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Excuse Me, It’s Baking Time

11 Aug

Apple & Oat Muffins

In the US, we get new seasons of “The Great British Bake Off” a long time after they air in Britain, which means a couple things:

  1. I spend weeks ignoring the “GBBO Bakers: Where are they now?” articles my British friend Angcha sends me because she’s already seen them.
  2. I have bursts of binge baking, which during summer is not the best idea.

The binge baking is good for my friends though–a few years ago for Christmas, I started giving friends empty mason jars. The deal is that I fill them with a recipe I’ve been wanting to try. They eat it and give it back. I refill them throughout the year–usually this is randomly, and sometimes I go for months without doing anything, but then Bake Off is on, and out come the baking tins and GBBO-related cookbooks. It’s a decent system though–the jar method of sharing certainly makes it easier on my waistline, and it’s fun to share the bakes.

Over the last few weeks I’ve made my first tart, done my first blind-bake of a pastry crust and made English muffins. Last night I did my first hot water crust and put together my first meat pie (we’ll find out tonight if it’s any good). Today I’m attempting meringue for the first time as well.

Some friends have asked if I’d ever want to be on a Bake-Off show, but honestly, I’d be petrified. I’ve been a “tried and true recipe” kind of baker. When I make cookies, it’s pretty much just chocolate chip. For bread, I stick to pretzel. For cake, I use the Boy’s vegan chocolate cake recipe, which is plenty tasty and gets around a lot of allergies. It’s not that I don’t mind trying new things–I ventured out into whoopie pies, for instance, but even then, I haven’t ventured into the pages of the whoopie pie cookbook I got as a gift. Yet.

While it’s easier to stay with the tried and true, sometimes they become tired and true (which, incidentally, is how I typed it at first). Sure, I know how to do them well, but it really is exciting to attempt a new recipe–which, even if it fails, is fun because then the challenge is figuring out where it went wrong and correcting those mistakes.

So, maybe I would do Bake-Off someday, given the chance. Just not today–I have a lot more to learn before I’d consider myself an all-around Star Baker. And that starts right now with Italian meringue.

Bakery Lamington Roulette

8 May

An aside from the travelogue to fill you in on the challenge that Kill C. and I are embarking on: Find the best lamington.

The lamington is a square of spongecake dipped in chocolate and coated in coconut. The better ones are filled with jam or cream. I know this, yet on our first trip to a grocery store, I purchased a six-pack of grocery lamingtons, much to the horror of the NSOs at our first clinic. They kindly informed us that grocery lamingtons are far inferior to bakery lamingtons and that jam and/or cream-filled laminations are far superior to the plain lamington.

We’ve yet to find a filled lamington, though it’s not for lack of trying. Almost every stop we make, if fresh lamingtons are available, one or both of us are trying. It’s quickly become a game of roulette–take a bite and see if you’ve hit the jackpot.

Oh, sure, at a bakery I could ask. And we could purchase a tray of grocery-bought jam-filled lamingtons (and maybe Kill C. did), but what’s the fun in that? Besides, a bit of really good sponge cake is hard to turn down, especially when laced with chocolate and coconut. I suppose I could claim that I want to learn how to make them at home, so I’m, um, doing research. This is partially true–I wouldn’t mind learning how to make them, but after the amount I’m eating, whether or I not should is the better question.

We’re a few days in and still haven’t won. We’ll keep trying though. Someday we have to win, no?

The Absolute Best Part of Baking Bread

4 Mar

A tiny detail can make a task enjoyable–and I look for those tiny details in a lot of aspects of life. I prefer folding towels as opposed to folding socks. When I play music, I can always find  one chord or phrase or musical resolution that I love experiencing. In roller derby officiating there are a million magical moments, depending on the position at hand.

And then there’s baking bread. I don’t bake bread often enough because I’m still working on time management–bread can be a long process, and if you don’t plan well, it just doesn’t work. However, I’d like to improve on that so that I can more often experience this moment–the best part of the bake:

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Pancakes + Paczkis = A Fat Tuesday Indeed

18 Feb

The success of a party can usually be figured out by the mess you have to deal with the next day. Yes, we filled up the garbage can. Yes, we’ve already put a load of dishes in the dishwasher. However, these remnants are what I’m cleaning up today:

The bottle of fish oil and the Japanese picture dictionary did play a role in the festivities last night, believe it or not. Our group has apparently hit the age where “vitamin chat” is an important topic of conversation. One guest started talking about how she used to take fish oil and saw great results, though she’d stopped taking it. That, of course, meant a beeline to the cabinet to pull out the fish oil and try to foist it on people. We needed the book to show some important point–or perhaps it just got to the point in the night where it’s time to pull out books for show and tell purposes. You know what it’s like, right?

