Friday, December 19, 2008

Really? These are for TV?

This Wednesday's New York Times offered a lengthy article about butter. Butter as it relates to cookies, and in this case Christmas cookies. I had always thought when making cookies the softer the better. This is not the case, says the article, because the emulsion breaks down as the butter warms. So as an exercise in butter skills my mom and I had to make cookies. It's true--there was no choice involved.

Several recipes were included in the article. We chose the Croq-Tele, French TV cookies. They are very simple to make and contain only almonds, sugar, salt, butter and flour, and are then pressed into these lovely pyramid shapes. The resulting cookies are soft and sandy, rich with buttery almond flavor. If these are for the TV I can't imagine what treats fancier occasions warrant.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Cranberries: The Color of the Season

Lured by the stunning beauty of the cranberries on a Chocolate and Candied Cranberry Tart recipe I decided to try my hand at it. Not much of a chocolate fan, I changed the bottom layer completely. Mine was a pumpkin and candied cranberry tart.

The pumpkin layer I made much like you would a pumpkin pie. To combat the sour cranberry I substituted almost paste for all of the sugar. Almond paste's rich, sweet flavor melded beautifully with the pumpkin and stood up well to the cranberries. I think the pictures tells the rest.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A Little Bit of Thanks

I celebrated an early Thanksgiving with my mom this year. We won't be together on the actual day, and Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday so skipping it just wasn't an option.

This year there's a lot to be thankful for, my time in school in Italy ranks high on that list. And so we gave thanks by paying homage to my favorite dish from Emilia-Romagna: tortelli di zucca (pumpkin ravioli). Saveur is my trusted guide for authentic recipes, and so I turned there first. Though I had never made tortelli before I have certainly eaten them enough to be suspicious of the Saveur recipe. Chock full of ingredients it was a far cry from the simple sumptuousness of the tortelli di zucca I've eaten.

I did some more searching and found recipes that sounded more like I expected. These recipes, not surprisingly, were mostly in Italian. I also did some substituting (gingerbread for amaretti, mustard spiked apple butter for mostarda). These are tortelli di zucca meets Pennsylvania. In any case they were absolutely delicious, tasting closer to the real thing than I expected.

Thank you Parma, if you taught me nothing else, the tortelli di zucca was for sure worth it.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Italian Food and...French Wines?

Last night I braved the cold winter winds (they're always worst when they first appear) for the "Great Wines from France" Slow Food Philadelphia dinner at Penne, close to Penn's campus. I was slightly skeptical of the decidedly Italian menu accompanied by-duh!-French wines. Having just returned to the States from Italy less than one week ago it is especially painful to eat some of the "Italian" food available.

This was certainly no the case. The classics were executed brilliantly, mushroom risotto and porcini sauce for instance. And the twists had just enough innovation, while retaining their age-old wisdom. The Orange Olive Oil Gnocchi were perhaps the best example of this. The gnocchi had that perfect pillowy texture indicative of quality (I should know considering both of my attempts at gnocchi were so gummy they were perhaps closer to Jell-O) with the intrigue of orange. The orange flavor was decidedly distinctive, so much so that I spent many of my bites trying to figure out exactly how it was accomplished. Orange flower water? not assertive enough. Orange zest? but there were no specks, though towards the end I found one. Potatos boiled with orange peel? possibly...

After all that guessing, after re-examining the menu today, I think that it was literally orange olive oil that did the trick. Not orange and olive oil as I had originally read it. In any case it was delicious. The rest of the meal was equally successful the wines perfectly complementary much to my skepticism. The wine highlights were a Chateauneuf du Pape from Chateau La Nerthe, 2002. It was spicy with the richness of stewed plums, cloves and caramel. Eqully delightful was a Vendanges Tardives Gewurztraminer from Trimbach, 2002. The aroma was unlike any other I've had, and the taste was unparalleled. Because it was preceded by four wines my memory of its precise organoleptic qualities is blurred. All I remember is it was delicious.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Preparations for a Pauper's Christmas

Back from Italy for good now, and enjoying a simpler life: that of the unemployed. While I spend much of my day looking for jobs I have also assigned myself some fun. That is being unemployed, and having just graduated I have no money. For those very same reasons there are many to whom I owe much thanks. Since I cannot thank them in a monetary (therefore gift) way, I have decided to use what I already have. That being an insatiable desire to create foods.

