Friday, June 25, 2010

Let me entertain you

One night when I was about the age that Isabel is now, my mother marched downstairs and unplugged the TV while I was watching Gypsy because it was past my bedtime and she disapproved of television. This was the pre-VCR era when, if you wanted to see a movie after it left the theaters, you had to catch it on TV at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday or Tuesday night at 10 and you had to watch it right then, start to finish, or you might wait years to find out what happened to Natalie Wood after Rosalind Russell forced her to strip. I still don't know. As a teenager, I felt the same devotion to pop culture that I've recently heard several gay men (Glee producer Ryan Murphy, John Waters) describe on Fresh Air, which is to say, I lived for Dallas, ad-interrupted airings of Rosemary's Baby, the West Side Story soundtrack and Sidney Sheldon novels. That I am not a nattily dressed Hollywood "creative" chuckling with Terry on NPR is a both a mystery and a crime. 

I will draw a curtain over what happened after my mother unplugged the TV. Suffice it to say, we did not speak for days. It was one of our six worst fights ever. She used say to me, I can't wait until YOU have a daughter of your own and I hope she's as blah blah blah and blah blah blah as you are! Furiously. Perhaps while brandishing a wooden spoon and chasing me out the front door. 

You're wondering if I'm kidding. I'll leave you to wonder. But I can assure you, if my mother did chase me out the door with a wooden spoon, and I'm not saying she did, I fully deserved it. We were very different people. She was (then) stern, judgmental, and baffled by me. I was (then) resentful, rebellious, and baffled by her.
In recent decades we both softened and grew very, very close. I miss my mother more than I can say, and think of her hourly. But I have spent the last 13 years waiting for her curse to come true, for the epic battles between Isabel and me to commence.

Recently, though, it dawned on me that while various misfortunes lie in store for me, as they do for all of us, a dysfunctional relationship with my daughter is unlikely to be among them. Isabel is well into the Abercrombie/eye shadow/Gossip Girl phase but there's still this rainbow over the two of us that's been there since she was seven or eight. I had no idea this was even possible.

Anyway, that's my long way of introducing the cupcake bake-off we held the other afternoon, during the brief hiatus between the end of the school year and camp. A cupcake bake-off is my idea of a good time and it turns out Isabel feels exactly the same way. We're trying to find the perfect cupcake recipe and we were sure we'd do so by the end of the escapade. 
We did not. Although we had a very august tasting panel, it reached no firm conclusions except that we must work harder to achieve a cupcake that tastes like Thomas Keller's but has the texture of Duncan Hines.

Ranked from best to worst cupcake:

1. Thomas Keller's vanilla cupcake from Ad Hoc At Home. This estimable cupcake, which calls for the whites of the eggs rather than whole eggs, was a bit dry. But the vanilla flavor was intense and perfectly articulated.

2. 1-2-3-4 cupcakes. This is the formula underlying many butter cake recipes: 1 cup butter, 2 cups sugar, 3 cups flour, 4 eggs -- plus 1 cup of milk, 2 teaspoons baking powder, and some vanilla. The resulting cupcakes were richer and moister (more moist?) than the Keller cakes, but lacked the purity of flavor.

3. Susan Purdy's yellow cake from The Perfect Cake. This is a modified 1-2-3-4 cake, and was hard to distinguish from 1-2-3-4, but everyone liked it slightly less.

4. Duncan Hines mix. My husband's favorite. All other tasters were put off by the 
factory fragrance, including two 9-year-old boys. On the plus side, these were fluffy and incredibly light. Placed on a scale, the mix cupcakes weigh about a third less than any of the others. So how do you get the airiness of mix with the flavor of homemade? Ideas?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Is it just me or is it salty in here?