You foodies, though, may really only care how the food turned out. Well, the mess in the kitchen is mainly due to me starting prep late and throwing things together quickly. I did not use a sieve when making British pancakes, nor did I let the flour “get a good airing.” I threw ingredients in a bowl, mixed them together, then realized that the recipe really needed to be doubled, so I threw another batch into the same bowl, “well in the centre” and “adding milk gradually” be damned. An actual European who knows a little something about making crepes was on pan duty, so they turned out all right. I’m sure that if I’d followed the recipe to the T, the pancakes’ texture might have been slightly different, but nobody complained–perhaps because it’s been a year since we’ve all had them. It’s all about the fillings anyway, and we had some lovely beef with raisins, a creamy mushroom, fruit, Nutella, lemon juice, powdered sugar, and multiple varieties of jam. Nothing to complain about!

Next on the docket was buttermilk pancakes, which was on the menu for the pickier eaters in our group. The Boy has a really good dairy-free pancake recipe that calls for orange juice, but I went with straight buttermilk, because I thought the slight orange flavor those cakes acquire might have not played well on a picky eater’s palate. Did I make the right call there? At any rate, the batter was fine, but since I’m not that practiced with cooking pancakes, they got a little scorched. To make up for it, we also cooked a couple of packages of bacon, which cures all cooking issues.

Our last pancake was okonomiyaki, cooked up by our Japanese friend. I haven’t had this dish in a while, and it was so good! Light, fluffy eggs, onions and cabbage, sauce, perhaps some mystery ingredients (don’t ask, just eat). Delicious!

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The hard thing about three types of pancakes is that you need to have room for dessert, and as it was FYOP (Fill Your Own Paczki) night, that stomach space was essential.

Dude, can I just say that Jenny Jones has a good recipe? Sure, I fried them (she bakes), and I didn’t do the final steps to coat them in sugar because I’m used to a dusting of powdered sugar. They’re on the small side because I don’t have a proper cutter and was cutting them out with a 1/2-cup measure, but the German in our group loved the fact that they were the proper size for the German version of a Fat Tuesday donut. By next year I may have to acquire some sort of pastry syringe [as used in the latest episode of “The Great British Baking Show,” which coincidentally also feature donuts this week!] so we can do some proper injection. Me? I just cut the whole thing in half, to get in as much filling as possible.

So there you have it. I pulled off Pancake Day without being British…and without a Brit there for guidance, as ours was sick. A bunch of cooks in the kitchen made it happen, and a bunch of happy guests made for a nice jolt to the week–and I’m sure a jolt to my waistline. On to the austerity of Lent!

Get Your Flip On!

17 Feb

Happy Pancake Day! Yes, today is Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday too, but in England it’s Shrove Tuesday, and you eat pancakes. My Brit friend Angwa is pretty keen on the day, so there’s always a celebration with British crepe-like pancakes and tons of fillings (I think the idea is to clean out your pantry in preparation for Lent). This year we’ll also do American flapjacks, for those who aren’t fans of crepes, and our Japanese friend will make up some okonomiyaki, a Japanese pancake/pizza type dish.

And for me it’s also Paczki Day.

This year, instead of going on a big paczki hunt, I’m going to attempt to make my own for the first time, thanks to a Jenny Jones recipe. I know! Jenny Jones! She’s still around and putting things out into the world (read her bio–she’s done some pretty cool stuff in her lifetime). And she has a paczki recipe. How can I not try it?!

Tonight we eat–whether you’re eating pancakes or paczkis or celebrating with a drink or two, eat well. Tomorrow we share pictures.

Ingredients Beget Ingredients

10 Feb

I’ve been steadily refilling my friends’ food subscription jars this winter, a project which I’m having a lot of fun with–and noticing a big issue.

One reason I started the project was to go through what I have and see if I need to hang onto it. I have a bunch of cookbooks I don’t use often. I have a big binder full of recipes I keep meaning to try. I have cupboards full of ingredients I should probably use.

I could do all of these on my own, without needing to fill a bunch of jars at random intervals, but I’m finding the subscription helps. The Boy and I don’t need to have a dozen cupcakes on hand. Nor do we necessarily need a quart of BBQ sauce that will spoil more quickly than the stuff you buy in the store. But if I share those with others–which I can’t really do effectively in a home office situation–I still get to see if the recipe’s a keeper, and I (hopefully) don’t consume as much. Having friends constantly request refills means that I’m forced to make sure I keep at my project to make sure I go through my cookbooks and binders, some of which have been full of Post-It flags for a good five years.

