Food Friday: Spring Forth with Cake!

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One of the perils of working from home is that I don’t get out much. Some days the only conversations I have are with the clerks at the grocery store. My office companion, Luke, the wonder dog, and I take a couple of walks every day. Luke is an enthusiastic and charming fellow, but his conversational skills are minimal. I can’t remember the last book he read, and he never minds that I do the crossword puzzle in ink. He might comment that I will never catch a squirrel, or that I don’t sniff mailboxes with gusto. And he would be right.

When Luke and I go on walkabout I usually have my earbuds firmly planted. I listen to several podcasts, and often feel that the folks on these podcasts are my real office co-workers. Podcasts are the intimates of solitary freelancers, nursing mothers and the sleepless. Every week Julia Turner, Dana Stevens and Stephen Metcalf charm my socks off. Their Slate Culture Gabfest podcast is full of good humor, insight, wit and bon mots. They merrily discuss popular culture with aplomb; dissecting current memes, television, music, and movies. Where else can I go for brilliant water cooler conversation? And one week, a couple of months ago, Julia (Yes, I do call her “Julia” in my cheeky fashion.) rhapsodized poetical about a recipe she had found in the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook for the perfect cake. I looked up the recipe and filed it away for another day.

And today is the day! It’s time to forget about winter, and move on to celebrating Spring! I have had the delightful television baking experience of The Great British Bake Off to fan my enthusiasm for home baking, and what better way to pay homage to Spring than with Smitten Kitchen’s Best Yellow Layer Cake? While you are poking through the brown oak leaves under the side yard hedge, looking for tender green daffodil shoots, you will be much happier knowing that there will be a slice of cake and a tall cold glass of milk waiting for you in the kitchen. The squirrels have retreated, so Luke has to stick with kibble, which always makes him very happy.

Smitten Kitchen’s Best Yellow Layer Cake

“Yield: Two 9-inch round, 2-inch tall cake layers, and, in theory, 22 to 24 cupcakes, two 8-inch squares or a 9×13 single-layer cake
4 cups, plus 2 tablespoons cake flour (not self-rising)
2 baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon table salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
4 large eggs, at room temperature
2 cups buttermilk, well-shaken

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter two 9-inch round cake pans and line with circles of parchment paper, then butter parchment. Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. In a large mixing bowl, beat butter and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium speed until pale and fluffy, then beat in vanilla. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well and scraping down the bowl after each addition. At low speed, beat in buttermilk until just combined (mixture will look curdled). Add flour mixture in three batches, mixing until each addition is just incorporated.
Spread batter evenly in cake pan, then rap pan on counter several times to eliminate air bubbles. Bake until golden and a wooden pick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack 10 minutes, then run a knife around edge of pan. Invert onto rack and discard parchment, then cool completely, about 1 hour.”

The Smitten Kitchen goes on to suggest that you use a chocolate icing, but I am feeling too cheerful and full of new spring hope. I am making a light, lemon-y icing instead.

Lemon Buttercream Icing

1 stick butter – room temperature
3 cups confectioner’s sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
Salt
1-2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1-2 tablespoons half and half or milk

Beat the butter in the bowl with and electric mixer until it is fluffy. Add the confectioner’s sugar just a few tablespoons at a time. Add the salt and vanilla extract. Continue adding confectioner’s sugar, alternating with splashes of cream (or milk) and lemon juice Add more cream (or milk) if you like thinner frosting. You will need to double this recipe if you want to have tidy frosted sides to the cake.

Scrumptious! Thank you, Julia Turner!

You can find more charming intelligent folks on the Slate Panoply podcast network who discuss sports, finance, politics, the Supreme Court and even our friends from Food 52 with a podcast called Burnt Toast: http://www.panoply.fm/shows

More recipes:
http://smittenkitchen.com/

More of Julia, Dana and Stephen:
http://www.slate.com/articles/podcasts/culturegabfest.html

“In Britain, a cup of tea is the answer to every problem.
Fallen off your bicycle? Nice cup of tea.
Your house has been destroyed by a meteorite? Nice cup of tea and a biscuit.
Your entire family has been eaten by a Tyrannosaurus Rex that has travelled through a space/time portal?
Nice cup of tea and a piece of cake.
Possibly a savoury option would be welcome here too, for example a Scotch egg or a sausage roll.”
― David Walliams

Food Friday: Happiness is Chocolate Mousse

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I know; all the other food columns this weekend will be telling you how to prepare the World’s Best Corned Beef and Cabbage, or Yummy Irish Stew prepared with Guinness stout. They are all about St. Patrick’s Day, and green beer, and steak and ale pies.

