Monday, December 25, 2006

A holiday tradition

When I was growing up, every Christmas was the same. On Christmas Eve, we would go to Mass: I would sing in the children's choir, the nativity pageant would be performed with many little shepherds and angels, and Santa would even make an appearance, handing out candy canes afterwards. This was followed by a take-out dinner. Some years it was a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken with biscuits, mashed potatoes, and coleslaw; other years it was Chinese from a restaurant down the block. Once dinner was over, we would wait around impatiently for Dad to be ready to hand out gifts for opening, all the while eating handfuls of M&M's and foil-wrapped Kisses.

I love chocolate, and I'm well-aware of what good chocolate tastes like. Which means biting into a Hershey bar is no longer satisfying to the palate. It has a flat flavor, like something that's trying really hard to be chocolate but fails miserably. M&M's taste similarly — except when eaten at Christmas. Then they take on the flavor of nostalgia, of Christmases of long ago. I bought a bag of the red and green buttons and am eating them tonight, remembering a time when waiting for Christmas to come was almost unbearable and when I still believed in Santa Claus.

Merry Christmas, one and all.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The story of a chicken dinner

My fellow food-obsessed friend Karen once came up with a term for that sensation of delight when a truly wonderful bite of food makes contact with your taste buds: a "mouth orgasm." I had the great fortune to have several of those tonight, which was a just reward for the hard work that was put into making the meal.

I love Sunday roasts and traditional Thanksgiving dinners because of how much cooking is involved and how many dishes are produced for the end result — and therefore, how much eating you get to do when it's all said and done. Since I had a day off (finally!) and the Anthropologist is away for the weekend, I decided that today would be a great day to serve up a roast chicken with all the trimmings. For one. Seriously. Not only is my idea of a great way to relax one in which I spend the whole day in the kitchen, watching the Food Network no less, but I didn't even have anyone to share the meal with me. It was just me and the chicken.

I started by whipping up another pie for my self-imposed food challenge: pumpkin again, but this time it was flavored with a little caramel. I'll save the details for a different post, since my adventures in pie deserve a discussion all their own.

I then made a savory bread pudding with mushrooms and parmesan cheese, which was an intriguing twist on the usual stuffing. If the Anthropolgist had been here, this would also have served as the "vegetarian option." I took a lovely baguette from Kelly's Bakery and let it get stale over a couple of days. Then I cut the bread into cubes and toasted them with garlic and thyme. To this, I added sauteed mushrooms, onion, and celery, as well as parsley. Top with a custard of eggs and cream, and bake. The problem? When I originally tried to put the bread and veggies into my smaller casserole dish, they didn't quite fit, so I opted for the 9-inch by 13-inch pan. But using the larger dish meant that the custard didn't completely cover all the bread, so half of the pudding wasn't pudding at all but really crunchy stuffing. I tried moistening it with a little vegetable broth, which helped a little, but I figured since one bread cube taken from the top tasted fine, I should stop messing with it.

Next was a sweet potato casserole. Let me tell you: I haven't eaten much sweet potato casserole before. Actually, last Thanksgiving, when I had lunch with L-Train and tried her mom's, was the first time I'd ever been presented with the opportunity. My mom makes sweet potatoes baked in Old Crow whiskey and brown sugar, and I typically just bake mine whole, split it open, and sprinkle a little sugar and spice on top. So when I saw the recipe in Cooking Light, I was determined to give it a try, especially since I have a half a bag of miniature marshmallows in the cupboard that really want to be eaten. The potatoes are simmered, then beaten with brown sugar, whole milk, egg, and vanilla, then topped with the aforementioned marshmallows and a mixture of more brown sugar, flour, and butter. The casserole came out of the oven with the topping all puffy and browned, like campfire marshmallows. Perfect.

Finally, there was the chicken. I haven't roasted a whole chicken in ages. First, it was because I lived alone and felt that an entire bird would be much too much. Then I moved in with the Anthropologist — but same problem, though, since he doesn't eat meat. I figure, though, that I can get a lot of use out of this four-and-a-half pound fowl. I'll definitely make chicken soup (this is certainly the season for it, what with the flu going around), plus I'll make up for not having enough leftover turkey at Thanksgiving by making my favorite post-Turkey Day sandwiches — and maybe even Sher's enchiladas.

