Friday, October 31, 2008

Chocolate-Dipped Honey-Apricot Nougat

When I was young, my mother and I decided to try to make candy. To be more exact, we decided to pull taffy. I was reading the Little House on the Prairie books at the time and Laura and her mother made molasses taffy, so I thought that would be a great Saturday activity. I'll admit, I probably should have made sure I liked molasses before I ended up with cookie tins full of the stuff, but as I've learned from my time in the kitchen, it's not really about the final product. When you screw up, no one cares. It's about the process--the satisfaction of trying something new, taking a risk and spending time with your loved ones. (At least this is what I'll be telling my in-laws when I make my first-ever Thanksgiving dinner this year.) 

My most recent risk-taking endeavor was making this candy. I pulled out my trusty candy thermometer and prepared to caramelize some sugar. I then whipped egg whites, mixed everything, added dried fruit, and realized, slowly, that this process was nothing to be afraid of. Yes, there are lots of steps and yes, it's a bit time-consuming up front, but it's also quite simple. Follow the instructions and you'll be rewarded with a unique hostess gift or holiday treat. It's  great way to make yourself slow down, to allow yourself a few moments of peace at an otherwise hectic time. Write a few cards while the sugar's caramelizing, or wrap a few gifts while the mixture is chilling. When you're finished, when every last piece of candy has been dipped in chocolate, make yourself a cup of tea, grab a good book and your homemade treats, curl up in a corner armchair, and think about what you've done. And smile.
Bring the sugar, water, and honey mixture to a boil with a candy thermometer. This is how it should look after a few minutes.
When the thermometer reaches 300 F, this is how it will look: light amber in color.
Slowly pour the caramel into the whipped egg whites and beat on high until the mixture thickens. It might look slightly chunky--that's okay. It won't stay that way. And rest assured, this cleans up easily. Let the bowl and whisk sit in soapy water for a few minutes and the mess--as cliche as it sounds--just melts away.
Chill for at least four hours, or overnight.
Assemble your ingredients and materials for the dipping stage. If you don't have a silpat, use parchment paper.
Chill in the fridge, then wrap in squares of parchment for a beautiful and nostalgic presentation.

Chocolate-Dipped Honey-Apricot Nougat
(adapted from Giada at Home, recipes on

Cooking spray
2 cups sugar
1/4 cup water
1/8-1/4 cup honey (or leave it out--it is strong)
2 eggs whites, at room temperature
1 tsp. vanilla extract
3/4 cup chopped dried apricots
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips, melted 

Equipment needed: a candy thermometer (you can make this recipe without one, but it's much easier to know the temperature this way)

1. In a 2 qt. saucepan over low heat, combine the sugar, honey (if using), and water. Stir until the sugar dissolves. Bring mixture to a simmer until the syrup is a medium amber color and registers 300 F-315 F, about 15-20 minutes.
2. In the meantime, spray a 9 x 5-in. loaf pan with cooking spray and line it with parchment or waxed paper, allowing at least a 2-inch overhang on each side. Lightly spray the paper with cooking spray.
3. About 5 minutes before the syrup is ready, in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the egg whites until they form soft peaks (2-4 minutes).
4. With the mixer running on low speed, slowly pour the finished syrup into the egg whites. Increase speed and beat until the mixture is very thick, 6-7 minutes. Beat in the vanilla extract and add half of the chopped apricots. 
5. Using a spatula sprayed with cooking spray, scrape the mixture into a prepared loaf pan. Sprinkle the rest of the apricots on top. Fold the overhanging pieces of parchment over the surface of the mixture and press to flatten evenly. Refrigerate at least four hours.
6. Melt chocolate over a double boiler.
7. Line a baking sheet with waxed paper or a silpat. Remove the nougat from the loaf pan and discard the parchment. Using a knife sprayed with cooking spray, cut the nougat into thirds lengthwise, and each third into 10 pieces, making 30 pieces total.
8. Dip one end of each piece of nougat into the melted chocolate and place on the prepared baking sheet. Refrigerate until firm, about 30 minutes. 
9. For presentation, wrap each cooled piece in a 5 x 5-inch piece of parchment. 

Variations: dried cranberries, cherries, or maybe roll the chocolate ends in crushed pistachios or pecans. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Grilled Pizza: Smoked Mozzarella, Peppadews, and Assorted Olive Bar Curiousities

I still can't believe that I have not yet posted my recipe for homemade pizza dough. Like muffins, pizza is a staple baked good in my house--we make it every few weeks and I always make my own dough. It is the simplest bread dough--really, if you haven't worked with yeast dough before, start here--and the elasticity of it, as with the steamed pork buns of a few posts ago, is amazing. I remember a Top Chef night last spring when our potluck theme was pizza; every guest was greeted with me barking, "Feel my dough!" They were then required to give a Buddha's belly-esque rub to my little balls of dough before pouring themselves the then-needed glass of wine. But I think they understood when they ran their hands over the floured dough that it was something to behold. Not my dough specifically but the smoothness and strength and care of dough itself. We played with stretching it and shaping it, trying to gently shake it off the pizza peel without covering the bottom of the oven in cornmeal, and I do believe there's something to be said about getting all of your friends in the kitchen for a process like this. There were at least ten of us, but it didn't seem crowded. We were just drinking wine and tossing dough. Two of life's simple pleasures, shared with friends. There's something very right about that.

Tonight the pizza was just Dan's and mine, but we had another meal-induced revelation: In some forms, on some days, Dan will eat olives. Olives and mushrooms were almost the deal-breaker in my marriage, but after this pizza creation, we'll only have to look out for the common ones: money, kids, etc. While considering potential toppings, I began longingly checking out the olive bar at the grocery store. I figured I'd just buy a few olives, you know, for my half. It couldn't hurt, right? I filled a plastic container with peppadews (small red spicy-sweet peppers, perfect for an antipasto platter), which Dan does like, and some small green and black olives that, I learned later, were not pitted. But boy, were they good. I looked up from the olive bar to see the cheese counter, beckoning me with its silky Havarti and tangy feta. But I looked a bit deeper, as we must often do, and found the smoked mozzarella. I'd never tried it before, but something told me that this would be perfect for our grilled pizzas. After grabbing some regular mozzarella and turkey pepperoni, I headed home to make the dough.