You won’t find any of that malarkey here at The Spy. I still shudder at the very notion of corned beef. That cooked cabbage odor haunts me lo these many years since I last smelled it, wafting up the stairway from my mother’s kitchen to my lair at the back of the house. I will NEVER cook a cabbage. I can promise you that.

Instead, we are going to share with you a deelish recipe we found in last week’s Wall Street Journal, a newspaper not known for its flights of whimsy. Power up your printers, because this is too good to be true. You will go down in your family’s annals as the sainted chocolate mousse magician. You will never be forgotten. And many thanks to Wall Street Journal writer Gail Monaghan for lighting the way to bliss!

http://www.wsj.com/articles/recipe-for-a-flawless-chocolate-mousse-1425668817

Ingredients:
12 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped (we used Ghiradelli semisweet chips – hooray, no chopping!)
¾ cup water
2 tablespoons instant espresso coffee granules (we used 2 teaspoons, and next time will use 1 teaspoon – I am not a big coffee fan, but the little coffee kick intensified the chocolate flavor)
4 egg yolks
Salt – just a pinch
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons Cognac (or Bourbon, use your imagination)

Note: Make some extra whipped cream for topping. You’ll be glad you did. We also splurged and bought some raspberries which are hideously expensive right now, because they probably came from deepest darkest Peru along with Paddington Bear, but they were well worth the extravagance.

Directions:
Heat the chocolate, water, coffee powder and salt in a double boiler – or in a metal bowl over a pot of just simmering water. Be careful not to scorch the chocolate! Stir the mixture frequently until the chocolate melts. Take the bowl off the heat and beat in the egg yolks – one yolk at a time. Cool the chocolate mixture in the fridge. In another bowl, whip the cream until soft peaks form. Be sure to add the Cognac. Fold the whipped cream into the cooled chocolate. Pour the mousse into cups or small bowls or wine glasses. Top with whipped cream and some raspberries.

The mousse will be very rich, so use small containers. We made the mistake of using large wine glasses, and were overwhelmed by the luxurious richness of the dense chocolate-y mousse halfway through gobbling up our desserts. We had to cover them with Saran Wrap, and store them in the refrigerator overnight. They were even better the next day, I am happy to note. Of course, we added more whipped cream and some more raspberries because we need to get our daily vegetables and fruits…

Forget the corned beef. Make Chocolate Mousse your new St. Patrick’s Day celebratory food. Its charms are so glorious that it will be equally nice for April Fool’s Day, Easter, Passover, Martha Washington’s birthday and Labor Day.

“Happiness. Simple as a glass of chocolate or tortuous as the heart. Bitter. Sweet. Alive.”
― Joanne Harris, Chocolat

Food Friday: National Frozen Food Month, What’s in Your Freezer?

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I suspect there is a dedicated national holiday for everyone and everything. How about a National Clean Out Your Freezer Day? I just did an informal survey of our freezer – and I am leaving out some of the more hideous details here – and what I found was a little daunting. We do not keep a tidy or timely freezer – is it too late to resolve to live a better and cleaner life?

A couple of weeks ago we had a houseful of company, and my daughter was helping me put mountains of groceries away. With great glee she catalogued the number of bags of shredded cheese she found in the deli bin of the refrigerator – ten. Some open, some unopened, and some of each which were way past their sell by dates. Mortification! I had become a cheese hoarder! I can understand collecting New Yorker magazines, or seashells, or snow globes because each has charm and beauty. But if you stopped me on the street, and grabbed me by the lapels, and asked me earnestly what I thought about shredded cheese, I would coolly respond, shaking off your sweaty paws, that I do not believe in buying shredded cheese. It is for lazy damn gits, who don’t mind that their nachos have dry, gritty cheese, or that the freshness of their pizza ingredients is unimportant. Holy smokes – I am such a hypocrite!

And with the arrival of the annual National Frozen Foods Month, I thought it was about time to face up to the circle of hell that must be our freezer. What carbon dated relics clutter it up? What should stay, and what should go? And what should responsible adults have in their freezers? My mind is boggled, Gentle Reader, with the amount of stuff I uncovered. The freezer can tell tales.

