Monday, December 28, 2009

Red Beans and Rice

It's cold and rainy.  I'm making red beans and rice today.  My brother, who's the king of red beans and rice and a recipe geek in his own right, is here.  He is rather aghast at the Cook's Illustrated recipe that I am using.  He believes the 'no salt while beans are cooking' rule.  I told him that I tried it for my soup and it worked really well. He doesn't believe me but I don't care. He's also on a low sodium diet so he wouldn't be able to eat much of it anyhow.
If you'd like the actual recipe, let me know or sign up for a free trial subscription and watch the video.  They're mostly Boston-based at Cook's Illustrated, and they made a lot of variations to get the authentic taste without hard-to-find ingredients.  Some of these variations may make real Louisiana cooks upset.  My brother seemed to think it was a very weird recipe.  Nonetheless, I got my first introduction to red beans and rice when I lived in Boston, and they do have quite a fondness for beans there.  So anyway, the beans get brined.  I cheated and did the quick brining. Chopped bacon is cooked until the fat is mostly rendered, and chopped celery, bell pepper, and onion are cooked until soft.  A mixture of paprika, garlic, thyme, bay leaves, and cayenne pepper is then added, followed by the beans, broth, and water.  The mix is then simmered for 45-60 minutes.  As it simmered, it smelled pretty authentic, or at least it smelled like it did when I had it in Boston.
After 45 minutes, I dumped in the andouille sausage and a little bit of vinegar.  At this point I started the rice.  The mix was then simmered for another 30 minutes. When it was done, it tasted pretty authentic, although it was on the soupy side. I used short-grain rice since that's what I had; it did a pretty good job of soaking up the juice.   My parents and brother helped me eat it.  My brother, the pro, said there are two schools of thought on this - soupy vs non-soupy.  I'm used to it being less soupy, so next time I'll add less water.  Nonetheless, it was very tasty and easy to make. 
My brother didn't grumble about the beans, other than to discuss the soupy vs non-soupy debate. They weren't too salty, since I didn't add any additional salt other than that in the sausage and what was in the brine. He went back for more later in the evening, so I knew that  they had come out pretty well.

Friday, December 25, 2009


My maternal grandparents were from Germany, so stollen is traditional for my family at Christmastime.  My mom and I used to make it on Christmas Eve after opening up presents. We used a recipe, sort of, but usually changed it so much that it's barely recognizable.  It was then topped with a highly non-traditional powdered sugar icing.  Despite all of our efforts to mess with tradition, my mom still speaks fondly of more traditional stollens she's had, the most memorable being from a friend's mother, who was a German lady who worked as a cook at a sorority at the University of Michigan.  Her stollen was so rich and tasty that it melted in your mouth and tasted just as good months later.
For the last few years, I've used the following recipe that I got online. It's pretty good, but it's a lot of work.  My mom says it's almost as good as the legendary stollen, but not quite.  It does keep well in the freezer. This year, Relish magazine, which is this little recipe/food magazine that is included in the Sunday newspaper once a month or so, published a stollen recipe.  My mom honed in on it immediately and told me about it. It looked like a lot less work, since it's basically a variation of the no-knead bread that I make. 
I made a double batch, with the following variations.  I didn't have cardamon pods, so I just used 1 tsp ground cardamon. Likewise, I used the stand mixer instead of the food processor, and just cut/crumbled the flour and butter together prior to adding it to the sponge.  Once the sponge and flour mix were blended, I added the fruit and nuts.  I then let the mix rise at room temperature for about an hour before putting it in the fridge overnight.
The next day, I pulled it out of the oven, punched it down, and divided it into thirds.  The dough was very soft and sticky.  I pressed each portion into a flat disk and then spread the almond past mix over half the disk, and folded it over into the classic stollen shape.  I then let the dough rise for about two hours and baked it.  It smelled really good.  The loaves are a lot softer than my usual recipe.  After they cooled for a while I coated them with melted butter and then rolled them in powdered sugar.
My brother is visiting.  He didn't want to wait, so we tested it while it was still warm.  It was a lot softer and had a coarser crumb than the usual recipe.  The flavor was pretty good.  After a day, the flavor had mellowed somewhat.  I still like the texture of the traditional recipe better, but this was very nice - good flavor, and rich but not too rich.  It is definitely worth it not to have to knead the dough multiple times.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Almond Shortbread

I make stollen every year at Christmas.  I'll blog about it in a few days.  This year I decided to order my almond paste online since it was cheaper that way, although it meant I had to get 4 cans.  I love almond paste so this is not a problem.
Tonight I'm making almond paste shortbread.  I had never seen any recipes so I invented one in my head, then decided to check the internet to see if there was anything similar out here.  Sure enough, one of the almond paste companies had a recipe that was virtually identical to the one I created in my head.  When that happens, it makes me happy since it means I know my stuff as a baker and a recipe geek.  It's the same when I decide to do a synthesis in lab and it works way better than the literature procedures  (As a baker, it's ok to make stuff up, but as a chemist it does help to see what other people have done, even if I opt not to follow it). Anyway, in my own recipe I would've added two whole eggs instead of just the yolks, and 3 cups of flour instead of 2 1/2, but it's close enough.
So anyway, it's pretty easy.  The sugar, butter, and almond paste are whipped together until fluffy, and then two egg yolks are added.  After a few minutes of mixing, the flour + baking powder are added and then the dough is pressed into a greased pyrex pan.  I added a bit of almond extract and vanilla to the butter/sugar mix, but other than that I followed the recipe.   The dough was very tasty.
I baked them for about a half hour.  The house smelled amazing.  Once they had cooled completely, I cut them and sampled.  MMMMM. Buttery almondy goodness.  This recipe is a keeper.  Most of them are going out with the cookie packages tomorrow, but I may make more since this is both tasty and easy.  They would be even better dipped in chocolate, but that's not going to happen for this batch.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Not my cat, but this does happen here

Gingerbread cookies

When I was a kid, my mom and I would bake Christmas cookies.  She had a manila folder full of recipes she'd clipped out of magazines and newspapers.  She probably still has it somewhere.  Someday I'm going to ask her to track it down and let me make copies, although the recipes in The Joy of Cooking are very similar.
Anyway, we'd usually make Mexican Wedding Cakes (little butter walnut cookies), spritz cookies, and gingerbread cookies.  I always liked the Mexican Wedding Cakes the best.  The spritz cookies were not so tasty but were fun since we used a cookie press.  If you haven't used a cookie press, it's like a caulk gun but with different shaped tips to get different cookie shapes.  The spritz cookies were kind of bland. I'm sure they'd be better with real butter instead of the cheapest margarine available.  The gingerbread was my mom's favorite.  We used a recipe for a gingerbread house, but just made cookies from it and then decorated them with a lot of frosting. The cookies were sort of chewy and not too sweet, although the frosting made up for it.
After a few years of giving out Christmas cookies, I've learned that there are always a few people who like the gingerbread-type cookies the best.
By request, here's a recipe that is pretty similar from The Joy of Cooking. I modified it slightly to try to make it more like what I remember. The texture and flavor comes out pretty similar to what I remember.  Contrary to my usual recipe geek format, I've simplified the recipe somewhat to more accurately reflect how we used to make it

Gingerbread Cookies a la mom
Mix together
6 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
4 tsp ground ginger
4 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg or allspice
1/2 tsp cloves, if desired
1 tsp salt

Cream together
1 1/2 sticks butter or margarine
1 1/2 cups brown sugar

Add to butter/sugar mix
2 eggs
1 cup molasses
1 tablespoon water

Add flour mix to the wet mix in several portions, and mix well.  Let the dough sit in the fridge for an hour or two to firm up, then roll out to 1/4" thick and cut out cookies with cookie cutters. Bake at 350F until done.  Let cookies cool, then frost with powdered sugar icing and decorate with colored sugar or other decorations

powdered sugar icing
1 tbsp butter
juice of 1 lemon
enough powdered sugar to make a slightly runny icing