So this year I'm making everyone on my list a Christmas basket of homemade goodies. I won't reveal all of them because many people reading this will also probably be getting one. But to whet everyone's appetites are my homemade marshmallows. Normally I'm not one for sugary junk food, but homemade marshmallows just seem the ultimate in luxury. They are also so far from their raw ingredients in shape and form their creation seemed impossible. And that is what peaked my interest.

So I went through some recipes on the internet and decided on Martha Stewart's. What Martha doesn't tell you (and I should've figured out for myself) is how sticky and difficult marshmallow is to work with. It formed a sticky white mass that overtook my mixer's beaters and oozed out onto the bowl and stand. It stuck to anything that touched it, even if it was just for a second. After the fact I read another recipe which recommends placing the marshmallow in oil coated plastic. Next time I'll try that.

This time with it's sticky gooey mess, I did outsmart Martha on one account. And that is the cutting. After the marshmallow is poured into the pan and dusted with confectioner's, Martha left you hanging. When I went to cut them after they sat out the requisite night, the mix was still soft and gooey enough to trip up the knife, make it sticky, and render the squares misshapen blobs. Dipping the knife in warm water after each cut, like they do with spoons in ice cream shops, worked miracles. If only I had thought of it sooner.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Enjoying Autumn's Bounty

My favorite kind of cooking happens when I notice something on the counter that's on the verge. And there's too much to finish before it goes bad, and so you transform it into something that will keep. Something delicious, with ingredients already in the kitchen.

I had such an opportunity this weekend while visiting my dad. He had a bucket of pears from a church friend's tree. The pears were perfectly shaped with a greenish brown skin yielding only occasionally to brown spots. To the touch however they were squishy and far past crisp. Pears just so happen to be my favorite food. And I wasn't about to let these pears go to waste. So I made pear butter.

When tasted fresh the mealy brown parts of pears lack texture, are overly sweet, and hint at rotten. In butter, these are perfect, their highly developed sugars adding flavor and complexity. Fortunately Dad's pears were full of these types of spots. After careful peeling and coring so as not to lose these mushy nuggets of flavor, the pears went on the stove. I added cinnamon, nutmeg, and some maple syrup then reduced it. After an hour or so, reduced to about and eighth of what it had been the pear butter was ready. Sweet, flavorful, with a subtle richness. What better for a fall breakfast?

Monday, September 8, 2008

Inspiration at the Table

Slow Food Nation's Eat-In was the perfect culmination to the weekend. Bringing together youth from all over the country to listen to movement leaders speak and then break bread together. The symbolism is both obvious yet meaningful.

In order to participate you either had to bring something or sign up for a cooking team. I signed up for a team. Our team had boxes and boxes of beautiful produce donated from the Ferry Building Farmer's Market. A whole box of beautiful black mission figs, a palette of heirloom cherry tomatoes, and a big box of beets and cauliflower. Our prized creation was a tomato soup made with the heirloom cherry tomatoes, onions, and garlic and slowly cooked. We then pressed it through a strainer. The flavor was wonderful, though the consistency slightly thin. Actually I preferred the pulpy left-overs which had all the flavor and texture times twenty. I then spearheaded the campaign to get that out of the compost and into jars for us to take home.

Cooking with strangers equally excited and caring about the food they eat was moving enough. Then to arrive at a public park, set with a white linen table for 300, and tables of food artfully prepared...well, I think it speaks for itself.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Noodles, do they get any better than this?

Thanks to Auntie Tan Li, I know the answer to the above question; no. These noodles are made by hand upon order by Auntie Tan Li's friend's husband. The restaurant is Mandarin Garden in Concord, California. The noodles are a secret recipe, no one but the husband knows. He wanted to pass the recipe on to his son, who is disinterested, and so the recipe will go with him to his grave. A tragedy for food lovers. These are the noodles I wish I could eat every time I'm sad or upset. With just the right amount of bite, and yards of length one cannot help but feel satisfied. And the sauce is rich, savory, thoroughly satiating, and unique. This sauce is Chinese-Korean fusion thanks to the Korean origins of the noodle-maker's wife, making the Mandarin Garden a truly uniqe experience not to be missed.

