WHAT TO DO WITH YOUR LEFTOVER MUFFINS & CUPCAKES

Got a couple muffins or cupcakes that are just a bit past their prime? Not likely anyone will opt to devour them in this condition? Here’s a terrific idea, gleaned from The Art of Eating In: How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove by Cathy Erway (Gotham Books, 2010).

Erway’s book, inspired by her blog, tracks her journey through what she’d determined would be a year of NOT eating in restaurants in New York City – which, when done as often as most New Yorkers do, is expensive as well as not necessarily good for either the body or the environment. It’s an engrossing book that not only chronicles her cooking and baking endeavors (with recipes) but also her adventures while exploring underground supper clubs, local cook-offs and even a few experiences with “trash diving, freegans and frualistas.” Her recipe for “Almond Custard Tarts with Leftover Muffin Crust” inspired the recipe below, hurriedly drafted as I am in the middle of packing to attend the Women Writers and Artists Matrix (WWAM) Weekend in Saratoga Springs this weekend. I wanted to get another post onto KitchenCauldron before I take off!

These are incredibly easy to make. And it was the perfect use for the leftover gluten-free almond cupcakes I’d made for the WomanWords Reading at Caffè Lena. G-free baked goods are notoriously drier the next day (although mine were more moist than most), plus these had ground nuts in them. What more could I ask for in a tart crust? (Oh yeah, I was going to assume that readers would realize they’d not be using any frosting that was on a cupcake – but then we know why one shouldn’t ASSume, right? Such assumption would make of me what the first part of that word spells out!)

The few changes I made to Erway’s recipe are noted within the recipe. I also gave the option of simply using a “cook & serve” boxed pudding, if you’re really short on time or prefer not to do custard from scratch.

Bill loved these tarts, as did I. And they’re so simple to make, yet look so fancy-schmancy!

I know I have one more cupcake recipe to post from the WomanWords 15-Year Birthday Reading, but that will wait until next week. It’s for the most popular of the cupcakes that night too – a super-rich vanilla cupcake. And then there will be the Squash & Sweet Potato Soup that I’ll want to tell you about—there’s a potluck at the home of one of the WWAM founders tomorrow night, and I made it in the slowcooker! All I have to do is remember to bring the camera and to actually take a few snapshots of the evening’s feast!

May you all have as creative a weekend as I am expecting to enjoy!

ALMOND (OR VANILLA) CUSTARD TARTS FROM GOING-STALE MUFFINS/CUPCAKES
Yields 4 tarts

CRUST:

Ingredients

  • 1 or 2 leftover muffins or cupcakes (the “heavier” texture of muffins make them the best candidates for these tarts, but use the latter if crumbs are truly stale, especially if there are nuts in them!)
  • 1 tablespoon water (you could use melted butter instead, which I did, but not necessary)

Process

  1. Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees.
  2. In a bowl, crumble your muffin or cupcake by hand.
  3. Add the water (or butter) and combine with a spatula. Mixture should be moist but you don’t want it to stick together in a ball.
  4. Press the mixture with your hands or a spatula firmly into the sides of four ramekins.
  5. Place the ramekins on a baking tray and bake for 10 to 15 minutes.
  6. Remove to a wire rack and cool completely before filling.

CUSTARD (two options):

Option #1 Ingredients

  • ½ cup sugar
  • 2 cups whole milk (I don’t stock whole milk so I combined 1¼ cup 2% and ¾ cup heavy cream)
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1 teaspoon almond or vanilla extract
  • ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • Fresh berries for topping (optional) – I had only frozen strawberries, which don’t look as pretty but they sure tasted good!

Option #1 Process

  1. Whisk sugar, milk, extract and nutmeg together in a saucepan.
  2. Scald the mixture by bringing it to a boil. Then turn off the heat (if you have an electric stove, make sure you remove it from the burner or hot cooktop area!)
  3. In another bowl, lightly beat the egg yolks.
  4. While stirring, add a small amount (about a teaspoonful) of the heated milk mixture (this is called tempering, which should ensure the eggs don’t begin to cook when adding hot liquid).
  5. Gradually add a few more teaspoons of milk mix. Mixture should be smooth, not lumpy.
  6. When you’ve added about ½ cup of the milk mixture, pour the egg mix into the milk one.
  7. Cook over medium heat, stirring once in a while, until the custard has thickened to where it coats the back of a spoon dipped into it.
  8. Pour custard into the baked tart shells.
  9. Sprinkle with a little more nutmeg.
  10. Chill in refrigerator until set, about 3 to 4 hours.
  11. Serve with berries atop, if using.

Option #2 Ingredients

  • 1 box “cook & serve” vanilla pudding (strongly advised not to use “instant” pudding – it’s just terrible)
  • ½ teaspoon of almond extract (if you want to add a bit of almond flavor to vanilla)
  • Up to ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
  • Berries, as noted above in Option #1

Option #2 Process

  1. Cook pudding according to directions on the box, adding extract (if using) and nutmeg.
  2. Chill for amount of time directed on box.
  3. Serve with berries atop, if using.

A TRIP TO HEAVEN – CUPCAKES FOR CAFFÈ LENA

When we were kids and teens, Mom baked our birthday cakes – and an occasional holiday cake – from box mixes. It was the ’50s and ’60s and housewives were brainwashed into thinking this was the way to go. Easy. Convenient. Just as delicious (that’s what Americans were told anyway). To us they were delicious and, of course, fun. She’d decorate with her own buttercream frosting, some purchased tubes of gel-like icing, a few pre-manufactured (and stiff) sugar letters or shapes, and possibly an appropriate number of candles atop. Voilà! A cake any kid would love. Especially if it came with birthday presents.

On the other hand, we’d be invited to my cousin Rene’s kids’ parties sometimes, where we’d witness cakes seemingly carved to simulate whatever party theme their mom had selected for the day. For example, I’m recalling one such cake, a virtual locomotive constructed of cake, frosting and whatever auxiliary accessories Rene (pronounced Ree –nee) decided would work in the design. Maybe she whipped up her confections starting with a box too, but it didn’t matter. To a child, they were magic. Fun. Even if the child wasn’t the birthday boy or girl. And the cake, of course, satisfied any sweet tooth.

In Kathleen Flinn’s newest book, The Kitchen Counter Cooking School: How a Few Simple Lessons Transformed Nine Culinary Novices into Fearless Home Cooks (Viking, 2011), there’s a whole chapter entitled “What’s in the Box?,” wherein she relates a story about how her husband Mike one night decided to bake a cake. When he gets stressed out (and this time it was after watching a particularly aggravating defeat of his alma mater’s football team), he has to do something with his hands. So this time he went into the kitchen, searching for a cake mix to beat up. When he found there were no such mixes to be had, his wife said, “We have all the stuff for cake… just look up a recipe.”

“Really? Mike asked. “You mean you can make a cake without a mix?”

A few minutes later, after looking up a recipe, Mike called out, “So what’s in the box?”

“What are you talking about?”

He brought a printout of a recipe for yellow cake into the living room. “You’ve got to see this. So get this, it’s just flour, eggs, baking soda, milk, sugar, and butter. But with a box you already add eggs, milk, and oil, so what’s in the freakin’ box?” He was agitated. “Just flour, sugar, and baking soda?”

Good point, Mike. Great chapter, Kathleen, about just what we’re putting into our bodies. Oh—to end that little tale: Mike made the cake, using his mother’s prized 45-year old mixer (a permanent fixture in their kitchen), and another revelation came through.

…“So that’s it? This doesn’t take any longer than doing it from a mix.”

Perhaps that’s not always true. Pulling out the flour, sugar, baking soda and maybe a few more ingredients than Mike did (he was making a basic yellow cake), plus measuring, might add a few extra minutes – but not much. Certainly not enough to outweigh the fact that the answer to Mike’s question about what’s in the box is, in short, a bunch of chemicals designed to give the high-on-sugar, hydrogenated-and-high-fructose-corn-syrup-included product a longer shelf life. Food science at its finest: add sugar (and sugary substitutes), trigger the necessary neurotransmitters “to provide an artificially enhanced pleasure response,” and there you have it – another customer who will come back for more. Forget about what’s good for them.

And then there’s the flavor. Nothing like a great homemade cake.