Dan lit the grill--medium heat, coals even throughout (if you want to know more, I'll have him post the method on his blog)--and we got the dough ready. I made a garlic oil--heat sliced garlic, red pepper flakes, dried basil, thyme, and oregano, in a skillet until garlic is toasted but not burned--and chopped the olives and peppadews, and sliced the cheese. We placed everything on a tray so it would be ready when needed since the grilling goes fast. We placed the pizzas on the grill, brushed them with the garlic oil, then let them go for a few minutes. Then Dan moved them to the top rack, put on the toppings, and closed the lid. In order to brown the cheese, we did finish them off in the broiler, but you could do this entire process in a 450 or 500 degree oven. Just put all the toppings on and slide it in on a baking sheet or pizza stone.

So the recipes ended up being garlic oil on both, a sprinkling of salt and pepper, then peppadews, olives, and smoked mozzarella on one, and shredded pizza cheese blend and pepperoni on the other. Surprisingly, I think I may have to fight Dan for the olive pizza leftovers--it tasted like a muffaletta. We both agreed that if The Blind Pig, one of our favorite bars in Oxford, served pizza, this would be it. It was salty and briny and the smoked cheese was the perfect complement. Too harsh on its own, it mellowed when in melted and was absolutely perfect. I will be making this again, and I hope you do as well.

Homemade Pizza Dough
(adapted from Baking Illustrated)

Makes 3 pizzas.

1/2 cup warm water
1 envelope rapid-rise yeast
1 1/4 cups room temperature water
2 T extra virgin oplive oil
4 cups (22 oz.) bread flour or all-purpose flour (if you're grilling the pizza, go for AP flour--it has more structure)
1 1/2 tsp. salt
You can also add a squirt of honey if you like.

1. Gently mix the 1/2 cup warm water and yeast in a 2-cup mixing cup; let stand for five minutes until it gets slightly foamy.
2. Mix dry ingredients in the bowl of a standing mixer.
3. Add the room temperature water and olive oil to the yeast mixture; pour slowly into mixer with teh dry ingredients while the paddle in on low.
4. When a cohesive mass forms, switch to the dough hook and knead until smooth and elastic, probably five minutes. If the dough sticks to the bottom of the bowl, add flour by tablespoons until it doesn't stick or sticks less.
5. When you're done kneading, transfer the dough to a large oiled bowl and make sure it's covered in oil (so it won't stick) and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Set in a warm place to rise until doubled in sixe, probably 1 1/2 hours. (I like to put mine next to, or even on top of, the oven.)
6. When it has risen, roll it out onto a well-floured surface (don't punch it down no matter how cathartic that might seem) and knead it lightly into a ball. Divide into three even pieces and shape each of those into a ball.
7. Cover the two dough balls you're not using with a cloth so they won't dry out, and press one into a sort of circle. You can use your knuckles to stretch the dough. Don't be too gentle--it's an elastic dough so it probably won't tear, and if it does, piece it back together and keep pressing and stretching it. When it's the shape you want, brush it with oil, put on your toppings (cheese last so the toppings won't burn) and put it in a preheated 450 F oven for 8-12 minutes, depending on your oven. Let cool for a minute then slice and serve!

Stephanie's Book Questions

On her blog, Pointed Meanderings, Stephanie posted a list of questions from the blog, Booking Through Thursday. Here are my answers--let's see how many of them are food-related.

The last book I bought: The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell (for Dan). The last book I bought for myself? Hmm. Maybe The Tuscan Year by Elizabeth Romer?

A book I have read more than once: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, by Barbara Kingsolver. I've also taught it in writing classes twice.

A book that changed the way I see life: Same as above--Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Kingsolver has a knack for that kind of thing.

How do I choose a book? By reviews, usually, though the cover draws me to it. I really have trouble buying anything, especially cookbooks, without reading amazon and critics' reviews.

Fiction or nonfiction? Umm, recipes? Food writing?

What's more important in a novel? Beautiful writing or a gripping plot? Gripping plot--sorry, know that's a horribly non-doctoral student thing to say, but what is a story without a plot?

Most loved/memorable character: Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. And, by extension, Mr. Darcy. And Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. And Mark Darcy. Basically anything that fits 7 degrees of Pride and Prejudice.

Books on my nightstand: Julie and Julia, and The Sonnet Lover.

The last book I read: And finished--Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, when I was at the beach in August. I absolutely loved it and I really want to read it again. And just before that I read Anne Tyler's Back When We Were Grownups, which is in my top five favorites.

Have you ever given up on a book halfway in? Not intentionally--I usually just stop fifty pages or so from the end. I have problems with closure.

So all, I guess the lesson here is that I do have a life outside of food--for two weeks in the summer on vacation. Better than nothing, right?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Pumpkin Chocolate Cheesecake Bars

Along with working through the various baking books on my shelves, I am also trying out magazine recipes, like the Carrot Cake and the Chocolate-Cherry brownies. This one comes from an issue of Everyday Food that I bought in 2006. I only have one issue of this magazine, which means one thing: I must have bought it in an airport. I am convinced it is my inalienable right to buy at least three magazines whenever I fly anywhere--no matter how short the flight. If I fly around the holidays, all the better--November and December are hands-down the best months for food magazines. Dan and I figured out that I must have bought this one when we flew to Waco, Texas, for a Baylor Homecoming reunion. How much fun that was--sleeping bags on the floor of the condo I lived in my senior year of college, the condo my friend owned but which, since it was not being rented at the time, had no working power or water. If you think it's bad having 8 people sharing one bathroom, imagine 8 people and no bathroom--it was a weekend to remember. But of course, like all college reunions, it was the best--like no time had passed.