The noodles are served separate from the sauce, and the two must be combined at the table, as the pictures show.

For those wishing to partake let me fill you in on some insider information. A lot of Chinese superstition surrounds noodles. Every birthday, noodles are eaten as a symbol of long life. The noodles therefore cannot be cut, it is bad luck. Similarly I made the mistake of standing my chop sticks up in the noodles. This also is a no-no and means bad luck. Noodles must be treated with the uptmost respect according to Chinese tradition. And if you taste these noodles you'll understand why.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Social Justice and...Pie!

Ever since taking Child Development and Public Policy as an undergraduate I've been preoccupied with an idea that I had; a non-profit which combines my love of pastries with my desire for social justice. Mission Pie is just the sort of place I had in mind.

I have been admiring it via internet for months, and made it a priority for my visit to San Francisco. Located in the Mission district of San Francisco, Mission Pie is a clever double entendre, referring both to its location and its intention; working with youth from a local high school to teach them about sustainability, food quality, and business. Mission Pie's web site along with that of its sister organization, Pie Ranch, will better describe what it is they're doing. Needless to say the mission is successful. Each pie I tasted was wonderful, the crusts thick and flaky with a warm buttery note. Just like my aunt's crust that I never seem to get quite right.

Mission Pie, however, gets it right time and time again. The mixed berry was fresh and slightly jammy, sun lingering in the berries. My honey fig gallette was all figs, allowing the world's most perfect fruit to speak for itself. I left the banana cream for last because it is truly transcendental. I'm usually not one for cream pies. But this one--with its creamy pudding layer, whole banana chunks, and vanilla beans--was WONDERFULl. On top was a cloud of simple, perfectly whipped cream. If you're ever in San Francisco, Mission Pie is not to be missed. And if you make it to Mission Pie, the Banana Cream is a must.

And don't forget it's all in support of local students; the sweet just got sweeter.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Dinner with an Old Friend

Friend might be the wrong word for Jessica. After living together three out of four years of college, family might be a better word. I made the trip to San Francisco for three things dear to my heart, Jessica being one of them, Sophia Project (where I served in AmeriCorps) and Slow Food Nation being the other two. In celebration of two of the three (Slow Food and Jessica) I made dinner.

Jessica and I went to a wonderful local foods market in Palo Alto with a list of ingredients for the menu I had planned. The produce was in such abundance that we abandoned the menu and just picked what looked good. The resulting meal was a celebration of the ripest fruits and vegetables and based on a couple very exciting ingredients. First were the fava beans which I lightly steamed then added garlic, olive oil, and salt. The resulting butteriness was satisfying and comforting while light enough for the day's heat. We also bought some golden beats. Golden beets are my favorite thing from my grandpa's garden. This year they were too much for him, so the golden beats were a special treat that we roasted and sliced on a platter with red beets. The color contrast was beautiful.

Rhubarb is the last of our special ingredients. When I was little my dad used to make great rhubarb upside down cake for picnics. It's the only things I remember him making besides rice and peas, and is also something I've been craving since spring time in Italy. This was the first time I've come across it. This time I simply roasted it in the oven with some honey and raw sugar. It was wonderfully sweet and bitter, much like my dad's cake. Except without the cake there was nothing to temper the bitterness and round out the flavor. A butter or shortbread cookie would've done so nicely while adding textural intrigue, unfortunately we didn't have any. Though this morning we added it to our cereal and it was wonderful: a slight rhubarb obsession has begun.

