Monday, May 27, 2013

Coffee cake and little cakes

The cherries eventually sink into the batter and disappear.
Last week I bought some cherries at Safeway because they cost $2.99 per pound and looked ok. They were not ok. They had no structure. You bit into one of these cherries and it collapsed. Cherries are my favorite fruit, but even I didn't want to eat these cherries.

Yesterday, Isabel and I went to the farmers' market and bought some Utah Giant cherries ($5 per pound!) that are almost black. You bite into one and it crunches like an apple. I love these cherries so much I would never cook them.

Rather than just throw them to the chickens, I decided to see if the Safeway cherries would improve when baked into a coffee cake and the answer is: YES. I made the cherry-almond coffee cake from Rick Rodgers' Kaffeehaus and it's easy and very tasty. You can use flabby cherries because all cherries, no matter how gorgeous and firm, become flabby after you bake them.  Rodgers writes in the headnote that in Hungary and the Czech Republic cooks don't pit the cherries "so the stones can add their subtle almond-like flavor to the batter; no one seems to mind spitting out the pits." Then he goes on to say that his version calls for pitting the cherries. What? I ignored him and didn't pit the cherries and not even Mark complained. If you feel compelled to pit the cherries or if you have beautiful Utah Giants, don't make this cake. This is a cake for mediocre cherries, unpitted. Recipe here.

Back to Indianers, the Austrian cake that somewhat resembles a cream puff. I've made three batches now. The Rick Rodgers recipe from Kaffeehaus calls for baking them in an aebleskiver pan but that didn't work for me -- they shrunk and got stuck -- so I went back to the muffin tin which does. I know they're not authentic Indianers because according to LizA they need to be made in a pan like this. Oh well. I tried brushing apricot glaze inside each cake as Rodgers does (Flo Braker also does this in The Simple Art of Perfect Baking), but I couldn't taste it so I'm skipping the apricot glaze.
One was my grandmother's, one was my Mom's.
Because someone asked how you eat the cakes without the cream falling out the bottom, I watched the way I and others ate the cakes and there's really no trick it. The cream just isn't an issue. It's very thick and seems to cling to the cake like the "cream" inside a Ding Dong. Eating them is easy. Too easy. These cakes are fantastic and I'm going to eat the last one right now.

Indianers, adapted from both The Food of Vienna's Empire and Kaffeehaus

1/4 cup flour
1/4 cup cornstarch
4 eggs, separated
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup heavy cream, chilled
2 teaspoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 cup heavy cream
4 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Generously butter and flour a 12-cup muffin tin. Sift the flour and cornstarch into a bowl.

2. Beat the egg whites until foamy then, 1 tablespoon at a time, add the sugar, continuing to beat until the whites form stiff peaks.

3. Use the same beater to mix the egg yolks with the vanilla just until blended. Now stir 1/4 of the egg whites into the yolks with a rubber spatula. Pour this yolk mixture over the remaining whites and sprinkle the flour and cornstarch on top of the yolks. Fold the batter gently until no trace of flour remains.

4. Scoop the batter into the muffin cups, using an ice cream scoop if you have one. Divide the batter evenly; each cup will be almost full.

5. Bake for 12 minutes until puffed and lightly browned. Remove from the oven, run a sharp knife around the edges and lift the cake out of the tin. Cool completely. They will shrivel a bit; don't worry.

6. Whip the cream with the sugar and vanilla until it's very thick. Not soft peaks, firm peaks. Refrigerate for 1 hour.

7. Slice the bottom off each Indianer and scoop out the insides. Eat, save, or discard. Fill each shell with cream. Refrigerate for 1 hour.

8. Heat the cream to a boil, remove from heat, add chocolate and stir until melted and blended. Put the chilled Indianers on a rack over a cookie sheet, cream side down. Pour the chocolate over the tops of the Indianers. Refrigerate until cold. They keep for at least 3 days.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Leaning in to the blog

the annual manicure
The first homemade pasta I ever tasted was cannelloni my parents' friends Steve and Jeannette Grant served from the Time-Life Cooking of Italy. This was circa 1978 and I'd never eaten noodles so silky, never known noodles could even be silky. The meat was suave and incredibly rich, thanks, I later learned, to the addition of chicken livers. I made the cannelloni last night and have two overarching comments:

1. This cannelloni is so fussy and involves so many little pieces of noodle and meat and butter that toward the end you will wish you were an octopus.

