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Archive for April, 2009

Recently one of my good friends had a birthday. She loves lemon, but I didn’t want to make a lemon-frosted layer cake because I just didn’t have the time. I pulled out Ye Olde America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook (of which I am a huge fan due to their scientific approach to cooking) and perused the cake section for something suitable. There were two possibilities:

1. Lemon chiffon cake

2. Lemon bundt cake

Now, chiffon cake is one of those mysterious cakes that everyone’s heard of but few people have made. My southern family has made dozens, nay, hundreds of Angel Food cakes, a chiffon cake relative. But I’ve never known anyone inside or outside my family who has made a chiffon cake. It’s leavened with steam beaten into egg whites, just like Angel Food, but also contains oil to enrich it. It seemed a bit dicey to risk my first ever chiffon cake (at altitude, mind you, which is always a crap shoot) on a good friend’s birthday, so I opted for the safe choice: Bundt cake.

My lemon budnt cake, in finished form -- swimming in a pool of lemon glaze, but still quite tasty.

My lemon bundt cake in finished form -- swimming in a pool of lemon glaze, but still quite tasty.

Bundt cake has a long, anything-but-sordid culinary history. It’s derived from ring-shaped German and Austrian cakes, perhaps including one called the gugelhupf, made in a coffee-cake style for special occasions.

This wikipedia entry sums it up pretty well, but suffice it to say that the Bundt cake that Americans know and (sometimes) love originated in the upper midwest when some ladies of Germanic/Nordic descent asked for a ring-shaped pan that was neither delicate nor heavy, unlike the old ceramic and cast-iron versions. H. David Dalquist, the founder of Nordic Ware, obliged, and the modern American Bundt was born.

Coincidentally, Nordic Ware’s logo on the side of this grain bin must be seen to be appreciated. As my (Germanically-derived) friend Ed Nowicki opined, “Nordic Ware: “Lo there do I see the bundt cake of my father. Lo there do I see the bundt cakes of my mother, my sisters and my brothers. Lo there do I see the bundt cakes of the line of my people, back to the beginning…”

After languishing for a few years in the obscure kitchen gadgets section of cookware stores, someone dreamed up a “Tunnel of Fudge” recipe for the Pilsbury bakeoff employing the Bundt pan that won the top prize in 1966. America has never looked back.

The cake has taken a lot of good-natured teasing over time (Nia Vardalos’s mom in My Big Fat Greek Wedding can’t figure out what to do with the hole and ends up placing a potted plant there) but here’s the thing about the Bundt: it’s pretty fool-proof, and thanks to the specially shaped Bundt pan, the cake pretty much decorates itself. Even at altitude, two different Bundt recipes I have used rose perfectly. I opted for a lemon glaze (which had its own problems, even with ATK’s careful testing: it was way too runny and ended up pooling around the base. I have made a note to use less liquid next time), but even a dusting of powdered sugar looks great (be careful to add this only at the last minute if you live in a damp climate).

The cake came out splendidly, although I had to let it sit out overnight to cool, which in Colorado’s climate I think dried it a bit too much. Nevertheless, it was acceptably moist and rich, and the lemon flavor was good and not overpowering. In spite of consistency problems with the glaze, it was bright and tangy, as it should be. Here’s the recipe.

I had one other issue. I got the super-duper amazing 50th anniversary version of the original Nordic Ware pan for Christmas one year, and it has a non-stick coating that practically repels air. Nonetheless, ATK wanted me to make a paste of flour and butter and grease the pan with it. I tried, but it just wouldn’t coat evenly and made the cake come out a bit splotchy. Based on the characteristics of my own pan, next time I think I’m going to go for it in the buff! Woo woo! Who says the Bundt isn’t sexy? : )

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Cantaloupe were on sale at King Soopers this week. And here’s something I’ve found helps me eat fruit like melons and mangoes — or anything, really, that requires prepping before eating — before they spoil.

Cut them up either

  1. as soon as you get home from the store, or
  2. as soon as they are ripe, if they are fruits that need ripening.

Trust me — if you wait, that cantaloupe is going to sit there on that counter or in that crisper getting lonelier and older. Your motivation to deal with cutting  and using it is likely going to go down exponentially the longer you wait. You’ll look at it and think about how much work it is to get the fruit out.