And as for Jessica, she's an oldie, but a goodie.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Doughnut Plant

Ever since I've gotten back from Italy I've wanted a doughnut. Being overly particular about the food I eat, it couldn't be just any doughnut, it had to be the PERFECT doughnut. And luckily for me it only took four weeks to find. The wait was more than worthwhile, I fully appreciated my coconut cream doughnut at The Doughnut Plant in New York's Lower East Side. While selections were varied, and interesting, I played it pretty safe with the coconut. The cream inside was the essence of coconut, I suspect coconut milk thickened with eggs. I will say no more, and allow the picture to speak for itself.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Mincemeat Pies

Every Christmas I remember, as desert emerged my dad would wax poetic about mincemeant pies. In the first years of my parents' marriage mincemeant made an annual appearance on the Christmas table. Slowly over the years both farmer market suppliers went out of business, and by the time I came along mincemeat pies were a dreamy remembracne. Now the "mincemeat" available doesn't even contain meat, and is therefore totally unacceptable by my father's standards. As a child the idea of a sweet meat pie was bizarre and incomprehensible. Chicken pot pie I could undertand, but meat as dessert? Gross.

As an adult mincemeat retains it mystery, though it has gained intrigue. As my interest in food has developed my desire to uncover cultural food traditions has become insatiable, I set out to discover mincemeat.

My research began, as any lazy researcher begins, with Wikipedia. According to Wikipedia mincemeat is what we Americans more commonly call ground meat. This is definitely not the definition I was looking for. My mincemeat is Pennsylvania Dutch in origin. And so I went to the mattresses: Grandma.

Grandma keeps everything in pristine condition. Luckily for me, this includes her cookbooks. She has a treasure trove of old Pennsylvania Dutch cookbooks all of which include recipes. One of my favorites, aptly titled Pennsylvania Dutch Cookbook, calls mincemeat “a Christmas and Thanksgiving necessity.” Maybe my dad wasn’t so far off after all. Having sorted through my grandmother’s various recipes in her —along with my dad’s own recipe—we set out to begin.

We started by boiling a four pound mixture of ground beef, buffalo, pork, and turkey, my former vegetarian self’s stomach turned. All the meat was purchased at a gem of a nearby country store in Lenhartsville, Pennsylvania. The store, Dietrich’s Meats & Country Store, carries only local meat all processed on premises. Products range from the traditional, like head cheese and speck, to the unknown such as smoked pigs head and pickled snouts. The various pickled parts are on display in jars like you might see in a sociopath do with humans in a horror flick. At Dietrich’s it is somehow endearing and genuine; doing it like it used to be done. And recently I found out I’m not the only one who thinks so. Flipping through Cory Kummer’s The Pleasures of Slow Food: Celebrating Authentic Traditions, Flavors, and Recipes, Dietrich’s Meats was given a two page spread as one of eleven featured artisans.

I myself could wax poetic for awhile about Dietrich’s, but I’ll spare you and get back to the task at hand: the mincemeat. When the meat was cooked we drained all but one cup of the liquid, and set that aside. Next the apples needed to be peeled, cored, and chopped. The recipe’s endearing resourcefulness lies in this next step: boiling apple peels and cores in water and simmering for ten minutes, then straining and reserving the liquid. This apple “broth,” if you will, is combined with the meat broth for our four and a half pounds of dried fruit in a large stainless steel stock pot. We picked the dried food that was available and sounded good, ending up with a motley combination of raisins, currants, apricots, dates, cherries, and cranberries.

To the dried fruit and broth mixture we added orange and lemon juice and peal, a little salt, and brown sugar. While the fruit soaked, the meat and suet—here again the former vegetarian’s stomach did flips—were chopped together until well incorporated and added to the dried fruit. Next came a couple pounds chopped apples and spices: mace, pepper, allspice, cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon. The entire mixture brought to a boil and simmered for an hour. When cool ¼ cup Jim Beam was added, and taken down to a cool and dark basement closet. Once a week for six weeks a quarter to half of a cup of bourbon was added along with a good stir. Now that the first six weeks are over the flavors are left to themselves, and by Thanksgiving and Christmas (after three to four months of aging) the mincemeat should be just right.

Now if only it was Christmas...

Friday, August 15, 2008

Sushi Chef In Training

While visiting dear family friends yesterday we made sushi; some for their dinner, and some for me to take for dinner at the airport with another dear friend who turned out to be M.I.A.