Nowadays, it’s rare that you’d find a cake mix on my shelves. I suppose it helps that I’m retired and can more readily “fit” the baking of a scratch cake into my schedule, but retirement doesn’t necessarily mean you’re less busy. It merely allows one to have more personal control of one’s schedule. I do not have to be at a jobsite by a certain time, nor do I have to ask permission to leave for appointments with doctors, dentists, hairdressers and the like. I am my own boss. I can set up a meeting with writing friends or my annual health physical for 1 p.m. in order to allow time to bake a cake – or a batch of cupcakes – in the morning. Still, it was well before retirement that I began to pull away from box cakes. It’s been at least a couple decades since I’d snatch up several Duncan Hines cake mixes whenever they’d come on sale. They’re good. Tasty. Just not as good as homemade. Not as healthy. And the fun, it seems, is in the creating of baked goods from scratch – whole food ingredients, tweaking the spices my way, deciding what way to go with frosting…

So it was fun deciding what kinds of cupcakes to bring to Caffè Lena’s for next week’s open poetry mic. My writing collective, WomanWords, will be “The Feature” that evening, and I suggested – and promised – to bring cupcakes to celebrate our 15-year birthday. We began as a monthly writing group (now evolved into special-events-only, such as daylong workshops and retreats) in April 1997. Hard to believe it’s been that long –  that it’s all happened, including meeting some of my now-very-best friends through WW, because of the International Women’s Writing Guild. We’ll celebrate with decorated cupcakes, asking for a donation for each to benefit historic Caffè Lena. I made the first batch yesterday and froze them, to frost and adorn next Wednesday.

Marilyn with cousin Renee, 1991

Before I get to the recipe, I must relate one final family memory related to cakemaking, however indirectly. Cousin Rene was daughter to my Aunt Helen, Mom’s oldest sister, so she was closer to my mother’s age than to mine (five years younger than Dolly, actually). She was a whirlwind of activity all of her life, a creative lady. She also loved to travel, learn new things, attend exercise classes, garden and more. Despite giving up smoking at least a couple decades earlier, she was diagnosed with lung cancer in her 70s, which took her from us in the summer of 2007.

Mom attended Rene’s wake/funeral with us. Although we told her where we were going, that Rene had passed away, she didn’t quite “get it” until we walked into the large sitting room at the funeral home (her dementia or Alzheimer’s had progressed to where she could no longer live alone as well). She chose to sit with her sister Helen near the front, holding her hand almost the entire time. Bill and I found seats further back in the crowded room. Toward the end of the service, when attendees were asked to offer memories about Rene, I eventually stood up to comment. “No one has yet mentioned her creativity,” I said. “It came out in lots of ways but my first memory is about the cakes she made.” I went on to explain that she’d create amazing stuff, contrasting it with my mom’s delicious but simply-adorned cakes. From the front row, to my far left, a slightly indignant voice piped up with “Thanks a lot!” My mother, who by then couldn’t tell you what she had for breakfast an hour beforehand and sometimes still thought she should be at the job from which she’d retired at age 72, still had her spunk – and she’d apparently decided her cakes had been insulted! The whole room cracked up in laughter, a welcome break in the sorrow. (Sadly, Mom passed away two weeks after her niece and we were back in that same funeral home far too soon.)

Below is the recipe (with pictures) for the cupcakes thus far baked for the WomanWords 15th birthday at Caffe Lena, tweaked from the Chocolate Heaven Cake recipe in The Back in the Day Bakery Cookbook (by Cheryl & Griffith Day, Artisan, 2012), mentioned in another recent post (for Brown Sugar Banana Bread). When these chocolate bits of heaven are frosted, there will be another recipe and more photos on KitchenCauldron. For now, I still haven’t decided on the icing type yet…

HEAVENLY CHOCOLATE CUPCAKES
Yield: My batter produced two (2) dozen regular-sized cupcakes, plus six (6) muffin-sized; original recipe was for one (1) 9-inch 3-layer cake

Ingredients

  • 3 cups cake flour (not self-rising, not all-purpose)
  • 4 cups granulated sugar
  • 1½ teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 9 ounces unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped (I used Ghiradelli)
  • 2 cups hot freshly brewed hazelnut decaf coffee, made with Saigon cinnamon and fresh-ground nutmeg while brewing (original cake recipe used regular coffee; I just wanted extra flavor kick)
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla powder
  • 4 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 cup canola oil
  • 1 cup sour cream, at room temperature

Process

  1. Position rack in lower third of oven, and pre-heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Place cupcake liners in cupcake baking tins (or butter and dust with cocoa powder or flour, shaking out excess), enough for 3 dozen cupcakes or, as I did, 2 dozen regular-sized cupcakes plus a half-dozen muffin-sized.
  3. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a large bowl, using a portable mixer), combine flour, sugar, baking soda and salt. Mix on low speed for two or three minutes to aerate the flour (something new for me – I’d have never thought of “aerating” without the Back in the Day cookbook).
  4. Place chocolate in a medium bowl and add hot coffee and vanilla. Let stand until melted (about 2 or 3 minutes); then stir to smooth consistency.
  5. In another medium bowl, whisk together eggs and oil until thick, satiny and light in color.
  6. Whisk sour cream into egg mixture. Do not overmix; leave some streaks of white.
  7. Pour egg/sour cream mixture into melted chocolate, slowly, stirring as you do so.
  8. Add the entire now-chocolatey mixture, one third at a time, to the flour mix in the large bowl, mixing on medium speed until well blended.
  9. Use a rubber spatula to incorporate any ingredients “hiding” at the bottom (remove the bowl from the mixer stand first, if using stand mixer). Be sure batter is completely mixed.
  10. Fill prepared cupcake-tin spaces (or liners in tins) ⅔ to ¾ full with batter (I did the latter and that worked fine). NOTE: Back in the Day suggests “tapping the (cake)pans firmly on the countertop to remove any air bubbles from the batter,” which I forgot to do – don’t worry if you forget too ’cuz they’re still scrumptious!
  11. Bake in oven for 20 to 22 minutes (25-28 for muffin-sized) or until a toothpick inserted in cake comes out clean (or centers spring back when touched). They’ll have slight cracks on them and come out a deep chocolate color. (If you opt to bake a cake with the batter, the cookbook says to bake for 40 to 50 minutes.)
  12. Let cool for 5 minutes in pans, then remove to wire racks to cool completely.
  13. Sprinkle cooled cupcakes with sifted confectioner sugar, or top with favorite icing/frosting, or freeze as soon as cooled (individually wrapped in plastic wrap, eliminating all air) for up to two weeks. (I’ve never frozen cupcakes before this batch but am told that, when thawing, take the wrap off before thawing or they will have a gluey top texture – then frost; I intend to make the frosting while they’re thawing and then ice the cakes immediately.)

Note: I didn’t freeze the muffin-sized ones. Bill and I had one each, with confectioner’s sugar sifted atop, for dinner the same night baked. Two are getting delivered to our daughter today. The last two are dessert for tonight, maybe with Cool Whip atop. I think they had to have “heaven” in their title because they are To Die For.

Post-Menopausal Orgasm Cake: Triple-Layered, Gluten-Free and Decadent – Celebrating Dolores’ Birthday

I like chocolate, but I am not a chocoholic (as my daughter and many of my friends might dub themselves). But this cake took me over the top. It is ecstasy personified. And those enjoying my first (successful) attempt at making it were all “women of a certain age” – thus, the above “that-time-of-life” naming.

The occasion: a two-in-oner. First, five of us (Leslie, Lesley, Judy, Dolores and myself) have been meeting fairly regularly to work through a book by Natalie Reid, a friend and member/workshop leader at International Women’s Writing Guild summer conferences that most of us have attended for several years. The book is The Spiritual Alchemist: Working with the Voice of Your Soul, and it offers writing and other exercises to help the reader along this path. Natalie defines a spiritual alchemist as “a person who seeks spiritual direction, spiritual connection, and spiritual growth by embarking on a fearless, joyful, and lifelong path to self-knowledge.” It seems that part of our group’s alchemy includes food for the soul as well, literally. There’s always a nice spread of mostly healthy, usually gluten-free snacks on hand (both Judy and Leslie can’t do gluten) to bolster the body along with whatever each of us might define as her “soul.”

Secondly, we decided to belatedly celebrate Dolores’ birthday with a cake, which I volunteered to bake since I’d recently been intrigued by several recipes in Gesine Bullock-Prado’s memoir, My Life from Scratch: A Sweet Journey of Starting Over, One Cake at a Time (Broadway Books, 2009). After graduating from law school, Bullock-Prado spent several years in Hollywood working for/with her sister (that would be Oscar-winning Sandra Bullock) as president of her company – reviewing contracts, sitting through creative meetings and lunches and all the rigamarole involved in ensuring that scripts get reviewed, films made and more. When her mind began to wander while performing these important tasks… and her mother passed away… she realized she needed to get away from the glitz and fakery of the entertainment capital and follow her own sweet path. She and her husband moved to Vermont, opened a bakery and, voilà, happiness! (Since then, she’s also published a couple cookbooks, one of which – Sugar Baby (Abrams, 2011) – now rests on a bookshelf in my kitchen.)