So as soon as I got home from the store on Sunday, I cut open my cantaloupe and spooned it out into tupperware. I served part of as a snack for a movie night I held Sunday night. And the rest I snacked on and finished at work today. Because it was bite sized, it was enticing and unintimidating to both my guests and to me while I was at work.

How about you guys? How do you deal with labor-intensive fruit like melons, mangoes, and the like?

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So as you’ll recall from my last post, I mashed sweet potatoes to make risotto. The question arose: what’s the best way? Two possibilities occurred: my dowdy, old-fashioned, hand-held potato masher:

potato masher

Or my new hotness food processor, the Cuisinart KFP-7TM.

I pulled out the machine’s manual (yes: miracle I could still locate it) and to see what I could find on the subject. There was a warning against mashing (white) potatoes (they get “gluey” — likely from the lysis of the starch cells by the blades) — but what about sweet potatoes? Toooootally unrelated species, right?

Well, I’m a scientist. Why not do an experiment? After cooking the sweet potatoes as peeled, cubed chunks per instructions, I threw them in the food processor and hit go. In no time flat, they were mashed sweet potato smithereens, but instead of the homogenous, fluffy cloud I’d been hoping for, they were more like gooey, mini-sweet potato shards.

processed sweet potatoes

Oh, what the heck, I thought. Cooked butternut squash cubes dissolve in risotto. Why not sweet potato shards? So, I packed them in the measuring cup and dumped them in. In the end, my hypothesis was incorrect: the shards didn’t dissolve entirely, though they did so well enough to color my risotto a lovely shade of yellow. And the risotto still tasted great!  In the mean time, I whipped out my hand-held potato masher and went to town. That helped some:

mashed sweet potatoes

I scooped some out for part of my lunch today, mixed in a little salt and pepper and dusted it with cinnamon. But still: potato shards.

sweet potato lunch

America’s Test Kitchens advises using a food mill — an old fashioned apparatus with a hand-crank on top — to mash sweet potatoes. I used one of these with my Grandma when I was a little girl and to help her process her home-grown tomatoes and applesauce for canning. I don’t own one now, but I think next time I’ll try starting with the potato masher and see if that corrects the problem.

But there’s another lesson here: Don’t be afraid to experiment. Mistakes are OK! Even failures make good lessons (I wouldn’t be writing this blog today if I hadn’t learned from countless ones I made), and 9 times out of 10, the finished product still tastes great. Even Julia Child once said something like if you screw up in the kitchen, just keep going and serve it. Most times, your company won’t even know the difference. Don’t miss this blog by Mark Bittman at “Bitten” on this very subject.

The home cook, especially the aspiring home cook, needs encouragement — not befuddlement. Show people what actually happens in the kitchen, show people that mistakes are made (”The grand thing about cooking is you can eat your mistakes” — Julia Child), show people that, just as you need not be Rafael Nadal to play tennis, you need not be Gordon Ramsay to cook a decent meal.

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Over time, I have discovered there is a small thing I can do that will greatly increase the chances I feel motivated enough to cook the meal I have in mind for the next day. It isn’t hard. It doesn’t even involve will power. All I have to do is set out the ingredients I will need for the next night the night or morning before. For example, two nights ago I made sweet potato risotto. Here’s what my setup looked like:

Prep for sweet potato risotto

So in the picture, you see bulk arborio rice (never goes bad – saves money!), the dregs of a week-old bottle of white wine I saved for this purpose (but carefully stored in the fridge), some rosemary I dried, sweet potatoes (were on sale at King Soopers for 79 cents a pound!), bulk vegetarian chicken broth powder (more on this in another post), parmesan cheese, garlic, nutmeg, onion, etc. Note I’ve also carefully placed the cookbook open to the appropriate page with a nice friendly picture of the finished product gently, yet firmly, urging me to cook my own d*** dinner rather than another box of mac and cheese.

Somehow the sight of this when I get home is very motivating. I don’t know why this is, I’ve just noticed it is. It doesn’t guarantee I’ll actually cook it (let’s face it — we all come home exhausted most nights), but I’ve noticed it helps a lot, and it definitely helps me get ahead of the game when I get home from work. Sometimes I even pre-measure the spices into little bowls.