So I bought this magazine, but I never used it until last week when I was cleaning. A friend had asked me to bring a dessert to a potluck, and somewhere in the recesses of my mind I remembered him saying he liked pumpkin pie. This seemed like a natural choice, and it gave me a chance to use the big food processor I bought to make pie crust but never use since it turns out I make pie crust better by hand. Call me frugal.

This turned out to be such an easy cheesecake--no water bath or foil-wrapped springform pan--and yet it was so beautiful and pleasurable to make. Something about the marbling just makes me feel so competent and skilled, even though it's just dragging a butter knife through batter. It's like getting compliments from your rich cousins on the sweater you bought at Target--a satisfying feeling of tricking the world.

First, crush up chocolate graham crackers or wafers in the food processor (you get to use it twice in this recipe!) then drizzle in some melted butter. Press the crust into the pan and try to use the sides and heel of your hand to make it level, especially against the sides. I'm hyper aware of this. I'll never forget my first-ever homemade cheesecake. The edges of the crust were so thick you could barely bite through them. God bless him, Louis was so kind about it.

While the crust is baking, make the filling. You don't need to even soften the cream cheese--just be sure to scrape down the sides of the processor if you don't. Once everything's in, the filling should look like this.
Once you've melted the chocolate and mixed in some of the pumpkin mixture, you pour the rest of the pumpkin onto the slightly cooled crust, then dollop on the chocolate. Then you play--sweep a butter knife up and down the pan, then side to side, until it looks perfect to you. Don't overdo it or it will get all mixed and the marbling will be ill-defined. Not that this is the worst thing in the world, but it will detract from your sense of smug satisfaction. 

Looks like stationery.
To cut the bars--once they have cooled and are completely chilled in the fridge--fill a glass with warm water and get a large knife and a clean dishtowel or paper towel. Lift the parchment out of the pan and place it on a cutting board. Dip the knife in the water, cut lengthwise in as few strokes as possible, and wipe off the knife. Dip it in the water again, and repeat this process until all of the bars are cut.
Arrange them on a plate, admire, and enjoy.

umpkin Chocolate Cheesecake Bars
(adapted from Everyday Food, November 2006)

For the crust:
1 sleeve chocolate graham crackers (8 full crackers)
2 T sugar
4 T unsalted butter, melted

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line bottom and sides of an 8- or 9-inch square baking pan with parchment paper or aluminum foil, leaving an overhang on all sides. Spritz with cooking spray and set aside.
2. In a food processor, blend crackers with sugar until finely ground. Add butter and pulse until moistened.
3. Pour crumb mixture into prepared pan and press gently into the bottom, working the crumbs into an even thickness. Bake until fragrant and slightly firm, 12-15 minutes. Set aside to cool.
4. Wipe out food processor to use for filling.

For the filling:
2 packages (8-oz. each) cream cheese (not fat free)
1 cup sugar
1 cup canned solid-pack pumpkin puree
2 large eggs
3 T all purpose flour
1 tsp. pumpkin pie spice
1/2 tsp. salt
3 oz. semisweet chocolate, chopped

1. Place the cream cheese in food processor; blend until smooth (it helps to let is soften at room temp. a bit first). Add sugar, pumpkin puree, eggs, flour, spice, and salt. Process until combined, scraping down the sides with a spatula if necessary. Set aside.
2. Place the chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl; microwave in 30-second increments, stirring between each, until melted. (It took me three rounds. The residual heat will help melt a few small pieces if it's not totally smooth). Add 1/2-3/4 cup pumpkin mixture; stir to combine.
3. Pour remaining pumpkin mixture into prepared pan (with cooled crust). Drop dollops of chocolate mixture onto pumpkin mixture. Swirl using a butter knife (a spatula is too thick and the marbling will not be as pretty). Bake at 350 until cheesecake is set but jiggles slightly in the middle, 40-45 minutes.
4. Cool in pan. Cover, chill until firm, at least 2 hours (and up to 2 days). Using overhang, transfer cake to work surface. With a knife dipped in warm water, cut into 20 squares. Serve, or cover and chill up to 2 days.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Beignets, In Honor of Katie

One of my best friends is coming to visit me this weekend. I am, quite frankly, ecstatic. She's one of the best cooks and bakers I know, and in honor of her, I'm posting the recipe for beignets we made the last time she was here. I will admit, I have never been to New Orleans and, though I hear that the beignets at Cafe du Monde are rectangular (not, well, globular) these are pretty amazing--melt-in-your-mouth, sweet and crispy, buttery, and so southern. I do recommend two gadgets for this project: a mini-disher and an oil/candy thermometer. Like any terrible southern cook, I'm afraid of frying. I have recently become much more confident, thanks to my digital candy thermometer I received for my birthday courtesy of my wonderful father-in-law. It has guided me through many a perilous frying endeavor. Well, the candy thermometer and Katie. My next attempt at frying post-beignets led Dan to tell people that his birthday dinner "involved hot oil and disappointment." Nice.

But if you watch the thermometer and the beignets and remove them when they are just beginning to brown, you will have a stellar breakfast. Add a light dusting of powdered sugar and some hot coffee with chicory and you can "laissez le bons temps rouler."

New Orleans Beignets
(adapted from The Glory of Southern Cooking by James Villas)

3 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 T baking powder
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 cup milk (the recipe calls for whole, but I used 1% and it was fine)
1 cup water
1 lg. egg, beaten
1 bottle vegetable oil, for frying (peanut oil would overpower the light taste of the beignets)
1/2 cup powdered sugar (for dusting)

Sift together the flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt into a large bowl. In a small bowl, combine the milk, water, and egg and whisk until well blended. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir until the batter is well blended and very smooth.