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

KGO Cookie Contest: Lemon Walnut Anise Biscotti

My biscotti did not get selected for the finals of the KGO cookie contest, unfortunately. I listened to part of the broadcast on Saturday and it seemed like a lot of the recipes were pretty unusual, so I felt better about not being selected. Here's the link to all the recipes that made it to the finals. If you make any of them I expect a full report! When I looked at the recipes I realized that the second recipe from the top is pretty much the same as my biscotti recipe, except it contains lemon rind/juice and walnuts instead of almonds. Everything else is pretty similar. However I am not a cute little 90 year old Swiss grandma who made these for the workers at a winery, I'm just a boring chemist who has a food blog.
Anyway, since I usually have to make multiple batches of biscotti this time of year, I decided to try the lemon anise walnut variation. Since the recipe is virtually the same, there's not much to report about the prep. I tweaked the recipe every so slightly by adding some vodka along with the lemon juice to get the right dough consistency. The dough didn't taste as good as my usual recipe - the almond extract/anise extract/brandy in mine do make for a very tasty dough, although the flavors get muted somewhat after baking.
The biscotti smelled nice and lemony as they baked. I took the logs out of the oven and let them cool, then sliced them and did the second baking. Since walnuts are softer than almonds, they were easier to slice cleanly. The once-baked cookies were very tasty, with a delicate lemon/butter/walnut flavor. I couldn't really taste the anise. After the second baking, the biscotti were darker than my usual ones, either from the lemon zest of the walnuts, or both.
I'm totally biased, but the biscotti were not as good as the almond-anise ones.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

17 bean soup

I love the recipe geeks at Cook's Illustrated!  This month they published a recipe for red bean and rice, which I will make very soon because it reminds me of one of my favorite grad school meals.  In the recipe, they mentionned that dried beans soften up a lot better if you soak them in salted water. 
There's a lot of lore to cooking beans.  They can explode and turn the soup to mush, or stay hard and chewy, or be just right.  If I remember correctly, you're not supposed to add salt or acidic ingredients such as tomatoes until the very end, or the beans stay hard.  I haven't had huge bean disasters when I've cooked stuff on the stove and followed the above rules, but they did stay hard when I cooked them in the crock pot.  I want certain things to stay hard, but beans are not one of them. 
Today it was a cold and rainy Sunday.  I wanted soup but didn't want to babysit it. I decided to cook some soup in the cockpot while I was of at work/the gym, and see if the bean brining technique worked as advertised.
Anyway, I had bought a 1 lb bag of '17 beans and barley mix' at Trader Joe's. I more or less followed the recipe on the bag.  I gave them a quick softening treatment by combining them with 2 quarts water and 1 1/2 tablespoons salt, bringing it to a boil, and then turning off the heat and letting it sit for an hour.  You could also just soak them overnight without heating them. I then sauteed 1 cup chopped onion until it was browned, and then added some chopped carrot and celery (maybe 1 cup each)  I drained and rinsed the beans, and then dumped them, the sauteed veggies, some garlic, about a quart of turkey broth (from Thanksgiving), a can of diced tomatoes, and some italian seasoning into the crock pot.  I went to work for a few hours and then went to the gym.
When I came home the soup was done. The beans were nice and soft, with a creamy interior but hadn't exploded and turned the soup to mush.  Yay!  The soup had a nice clean taste, too, much better than how it tasted when I made it using the flavoring packet that is sometimes included with the beans. I am really looking forward to having soup leftovers.
Stay tuned for the red beans and rice story and the Christmas cookie baking blogs.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Update: Holiday Cookie Contest

I did not make the finals of the holiday cookie contest.  Wah!  They obviously do not know what they are missing.  However, since my time/motivation to bake is a finite thing, that means I will not be sick of baking by the time my real holiday cookie baking fest begins.  And that's a good thing for all of you.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Sweet potato rolls

I made sweet potato rolls tonight.  There was a recipe in the newspaper last week.  Yes, I know Thanksgiving is over, but I still have leftovers and need something to go with them.  I also needed a way to get rid of the nasty sweet potatoes that my mom brought.
Don't get me wrong - my mom loves sweet potatoes and eats them several times a week during the fall and winter months.  Normally they're quite tasty.  But she tried to get fancy for Thanksgiving and added a LOT of pineapple in addition to the usual brown sugar, and it was too sweet.  I don't think I've ever complained that something was too sweet, but this was.  So I picked out the potatoes and made rolls.
I mixed them up in the stand mixer and then kneaded them briefly.  The dough was a nice light orange color and was tasty.  Yes, I know I'm not supposed to eat raw yeast dough but it hasn't killed me yet. After the dough doubled in size, I shaped them into rolls and placed them into a greased pyrex dish.  The dish wasn't big enough for all of the dough, so I froze about a third of the dough.  I let the rolls rise for about 45 minues and then brushed them with an egg wash and baked them.
After about twenty minutes, the rolls were golden and smelled really delicious.  I pulled them out and ate one immediately.  It was very light and was rich and buttery, with a delicate texture.  I couldn't really taste the sweet potato but it did give the rolls a nice golden color and probably changed the texture. They would be good at a big dinner such as Thanksgiving or Christmas, but are probably even more enjoyable in a simple meal when there isn't a whole ton of other starchy food available.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving report

Thanksgiving dinner went off without a hitch.  The turkey cooked very fast - less than three hours for a 21 pounder, and it was a bit overcooked, although not dry.  Everything else was tasty and I had a nice time with my parents.
When I went to pull off the meat from the turkey, I realized why it cooked so fast, and why there wasn't really that much breast meat considering the size.  The back of the turkey was just completely fat.  I've never encountered so much fat on a turkey before. There was at least two or three pounds of it.  I'm pretty sure it was a turkey, but it had as much fat as a goose.  I picked off as much meat as I could but it was sort of a lost cause on the back. I think I had more leftovers last year with my 12 pound turkey.
I had thought I was living it up, buying the second cheapest brand of turkey. Wrong.  Nest year I'll go back to the store brand ones, or upgrade to a fancy one.
Anyway, don't get me wrong, it was tasty and I still have plenty of leftovers.  The dark meat was a bit of a gut bomb, though. My parents couldn't figure out why they were so full for so long.  Now they know!

Thanksgiving pregame report

I've got an hour to go before my parents get here for Thanksgiving dinner.  So far, so good, with only one minor mishap.
I made pumpkin 'pie' last night.  There is no crust.  I hate making crust, and in pumpkin pie it really doesn't add anything to the overall experience.  I made the pie filling and baked it in a pyrex dish.
This morning, I slept in, and then got up and read the newspaper.  Eventually I got motivated and made the mashed potatoes.  This was the first time I've used the stand mixer to mash them up.  Easiest mashed potatoes ever- much faster than using the ricer.  Then I prepped the cauliflower and got the turkey ready.  It went into the oven around noon. It's on track to be done sometime around 3:30.  I'm going to have to roast the cauliflower once the turkey is out of the oven. There's not enough room in there.
I made stuffing.  Since there was no room in the oven, I'm cooking it in the electric skillet.  There was a bit too much.  I put some in the dutch oven, but it got completely burned on the stove and I had to trash it.  Now my house smells like burnt bread.  Anyway, there's still plenty of stuffing.  I used sourdough bread and put bacon, apples, celery, onions, and yellow raisins in it.
My mom is bringing sweet potatoes, apple pie, and cranberry sauce.  We're going to have a ton of food.
The house smelled totally good before the stuffing incident.  It smelled like bacon and turkey.  Mmmm.  My neighbors' cat, Max, has been hanging around all afternoon, probably due to the aromas. 
Anyway, that's the pregame report.  I'll post more after the meal.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Thanksgiving countdown, 3 days

I don't really have a set menu for Thanksgiving yet, but it will probably be pretty traditional.  There's the turkey, of course, stuffing (made with sourdough bread and whatever else I decide to add), mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce.  I'll make some sort of green vegetable, and my mom will bring the sweet potatoes.  I should make pumpkin pie but may ask my mom to do it.  Regular Recipe Geek readers know how I feel about making pie!
In the meantime, I've been checking out the following list of Thanksgiving side dishes and trying to decide which ones to try. I may not try them for Thanksgiving itself, but they might make good subjects for a future Recipe Geek post or two.  If you have a favorite, feel free to vote!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Thanksgiving Turkey Blog, Prequel

I'm doing Thanksgiving at my house this year. My motives are not entirely altruistic. I want lots of turkey leftovers. I bought a 21 lb turkey. That ought to supply adequate leftovers for me and also my leftover loving parents and 5 turkey-loving cats.
It's supposed to take 1 day to thaw for every 4 lbs of turkey weight. My fridge is cold, and the surface area/weight ratio for a big turkey is lower than that of a small one, so I'm guessing 6 days is more realistic. Thanksgiving is one week away. That turkey is going into the fridge tonight.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

