered cheese pie, a crispy-soft-salty-cheesy fillo dish, unbearably delicious, which I cut into diamonds and served as an appetizer. Followed by tagine, about which I have nothing new to say so will say nothing.

I made 52 recipes out of Arabesque over the last month.

Worth the Price of the Book: 6
Great: 7
Good: 26
So-So: 10
Flat-out bad: 3

A terrific cookbook, but I have a gripe.

Claudia Roden first became famous for her encyclopedic 1968 Book of Middle Eastern Food, which was reissued a few years ago. A few minutes of cross-referencing reveals that a lot of my favorite recipes from Arabesque previously appeared in that first book. The lamb tagine with dates, gum mastic ice cream, chickpeas with turmeric, spicy shrimp, harira. Granted there are new recipes and some minor revisions of old ones -- but enough to justify buying Arabesque if you already have the Book of Middle Eastern Food?

Short answer: No. 

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Quick Update

Tomorrow night  I'm going to pull out Claudia Roden's Arabesque for one last cinnamony, eggplanty dinner. 

I was going to "do" an Italian cookbook next, reflecting the wishes expressed in Isabel's poll. But after a minor altercation the other night, decided that Mark should choose the next book. And so he has. No, it's not Great Recipes of the NFL.

Mark's pick: Charleston Cuisine by Louis Osteen. I've studied some of the recipes, examined Osteen's photograph ("jolly"), and will be fasting today in preparation for this new chapter.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Arabesque: Ouzi

Oh God, that picture is enough to make me consider vegetarianism, but it was the best I could do with everyone sitting there waiting for me to get done with the photography so we could start dinner.

The name of the dish is ouzi. Here's Claudia Roden in her Arabesque headnote: "A central part of every grand Arab feast is lamb -- shoulder or leg -- cooked a la cuillere (to such a tenderness that you can eat it with a spoon) accompanied by rice with ground meat and nuts."

This ouzi was not spoonable, though I have made such a roast before and it was indeed fit for a sheikh. This was firm and slightly dry, very nice with some of the pan sauce. My father ate fourths while teasing me about politics. 

On the side, I served beets with yogurt (B) and zucchini with vinegar, mint, and garlic (A-). 

The kids ate the lamb and nothing else. But as of yesterday afternoon, I'm down with that. I will serve dinner, and encourage them to try it and love it, but if they don't -- hey, I'm copacetic. It's the Bread and Jam for Frances approach, and it worked for the badgers, so maybe it will work for us. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Arabesque: Lesbian Food

Lesbian food. That's what Mark calls everything I've cooked out of Arabesque, whether or not it's even LEBANESE.

Totally bugs me. 

I need a new family or I need a new cookbook. Probably both, but one is easier to replace than the other so I guess these are the death throes of Arabesque.

I'm in a terrible mood.

I made another Claudia Roden/Middle Eastern dinner last night:

-Moroccan chickpeas
-Eggplant pilaf
-Cucumber and yogurt salad
-Sauteed escarole with caramelized onions

Nothing spicy, nothing gross (unless you count eggplant and leafy greens, which you shouldn't), nothing smelly, nothing visceral.

Owen sits down and lets out a wail. He pokes at the microscopic pile of chickpeas I have placed on his plate.
Owen: Chickpeas? You made chickpeas? You know I don't like chickpeas.

Tipsy Baker: You just have to taste one chickpea. Just one. (This is how low my standards have sunk. I, who was forced as a child to eat everything from liver to frozen peas.)
Owen: What?? Chickpeas are bitter. You know I hate chickpeas.

Tipsy Baker: Why are you staring at me, Mark?

Mark waves to the array of food I have placed on the table with a thin smile.

Mark: You've set up some pretty harsh tests, here.

Tipsy Baker: What are you talking about? I asked him to eat a single chickpea.

Mark: I mean, this is challenging food.  I object to that stuff in the rice.

I'm not sure how I maintained my famous madonna-like composure. I'm sure the second goblet of wine helped. 

I know Mark would rather be dining on PastaRoni, upon which he subsisted before we married. And he has often said he wishes that food came in a pill. I can see that for a man of simple tastes, living with my cooking style might be a monumental drag. And I guess I should appreciate his patience, tolerance, sense of humor, willingness to eat Lesbian food when what he really wants is a bag of Fritos, etc. etc. etc. 

Is he a saint, or what?

But I do wish he would restrain  from offering critiques of our meal while Owen is listening, and I wish he would cover me as I fight the battle of the freaking chickpea. And I don't think he should have made Owen toast with jelly as soon as dinner was over.

Anyway, the eggplant pilaf was fabulous, and it was all that "stuff" -- roasted eggplant, pinenuts, currants -- that made it so. Isabel ate a lot of chickpeas, and had seconds of cucumber salad. So that's something.