In a deep, heavy skillet, heat 2 inches of oil over medium heat until it reaches 325 F (this is where that thermometer really comes in handy). Drop the batter using a disher, wiping off excess batter so it won't drip, into the fat, 6-10 at a time depending on the width of your pan. Fry until golden brown, 6-7 minutes, ad drain on paper towels. Do not stack them until they've cooled. Once they've cooled slightly, put the powdered sugar into a fine sieve and sprinkle over the beignets. I don't remember how many this recipe makes, but the book says it should make six servings, and there were four of us eating them. We did have some leftovers, so maybe four per person?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

My Favorite Cake

In my very first post to this blog (titled "Welcome") I gave the recipe for "My Mother-In-Law's Madeira Cake," by Nigella Lawson. At the time I had no pictures of the cake, but I promised to post them as soon as I could. I made this, my favorite cake, again this weekend, and just barely remembered to photograph it before I devoured it. With only a few ingredients, this proves that life's best pleasures are the simple ones. It tastes of butter and lemon, a perfect balance of sweet, salty, and creamy. The top, covered in turbinado sugar (a new addition of mine since I first posted the recipe) has a lovely crunch. This is one of those loaves that is perfect for breakfast, dessert, or any time you need it. It is indulgent, but not in the guilty sense we often assign to cakes or cookies. It just allows you to indulge in yourself, in your senses, for a few moments before returning to your day with a smile.

On Blogging 2

I realized that my last post could have been slightly offensive, or at least slightly vague. What I meant is that what I love about blogs is the way people write about how they worked through a complex topic. I love to read about their lives as long as it doesn't read as a daily play-by-play. I love to watch as you think through the sensory details of a food, or work through the complex relationship you have to people or places or music. I love when you include lists that I can add to or questions that make me think. Basically, I love anything that acknowledges an audience, one that includes me as well as many others. I often thought of blogging the way my youth minister used to talk about prayer: Talking into the air and wondering if anyone's listening. I guess I like to know someone's listening. And I like to know you want me to listen.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Jam and Nut Tea Muffins

I think it's funny that I haven't published a post about muffins on my blog yet (at least I don't think I have). Muffins are, by far, my favorite baked good. When I'm bored, I think about muffins. When I can't think of anything to do on a Saturday morning, I bake muffins. My freezer is usually full of muffins for a microwave-and-go breakfast any morning of the week. I've even been known to bake a batch of mini-muffins for conferences or long car trips to ensure sweet goodness wherever I go. So yes, it's odd that I have yet to post anything about this centerpiece of my existence. But here it goes--the first of many.

When I want muffins, the first place I turn is this little cookbook that looks like it comes from one of those "publish your own family cookbook"-type places. The Joy of Muffins is paperback, spiral-bound, black-and-white print with no pictures except of the clip art typical of community cookbooks. And it's amazing--hundreds of muffin recipes arranged by breakfast, afternoon, dessert, main-course, etc. And they're my taste--in other words, not too sweet. Some of them, like a Colonial Pumpkin Muffin I made, were almost more suited for a dinner roll than a breakfast muffin. Which I thought was awesome! I first heard about this cookbook in a Nigella Lawson cookbook. The one day, while browsing in Barnes & Noble in Wilmington, there it was. On a high shelf, almost out of site amongst other tall, glossy, colorful baking books, it perched unassumingly, waiting. I use it all the time, but even more often, I just flip through it to put me in a good mood. Mmm, muffins.

These muffins are a bit of a departure from the recipe I was using, which was for Swedish Strawberry Muffins. I did not happen to have any Scandinavian Strawberry Preserves, or any strawberry preserves for that matter. But berries are berries when it comes to muffins. I had some cherry preserves left over from the Chocolate-Cherry Brownies (the recipe is posted on this blog) and some raspberry and blackberry preserves. The recipe also called for sliced almonds, but I had pecans, which I have decided are the most versatile nut on the planet. I used them instead of pine nuts in a pesto this week, and it was rich and amazing. I am actually out of pecans now, and I do feel like a little something is missing from my life. But these are the jelly-doughnuts of muffins. You fill each muffin cup halfway full then dollop a little jam in the middle, then fill it up. It gets all warm and gooey and when you break it open, it's a (very hot) beautiful thing.

These muffins also use oat bran, and if you're like me and get confused by all the whole grains in the grocery store (bran v. bran cereal v. oats v. oat bran v. wheat bran and so on) here's what I use. I found it at Wal-Mart, I think, so it's readily available, and I also use it in The Best Ever Bran Muffins. Another post.

Jam and Nut Tea Muffins
(adapted from The Joy of Muffins, "Swedish Strawberry Muffins")

1 1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
2/3 cup oat bran
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs
4 T unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup preserves, any flavor (raspberry, strawberry, and cherry are excellent)
1/4 cup nuts (chopped pecans or sliced almonds)

1. Preheat the oven to 400 F. Spray a muffin tin well with cooking spray.
2. Mix together the dry ingredients (flour, oat bran, baking powder, baking soda, and sugar) in w large bowl with a whisk.
3. In a medium bowl, whisk the wet ingredients (beat the eggs and add the buttermilk and butter). 
4. Make a well in the dry ingredients and add the wet--stir just enough to moisten.
5. Fill greased muffin tins one-half full. Add a heaping teaspoon of preserves to the center of each, then cover with batter. Sprinkle nuts on top of each muffin, and bake at 400 F for 15-20 minutes or until golden brown.
6. Allow muffins to cool in pan for 5 minutes, then carefully take them out and place them on a cooling rack. Serve warm.

Makes 12 muffins.

Friday, October 17, 2008

On Blogging

I just attended a workshop (faculty development) session on incorporating blogging into the freshman composition classroom. I plan to teach a "Food in Literature" themed comp course in the spring and had been toying for months with the idea of requiring my students to write themed blogs, if not on food, then on a hobby or a passion. (Basically, anything that's not political if possible. While Barbara Kingsolver can write "Life in a Red State" as a tongue-in-cheek reference to growing tomatoes in the South, I'm not sure I want to introduce the topic of politics and food. Yet.) But I began wondering, as a result of this workshop, about the act of food blogging in the first place. A friend of mine refers to blogging as being a practice "like someone asking you to sit through their vacation pictures." To some extent, she's right. I'm not particularly interested in someone's online journal (unless, perhaps, you're someone I know and rarely see), and quite frankly, I'm not interested in their political opinions. In this heated election season especially, I do all I can to listen to what the candidates say, to read the information I choose online, and ignore the rest. I am put out enough by Sarah Palin's ridiculous "rhetoric" (and that's if winking and midwestern colloquialisms count as rhetoric); I don't want to read what everyone else thinks of it. I don't want to know if you think she's smarter than she seems. We said this about Jessica Simpson, too--think she's qualified for a national political office? I don't want to know if you think she's a moron, or even if you take the more moderate position of "I just don't think she's qualified for this office yet." It's fine for you to feel this way, and it's fine for you to blog about it. That's just not why I'm interested in blogging.