In any case, Grace and I had a great time. I julienned carrots, cucumber and avocado and Grace helped me roll. The first time I made sushi it took me several rolls to get them tight enough. Not Grace. (You see her in action in the picture to the left.) Her rolls were perfectly tight, even at those tricky ends, the first time around. A natural born sushi chef. Maybe in another life she was Japanese. As we were rolling we started to talk about what different things we could put in the rolls. Grace had so many great ideas involving all sorts of things. I think my favorite was candy sushi made with fruit roll up, coconut as rice and various candies as fish (Swedish fish perhaps?). Personally I'm still trying to work through ideas for peanut butter and jelly sushi and breakfast sushi using pancake in place of nori. I guess in a way we already have that, and call it pigs in a blanket. What a perfect way to start off a day of sushi we have in the works. That way we can make our different ideas for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

We are accepting suggestions.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Shoo Fly, Don't Bother Me

Studying other peoples' food cultures gave me a renewed appreciation for my own. So today I went to my grandmother's house to learn how to bake Shoofly pie, a traditional Pennsylvania Dutch pie. The pie is mostly sugar (both molasses and cane) along with some flour and butter, all baked in a pie shell. We made a wet-bottom Shoofly, which means there is a bottom layer of thick molasses goo. In terms of shoofly wet bottom is really the only way to go if you ask me or my grandparents who are both 100% Pennsylvania Dutch. None of us are sure why anyone bothers with a dry-bottom.

A Shoofly is made with two separate batters, the crumbs and the syrup. The recipe Grammy uses says to layer half the syrup, half the crumbs, and then repeat. She never does it this way though, she simply put all the liquid topped with all the crumbs. We did an experiment and did one pie according to the recipe and one her way. To the right is a comparison of the two methods. The left is Grammy's method and the right is the layering method. I didn't tell her this, but I think layered method is preferable because the pie rises a little more, is more airy and not quite so dense. Also the slight curve of the layered one is more pleasing visually.

The best part, though was baking with my grandma. She's 80 now, as she reminded me several times, and so she mostly sat and supervised me. Well, actually, she sat, got up to clean, talked about how she needed to sit down, sat down, got up again to do something else, complained about needing to sit down, sat down, and well, you get the picture. One thing she insisted on standing for was the addition of the "slop." This is her word for molasses. Grammy doesn't like baking Shooflies because of the slop, it's the hardest part she says. So difficult she wouldn't let me do it, I could only watch. Actually, she didn't want me to do it because molasses, in all its thick, sticky glory makes a mess, and she hates messes. Now, there's a Pennsylvania Dutch woman for you.

But also thanks to her "Dutchness" she has numerous old cookbooks in immaculate condition, so I'm sure I'll be writing about more recipes soon. In the meantime, here's a picture of Grammy's deliberate "slop" measuring.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Dinner for Dad

It was a busy weekend for cooking at my house because I also made dinner to celebrate my dad's birthday and Father's Day since I missed both. For Dad we had charred corn, summer squash and tomato torte, and French lentil salad which was left from the night before. Dessert was a peach upside down cake. The cake had some corn meal in it which gave it a gritty and dense texture, not too sweet flavor, which worked really well with the peaches. We served it with a fromage blanc sauce mixed with peach schnapps and some sugar, and then cream. The recipes, slightly improvised, were from The Sustainable Kitchen a beautiful cookbook that was, funnily enough, a birthday gift to me a year or two ago.

Remembrance of Things Past...

Yes, I stole Proust's title, but I couldn't think of one more perfect. In homage of a trip to France I invited my mentor and dear friend Sarajane over for dinner. For someone who had given me so much of her wisdom and energy, I wanted to give Sarajane some of the best of my experiences traveling.