KGO Cookie Contest/Almond Anise Biscotti

Every year, one of the local radio personalities, Gene Burns of KGO hosts a holiday cookie contest.  People send in their recipes, along the story behind the recipes (if there is one).  Finalists are chosen.  They bring a big batch of their cookies to the competition, which is broadcast live.  There are a lot of good prizes, including meals at fancy restaurants or stays at nice hotels.  My mom, who LOVES KGO,  told me about it every year, but she always did so after the fact.  This year I told her to remind me as soon as they started publicizing it. 
Today she emailed me to remind me that they were accepting recipes.  Fortunately, it was all online so I was able to submit my application quickly.  It cheered me up from the depressing layoff meeting we had with HR this morning.  They will pick 25 finalists.  Each finalist has to bring 100 cookies and can bring one guest.  From the number of cookies, it sounds like the finalists and guest may get to sample their competitors' cookies. That alone is a prize in itself.
There was no question which recipe to submit.  I had to send in THE biscotti recipe. Yep, the almond anise biscotti dipped in chocolate. I've been making biscotti for almost 10 years.  The parent recipe came from the internet, but over the years I've modified it a lot.  I'm not publishing it here just yet, but I will if I win. In the meantime, if you'd like a copy, email me and I'll send it to you.
I also included the story of the biscotti.   It's not grandma's top secret recipe that she carried with her on the boat from France*.  It's pragmatic rather than prosaic.  I wrote that I'm a chemist by day and a baker/food blogger in my abundant spare time, and that I've experimented with this recipe over the years.  I wrote that I always make several batches to give out at Christmas, as well as throughout the year, that people love them, and that they keep well for several weeks if stored in an airtight container.  Not that they usually last that long.  Oh yeah, and that they even better when dipped in chocolate.
I also posted a link to this blog, so if any of the judges are reading this, please please please pick me!!  I'm about to be laid off and need to come help you sample all those cookies at the final!

*There is a French grandma in this story, but it's not my own grandma.  One of my coworkers, who is French, said his grandmother used to make biscotti that tasted a lot like mine.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Dining for Women/New York Style Cheesecake

Part 1: Tomorrow evening I'm going to a "Dining for Women" potluck.  "Dining for Women" is an organization that raises money for women's causes throughout the world. The premise is pretty simple.  The hostess volunteers her house.  The guests bring potluck dishes, learn about the charity, and donate what they would've spent on a dinner out, or whatever they can afford or feel like donating, to the charity. I'll blog more about it once I've actually attended.
Anyway, it was a kind of funny coincidence.  Judy heard about it and was interested in trying to start a group.  A few weeks later, Kathy mentioned that she'd been attending some dinners and asked if I was interested.  I said that I was and that Judy was interested as well.  So we will be going to our first dinner tomorrow.
This group is apparently mellow about what people bring, so people bring what they want without worrying about overlap.  Kathy said it always seems to work out food-wise.  Which makes sense - I have no objection to meals withover representation in certain types of foods, particularly dessert. 
I'm bringing a New York style cheesecake.  I almost made a chocolate terrine, but a few too many red flags went up with the recipe so I didn't want to risk it for the potluck.  Yes, I have learned a few things from my recipe geek experiences, and  I couldtotally see it being softer than planned and looking like literally like shit.  I decided to follow my mom's example and bring a cheesecake. That was her standard dish for potlucks when I was a kid.  It was always well received, since there was usually an overabundance of casseroles.
I'm using the recipe from the Cook's Illustrated book. If you'd like a copy, email me and I'll send it to you.  Basically, you make a graham cracker crust and bake it for about 15 minutes.  To make the filling, you beat 2 1/2 lbs of cream cheese (yep, you read that right) until it's smooth and creamy, add 1 1/2 cups sugar, 1/3 cup sour cream, and 2 tsp each vanilla and lemon juice and blend well,  You then beat in 2 egg yolks and 6 eggs, a few at a time.  I was really glad I have a big stand mixer.
The filling is then poured into the springform pan containing the crust and placed in a 500F oven.  After ten minutes, the temperature is lowered to 200F and baked for another hour and a half or so.  The high heat is necessary to form the dark top crust, which isapparently traditional.  After about 45 minutes, it had risen a bit and got a nice brown top crust.  After an hour and a half, it looked pretty much the same but wasn't as jiggly. I pulled it out of the oven and let it cool.
While all the preparations were going on, the Recipe Geek taster cat was nowhere to be found, despite the presence of all that butterfat in the kitchen.  She was sleeping in the living room, completely oblivious.  After I poured the filling, i put a few spoonfuls into a bowl for her and called her. She ate it all and then promptly went back to sleep.
Part 2: Potluck report
The potluck was fun.  I walked in, not knowing anyone, and they offered me my choice of wine, whiskey, or Tuaca with cider. That was a very good sign.  Naturally, I chose the Tuaca.  Kathy and Judy showed up later.  It was a really nice group of people.  Afterwards, Kathy, Judy and I went out for more drinks.
The cheesecake was a tiny bit overdone but good.  It definitely had the taste and texture of a real cheesecake, with a different texture on the outside vs the inside, and took me back to the cheesecakes of my childhood, although those consisted mainly of cottage cheese.  I can't say it tasted that much better than the lighter cheesecakes, so 100% cream cheese isn't necessary.  I have a lot left over, so it's good that I liked it!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

No knead whole wheat bread

The authors of "Artisan Bead in 5 Minutes a Day" have a new book out now.   "Healthy Bread in 5 Minutes a Day" is very similar, with more of an emphasis on healthy ingredients.  I really really like white bread but bought the new book anyway.  The master recipe for whole wheat bread is posted on their blog now.
A few months ago I bought a book by some different authors for another variation on no-knead bread.  It just did not do it for me, so I won't post a link or name names.  Everything seemed more fussy and inconvenient.  However, they did rely heavily on wheat gluten, so bought some before I lost interest.  So when I got my new book and saw that they used wheat gluten, I didn't even need to go to the store.
I haven't had a chance to read the whole book yet, but I made the master recipe tonight.  It's about 2/3 whole wheat and 1/3 white flour, with a bit of gluten added for extra rise. The remaining ingredients are salt, yeast, and water. Like the recipes from the old book, it's pretty easy.  Combine the dry ingredients, add water and mix until blended.  You then let it sit at room temperature for three hours, and put it in the fridge until you are ready to use it.  The master recipe makes 4 1 lb loaves, although I end to make them a bit bigger andusually get three out of each batch.
The dough grew a lot faster than expected.  The authors said it grows more slowly than the white bread recipe, but that was not my experience.  (Or maybe my house is a lot warmer and less drafty now that I have new windows!)  After an hour it had gotten pretty big and was threatening to overflow the bowl. I hadn't originally planned to bake it tonight, but changed my plans rather than risk a mess in my fridge.  I pulled off about a pound of it, tried to shape it, and let it rise.  It was a lot stickier than expected so my shaping efforts were not all that skillful.  Chilling it in the fridge helps make it less sticky and the dough develops more of a sourdough flavor over time.
The dough ball grew quickly.  It was quite puffy after 20 minutes.  Again, that was a lot quicker than I ever observed for the white bread.  I am definitely going to have to start adding gluten to that recipe too!  After 45 minutes, I made three slashes in the top of the loaf, brushed it with water and sprinkled it with a mix of poppy seeds, sesame seeds, and anise, and put the loaf in the oven.
The bread expanded sideways as it baked.  It was moderately dense, moist, tasty but a bit bland.  It was not too sweet, so that is good.  A few days fermenting in the fridge will hopefully improve the flavor for the next loaf I bake.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Coconut Pecan Chocolate Chip Cookies

OK, so I don't really need to blog about chocolate chip cookies. I've made them a million times, and you probably have too.  However, I had a threefold motivation to bake something completely easy and decadent tonight.  First, my dad has been helping me a lot with the painting, and I wanted to reward him/bribe him.  Cookies are a good bribe.  Second, it's been exactly two months since T broke up with me. I'm doing pretty well now but I'm not above using it as an excuse to make cookies.  Lastly, they announced layoffs at work today.  I'm still not sure if I'm affected - some things are still up in the air.  But a lot of my coworkers got notice.
So if there ever was a night skip going to the gym and make cookies instead, it's tonight. I whipped up a batch of the standard issue Toll House recipe, but added about a cup of chopped up pecans with a coconut-toffee coating.  They came out exactly as you might expect - very decadent.
Now it's time to start drinking....