Bullock-Prado’s cake (encompassing both cake & icing) came down to her from her mother, who called it “the Orgasm Cake”. In the bakery, however, she didn’t call it by her mom’s label. When the it opened, word had gotten around that her sister would be helping out, so lines were out the door and down the block with folks waiting to get in. Therefore, when her aunt provided the recipe to the new owner, she sent along a note saying that she understood she might “not be able to call the pecan chocolate torte ‘the Orgasm Cake’ if you are selling at the store – you might end up with another line out the front door like at the opening!” So it was re-named Helga’s Cake, honoring Gesine’s/Sandra’s mother.

In the end, Leslie (at whose house we meet) and I opted for a full luncheon meal. My reminder e-mail about our gathering said, “Come hungry.” Leslie created a huge, amazing salad along with a fig-based dressing (I’m hoping she provides that recipe to me, perhaps as a “guest blogger” for inclusion as a post on KitchenCauldron), as well providing other sustenance. All in all, a wonderful afternoon – and we never did get around to the meditation and writing this time. We simply ate and talked and ate and laughed and ate. And Dolores blew out a single candle on her cake and opened a few gifts.

Biggest Laugh: Fuzzy dice & and a hula girl for Dolores' Mustang convertible, vehicle bought as retirement gift for herself!

I suggest that you might want to view the video on Gesine Bullock-Prado’s blogsite to see how she puts together her cake. Here’s how I concocted my version:

  • I made the cake pretty much as directed in the book, except I toasted the pecans first for deeper flavor. (Note: in the book, the author suggests using three cake pans, minimum 1½ inch depth, but in the video she uses “cake rings” – which I never would’ve imagined, so check it out!).
  • The frosting portion of the recipe is my own. Bullock-Prado’s buttercream recipe includes egg yolks that aren’t necessarily processed with enough heat to kill bad bacteria if the eggs contain any. I know this is generally not a problem since the incidence of such bacteria is rare nowadays, but I never take that chance with my concoctions.
  • I’d never made chocolate ganache before, although I’ve read plenty of recipes for it. I flicked through a few of them before starting on this cake and based my version pretty much on one in The Moosewood Book of Desserts by the Moosewood Collective (Clarkson Potter, 1997). How I deviated from the Moosewood ganache? I used two types of chocolate instead of one; I didn’t have as much heavy cream left as they required for their recipe, so I used less and added in the coffee; and I added vanilla powder.

As for the magic, why, chocolate is love. Certainly, there was plenty of love and friendship at our Spiritual Alchemy gathering yesterday. And lots of love of  cake.

That’s my story behind this luscious dessert, with thanks to Gesine Bullock-Prado for her creative inspiration. Make the cake! Buy her books, if so inclined. And here’s to the occasional decadent treat in this sweet life of ours…

Marilyn, holding on to decadence!

POST-MENOPAUSAL ORGASM CAKE
Yield: 8 to 12 servings, depending upon consumers’ appetites for decadence

Ingredients

for cake

  • 12 ounces pecans
  • 1 cup sugar, ½ cup at a time
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 whole eggs; plus 8 large eggs, separated
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder

for frosting between layers

  • 16 oz. mascarpone cheese (it’s like cream cheese, only sweeter)
  • 2 cups confectioners’ sugar
  •  ⅔ cup cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla powder
  • 7 to 8 tablespoons butter, softened
  • at least ¼ cup heavy cream (more might be needed)
  • up to 1 teaspoon Roasted Saigon Cinnamon (or regular cinnamon)

for ganache drizzled topping

  • 4 ounces bittersweet chocolate
  • 5 ounces semi-sweet chocolate
  • 1⅓ cup heavy cream
  • ⅛ cup strong hazelnut coffee (or regular coffee, if preferred)
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla powder

Process

for cake
Note: I baked the layers the night before frosting, covering tops of cooled cakes on individual plates with a sheet of waxed paper, then putting plastic wrap loosely over each cake/plate (but covering everything). This meant I didn’t have to find room in my refrigerator for an entire 3-layer cake, which would be required since part of the filling includes mascarpone cheese.

  1. Pre-heat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Lightly grease (I use butter) three 8-inch round cake pans (mine might’ve been 9-inch – I didn’t measure!). Line the bottoms with parchment paper and lightly grease the papers.
  3. Spread the pecans out in a large (preferably 12”- to allow as close to a single layer as possible) frying pan over a medium-hot heat, allowing to “toast” until they exude a “nutty” aroma. This should take very little time, no more than 3-4 minutes. You might want to stir them about at least one during the process, ensuring you do not burn them.
  4. In a food processor, grind toasted pecans with ½ cup of the sugar plus the salt, until they turn into a fine meal.
  5. Add the 8 egg yolks, the whole eggs, vanilla and baking powder. Blend until it becomes a smooth paste.
  6. Whip the egg whites on high in the bowl of an electric mixer using whisk attachment. Just as they begin to gain volume and look white and fluffy (not chunky), add remaining ½ cup sugar gradually (in a slow stream). Continue to whisk on high until whites are shiny and hold a stiff peak.
  7. Transfer pecan paste to a large mixing bowl and stir a heaping spoonful of egg whites to lighten batter.
  8. Gently fold remaining egg whites into mixture until well incorporated (try not to disturb integrity of the aerated eggs).
  9. Divide batter between the three pans.
  10. Bake for 30 to 45 minutes, or until cake springs back when touched (I also used a toothpick to check it). Mine took only 30 or 35 minutes.
  11. Allow to cool completely on wire racks before you release from pan.

for frosting between layers

  1. In a large mixing bowl, beat together all ingredients – but adding heavy cream in small doses, to ensure you get desired consistency, which is a sort-of heavenly-almost-mousse-like quality.
  2. Frost between layers (not the top! that gets the ganache!), making sure to spread frosting all the way to edges.
  3. Set cake aside, awaiting ganache.

for ganache drizzled topping

  1. Place a metal or glass bowl over a pot of water that’s been brought to a boil then heat reduced to a steady simmer. Make sure there’s not so much water in the pot that it will touch a bowl that will be placed over it. (Note: if you have one, you can use a double boiler instead – I own a double boiler but actually prefer the bowl method.)
  2. Place a metal or glass bowl over the pot and put chocolate in the bowl. Allow it to melt, stirring often to prevent it from burning (nothing will take out a burnt flavor).
  3. Meanwhile, pour the heavy cream into a medium-size sauce pan and stir in the vanilla powder. Bring to a simmer. Do not allow it to boil.
  4. When the chocolate is completely melted, remove from the heat and stir into heavy cream. Keep stirring until completely incorporated.
  5. Remove from heat to a wire rack or trivet. Allow to cool to a consistency where it is still pourable but not super-hot (so that it will drizzle onto the cake but doesn’t permeate and make it soggy). If necessary, after it cools a little on the counter, place it in the refrigerator to quicken the process.
  6. Pour the ganache over the top layer, allowing it to drip along the sides. (It’s possible you might not need all of it. In that case, refrigerate remainings in a small container and you’ve got a slightly-soft, homemade candy bar next day; or re-heat it and add to milk as it heats up, for a rich cup of hot chocolate!)
  7. Refrigerate the cake until about half hour or an hour before serving (for best slicing), at which time you should expect groans of orgasmic delight as cake consumers indulge.

KitchenCauldron – Unplugged

One of the foodblogs to which I subscribe, Frugal Feeding, is written by a young guy in England who offers some pretty yummy cooking/baking possibilities for those of us lucky enough to discover his place on the web. Actually, I think he found me, signing on to receive KitchenCauldron postings early into my foodie-blogosphere experience (which, as you know, only began in October of last year). Usually, Frugal Feeding posts are all about the recipe but his 1/22/12 post began:

Earlier this afternoon I received an e-mail from one of my favourite bloggers – The Dusty Baker. She asked me whether I would like to participate in the “Unplugged” chain, which is essentially an interview in blog form. Usually it is against my sensibilities as a writer and food blogger to take part in any such self-indulgence. However, for now I shall set aside any such critical self-awareness and proceed with the faint suspicion that this will be, for most, a rather uninspiring and rather uninteresting post.

I found his posting to be far from “uninspiring and rather uninteresting.” On the contrary, I love reading about what inspires people to cook or bake (probably why I enjoy food-related memoirs so much); and I intend to check out the blogs suggested in his “unplugged” post.

I also loved that he ended his post with a picture of his chickens! It reminded me of the egg-laying hens that wandered freely at the site where we used to pick up our CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) share a few years ago (the farmer, a really great guy, wound up having to go out of business after a couple difficult years). They were referred to as “the ladies” and theirs were probably the freshest eggs we’d had up until we’d found Butch’s CSA on the Local Harvest website). Unfortunately either a weasel or a fox took up residence nearby and, since these little beauties were cage-free, they were picked off one or two at a time.

