Sunday, February 28, 2010

True Testing

Ahhh, a day to do some real testing. Actually baking and re-baking and carefully watching the variations of brown on the bottoms of cookies and working on my food photography, and doing all this without a little one at my knees. I need one of these days every so often to just find some real focus in the kitchen, to stretch my skills, to really think about what I'm making and how I can make it better. So I say again, Ahhhhh.

I started yesterday with some baked goods to take to our monthly wine club affair. We are part of a very small, select group of neighborhood friends and wine lovers who get together once a month (roughly) to learn about wine (sparingly). This month's theme: champagne brunch. Perfect opportunity for a breakfast muffin from Granny's collection and a cake that has been a family favorite for years.

Starting with the cake...I figured Poppyseed Wine Cake would be appropriate for wine club. This recipe comes from one of my "extra sisters," Suzy Lynch. Considering my mother doesn't drink, this may be the only way you will get her to injest alcohol. She often makes it for Christmas, baking it in little tins to give as gifts. It actually smells like Christmas to me for that reason.

Poppyseed Wine Cake
Suzy Lynch

1 box yellow cake mix
3/4 cup oil
4 eggs
3/4 cup white wine or cream sherry
1 tsp nutmeg
5 tsp poppy seeds

Mix all ingredients in a mixer and beat at medium for 5 minutes. Pour into a greased bundt cake pan or 2 medium loaf pans. Bake at 350 for 45 minutes or until cake tester comes out clean. Let cool, remove from pan, and dust with powdered sugar.

Next up: Granny's Bran Muffins. I followed the recipe precisely and produced the stereotypical dense, dark, generally flavorless bread item that is almost medicinal—eat one of these and it will cure any intestinal discomfort you may be experiencing. No frills, no sweetness, no stickiness, no yumminess. The recipe is simply milk, molasses, bran, egg, flour, butter, salt, and baking powder. No sugar, honey, fruit. Straight up bran muffins. I took one bite and then immediately drenched it in butter and a fair glob of honey. Passable but still dense, dark, and generally flavorless. I opted not to take these to the brunch, although looking back, they would have been perfect to soak up the alcohol!

So, today, I tried it again, this time adding about 1/4 cup of honey, some golden raisins, and a 1/2 cup of applesauce. The result was a considerable amount more moisture, sweetness, and a hint of the apple flavor. These will be shared!

Bran Muffins
Granny Lula

3/4 cup milk
1/4 cup molasses
1/4 cup honey
1 cup bran (All Bran Cereal)
1 egg
2 Tbsp melted butter
1 cup flour
3 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup applesauce
1/4 cup raisins

Combine milk, molasses, honey, and bran in a bowl. Let stand until most of liquid is absorbed. Stir in 1 egg, slightly beaten. Add butter and mix. Add dry ingredients and stir just enough to moisten. Fill greased muffin pan cups 2/3 full. Bake at 400 for 25 minutes. Makes 12 muffins.

My next test is actually a do-over. I hate to admit my mistakes but I totally messed up a very simple peanut butter cookie recipe a few weeks ago...forgot the sugar. Yep, no sugar. One bite of the resulting chalky disaster and they all went in the trash. Today was my chance to redeem myself.

This recipe is one of those that my sister told me I had to include. Just your traditional peanut butter cookie...buttery, sweet, and chewy. Yum. I decided to add chocolate chip cookies. Double yum.

Peanut Butter Cookies

1 cup brown sugar
1 cup white sugar (don't forget this)
2 eggs
1 cup smooth peanut butter
1 cup butter
1 tsp baking soda
2 1/2 cup flour
1 tsp vanilla
3/4 cup chocolate chips

Combine butter, sugar, eggs, and peanut butter in mixer. Add dry ingredients. Mix well. Fold in chocolate chip cookies. Shape dough into balls. Place on ungreased cookie sheet and press with a fork. Bake 9 minutes at 374. Yield: 3-4 dozen.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Further South

So I took a detour a few states south from my mother's territory to celebrate the cuisine of my husband's side of the family...Lake Charles, Louisiana, just in time for Mardi Gras. I feel incredibly blessed to have married into such an enormous, warm, and wonderful Southern members who are actually close and enjoy each other's company. The Blake Brothers (Uncle Bill, Uncle Henry, and my father-in-law, Jim) are definitely the patriarchs. But the matriarchs, the mothers young and less young, as is usually the case, provide the heart and soul of the family. The food, the drink, the traditions, the family history—they are all a very special bunch! Wish we could pop in and sit a spell with them far more often than we do. In fact, I think the California Blakes are due for a visit!