2. It is delicious.

The recipe in brief: You saute a mixture of onion, beef, spinach, and chopped chicken livers. You make a tomato sauce. You make a bechamel sauce. You make very thin egg pasta and cut it into many rectangles that you must place flat on a floured surface because if you place them on an unfloured surface they will stick and you will have to scrape them up and roll and cut them again just like I did. Boil your pasta pieces, drain them, and now you must carefully place them flat on paper towels. If the pieces get folded, they will stick in that folded shape and in trying to restore them to flat rectangles you will rip a great deal of pasta, just like I did. One by one, roll your intact pasta rectangles around spoonfuls of meat and place in a pan. Top with the bechamel, tomato sauce,  bits of butter, and Parmesan. Bake.

Clearly, it's useful to have a helper for this. Owen was with me the whole time and he's wonderful company, but not a helper. Isabel is a wonderful helper, but she's never here anymore. I think she's gently preparing us for that dreaded day in September 2015 when she moves out. At this rate, we won't even notice.

While I was struggling with the cannelloni, Owen took several dozen candid flash photos of me from odd angles. When that got old, he stuck a butter knife in the pasta roller and turned on the machine, just to see what would happen. If you're curious, the butter knife gets stuck. Really stuck.
Supposedly, he'll be leaving us in 2018. Hard to picture.
When Mark walked in the door I was spitting tacks, as my mother liked to say. Mark helped Owen get the knife out of the pasta machine and while the cannelloni baked I asked Owen to take a picture of Mark and me for my 25th college reunion book. He immediately started taking pictures of cats and spiders; he climbed up on the retaining wall, crouched to try arty angles, fiddled with the camera settings, etc. Mark, at least, was amused.
Is he going to stick a butter knife in the camera now?
The photo shoot was a bust. What would happen if I sent that picture in to the reunion book? Would people think it was funny, tragic, or just very, very weird? Obviously I won't send it, though I'd sooner send a picture in which I look like I'm going to kill someone than a picture in which I look radiant, joyful, and fat. Yes, I have certainly matured over the last 25 years.

As for the cannelloni, like I said: delicious. Owen wolfed it down and went back for thirds. I ate a ladylike portion. Mark wouldn't eat the filling because of the chicken liver, so he picked it all out and said, "The meat is too dominating. When the noodles are this good you really just want noodles and butter." Isabel, as mentioned, was out.

All in all, a hit, but we won't be eating cannelloni again anytime soon.

On another subject, I've made two more batches of the Indianer cakes and mastered the recipe, but want to try the apricot variation before calling it a day and posting. Interesting how much apricot jam Austrians use in their pastries.  

Monday, May 20, 2013

So who did invent whipped cream?

Trying to cook from the 27-book Time-Life international series is overwhelming! I sit down to write a grocery list, happily flip through one book after another, and 3 hours later look up and don't have a grocery list which is cool because I no longer have the energy to go to the grocery store. I may have to refine my approach.

Indianerkrapfen. Not a pretty word in English, so we'll call them Indianer cakes. The recipe comes from The Cooking of Vienna's Empire (part of the Time-Life series) by Joseph Wechsberg, a revered food writer whose Blue Trout and Black Truffles I once read but remember nothing about. He offers an account of the invention of Indianer cakes that is so silly I almost don't want to waste the energy typing it. But will: A Hindu tightrope walker traveled to Vienna in 1850 and a woman was watching him traverse the tightrope between two towers when her husband told her to quit staring This pissed her off and she threw a lump of dough at him. The dough landed in a pan of hot fat and when she pulled it out she filled it with whipped cream, iced it with chocolate, and named the new cake in honor of the Hindu tightrope walker.
This is the stage where you think you have failed.
Do you believe that? Neither do I. Wechsberg also writes that a Viennese housewife invented whipped cream and while the Austrians do seem to eat a lot of it,  I don't believe that either. Wikipedia concurs.