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Anise Orange Bread

I haven't made bread in a while.  It was hot, and I was preoccupied with other things and wasn't very hungry.  Now, however, fall is here and my appetite has returned.  On the 'Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day" blog, they posted a recipe for Sweet Provencal Flatbread with Anise Seeds.  That got my attention.  I love anise and always have anise seeds on hand.  I also like combinations of sweet and savory flavors, and thought this would be good in sandwiches as well as for breakfast.
I've blogged about this method of making bread before.  You make a big batch of wet dough, let it rise for a few hours, and then store it in the fridge until you're ready to use it.  At that point, pull out as much dough as you need, shape it, let it rise, and bake it.  The anise orange bread recipe was pretty typical.  I mixed up a batch and let it rise at room temperature. I forgot to add the olive oil, since I'm so used to making oil-free breads so it completely slipped my mind.  The end result will be chewier and crustier, which is fine with me.  After two hours, the dough was threatening to overflow the bowl if it continued to rise, so I put it in the fridge.
This morning, I took the dough out of the fridge and pulled out about 1/3 of it.  I dusted it with flour and rolled it out like a thick pizza.  I then cut it into eight wedges, brushed each wedge with water, and sprinkled anise seeds on top.  I wasn't in a hurry, so I let them rise for an hour or so rather than bake them immediately, like they did in the blog.  The wedges puffed up somewhat.  I'd set the wedges on a silicone baking mat, so I just put this directly in the oven on top of the pizza stone.  After they'd been in the oven for a few minutes, they had risen to about twice their initial thickness.  I baked them were for 20 minutes. 
I ate one for lunch. It was quite tasty.  It had a nice aromatic favor from the anise and orange, but wasn't sweet.  I just ate it with butter, but it would taste good with either jam or with meat or cheese.  I still have a lot of the dough in the fridge, and when i bake the rest I may just bake it as a boule, or even use it as pizza dough for a pizza without tomato sauce.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Butternut Squash Chipotle Bisque

I love butternut squash, which is why I have two of them sitting on the counter.  In today's newspaper, there was a recipe for a chipotle-flavored butternut squash bisque.  Since I had all the ingredients on hand except the chipotle peppers, I decided to try it, and it gets the honor of being the first post now that Recipe Geek is a stand alone blog and no longer part of my other blog.  It also sounded healthy and tasty, since it's just veggies and broth.  Oh yeah, and sour creme on top, except that I forgot to buy some.
I have never made butternut squash soup before, mainly because I like the squash so much I usually just eat it plain.
The squash was roasted for about 40 minutes.  While it was roasting, I diced some carrots, celery, and onion, and sauteed for about ten minutes, and then added some minced garlic and sauteed for another minute or so before quenching it with some chicken broth.  I then pulled the squash out of the oven and attempted to scrape the flesh away from the skin.  This was a pain in the ass; next time I will let it cool longer. After I had transferred the bulk of the squash to the soup pot, I was left with a pan full of shreds of skin with bits of squash attached. (I ate them and they were mighty tasty, so it wasn't a complete loss.)  The soup was then simmered for half an hour, and then I added a bit of minced chipotle chile and pureed the soup in the blender.
I skipped the roasted squash seeds since that was too much work.  Likewise, I forgot to buy sour cream so I used yogurt instead.  This was mixed with a little bit of chipotle chile and a dollop of it was served on top of the soup.
The soup was tasty and the chipotle flavors mingled well with the squash. However, if I make it again I'll leave out the carrot and celery, since those flavors clashed with the overall taste of the soup.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Recipe Geek: Key Lime Pie

Even though my recipe geek record is pretty dismal when it comes to pies, I was not to be deterred. In honor of the fact that I'm going to Sacramento tomorrow, I made a key lime pie to bring with me.
Key lime pie is pretty simple. You beat some egg yolks, add a can of condensed milk and some lime juice and mix. The acid from the limes causes the milk proteins to crosslink and the filling gels. You then put it in the a prebaked graham cracker crust and chill it, then top with whipped cream. Although I've made key lime cheesecake, and key lime bars, I've never made the pie.
I used a recipe from "Cook's Illustrated." They're pretty obsessive, which is fine with me since pies are not my strongest point They messed around with the recipe a bit and made some changes. First, they add lime zest to the filling, and once the filling has been put into the crust, they bake the pie for 15 minutes. Supposedly it was too gloppy when it wasn't baked. I prepared the graham cracker crust and baked it for about 15 minutes, then let it cool while I made the filling. Once all the ingredients are mixed, you're supposed to let it set for half an hour. I distracted myself with an episode of "The Tudors" so that I wouldn't be tempted to play with it or sample it. It worked pretty much as described. I filled the crust and baked it, and now it's in the fridge. I'll pack it in a cooler for the drive and top it with whipped cream once we're ready to eat it. I'll put the taste test results in the comments section once we've tasted it.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Goodbye Tomatoes, Hello Fall

I pulled out half of my tomato plants today. The other plants are still producing so I left them for now.
Luna immediately took advantage of the situation by sleeping in the soft dirt where the tomatoes had been.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Recipe Geek: Glazed Butternut Squash

I'm getting my cooking mojo back slowly. It helps that I am not longer doing large chemical syntheses in lab. Anyway, I got a trial copy of "Cook's Country" magazine in the mail today. This is the sister publication to "Cook's Illustrated". In the past, the recipes tended to be very retro, down-home style stuff, but now it seems like it's more diverse, with a greater emphasis on easy recipes. (Nonetheless, there are still a lot of pork and meatloaf recipes)
After my last few Recipe Geek disasters (including a few that went un-blogged), I wanted something that would actually work as described. I've made the mistake of not trusting my instincts and then regretting it. Every recipe from the America's Test Kitchen folks gets tested and optimized multiple times, so you don't have to worry about using the wrong oven temperature, improper procedures, etc.
There was a recipe for Glazed Butternut Squash which caught my eye, since I had three butternut squash on the counter. (What can I say, I got a good deal at the farmer's market!)
Here it is, since I can't include a link

Glazed Butternut Squash
1 butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1 inch cubes
3 tablespoons butter, melted
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1 tsp apple cider vinegar
Adjust the oven rack to the middle level in the oven. Heat oven to 425F. Line a cookie sheet with foil. Toss squash cubes with butter/sugar/salt/pepper until mixed thoroughly. Place on cookie sheet and bake for 45 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes. Remove squash from oven and sprinkle with vinegar.

This recipe works exactly as described. I'd expect nothing less from the recipe geeks at America's Test Kitchen. The squash was tasty, tender, and not dried out, and it looked very pretty. It was a bit too sweet, so if I made it again I'd use a bit less butter and sugar. The vinegar sounds like a weird thing to add, but it did give it a nice zing and balanced the sweetness. I might try lemon juice next time - it would do the same thing but give a touch of lemon flavor.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Recipe Geek: Impossible Coconut Pie

I'm a sucker for really weird recipes. I'm also a sucker for coconut. This week, my local newspaper had an article about "pies" with self-preparing crusts. I hate making pie crust, so this was right up my alley. Basically, you make a thin batter and then the flour sinks to the bottom and forms a crust as the pie is baking. This sort of recipe was popular in the 50's and 60's, I think. I vaguely remember it as being sort of retro when I was a kid. I decided to make the coconut pie. I mixed all the ingredients in my stand mixer and poured it into a glass pie pan. You could also mix it in a blender. Then I popped it into the oven.
As it baked, it puffed up a lot and turned toasty golden brown. It smelled pretty good. It was still jiggly when I took it out of the oven. I let it cool or a while and tasted it. Bleah! It was too greasy and kind of eggy. I should've trusted my instincts and used less butter. I gave the rest of my portion to Recipe Geek Taster Cat. She liked it better than I did. I put in the fridge to chill overnight. Being cold did not improve it. I dumped it in the trash, which I NEVER do. For the next few editions of recipe geek, I'll be sure to avoid recipes in which the proportions seem off or the synthesis is unusual. Or I'll just avoid pies.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Recipe Geek: Enjococado Sauce (First Attempt)