On Friday, Isabel baked these chocolate cookies from Barbara Lynch's Stir and they are blockbusters. I don't even like chocolate, and I particularly don't like chocolate with cinnamon, which these also contain, but trust me: they are cookies for the scrapbook. Somehow, Lynch strikes the perfect balance of overbearing chocolate and obnoxious cinnamon, enabling the two flavors to neutralize and complement one another. But what really takes these cookies over the edge is the sprinkling of sea salt on top -- just like in the famous New York Times chocolate chip cookie recipe. The recipe for Lynch's cookies can be found here

We were so enthusiastic about these cookies that on Saturday, when asked to bring a dessert to my cousin's house, I made salted caramel cupcakes, the wonderful recipe for which comes from Cakewalk author Kate Moses's blog. As my friend Zorina put it, the caramel icing tastes exactly like the inside of a See's Bordeaux chocolate. But better! Because of the salt. After a day or two the salt melts into the frosting which doesn't look so pretty, but you shouldn't have many cupcakes left. 

If this keeps up I'm going to find it just as unthinkable to eat an unsalted dessert as I do an unsalted steak. This can't be a good thing. 

Monday, June 21, 2010

A perfect Berkeley day

That's not a Novella Carpenter cardboard cut-out Owen is standing behind, it's the real Novella Carpenter, author of Farm City. We took her Urban Goats class yesterday in Berkeley and she was absolutely great, every bit as straightforward and droll and cant-free as you'd expect after reading her book. She gave a PowerPoint presentation about breeds, feed, shelter, etc., then did a hands-on demo of vaccine injecting, hoof trimming, and milking. I've read so much about goat husbandry over the last few months that little of it was new to me, but I'm glad we took the class. She's inspiring.

After that, Owen and I went to a take-out shop I'd heard about called La Bedaine and bought a wild boar terrine sandwich with cornichons and mustard, which is a very Berkeley kind of sandwich. 
Owen talked so much he hardly touched his portion, so I ate for two, which was okay because there's no food I'd rather get fat on than Berkeley food. 
I figured since we were in Berkeley, we might as well make a day of it, so I signed us up for a hippie fermented foods class in the afternoon. As you can imagine, Owen was totally stoked. Who wants to see Toy Story 3 when you can learn to make sauerkraut?

Actually, he went along with it very cheerfully, probably because I was listening so attentively to his monologues. It's amazing what undivided attention can accomplish. 

Our fermentation teacher was named Nishanga Bliss. That's a name you either have to live up to or live down, I can't decide. Whichever it is, Nishanga managed. She convinced me of the virtues of fermentation (probiotics) over canning and made a fantastic dill pickle that took about 5 minutes flat (not counting fermentation time) before moving on to kim chi. She also sang the praises of a very pure salt from Utah mined from "ancient oceans" and talked a lot about making her own soda pop. Owen wanted to leave halfway through the class, which I'd expected, but in the car he told me he wants to make pickles this week, which I had not. 

Pickle tutorial coming soon.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Poulet au pie crust

Wednesday night I wrapped a whole chicken in "bread" dough (poulet au pain from Stir), except it wasn't really bread dough, it was pie dough. Flour + butter + water = pie dough, no? So cool! The chicken was completely sealed in dough when it went into the oven, but there must have been a breach because juices oozed forth to make a rich, salty, gooey sauce that was very delicious mopped from the bottom of the pan with shards of pastry. My husband said: "It's not as good as chicken a la king." I think he just said it because he wanted to be quoted on the blog. Even he couldn't believe it. This chicken was special.

I also creamed some spinach per Barbara Lynch's recipe. Creamed spinach should contain cream, of course, but should also be pureed or finely chopped -- creamed -- to minimize the distinction between solid spinach and liquid cream. This creamed spinach failed in that regard, but I am like Popeye in my fondness for spinach in all forms, save salad. Remember how Popeye would punch a hole in a can and pour it down his throat? That used to make me hungry.

Thursday night, it was just Owen and me and neither of us wanted much for dinner, so we ate homemade camembert on toast. The first bites of camembert were fantastic, but it got a bit stinky and intense towards the end. You need to pace yourself with the house camembert.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Alton Brown cookies

I don't know anything about Alton Brown, except that his English muffins let me down and his granola is the most stupidly delicious I've ever tasted. My sister calls once a month to curse me for telling her about it. 