I teach my students about writing with purpose, with a strong sense of audience. That's what blogging is for me. I write about what I love--the food I love. But I don't want it to be just about me. I don't want to catalog everything I put in my mouth. It's actually kind of creepy to think that there could be someone out there who wants to know what I ate for dinner each night. But I write when I want to share something about a food I love. The failed attempts don't make it in to the blog, and not because I don't want to be honest. Trust me, I've had to throw away plenty of moldy bread, saved only because I didn't want to admit it was really that bad. I burn the last batch of almost every cookie recipe I make--I just forget they're in the oven. I recently had a series of mediocre baking attempts before I realized I needed new baking powder. I've killed yeast with too-hot water and accidentally used rancid whole wheat flour. I don't include these because I want to share some recommendations on recipes--recommendations I won't know until the loaf or cookie or cake turns out right. I know what I did wrong, I know how I fixed it, and I want to show you. Maybe be able to include a beautiful photograph while I'm at it. I mean, who doesn't find a loaf of challah soothing?

I love reading food blogs because I love to read about food. I love to read about what people like myself love about food. I don't want to know about their daily lives, unless those details enhance the recipe or their thinking about an item. Maybe I prefer abstract thought to concrete detail; I don't know. Maybe I'm just too damn academic and detached from real life. But I still wonder, why do we blog? Especially about such an intimate act as eating? What is it we want to share? To feel?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Char Siu Bao (Steamed Pork Buns)

I am entering a new world of breadmaking: Steamed bread. I love baking loaves of bread, smelling the cozy, yeasty aroma for the hour or so that it bakes, then enjoying that warm aura that seems to surround the loaf as it cools. What I'm about to do, however, is a bit different. I'm not baking this loaf--well, actually, non-loaf. I'm making steamed pork buns--a sort of Chinese stuffed bread. You make the bread dough as usual, kneading, letting it rise, etc., but then you fill each little dumpling with a pork mixture, seal it into a ball, and steam it in a bamboo steamer! This recipe has intrigued me since I first saw it in Cooking Light. Dan says he doesn't like five-spice powder. That's what seasons the pork tenderloin. Hmm. I'll make some green beans on the side. He likes those. 

Here we go.

Well, the one-pound (or so) pork tenderloin's been rubbed with the five-spice powder (1/2-3/4 tsp.) and a pinch of salt, and I can't believe I forgot how luscious it smells! It's been cold and rainy all day, and this is another one of those spicy-sweet smells that just fills the house in minutes with its incense-like soulfulness. I am completely at peace with myself, my day, and my wine--a necessary component of any end-of-the-week recipe. 30 minutes in a 400 F oven just doesn't seem long enough--I don't want to take it out for fear the smell will disappear.

What is it that five-spice powder reminds me of? I'd never heard of it until a few years ago when Rachael Ray, under whose expertly fun direction I learned that I loved to cook, got on her five-spice powder kick. The star anise, which just sounds festive, reminds me of a potent licorice, and though I don't even like licorice, I love this spice. In its whole form, it looks like one of the old-fashioned Christmas tree ornaments we used to hang on the Christmas tree and the Hanging of the Greens service on a cool Sunday night, usually rainy like this one, a month before Christmas. Yet there's something almost meaty about this spice blend, a heartiness all its own, that does not come from the pork its rubbed on. I'm reminded of the inviting scents of pine or cedar, a woodsy smell mixed with mulled wine and fire pits.

Now the pork is resting and I've just finished the dough. This has to be one of the easiest, most elastic doughs I've ever worked with. One package active dry yeast, one cup warm water, three tablespoons of sugar (this seems like a lot--I'm excited to find out what these buns will taste like) and the mixture got all foamy after ten minutes or so. Then I added 3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour (plus a little bread flour when I ran out of AP), three tablespoons of canola oil, and 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Stir, knead (I needed--no pun intended--a little extra flour) and shape into a ball and let rise in a warm place for an hour. The dough felt incredibly smooth and soft--kind of like a good pizza dough, but even more tender and light. I think that's one of my favorite things about bread-baking: the feel of the dough in your hands, and the knowledge that you created this strong living thing. I'm not trying to make a dough-as-child metaphor, though I could continue this easily by talking about the dough rising independently of you, and though you try as hard as you can to control it, all you can do is check on it often and admire its imperfect perfection. But enough of that. Time to make the filling.

Cut the pork into thin slices, then slice those into thin matchsticks. Place the pork slices in a bowl along with 1 cup  of sliced green onions, three tablespoons of hoisin sauce (nectar from the gods, I'm telling you) two tablespoons of rice vinegar, one tablespoon of soy sauce (low-sodium is good), one and a half teaspoons of honey, one teaspoon of peeled grated fresh ginger, one teaspoon of peeled grated (or minced) fresh garlic, and a pinch or two of salt. Mix all of these together, cover, and refrigerate. (Leftovers will be great on rice--just heat in the microwave.)

