November 2008 Archives

 

This month's Daring Bakers' Challenge is Shuna Fish Lydon's Caramel Cake with Caramelized Butter Frosting (follow the link for the recipe). The challenge is being hosted by Deidre of Chronicles of Culinary Curiosity, with help from Alex of Blondie and Brownie, Jenny of Foray into Food, and Natalie of Gluten-a-Go-Go.

This cake felt a little bit like an afterthought, what with the extravaganza of Thanksgiving cooking (to be honest, I am still in a food coma), but it came together quite well, and then we had the advantage of a post-T-day crowd to help devour the result. This cake is really tender and moist, and rich but not overly so. I still haven't mastered the creation of a truly fluffy cake— you can see that it is pretty dense— but it was so smooth and almost creamy that it really didn't matter so much.

I was also pretty relaxed about adding the caramel syrup and cream to the frosting, and slopped in too much of both, so the frosting was not quite stiff enough. It also had a slightly gritty texture, although I am not sure why. I'm definitely making a note about this recipe though, because the flavor was extraordinary. Brown butter and caramel: a match made in heaven.

 

Expect a mondo Thanksgiving post soon!

 

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In the calm before the storm, I can almost hear this simple breakfast mocking: apres moi, le dindon! (that's "turkey" to you!)

 

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This is lunch and dinner for four people for two days: everything we need to make salmon noodles and lentil curry with cous cous, plus plenty of cured meat, fruit and crackers for lunch and desserts. Breakfast and snacks are the purview of other participants, but probably include oatmeal, more fruit and nuts, chocolate, and lots of instant coffee. Oh! I just realized I left the wedge of hard cheese out of the photo. Oh well. This is probably far more food than we need, even without the cheese, but a couple of the team are potential bottomless pits, and hungry hikers are grumpy hikers!

 

I said I couldn't wait, and in fact, the day after canning my sauerkraut, I had to go out and buy some sausage so that I would have an excuse to open up one of the jars. Ohmigod, this sauerkraut is good. Seriously, if you like sauerkraut, go buy some cabbage and make some.

This happens to be Niman's apple-gouda pork sausage,* so I grilled up some apple wedges in addition to the simple sides of fingerling potatoes with thyme and steamed broccoli. Add a dab of mustard, and that's a 15-minute weeknight meal that I can get behind.

* By the way, my feelings on cheese in sausage in general are decidedly meh— but this was probably the best cheesy sausage I've had, and it had a good pork flavor and a nice snappy casing. I'd probably still like it better without the cheese.

 

Seeing as our apartment has become home to about six different kinds of fermentation processes, how could we resist a friend's invitation to participate in a homebrew competition?

Since this was our first time making beer, we basically just went down to our local homebrew shop and pointed at a couple recipes. They set us up with all the equipment, bottles, and ingredients we needed. Greg picked a chocolate stout and I went with a Belgian white beer. Unable to resist tinkering, however, I put together my own blend of spices to flavor the white beer. Then we carried our haul over to our friend's kitchen for the brewing, joining another half-dozen aspiring (and/or practicing) homebrewers.

The first step of making beer is actually malting the grain, which is the process of sprouting and then quickly cooking the grains. This step converts starches in the grain into sugars that can be consumed by yeast. Since it is a long and annoying process (which means I'd love to try it some day) most homebrewers use commercially produced malt extracts, and we did the same.

All the recipes employed at the brewing party followed the same basic outline— they began with steeping grains in simmering water, and then adding malt extracts and again simmering for a given time. Over the course of the simmering, hops of different types are added. During this stage the proto-beer is called the wort.

It was around this stage that things started to go awry. Cooking malt is a hot, sticky liquid that acts a little like caramel— bubbling up vigorously when boiled... or, uh, left unattended? Um, yeah. I'll just say that, according to my personal method of beer-making, step number three is getting down on your hands and knees to wipe liquid malt up from behind the fridge. Above, you can see what remained AFTER cleaning.

Greg's beer, on the other hand, proceeded flawlessly through the entire process. Here it is, looking rich and chocolaty already! After the brewing, the wort is transferred to the fermentation container, water is added, and the mixture is allowed to cool. When it's the right temperature, the yeast is added. Finally, the bucket or carboy is closed with an airlock to release gasses produced during the process of fermentation. Fermentation can last anything upwards of 10 days. There is a slim risk of pressure building up and the container popping open explosively, which happened to one of the batches for the competition, subjecting our friend's kitchen to another malty flood. Next time: bottling!

