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.