I confess that I love taking those fill-in-the-blank surveys that circulate amongst friends and relatives, inviting me to “let us get to know each other better.” I even go through any reading list or bibliography in the back of a good book, checking off books I’ve read on the list (and those I own but haven’t gotten around to yet), as well as some I might like to read. For me, the “foodblog unplugged” is simply another one of those surveys about getting-to-know-me-better, except it targets some things I love doing: cooking, baking, sharing recipes and writing. What could be more fun?

So here it goes…

Who or what inspired you to start your blog?

I love to cook and bake. Well, most of the time; sometimes I’d rather be reading or creating a piece of art or writing – and then, if there aren’t any leftovers to eat, it’s subs from Subway, or Five Guys’ burgers, or pizza takeout, or a grilled cheese sandwich for dinner! People ask for my recipes when I’ve served something delicious. A blog is a great way to get the recipe to them – just say, “Check out my blog, it’s posted,” and hand them a card with its site (oops, haven’t put it on my card yet…). It can be time-consuming to create a post: writing, editing, downloading pictures, editing pictures, transferring everything to WordPress, proofreading, more editing before pushing that Publish button. Still, it’s worth it because it’s another creation, isn’t it?

I also enjoy that it puts me in contact with other people who share some of my interests – and they can live on the other side of the world or practically next door. In some cases, it’s like looking through a window into another culture.

And it’s fun. I get to tell my food memories, which usually involve friends and/or family. It’s writing, which I love. And taking photos falls under the heading of art, although I don’t aspire to be a renowned food photographer. I have enough on my plate as it is! (My husband Bill, however, now tends to ask, before eating any meal, “Do you need to take a picture or can I eat?”)

"Burger" by MariLyn, Artist Trading Card

Who is your foodie inspiration?

I have many foodie inspirations so it’s hard to nail one down. I love The Food Network but don’t focus on one star, having learned from, and salivated over, dishes and desserts by Ina Garten, Mario Batali, Paula Deen, Giada De Laurentis, Tyler Florence, Rachel Ray, Aaron Sanchez and more. I even love shows like Chopped and Iron Chef because they give me ideas. I read several magazines (in order of my preference): Eating Well, Clean Eating, Cooking Light, La Cucina Italia, Food Network Magazine and Rachel Ray Magazine. But my earliest, truest inspiration was a woman I worked with decades ago, Laura Kurner.

Laura was about my mother’s age but so different. She seemed to have a younger spirit (with an infectious laugh that I’ll never forget), and she was perhaps the first true “foodie” I ever met. I grew up in a meat-and-potatoes home, where vegetables mostly came out of cans and cakes were Betty Crocker or Duncan Hines products (but nicely decorated by Mom). We didn’t have lots of money, but Dad ran a small grocery store so we weren’t about to starve. Laura’s culinary background was totally different, resulting in an ability to simply taste something and then rattle off its basic ingredients. There’s a whole story about how she told me I “should marry that one” as she pointed to my Bill, minutes before I was about to introduce her to him. But I’ll save it for a future blogpost. Suffice to say, I was intrigued by my friend’s amazing cooking knowledge and skills. I wanted to become the kind of cook she was: intuitive and magical-seeming.

Your greasiest, most batter-splattered cookbook is?

I’m not sure this says anything about anything, since I’ve just become a little neater about splattering over the years, often putting a cookbook behind a plastic screen to avoid messing it up! However, for the sake of an answer, I’ll mention two, out of the close-to-300 in my kitchen, one of which I’ve mentioned on this blog at least twice.

The first spattered book would be my very first cookbook, the General Foods All About Home Baking book. My mother gave it to me probably in sixth seventh grade, after I’d tried baking a sponge cake from a copy an old Williamsburg cookbook that had somehow come into my hands as a result of a school lesson. When I say “old” I mean “olde,” as in the original recipes with no info about oven temps (after all, they baked over fireplaces, right?) and not great measurements of ingredients either. It didn’t rise at all, imitating a thick yellowish pancake (didn’t taste too awful though). I baked several items from All About Home Baking over the years, before abandoning it for better books. Somehow, however, I can’t seem to recycle it to a used bookstore. (Incidentally, I now own a beautiful volume, The Colonial Williamsburg Tavern Cookbook, put out by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, which I purchased two years ago when we visited Williamsburg enroute back to New York State from Florida. No sponge cake recipes within its covers but at least measurements make sense and oven temps are specified!)

Not only is the other cookbook, Robert Ackart’s A Celebration of Soups, splattered – it’s also full of penciled-in notes about how I changed the recipe while concocting the mixtures. I own about four or five soup cookbooks, but this is the one I go to first every time. I think Mom gave me this one too, back in the ’80s.

The best thing you have ever eaten in another country, where was it and what was it?

This answer won’t be long since the only other country I’ve been in would be Canada and haven’t been there since the ’90s. We were in Niagara-on-the-Lake one summer, for one day only (staying at Niagara Falls Air Force Base on the U.S. side of Niagara Falls for several days), and we stopped in a tavern with an Old English décor (Niagara-on-the-Lake is, after all, located in a realm of the United Kingdom). We were asked if we wanted to do tea. Yes, we did. Tea and scones were placed in front of us. I’d heard of scones before. Maybe even seen a picture of one somewhere. Never tasted one. Had to be told to try it with a little butter and then some jam atop that. Loved them. Bought some at the bakery down the street to bring back to the Base for later on too. Yum. I’ve even baked them since, but not for years now. Hmmm… maybe too long… and I happen to have a tiny cookbook filled only with scones…

Another Food Blogger’s table you would like to eat at?

David Lebovitz. Who cares about appetizers, entrées or side dishes when there’s the potential for some of the desserts that this guy could whip up for me! I have two of his cookbooks, and I’ve read his memoir (with recipes), The Sweet Life in Paris. OK, maybe I’m a little enticed by the idea that his table happens to be in Paris, so who wouldn’t like to eat at it? But my mouth is watering at this moment just thinking about a great lemon meringue dessert of his that I’ve been contemplating taking a stab at baking.

What one kitchen gadget would you like Santa to bring you? (If money were no object.)

I don’t really require any more kitchen gadgets, nor do I have any more space for gadgets – BUT I wouldn’t mind a larger food processor than my current one. I think KitchenAid makes a 13-cup one that would be quite fine (and I’d recycle the current one to our daughter, who doesn’t own one at all). Would I have to wait for Santa? How about the Easter Bunny?

Who taught you how to cook?

Lots of people: Mom. Laura. Other friends. Cookbooks. Television. And plenty of experimenting, some of which were disasters, most were at least edible, many have been dubbed as delicious (& similar adjectives).

I’m coming for dinner, what is your signature dish?

Not sure if I have one. If you talk with our daughter and some of her friends, they might say my macaroni and cheese. But I think my cream of broccoli is probably a true favorite. It’s thick and easily goes down as a main dish, with salad and a good bread. But I’d have to serve a light dessert, cuz you’d have wanted – and devoured – a second helping of the soup.

What is your guilty pleasure?

Guilt about food? The only time I feel guilty about food is when I’ve consumed far too many calories and too much fat, for too many days in a row… or been tempted by the advertising/packaging of some pre-processed crap that turns out to taste as bad as I should have expected.

Reveal something about yourself that others would be surprised to learn.

I can’t think of anything that would be terribly surprising to most folks, foodwise, about myself. I’m pretty open about who I am and what my culinary experience has been (I’m not a chef, for sure; just a home cook). And the “remembrances” part of my blog gives readers glimpses into Who I Am and how I got to be this person who loves food and enjoys cooking/baking.

What bloggers would you love “to know more about”?

I’m going to take the “know more about” to mean that I’d want to continue to read their blogposts, since that’s how one gets to know a blogger better – through their recipes and stories. So here are a few blogsites I enjoy immensely (aside from Frugal Feeding, of course, which I noted above as the source, for me, of this survey):

David Lebovitz, whose sense of humor never fails to give me a chuckle and whose blog is awesome. Great stuff about Paris too, a place I dream (probably more like pipe-dream) about visiting someday.

Gluten Free Girl and the Chef amazes me with her success – and her comeback from barely surviving to “having a life” through changing her diet to exclude gluten (she was finally diagnosed with celiac’s disease after years of always feeling ill). Shauna James Ahem (and her husband, the chef, Daniel) has one cookbook out and another in process (the first was named one of the Best Cookbooks of 2010 by the New York Times). Since I have several friends with either celiac’s or a wheat allergy, I’m always looking for good recipes to serve them as guests at home, or to bring to a potluck.