Following a turkey recipe in Bon Appetit, as well as turning to the Naked Chef for inspiration, I put thyme under the breast skin and rubbed oil over the whole thing. Then I stuffed the cavity with celery, carrots, and onion. Into the pan went more of those veggies, as well as the giblets and some broth. (An aside: I was very disappointed that the giblet packet only contained the neck and liver. Where did this chicken's heart and gizzard go? I once read a recipe that instucted the cook to toss out the giblets, which saddended me greatly. Don't people know how delicious chicken innards are? Well, I'm not a big fan of the neck, honestly, but I love those other little blobby masses of flesh. Especially the chicken liver. I'm glad that was at least there. And come on, if you're not going to eat it, at least use it to make stock. What a waste of good chicken parts if you just put it in the trash!)

After it had roasted for an hour, I used the pan drippings to make a gravy seasoned with thyme and allspice. Then I hacked that chicken to pieces — which is easy, provided I can find the joints without trouble. After carving off the limbs and the breast meat, I actually had to put some of the bird back into the oven because the limb juices were still pink. But the white meat was tender and juicy.

So onto my plate went the chicken with some gravy, the bread pudding, the casserole, and some cranberry sauce I had made. The bread pudding was so good, especially the custard parts, that I wanted to do a little happy dance to express the joy I felt in eating it. I liked the richness from the cream and the flavor of the portabellos that permeated throughout. I had similar feelings about the sweet potatoes. They had just the right amount of sweetness, and I liked the addition of the vanilla, which I had been wary about when making it. The chewy stickiness of the marshmellow topping was quite nice as well. The chicken had a lovely crisp skin, studded with thyme leaves, and was excellent when accompanied by both gravy and cranberries.

I ate so much, I didn't even have room to taste my pie. And there are so many leftovers — I hope the Anthropologist comes home hungry tomorrow night!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A heavenly dessert

When I was about ten or so, I took a cooking class at the local rec center. Being that it was for children, it covered the simplest of recipes. I don't remember what all we were taught in the few weeks the class was offered, except for the complete meal that was a culmination of all that we'd learned. We made spaghetti with tomato sauce and a dessert called Pudding in a Cloud. This ridiculously easy-to-make dish was comprised of a bowl of Cool Whip topped with a generous helping of Jello chocolate pudding. It took little effort to open a container of non-dairy topping and mix together milk and a sweetened brown powder.

Sixteen years later, I may be a "grown-up," but I still love a simple but tasty dessert. I can't, however, bring myself to use Cool Whip when I know the true joys of real whipped cream, and I'm more likely to stock baking chocolate in my cupboards over instant pudding mix. Honestly, though, making pudding and whipped cream from scratch doesn't take much more effort than using the processed stuff — and you get a richer, more "adult" flavor. Try it. I guarantee you won't be disappointed.

Pudding in a Cloud
(pudding recipe adapted from Dad's Own Cookbook)
serves 2

1/2 c sugar
1 tbsp cornstarch
1 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
1/8 tsp salt
1 c whole milk
2 oz semi-sweet baking chocolate, chopped
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

2/3 c heavy whipping cream
2 tbsp sugar

Combine sugar through salt in a small bowl. Heat milk in a small saucepan over medium heat until steaming; remove from heat. Slowly whisk in dry ingredients, then add chocolate and vanilla, stirring until melted. Return to heat until it just begins to boil, stirring constantly. Cool, then refrigerate at least 40 minutes and up to 2 days. (Place a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the pudding if you don't like a skin.)

Just before serving, combine cream and sugar in a cool metal bowl, then whip until soft peaks form. Divide into two bowls, then divide pudding on top of the "clouds."

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Celebrating Christmas with the Swedes

Last Saturday, I drove up to San Francisco to attend the Swedish Christmas Fair, held at St. Mary's Cathedral. The flyer promised a St. Lucia pageant and crafts for sale, as well as open-faced sandwiches, glögg (mulled wine), and Swedish waffles. I was intrigued — and open to any opportunity to learn more about the food and traditions of other cultures.