Practical Considerations

  • How much space does it need?
    Room for a five gallon bucket and a couple cases of bottles.
  • How much time does it take?
    A couple hours to brew a batch from malt extracts, however long you want to ferment it for, and then another few hours for bottling.
  • Does it smell?
    No. Or, at least not unless it explodes.
  • Does it look grody?
    No.
  • Does it need special equipment?
    Yup, although there's a wide range of price and degrees of complication in the available equipment— glass or plastic carboys, auto-siphons and bottlers, etc... I liked starting with a kit of equipment, for convenience. The basics are a big pot for brewing, a bucket or carboy with an airlock for fermentation, and some method of bottling.
  • Is it worth it to do this by hand?
    After the initial investment in equipment, making your own beer is pretty economical. You might not make the best beer in the world to start, but in my experience it's great for the price. It's fun and doesn't take too much time, but it's enough of an effort to put it in the category of hobby rather than routine kitchen activity.
 

If there's a way to take an attractive photo of sauerkraut, I don't know it!

This was my second batch of sauerkraut, and it came out much better than the first, even though I didn't really do anything different. (You can find basic information on making sauerkraut on my original post.) The only change I made for this batch was that instead of using a mandoline, I cut the cabbage into 1/8" strips by hand, which turned out to be better all around.

Since this batch was so good, and also since it's not like we eat sauerkraut at every meal, I decided to can it. Sauerkraut cans like pickles, hot-packed and then processed in a simmering hot water bath for 15 minutes (for pints), according to Putting Food By, which is just about as easy as it gets. I can't wait to pop one of these open and top it with some brats and mustard!

 

Today I worked a nearly 16-hour day. It was satisfyingly productive, but god only knows what I ate all day, running between a conference, my office, and meetings...

I do know what I ate when I got home, however: this glorious, refreshing, jewel-toned pomegranate. Sent from generous friends in California, it was the perfect way to spend the one moment I had to myself. Eating a pomegranate is something more than sustenance alone, almost a meditation: the juice running everywhere completely precludes multitasking, and navigating the convoluted internal landscape of the fruit is just about as close as I ever get to zen.

 

This fall I ended up freezing a lot of pumpkin puree. Freezing pumpkin puree is not ideal, or so I understand, but when life gives you a dozen pie pumpkins (or your sister- and brother-in-law do— thanks, guys!), you do what you gotta do! I've been making pumpkin pie filling from fresh pumpkin since middle school, and while my first attempts were variously watery, cracked or stringy, the flavor was often (although not always, I assume due to variation in my pumpkins) sublime. Over the years, I think I have managed to come up with a pretty decent method for managing fresh pumpkin puree, which is the key to perfect pie texture.

My secret? Removing the excess water. No matter how you cook your pumpkin, it usually ends up with way too much water in it (although it depends on the breed of pumpkin). I just put the cooked pumpkin pulp in some cheesecloth and give it a good solid squeeze. I get as much water out as I can: I suppose it might be possible to remove too much water, but it's never happened to me!

I like to cook my cut-up and de-seeded pumpkin at 350 degrees in a foil-covered roasting pan with a little water in the bottom. The water reduces scorching and also steams the pumpkin a little, which cooks it more evenly. I'm not sure if the steaming results in a less flavorful pumpkin (I should do a taste test), but I like to use the water method because I have a tendency to wander off to do laundry and end up cutting off the burnt and blackened bottom inch of pumpkin. When the pumpkin is thoroughly soft, I take it out of the oven and let it cool and remove the hard rind by pulling it between my fingers to separate it from the pulp— then it's time for the cheesecloth.

I usually use a food processor to smooth out the puree, but after reading this recipe from Smitten Kitchen (and Cook's Illustrated), I am definitely planning to try using my sieve too. I generally think that the pumpkin pie recipes are like mouse traps— you can't beat the tried and true— but all the other tricks in this one look worth trying as well.

 

Our first winter CSA share was potatoes, potatoes, potatoes. Ok, there were plenty of other things too, but I'm not kidding about the potatoes: russet, fingerling and sweet. What to do with such autumnal bounty? Something rich and warming, perhaps? Something a little sweet, with a hint of spice?

There is one moment I always remember when I think of sweet potato ravioli: Greg and I had spent several stressful days looking at possible wedding venues, during what should have been a happy family visit to California. Every place we went to was too expensive, too difficult to get to, and, frankly, too ugly— there was the place next to the train tracks ("Don't worry, it doesn't come by that oftHOOOONNKKKHOONKrattlerattlerattle...."), the one with the twenty-minute hike in from the parking lot, the hotel with the $100 a head appetizer station, and the hall with the 7' acoustic tile ceiling. We were increasingly faced with the possibility that we would end up getting married in an abandoned warehouse.

