Monday, March 26, 2012

Dystopia envy

My weapon would be the spatula.
Owen and I saw The Hunger Games yesterday and loved it, but afterwards I felt strangely blue. I say "strangely" because I was not feeling sorry for the district kids who have to run around the forest murdering each other to save their own lives, but sorry for myself because I never do anything urgent or athletic or noble involving arrows or wasps or homicide. The biggest challenges of the weekend involved remembering the password to our credit card account and describing the vistas of Big Sur without using the word "majestic."*

When we got back from the movie I started cleaning the kitchen, which was probably not the right move, but the other day I read that Elizabeth David's kitchen was a room of "orderly clutter." That is exactly the kind of kitchen I want! And I've already achieved the clutter, so, halfway there.

I'll just fast-forward through the first hour of cleaning until I to got to the spatulas, which were the exciting part. Okay, the "exciting" part.

I had six spatulas, only one of which I actually purchased, sometime around 1990. I needed to put one spatula in the Goodwill box in order to achieve "orderly clutter." But which spatula?

You see why I might want to be reaped?

It turns out that my favorites are the two little jankety-looking old spatulas with the thin, rusting, flexible heads and the black plastic handles. These are the vintage spatulas that came down from the kitchens of my mother and grandmother and they are very precise and light and while the handles of both are gnarled from accidental melting episodes, they are my top-rated spatulas by far and not for sentimental reasons. They are simply the finest tools.
much used
I basically hate the stainless steel spatulas because they are heavy and stiff -- more like bludgeons than delicate implements for manipulating fried eggs -- and the handles get very hot.  As a people, we really went overboard with the stainless steel in the '90s and '00s. But even worse than the stainless steel spatulas: the plastic-headed spatula. It is thick and dull and you feel like you're flipping pancakes with a spoon. Sound the cannon for the plastic-headed spatula.

Takeaway from all this? Some things have gotten better in the last 40 years, like cars, which use less fuel, spew less pollution, and are generally safer for human use. Some things have gotten worse, like spatulas.

Oh, I was in such a crabby mood after The Hunger Games.
security potholder
I still couldn't throw away anything associated with my mother, like the quilted potholders she sewed from old sundresses or the vintage peanut butter jar filled with rock salt from the time we made ice cream circa 1975. I will have to incorporate that Skippy jar into orderly clutter.
the weirdest, most useless item in our kitchen
Speaking of my lovely mother, today is the second anniversary of her death. She's never far from my thoughts but I will say that the second anniversary finds her older daughter in much better mental condition than did the first.

Real life is actually full of terrible, lonely challenges. For the most part they don't involve arrows, genetically altered wasps or running very, very fast. Sometimes I wish they did.
the very last picture I ever took of her
*not written into the contract; personal challenge

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Banana jelly

too custardy even for me
A few posts ago I described Shirley Corriher as "wizardly," an assessment based on having read CookWise and BakeWise, but never actually testing one of the recipes.

I baked her banana bread yesterday, the one that involves folding whipped cream into the batter. The first glitch I noticed was her specification of a pan (8 x 4.5) into which the batter would not fit.

So I buttered and floured and parchmented another, larger pan. Then I filled it with the batter and put it atop a hot baking stone in the oven, per her directions.

After her specified baking time (a suspiciously short 35 minutes), the bread was still jiggling under a  thin, pallid crust. So I baked it for another 30 minutes after which it was still wobbly, so I left it in for another 10 minutes. When the bread seemed firm and tested done with a toothpick, I took it out. Let it cool. Cut it. It was like a block of jelly. Not precisely underbaked, but strange. Like it had been steamed or I had forgotten to add flour. Which I hadn't.

I refrigerated the loaf overnight and ate a piece for breakfast and it was tasty, but you would not serve this bread to anyone outside your own family. I found this disillusioning thread on amazon which confirms my fears about BakeWise. I really did believe that Corriher was a wizard and that in BakeWise I had a masterful book of spells! Sad.

Day before yesterday, the goats finally breached the fence between our yard and our neighbors' yard. We love our neighbors. Joan is in her seventies, Bill in his eighties, and they go on epic camping trips in the Nevada backcountry and grow a beautiful vegetable garden that I can see from the window right now. The goats topped the chard, so now there are some red stalks sticking up in the air. They didn't eat all of the chard. As Joan put it, "They just had a little hors d'oeuvre."