L-Train, who is Swedish on her mom's side, and I, who is not at all scandinavian, arrived right around lunchtime and found a long line in the cafeteria. There were many options for the open-faced sandwiches: shrimp and hard-boiled egg, anchovy and hard-boiled egg, salmon, cheese, and meatballs with lingonberry jam. The shrimp looked good — so good, in fact, that it was what most people were ordering, and therefore, it was gone by the time we reached the table at the front of the line. We both opted for salmon instead. I could have gone the meatball route, but I've had the meatballs at IKEA and wanted a different culinary experience.

The salmon sandwiches were spread with a thin layer of butter, then topped with lettuce, smoked salmon, and thin slice each of lemon and cucumber. I had been excited about the fact that this particular sandwich was served on a dark brown bread — until I noticed that they must have run out and that they had assembled mine with just regular old wheat bread. L-Train commented on the butter coating, saying that her grandmother (or was it her mother?) would put butter on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. (My father later confirmed this apparently European style of dressing a sandwich when he told me that his mother, who was the daughter of German immigrants, used to make butter and jelly sandwiches.)

I also decided to get what they called a "Christmas soda": a cola-like drink called Julmust. When asked what it tasted like, I couldn't describe it. It tasted medicinal, like a spiced cough syrup. L-Train had a similar inability to describe its taste. Greacian, who also joined us, couldn't put a name to it either. Whatever it was, the flavor came from an "aroma" containing hops and barley, as well as "spices."

It was hard to ignore the huge sign announcing the presence of waffles, so to make up for the lack of shrimp, we indulged ourselves. The waffles were thin, crisp, and wonderfully light and buttery. Each set of five hearts was topped with real whipped cream and a dollop of strawberry Smuckers. It was surprising how something so simple could be so good. Later, I picked up a jar of cloudberry jam, which I'd never heard of before, much less tasted — but I imagine it would taste very good on homemade waffles or even pancakes. I even have a carton of cream waiting to be whipped into shape. (I also got an adorable children's book called Boo and Baa Go to Sea, about an eventful trip to go picnicking on an island, and an ornament of a very little girl wearing a very large stocking cap that was so cute I couldn't resist.)

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

A little bit of love

It's the Anthropologist's birthday today, so last night, I whipped up one of his favorite cakes: carrot cake. Half the batter became a dozen cupcakes, complete with festive wrappers, while the other half became an 8x8 sheet cake. Since that is by far too much cake for two people to really eat (I mean, we could, but we shouldn't), I'm going to send the cupcakes with him to his poker game tonight, for his buddies to enjoy.

I used two different recipes to create this moist, spiced cake. I based the cake mostly on the recipe in Cooking for the Clueless, with some inspiration from The Joy of Cooking. I also tweaked it a bit based on what I did (or didn't have) on hand.

Carrot cake with cream cheese frosting

2 c flour
2 tsp baking powder
1-1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 tsp salt
1-3/4 c sugar
1 c vegetable oil
3 eggs
2 cups grated carrots (about 3 large)
1 c (or one small can) crushed pineapple, well drained

Preheat the oven to 350º F. Prepare the pan(s) you will use by lining them either with muffin cups or waxed paper. Or just grease them really well.

Whisk dry ingredients (through salt) in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, combine sugar, oil, and eggs, beating until smooth. Add the flour mixture, stir, then add carrots and pineapple. (Note: You can also add 1/2 c chopped walnuts and 1 c golden raisins, but since I don't like either one, I didn't use them.) Pour into pans, then bake as such:
• Cupcake tins: 20 minutes
• 8x8 pans: 25 minutes
• 9x13 pan: 40 minutes,
or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. Remove cake from pan and let cool thoroughly before frosting.

Cream Cheese Frosting

6 oz cream cheese, softened
2 tbsp butter, softened
1-1/2 tsp vanilla
2 c powdered sugar, sifted

Using an electric mixer, beat cream cheese, butter, and vanilla together. Add sugar in thirds until it reaches the desired consistency. Frost away!

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Giving thanks for food

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I successfully made a savory pie last Thursday. A latticed pie, at that. Much of it, I think, was due to Alton Brown's crust-making technique — and, perhaps, I'm also getting the hang of this crust thing.