As I mentioned in a recent post, Fiesta del Mar and their sister restaurants all serve various chicken dishes with enjococado sauce. It's a delicious creamy, mildly spicy orange sauce and they fiercely guard the recipe. Maybe my palate is not very sensitive, but I could not guess the mystery ingredient(s) other than to hazard a guess that there were ground pumpkin seeds in it.
A quick Google search turned up two kinds of recipes. Yogurt/sour creme is common to both types of recipe, since there is a type of Mexican yogurt called jocoque. One type is mainly pepper based, and the other one contains oranges and almonds. The latter recipe sounded more like what is served at the restaurant, although not exactly. Here's the recipe, and the story behind it can be found here.
Pollo en Jocoque (Chicken in Yogurt)
4 to 6 persons
1 mandarin (a mandarin is somewhere between
an orange and tangerine and more sour)
1 orange (large)
3 large garlic cloves
3 green onions
2 -3 red poblano chiles
3 tbl olive oil
1 cup cooking oil
2 cups jocoque (jocoque is a type of yogurt
that is close to "creme fraiche")
2 lb chicken pieces
1 cup sliced almonds (soak in hot water and
remove skins)
1) Wash chicken and dry well
2) Char chiles over open flame or in frying
pan and place in plastic bag for 5 minutes
to sweat.
3) Remove from bag and remove charred skin,
inside veins and seeds.
4) Heat cup of oil until very hot and fry
chicken until done and remove from pan..
5) Remove remaining oil from pan, leaving
chicken residue and add olive oil to same
6) Chop garlic. onion, almonds and chiles
and saute in olive oil until done.
7) Add chicken, orange and mandarina juice
and cook for 10 minutes, stirring gently so
as not to break up chicken.
8) Add jocoque and salt to taste (do not
add pepper)
** you can add more juice or jocoque to
taste as you play with the recipe
This afternoon I headed off to the Mexican market in search of ingredients. I shouldn't have bothered, since my local supermarket actually has a bigger selection of peppers and Mexican dairy products. I bought a couple of mandarins, two green pasillo peppers (I couldn't find red poblanos, but the green poblanos are also called pasillos), some green onions, and some yogurt and Mexican sour creme.
I followed the recipe fairly closely, but used twice as many green onions since I know that Mexican green onions are picked later so they're bigger than the ones I bought. I added some orange zest and coarsely ground up the almonds. I used mostly yogurt with a blob of sour creme. Lastly, when I fried the chicken, I used about half the oil that was called for, and put the cooked chicken on papers towels to sop up the oil.
Given my recent recipe geek experiences, I was expecting a nasty color and texture. Ground almonds + green peppers + yogurt and orange juice just did not sound promising. Much to my surprise, the sauce looked OK - pale yellow orange with green pieces of peppers. I served myself a bowl and ate it with a corn tortilla.
Results: It was very tasty. I wanted to lick out the bowl, but Recipe Geek Taster Cat (aka Rugrat) was intent on doing the same thing, so I let her. She liked it, even though there was no chicken left in it. It did have that certain je ne sais quoi of the restaurant dish, although it was not identical. The combination of oranges, garlic, almonds and yogurt is right. I think the restaurant uses more peppers, and red rather than green ones. They puree the sauce, too. They may add a bit of chicken broth too.
As a stand alone recipe, I will make it again, although I will lighten it a lot and just saute the chicken instead of using so much oil. I will probably add more peppers. The yogurt really toned them down. The almonds were tasty and I'll add them if I have them, but I think it would be tasty even without them, or with less of them. Likewise, the sour creme wasn't necessary.
I'm going to try one of the pepper based sauces to see how it compares to the restaurant version, and may try to come up with my own version based on what I learn. Nonetheless, this recipe is a good start.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Recipe Geek Extreme Edition: Chocolate Almond Pie, aka Vomit Pie

Sometimes I go overboard when I try new recipes, and make stuff that just doesn't work out. Usually this happens when I am trying to cook something extra nice for a special occasion, like the Valentine's Day Steak Disaster. Last weekend I made chocolate-almond pie in honor of my mom's birthday. It sounded so good - the filling was supposed to taste like cannolli filling, and contained ground almonds, ground chocolate, mascarpone and ricotta cheese, and whipping cream. The filling was put inside a cookie crumb crust and chilled. I improvised and made a crust out of some leftover biscotti. That part worked well, at least.
The proportions and order of addition for the filling seemed a bit off, but since i don't make a lot of pie fillings I ignored my instincts. Making matters worse, I messed around with the recipe and scaled it up slightly non-proportionately. It tasted great, but had the color and texture of vomit. It was kind of curdled, rather than smooth and creamy I filled the pie crust and chilled it. It firmed up but still looked nasty.

I covered it with grated chocolate. It looked slightly better but was still disappointing.

It tasted ok, but even the combination of cannolli-filling and biscotti flavors couldn't offset the weird texture.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Recipe Geek: Noodles with Red Curry Almond Sauce

It should come as no surprise that I enjoy reading cooking blogs. 101 recipes is one that I like. It's all vegetarian, mostly vegan, but the blog is well written and there are some interesting recipes. This week's was soba noodles with almond sauce. It sounded good and I'm a big sucker for noodles with nut based sauces, having subsisted on noodles with thai peanut sauce and tofu in my grad schools years. $2.50 bought a big portion from the food truck - it was enough for lunch and dinner. You can still get similar lunches there, although the price has risen to a whopping $4. $1.50 bought a massive slice of spinach pizza, which was my other favorite lunch. I was mostly vegetarian back then. But enough of my grad school nostalgia.
Now, one of my problems with the 101 recipes recipes is that they usually call for unusual ingredients. Believe it or not, I had most of the ingredients for this recipe*, save for the pea shoots. I decided to substitute baby spinach instead. Upon closer inspection, my soba noodles really weren't soba, but that wasn't a big deal. I cooked them up and then made the sauce, which contains almond butter, red chili paste, water and lemon juice. I wasn't paying close attention to the recipe, so I misread the amount of red curry paste to add. I added 3 tablespoons instead of two teaspoons. Ooops. Fortunately for me, my red chili paste is fairly wimpy. The sauce was very red and moderately spicy. I mixed it with the noodles and braised the tofu and spinach. It was tasty, and only a slight bit too spicy. (Disclaimer-I did eat a bowl of jello to quell the burn). If I were to do it again, I'd add less curry paste and would maybe add some ginger and sesame oil, because everything tastes better with ginger and sesame oil. I'd probably also go back to using peanut butter, since it reminds me of grad school.

*it was purely random that I had all the ingredients, but I guess it's like the proverbial monkeys typing - given enough time and they'll replicate Shakespeare's works, and given enough time I'll have all the ingredients for a 101 recipes recipe.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Tomato Geek

As most of you probably know, I'm a little bit obsessive about my tomato plants. I plant about 6-8 plants per year, mostly heirloom with a few early hybrids thrown in for good measure. I'll plant a few token squash,eggplant, herb and pepper plants, but they all play second fiddle to the tomatoes.
My dad is pretty much the same way about his tomatoes, so we have a friendly competition. The two main differences between us are that he only plants hybrids, and that his garden has a lot more sun. So the typical outcome is that he gets a lot more tomatoes, but my plants are bigger and my tomatoes have more flavor
Because I was out of town for five weekends in a row, I was very late in planting them this year. As usual, I planted them in a rich mixture of dirt and aged manure, with an added dose of abalone guts for good measure. They grew like gangbusters right from the start, but it wasn't enough to make up for lost time. It's currently early July, and it'll be at least three weeks until I get rip tomatoes. That's about a month behind schedule. Its been relatively cool so far this year, so that hasn't helped things. My dad isdefinitely winning the tomato competition so far this year.
Nonetheless, I have high hopes for my tomatoes. I've got a lot of interesting hybrids I haven't tried before, including several purple varieties, such as Black Trifele and Black Krim, as well as "Kellogg's Breakfast Tomato" (a big orange variety) and something called "Red Fig", which makes small pear shape tomatoes which can be dried in sugar to makes sort of a fake fig. Not that I'm going to do that. The big tomatoes don't have much fruit - it's been too cool for them to set much fruit. I'll report back on the results once the fruit is ripe.
If you're a tomato geek like me, the tomatofest web site is a fun way to waste time.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Recipe Geek (Yuppie Food Snob Edition): Brioche