I'm still in a terrible mood.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Arabesque: Kataifi

That's kataifi, a vermicelli-like pastry I found in the freezer at Haig's grocery, right next to the fillo dough. 

Following Claudia Roden's instructions, we tossed it with a half pound of melted butter, spread half of it in a big cake pan so it resembled a bird's nest. Filled the nest with milk pudding and 
topped with the rest of the kataifi. Baked. Unmolded. Drenched with a syrup flavored with orange flower water. 

Basically, that's the m.o. with all these Middle Eastern dessert: you sweeten after baking. I like. I like too much. And this one, a recipe from Claudia Roden's mother, was my favorite. 

Sometimes those nutty baklava-like pastries are too sweet, and the fillo gets soggy, like damp paper towel. But this was creamy -- the pudding absorbs the syrup better than nuts -- and the kataifi stayed crispy, like shredded wheat before you add milk. But, well obviously, better.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Banana Muffins

Got up early to make muffins (Bread Bible recipe) using overripe bananas I had put in the freezer, of which I have approximately a dozen, some of them several years old. 

(Probably more than you needed to know.)

I took one bite and realized that I had forgotten to add the sugar. The muffins tasted like bananas and baking powder.

Mark liked them and didn't even notice. Isabel thought they were "a little weird." And Owen said, "These muffins are too sugary!"

A discerning crowd, my family.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Arabesque: Less Steak, More Beans

Those are the last pistachios I'm going to buy for a while. Extravagant!

Lean times coming to our house. I'll leave it at that. Yesterday I considered brushing the mold off the pita bread and serving it. I also considered using some rancid walnuts instead of opening a fresh pack.

Didn't. But that's where we're at, and I think it's going to get a lot worse, no matter who is elected. (In case you were wondering, the Baker is voting for Barack Hussein Obama. This terrorist food is so doggone good!)

Meanwhile, I bought new pita and opened a fresh pack of walnuts and here's what I made, all of it out of Claudia Roden's Arabesque:

Chicken Fattet. You poach chicken, remove meat from bones, and pour the chicken and some of its broth over a bed of toasted pita, bake, and top with mint-spiked yogurt. Kids wiped off the yogurt, refused to touch the pita, liked the chicken. Resembled last night's fabulous chickpea dish, but not as delicious. And more expensive. And harder.

Muhamarra: Walnuts, pomegranate molasses, and moist bread pureed to a paste and spiced. Serve on a plate as a "salad." It tastes wonderful but there's something disgusting about the texture. Something .  .  . masticated.
Eggplant with Pomegranate Molasses. Roasted eggplant coarsely chopped and tossed in a sweet-tart dressing. Not great.

Pistachio cake. See photograph. A souffle-type pastry -- nubbly and green -- over which you pour rose water/sugar syrup. Damp and sweet and lovely and reviled by children.

Tonight: Leftovers.

Tomorrow: Stone soup.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Arabesque: Chickpeas & Zucchini Pancakes

That was one of the strangest, most fantastic things I've ever made: Chickpeas with Toasted Bread and Yogurt (Fattet Hummus Bi Laban) from Claudia Roden's Arabesque

You cook chickpeas until tender and toast some pita. Mix yogurt with tahini and fry a handful of pine nuts. Then spread the pita on the bottom of a dish, pour over the hot chickpeas along with some of their liquid, and top with the yogurt and pine nuts. 

I was struggling to describe this myself, but I'll quote Roden: It "may sound heavy but it is surprisingly light and delicate in the eating, and the mix of textures, temperatures, and flavors is a joy."

Beautifully put. An incredible dish. 

Also: easy.
On the side we had zucchini pancakes. My mother used to make zucchini pancakes that were just egg and shredded zucchini, and after we got over being fooled by the word "pancake" my sister and I turned against them. 

It would be hard to turn against Roden's messy, delicious zucchini pancakes because of all the mashed feta cheese and herbs (dill and mint) which, to quote Roden again, "lift what is an otherwise bland vegetable."

Having said that, I'm not sure my children even tried them, but I am trying to avoid screaming fights and dinner table power struggles. So I let it go.

For dessert: Milk Ice Cream with Gum Mastic and Rose Water.

Here's Roden's headnote: "A brilliant white milk ice cream with a chewy texture made with sahlab, the ground-up root tuber of  a member of the orchid family, is very difficult to make successfully at home, so here is a modern version that I also love. It is without sahlab, so not chewy, but the traditional flavoring of mastic and rose water give it a special appeal."

I saw gum mastic at the Spanish Table the other day, bought a little jar to make this ice cream. I was hoping for something exotic, rosy, and maybe just a tiny bit chewy. This wasn't it. This was a "brilliant white," superrich ice cream with no discernible flavor of rose or gum mastic (whatever that tastes like.) And it was wonderful.