Isabel gave Brown's chocolate chip cookies a high ranking -- too high, imho. But I'm just the secretary. I thought they were lumpish and undistinguished and would rather eat a pound of granola. I just tested two more cookies to confirm my judgment. Yes, very, very bad.

Anyway, here's Isabel's revised ranking:

1. Cakewalk by Kate Moses (Robust cookies flavored with espresso powder, irresistible and possibly unbeatable.)
2. Baking by Dorie Greenspan (The classic -- but better.) 
3. Good to the Grain by Kim Boyce (Crisp, butterscotchy)
4. Alton's Brown "The Chewy" (Thick, soft.) 
5.  New York Times (Fussy to make; thick; salted on top)
6. All Recipes (Stout, chewy, more-ish)
7. Silver Palate (Chewy, butterscotchy)
8. Ready to Bake by David Lebovitz. (Very good -- plus, they contain nuts, which we like.)
9.  Toll House (The classic.)
10. Ad Hoc at Home (Too much severe chocolate, too little cookie)
11. Joy of Cooking, 1975 (Thin, pale, unimpressive.)

In other news, I made a green bean and seared shrimp salad from Stir the other night. You can extrapolate a lot from the name alone, but not the toasted hazelnuts, big handfuls of cilantro, sliced radishes and dressing made with Thai red curry paste and creme fraiche. One day I'm going to quit trying to peel toasted hazelnuts by rubbing them in a towel because it doesn't work. Do hazelnut skins even taste bad? I like this book a lot. I like that Barbara Lynch tells me how to do crazy stuff I've never done before, like wrap a chicken in bread dough, which I did tonight. Haven't eaten yet, or I'd tell you how it turned out.

Speaking of chicken, this story about pollutants and free-range eggs is a real bummer. It doesn't change my feelings about keeping hens or letting them run around in the yard or eating their eggs. I didn't believe that "pastured" eggs were much healthier to begin with, and now I don't believe the opposite. Still, depressing.

Making cheese

Those are blue cheeses I made last Thursday and decided to age in the refrigerator. Apparently, they're going to be late bloomers.

See this?
A chunk of the very same blue cheese that I decided to age in the "cave." This hussy is already wearing a tube top and watermelon lip gloss. She smells like blue cheese dressing; I have a feeling she's growing up too fast.

This is the cheese cave:
The temperature reads 64 degrees on a hot day and in the low fifties on a cold day -- overall, just a bit too warm for optimal cheese ripening. But I have limited refrigerator space and some of the cheeses -- camembert, cheddar -- have come out of the cave in spectacular condition.

I started making cheese after taking a Davis Co-op camembert workshop back in April and it's my favorite thing ever. If you have any interest at all -- even a flicker of interest -- you should try it. Don't be intimidated. Buy this book and order supplies from this guy. Take a class, if you can. Improvise your cheese molds using soup cans and strawberry baskets. It's harder than baking bread, but easier than stuffing sausage or decorating a cake and far more gratifying, at least to me. Watching a pinch of powder and a few drops of rennet effect transformations on a gallon of supermarket milk is the closest I've ever come to performing magic. I've been about 50% successful with the cheeses, which is 100% more successful than I'd expected.

No verdict yet on either the blue cheese or the Taleggio.
You wash down the rind of a Taleggio every few days with salt water to control the mold, but these babies have still been growing an awful lot of fur.

Chocolate chip cookie update coming soon.

Monday, June 14, 2010

This and that

This is the olive and ricotta pizza from Stir that I made the other night using leftover brioche pizza dough. You bake a hot, zesty, salty pie and then top with cool ricotta and chopped scallions. Quite delicious, though it reinforced my preference for a lean, chewy pizza crust. 