Some important points, I've learned, when it comes to pie: Make sure the butter is really cold, frozen even. Cool the filling before pouring it in. Use the dough that hangs over the pan to fill any tears or holes that might occur. Handle as little as possible!

From Mr. Brown, I learned an awesome method of rolling out the crust without making an awful mess of it: Take the newly-formed dough, put it in a gallon-size zip-top bag, cut open the sides, then roll out. Upon opening the bag, place a pie pan bottom-side down on top of the well-floured dough. Carefully flip this whole thing upside down, then peel away the second side of the bag so that the dough is exposed. Fit a second pie pan one top. Turn back right side up, and remove the spare pie pan.

It worked really well!

I made the crust, including the lattice pieces, and the filling the night before. Then, a couple hours before Thanksgiving dinner, I put the whole thing together. Even though my lattice pieces were uneven sizes, I managed to make the top crust happen by fitting some pieces together like a doughy puzzle. I even fluted the sides. Sort of.

It came out of the oven golden brown and smelling of creamy mushroom goodness. I felt like the proud cook taking the turkey out of the oven: it looks pretty, but is the meat really dry and tasteless? In this case, I wondered, "How did the crust turn out?" The first taste test proved it to be flaky and flavorful (thanks to the butter and sour cream), with a crisp edge. And I really liked the mushroom-cream cheese filling.

Dessert was a cheesecake, flavored with vanilla and orange zest, with a chocolate crust and topped with a cranberry-orange sauce. Making the crust involved pulverizing a large number of cookies. The recipe called for "chocolate wafer" cookies, but since I was at Trader Joe's and that didn't seem to be an option, I grabbed a container of chocolate cat cookies. And because I don't have a food processor, I did a combination of using the old "rolling pin and a plastic bag" method and turning the broken pieces into sand in the coffee grinder. (True story: It wasn't that long ago that I thought "put in a bag and crush using a rolling pin" meant beating the cookies senseless — instead of rolling to crush, as I learned from watching Sandra Lee on the Food Network. Man, my downstairs neighbors at the time must've hated me!)

And like all good Thanksgiving foods, the leftovers were enjoyed for days to come.

Mushroom Pie with Sour Cream Crust
(courtesy of Bon Appetit)
6 to 8 servings

2 1/2 c flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 c (2 sticks) chilled, unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
1 c sour cream

3 tbsp butter
2 1/2 c chopped onion
8 c (1 1/2 lbs) coarsely chopped crimini mushrooms (I used 1 lb criminis and a 1/2 lb mix of shitaake and oyster)
2 tbsp chopped fresh thyme
1 8-oz package cream cheese, cut into cubes, room temperature

1 large egg yolk beaten with 1 tbsp milk (for glaze)

For crust: Whisk first 3 ingredients in a large bowl to blend. Add butter and cut in with a the back of a fork or a pastry cutter (or use a fodd processor) until coarse meal forms. Add sour cream; stire until dough comes to gether. Shape dough into a disk; divide into two pieces, 1 about 2/3 of dough and 1 about 1/3 of dough. Roll out larger piece on a lightly floured surface to 14-inch round. Transfer to 10-inch glass pie dish; trim overhang to 1 inch. Roll out smaller piece to 12-inch round. Slide onto rimless baking hseet; cut into 1-inch-wide strips. Chill crust and sough strips on sheet at leat 30 minutes and up to 1 day.

For filling: Melt butter in large heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions and saute until soft, about 6 minutes. Add mushrooms and thyme and release juices, about 6 minutes. Add cream cheese to warm filling and stire until melted. Season filling to taste. (My recommendation: cool the filling before continuing.)
Preheat oven to 400º F. Spoon filling into crust in dsh. Place dugh strip atop filling in lattice pattern. Fold strip ends and overhang under. Crimp edge decoratively. brush lattice with glaze. Bake pie until crust is golden brown and filling is heated through, about 45 minutes. Cool pie 30 minutes.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Hot pot!