Last week we celebrated the Saints unbelievable victory in the Super Bowl with Shrimp Creole—a recipe I found in an old Creole cookbook. This week, Chef John Besh of August in New Orleans was the inspiration for our appetizer—we had his Sweet and Tangy Creole Wings. And then my standard Mardi Gras "go to": Shrimp and Andouille Gumbo. I'm always amazed when the roux turns that perfect copper penny brown; I feel like I can make anything if I can get that roux to work.

[I had wanted to include a crawfish boil and King Cake in the menu, but again, life and the 2 year old...]

These wings are sinfully delicious. The perfect balance of tangy orange, heat from the garlic chili paste, and, of course, brown sugar to make them sticky and yes, finger-licking good.

Sweet and Tangy Creole Wings
from Zatarain's; Recipe courtesy of Executive Chef John Besh

3 pounds chicken wing pieces
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 cup orange juice
1/2 cup honey
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
2 tablespoons ZATARAIN'S® Creole Mustard
1 tablespoon garlic chile paste
1 tablespoon minced fresh garlic
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
2 teaspoons Creole Seasoning* 

1. Preheat oven 450°F. Toss chicken wings with oil in large bowl. Arrange in single layer on foil-lined large shallow baking pan.

2. Bake 30 minutes or until chicken wings are cooked through and skin is crisp.

3. Meanwhile, mix remaining ingredients in large skillet. Bring to boil on high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low; cook 15 to 20 minutes or until sauce is reduced by half and is the consistency of syrup, stirring frequently. Using tongs, transfer chicken wings to skillet; toss to coat well. Serve immediately.

*I mixed up my own jar of Creole seasoning using a recipe I found on another favorite blog: Fetch Taigan

Basic Creole Spices

Makes 1/2 cup (I doubled it for future use!)

2 tablespoons celery salt

1 tablespoon paprika
1 tablespoon coarse sea salt

1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon garlic powder

1 tablespoon onion powder

2 teaspoons cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon ground allspice

Mix together the celery salt, paprika, salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, cayenne, and allspice in a bowl. Transfer the spices to a clean container with a tight-fitting lid, cover, and store.

And to make the celebration complete, my new favorite drink, the drink of New Orleans: Pimms Cup No. 1. After discarding the standard plan to serve Hurricanes, we found this more refined and refreshing drink to be the perfect addition to a Mardi Gras menu. Maybe it's the cucumbers, but this drink is extremely light and refreshing. Makes you want to sit on a porch on a sticky, humid summer afternoon listening to Dr. John, contemplating the delicious concoctions simmering on the stove.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Finally, A Salad


How wonderful to test a recipe that doesn't call for 1) butter, 2) sugar, or 3) "yellow" cheese. I was craving something green and fresh and light for dinner, and remembered the one, single, solitary salad recipe in my mother's collection: Crunchy Romaine Toss. I say this is the only salad, but there are others...of the jello variety, of course. The staple of the church potluck—brightly colored jello molds with fruit and nuts and God knows what else suspended in the gelatin. Um, no. Not tonight.

Instead, I stopped by the store on the way home to pick up some crisp Romaine lettuce and a head of fresh broccoli, both organic and verdant like a breath of fresh air. My arteries were calling out for something healthier tonight and this salad was the perfect retreat. I modified it slightly. For instance, I'm not a huge walnut fan, so I used sliced almonds. The recipe actually called for the walnuts and uncooked, broken ramen noodles to be sauteed in—what else—butter, before tossing them into the salad. But like I said, this was going to be a butter-free night, so I improvised.

Green, crunchy, sweet and tangy, refreshing. Take a break from the fat. Enjoy.

Crunchy Romaine Toss
1 head of Romaine lettuce, torn or chopped
1 bunch of broccoli
1 cup walnuts, chopped (I used sliced almonds)
4 green onions, sliced
1 pkg won ton strips

Combine above ingredients and toss with Sweet and Sour Dressing:
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup white wine vinegar
3 tsp soy sauce
salt and pepper to taste

New Email Thingy

I finally figured out how to add an email subscription feature to this blog! Simply click on the link to the left—"NEW: Subscribe by Email"—and you will be sent a link to confirm your subscription. And then you're all set. For those who don't like to follow in an aggregator (if you don't know what that is, then that's you!) this will be a brilliant way to be notified when new posts go live.

You're welcome...