That's it. That's all I've cooked from Stir in the last week. I don't know why. Busy. Distracted. Unmotivated. We've been dining on leftovers and cereal and, last night, take-out from the glamorous new Whole Foods of which half the floor space is devoted to prepared foods: salad bar, pizza counter, deli, sushi bar, burrito bar. Crafty! Because while there were long lines in the food court, absolutely no one was buying rump roasts or flaxseed or sugar or flour.  It's like the whole town is a giant campus and this is our fancy canteen. It depressed me.
Sunday supper:
Alice Waters would not approve. I don't approve. 

Meanwhile, I've done some baking from Good to the Grain:

Currant scones. Made with spelt flour, these tasted healthy, and I don't mean that in no nice way.

Banana walnut cake. 
Rich and moist, but a bit to sweet. Not a replacement for banana bread. It is not flying out the door.

Graham crackers. 
These did fly out the door. Made with a combination of graham and teff flours, they're less like graham crackers than assertive, swarthy, super-snappy gingersnaps.  Last night I ate the last of them spread with leftover whipped mascarpone.
I posted about this before, but have you all experienced whipped, sweetened mascarpone? It's like a miraculous cross between whipped cream and buttercream frosting, but tangier, fluffier, more maddeningly delicious than either. I do not hate myself enough to ever make it again. 

Friday, June 11, 2010

Does that look heavy to you?

Capital letters denote words spoken in anger.

Tipsy: Owen, it's time to feed the goats.

Owen: Why do I have to do EVERYTHING. 

Tipsy: You don't. Just feed the goats. 

Owen: Can you carry the bottles down? 

Tipsy: You can carry the bottles.

Owen: But they're SO HEAVY.

Tipsy: I think you're strong enough.

Owen: I think I'm going to drop them.

Tipsy: Please don't drop them.

Owen: I'm going to drop them on the floor. I know I am. I won't be able to help it.

Tipsy: You're not going to drop them.

Owen: Yes I AM.



Tipsy (opening a beer): Please, just go feed the goats.

He didn't drop the bottles. He fed the goats. And once outside, he happily futzed around for 45 minutes and came back chatty and agreeable. It was just the two of us. He ate cereal for dinner, we watched a back episode of Lost, and I let him go to sleep in my bed. I think we're all ready to wean these goats.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

If you're sensitive, skim down

We ate turkey the other night. One of our turkeys. Specifically, the overbred broad-breasted white who was so very broad-breasted she could barely hobble, wheezing, from feeder to watering dish. She couldn't roost either -- too bulbous to hop onto the perch where all the other birds, including the other turkey -- spent the night. So we created a little "perch" for her on a small step stool in the corner. Alas, she preferred to sleep as close as possible to the others and would huddle directly underneath them on the floor. You can imagine. Or, if you can't: We had to hose her off when she emerged from the coop every morning. Turkeys like this should not exist. Humankind should be ashamed.

In December, we killed the turkeys. Plucked and cleaned, the heritage tom weighed five pounds; the hen, twelve pounds. I put them in trash bags in the freezer for six months so we could forget where our food comes from. We hadn't quite, but the hen took up so much space that the freezer door kept getting jammed. So I brined, roasted, and served her to my in-laws the other night. That sounds kind of hostile doesn't it. Hmm. Wasn't! We just needed a crowd. In any case, she tasted absolutely okay -- dry, bland -- exactly like a supermarket turkey. I will never raise or kill another turkey. I would rather do without.

On to more appetizing subjects, like chocolate chip cookies. 
Since I last posted on the subject, Isabel has baked chocolate chip cookies from David Lebovitz and The Silver Palate. Both were delicious, but neither are contenders for the top slot. She also baked the famous, fussy New York Times cookies, though she did not use the specified chocolate, which was was prohibitively expensive. Personally, I do not agree with this new ranking -- I would put All Recipes above the NYT -- but Isabel's the boss.