As if I didn't already eat enough on Thursday (which I will post about soon), I went to Anna's house in San Francisco on Friday for my first experience with shabu shabu, or hot pot. The concept is really very simple: make a broth, drop thinly sliced meats and other goodies into the boiling soup, remove when cooked, dip in sauce, and eat. Despite its simplicity, I had to ask, "What do I do now?" a number of times before getting the hang of it — but only because I wanted to make sure I was doing it "right."

Anna had a couple pots of broth, one of which was split into two kinds: spicy and not spicy. I never did try the spicy, which I'm telling myself is because I was sitting in front of the large pot of not-spicy. It may really have been that, while I do enjoy spicy foods, I did watch Anna put quite a bit of spicy (whatever it was) into the broth.

When I first sat down, a number of condiments were passed to me. "For the sauce," I was told. Unsure of what sort of "sauce" I was supposed to be making, I figured I'd go with what I knew tasted good. Into my little bowl went some soy sauce, sesame oil, and fish paste. Some sriracha went around, as well as rice vinegar, but neither one appealed to me. I guess I did a decent job of it, though, because my food tasted excellent after being dipped in this concoction.

Then came the main ingredients: thin slices of lamb and beef, rectangles of freshly-caught freshwater salmon, cubes of tripe, won tons made by Anna's mom, muscles, scallops, shrimp, balls of both the fish and beef tendon variety, tofu, and several different kinds of mushroom. And that was just to start! After all the meat came veggies: watercress, napa cabbage, lettuce, and mustard greens. Finally, little bundles of rice noodles were tossed in, to soak up all that broth. Of all these delicacies, my favorites were the won tons, tripe, enoki mushrooms, and watercress.

Retrieving these morsels was an adventure. After dropping them into the bubbling water, I then had to scoop them back out using a small metal net on a long handle. It was much like fishing, especially when there was so much in the pot that you weren't guaranteed to find what you were looking for right away. Often, there would be a number of people standing up, looking into the pot as they swished their little nets through the broth, looking for an elusive chunk of tofu or a muscle that had sunk to the bottom.

All of this was accompanied by many varieties of beer, including my new favorite, Hoegaarden, as well as lots of laughing and conversation.

After about an hour and a half of eating (seriously!), many of us began to fall into a food stupor. And yet, we kept on eating. In high school, we never were the types to have wild, drunken parties. Instead, we ate tons of food until we passed out — and then woke to eat the leftovers. True foodies since the beginning.

Once we had stuffed ourselves silly and the table was cleared, Anna brought out chunks of watermelon, as well as some mangosteens. Imagine my surprise to see them! I had fallen in love with their flavor while traveling in Thailand last year and had thought they were illegal to import. Anna said they had been previously frozen — which was too bad because that seemed to be the death of them. They wouldn't even yield to being torn open by hand. Everyone who tried one used a knife — except me, who insisted that I could rip it open and was rewarded by the fruit shooting out of my hand and onto the floor. Upon prying them open, we found them to be bitter and foul-smelling. Mine smelled like rotten fruit, and a tentative touch of my tongue to the unfortunately grayish flesh revealed it to taste pretty rotten, too.

Despite that, a good time was had by all. I left feeling full of beer and food — as well as a sense of comraderie that comes with eating in such a communal fashion. By the time my stomach started growling from hunger the following morning, I was already wishing I could have more hot pot and wondering what these friends of mine might have up their sleeves for the next time we get together as a group.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

What was I thinking?

The Anthropologist went to visit a friend in Sac Town and wanted to bring his camera along — but it seemed to have disappeared. After searching high and low with no luck, I offered to lend him mine, on penalty of death if he hurt it in any way. After all, he was only going to be gone a couple days, and I wasn't planning on cooking anything special that would need to be photographed.

Famous last words! First of all, I made an awesome leftover-turkey sandwich that came about completely by accident when I thought I was making one particular recipe and was really following an entirely different one. To clarify, I wanted to make a grilled turkey with brie and cranberry sauce but ended up starting with a recipe for a turkey-cranberry relish sandwich with herbed mayo. So I put the two together — and behold the magic of cooking. With no camera to record the results, I figured I'd just wait till another day, make another sandwhich (especially since there was leftover cranberry-fig relish), and bust the camera out then.