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Pone Cornbread

We call it "pone cornbread" in my family, but Wikipedia calls it corn pone: "a type of cornbread made from a thick, malleable cornmeal dough and baked in a specific type of iron pan over an open fire (such as a frontiersman would use), using butter, margarine, or cooking oil. Corn pones have been a staple of Southern U.S. cuisine, and have been discussed by many American writers, including Mark Twain. The term "corn pone" is sometimes used to refer to one who possesses certain rural, unsophisticated peculiarities ("he's a corn pone"), or as an adjective to describe particular rural, folksy or "hick" characteristics (e.g., "corn pone" humor). The term is sometimes intended as a pejorative, often directed at persons from rural areas of the southern and midwestern U.S."

[If you know me at all, you know that I hate Wikipedia. But this time I actually enjoyed the definition I found there when I set out to learn more about this unusual—and, quite frankly, unappetizing—bread.  I particularly like the reference to Mark Twain. But as usual, I have no idea if this definition is correct since Wikipedia arrogantly revels in its rampant inaccuracy. But I digress.]

This is one of those recipes that my mother had never written down, so last Saturday I observed the process firsthand and wrote and took pictures as she prepared it. She literally had to measure the amounts that she would have normally done from "feel" so that I could have something to write down other than, "Just throw some of this in until it feels right." I have to say, the process is very easy. The cast iron skillet is REQUIRED, so guess I'll have to go out and find one of these. The one my mother uses has been in the family for eons, I'm sure, and is so perfectly seasoned, you would think a frontiersman actually did use it at some point.

I wish I could say this stuff is delicious, savory, moist, adaptable...anything positive. But really, unless you absolutely drench it in butter (maybe some honey), you might as well put a handful of concrete in your mouth and attempt to chew it. I guess it could be used to soak up some Red Eye gravy when you're eating a good Country Ham. Or maybe as a weapon. You decide.

Pone Cornbread / Corn Pone
1 cup white corn meal (not yellow, very important!)
3 heaping Tbsp flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 cup vegetable oil
3/4 cup buttermilk

Mix dry ingredients with a spoon or fork. Grease cast iron skillet with oil. Add vegetable oil to the dry ingredients, slowly. Mixture should be coarse and dry. Add buttermilk, which will create a thick consistency to mold into pone shapes. Cook in oven on skillet at 400 for 1/2 hour til browned. Makes about a dozen, um...pones.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Aspic and Other Concerns

I had a great time with my mother this past Saturday as we finally got the chance to get this project in some kind of order. We went through all of the various recipe cards—including the ones handwritten by Granny Lula—and determined exactly which recipes I should test and include in the cookbook. We added a few that I had never heard of (Mother's Christmas Pudding, Feather White Cake, Carrot Casserole, Toffee Bars) and eliminated a few that we realized were not sentimental or even good. We came up with exactly 100 recipes in 13 categories (Appetizer, Beverage, Bread, Cake, Candy, Cookies, Dessert, Main Dish, Pie, Salad, Sauce/Dressing, Side Dish, and Soup). Daunting to say the least.

As of right now, just over a month into the project, I have tested 11 recipes. I figure I really need to be done with the testing by September 1 in order to have plenty of time to write and design the cookbook. Then my print deadline would need to be November 1 at the latest in order to have the final book back from the publisher by Christmas. So if I have a bit over 6 months to test the remaining 89 recipes; that's about 14 recipes per month. Ouch.

(Disclaimer: I do not do math. I do not do numbers. The numbers you see in the preceding paragraph may be completely inaccurate and I am okay with that. The main point of this exercise is to demonstrate that I have officially bitten off more than I can chew. Ouch again.)

Now, for a few concerns. Firstly, I honestly can't foresee myself having anything to do with a recipe called "University of Tennessee Fruitcake," or "Old Time Tomato Aspic." Not only would my husband file for divorce if I put these in front of him, I'm not sure I could get through making them without doubling over. So the question becomes, do I test everything regardless of whether or not it gets eaten? Seems wasteful. Maybe I can find people who actually like these items—co-workers, neighbors, Minnie Pearl, Daniel Boone, Colonel Sanders...

Secondly, what if I make something that has familial sentimental value, but it turns out to be hideous, something I would never make again and would definitely never put in the cookbook? I might just have to grin and bear it to preserve the historical authenticity of what is shaping up to be a Howard Family History Book instead of just a mere cookbook. I would hate for Granny Lula to roll over in her grave if I failed to include the fruitcake and the aspic.

And finally, the question of time. Isn't this always the concern? How will I have enough time to do all of this cooking and baking, typing of recipes, and compiling of the cookbook, when I have to work full-time, chase a 2 year old and force feed her to eat a healthy normal meal every night, plus perform all of the tasks of the homemaker that I am striving to be, and then have time to sleep, breathe, pet the dog, and, oh yeah, be a good wife. The question of time is a giant question mark in my mind, even without this hair-brained cooking project in front of me. But as usual, I press on.