Needless to say, we felt terrible and are going to rebuild the fence so this doesn't happen again.  Joan told me that she would accept as compensation for the chard any leftover baked goods my family doesn't eat.

Well, my family isn't going to eat this banana bread, and neither is Joan. This loaf is for the chickens.

Friday, March 23, 2012

On my family table

A few weeks ago I decided to purge the cookbook collection and made several towering stacks of  books I might be willing to part with. Couldn't just toss them, though. Each book was going to get a chance. I'd cook a few recipes and then decide whether to jettison the book or keep it. 
I started with Around My Family Table by John Besh. I'd only recently bought the book and already wished I hadn't. Besh is a handsome chef who lives in Louisiana with his wife and their four young sons, whom Besh often calls "lads." Although Besh is a busy professional with numerous restaurants, he is deeply concerned about the decline of everyday home cooking. The subititle of his large, handsome book: A Passionate Plea for Home Cooking.

No need to explain what rubbed me the wrong way when I can simply quote:

"For eight years we have raised our own Charolais cattle on rolling, grassy pastures north of New Orleans. It's the beef we have at our house. Of course, a big freezer is the only way to afford and keep good beef. . ."

"If you have difficulty finding a shoulder, use venison shanks instead." 

"Keeping it simple and delicious means deliberate strategies for planning ahead. I make intensely flavored broths, then freeze them in ice cube trays and empty the cubes into Ziploc bags."

"With meat from the neck of our Mangalitsa pigs, ground and seasoned with crushed peppers and cane syrup, sometimes I'll make sausage patties that fit perfectly on a biscuit, the way Jack likes it."

"Shredding the potatoes for these super-crunchy 'nests' is made easy with a clever device called a Benriner Turnning Slicer, or use a heavier Japanese mandoline. . ."

"I am almost never around on weeknights."

Done quoting now.

I'm happy to report that while the text and photographs rubbed me the wrong way, the recipes have been mostly terrific.

lemon ice box pie. Sounds quaint, grandmotherly, humble and delectable, and I loved the actual pie even more than the name. Beat together 3 egg yolks, a can of sweetened condensed milk, lemon zest, lemon juice and pinch of salt. Beat egg whites until stiff, fold into lemon mixture, pour this lovely tangy foam into a graham cracker crust. Freeze and cross your fingers about salmonella. Thaw briefly before serving. I could have eaten the entire pie in one sitting. That is not an exaggeration. The recipe is here; I would serve the whipped cream on the side, not spread on top. Grade: A.

potato dumplings. Orbs of seasoned mashed potato stuffed with bacon and chives then poached and topped with butter and crunchy bread crumbs. Devastating. My silly family said they preferred plain mashed potatoes, but they are unreliable. Grade: A.

lentil soup. I'll let Besh make his case: "I've added cream to this recipe, which I've never seen before in a lentil soup. It gives the soup such a succulent texture." It really went against the grain to put cream in lentil soup, which is supposed to be sludgy, healthy, and dark brown. But why? I don't know. I've always just thought of it that way, as hippie penance food. The first night I couldn't see the payoff of all that cream, but the second night, the soup came into its rich, luxurious own. Don't know about "succulent texture." Grade: A.

angel biscuits. Yeasted. You make and shape the night before serving for breakfast. Tasted like a cross between a buttery croissant and a biscuit. Recipe is here. Grade A.

olive oil roasted cauliflower. As it sounds. Grade: B+.

gingersnaps. Ordinary. You can probably do just as well with the recipe on the back of the brown sugar box. Grade: B.

herb roasted chicken. As it sounds. Grade: B.

carbonara with sweet peas and ham. I've made better. Grade: B-.

sugar snap pea salad with pecans. Excited about this because sugar snap peas sounded like they'd make a crunchy, sweet salad. Didn't quite work, though. Grade: C.