Orangette is Wendy Wizenberg’s blog, started in July 2004. I read her memoir, A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table, which is how I found her blog, and I keep it on my cookbook shelves for the recipes in it (someday I’ll get around to photocopying the ones I want to save and then pass it on to a friend). Wizenberg even met her husband through her blog, and they’ve since opened up a restaurant (2009) called Delancey.

A Year of Slow Cooking, Stephanie O’Dea’s blog, is based on her determination to use her slowcooker to cook something ever day for a year. This is another blog I found because I bought a book, this one being a cookbook, Make it Fast, Cook It Slow (which was followed by More Make it Fast, Cook It Slow, which I also own). O’Dea has a wise-cracking sense of humor that I love—and I love that she gives an honest critique of what she’s just made, including opinions stated by family and friends.

Domestic Diva, M.D.: My Mother Raised the Perfect Housewife… Then I Went to Med School is new on the blog scene (even newer than KitchenCauldron!) but already I’m liking it. She’s got a sense of humor and, more importantly, a sense of story to go along with her recipes and foodie memories. She’s a 4th year med student who’s probably going into anesthesiology.

Savory Simple says she’s a 2010 graduate of L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, Maryland, which was a career change from 10 years in IT. When she started the blog, she was more into savory foods but has now developed a sweet tooth as well. Whatever she’s cooking/baking, it’s sounds and looks (wonderful photos) scrumptious.

And that’s the survey, with my answers. It’s been fun. Now I have to decide what recipe I’ll next post, and what “remembrance” might work with it… stirring the cauldron of memory.

"Spell-Bound" by MariLyn, Artist Trading Card

Christmas Cookies 2011, Recipe #5 – Wurstcakes (á la Diana Abu-Jaber’s Gram)

I met author Diana Abu-Jaber several years ago when she had a book-signing at a local independent book store, Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza. My friend Jan Tramontano had interviewed her for the Albany Times Union and asked if I would like to join her and another friend, Kathe Kokolias, at the signing. I didn’t buy that particular book – it was a mystery/suspense novel, something I don’t usually read much of – but I’ve read three of Abu-Jaber’s other books: two novels and a memoir, all spiced nicely with food and recipes. I especially loved the memoir, The Language of Baklava (Pantheon, 2005).

We had such a great time at the reading/booksigning! Since she’s originally from Syracuse, NY, her parents drove down to Albany for the event, so we got to meet two of the “highlights” of both Baklava and one of her novels, Arabian Jazz (W.W. Norton & Company, 2003), which was fiction based on her American/Jordanian childhood. Her father was particularly entertaining, evoking lots of laughter. So, when I discovered Abu-Jaber on Facebook, I Friended her right away. It was there that I saw her posting for these cookies over a year ago – in a link to a short piece of hers published in Good Housekeeping magazine in late 2010.

Diana’s GH story, “Wurstcakes: A Sweet Holiday Tradition,” includes a sub-title that glides the reader into the narrative: When I was 8, my grandmother was the source of all sweet things. I think those words would intrigue anyone who holds onto special memories of a grandparent. I know it caught me (my particular memory covers making apple pies with Gramma Boyd)! Right then, I decided I was going to make these cookies – but didn’t get around to it during the 2010 holidays. A year later… they were on my Must-Do agenda.

If you follow the link above (click on the GH story’s title), you can read both Diana’s article and her grandmother’s recipe, which I cut in half for Christmas 2011 because I was making so many other treats (I’ve included my halved version on this blog). I laughed when I read how her father even slipped into this bit of memoir (more than once). She wrote that her grandmother’s “…Wurstcakes were slim as communion wafers, and even Dad – who was addicted to their crunch – referred to them as her ‘Catholic cookies.’” I loved reading about personal memories surrounding these simple baked treats. Unfortunately, my own first attempt at Wurstcakes did not render “slim as communion wafer” results (probably takes practice), although quite delicious anyway.

Incidentally, my family got a few laughs out of the name itself. As I pointed out the cookies on the Christmas Eve after-dinner platter, to enable easier selections for people, I noted the Wurstcakes and explained, “…these are the Wurst cookies.” I watched confusion immediately plaster across a few faces. “Worst cookies?” “No, no. They’re called Wurstcakes. German or Bavarian or something… not w-O-r-s-t.” They finally got it when I further explained that you roll the dough into sausage-like shapes, like bratwurst, and refrigerate it for a while before slicing. That’s fair warning, dear readers: if you make these wafer-thin lovelies, beware how you introduce them!

This is where I usually write about how I changed a recipe that I used as my guide. Well, the only change to this one was when I halved it. (In the article, Diana says its yield is “Enough for the whole family… and then some!” I decided I required less than that, at least this time around.) Also, she suggests options of either decorating with an almond slice (before baking) or, after baking and cooling, using a simple icing of confectionary sugar and water. I happen to like buttercream frosting, which tasted wonderful on them (although I did the almond thing on about half the batch – and these were heavenly when dunked in either my morning hazelnut decaf coffee or an evening chai latte!).

Here’s an interesting aside: I printed my copy of the recipe in November 2010. In it, measurements for flour and brown sugar appear in poundage terms, which I imagine is the way her grandmother baked—as they did (and still do) in her former homeland. When I returned to the story online today and clicked further to the recipe, I realized that flour and brown sugar measurements have been converted to cups (which is not quite as accurate as weighing ingredients, I understand, but it’s how Americans are used to working with recipes). Also, the instructions for making the confectionary sugar/water icing are included this time around. (OK, confession-time: I didn’t choose to do that icing because I would’ve had to “look it up,” not having used it before; whipping up a batch of buttercream is like second-nature to me and that’s really why I went that way…) So if you want the “in your cups” version, make sure you follow that link… and you’ll also get directions for the icing.

By the way, Diana’s latest novel, Birds of Paradise (W.W. Norton, 2011) includes a pastry-chef mother, so food once again plays into the writing; and the main character in another well-enjoyed (by me) book, Crescent (W.W. Norton, 2004), is a half-Arab woman chef in a Lebanese restaurant. Check out Diana Abu-Jaber’s website for synopses of all these great reads!

 

BAVARIAN WURSTCAKES (with thanks to Diana Abu-Jaber & her memories of her grandmother, Grace Belford))
Yield: about 3½ to 4 dozen

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb. all-purpose flour
  • ¼ lb. brown sugar
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda, dissolved in ½ tablespoon water
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon (I use Roasted Saigon cinnamon)
  • ½ teaspoon allspice
  • ¼ teaspoon ground clove
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 stick (8 tablespoons) butter

Process:

  1. Mix together dry ingredients (flour, brown sugar, spices).
  2. Stir soda/water mixture into dry ingredients.
  3. Add eggs and butter, mixing all ingredients together.
  4. Knead well by hand.
  5. Divide dough into two fat “sausages,” each about 1½” wide (circumference).
  6. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap or wax paper and refrigerate overnight (or up to one week).
  7. When you expect to bake the cookies, pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.
  8. Take out wurst rolls one at a time, as you slice cookies for baking (keep the other refrigerated until using – they cut better when cold). With a sharp knife, cut dough into 1/8-inch slices and place on lightly greased cookie sheets, about 1 inch apart.
  9. If adding an almond as a decoration, push into center of cookie at this point.
  10. Bake 10 to 12 minutes or until lightly browned (but check at 8 or 9 minutes, just in case!).
  11. Transfer to wire rack to cool completely.
  12. Remove other wurst roll from fridge and repeat with remaining dough.
  13. When cooled, frost or ice at your own pleasure (or not).

My New Year’s Gift to BlogReaders: A Book Suggestion

If you’re reading this blog because you enjoy cooking/baking, then you might be able to imagine yourself in Molly Birnbaum’s place when, several years ago, her life took a drastic and debilitating turn. She was young, recently graduated from college and had finally found her passion. She wanted to become a chef. She’d spent the summer acquiring experience in a fine restaurant in Boston and was scheduled to begin classes at the Culinary Institute of America in the near future. Before taking off for work during her last week or so of employment, she suited up and tied her sneakers snuggly, anticipating an invigorating run before her hectic day. Minutes into the jog, she was slammed by a speeding car driven by a young man who’d run the red light. Her multiple broken bones were severe injuries but not irreparable, with surgery and extensive physical therapy. The loss of the ability to smell, however, was not necessarily recoverable.

I bought Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way by Molly Birnbaum early last week with a $25 gift card received for Christmas. It’s so new it’s still in hardcover. I picked it up a couple days later to read and hated putting it down to do minor things like eating and sleeping. I finished it in two days. I’m recommending it to everyone I know.