But then came the exciting part. After weighting down my sandwich with a jar of tomato sauce balanced on a green plastic plate from IKEA, I walked away. For too long. By the time I figured the second side of my sandwich had reached a nice, toasty brown, the sides of the plate, which had apparently been resting on the sides of the small frying pan, had begun to melt, fusing itself to the hot metal beneath. After removing the jar, I picked up the plate, which left stringy, stretchy green goo in its wake that quickly began to cool and harden. The plate was obviously ruined, and so was the pan, more or less. (I'm letting it cool before I see if it's salvageable. On the bright side, I got it at Target for, like, six bucks, so it's not the end of the world.)

The sandwich, meanwhile, was no worse for wear and pretty tasty, though the relish could have used more sugar (which tends to happen when I throw things in a pot higgelty-piggelty and don't taste it).

But I missed several excellent photo opportunities, including the effects of heat on plate and pan. Honestly, I'm more upset about that than about ruining some of my stuff.

The moral of the story: Plastic does not like heat. And tell your boyfriend he's out of luck if he can't find his own camera!

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Turkey Eve

Although, technically, it is now officially Thanksgiving. A few minutes past midnight, to be precise. Which means I did preparations for tomorrow for a grand total of six hours. And, you know, I really enjoyed myself. (Except for the aching that developed in my shoulders, which has come to be expected since it's been happening for at least ten years whenever I bend over something, like a counter or a keyboard.)

Since I'll be having lunch at my mom's — an hour's drive away — I wanted to get as much done as possible today, so that for dinner with the Anthropologist, all that needs to be done is assemble the pie, put everything in the oven, and pour the sauce over the cake. I chopped and sauteed a mountain of mushrooms, rolled potato wedges in panko crumbs, whipped up a cheesecake and put it in the oven, blended up a soup for a last-minute addition to the menu, and rolled out pie dough, all with the company of Law and Order: CI and SVU reruns.

Suffice to say, I'm pooped.

Thanks to my erractic oven, which could never quite settle on 350 degrees (preferring either 300 or 400), the cheesecake developed an ugly brown skin on top, which I decided to partially peel off, just in case it tasted burned. Since it'll have a sauce on top, it doesn't really matter what the cake looks like. At least, that's what I'm telling myself.

And, even though brussels sprouts are supposedly grown in this area, there were none to be found at the market today. So instead I decided to do a medly of roasted root vegetables, including carrots, rutabega, and celeriac.

I wish you all a delicious Thanksgiving. I'm off to bed!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Turkey Day menu

I have had zero time to make any more pies, sadly, but with Thanksgiving this week, I'll have much to blog about over the weekend — including a savory pie! Here's what I'll be serving up in a vegetarian dinner for two:

Mushroom pie in a sour cream crust
Crispy potato wedges
Roasted brussels sprouts and carrots with lemon-chive butter
Cranberry-orange cheesecake with a chocolate crust

Much thanks will be owed to Bon Appetit for the recipes — as well as to Alton Brown for covering pie crust on Goods Eats last night.

I have much admiration for those who are participating in the 100-Mile Meal. You should know by now my love (some may call it an obsession) for local foods, but when it comes to Thanksgiving foods, there are just some things that don't come locally that I truly find necessary. Well, really, just one: Cranberries. I love cranberry sauce, and I'm curious to see how it tastes on a cheesecake. And since I'm not strictly sticking to making a meal comprised of ingredients that come from within a 100-mile radius, I'm also not being particular about stuff like the dairy products, sugar, or flour, just as long as they're organic. I will be going to the downtown market tomorrow, though, so at least my produce (except for the berries and also probably the mushrooms, since the crimini mushroom guy is only at Saturday's market, and I have no idea where the ones at Staff of Life come from) will be local.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

It'll cure what ails ya

Between fighting a cold and working twelve-hour days, I haven't had much time to write about my latest food exploits. But I will tell you about a concoction I make when I'm feeling cruddy. I call it Disgusting Tea — and that's exactly what it is.

Take a nice little bag of organic ginger tea. Put it in a mug along with one clove of garlic which you've smashed under a knife. Steep these in boiling water and cover the mug, for about ten minutes. Add a pinch of cayenne pepper or a squeeze of lemon juice, if you so desire (I usually don't). A big spoonful of honey helps a lot in making this tea palatable.

