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.