I would keep Besh's book based on the number of excellent recipes it contains, but in the last few weeks my desire to purge the collection has abated. My house will never be a decorator showcase. The cookbooks can stay. They can all stay.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Banana bread buried in the middle

The prettiest thing I've made lately, if not the very best.
Day before yesterday, late afternoon, I was about to unload the dishwasher and thought I would mind the chore less if I had something to listen to. Although I had tried and failed to read it several decades ago, I decided to download The Screwtape Letters. by by C.S. Lewis because it was cheap ($5.95) and short. For the next 3.5 hours I did not at all mind unloading the dishwasher, cleansing a mildewy lunchbox, reducing tangerine juice, sterilizing the drawer organizers, mixing another loaf of banana bread, and then baking a completely gratuitous marmalade tart for dessert because I could not stop listening. A book beloved by both Sarah Palin (well, supposedly) and David Foster Wallace? And me?

You have to read this book!

I've baked three banana bread recipes since I last posted on the topic, omitting nuts and chocolate (when called for) partly because they would skew the comparisons, but mostly because I like the texture of banana bread to replicate the smooth, custardy texture of an actual banana.

perfect banana bread and burnt banana bread
1. The banana bread recipe from Joanne Chang's Flour (recommended by Nora K and printed here) was the most perfect and beautiful loaf. Owen thought it was less moist than my usual Beth Hensperger's recipe, but ate huge chunks of it nonetheless. He was right about it being slightly less moist, but then he and I like banana bread that is almost wet -- a bread some would describe as "dense" and "heavy." Chang's bread is light. Her recipe calls for cinnamon which I would omit in future because I like unadulterated banana flavor. But that's just my taste. This is a truly fantastic banana bread and I highly recommend. (If you make the recipe using the version online, choose a 9x5 inch loaf pan and please note that the original recipe as printed in Chang's book calls for heating the oven to 325 degrees F. Nora K said yogurt can be substituted for the sour cream/creme fraiche so I used yogurt and it worked great.)

2. The roasted banana bread from Kristin's recipe smelled incredible, first when the bananas were roasting and later when the bread was baking. I also loved the way the recipe was written. I don't ever actually mash bananas in a bowl, always drop them directly from their peels into the mixer and I appreciated seeing a recipe acknowledge this shortcut. Sadly, I managed to burn this loaf -- a thick layer of burn. But that the unburnt middle layer had the mightiest banana flavor of the loaves I've baked so far.

3. The Braddock Tavern banana bread recipe posted by Sarah Policastro in the comments to the original banana bread post is the closest to the benchmark Hensperger recipe. I think it might be better, but I would have to taste the two side by side. This recipe uses butter (which you cream rather than melt), 5 bananas (required to fill 2 cups -- lots!) and some applesauce. I made one big loaf, baked it for a longer time than specified for two small loaves, refrigerated the loaf overnight and ended up with a custardy and creamy bread, almost like a pudding. I love this bread, which is totally different from the other two banana breads and probably the closest to my personal ideal.
maybe underbaked, but very tasty.
4. I also baked the banana blondies from Short and Sweet by Dan Lepard. (Recipe here; you'll need a metric scale.) They are a gooey confection packed with bananas, white chocolate, and brazil nuts and of course they are in a whole separate category from banana bread. These blondies are the work, as Screwtape might put it, of "our Father below." I ate one blondie and am not allowed near the rest.

End of banana bread claptrap. For now.


On another subject, Nancy Silverton's Mozza got me started cooking mussels which I'd always thought of as "special," but which turn out to be fast and cheap and great for weeknights. Don't wait to order them in restaurants; they're much easier to make at home than a pot of soup. The other day I steamed mussels according to Big Sur Bakery Cookbook's very rudimentary recipe (white wine, herbs) but the resulting mussels couldn't hold a candle to that original zesty Silverton recipe. My husband said, "You should only make those first mussels you made." He is right. I have found my mussels.
Owen: "I didn't like them."
This past week, I also made seared scallops with cauliflower puree and tangerine reduction out of The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook. It sounds fussy, but was super-easy.You start with big sea scallops -- expensive, but you only need 2 per person. Boil 1 cup of tangerine juice (recipe says fresh; I used bottled) until it's reduced to 2 tablespoons of jammy syrup. Boil a cut-up head of cauliflower for 12 minutes and puree with 1/2 cup warm cream and 1/4 cup of chicken broth. You season then sear the scallops in a lightly oiled skillet, 3 minutes per side. Scrape cauliflower puree onto a plate (you can put everything on one platter, but I think this dish looks better apportioned to individual plates), place scallops on cauliflower, pour tangerine reduction on scallops. You now have a dinner that looks fancy, tastes wonderful, and requires almost no effort. Your kids might not eat this, which means more scallops for you. Detailed recipe is here.