I was right--that is the coolest dough ever, and somewhat sweet. It is so elastic, which makes sense considering it is meant to be stretched over a chunky filling without breaking. But making the buns is so simple!. Spray the counter with a light coat of cooking spray--I think flour will make the dough too tough--and knead in 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder. Pat the dough into a circle and cut it (like a pizza) into 10 equal pieces. Cover the pieces you're not using with a damp dish towel so they don't dry out. Roll each piece of dough into a 5-inch circle with a rolling pin. Put 1/4 cup of filling into each. Gather the edges up and, holding the ball of dough and filling with your left hand, and twist the top with your right (or opposite if you're a leftie), patting and squeezing until it's sealed. Place on the bamboo steamer, seal-side down, and finish the rest--five per level of a two-level bamboo steamer. This is so much fun. I got Dan in the kitchen to try one, and you can't help but laugh--I don't even know why!--something about the fluffy dough and the twisting and the cute little dumpling/bun...this would be a great meal to make with kids. Also, if you want to make these ahead of time--up to two months ahead--place them, at this point, on a baking sheet instead of the steamer, freeze them, them put them in a ziploc. You can steam them straight from frozen whenever you need them. I'm totally doing this for a Top Chef night this fall.

Now I'm just waiting. Waiting. Checked on them--one broke open. Oh well. Waiting.

Done. 15-18 minutes of steaming, 10 minutes to cool, and they're done. 

Wow. The bottom layer stayed intact better and puffed more than the top. Note: Next time don't roll the dough too thin and try to cut the pieces more evenly. And careful getting them out--a metal spatula works well since they stick a little (only a little). But oh wow. So good. You could really make these with any filling--and I'm totally going to try them all!

If you want the recipe without my comments, here it is: Steamed Pork Buns

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Fun Exercise

I'm just finishing up what has probably been the most successful set of office hours in my teaching career--I was busy with great student meetings almost the full time, and my inimitable office mate kept me busy the rest--and I was browsing a few food blogs and ran across this: "12 Hours in ..." I'm not sure who began it, but it's a great exercise. Think of your hometown/favorite town (may not be one and the same for all of us) and ask yourself: If I only had 12 hours left in this city before being banished forever (harsh thought), what would I do? Or, more specifically for these blogs, where would I eat? Here are a couple responses, and the reader comments that follow are also great. I may even use this exercise with my 101 students to help teach reviews.

The Amateur Gourmet is a new blog for me, but I love Chocolate and Zucchini. A young woman living in Paris named Clotilde writes it. Off-Square has several of her cookbooks and she's written for Bon Appetit. And her blog also has a French version--a great way to keep up my waning fluency!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Carrot Sheet Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

So my first question is this: Is frosting a Southern term? I always referred to this blessed part of dessert as "icing" growing up in Ohio--you know, the same place we referred to Coke as "pop" and used other midwestern-isms that make Southerners giggle at our lack of sophistication. I think the only time I used the word "frosting" was when I was talking about the tops of supermarket sheet cakes or 80s trends in hair coloring. Hmm. Things to ponder.

Anyway, I've learned that my pseudo-European husband who only eats sweets in the afternoon will eat dessert after dinner if he gets to choose. So I told him yesterday that I would be making a cake that evening and asked his preference. Surprisingly, he replied quickly and enthusiastically, "Carrot Cake!" I immediately panicked (just a little). I love to bake, but I have two fears in the kitchen: double boilers and layer cakes. Double boilers are just plain annoying--stir well and stuff won't burn in a pot. But layer cakes are finnickier than divinity in August! The layers are never even, they break, and I HATE trying to ice a cake when you get crumbs all in the icing--eww. Don't get me wrong--I'd love to be an amazing Southern baker who can make 18-layer caramel cakes without batting an eye. But there's a reason I like "rustic" desserts. Hard to mess up, and I find them much more aesthetically pleasing than fussier ones. Probably the same reason I like cottages and distressed furniture. But to return to my point, I was thrilled when Dan added, "But I don't want a tall layer cake--just a sheet cake. I think we'll be more likely to finish it." Hell yeah! 

I knew exactly which recipe I wanted to use. In May 2005 (probably one of the only things I can remember from three years ago) Cooking Light ran an article about low-fat cakes. They look amazing, and when I checked out their carrot cake recipe, it didn't even call for egg substitute. I am against this product when baking. Instead, it used 2 eggs and 2 egg whites instead of 4 eggs, low-fat buttermilk, the best tenderizer ever, and the carrots themselves added plenty of moisture. It got sweetness and depth from a mix of granulated and dark brown sugar and a good amount of cinnamon. And the icing--oh boy, was it good. Fat free cream cheese, vanilla, and some butter, plus a billowing mess of powdered sugar--lovely. I topped it with some turbinado sugar and it really looked like the magazine photo and was every bit as good as any fussy layered cake. Strangely enough, despite this layer-cake diatribe, I have fond memories of carrot layer-cake. The first layer cake I ever made from scratch was a carrot cake with cream cheese icing, for Dan's father's birthday. It was the first weekend I'd ever "met the parents." I call it a success.

The cake bakes up beautifully on its own. Do be sure to line the bottom of the dish with parchment and cooking spray since you have to flip the cake out to ice it.

Icing it is easy. Since fat-free cream cheese is softer than regular, you do need to chill the icing for 30 minutes before putting it on the cake, then keep the cake in the fridge. Chill it without covering it for 30 mins.--the icing will harden a little, and then it won't stick to the plastic wrap when you do cover it. Yum.

Carrot Sheet Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting
(adapted from Cooking Light, May 2005)

9 T unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs, room temp. if possible
2 large egg whites, room temp. if possible
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups AP flour
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. ground cinnamon (you could also add a pinch of allspice or cloves)
1/4 tsp. salt
3/4 cup low-fat buttermilk
2 cups finely shredded carrot (if you shred it yourself, squeeze out the juice using a couple paper towels)

1/2 cup (4 oz.) fat-free cream cheese, cold
1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/8 tsp. salt
2 3/4 cup powdered sugar, divided
1 T turbinado sugar (or orange sprinkles)