One thing I’d hoped to be able to do with the project is use up ingredients that are lingering on my shelves. However, sometimes it turns out that I have to get more random ingredients in order to use the first ones. Case in point: peach schnapps. We acquired a bottle in order to provide fuzzy navels for a 1980’s party, and now we have a lot of peach schnapps sitting around the house. Where to use it? How about a lovely recipe for fuzzy navel cupcakes, courtesy of one of my favorite cookbooks, Booze Cakes? Perfect, right?

Well, to a point. The recipe calls for orange marmalade and peach preserves, neither of which I had on hand–nor can I remember the last time I’ve ever purchased them–if I’ve ever purchased them in my lifetime. The Boy won’t eat them. I’m not big on eating a ton of jellied products, so now what? Yep, gotta find recipes that use orange marmalade and/or peach preserves. Bonus if they also use peach schnapps, because, yep, we’ve still got a fair amount of that. I’d start drinking a ton of fuzzy navels, but I’m busy consuming cosmopolitans because we have a 64 oz. bottle of cranberry juice that we also bought for said 80’s party. And we have a ton of vodka on hand. Did you know that a good cosmo only uses 1 oz. of cranberry juice at a time? I’ll be drinking cosmos until that stuff goes bad, and I bet I’ll still have to dump half the bottle. I am, however, whipping right through the vodka and orange liqueur, for what that’s worth.

I suppose I should start tracking all of the random ingredients I buy for said recipes. At the end of the year, I can see what I end up throwing away or find lurking in the back of the cupboard and/or refrigerator. Or, maybe I’ll be successful and use up everything–which might be another fun challenge in and of itself.

What’s Your Go-To Cook Book?

22 Jan

blondie

 

Happy National Blonde Brownie Day!

According to Eat the Year, today is the day we should be celebrating the non-chocolate-based brownie, the brownie that looks in this picture, thanks to the coating of chocolate chips on the top, like a pan cookie. But it’s not. It does, however, have a lot of brown sugar in it, which is mighty tasty.

I’m not sure I’ve ever made blondies, so I grabbed my handy-dandy Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book (note: the linked version is much newer–mine is copyright 1996) because I figured it would have a recipe. And it did not fail me. Recipe was easy too!

That got me to thinking, what are people’s go-to cook books for everyday recipes? BHG is one of my two standards. It’s the one I reach for when I need a quick recipe or am looking for something that sounds all-American. It teaches the basics in a very approachable way (and by approachable, I might mean “with color photographs”).

My other go-to is The Joy of Cooking. We own two versions of this: the 1975 version, which is spiral-bound (plus!) and includes recipes for cooking opossum (“If possible, trap ‘possum and feed it on milk and cereals for 10 days before killing.” It’s as if possum’s the veal of the small game world–but you get to fatten it up and kill it yourself), porcupine, raccoon, muskrat, woodchuck, beaver, beaver tail, and armadillo. The 1997 version’s chapter on game isn’t nearly that extensive, and the book is hardbound, so it doesn’t lie as flat easily. It is, however, more geared to what people cook today.

The Joy of Cooking is nice because its basic information on different food groups is pretty extensive, and I feel like I’ve gotten some training after I’ve successfully read and completed a recipe (believe me, this feeling of satisfaction doesn’t always happen). It can be a little intimidating to use though, so while I know it’ll have pretty much anything I need, I don’t always turn to it right away.

I’ve got a few other general cookbooks that I’ve been working through–a Rachael Ray, a Mr. Food, a Frugal Gourmet, but I don’t instantly reach for them the way I do these two. Are these two the end-all be-all of basic cookbooks? If not, what do you own?

Looking for a Lovely Bake

20 Jan

On the Internet, cooking and baking blogs seem to lean toward either extreme:

I am a fabulous home cook, and let me show you every perfect step along the way

OR

Look how dumb I am, and my recipe hilariously didn’t turn out anything like it was supposed to

I’m not opposed to either version. Cooking can be difficult, and I too look to plenty of amateur cooks to help me get dinner on the table on a regular basis. I also take comfort in the food fails, because, well, not everything goes well on the first attempt, and it’s good to be able to look away from the perfect amateurs and take solace in those who’ve also made their kitchens explode.