Recently, I was reading an online advice column, and someone wrote in about her formerly cool bohemian friend who started dating an investment banker and turned into a boring yuppie food snob who preferred eating homemade brioche to hanging out on the couch drinking beer like she used to enjoy doing. So, if any of you wrote in about me and just threw in the part about the investment banker to throw me off, knock it off!
I admit to being a foodie and occasionally a food snob, but so far that hasn't hindered my enjoyment of hanging out drinking beer with friends. Besides, I've never made brioche until now.
Brioche is a rich bread, with a lot of eggs and butter. You can bake it in loaf pans or in a fluted pan, or as rolls. You can also roll it out and fill it with chocolate chips or use it a the base for more pastry-like stuff such as cinnamon rolls, or coffee-cake. It's a little bit unusual in that it both has a lot of gluten and a lot of butter. The dough is kneaded extensively prior to adding the butter, to really let the gluten develop. Taste-wise, it's like a cross between croissants and challah.
So of course, being a boring yuppie foodie, my first response to the advice column was not that the friend was a boring yuppie foodie, but that I'd been meaning to make some brioche in my new mixer. I used the recipe in the book that came with the mixer. It's a two-day process. I started it last night. The recipe calls for a LOT of mixing (30 minutes). I would not want to knead it by hand. That's why I've never made it before. You make a sponge, then add a bunch of eggs and flour and beat the crap out of it with the mixer. I was distracted and forgot to add one of the aliquots of flour at the right time, so mine got even more mixing. After that, a ton of butter is added, a few tablespoons at a time. You then beat the shit out of it for a few more minutes, then let it rise. While the mixer was doing its thing, I wrote my previous blog post, talked to my mom on the phone and drank a Mike's Hard Lemonade (see - there's hope for me yet!). The mixer held up great and didn't overheat.
After it rises, you put it in the fridge overnight to cool off. After a few hours in the fridge, it had risen a lot. I punched it down. This morning, it had doubled in size again, even though it's pretty cold in my fridge. There's some serious gluten action going on in this bread, due to all the mixing and also due to me using bread flour instead of all-purpose. I punched it down, divided it into three portions, and froze one of the dough balls. (All the recipes in the mixer book are sized for the big mixer, so the one I used was 1 1/2 times bigger than the one on the web.) I shaped the other two dough balls and set them in loaf pans and let them rise for about an hour and a half or so. I then glazed them with an egg yolk wash and put them in the oven.After about 15 minutes, they had doubled in size (again) and were starting to get glossy and brown on top. Ten minutes later, they had risen even more, hit the oven rack above, and sagged down on one side. D'ohh! I shouldn't have let them rise so much!
After the loaves were done baking, I let them cool. They shrunk a little bit but not much. It was very tasty - eggy but not too eggy, and very buttery. Nonetheless, I'll probably go with fewer egg yolks/more whole eggs if I make it again. I'll probably also use all-purpose flour.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Recipe Geek: Homemade Bagels

I'm still doing the low-processed carb thing, but decided to take a night off from it and try the homemade bagel recipe. I'll be taking some of them up to Missy when I visit her tomorrow, so that's my other excuse.
Being from California, I'm not a bagel snob. Genuine Montreal bagels, New York style bagels, supermarket bagels stored in my freezer for several months, it's all good as long as it's toasted and has cream cheese, butter or peanut butter on it. However, this recipe intrigued me. It sounded so easy. Besides, these are Parisian bagels. I've made bagels once, back in high school. I remember it being a lot of work and the bagels were dense like hockey pucks. My brother and I ate them anyway.
I dumped the ingredients into my handy dandy mixer, set the timer for 12 minutes and let it mix/knead. It's a pretty simple dough - flour, water, salt, sugar and yeast. I then placed the dough in a gretased bowl and let it rise for an hour while I talked on the phone to my mom. At that point, I preheated the oven and brought 3 quarts of water (with a hint of sugar) to a simmer. I divided the dough into 12 balls, flattened them slightly, poked a hole in the middle and then stretched/shaped them until they were bagel shaped. At this point you're supposed to let them rest for only ten minutes. I waited a little bit too long before the water bath. As a result, the bagels did not sink when i dropped them into the boiling water, which allegedly leads to slight texture differences which I'm sure I will not be able to detect.
Anyway, I dropped the bagels into the simmering water and cooked them for about a minute, flipping them over once. I then drained them briefly on a towel, placed them on cookie sheets, and baked them for 30 minutes. My house smelled like a bagel shop. When the bagels were golden brown, I took them out. I may have baked them a little bit too long since I was distracted by writing this blog. As you can see they're pretty dark but not burnt.
Taste test: They're very tasty hot out of the oven. They have a chewy bagel texture and flavor and aren't too fluffy or too dense. They're a bit salty, so the next time I make them I'll reduce the salt. I'll also stick with the recipe instructions for sizing the bagels - I made 12 instead of 10 and some were kind of puny.
Overall, it was easy and entertaining. The whole process took just over 2 hours. I won't be getting up at 6 AM to have them ready in time for breakfast, but it is a nice project for a quiet evening.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Recipe Geek: Homemade Yogurt

Yes, I like fermenting milk, as you may've figured out from my post on kefir. I made some homemade yogurt this week. I was inspired by an article in Slate in which the author tested making various kitchen staples at home, and then compared the result to the commercial products in terms of taste, ease of preparation, and cost. Yogurt was one of the winners. I was a little bit dubious - my mom had a yogurt maker back in the 80's. She used a mix of skim milk and dried milk powder. The resulting yogurt was very tart and not very good.
Anyway, this recipe was pretty simple. Heat a half gallon of milk to just below boiling. Let it cool to 110 F or so and add 1/4 cup plain yogurt. Stir it to mix, and then cover the bowl and stick it in a warm place overnight. I put it in the oven with the light on. The next morning the yogurt had firmed up. At this point you can either put the yogurt in the fridge or strain it for a thicker, greek-style yogurt. I opted to strain it since I am in low carb mode now. Besides, it tastes better. I put an old pillowcase in a colander and then poured in the yogurt. When I was sick of waiting, i scooped out the yogurt into a tupperware container.
The next day, I had a taste test - my yogurt vs Fage non-fat greek style yogurt, which is one of my favorites. My yogurt won, although it wasn't an entirely fair contest, since I used lowfat milk. In any case, it was good enough and easy enough that I will definitely make it again.
Stay tuned for the next installation of Recipe Geek, when I will test the other clear winner in the Slate test - homemade bagels. It may be a while, depending on how long I stay in low-carb mode. Or, if you can't wait, here's the link. I expect a full report if you do test it, though ;-)

Monday, March 30, 2009

Sunnyvale Farmers' Market

I went to the Sunnyvale Farmers' Market yesterday. I needed some strawberries, and around here you can find them from early March until late October. During that time, I probably buy a half flat of strawberries at least every other week.
The Sunnyvale Farmers' Market is one of the medium sized ones in the area. It's usually extremely crowded. I think it's due to a combination of the prices, the funky street vibe, the food vendors, and the fact that it's Saturday morning. I'm not entirely sure, but I think the vendors change their prices according to the location of the farmers' market, especially for the produce. This is based on my unscientific observations at other local farmer's markets. Friends who live in pricier areas complain that stuff is too expensive at their farmers' markets, but at the Sunnyvale one it's usually comparable or cheaper than the supermarket. In any case, it's close by so I can walk to it if I want. Yesterday I didn't, although I did have to be gently reminded by T that walking too much might not be a good idea just yet, was lugging larger amounts of produce.
There are a ton of hot food vendors. Due to the fact that I have usually just had breakfast, I never eat there. I should, sometime. Depending on the day, there may be a crepe vendor, someone selling oysters on the half shell, mexican food, indian food, middle eastern food, various types of asian food, and of course, the corn-on-a-stick place, which is extremely popular. There are also a lot of places selling baked goods, cheese, meat, eggs, etc, as well as some places selling jewelry, crafts, soaps, etc. I like to look at all the variety, but in terms of what I spend it's all about produce and plants.
I bought my strawberries and some carrots and kohl rabi. The orchid guy was there and I was sorely tempted. He has really nice orchids at really good prices. Orchid maniacs of both genders were snapping them up in multiple quantities. Now I know why there are usually only a few orchids left if I get there late. I resisted the orchids and the little tomato plants, but succumbed and bought a massive fuschia plant for $13. It's hard to resist anything with that much purple in it. When I got home I rigged up the pot so I could hang it from a hook on my patio.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Day 11: Angel Food Cake

My knee continues to improve. Yesterday I was able to sit normally and stand for longer periods of time. It still hurts to go up or down stairs, so I have to take those one step at a time, literally.
To celebrate the fact that I did not have to collapse on the couch as soon as I got home, I tested the whisk attachment on my stand mixer and made an angel food cake. I've made them in the past, and it's not one of my baking strengths. I'm not very dainty and never was very good at gently folding flour into egg whites.