To make Indianer cakes, you mix an airy batter of cornstarch, flour, sugar, and egg and bake in a muffin tin. Cool the muffin-cakes, which will be sunken and misshapen, scoop out the middle of each, and fill the hollow with whipped cream. Turn the cakes cream-side down and glaze the tops with chocolate. The cakes resemble profiteroles, but instead of firm, bland choux-paste shells, the Indianer shells are tender and sweet, like a French cruller. I loved them. Everyone did. They were gone in 24 hours.

The recipe had problems, principally, the glaze. You're supposed to melt unsweetened chocolate with water, sugar, corn syrup, and cream, then whisk in beaten egg at the end. I knew this was going to fail and fail it did, yielding a thin, oily fluid full of scrambled egg bits. I threw it out and made an easier glaze from Kaffeehaus by Rick Rodgers that worked beautifully. Rodgers offers a somewhat different technique for Indianer cakes that I want to try, as well as a more plausible story of their origin. I will print a recipe for Indianer cakes as soon as I've got it perfected because they are really, really special.
like greasy quesadillas, but less tasty
Less special: the Tunisian brik from Quintet of Cuisines. You place a mound of seasoned ground lamb on a square of fillo dough, crack an egg on the lamb, fold the fillo into a triangle, and fry for a few minutes. A diagram would have helped with the fillo origami and I also could have used a few words on how to fry the brik because: too fast and they will brown before the egg inside has cooked. This happened. Wet, gelatinous egg, tasty lamb, oily filo. I would give the recipe another shot and try to correct my errors, but just don't love savory fillo pastries enough to bother.

On another subject, I had to go back to Monterey this past weekend and saw something in the backyard of a historic adobe that reminded me of a big project I have not yet completed:
Oh, go away, not now.
I was so gung ho about our pizza oven last fall, but the weather got bad so we had to stop before applying the final layer of insulation and plaster. Now the weather is lovely again and all I want to do is sit on the deck eating cherries and flipping through books on Austrian pastries.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Go ahead and call me Little Suzy Farm Girl

Sadly, aging chickens have never been a problem for us.
I can't post every day. I don't have enough to say! You would all get very bored. Yesterday I cooked the lamb filling for the Tunisian brik, but failed to remove the filo dough from the freezer in time so I didn't cook anything and had nothing to write about.

Today I do have something to write about. In the comments, Ida asked me what I thought about this impassioned post criticizing people who want backyard chickens -- but don't want to deal with them  once they stop laying. The owners no longer want to pay for the hens' upkeep, but are too wimpy to kill them. So they try to give them away. The author thinks this is bogus:

"There is absolutely nothing ethically superior – and quite a bit that is ethically dubious, if you ask me – about enjoying the benefits of a young laying hen and then turning over the care or slaughter of that hen to someone else once it stops laying.
That is not how animal husbandry works and it’s not how pet ownership works, and those are your two choices. I don’t care which path you take with your chickens, but pick one. Playing Little Suzy Farm Girl until it’s time to get the axe and then deciding you aren’t up for chicken ownership just doesn’t fly with me."

Well, it flies with me. First of all, if you can find someone who wants to adopt and feed your old hens, great. I don't see what's ethically dubious about "turning over the care" of superannuated chickens to someone who wants to take them. It seems like a win-win-win situation.

Or would be if these people existed. If they do, I haven't met them. The author is correct that when your hens stop laying, you will probably have to either suck it up and keep them on as expensive pets or kill them.

But unlike the author, I don't think there's any reason you have to do the killing yourself if you don't want to. What's the point? To prove something? To punish yourself? You kept chickens for eggs and probably gave them a really nice life, however short, and enjoyed their company and now that's over. There are people who will happily take those birds off your hands. I don't think turning the slaughter over to them is unethical. I think it's sensible. You're giving someone a flavorful stewing hen they will enjoy eating and sparing yourself an experience you won't enjoy having. The only loser here is the old chicken, but that was a foregone conclusion.

We've never faced the problem of aging chickens as they've all been eaten by bobcats or contracted fatal illnesses before they stopped laying. I don't know what we'll do if we ever find ourselves with a bunch of elderly hens. Probably keep them. I don't even pretend to be a real farmer.