Not only is this the story of Birnbaum’s healing journey (and I’m not telling you exactly what happened with her sense of smell…), it’s also full of information on this ephemeral, indefinable ability that not only defines just how well we taste but also warns us of impending dangers. I was fascinated by some of the history of this sense, as well as recent research. It seems the writer left few stones unturned as she sought answers about the likelihood of her ever smelling again and as she met with important scientists, researchers, perfume artists, chefs and medical folks to broaden her knowledge. I’d even heard of a few of them before (anyone out there NOT heard of Oliver Sacks, played by Robin Williams in the film Awakenings?)!

Molly Birnbaum is an excellent writer too. Not just factual. There’s a bit of the poetic to be found as one continues to read through the book. She travels to the University of Pennsylvania at one point to meet with Dr. Richard Doty in the Taste and Smell Center, where people who have lost their sense of smell (or it’s greatly diminished) are interviewed and assessed. She describes Doty as having become “the gatekeeper of the lost and found, director of a world based on an absence.” Later in the book she meets with a famous chef who “also knew the  power of absence” through his treatments for cancer of the tongue. Always, she is honest and searching – and we want to follow her story all the way to the end.

But then is there really an end? You’ll have to read the memoir to find out. And you might even stop by her food blog, My Madeleine.

Munching at the Moosewood

If you’re a foodie, possibly you know about the Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, NY, having browsed cookbooks  at Barnes & Noble or other bookstores. If you’re a vegetarian and seek out flavorful foods, you probably even own one of those cookbooks. If you’re both foodie AND follow some form of vegetarian or semi-vegetarian diet, you likely realize that the Moosewood is world-famous for its vegetarian cuisine (with an occasional fish entrée thrown in). Maybe you’ve even traveled to Ithaca, Gateway to the Finger Lakes – home to Cornell University, Ithaca College (famed for its School of Music), and a thriving community of artists. If you’ve been there, I hope you dropped by Moosewood for lunch or dinner. It’s a delicious experience.

I’ve done dinner at Moosewood once, with my husband Bill. Twice, I’ve enjoyed lunches there. The first time one of my writer friends, Kathe Kokolias, and I traveled to Ithaca to visit with our friend Jan Tramontano, who was finishing her novel at Saltonstall Arts Colony. Most recently (last weekend), I shared lunch with both hubby Bill and our daughter Kristen, who first introduced me to Moosewood cookbooks when she was a teenage vegetarian. Each time, I enjoyed scrumptious food and lovely ambiance.

Let me preface my stories about Moosewood meals by telling you that I am not a vegetarian. Neither is Bill. I could be a vegetarian, except that I happen to enjoy (and make) several meat-endowed dishes; and I love chicken and turkey. And eggs. Hard-boiled, over-easy, deviled, baked, lots of which-ways (and they’re so necessary for lots of baking). I could be content eating meat maybe once or twice a week. As for Bill – no way. He can tolerate several meatless meals in a week, even enjoy a good cheese or veggie lasagna or other concoction I might serve, but he’d want his red meat, pork, ham, or even occasional lamb (no veal – I don’t buy or cook veal) at least a few times per week. Our son Adrian would eat meat every day, even twice a day, if he could. Kristen, on the other hand, had her totally vegetarian phase back in high school and for a while afterward. Now she sometimes indulges in chicken or turkey, provided someone else prepares it.

If you don’t know about the “labels” that now describe vegetarians, vegans and semi-vegetarians, you might check out the Wikipedia article on vegetarians. You’d be amazed at the varieties! And anyone who falls into any of these categories would likely find foods on the Moosewood menu that they could consume.

Non-vegetarians love Moosewood too, where they might discover an occasional fish entrée, just as creatively prepped as the strict veggie ones. I imagine that many of the family groups sighted at nearby tables include carnivore parents in town to visit their vegetarian college kids, who’ve dragged them to the restaurant. Whether or not they started out simply to indulge their Ivy League or artsy offspring, they all looked (to me) like they appreciated the yummy food before them.

Kathe, Jan and I sat on the terrace for our lunch years ago, enjoying warm Indian Summer weather as our meals were served. My entrée was an awesome stuffed zucchini dish, but I best recall dessert. Simple and amazingly satisfying. Fresh figs, perhaps warmed by a quick visit to the oven (?), and cheeses. Maybe there was a dribble of sweet sauce on the plate. All I know is that I’d never before tasted a fresh fig. My only exposure to figs: Fig Newtons, which I happen to like in very small quantities. I was impressed with the simplicity and enamored by the burst of flavors that offset each other yet worked together. Memory is a strange thing. Details often get erased but the overall experience usually stays with you if it’s particularly good (or, in contrast, especially bad). This memory made me determined that I’d bring Kristen to Moosewood someday.

When Bill and I managed a trip to Ithaca, it was too cold for the terrace but it was cozy and warm inside. My non-vegetarian husband was happy to note that the evening’s dinner menu included Oven Poached Salmon. Several portions of Moosewood’s menu change daily and we hadn’t checked online beforehand, so it was a pleasant surprise to see fish listed among the four entrée choices. I decided on the Calabacitas Burrito, described as a “Wheat tortilla filled with spiced sautéed summer squash, zucchini, carrots, corn and bell peppers with cheddar & neufchatel cheeses; served with tomato-chili sauce, sour cream. drunken beans & rice.” Before the waitress arrived, we looked more closely at Bill’s preferred main course: “Fresh fillet poached with lemon and served with shallot tarragon butter, wide rice pilaf and Brussels sprouts.” Since there are only three vegetables he cannot stand – Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, and lima beans – he was in a quandary, wondering if substitution was doable, given the limited number of entrée options to begin with. When our waitress returned to take our order, Bill cited the last line on the menu, which reads, in part, “If you have any dietary restrictions or food allergies, please consult your waiter…” She laughed as he inquired whether or not the fact that he hates Brussels sprouts qualifies as “a dietary restriction”; then she assured him that the kitchen might be able to substitute broccoli (which he loves).

We enjoyed both of our meals and, unable to “fit in” dessert, ordered it “to go.” Bill went for the Red Devil Cake, a recipe that can be found in the Moosewood Restaurant Book of Desserts. I own this cookbook and hope to eventually get around to baking what I guess you might say is a healthier version of a Red Velvet Cake – its color doesn’t come from bottled artificial food dyes; it’s from canned beets! I had to find out what Vegan Pumpkin Pie tasted like. Pumpkin pie without eggs? And how did they pull together that pastry? It turned out to be passable but definitely not The Real Thing that I love.

Incidentally, the Creamy Butternut Squash soup was perhaps the best rendition of that kind of soup I’ve ever slurped down (while wishing I’d ordered a bowl instead of a cup). Bill said his Turkish Red Lentil soup was excellent as well.

Last weekend, we arrived at Moosewood about an hour before they stop serving lunch. Entrée choices on the menu this time were Spanish Frittata, Vegan Lasagna, Kevin’s Torta, Red Bean Burrito (another vegan possibility), Salmon Cake or a Salad Plate (also vegan-friendly). Kevin’s Torta sounded like heaven to me: “Flaky filo pastry strudel made with leeks, spinach, portabello mushrooms, dill and an array of sharp and mellow cheeses; served with marinated vegetables.” Kristen liked the sound of the Spanish Frittata (“Layers of roasted potatoes and onions, Spanish olives, sharp and mellow cheeses baked in an egg custard and served with zesty chipotle aioli.”). Bill immediately gravitated toward the Salmon Cake but then there was the description, which closed with “served with marinated vegetables, creamy tartar sauce and mashed sweet potatoes.” Sweet potatoes, another one of The Dreaded Three. I assured him it would be fine to once again ask if a different side could be substituted, but he replied, “Well, no, I won’t bother. Besides, I can tolerate sweet potatoes much better than the horrible taste of Brussels sprouts!” I found myself pondering whether or not I’d somehow muted this particular culinary aversion in him when I managed to sneak sweet potatoes into my pumpkin soup (for texture, since I use canned pumpkin), not revealing the underhanded trick until he exclaimed to dinnertime company that “Marilyn’s pumpkin soup is excellent; you have to try it.”

As soon as our waitress came over to the table she informed us, “I have to tell you there’s only one order of Kevin’s Torta left; it’s really popular today.” Unfortunately, by the time she returned to the kitchen with our orders, the last Torta was already spoken for; and I became the one “substituting” this time, deciding on the same entrée Kristen had requested. Everything was scrumptious, including our soups (Curried Lentil and Creamy Tomato) and fresh salads (great dressings). Bill even ate most of his sweet potatoes. We didn’t do dessert this time since we planned to head to the nearby artsy shopping area, after which we wanted to search for a Thai restaurant Bill & I had glimpsed on our last trip to Ithaca (Kris loves Thai).