No time for a pity party...I have to make aspic.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

This Week's Theme: Brown Sugar

I've never gone through so much brown sugar in my life, and it's only Tuesday. Before my recent transformation into a homecook extraordinaire, my experience with brown sugar was this: I would by a box for a recipe, use about 1/2 cup, and then it would sit in my cupboard until a solid block of decomposing sugar had formed. But not this week, my friends. Two recipes tested and not a crystal of brown sugar left in the house.

Let's learn a bit about brown sugar, shall we? Rather than Googling brown sugar (for obvious reasons), I went straight to the source: the C&H Sugar website. Their definition of brown sugar is: cane sugar, a natural combination of sugar and molasses, refined without any added colorings, flavorings, or coatings. Golden Brown sugar has a nutty, caramel flavor, while Dark Brown sugar has a rich, full-bodied molasses flavor, best used with savory recipes. Both of my recipes listed below use the golden variety, and lots of it.

The first is a cookie recipe, although it's called Dutch Cake. I did Google this one (figured I was safe) and up came a long list of recipe sites. There's the Pennsylvania Dutch Cake, Dutch Butter Cake, Dutch Apple Cake, and then one on that was the closest to my mother's recipe except for the addition of cinnamon, which might be a nice added touch. However, this cookie/cake does not need to be messed with. It is way too easy to make, and is dangerous sitting on your counter.

Dutch Cake
from Granny Elizabeth (my father's mother)

1 stick butter
1 box golden brown sugar (1 lb.)
3 eggs
2 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup chopped pecans
½ tsp salt

Melt butter in a small saucepan. In a large bowl, mix all ingredients with melted butter. Spread into a greased 13 x 9 x 2 pyrex baking dish and bake at 375 for about 30 minutes. Cut in squares and dust with powdered sugar (or XXX Sugar if you prefer).

The next recipe is a dinner entree from my childhood. It was on regular weeknight dinner rotation and is now a special request of my nephew for birthdays and other occasions. I have to say that the memories I have of this dish are different than today's reality. The 1/4 cup of brown sugar, plus the oranges, plus the orange juice, make this dish just syrupy sweet. Too sweet, if that's possible. Maybe that's why I always loved it as a child...

I think to cut the sweetness a bit, you could add some minced garlic to the sauce. Or, as we found at the table, a few hits of Sriracha or red chile paste really give this the spicy complement it was missing. The chicken is always served on plain white rice to soak up the syrupy sauce; maybe a hint of cumin or some scallions thrown into the rice would also add a little more depth of flavor. And with a side of broccolini sauteed in ginger and garlic, you'll have a nice well-rounded plate. Try it, but don't plan on eating any Dutch Cake afterward...too much brown sugar in one sitting!

Mandarin Orange Chicken

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
5 Tbsp butter, divided
½ tsp salt
¼ cup brown sugar
1 can/jar Mandarin oranges, drained
¾ orange juice

Melt 2 Tbsp. butter in skillet and cook chicken breasts until well browned on both sides. Remove and place in baking dish. Add about 1 Tbsp water to pan and scrape browned bits; pour water over chicken breasts. Cover and bake at 375 for about 20 minutes, or until chicken is almost entirely cooked through. Meanwhile, melt remaining 3 Tbsp butter in skillet and add brown sugar, stirring to blend. Add Mandarin oranges and orange juice. Stir and simmer over low heat until chicken breasts are done. Remove chicken from oven and pour orange sauce over chicken. Place back in oven uncovered for about 10 minutes more or until sauce is bubbly and slightly thickened.

Variations/Additions: add chopped garlic to orange sauce; garnish on plate with a bit of Sriracha sauce

Monday, February 1, 2010

A Momentary Pause

After a momentary pause in the project to deal with one of life's curveballs—the closing of my daughter's daycare and the search for a new solution—I am ready to jump right back into the kitchen and get cranking on some more recipe testing. Recipes upcoming up this week: Dutch Cake (1 stick of butter and 1 lb. of brown sugar, mix thoroughly, bake, and proceed to eat the whole pan because this is so damn good); Chicken and Rice Casserole; Mandarin Orange Chicken; and the World's Best Cookie...

Also this coming weekend, some quality time with my mother to really hone in on the recipes that she feels are the most special—the must-includes for the cookbook. I am so looking forward to sitting down with her and the stacks of recipe cards (including those written by my Granny Lula) to listen, learn, and refine the project. I'm so blessed to have the opportunity to learn from an expert!

Thanks for bearing with me...I'm finding that this blog will keep me on track and motivated to keep the project going, mainly because I feel guilty if I don't keep the posts flowing! Wouldn't want to let down my many followers, right?!