And while I’m at it, I’ll mention a quick thing about cooking recipes that you learned in home ec but probably forgot: Prep, chop, measure, and cut all your ingredients before you start cooking. This will save you much grief and help ensure your recipe comes out as it should. Here’s what my stove looks like just before I started cooking (and yes, I microwaved my sweet potatoes before mashing — the book with the microwave cooking table is open in the back of this photo).

Sweet potato risotto: Ready to rock and roll

Sweet potato risotto: Ready to rock and roll

Total time from start to finish: about 1:30. I know that’s  a lot for most people, but if I’d cooked and mashed my sweet potatoes ahead of time, it would have been a lot less. And I had my lunch all ready to go for today, and didn’t have to cook tonight — in fact, I had so much left over, I had my friend Dave Peascoe over to share a meal of the leftovers. And If I was tired of risotto, I could just freeze it for later. Here’s the finished product:

Finished sweet potato risotto

And here’s a simple, home-cooked meal all put together: sweet potato risotto garnished with rosemary and parmesan cheese, spinach with craisins (the house salad), and a cup of homemade (not from the box endorsed by Bill Cosby) vanilla pudding I made the night before. Bellisimo! The rosemary and nutmeg really make this risotto quite delightful. And no, in spite of the color, it doesn’t have saffron. This is a sweet-potatoes-only party.

A home meal cooked well

If you’d like to make this risotto yourself, it is from the Betty Crocker’s Vegetarian Cooking (1st ed.), but you can find the recipe here.

Happy home cooking!

Jen

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Every six months or so I go through an unsettling ritual. I buy the sugar in the 10-pound bag. Dentists everywhere cringe.

The bag that makes the dentists cry. Note the "use by" date. I can't fathom why sugar would have this, but then again, sand has a material safety data sheet.

The bag that makes the dentists cry.

But buying sugar in bulk is a great idea*. Let me tell you why: sugar never spoils. Oh sure, it can clump up if it gets too humid. But that’s nothing a good meat mallet, a plastic zip-loc bag and a standard dose of office-induced stress can’t take care of.

And therein lies my rule of thumb when deciding whether or not to buy in bulk: will this food spoil in the time frame that represents the worst-case scenario for me using it?

Here’s a common problem I see among home cooks: You go to the store, wander through the produce section, and discover asparagus is on sale. Oh boy! 16 pounds of asparagus for $.87! You buy said asparagus. You take it home. You place it in the crisper. You take a little asparagus for your meal that night, or forget about it entirely. Then, three weeks later, you discover a scene from “Crisper of the Living Dead” playing out in the back of your fridge. Haz-mat suits, bio-hazard bags, and respirators are considered de rigeur by the EPA for such situations.

So when you’re considering whether to buy in bulk ask yourself: Do I have a plan for using this by the time it’s likely to spoil? What is my history of using this item? Don’t be tempted to buy something just because it’s “a better deal”. If it rots in your fridge, it isn’t just losing you money — it’s wasted water, energy and food! If you hadn’t bought and wasted it, the grocery store might have perhaps donated it to a food kitchen that could — and in today’s economy, food pantries can use all the produce they can get.

So for produce, unless you have a family of 10, the answer is almost certainly no. I never buy the big bag of onions because I can only get through like two before the rest of the bag turns into a stinky, sprouty, slowly dissolving goo.

There is one exception: apples (and perhaps oranges). Since apples keep for at least a few weeks up to several months, buying them by the bag is a good bet. I find that the organic bagged apples are significantly cheaper on a per-pound basis than their loose brethren, and usually tastier, less bruised, and smaller too. I like smaller apples because I’m more likely to eat them when it appears I can get through one in one sitting. Your needs may differ. Right now I’m buying bags from the Ranier Fruit Company (based in Selah, Wash.) from my local King Soopers. They’ve consistently been sweet and crisp.

For spices the answer is a bit trickier: buy as little as possible of pre-ground spices (they slowly lose their natural flavoring oils over months to years), but go crazy with whole spices (coriander, cumin, fennel seed, nutmeg, etc.) . They’re virtually indestructible.

For dry goods like pasta, canned foods, dried beans and lentils, and baking supplies — hells yeah! Buy that huge-a** can of cocoa powder or 10-pound bag of dried chickpeas if you think you can get through it before you have to move again. Because let’s face it: no one wants to move a 10-pound bag of dried chickpeas.