topped with grapefruit, blood orange, cara cara orange
Finally, as mentioned, I baked the gorgeous marmalade tart from Big Sur Bakery. It's a generous rectangle of sweet dough topped with a cup of marmalade, homemade almond cream (sugar, orange rind, butter, chopped almonds) and sliced citrus fruit. My husband was wildly enthusiastic, but only after he picked off the wheels of stringy and bitter grapefruit. A very slight adaptation of the recipe is here; I agree with Blue Ridge Baker that the dough needs much more liquid than called for. If you try this, I'd go with oranges for the topping and skip the grapefruit, which (unlike bananas) is apparently not enhanced by baking.

I'm out of breath now and you've probably stopped reading, but this recipe from Food52 is intriguing.

Too many banana blondies?

Monday, March 12, 2012

I don't expect you to agree with me

I spent the last three days in Big Sur for a story and I'll tell you here what I almost surely won't say in the article which is that I find this place dreadful in the most primal sense of the word. It's incredibly beautiful. That (borrowed) picture doesn't begin to capture the Caribbean blue inlets, the waterfalls, the soaring raptors, the enormous sky. Wow! Beautiful. But Snow White's stepmother is also very beautiful, at least in the Disney movie.

The Pacific Ocean makes me deeply uneasy. Always has. I think it's beautiful, but I also think it's a terrible and annihilating body of water, loud and angry and powerful and it never, ever shuts up. It crashes and roars and smashes itself against rocks and occasionally out of this tumult comes a sleeper wave. The Pacific Ocean is also icy cold. If you get the crazy idea of taking a swim in the freezing water, look around for the sign warning you of dangerous undertow, perhaps featuring a drowning stick figure. The sign is always there. It should be heeded, unless you are a surfer in which case, I am in awe of you. Go with God. My mother's friend Nicole drowned in the Pacific.

Worst of all, the Pacific is full of great white sharks.

Anyway, the Pacific is pretty integral to the Big Sur experience. The other thing about Big Sur: cliffs. Big Sur is essentially one very high, very long cliff overlooking the frigid home of the great white sharks. I can't drive in Big Sur without thinking how easy it would be to accidentally steer off of a cliff. Just one little slip of the hand while replacing the disc in the CD player. . .

It's very beautiful. Really! It's beautiful and scary, at least if you're me. You should come here some day.

Also, there's wonderful food.

my favorite Big Sur landscape
I don't usually drink chai, but the chai at the Big Sur Bakery is incredible, like a nectar in a fairy story. I dipped the donut (homemade) in the chai and spent a very happy three minutes over breakfast on Saturday morning. I went back in the afternoon for another chai, and then went back for dinner and ordered the roast chicken -- brined and cooked in the wood-fired oven -- which was pricey, but great, great, great. I've come around on the Big Sur Bakery since I first visited a couple of years ago. The young husband-wife owners used to work at Campanile and I read their book over the weekend. It charmed me. Yesterday, on the way to hike to a waterfall, I stopped in and bought a really terrific oatmeal-raisin cookie. When I'm done with banana bread, I'm going after oatmeal cookies.

More banana bread claptrap coming your way soon. I drive home today. Actually, right now.

Monday, March 05, 2012

I'm a busy and important person with a very stressful life

french toast that looks like pancakes
I forced myself to choose some recipes from John Besh's My Family Table: A Passionate Plea for Home Cooking and am going to cook them and decide whether to keep the book or donate it to the library. I only bought the book a month or so ago, but it rubs me the wrong way, starting with the subtitle. More on that later.

Yesterday I made Besh's Nutella-stuffed french toast. I had to. Every day Owen comes home from school and spreads a piece of untoasted bread thickly with Nutella and that is his snack. I made Nutella from scratch a few times, but he prefers the waxy store product and I gave up trying to elevate his tastes. It's not very healthy and I should stop buying it. Wait! I don't buy it. My husband buys it.

Besh's Nutella-stuffed french toast involves putting a dollop of Nutella in the middle of a slice of sandwich bread which you top with another slice. I would not use rough whole wheat bread or artisanal bread for this; it should be soft white bread, storebought or homemade. Now cut a circular shape around the blob of Nutella, sealing the doughy edges of two slices of bread. (Besh specifies a dull juice glass and you mustn't substitute a biscuit cutter; I tried and it doesn't smash the bread together enough form a seal.) Soak very briefly in a rich french toast batter (eggs, melted butter, sugar, milk, vanilla, orange juice) and fry. The recipe is here.