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
2. Coat a 9 x 13 in. pan with cooking spray, line the bottom with parchment or waxed paper, then coat with cooking spray again. Set aside.
3. Place 9 T butter, brown sugar, and granulated sugar in large bowl or bowl of standing mixer. Beat with a mixer at medium speed for about 5 mins. or until the mixture is light and fluffy and you can't hear the sugar scraping on the sides of the bowl. Add eggs and whites, one at a time, until each is well blended. Beat until the mixture is light and fluffy. Beat in 2 tsp. vanilla.
4. Lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups and level with a knife. Combine flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt, stirring with a whisk. Add flour mixture alternately with buttermilk, beginning and ending with flour. Mix well after each addition. Stir in carrot. 
5. Spoon batter into prepared pan and level. Tap pan once or twice on counter to get out air bubbles. Bake at 350 F for 30 minutes (if using a metal pan) or for 25 mins. at 325 F and 10 mins. at 350F (if using a glass pan). Insert a wooden toothpick in center to check for doneness. (You could probably bake the glass pan for 20-25 mins. at 350, but I haven't tried it yet.)
6. Cool in pan on rack for 10 mins., then carefully turn out onto rack. Gently peel off paper and let cool completely.
7. To make the frosting, place the cream cheese, butter, vanilla, and salt in a large bowl or the bowl of a standing mixer. Beat at medium speed until smooth.  Gradually add 2 cups sifted powdered sugar, beating at low speed until smooth (do not overbeat). Stir in the remaining 3/4 cup sifted powdered sugar. Cover and chill for 30 mins. Spread frosting over the top of the cake. Garnish with sugar or sprinkles and refrigerate until ready to eat. Cover loosely after 30 mins. to prevent icing from sticking to the plastic wrap. Store in fridge to keep icing from running. 

Yields: 16 pieces

This is low-fat, as I mentioned. Only 10 grams of fat per slice, including frosting. Not bad!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Whole-Wheat Pumpkin Bread

It's now officially Fall. That means chili, mocha, cloves, tea, and of course, pumpkin. I have had two cans of pumpkin in my pantry that I never got to use last season, so I decided to put one to good use in a new pumpkin bread recipe last night. It uses all whole wheat flour, which gives it a beautiful dark earthy color--not at all like the food-coloring orange of most pumpkin-flavored baked goods I see in stores--and the streaks of dark chocolate just add to the rustic effect. 

This is one of the spiciest fall quick breads I've tried. It uses as much ground cloves as it does ground cinnamon (1/2 tsp. each) and the smell just sneaks up on you while it's baking. It's almost like gingerbread the way you start feeling warmer and cozier before you realize that you notice the spicy-sweet smell. Once again, another reason I love having a desk next to the kitchen. This is a great afternoon bread, I'd venture to say better with tea around 3 or 4 o'clock than with coffee for breakfast. And believe it or not, it's healthy. Check after the recipe for some nutrition info., but honestly, you can tell (in a good way) just by biting into it that you're putting good calories into your body. Pumpkin, whole wheat, dark chocolate, pecans--talk about fiber, protein, and vitamins! 

I think my baking powder is at the end of its shelf life, otherwise this bread might have risen higher. Time to try a new one--aluminum-free Rumsford, instead of Clabber Girl. We'll see if there's a difference in taste or effectiveness. Edna Lewis suggests this one in The Taste of Country Cooking, though, so I'm inclined to listen.

I finally have something in my cake dome. Yup, it's definitely Fall.

Whole-Wheat Pumpkin Bread
(adapted from King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking)

2 cups (8 oz.) whole wheat flour (white or traditional)
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1/4 tsp. freshly ground nutmeg
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temp.
1 cup (7 1/2 oz.) packed light or dark brown sugar
1/4 cup (1 3/4 oz.) granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup (9 1/2 oz.) canned pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling)
3/4 cup chopped nuts
3/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips (or raisins or dried cranberries)

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease a 9 x 5-in. loaf pan.

In a medium bow, whisk together the flour, soda, powder, salt, and spices.

Cream the butter and sugars in a large mixing bowl (I prefer the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment) until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. Beat in the vanilla and pumpkin. Fold in the dry ingredients with a spoon, mixing until just moistened. Add the nuts and chocolate chips, and fold in only until evenly distributed.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for about 55 minutes, until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool in a pan on a rack for 15 minutes, then run a butter knife around the edge to loosen the loaf. Turn the bread out of the pan and place it on the rack to cool completely before slicing or storing.

Makes about 16 slices.

And in case you're wondering, each slice has 15 grams of whole grains (a little over a fourth of your daily needs) and 3 grams of fiber. My friends told me to stop telling them this before the recipe--I thought it was cool, but they said it made it less appetizing. Fiber counts aren't sexy? Really?

What Is Southern?

A friend gave me an issue of Gourmet magazine last summer. It was their Southern food issue, which meant, of course, a lot of cocktails, a lot of riffs on classic Southern dishes, and a lot of John T. I'd recently read an article in the Oxford American about Gourmet's historical relationship with Southern food, describing how it has, through the years, almost exoticized our down-home cuisine. Well, be that as it may--I don't read Gourmet enough to know--what I found in this particular issue was this gem: an essay written by Edna Lewis entitled "What Is Southern?" Now, as any scholar of the South (sort of, sometimes) I am skeptical of this type of essay. Will it be a long list of moonlight and magnolia-laden cliches? Will I feel like an outsider unless I happen to have my 14-inch waist laced tightly into a corset and hoop skirt while reading? 

No. Edna Lewis, in her understated way, makes the simple seductive in this essay that links food, farming, literature, and memoir. I assign it in my composition classes to discuss cliches, reviews, memoir, etc.--it is perfect for so many lessons, and they usually love it, because they can relate to it. I ask them to read it, then spend ten minutes composing their own "Southern is" essay modeling her prose. I had to laugh this past week, however--when I told my students what their reading assignment was, one looked at me with the same skeptical look I reserved for such essay titles and said "It's called 'What Is Southern?' Is it going to make fun of us?" I assured them it would not, and what's more, it would praise their--our--region in new ways.