P.S. I just read through many of the comments on the original post and someone makes the same argument I just did. The author responded very civilly and said she should have worded the piece differently. She objects to people who won't make the DECISION to kill an old hen. She doesn't mean they have to kill it themselves. So there's no real disagreement at all.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

That was fun

You can have no idea how badly I wanted to taste that tart when I was 10. 

Thank you so much for your incredibly nice -- and abundant! -- comments on the last post. I've been blushing for the last three days. I wish I had a blockbuster post to continue my hot streak, but tonight it's  business as usual.

A few things:

1. The asparagus and rice soup from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook is great. Make it. Owen said it was "pretty good" and Mark gave it a 7 out of 10, but I would give it a 9.5 out of 10 and I'm the one to listen to. It's easy and inexpensive and the recipe is here. It's a very brothy so if you have homemade chicken stock in the freezer, use it.

2. On Friday we had a party and I made pulled pork from Make the Bread, Buy the Butter. The first glitch I noticed was that I didn't specify whether the pork shoulder should be bone-in or boneless. BONE-IN. Actually, that was the only glitch. Otherwise, the recipe worked pretty well. Next time you have 12 hours to babysit some coals, consider pulled pork.

3. I'm going to cook from the Time-Life Foods of the World series next. Vintage, out-of-print, still enthralling. These were my first cookbook love and probably, even after all these years, my greatest. I recently started flipping through the books again and wondered why I never thought of doing this before. I'm very, very excited. I was going to make the Tunisian brik from A Quintet of Cuisines tonight, but it looks like I'm going to a high school drama production instead. Like, right this second. Brik tomorrow.

Monday, May 13, 2013

My Smitten Kitchen problem

transference /trans·fer·ence/ (trans-fer´ens) in psychotherapy, the unconscious tendency to assign to others in one's present environment feelings and attitudes associated with significance in one's early life. . .  

I was chopping broccoli for Smitten Kitchen's broccoli slaw on Friday -- the fourth time I've made this great salad -- and decided it was time to write about my Smitten Kitchen problem. Or, I should say, my former Smitten Kitchen problem. This all happened a few months ago and I wasn't sure how to tell the odd story, and I'm still not, but here goes.

I'll start in the middle.

I used to be a semi-regular visitor to Smitten Kitchen, Deb Perelman's recipe blog. I read her posts and skimmed the hundreds and hundreds of loving comments appended to each one.  If you're unfamiliar with Perelman, though I doubt you are, she's a thirtysomething woman who lives in New York City with her husband and pre-schooler son and writes about cooking. Her chummy, confiding persona is that of a charmingly obsessive perfectionist. She's not my soulmate, but she's a real pro, cheerful and consistent in her posting, reliable and often inspired in her recipes, a strong photographer.

Yet I found myself holding back approval from her blog. When her book was published last fall, I bought it right away but again held back. I was even a little sorry when the first recipe I tried, the buttered popcorn cookies, turned out to be so delicious. I was reading her in a mean spirit, looking for faults. This is no way to read a cookbook or anything else.

Was it jealousy?  I wrote a cookbook that did fine and Smitten Kitchen wrote a cookbook that was a huge hit. I pondered this at length, because it seemed like the most obvious explanation. But while I should have been jealous of her sales, which translate into tangible benefits like money and professional opportunities, I didn't feel so much as a twinge of envy. It was something else. I thought and thought and then suddenly it was clear as day and since that moment of clarity I've had no problem with Deb Perelman at all.

I went to all-girls schools from kindergarten through 8th grade, a period I think of as my own private Dark Ages. I was excruciatingly shy and struggled to navigate the intensely social and socially intense culture of an all-girls school. I was constitutionally unable to sit on other girls' laps, talk baby talk, dance gracefully around the maypole (seriously!), excel at field hockey, join in spontaneous renditions of Rainbow Connection, or jump up when Fiona or Mindy walked into the lunchroom and cry out "Sit here! Sit here! I saved you a place!"

That's one of my chief memories of 8th grade: Mindy or Fiona entering the lunchroom and the competing cries of "Sit here!" "No! Sit here." The more one girl begged the harder the other girls would plead. They sounded like seals begging for sardines. I'm sure they thought I resembled a hermit crab, if they noticed me at all.