Should you make it? I don't like Nutella and only ate the plain bread part, so can't comment on whether this is an exquisite treat or disgustingly rich. Owen said it was "more like dessert than a breakfast." My husband had thirds.
before it looked like pancakes, it looked like Uncrustables
Some thoughts:

-wasteful of bread. We gave the crusts to the chickens and of course you could make bread crumbs. But french toast that uses the entire slice is more efficient.


-the french toast batter: excellent. On account of the melted butter? The boatload of sugar? Orange juice? Made very sweet and custardy french toast.

-Besh specifies frying french toast in oil. I think it was Molly Wizenberg who swore by frying french toast in oil. I remember thinking at the time, no, no, no, she's wrong, butter. I've changed my mind; she's right.

This morning, I decided to check A Homemade Life to be sure I hadn't misremembered Wizenberg's comments on the subject, but couldn't find the book anywhere. Distressing! I started thinking about other recipes from her book that I didn't want to lose and remembered the chocolate chip banana bread. Or at least I thought there was a recipe for chocolate chip banana bread. . .

Then I started thinking about banana bread. I love banana bread and make it a lot. Why are some recipes so much tastier than others? Decided to cross-reference the recipes in Joy of Cooking, Fannie Farmer, and other stalwarts to see what I might learn. Got carried away and ended up looking in the indexes of all my cookbooks and "studying" banana bread recipes.

Fact: There are 104 different banana recipes under our roof.

When I staggered to my feet after this riveting exercise, hours had passed. It was lunchtime. I ate a piece of banana bread I'd baked recently using Recipes from Miss Daisy'sIt's a bit dry and I now knew why: because it calls for butter. I had figured out that all the recipes I most love call for oil, which yields a moister bread. Obviously. Because oil is not just moister than butter, oil is actually liquid. This is unappetizing when you think about it.

I am now a banana bread expert. Ask me anything! I can tell you that some people replace the oil with whipped prunes or applesauce and use egg whites instead of whole eggs. Dwight Yoakam likes banana bread made with whole wheat flour. Nigella soaks golden raisins in rum and tosses them into her loaf, while Mark Bittman prefers coconut and the wizardly Shirley Corriher folds whipped cream into the batter. (This, I am going to try.) Other people fortify their banana breads with Wheat Chex, wheat germ, bran, and Bisquick. Cooks stir in black coffee, maraschino cherries, candied citron, sesame seeds, mango, fresh cranberries, cocoa powder, or marmalade. You can flavor with rum, almond extract, vanilla, ginger, nutmeg, cardamom, lemon peel, orange oil, allspice, cinnamon, or none of the above. Use more sugar or less, or replace the sugar with honey or Lyle's Golden Syrup. Barley flour? Sure. Rice flour? Why not. You can even make sourdough banana bread, though I wouldn't.

It was fun.

I may be a little underemployed.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

This is just to say

In the last 30 hours:

1. I ordered a copy of Yellowthread Street. Anonymous, you have no idea how excited I am at the prospect of not just a new detective series, but one that is set in Hong Kong.

2. I began flipping through Short and Sweet by Dan Lepard. I've owned the book for a few months, but extracted it from a towering stack because of Steven's high praise in a recent comment. I then baked Lepard's rye and raisin cookies.* They are magnificent. Try them! 

3. I bought a Sumo fruit. It was every bit as crazy delicious as Kristin said it would be in another recent comment. Found it at Whole Foods. Marked as a tangerine; only in small print did it say "Sumo fruit."

This is all just to say how much I love your comments on my blog. I'm highly suggestible and if you mention something, it will stick in my head forever. Oreo balls? The chocolate pots de creme from Kate Zuckerman's Sweet Life? Cafe Rehobeth? You've probably forgotten. I haven't.

So thank you.

*Husband thought they were too sweet, Isabel doesn't like raisins, and Owen would rather eat the giant Pocky sticks brought back from Hong Kong and strew the wrappers all over the house. I love my family, but they are mistaken about these cookies. The cookies are outstanding.