I still wish it had been chewy, but for that I may have to go to Beirut.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Whimsical Bakehouse: An Earnest Summation

This is what "Fling" looks two days later. Not even half eaten, picked at, melting, sagging, altogether depressing. 

Three pounds fatter and rather frustrated, I'm ending the Whimsical Bakehouse interlude. But before I do my breakdown of the recipes, a few words of appreciation.

It's a fun book to flip through, as the cakes are colorful, playful, unpretentious. The introduction by Meredith Vieira -- who randomly wandered into Liv and Kaye Hansen's Ardsley, New York bakery to buy a princess cake for her daughter -- is sweetly gushing: "You'll know you're there by the tinkle of the bell, the wave of warmth, and Kaye's smile. . ."

Okay, it's a little much, but sometimes nice is nice.

The tone of the book is encouraging and relaxed, as opposed to, say, Rose Levy Berenbaum's unforgiving Cake Bible, which implies you need a PhD to bake a butter cake.
Having said all this, Whimsical Bakehouse isn't precise enough for the amateur. I've detailed those lapses in my posts, and they're reflected below in my assessment of the "recipes" for finished cakes. 

On the other hand, almost all the recipes for the components of said cakes (chocolate glaze excepted) are excellent. 

Over the last week I made 9 recipes from the Whimsical Bakehouse:

Worth the Price of the Book: 1
Great: 1
Good: 4
So-so: 1
Flat-out bad: 2

A solid, middle-of the road performance.

I'm going to finish up Arabesque this week. Isabel has posted a poll on the right side of the page, so if you have an opinion, please vote.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Whimsical Bakehouse: Fling

Yesterday was all about "Fling," and as you can see, I didn't have an easy time of it.

The most elegant cake in the Whimsical Bakehouse, "Fling" -- at least as it appears in the book -- is a glossy chocolate-glazed beauty festooned with flat, colorful discs of chocolate. 

I started by baking three layers of chocolate chip pound cake (worked fine) and making the whipped chocolate ganache for filling.

Just about every cookbook contains at least one jewel of a recipe, and whipped chocolate ganache may be the crowning achievement of Whimsical authors Liv and Kaye Hansen. Essentially, you melt chocolate, then add cream. Freeze. Whip. Spread the fluffy, delicious ganache on your cake.


Then I tackled the chocolate glaze. Complete disaster. I've made many chocolate glazes, usually the easiest of icings, but this one behaved like oil, slipping off the cake rather than sheeting and adhering smoothly, a problem for which the Hansens offered no solutions. I muddled through, patching chocolate wherever I could, but never managed to cover every raggedy surface of cake.

Finally, I melted the wafer chocolate for the decorative disks and piped circles on a sheet of parchment, something the Hansens make sound straightforward. And so it was, though I ended up not with delicate, flat disks but lumps. 

My sloppy "Fling" does not appear related to the Hansens' "Fling," which is an extraordinarily pretty cake. If you ever get hold of a copy of Whimsical Bakehouse, check out page 56. The dots on their cake look like bubbles, or party balloons, floating across a matte chocolate sky.

Fortunately, no one seemed to care how my "Fling" looked. It was a tall, powerfully rich cake -- not my thing at all, but extremely popular with children.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Whimsical Bakehouse: Lemon Ginger Cream Cheese Cake

Pretty, but a cop-out.

Yes, definitely a cop-out. The Whimsical Bakehouse is all about gaudy, lavishly decorated cakes (which is why Owen chose it) and I am cherry-picking the easy ones that you don't even need to frost. 

I guess I should change that, but I find cake decorating stressful and maddening! You can't fix your mistakes, you can't fake it, you can't add a little more cumin and make everything all better. You're just left there with your pathetic, lopsided creation that resembles a 5-year-old's pottery project.

Which is why I play it safe and stick to boring recipes, like lemon ginger cream cheese cake. Very moist and richly flavored -- with lemon zest, lemon juice, powdered ginger and chopped crystallized ginger. Here's what authors, Kay and Liv Hansen have to say: "The combination of lemon and ginger makes this cake a great choice for any summer party. . . you will get rave reviews."

I like that Hansen energy!

Were my reviews raves?

Isabel : Good, except when you bite into a piece of "that candied ginger stuff."

Owen: Lemony. Really "stuffing." (?)

Mark: Why did you have to put in those ginger pieces?

Not quite raves, but respectable. I think the gist of the criticisms is: Let lemon cake be lemon cake, don't try to smarten it up with all that elite, "Georgetown cocktail party" ginger stuff.

I do need to tackle a more ambitious Whimsical project next. Maybe "Fling" or "Ode to Jackson Pollock."