At the end of the school year there were tears and promises and big group hugs.Yearbooks were serious business, the pages blanketed with sentimental notes signed with nicknames that originated at slumber parties, every "i" dotted with a heart. There were drawings of flowers, drawings of Snoopy, smiley faces.

I tried to throw out my old yearbooks last year, but Mark made me keep them. In preparation for writing this post, I pulled out my 8th grade volume of Works and Days. I was sure I would have nervously solicited signatures from  Lisa Bransten, Lindsay Dunckel, maybe Leslie Howes and a few others. But there is only one signature in the book.
Thank you, Margaret.
Fast-forward to 2013: Smitten Kitchen's most recent post got 261 comments. Mine got 14.

Do I need to connect the dots?

Sure, no problem.

I wasn't envious of Deb Perelman's professional success as reflected in sales, which would have been sensible. I was envious of her popularity among girls. When I read her blog and the hundreds of comments I felt like I was back in 8th grade, standing meekly in the corner watching an outgoing girl get her yearbook signed.

I like to think I've changed completely, yet 33 years later: exact same hairstyle.
Just recognizing what was going on solved the problem instantly. I don't know how that works, but it does. I'm now very fond of Smitten Kitchen.

This is all just to say that our feelings about cookbooks can be far more complicated than whether we love a certain recipe for broccoli slaw. Which we do.

While I was flipping through that old yearbook, walking down bad memory lane, I saw a picture of Mr. Bell, who taught English and P.E.

Mr. Bell was handsome, wasn't he? I didn't think so at the time, but a 13-year-old girl can't see past facial hair. Nor should she. I think Mr. Bell may have something to do with my Michael Ruhlman problem. He has everything to do with why I hate field hockey.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Bumper crops

Yeah, I guess the new goat babies are sort of cute. Check out the ears on the brown one. Now look at the ears on either of the black ones.
runt in foreground
Back in December, we bred Natalie to a Nigerian Dwarf (upright ears), but he didn't seem tall enough to knock her up, so a Nubian buck (floppy ears) was brought out a few minutes later. Now I think we got kids from both of them. Score! We all favor the runt because people always favor the runt.

I'm continuing the policy of cooking only one item every night, although I'm allowed to make dessert if the mood strikes. I harvested half a laundry basket of monster fava beans on Monday and braised some of them with sage and pancetta, adapting a recipe for peas in The Zuni Cafe Cookbook. I put them on the table next to the rotisserie chicken. (Note: I asked Mark to choose the next 10 dinners, but he declined the offer.)
not sure I'm up to the job
"No fava things for me," Mark said jovially. "I'm on a diet." Isabel tried the favas and disliked their texture; Owen said they didn't taste good. I alone ate the fava beans. Must every blog post include an anecdote of this nature? Apparently. Here's another from the same night:

For dessert, I made David Lebovitz's chocolate-banana ice cream. I used the version of the recipe printed in Ready for Dessert,  but it is also here. It's a super-cool recipe: Puree bananas, melted chocolate, milk, Bailey's Irish liqueur, and rum. Freeze. No machine required. The resulting ice cream is dense, icy, and complex, like a spiked fudgesicle. Mark took a bite and said, "Nope! Too alcoholic." He then served himself a big bowl of Snickers caramel swirl chunk and we sat down on the sofa with our different ice creams and watched Robin Wright have hot flashes on House of Cards. Whatever. The day we start watching different TV shows in different rooms, that's when I'll start to worry.

Last night I made fettuccine with preserved lemon and roasted garlic from The Essential New York Times Cookbook because it looked easy, delicious, and unusual. It was all three. Everyone in the household ate it without complaint. Next time I'd mince the preserved lemon finely like the recipe says, rather than chopping it coarsely like a lazy person does. I'd also add more cheese. It's a great recipe to have on hand for those occasions when you really, really, really don't want to go to the supermarket, which for me is always. Try it.
pretty pound cake baked in new bundt pan

Saturday, May 04, 2013

I owe him big

could be lunch, could be breakfast
Our goat Natalie was supposed to kid last week and I planned a short business trip to Monterey based on that calculation. But yesterday I could either leave with the kids yet unborn or forfeit the hotel deposit. What would you have done? As I was about to walk out the door, Mark said, "I'm freaking out about the things being born while you're gone."