It’s been a joy to sample foodfare at the Moosewood Restaurant, not just because I’ve loved their cookbooks over the years but also because it’s both tasty and healthy. Reasonably priced too. I own three of the Moosewood books, as well as four more by the author of the original Moosewood Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, 1977 with subsequent editions), Mollie Katzen. I especially love her Enchanted Broccoli Forest (Ten Speed Press, 1982, also with subsequent editions). And the original recipe for my chocolate-banana mousse, posted on this blog on 11/18/11 with my enhancements, evolved from Katzen’s Bittersweet Chocolate-Banana Mousse recipe in her Vegetable Heaven (Hyperion, 1997). Somehow, however, doesn’t everything taste better when someone else prepared it? Especially, I have to say, at the Moosewood.

There remains yet one unanswered question for me and my family as I close this blogpost about my three, Bill’s two and Kristen’s one visit to the Moosewood. What are the chances that, at a future culinary outing there, Bill’s preferred menu option would include a sidedish of lima beans? (Succotash anyone?)

 

Dairy-Free Chocolate Banana Mousse (Gluten-Free too!)

To the best of my knowledge, I have no food allergies (not yet anyway), but I have several friends who do. I like to have some recipes on hand that I can prepare to bring to our various potluck gatherings (some just for the food sharing, some where we also write or create art together). This dairy-free one has been a big hit, not only at a Beach Writers get-together and at the WomanWords 2011 Creativity Retreat this summer, but also on the home front. It’s obviously gluten-free as well, which really works for my groups since I count five women within various circles who either have a celiac diagnosis or a wheat intolerance. The bonus here is that it’s easy to make, involves no cooking and it can be enhanced with whipped cream or Cool Whip to add yumminess and a pretty “finish.” Yummy is a priority with me – how does that song go? Yummy, yummy, yummy, I got love in my tummy…  When we cook for friends and family, we’re brewing love for their tummies.

I found this recipe a few years ago in Mollie Katzen’s award-winning Vegetable Heaven (Hyperion, 1997), a beautifully put-together cookbook with artsy illustrations (not photos). While a chocolate and banana combo seemed award-winning in itself to me, I was a little hesitant about one of the ingredients: tofu. I am not a big fan of tofu, even though I know it takes on the flavors of whatever you’re cooking. This is probably due to a few bad experiences with terrible concoctions offered by well-meaning hosts, usually involving chunks of the stuff fried in oil or vegan margarine with crunchy vegetables but just-plain-wrong spices, herbs or other flavorings. The other ingredients in Katzen’s recipe, however, won me over. I decided to try it—adding my own little twists.

I made the mousse for last night’s suppertime dessert since, originally, our daughter Kristen was supposed to come for dinner. While that got re-scheduled for tonight, I still pulled it together and Bill brought a serving over to her apartment while she was at work, along with some homemade cream of broccoli soup (will post that recipe this coming week). Later, she called to thank me while the soup was heating up. A chocoholic, she was especially looking forward to dessert.

Notes on my changes to Katzen’s version:

  • The original recipe calls for ¾ to 1 cup semisweet chocolate chips, which I’ve done before. Last eve’s rendition used bittersweet chocolate chips and I’ve also done mixtures of chips including dark chocolate. While they’re all delicious, I think using half semi-sweet and half dark is my favorite. I always go for the full cup of the chips. Molly Katzen says, “The chocolate flavor is very deep when you make this with ¾ cup chocolate chips, and downright intense if you add the full cup.” Why just go deep when you can get to intense?
  • Katzen’s recipe does not include cinnamon. I always throw in the cinnamon. Sometimes even a pinch of nutmeg. I now add cinnamon or nutmeg or both to an amazing number of foods, especially since I discovered Saigon Cinnamon (and then, even more intense, Roasted Saigon Cinnamon). I do, however, often first check my volume of The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America’s Most Imaginative Chefs by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg (Little, Brown & Company, 2008), a handy reference book to have around when you want to determine just what flavors are known to enhance whatever you happen to be cooking.
  • The original recipe calls for a 12-ounce box of silken tofu, soft variety. Bill picked up the tofu for me, but it was the firm version. It worked fine, especially since I used the whole 16 oz. package (what was I going to do with leftover tofu?). After all, I was taking the 1 cup rather than ¾ cup route on the chocolate so I figured it would work out. My assumption was correct, although in retrospect I think I could’ve safely added even another ¼ cup of the melted chips (stayin’ intense!).
  • I substituted 1 teaspoon of Princess Cake & Cookie Bakery Emulsion for the 1 teaspoon of vanilla tonight. I’ve also used powdered vanilla (gourmet Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla bought at a local upscale kitchen goods store). It all works out great. I found the Bakery Emulsion one day last winter when Bill and I were in Schenectady on Upper Union Street. While he got a haircut down the street, I investigated a shop I hadn’t known existed before, a new little place called Bel Cibo Fine Foods. The owner and I had a great chat about spices and food. Besides the emulsion I came home with a few other items,  including a spice I haven’t been able to find in recent years in largescale supermarkets: mace! At Bel Cibo, their spices are weighed and “packaged” in small metal tins for you– ultra fresh! Someday I’d like to do one of the “spice parties” they can set up for small groups. Sounds like fun.

So here’s my version of a basic recipe for one of the best and easiest-to-make chocolate mousses I’ve ever tasted.

EASY CHOCOLATE-BANANA MOUSSE
(4-6 servings)

Ingredients

– 1 cup chocolate chips (½ cup semi-sweet and ½ cup dark chocolate is my favorite combo)
– 1 12-ounce box silken tofu (soft variety, but firm also works)
– 2 large ripe bananas, cut into chucks
– 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (or Princess Cake & Cookie Bakery Emulsion, if you like)
– 2 to 3 teaspoons light brown sugar (cater amount to your own taste)
– ¼ teaspoon salt
– 1 teaspoon raspberry vinegar
– ½ to 1 teaspoon cinnamon (preferably Saigon Cinnamon or Roasted Saigon Cinnamon (optional)
– pinch of nutmeg (optional)

Preparation

  1. Melt the chocolate chips in a double boiler or in the microwave (low power, checking every 30 seconds).
  2. Place tofu and one handful of bananas in a blender. Purée.
  3. Gradually add the rest of the banana, vanilla (or bakery emulsion), brown sugar, salt, vinegar and cinnamon to mixture (pinch of nutmeg too, if using), blending between additions, ensuring it whips to a smooth texture.
  4. Pour melted chocolate into the mix (doesn’t have to be cooled) – get every last bit of it into it! Purée one more time. Taste to adjust sugar.
  5. Transfer to a large bowl or individual serving dishes. Cover tightly with plastic wrap.
  6. Chill for at least 2 hours before serving. Keeps well for several days in airtight container in refrigerator.

Awesome Almond Cupcakes

I’m into cupcakes. Not just because they’re cute little mini-cakes (reminiscent of those wider, flatter cakes baked in my Betty Crocker oven of childhood days), but also because they’re easy to serve. No messy slicing. No trying to figure out how many pieces can be cut from a single cake (will there be enough?). And they can be fun to decorate individually if you’re in a creative mood — which I was since it was daughter Kristen’s birthday celebration last night and I’d recently bought one of those cake decorator “kits” that makes stars and fancy shapes and edgings. Well, IT doesn’t make them for you. It takes a little practice for YOU to do it, which this occasion encouraged. Another incentive to use my new gadget was that it’s one of those pink items which, when purchased, benefits breast cancer research and/or those living with this type of cancer. If I bought it, might as well try it out.

For her birthday, Kris had specificallyrequested the almond cupcakes I’d first made last spring after coming across a recipe in my then-newest cookbook acquisition, 500 Cupcakes: The Only Cupcake Compendium You’ll Ever Need by Fergal Connolly (Sellers Publishing Inc., 2005). Both she and her brother Adrian thought they were “the best from-scratch cake” I’d ever baked. Since I happen to love almonds (and they’re good for you, although the sugar in rich buttercream frosting probably offsets a good deal of that rationalization for indulging!), I was more than happy to oblige her specific sweet-tooth desire.

Naturally, I made changes in the recipe. While mixing the ingredients last May, I didn’t like the consistency of the batter. It seemed too dry. It occurred to me that perhaps they’d left out some essential liquid for the recipe by mistake, which could be a publishing error (only moisture was coming from softened butter, eggs and a teaspoon of extract). Or perhaps they were going for more of a muffin texture. I decided to add a bit of heavy cream to my batter, first checking a couple resources to be sure I wouldn’t be screwing up the balance of ingredients. One of the things I’ve learned over years of baking is that it’s more of a science than even cooking can be (albeit both also can be viewed as an art and an essential survival skill). If the ratio between certain elements is off then the baked item will not be at its best (and could be pretty terrible!). Two of my favorite resources for these kinds of issues are BakeWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking by Shirley O. Corriher (Scribner, 2008) and Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking by Michael Ruhlman (Scribner, 2009).