So to sum up: if you’re making dinner for your local chapter of the United Steelworkers, you can buy the 15-pound bag of potatoes and the 10-pound bag of carrots. If not — save your money and prevent turning your fridge into a Superfund site. Buy only what you need.

*(assuming the per unit cost is less than that of smaller-sized bags. Always check — sometimes it isn’t and grocery stores are sneaky and inconsistent about this)

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The blogger's faithful servant -- with display styling inspired by Vanna White

The blogger's faithful servant. Display inspired by blogger's favorite gameshow: The Price is Right. 'That's right, Bob, it's the Sharp Carousel 1500. . . "

I love my microwave — it’s a trusted member of the Frazer household (unlike certain oven timers I could mention). There’s so much more to the microwave than nuking leftovers, popcorn, and frozen dinners. In spite of the somewhat dubious reputation the microwave enjoys (my mother insisted I not stare directly into the microwave as I was attempting to boil water growing up, but the metal grates you see in the front window are smaller than the wavelength of the microwaves, thus making it impossible for them to pass through), it is a busy cook’s best friend.

The New York Times picked up on this in an excellent, must-read article they wrote last year:

For any vegetable you would parboil or steam, the microwave works as well or better, and is faster. Put the vegetable in a bowl with a tiny bit of water (or sometimes none), cover and zap.

It seems that the microwave is a genius at cooking vegetables, but there are two other fantastic things about the microwave.

1. It’s faster than most other cooking methods. No oven to preheat. No heating element to warm up.

2. It’s more energy-efficient than most other heating methods. That means you save $$$.

Most of your standard cookbooks like Better Homes and Gardens or Betty Crocker have a vegetable cooking table, and within in is a column for microwaving. Familiarize yourself with this section and remember it next time you’re grabbing vegetables for dinner. Even better, nuke your vegetables and then add a simple sauce to jazz them up. I’ll post more on that later, but if all else fails, a little salt, pepper, and butter will do the trick. Never serve steamed vegetables without some adornment. Unseasoned cooked vegetables (and particularly unseasoned over-cooked vegetables) are a major reason people don’t eat vegetables. Just say no.

In addition to the methods covered in the NYT, here are some specific uses I find the microwave excels at:

  • (Pre-)Cooking potatoes — Many recipes call for cooked potatoes. Don’t mess around with a pot of boiling water. Pop open your microwave. One potato pricked with a fork, covered with a paper towel, microwaved for a few minutes, turned, microwaved again, will be cooked well enough for most uses. Then you just slice it in half and cut or flake with a fork as desired. That’s a few minutes in the microwave versus 30-60 minutes on the stove or in the oven. You do the math. I do this all the time when making potato masala, otherwise known as samosa filling. The skin should peel off pretty easily, but be careful — it’s gonna be one hot potato. One other caution: don’t peel the potato until after you’ve microwaved it. If you do, the whole potato gets a tough exterior shell that’s almost impossible to remove. Trust me — I’ve done this.
  • Rice and grains — I haven’t done this very much yet, but America’s Test Kitchens Family Cookbook has a whole table on cooking grains and they heartily endorse microwaving. I tried it with wild rice but I pretty much never got the stuff cooked. I don’t blame that entirely on the microwave, though. I live at about 5,430 feet. Water boils at like 200 degrees here.
  • Heating water for tea — I know I probably seem like a super-Scrooge here, but I don’t even own a teapot for boiling tea. I heat all my cups in the microwave. It’s faster, it turns itself off when the water’s done, and it saves me money on energy. I find 2:15 does the trick in my microwave. I realize, however, this method lacks the sensory appeal of the whistling kettle. I present it as an option.
  • Making boiled custard/puddings — The NYT says that microwaves are great for making pudding. I haven’t done that yet, but our family’s southern Christmas treat “Boiled Custard”, which used to be made by slaving over a hot stove for hours, was converted to a microwave version that has been perfected by my Great Aunt Ethel, culinary genius. (Coincidentally, if you want to check out my Great Aunt Ethel’s cookbook, “From Pilot Knob to Main Street”, you can do so here. And yes, the boiled custard recipe is in the book.)

And I’m sure you, dear readers, have others. What ways have you used a microwave to save you time/money/sanity?

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