Perhaps that’s why I love “The Great British Bake-Off (or “Baking Show,” as it’s called in the US). I’m watching the desserts episode as I write this (a friend is imploring me to catch up), and because these amateur bakers get challenges thrown at them that come with minimal instruction (Make this Mary Berry recipe to the T. Oh, and the recipe doesn’t give you much to go on. See you in two hours. Tootle-Loo!), you get contestants who say–and I quote–“How the hell are you supposed to cut that horizontally?” You get to hold your breath along with the contestants to see if their puddings self-sauce. You get to see several different interpretations of one recipe and see where it goes right and wrong. And you get to watch contestants make a cake, only to realize they seriously fucked up mixing it, and they throw it into the trash and start all over.

This is kind of how I felt this weekend, when I tried making Norman’s Farthing Biscuits. On the biscuit show, they sounded easy–just flour, butter and lard. Nothing to it!

Right. I’ve never worked with lard before, so I’m not sure what to expect.

The recipe is a little lacking in that it doesn’t tell you how much time the recipe should take, other than baking time. Knowing how long various steps should take would be helpful in preventing the internal freak-out of wondering when the hell the ingredients would crumb together, like so:

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And then you stir in enough water to form a dough and form it into a ball. Or four.


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I somehow cobbled these together in one ball and chilled it according to the recipe. Then you have to roll it out “slightly thinner than the thickness of a pound coin” and stamp out round crackers. Several issues with this. I present Exhibit 1:

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The cobbled together dough crumbled and made tons of scraps. You’re supposed to roll out the dough, cut the biscuits, then combine all the scraps together and repeat. Heh! I rolled, cut, then piled up the scraps until I finally tossed them out. Also notice the star-shaped cookie cutter. Yep, I realized I don’t have a round cutter, so star shapes it was (which, to be honest, turned out to be a cool mistake).

Now for Exhibit 2:

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This picture is post-bake, but one of these has be be slightly thicker than a pound coin. Apparently it’s been a while since I’ve been to the UK because I don’t seem to have a decent memory of the pound’s size. I should go back for….research….yeah….

The final product involves poking a bunch of holes in the dough and baking them.

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On the whole, these turned out OK. If you’re like me, you can serve them with butter or cheeses, and while you’re eating them, you remember that you don’t really like the bland taste of Carr’s Table Water Crackers, which are pretty damn similar. You wonder why you ever decided that Norman’s were going to change your mind–particularly the thicker ones–and you close the book on ever making that recipe again.

My Official Celebration of Food Begins

14 Jan

tempura

Happy Belated National Tempura Day! How did you celebrate? Did you make your tempura, or did you buy it?

Wait–you missed National Tempura Day?! How is that possible? Everybody celebrates it! You didn’t get my card? Oh, um, oops. Guess that got lost in the mail.

Well, maybe not. During the day-after-Christmas-family-trip-to-the-bookstore, I decided to pick up Steff Deschenes‘ book Eat the Year, which, based on her Almanac of Eats blog, lists food holidays for every day of the year–including leap year, which happens to be National Surf & Turf Day. I’m guessing it probably takes a good 4 years to save up for the surf and the turf at a decent restaurant and/or forget how difficult it was to cook it all at once the last time you made it.

Anyway, I bought the book not just because it’s winter in New England and I’m looking for excuses to get the house warm by turning on the oven, but because I’d like to cook a little bit more creatively and I thought this book would be a little inspirational. Besides, I like the “it’s this National Food Day” because that’s an excuse to eat. Now I can plan my excuses. That’s a win all around.

I’m not going to do one of those projects where you make everything in the book and/or celebrate every food day possible in a year. I’m not touching National Caviar Day, and I’m not sure anyone should have a party to celebrate National Eat Beans Day. Also, some days have multiple holidays–for example, August 8 is both National Zucchini Day and National Frozen Custard Day. What pressure!

That said, January 7 was National Tempura Day. I celebrated a couple of days early when I went out for Japanese food with some friends, and then I celebrated again last night when we ordered Chinese food. Good stuff! Yes, I could have made it, and it’s actually not terribly difficult–I do have a tempura batter recipe–but like anything, there are good versions and bad versions. Last time I made tempura, I liked it but it was a bit heavy on the batter. This holiday, I took the opportunity to test a couple other versions and see where I can improve. I might need to test some more though. And practice. Yeah, practice. A lot. Next year, I’ll be ready for it. Now that you’re aware, maybe you will be too.

If you plan to celebrate any food holidays, drop me a line. Perhaps we can celebrate together. Also, stay tuned to this site, as I’ll probably post about my food celebrations from time to time.

Incidentally, if you’re reading this today, it’s National Hot Pastrami Sandwich Day. I’ve got Chinese leftovers so I won’t be celebrating, but I do give you an honorary tip of the sandwich if you are.

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