The recipe also called for 3 tablespoons of “chopped” almonds. I’d bought slivered almonds, which “slivered” through my little handheld chopper without much “chopping.” I wound up using the electric coffee bean grinder. We don’t use if for beans any more since, if Bill desires from-the-bean java, his coffeemaker can also do the grinding as a first step (I drink decaf and have my own 4-cup pot). I ground the almonds to finer texture so they’d mix into the batter almost as another flour, figuring not everyone likes noticeable nuts in their cake. The other thing I did was toast the almonds for a few minutes in a small, dry, stickproof pan, to bring out more flavor.

When I got to the frosting, I consulted a couple books as a starter for the buttercream. Not because I hadn’t made it before — it’s one of the only icings I use on cakes. It’s just that I expected to write this blog entry and I had only a mini-clue about how much confectioners’ sugar, milk, extract, etc. I toss into the bowl. This I got from my mother, whose cakes were always from mixes (preferably Duncan Hines in later years) but whose buttercream frosting was always “scratch.” I didn’t even know it was called buttercream until long after I was married; growing up, it never occurred to me that there was any other kind!

So I scanned my cookbooks and decided that The Magnolia Bakery Cookbook: Old-Fashioned Recipes from New York’s Sweetest Bakery (by Jenifer Appel and Allysa Torey, Simon & Schuster, 1999) was the best candidate for a starting point since their Traditional Vanilla Buttercream read like what Mom and I had been whipping up for years. I cut Magnolia’s recipe in half for my batch of cupcakes. Of course, in this case I was substituting almond extract for vanilla; and I was adding some of those ground almonds too, substituting it for some of the sugar.

As for decoration, I loved my new “star-maker,” although I think I might try making the frosting a bit stiffer next time. Still, it maintained its stars and swirls, making for a lovely batch of cupcakes to tote to Applebee’s Restaurant where we were meeting Kristen and a few of her friends. Early in the decoration process I realized that, if I wanted the frosting to spread on all dozen muffin-sized cupcakes, I’d better not be “starring” the whole cake – an illumination that resulted in a variety of frosted tops. I’d toasted some of the almonds to add to the icing; keeping some as whole slivers, some broken in half, some hand chopped. I thought the ones placed in a complete circle reminded me of Stonehenge and other stone circle at ancient British and Irish sites!

Placed in the cupcake carrier that Kris had given me as a Christmas gift, they made an artful design. In fact, when Bill went out to the car to bring them in for dessert, all of the waitstaff kept coming over to comment on how beautiful and delicious they looked. Our waitress, a cute little blonde who seemed a little shy, asked what flavor they were and replied that almond was her favorite. We gave her one, which she devoured before returning to our table with our coffees. She said it was delicious. It occurred to me that I could’ve replied, jokingly, that it was also her delicious tip too, but I didn’t want her to think I could be serious!

What I learned from this batch of cakes: I thought I’d have to bake them longer than the original batch I’d made last spring (which I’d baked as regular-sized cupcakes rather than muffin-size). In trying to be sure they were baked enough, I think I might’ve dried them out a tad bit. Flavor, however, wasn’t sacrificed. Next time I make them muffin-sized, I’ll only add about 2 or 3 minutes (instead of 5) to baking time before checking for doneness. On the other hand, I might just add a little canola oil to the mix, no more than a tablespoon, to see how that works out… it’s all an experiment for me, just like life!

This recipe makes about 18 cupcakes (fill each container about 2/3 full of batter) or 12 muffin-sized cakes (baking for a few more minutes to ensure doneness).

ALMOND CUPCAKES WITH ALMOND BUTTERCREAM FROSTING

The Cakes

• 1 cup (2 sticks) sweet (unsalted) butter, softened
• 1 cup superfine sugar (note: NOT confectioners’ or granulated sugar; there IS such a thing as superfine)
• 2 cups self-rising flour (NOT all-purpose flour)
• 1 tsp. baking powder
• 4 eggs (best when brought to room temperature)
• 1 tsp. almond extract
• ½ cup heavy cream (a little more would be ok if batter looks too thick)
• 3 tbsp. chopped almonds (or, as I used, ground almonds), previously toasted

1. Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).
2. Place 18 cupcake paper baking cups in cupcake tins (or 12 muffin-sized paper baking cups in muffin tins).
3. Place all ingredients in a medium bowl and beat with an electric mixer until smooth and pale, about 3 minutes.
4. Spoon mixture into the cups (⅔ full).
5. Bake for 20 minutes or until a toothpick or knife comes out clean when inserted into the cake.
6. Remove pans from oven and cool for 5 minutes.
7. Remove cupcakes from tins and cool completely on a rack.
8. When cool, frost; or store up to 3 days; or freeze (unfrosted) for up to 3 months.

The Frosting

• 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, very soft (if you run out of unsalted butter, salted is OK to use)
• 3½ cups confectioners’ sugar (have extra available in case you need more)
• ½ cup ground almonds
• ¼ cup milk (I used 2% milk but whole or 1% works just as well; can always add more if too stiff)
• 1 tsp. almond extract
• Food coloring, if desired
• Toasted almonds for decoration- some slivered, some chopped (optional)

1. Place butter in large mixing bowl.
2. Add 2 cups sugar, milk, and extract.
3. Beat until smooth and creamy.
4. Add remaining sugar and ground almonds, gradually, until icing is a good spreading consistency.
5. Mix in food coloring, if using.
6. Decorate cupcakes with icing (also with almonds, if using). Frosting keeps best if eaten within 3 days (which works out well, since cupcakes also keep best for first 3 days).

For a “scratch” recipe, this is pretty easy to pull together. Try it. You’ll like it.

Becoming Un Vrai Parisien: David Lebovitz’s Funny, Yummy Memoir

Don't miss out- read this book!

I love reading foodie memoirs and food-related non-fiction, especially when there are recipes offered within the pages as well. It all started years ago with Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone, leading to her other memoirs… and then on to whatever others I’d find on the shelves of bookstores that somehow enchanted me. If the story makes me laugh, it’s all the better. And pastry chef David Lebovitz made me laugh ALOT while devouring The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World’s Most Glorious – and Perplexing – City (Broadway Books, 2009).

I knew I’d heard Lebovitz’s name before- well, read it somewhere. Turns out it must have been when I’d read a volume about the famous California restaurant, Chez Panisse, established and run by Alice Waters. He spent 13 years there, mostly doing pastry. Looking for a career change, Lebovitz decided to write a book of desserts (apparently encouraged by Alice). After a few years working at home – and a life-changing loss – it was time for a change. He chose a major one: a move to Paris, a city he’d always loved. His story is about becoming un vrai parisien, a true Parisian, and he took me along on his journey. He made me wish I could do the same thing. He gives good advice that any traveler headed to Paris might be wise to heed, as he reports his own mistakes, faux pas after faux pas.

Here’s one his funniest tales, related to an earlier not-so-great grasp of the French language:

My most unnerving mangling of the French language was at Sur Les Quais, a fantastic epicerie, where I was explaining to out-of-towners the different flavors of jam made by Christine Ferber, a famed confiseuse. (Yes, there’s a gender-specific word for a female who specializes in cooking sugar.)

I was translating the lineup of flavors for each pot de conserve, to the best of my abilities, for someone. (An empty jar is un bocal, but putting jam into it turns it into un pot.) When I mentioned there were jars of red currant jam, confiture de groseilles, my guest perked up, “Oh yes! That’s what I’d like.”

So I asked the salesclerk for a jar of confiture de groseilles, which is pronounced “gro-zay.” But with my less-than-stellar command of the language, I asked for “confiture de grosses selles” (which I pronounced as “gross sells”). The saleswoman’s jaw nearly hit the counter: I’d ordered turd jam… make that big-turd jam.

At this point, I realized that I needed to seek professional help, an assessment that salesclerk probably shared, and enrolled in a French class.

After reading Lefkovitz’s book, I had to Google him to see what came up. Turns out he’s got a great blog: http://www.davidlebovitz.com, with terrific recipes plus a “My Paris” page that I’d sure want to scour if I ever get the chance to head for that amazing city. I now own his book of ice cream desserts, The Perfect Scoop (for which he was testing recipes while writing The Sweet Life), and hope to get his latest book of desserts eventually as well. Actually, every time I’ve almost picked it up at Barnes & Noble, I’ve stopped to ask myself, “What cookbook will you get rid of to make room on the shelf for this one?” I guess I buy it when I can answer that question.

I highly recommend this memoir. Great reading, yummy-sounding recipes (haven’t made any yet but there are currently 11 skinny post-it markers sticking up from various pages, one of which truly tempts me: Gateau Moka-Chocolat a la Creme Fraiche – Mocha-Creme Fraiche Cake) and your own free, albeit imagined, move to Paris!