Why this odd mixture? Well, the ginger helps soothe a funny tummy and the garlic has anti-bacterial properties, while the cayenne can help to relieve congestion and the lemon has a little vitamin C. Honestly, it does help me feel a little better after drinking it. But I would also recommend holding your nose and gulping it down quickly.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Adventures in pie making

My first attempt at making a pie completely from scratch was one of my very favorites, pumpakin. Considering the zillions of variations on this one recipe that exist, I chose one I'd never tried before: the version made by Eggbeater's own Shuna. As I do when I'm cooking, I used her recipe as a guide, adjusting things here and there to suit my tastes. I did follow her crust recipe to the letter, though, and then turned to the Joy of Cooking for further help on what happens after you mix all the ingredients together. Since I can't afford a fancy Kitchen Aid mixer, I mixed the butter into the flour by hand, with a pastry cutter that I bought ages ago for the very purpose of making pie crust. Finally, I got to use it for its intended purpose! Unfortunately, it's a little bent now from living in the back corner of the utensil drawer for so long.

Making the crust was a little bit of a challenge. It was so sticky that the first time I rolled it out, it ended up sticking to the counter. So I dusted the surface with more flour and tried again. Take two was a success — and I even managed to roll the dough onto my rolling pin to transfer it into the pie pan. I was rather proud of myself, actually. It was starting to look like a real pie!

Then came the blind baking, in which you put the raw crust into the oven for a little while, sans filling. Typically, the crust needs to be weighed down with something so that it doesn't bubble up; I used rice sitting in a nest of parchment paper. According to The Joy of Cooking, a crust should be baked for about 20 minutes with weights, then for a few minutes more without them so the bottom can brown. Now, this is where I encountered a problem because doing this turned the edge of my crust an unattractive deep brown color. I should have just taken the crust out of the oven once the edges had reached the proper shade of golden and not worried so much about the bottom. The Anthropologist (formerly known as D) said, "It's okay. It's supposed to be browned." To which I replied, "It's not browned — it's burned." (Though, honestly, it looks worse in the photo than it really was.)

While the crust cooled, I whipped up the filling. I used pumpkin that I had roasted and mashed up the night before and adjusted the seasonings so that it was similar to what The Joy of Cooking suggested, since I like my pie spicy. This meant that instead of two teaspoons of spices, I threw in about four or five and included some nutmeg as well. I noted that Shuna's recipe calls for less squash and also less sugar than the recipe in the cookbook, but I figured I didn't want to alter her recipe too much and only added a third of a cup more pumpkin.

Once the filling had met the crust, I gave the edge a little suit of foil armor to protect it from getting any browner. And into the oven it went. Forty-five minutes later... It was pie!

The Anthropolgist and I sat down for our first taste, which was done naked — that is, without any toppings. He liked it; he thought the crust was well done and tasty and that the filling had the right amount of sweetness, although he didn't think the minced sage did anything at all for the flavor. Being a harsher critic of the food I cook, I tasted it with a more critical tongue. I liked the sweetness of the crust (Shuna's recipe calls for more sugar than the cookbook's did), but I was not successful in preventing it from sticking to the bottom of the pan and I was still sad about the burnt edge. I also thought the crust was too thin in some places and, overall, a little tougher than I would have liked. As for the filling, because I had used fresh pumpkin and hadn't thought to drain the liquid, the filling was slightly runnier than I was expecting. It also wasn't sweet enough for me — and definitely not spicy enough either. It was more like a wobbly quiche; the Anthropologist agreed that it would be good for breakfast.

So for next time: Use canned pumpkin. Add more sugar and more spices. Nix the sage. As for the crust, I think I just need more practice making them. Maybe I'll use a recipe from Bon Appetit this time. Perhaps a caramel-pumpkin pie with some bourbon whipped cream?

"I give this a B-minus," I declared.
"Out of what?" the Anthropologist said. "10?"
"Yes, a B-minus out of 10."
"I give it a B-minus out of 10, too."