Back when I was in junior high, I took a cooking class. We spent at least half the semester learning to bake. I had helped my mom but this was my first introduction to recipes and kitchen chemistry. (Mom doesn't really use recipes.) Towards the end of the baking unit, our homework assignment was to bake something and report on how it came out. I chose to make an angel food cake. It came out pretty dry and tough due to my inexperience with folding. Fortunately, it was tasty so it didn't last very long. I got an A nonetheless for trying something complicated. I've gotten marginally better at folding but I don't think I've made an angel food cake from scratch since high school.

So anyway, it seemed appropriate to revisit my old homework assignment to test the mixer. This time around, I whipped up the egg whites and cream of tartar. For the baking geeks out there, the proteins in the egg white uncoil when the egg whites are beaten and trap air bubbles. The cream of tartar prevents them from cross-linking through sulfur atoms in the amino acids in the protein. This would lead to graininess. Anyway, it only took about two minutes for soft peaks to form and then it was ready to add the sugar. This was a lot faster than if I used a handheld mixer. I then sifted the flour over the eggs and gently mixed it in. It was definitely faster and easier than folding it in by hand. The batter seemed like it didn't lose as much volume as it normally does.

When I pulled it out of the oven, it looked beautiful and smelled great, with just a faint whiff of egginess. After it cooled, I removed it from the pan. It seemed a bit damper than usual, so I probably should have baked it longer or been careful to measure the egg whites. I tasted it this morning. It was tender and moist but not soggy. I haven't eaten a from-scratch angel food cake in 20 years, and had forgotten how much nicer they taste without all the additives. It's tenderer, less sweet, and has a much more delicate flavor. I'm going to take some of the cake over to my mom, along with some strawberries.

The mixer works great for bread and cakes. I am very pleased with my purchase and with the fact that it allowed me to finally conquer the angel food cake. For biscotti, it was convenient but didn't provide an advantage in the final product.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

New Toy: Cuisinart Stand Mixer

I've wanted a stand mixer for years. I put in a request with my mom, who trolls the garage sales every Saturday. No luck. People get rid of every other kind of kitchen item but apparently know better than to sell their stand mixers at garage sales. I made do with a small hand held electric mixer and lots of muscle. Last summer I trashed my electric mixer by using it for mixing grout and mortar, and I didn't replace it. I was holding out for my stand mixer.
After figuring out what kind I wanted (Cuisinart, 7 qt), finding a good excuse to buy it (my promotion) and waiting for a 20% off coupon, I was good to go. They didn't have it in stock, so I ordered it. The mixer showed up the other day. Then I put it though its paces.
Test #1: Whole Wheat Bread
As my first test, I wanted to test the dough hook and I wanted a fairly dense dough to really test the mixer, and I was craving some whole wheat bread. I dumped the ingredients in the bowl and turned it on. After a minute or so everything was blended. I then set the timer for 10 minutes and stood there watching it for 5 minutes, until Missy IM'ed me. The motor handled the dough no problem. The dough climbed up the hook a little bit but it stayed under control. When it was done, it beeped and turned itself off. The dough was firm and elastic. Unlike when I knead it by hand, it hadn't absorbed way too much flour. I let it rise. It rose so quickly that I just punched it down and let it rise an extra time. I then shaped it into two loaves, let it rise and baked it. The loaves turned out well. They browned nicely and had a nice texture and a good crumb (as the bread snobs would say) - tender, not too dense and not too fluffy. If I'd kneaded it myself I'm sure it would've been tougher and denser. I couldn't wait for it to cool all the way so I ate two pieces while it was warm. It was very tasty. At the farmer's market the next day, I saw similar looking loaves selling for $3.35. Score! My mom didn't realize that I had made the bread since it had such a uniform texture and shape.
Test #2: Biscotti
I made a batch of my world-famous biscotti to test the stand mixer's ability to do large batches of thick cookie dough. No wimpy doughs for me! The recipe calls for 6 cups of flour, 5 eggs, and a lot of almonds. Although it's a big recipe, it's not too hard to do by hand. I started by plopping two sticks of butter into the bowl and turning it on. one stick got stuck in the paddle and didn't really mix. Next time I'll cut it up into smaller pieces. I then added sugar. The mixture creamed well, but when I added the eggs I had to lift the top and scrape down the sides. According to the recipe book that came with the mixer, this is normal. I then added the flour/baking powder/salt alternating with the brandy. The dough mixed up well and the mixer didn't seem to have any difficulty. I then added the almonds. At the point the mixer started wiggling and making more noise but within a minute the nuts were fully mixed.
I tested a slight variation of the usual recipe. Since I'm going to be off my feet for the next two weeks, I used 25% less sugar and compensated by grinding the anise to bring out its flavor. I could taste the difference in the dough. The biscotti didn't spread as much as normal. So I can't really tell if the stand mixer changed the texture or it was just the lack of sugar that caused it. Fortunately, in cooking it's ok to change more than one variable.
In general, the mixer did a good job of handling the types of recipes that I make frequently. I'm looking forward to trying other recipes, particularly the type of recipes that I've been avoiding since I didn't have a stand mixer before.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Cherry Trees

I grew up (and currently live) in Sunnyvale, CA, which is in the heart of Silicon Valley, home of many cycles of economic bubbles, which was formerly known as the Valley of Hearts' Delight, home of some of the most excellent cherries, apricots and plums in the world. Many of the orchards had disappeared by the time I was a kid, but there were still a lot of Bing cherry trees around. For those of you who haven't tried them, Bing cherries are incredible - big, sweet, tart, flavorful and firm-textured, and Sunnyvale Bings are the best. When I used to walk to elementary school, I passed a number of houses with big cherry trees in the front yards. With the perspective of childhood, I remember them as being gigantic trees, almost like giant redwoods, but now that I'm older I suspect they were merely medium sized. Every June, they would be covered with cherries. Like my memory of the size of the trees, this memory may be somewhat exaggerated . I used to sneak a cherry or two from each tree that I passed. I remember the soft calm June morning air and the excitement that came from only having a few days of school left, but mostly I remember the cherry trees.
I was not the only one who noticed the cherry trees. My mom, who's a bigger cherry maniac than me, dreamed of having some massive cherry trees of her own. I've lost track of how many she's planted over the years. They never yielded many cherries. Either they didn't bloom at the same time and couldn't cross pollinate, or they bloomed at the same time as the orange tree and none of the bees even went to the cherry trees since the orange tree was so sweet smelling. The birds would then get a lot of the cherries that were produced. Occasionally a tree would die and she'd replace it.
I drive on the same street when I go visit my mom. Most of the cherry trees are gone. Nonetheless, I still have my dreams of cherry trees. A few weeks ago I went to the garden store to buy some fertilizer. I came home with a cherry tree. It had a Bing and a Ranier grafted onto it. That combination should do the trick for cross pollination. Nonetheless, the next day I went out and bought another cherry tree. I planted them in my front yard alongside my driveway. Somewhat painfully, I dug out massive holes for them and rearranged rose bushes. I also planted a grapefruit tree, and though I'm pretty sure it will be more productive than the cherry trees, it just doesn't quite have the same magic. I fantasize that they will be as big and productive as the cherry trees of my childhood memories, and I might even begrudgingly let the neighborhood kids steal some on their way to school.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Recipe Geek: Caramelized Onions