I don't know the details, but there were three things and at least one of them has its father's floppy Nubian ears and Owen and Mark were out there in the dark. I know this because Mark sent pictures that I found in my in-box this morning. The absence of text could mean nothing and could mean he was too furious to type at 1:24 a.m. when he pressed send.

I cooked two noteworthy dishes this week. Both are Amanda Hesser recipes.

The first was yogurt with quinoa, dates and almonds, a recipe she posted a year ago on Food52 that I knew I would one day have to make. Wednesday was the day. It's one of those strange dishes I didn't exactly love as I was eating it, but have found myself thinking about ever since. It's a little sweet and a little salty, the yogurt creamy, the dates  sticky, the nuts crunchy and the quinoa crunchy in a completely different way. The tiny amount of olive oil you drizzle on top is crucial. You should try this recipe and see what you think. My only "complaint" would be that 6 ounces of Greek yogurt was more than a delicate little bird like me could eat at a sitting.

Veal is expensive. It should be.
There's a whole category of dishes I've heard about all my life but never actually tasted. Offhand: crepes suzette, syllabub, summer pudding, steak and kidney pie, blancmange, beef Wellington, lobster Newburg, Cornish pasties. Hundreds of them!

Vitello tonnato -- cold poached veal served with tuna mayonnaise -- topped the list and because it was hot last week, I made it. Used the recipe from The Essential New York Times Cookbook.

Too bad we only had half a lemon, as this is a dish that requires serious garnish.
First of all: expensive. Second: ugly. And not just when I make it. In fact, my vitello tonnato is comparatively lovely. Third: Delicious.

Sadly, the price and appearance guarantee I won't make this again.

I wonder if this is one of these dishes no one will make in 50 years. The recipe will exist forever, of course, but once people stop cooking it, the dish is dead. Few enough people make vitello tonnato now that I'd never seen or eaten it and I don't see that trend reversing, certainly not when the meat of baby cows costs $20 per pound. Plus: baby cows.

Or am I wrong? Do a lot of people make vitello tonnato and I just don't know about it?

Mark gets to choose everything I cook for the next 10 days.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Earnest Summation: The Homesick Texan

Fifty-one dishes, y'all. I made 51 dishes from The Homesick Texan by Lisa Fain and it's only taken me 4 months to get around to writing the conclusion to that epic project. Talk about ending with a whimper. But I'm crossing it off the to-do list today, damn it.

I'll keep it short and sweet: I loved The Homesick Texan. I picked it up after spending the fall cooking from a Syrian Christian cookbook followed by Burma, and while I love novelty and challenge, opening Homesick Texan was like getting off an 18 hour flight from Asia, stretching out on the sofa with a cold drink, and turning on Friday Night Lights.

The book has flaws. Fain neglects to mention the size of pans in her dessert  section (where it matters!) and seems to think that adding 1/2 teaspoon of Mexican chocolate to a gallon of chili could possibly affect the flavor. The recipes are not blazingly original and maybe not even original at all, as some Chowhound naysayers have suggested. But what great recipes are? People regularly give Marcella Hazan credit for pork loin braised in milk, but the dish appeared in Ada Boni's Talisman Cookbook decades before Marcella started writing. And who knows where Boni got it? Who cares? It's a living, breathing recipe, not a military code, and the further it travels the better. Right?

Ah, but there are gray areas. I'm seeing more and more of them as I type. Much to say on the subject of recipe plagiarism, but I haven't figured out exactly what I think and in the interest of finishing this post I will do that figuring out later. Last December when I first opened The Homesick Texan, I just wanted to eat delicious tacos, chili, and enchiladas, and the recipes inside helped me do that. The end.

By the numbers:

worth the price of the book  -- 1 (marinated skirt steak from the small apartment tacos)
great -- 13 (chili, posole, meat loaf)
good -- 30
so-so -- 7
flat out bad -- 0

Shelf essential? If you've already have cherished recipes for Tex-Mex classics, you don't need this book. I don't and do.