The food in Burgundy was classic and beautiful, much like Sarajane. So as an appetizer I made aioli with fresh herbs and served it on a plate with fresh cut vegetables. For dinner I made bread from Peter Reinhart's Whole Grain Breads. It was dense but really very delicious. I also made lentil salad using A.O.C. Puy lentils that I bought while in France, along with salad, a tomato tart, and mustard grilled chicken. The chicken was brined for about four hours before hand and made with dijon mustard, of course. I have to say that I have become completely convinced that brining is the way to go with meat, it makes such a difference in terms of moisture. For dessert I made fromage blanc from raw milk that I bought at the farmer's market. I served it with cream, blackberries and sugar.

I am thankful for such beautiful memories.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Cupcakes for Sara

These cupcakes, are a version of a birthday cake we made for a dear friend while in Italy. I call them lemon risotto cupcakes. I used Acquerello rice because the overly chatty owner gave us three cans for free on our visit. I used it to make a lemon risotto which allowed me to cut down on the amount of flour (also made of rice) used. I think the rice also allows for more moisture while having to use less oil, always a plus. The first time I made them I made a lavender icing. This time I couldn't find lavender buds so I made a kind of glaze with Amarene cherries. They are so overly sweet. I tried to cut the sweetness with lemon juice and a sprinkle of purple basil. It was especially important that these cupcakes were good because I took them to the bakery where I'll be interning. They weren't mind-blowing as I had hoped, though decent enough to still give. The picture doesn't quite do them justice.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

"Peach" Tart

Today I noticed apples on the verge. Having spent the day yesterday dog-earring recipes in Amanda Hesser's Cooking for Mr. Latte, I was looking for excuses to make something. So I decided on her Peach Tart, which she says can be made with any ripe fruit. So with a few minor adjustments I made her recipe vegan and removed the refined sugar. For the crust I used almond milk instead of the regular milk which the recipe calls for. Instead of sugar in the crust I put a teaspoon of cinnamon, a pinch of cardamom, and a pinch of ginger. (I recently read somewhere about cardamom in desserts and was intrigued, thought I'd try it). For the "crumbs" I substituted 1/2 cup honey for 3/4 cups sugar and 2 tablespoons of oil for 2 tablespoons butter. I also added some more cinnamon, mace, and nutmeg. Mine obviously did not have the kind of crumb Husser intended, so i added crunched rice checks and pretzels. Afterwards I thought about adding peanut butter, but it was too late. I think I may try that next time. I baked it as Hesser suggested at 425 degrees. I think this was a little too hot for the honey/pretzel mixture which got a little charred, if not pleasantly so. After about 15 minutes I reduced the oven to 325 to let the apples continue to roast without incinerating the pretzels. Another fun day experimenting.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Raw Food

Two days ago I ate lunch at a raw foods restaurant in Lansdale, Pennsylvania called Arnold's Way. One thing I love about diets of any kind is they can teach you to be more creative with the ingredients you do have. That is why my favorite restaurant in the Bay Area is a raw restaurant, Cafe Gratitude. At Arnold's Way the food was not nearly as captivating. Arnold's heart seems to lye in the medicinal aspects of food and not in its artistry. In fact when I mentioned Cafe Gratitude to Arnold he responded that they are too elaborate with their food; using too many ingredients. Each meal, according to Arnold, should have no more than five ingredients. Each ingredient competes with the others for the body's attention, much like tryng to have a conversation with twenty people at once. Arnold believes five is the limit. He himself eats just fruit and greens. Not even vegetables or nuts. The body, according to Arnold, does not know what to do with protein or grains, they only bog it down and confuse it. Fruits and greens offer the necessary nutrients, but require constant consumption. Arnold eats all day.

As someone who loves food as well as its nutritive properties. I found Arnold fascinating. He touts that in terms of illnesses "you name it and he's dealt with it" meaning you can cure anything with such a diet. But really, is it possible we don't need protein or grains? What about bread as the staff of life?

I'm not convinced, and the mostly unforgettable combinations left nothing to convince me. The Polynesian salad, however was noteworthy; an interesting and pleasing combination of mango, pineapple, coconut, almonds, zucchini, and tomato. This salad can easily be made at home, it was simply all mixed together, chopped I believe with a grater feature on a food processor. The sweet potato pie was pretty good as well. Though it still boggles my mind how the sweet potato is soft without being cooked. One of life's little mysteries I guess.