Read this essay if you get a free moment today (just click on the title to this post to be linked to it) and let me now what you think. I'll be using it in class tomorrow and I'd love some fresh takes on it. (I linked the full version, but if it seems short, scroll down to the right corner to see which page you're on--I still haven't fully figured out this computer!) Enjoy!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

My Ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookies

I love a chewy chocolate chip cookie. The cookies I'm about to describe are just the best. I started making them when I was in college, and eventually gained a following: My friends made me call them whenever I baked up a batch--usually triple the recipe I'm about to give--and they'd put in their orders. Eric wanted them underdone in the centers, so I took his batch out of the oven after 7 minutes. Matt preferred his a bit crispier on the outside, so that tray stayed in 9 minutes. Bree usually ate the dough with me--roomie privilege. I really don't know where the recipe came from. Honestly, I think it's an adaptation from the back of the Nestle or Tollhouse chocolate chip bag. And it is so good. 

Not only are these great as chocolate chip cookies, this can be a basic dough for any cookies you want to make. When I want oatmeal cookies, I leave out the chocolate chips and add a handful of oats and some dried cherries and cinnamon, maybe a pinch of cloves or allspice. Sometimes I add shredded coconut with the chocolate chips, and maybe some macadamia nuts. I'll bet hazelnuts would be fantastic, too. Play with it--this is just a starter recipe. Make it your own! (I won't tell.)

Sarah's Ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookies
(adapted from something, sometime)

3/4 cup butter-flavored Crisco (Yes, it uses Crisco. Get over it.)
1 1/4 cup packed brown sugar (light or dark)
2 T milk
1 T vanilla extract
1 egg
1 3/4 cup AP flour
1 tsp. salt
3/4 tsp. baking soda
1 1/2 cup chocolate chips (I like a blend of semi-sweet and milk, and sometimes white, chocolate chips)

Preheat oven to 375 F. Cream Crisco, brown sugar, milk, vanilla in lg. bowl. Mix until creamy. Stir in egg until well-incorporated. Combine flour, salt, and baking soda in a separate bowl. Add to creamed mixture gradually. Stir in chips. (The dough will be really soft.) Spoon or use a disher (mini ice cream scoop) to place globs of dough on ungreased baking sheets. Bake 8-10 minutes or until edges brown. Cool 5 minutes on tray, then gently move to a cooling rack.

This recipe should make about 30 cookies.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Variation on a Classic

My dad makes the best subs. It's just a fact. His subs were always an event growing up--he'd start the dressing 24 hours in advance, then he'd dig out the insides of the bread, dress the sandwich, add all the wonderful deli meats and cheeses, place the long loaf back into its bakery bag, seal it loosely, then place a heavy cutting board and several large cans of tomatoes on top to smoosh it and let all those flavors marinate for a few hours. Then came the glorious moment when he'd ask us what size sandwich we wanted, we'd show him with our hands spaced far apart, "This much!", and he'd cut it and heat it and it would become perfectly melty ... it was sandwich perfection. When I left for college I craved his subs, so much so that I asked for the "recipe" and made them for a friend's Superbowl party my senior year. I have never had so many guys ask me for a recipe--I must have copied it six times by the end of the game. I don't even remember who was playing, but I remember the boos when the last sandwich ran out.

Naturally, when Dan asked for "football food" this past Sunday, Dad's subs immediately came to mind. But it was 3 o'clock already--no time for eventful marinating and anticipation. So, as daughters tend to do, I came up with a variation on Daddy's Sub, which we would always eat with Ballreich's Potato Chips and French Onion Dip. Call it Sarah's Sub, the Walden Wonder, whatever you like--it was good. So here, play by play, is that Sunday Night Football Food.

Sarah's Sub and Sweet Potato Fries
(adapted from "The Best Sandwich in the World")

Place a couple teaspoons each of dried basil, oregano, and thyme in a jar. Add some crushed red pepper flakes. Mince a few coves of garlic or crush them in a garlic press--add them. Then add about 1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil. Shake; set aside. (This can marinate overnight if you like.)

Split a loaf of French bread lengthwise so you end up with two long halves. Cut some score marks down the center of each, maybe 1/2-in. deep, and dig out the centers. (Save them for later--they'll be fun to snack on or you can make croutons or breadcrumbs.) Brush both sides with the dressing (above) and start layering on the goods. Medium layers--not too heavy or light--will be perfect. 

On the bottom half, place the lettuce. Any kind works--we used organic greens because they were left over from a salad. Then add sliced tomatoes. Follow with thinly sliced onion rings--red onion is best since it's sweeter, but yellow onions are fine. Now add some sliced jarred sweet cherry peppers (you can find them near the olives in the grocery store. This was my special addition, mostly because Dan loves them, and they were perfect on the sandwich). Next, add a layer of provolone cheese. Cut each large round slice in half and layer diagonally--just one single layer, since you'll add more later. Then add a layer of hard salami, sliced thin. Then a thicker layer of ham (not honey roasted) and then another layer of cheese. Top with the top half of bread, press down, and replace the long sandwich carefully back into the bakery bag. Before you seal it with a twist tie, place a heavy cutting board (some things never change) and some heavy cans or books on top of that. Then seal the bag. Leave it sitting there for at least an hour, then slice, heat in the microwave or oven, and enjoy.

For the fries, preheat the oven to 450 F. Cut 4 small (or 2 large) sweet potatoes into fry-size sticks. Toss with 1 T of olive oil. Line a large baking sheet with foil and spray with cooking spray. Dump the potatoes onto the sheet, try to get them into a single layer, and sprinkle generously with salt, pepper, and (though it sounds weird) a tsp. of pumpkin pie spice. Roast for 20 mins., toss, roast for another 20 mins., toss, etc.--they should take 45 mins. to an hour, depending on how thin you've cut them and how crispy you want them. We have these all the time in the fall and winter--the pumpkin pie spice says "fall" to me, but in small amounts is not at all sweet or overpowering on the fries. If you want to be less healthy, mix some softened butter with cinnamon and sugar for dipping the fries, but that's gong a bit far here, I think.

This sandwich serves 4 (big portions) or 6 (smaller portions). It will also save in the fridge for several days, so make the whole thing and eat it for lunch for the week! It is great left over.