Recipe Geek: Caramelized Onions
As you might have already figured out, I like to read recipes and articles about food. Some of the best descriptions have the ability to make me want to try things that I normally don't even like. Today's recipe for caramelized onions is an excellent example of this.
I don't like onions very much, and they don't like me. If they're well cooked and present in small amounts, I appreciate their flavor-giving properties. If they're raw or undercooked, or if there's just too much of them, they give me major stomach heartburn and see to take forever to digest. I do like caramelized onions, but have never made them before. This recipe called for very slow cooking (4 -5 hours). During this time, a lot of the sugars and starches get caramelized in a process known as the Maillard reaction, and the stinky, heartburn provoking sulfur compounds get cooked off or converted into less offensive molecules. The end result is like onion marmalade.
It was a cold and rainy Sunday afternoon, and I was home cleaning the house, doing laundry and pretending to work on the journal article I'm writing. My plan was to make the onions and then serve them to my parents, who were coming over for dinner. The rest of the dinner included a pork roast, polenta and asparagus.
I cut up 3 lbs of onions and dumped them into a medium sized dutch oven, along with 2 tsp salt and 1/3 cup olive oil. Much to my surprise, I didn't get teary eyed, even though I was wearing my contact lenses. I think these onions were rather old and dry (see picture #1). I then covered the pot and started to cook them over medium heat. After 1/2 hour, they had shrunk to about half their original size and there was a lot of liquid in the pot. At 45 minutes (picture 2), I took the cover off to evaporate a lot of the water. So far, the onions were right on schedule. I set the heat to the lowest setting.
After two hours, the onions had reduced to maybe 1/3 their original volume (picture 3). There was still a lot of liquid left, so I increased the heat a little bit and stirred them more often. They started bubbling faster. I tasted them - they were still pretty bland.
Even at the higher heat, the onions were still pretty mushy at 2 3/4 hours. They just kept sweating. At this point they were the color and consistency of apple pie filling. I started stirring them more frequently. By the time dinner rolled around, they were done. They developed a lot of color and flavor in the last hour. The original onion slices had disintegrated down to tiny little strips, and become very sweet. There was none of that icky burnt onion flavor that caramelized onions sometimes get. The original 3 lbs of onions shrank down to about 1 1/2 cups (see picture 4). The olive oil pooled a little bit around the onions. I might use less next time.
My parents liked the onions, especially my mom. We ate about half of them with the roast. When I gave the cats some little scraps, my mom insisted that I put some of the oil from the onions onto the cats' portion. Rugrat liked it too. I'm looking forward to having the leftovers (hello pizza toppings!), although I may freeze some for later. I'm also pleased to report that I didn't get heartburn.
I'll probably make them again. I may try a different recipe that doesn't take as long, unless it's a cold Sunday afternoon and I have time to kill.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Recipe Geek: Spicy Turkey in Lettuce Cups

Recipe Geek is a new feature in which I pick random recipes which I haven't made before and test them and report on the results. The recipes will generally be taken from magazines, the newspaper, or the internet. I'll include a link to the recipe but won't cut and paste the whole thing into here.
This week's entry/entree, Spicy Chicken in Lettuce Cups, appeared in the Whole Foods magazine. I picked it because I like chicken in lettuce cups but have never made it at home. Also, I had some ground turkey in the freezer.
I prepared it more or less according to the recipe. I used ground turkey instead of chicken, and left out the green onions - I had some chives I was going to use instead but they had gone bad. Other than that I didn't make any substitutions.
It was pretty straightforward - much less problematic than meatballs. Ginger, red bell pepper and garlic were chopped up and briefly sauteed, then the turkey was added and broken up while it was cooking. When the turkey was done, the remaining soy sauce/broth/cornstarch mixture was added, followed by cilantro, sesame oil and a smidgen of red pepper flakes. I didn't have the proper type of lettuce so i just ate it on a bed of mixed baby lettuce.
Anyway, it was pretty good but not quite as tasty as some of the restaurant versions, which are a lot sweeter and richer and probably contain MSG. You could probably add a little bit of plum sauce to mimic the taste of the restaurant versions. The green onions would've added some zip too, but since I'm not a huge onion fan I didn't miss them very much.
It's pretty healthy, easy, and tasty, so it's a keeper. Plus, it's a lot cheaper than going to P.F. Chang's!
OK, it's time for me to go swim now. Stay tuned for the next installment of Recipe Geek.

Friday, February 20, 2009

lazy biddy bread recipe

Unfortunately for my waistline, I'm a bread maniac. There's nothing that tastes better than bread fresh from the oven, but I rarely baked it since it took too long and inevitably left me with too much bread. About a year ago I bought a book called "Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day" by Zoe Francois and Jeff Hertzberg. They've developed a method where you mix up a master batch of bread dough and store it in the fridge. It's a pretty wet dough so it mixes up easily with just a large spoon. No fancy stand mixer required (although I still want to get one!). When you want to bake bread, take out a piece of dough and shape it, let it sit for an hour or two and then bake it. There's no kneading involved, so it really is about as easy as using a bread machine, and the results are a lot tastier.
The key to the recipe is the high water to flour ratio. This enables the gluten to develop more easily without any kneading. Other food writers have published similar high hydration recipes, but this one is the easiest. The dough is baked in a hot (450F) oven on a baking stone. It can also be used for pizza dough, calzones, foccacia, etc. The bread is somewhat dense, with great flavor and a very nice crust. I usually just use the master recipe but have also made the semolina and rye bread variations.
The question that I've gotten is whether it's really "5 minutes a day" Well, not exactly. There's a lot of resting and baking time in there, but very little prep or cleanup time. I wish that all the syntheses I do in the lab were this quick! It takes about 5 minutes to mix the dough. After that you let it sit at room temperature for two hours. At that point you can take some out and bake it, and/or pop the whole bowl in in the fridge. When you make the bread, you pull out a ball of dough (usually 1 lb, or 1/4 of the master recipe) and shape it. This takes a minute or two. Then it rises for a while. When it's ready to bake, slash a few slits in the top and put it in the preheated oven. So the actual "active time" really is about five minutes on the days you make the dough or bake a loaf.
When I get my fancy stand mixer, I'll go back to making breads that need a lot of kneading, but for now I'm pretty happy with my lazy bread.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Missy's Macadamia Nut Cookies

A few weeks ago, Missy was rapidly approaching the old biddy milestone of her 40th birthday. She dropped hints that some Mexican wedding cookies would be a good gift. Mexican wedding cookies are buttery nut cookies which I make every year at Christmas. I use walnuts but they also taste good with pecans. They're also known as Russian tea cakes or snowballs. Over the years, I've tweaked the recipe slightly by using a bit of rice flour in place of regular white flour. By lowering the gluten content slightly,the cookies are more buttery and have less of a raw flour taste. They also spread a bit more while baking.
Missy loves macadamia nuts and I wanted to do something special for her birthday, so I tweaked the recipe some more. I'm still partial to the walnut ones, but the macadamia nut ones got raves from Missy and also were a hit as a valentine's day present.
As an added bonus, you can mix in the nuts with your hands. Since the dough doesn't contain any eggs, you can even lick out the bowl when you're done.
One of my cats is obsessed with butterfat. She goes ballistic whenenever I make these. I have to chase her out of the kitchen. The last time I made them, I caught her sitting on the counter next to the cookies with a guilty look on her face.

Missy's Macadamia Nut Cookies
1 cup (two sticks) butter
3/4 cup powdered sugar
2 tsp. vanilla
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup rice flour*
1 1/2 cups finely chopped macadamia nuts
1 cup powdered sugar for rolling the cookies in

Preheat oven to 350F and lightly grease two cookie sheets. Cream together the butter, sugar and vanilla until fluffy and well blended. Stir in flour and rice flour and blend well. Add nuts and mix. You can do this with your hands if you want. Shape the dough into walnut sized balls and bake 12-15 minutes or until lightly browned. After the cookies have cooled, roll them in powdered sugar and store in an airtight container.

*if you don't have rice flour, just use a total of 2 cups flour.


I'm a big fan of just about every dairy product out there. I'm also a big fan of edible kitchen science experiments. Knowing that, my friends J and K offered me some kefir grains so that I could make my own kefir.
I was mostly ignorant of kefir at that point. It's a cultured milk product similar in taste to yogurt or buttermilk. It differs in that the bacteria and yeast that help culture the milk live in a matrix of protein, lipids, and sugars. These are known as kefir grains. The grains, which look like little pieces of cauliflower, grow over time and sometimes split off new colonies. J and K's colony had grown and produced a new bud. They brought it over on a cup of milk, and also brought me a cup of the final product.
To make kefir, you put the buds in some fresh milk and let it sit on the counter for a day or two. I usually put it in a small bowl and cover it lightly with plastic wrap. The bacteria and yeast need some oxygen so it's a good idea not to cover it too tightly. When I remember, I also swirl it around once or twice to help the colony get fresh nutrients. The milk thickens and turns into kefir. Once it's done you can store it in the fridge. When you want to make more, fish out the buds and put them in fresh milk. My bud was about the size of a grape when I got it two months ago. Since then it's doubled in size and split off two grape-sized buds.
The kefir tastes a lot like buttermilk and can be used in recipes calling for buttermilk or yogurt. I eat it on cereal or in smoothies. I like it because not only is it cheap, it's also a good way to finish those gallon containers of milk before they go bad.
Nutritionally, it's similar to milk but has a lot of helpful probiotics. Since the bacteria digest the lactose, it's supposedly more easily digested by people who are lactose intolerant.
Here's the wikipedia link if you're interested in learning more about kefir