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Feelin' spicy

As recommended by a number of sources (primarily cooking magazines), I have completely refreshed my dried herb and spice supplies, which I've done over the course of a few weeks. Today I stopped in the bulk spice section to pick up some cumin, cloves, allspice, coriander, and cardamom — and my grocery bag smelled warm and delicious. It reminded me of the holidays, which are arriving a lot more quickly than I was expecting.

That, by the way, is not my spice cabinet, but the one at my friend Greacian's place. It would be more appropriate to call it a spice closet, since it stands taller than me. It is meticulously organized and includes just about every seasoning you could possibly ever need. I seriously covet it. My spice jars hang out in a cabinet above the sink, in no particular order, so that I have to rummage around a bit to find what I need.

I used some of those spices today to make my first completely-from-scratch pumpkin pie, which is just about to go into the oven. Stay tuned for the full report.

Monday, November 06, 2006

The winter challenge

Okay, it's official.

Summer was all about ice cream making. I made everything from classics like strawberry and chocolate to more unique flavors like peach-basil and pumpkin. Even though it's been a while since I was making ice cream on a weekly basis, I'm sure I'll keep it up into the cold months. After all, why should a little wind and rain prevent me from indulging my cravings for chocolate pudding ice cream?

But it's time for a new challenge. And that, my friends, is pie.

I love pie: pumpkin and peach being at the top of the list. And making a pie from scratch seems fairly straightforward and easy -- until one considers the crust. I've made attempts at making a crust from scratch in years past, and the results were less than memorable, as evidenced by the fact that I can't quite remember how they turned out. Once, out of complete desperation, I was reduced to making crust from a boxed mix, with, as was expected, similarly poor results. The last time I made a pie (pecan, for a Thanksgiving potluck), which was nearly two years ago, I bought the crust in the refrigerated section at Trader Joe's.

No more of that, I say! It's exactly the right time of year to learn to perfect a crust, what with the holidays coming up and all. I think I'll start with single-crust pies, like the aforementioned pumpkin (and all the different ways one can jazz that up, including using non-canned pumpkin). Then I'll move on to double-crust pies, like apple. I'm even planning on tackling a savory mushroom pie for Thanksgiving -- with a lattice top crust, no less!

There you have it. On my mark, get set... go!

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Blend it up!

For my inaugural post, I thought I'd introduce to you one of my favorite breakfast foods: the smoothie. Not only is a smoothie easy to make (I won't assume to tell you how to make one), it's a great way to get plenty of nutrients when you're in a hurry or on the go. I can't even count the number of times I've gulped down a breakfast smoothie -- and gotten all four food groups into my gullet in less than two minutes.

A typical smoothie for me contains yogurt, a liquid of some kind (like juice or soy milk), and fruit. In years past, the constant star would be a combination of mangoes and berries, both frozen and thawed in the microwave. (I'm not big on the idea of putting ice or frozen fruit into a smoothie. It's seems pointless, as well as a good way to get brain freeze.) In college, I would throw in a little silken tofu for protein. It blends well and is almost tasteless.

These days, since I'm on an "eat your greens" kick, I have been adding kale to my smoothies. No, your eyes are not playing tricks on you -- I really did say kale. Thanks to a tip from Mothering magazine, I discovered that adding a leaf of dino kale, my favorite variety, is a great way to add a vegetable to the most important meal of the day. During strawberry season, I whirled together a smoothie of vanilla yogurt, a splash of orange juice (for consistency mostly), a pile of red berries, a little honey, and a leaf of kale. This resulted in a pink beverage flecked throughout with bits of green. My boyfriend D called it a "Christmas smoothie." After I stopped buying strawberries, I switched to a smoothie made with yogurt, soy milk, banana, a large spoonful of peanut butter, a squirt of honey, and, of course, kale. Not only is a drink like that full of good things for your body (like calcium, potassium, vitamins A and K, and fiber), it really fills you up!

Banana and kale smoothie

As noted in Mothering's recipe, you can hardly taste the kale -- it gives the smoothie a bit of a nice green flavor. D, however, would disagree with that. He doesn't like the way kale tastes in a smoothie. So add some greens to your next smoothie... or not. But keep in mind that the possibilities are endless when it comes to your breakfast beverage.