We dragged ourselves to beautiful downtown Santa Barbara, trying to take a break, but tiredness, hunger and stress left us blind to the charming scenery around us, and to each other. We stumbled into a restaurant, where I ordered the sweet potato ravioli with browned butter and sage. Everything else at the restaurant was completely unremarkable, mediocre even, but the fact is that those ravioli saved my life. With the hint of nutmeg, a whisper of garlic, and whole fried sage leaves... they retrieved my humanity from the pits of bridal despair, and let me remember why we were working so hard on this event.

I still think about those ravioli pretty regularly, so it was a natural choice to make them with my CSA sweet potato jackpot. My ravioli were not exactly beautiful, but were they ever delicious! They were only missing the garlic, and next time I make them, I'll certainly include it.

Sweet Potato Ravioli with Browned Butter

  • Adapted from Epicurious.

  • About 2 cups of cooked sweet potato, skins removed
  • 2-3 Tablespoons of brown sugar
  • A healthy sprinkling of ground nutmeg (I think I used a little more than the 1/4 teaspoon that Epicurious calls for.)
  • A pinch of Chinese five spice mix
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 3 Tablespoons butter

  • A pinch of dried sage, or a few fresh sage leaves
  • Two batches of homemade pasta, or about 1 1/2 lbs of fresh pasta sheets

Mash the sweet potatoes, sugar, nutmeg, five spice mix, and salt and pepper together until relatively smooth.

Roll or cut your pasta into strips about 3-4 inches wide. Keep the unused pasta dough covered so it stays moist. Place lumps of ravioli filling spaced out along one side of the strip of dough, then fold the other half of the dough over, and press gently to seal. You may need a little water or egg to seal storebought fresh pasta. Cut the ravioli apart with a ravioli or pizza cutter. As you set the finished ravioli aside, DO NOT stack them, as they will stick together. And yes, I learned this the hard way.

Cook the ravioli in a very large pot of very salty water — it should take just a few minutes. While they cook, heat the butter, swirling it occasionally. When it bubbles up, add the sage, and continue swirling the butter as the sage crisps and the butter turns a nice golden brown. Toss the drained ravioli together with the browned butter sauce and enjoy!

 

Remember the Feed America on Sunshine shirt that I designed? Mine showed up last week, and I am really happy with how it turned out, especially since I pulled it together in one sleep-deprived evening. Now that we have a president-elect who has actually read (via kottke) the Pollan letter that inspired the shirt, I thought it might be time to show it off:

You can still buy the shirt on Zazzle, and 10% of the purchase cost (all of my proceeds) will be donated to The Food Project. I ordered my shirt on an Edun organic tee because I liked the scoop-neck, but I think I would ultimately recommend the more affordable American Apparel shirts, which have never let me down in the fit or fabric departments.

And I'm no moddle, but I couldn't resist:

 

Sorry to take a partisan political moment, but I headed down to NYC for an election party (after voting, of course!) and just had to capture it.

After an anxious hour on the subway without election coverage, my first drink upon arriving at the party was to the decisive calling of Pennsylvania, an event which called for the ever-delicious PA native, Yuengling. The tequila shot is just icing.

For the main event, and speaking of icing, here is the election cake, a little the worse for the bus trip, but still delicious. I passed slices around the bar, and I wish I had made another dozen cakes to share with all the joyful Obama supporters we met celebrating on the streets of Brooklyn. It's a new world, and couldn't be more proud to be part of it.

 

"I like the idea of baking [to celebrate] the right to vote," says Kim O'Donnel, whose article on election cake appeared in The Washington Post two years ago. So do I!

Election cake is actually a yeast bread. It's not overly sweet, but it is generously studded with raisins and pecans. Some versions add candied fruit or liquors, but don't mistake this treat for its cousin, the fruitcake— rather than moist and dense, it's light, airy, and on the dry side, like a cinnamon babka.

Usually election cake is made in a bundt pan, but, well, I don't own one. So I used two 8" cake pans, which worked perfectly. It's also usually accompanied by a sugary glaze, but I happen to think that cream cheese frosting is vastly superior, and the perfect pairing for any not-too-sweet baked good.

I decorated the cake in honor of my chosen candidate, but whoever you're rooting for, please celebrate your right to vote! By baking, by drinking, by dancing or cheering... but most importantly, by voting!

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