Revised ranking:

1. Cakewalk by Kate Moses (Robust cookies flavored with espresso powder, irresistible and possibly unbeatable.)
2. Baking by Dorie Greenspan (The classic -- but better.) 
3. Good to the Grain by Kim Boyce (Crisp, butterscotchy)
4. New York Times (fussy to make; thick; salted on top)
5. All Recipes (Stout, chewy, more-ish)
6. Silver Palate (Chewy, butterscotchy)
7. Ready to Bake by David Lebovitz. (Very good -- plus, they contain nuts, which we like.)
8.  Toll House (The classic.)
9. Ad Hoc at Home (Too much severe chocolate, too little cookie)
10. Joy of Cooking, 1975 (Thin, pale, unimpressive.)

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

They're laughing and drinking and having a party

One thing I don't miss about Gourmet magazine: the party pictures in which gorgeous people were always smiling, lifting Lalique champagne flutes in lush green gardens where the tables were artfully set to look beautifully artless. Idealized parties make me feel a little sheepish about my actual parties which tend to look more like the photo above.

The guests were our neighbors JoAn and Bill, and my parents-in-law, David and Mary, who are visiting from Boston. The two couples are going to swap houses in the fall and we thought a get-together was indicated. Topics of conversation: New England weather, Elizabeth Taylor's eyes, my adolescent adoration of Lady Di, Bill's childhood pet bantam rooster, neighbors not there to defend themselves. I cooked an all-Stir menu:

Brioche pizza with fried pistachios, fresh ricotta and honey. To me, probably the most tempting dish in the entire book. You make a soft, buttery dough, let it rise, roll out to pizza dimensions, top with garlic-infused olive oil, fresh ricotta, and fried pistachios. Bake. When it comes out of the oven, sprinkle with sea salt and drizzle with honey. The crust was soft, supple and rich and it stopped me short. Not like pizza crust, which is chewy and lean; more like puff pastry. People loved this. I almost loved it but didn't quite. 

Steaks with cheese sauce.
You sear thick sirloins, add butter and thyme for calories and flavor. Saute wild mushrooms and roast onions to serve on the side. Then make a decadent sauce with aged gouda and cream, which is very, very delicious poured over the meat, as fat on fat tends to be.

Roasted fennel and green beans. Fine. Plain. Forgettable.

Wild rice salad. Wild rice, chopped vegetables, pine nuts, feta. Delicious. Forgettable.

Peaches and cream. You poach peaches in white wine and sugar, then serve with mascarpone whipped with powdered sugar. Mascarpone whipped with powdered sugar: unforgettable. This was a spectacularly beautiful dish -- when poached, the peaches turned a radiant pink-gold.  To go alongside, I served butter cookies.
Perfect cookies, if not innovative.
I was telling my husband afterwards that while I was proud of this meal, a lot of it -- steak and cheese sauce, in particular -- isn't my kind of food. I wasn't complaining. Like trying on a dress, it's how you figure out who you are.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

All better and then some

We're having a party tonight. I was going to braise a pork shoulder, buy some tortillas, serve tacos and make it all really easy for myself. But then I woke up feeling so energetic I decided to tackle an ambitious Stir-based menu. I haven't done anything like it in ages:

brioche pizza with fresh ricotta, fried pistachios and honey
seared steaks with cheese sauce and roasted onions
roasted fennel and green beans
wild rice salad
peaches & cream (photo)
butter cookies

To me, this sounds like a dream dinner. We'll see how it tastes.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Why so quiet

I haven't been cooking or blogging because I was busy and then I was sick. Still sickish. The only good part about getting sick is that it renews your appreciation for health.

During this downtime, we finally started watching Glee. Cory Monteith is my new boyfriend. To try to become smarter, I read a Michael Pollan book about building a writing hut and while I know it's not as important and influential as his food work, I enjoyed it more. It's one of those books that has me seeing the world anew, actually thinking about windows and roofs and walls and wood and water. I also read Sarah Silverman's The Bedwetter, which has me seeing Sarah Silverman exactly as I did before: not that funny.  

The next cookbook I'll start, hopefully tomorrow, is Stir by Barbara Lynch, which both my mother and mother-in-law gave me for my birthday.
It has a huge pasta section (!), a tiny dessert section (boo), and I'm just waiting for a burst of vigor to begin.