Here is the initial list, starting at the top and working my way down. I did not dig past the permafrost.

Vanilla ice cream (half a tub)
Raspberry gelato (5 teaspoons left)
French fries, Tater Tots and Sweet Potato Tots (half bags, all from before Christmas)
Hot Dogs (2 weeks old)
Hamburger (meat and patties, uncooked, vague recollection of purchasing in January)
Pork chops (boneless)
Jimmy Dean sausage (recent purchase)
Italian sausages (1 pound, sweet and hot, fennel free, from the butcher last week)
Chicken cutlets (8 in the packet – forgot to separate them before freezing – too much for one meal for two people)
Shrimp (5, from Christmas?)

Leftovers: taco meat, chicken pot stickers, pizza, good steak from last Sunday night

Tomato sauce (plain)
Spaghetti sauce (from a jar)
Spaghetti sauce (homemade, from Christmas?)
Chili
Chicken stock
Broccoli florets
Peas
Corn
Suffering succotash

French bread
Italian bread
Hamburger rolls
Hot dog rolls

Ancient, drying up popsicles
Vodka (enough for 2 martinis because you never know how the day will go)

So, I suppose if the revolution comes, we can eat for a couple of days. But doing a little research has led me to believe that I can straighten up the mess in the freezer, and learn how to label proper containers (I tend to toss leftovers into Baggies, and trust that I will remember what the blasted thing is when I next encounter it. I am sorry to say that my days as a girl detective are long over, and I cannot tell the difference between a Baggie of tomato sauce and a Baggie of spaghetti sauce, and which might be homemade or Paul Newman’s, at least not without some reliable DNA testing.)

Here is a more helpful list of suggestions of what you should have on hand in your freezer. It will make life easier for you when, like me, you are surprised when dinner time rolls around yet again, and that you need to get something hot on the table without running out into the snow to the grocery store. Take notes:

Breads
Butter
Chicken stock/beef stock/vegetable stock (inevitably there is a vegetarian coming to call)
Sausage, bacon
Shrimp
Peas (helpful for livening up an impromptu Fettucine Alfredo, or for icing down an unexpected bump or scrape)
Cooked rice (What a time saver! Next time, make some extra to have on hand!)
Soups, stews, chilis, sauces
Broccoli, spinach, fresh herbs
Frozen fruit – for smoothies or dessert
Small containers of ice cream – portion control!
Meatballs
Tortillas
Cooked chicken slices, cooked ground beef
Ground turkey
Chicken breasts
Nuts
Vodka!

Here are three more helpful freezing hints:
1. Spread meatballs, cookie dough or pigs-in-blankets on a cookie sheet and freeze them before moving them to a container. Keep the recipe handy for the cookies so you remember baking time and temperature.
2. Freeze liquids flat in Baggies, then stand them up sideways for storage. They’ll take up less space. Get out a Sharpie and label the Baggies before you fill with the nice sauce that will be your dinner in a couple of weeks.
3. Keep a list handy of what is in the freezer – put it on your iPhone – or take a photo so you have a visual record of what is on hand. Life is fraught with peril – make it easy for yourself. There might even be an Instagram group that peers into each others’ freezers…

So if Kate and William happen to stop by, you can throw together a decent spread to have with cocktails. Much better than the stale Doritos and cheap white wine they would get here! But now that I am going to be grown up and organized, I’ll be able to whip up some nachos with the tortillas and the taco meat – if only we hadn’t gotten rid of all the shredded cheese bags!

And seriously, food waste is sinful, and it is also hard on the landfill. Here’s a timely piece from The New York Times, with even more ideas of how to avoid waste. Use it up, wear it out, make it do, do without.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/04/dining/efficiency-in-the-kitchen-to-reduce-food-waste.html?ref=dining&_r=0

“Beware of little expenses; a small leak will sink a great ship.”
~Benjamin Franklin

Food Friday: Saving Your Bacon Valentine Granola Bars

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If you have been snowbound in New England or if you have somehow managed to forget about Valentine’s Day which has been crammed down our throats since December 24, here is the life-saving answer for you: you can make a nice homemade batch of granola bars with ingredients I hope you have on hand already, and wrap them up in brown parchment paper and colorful twine, and look wonderfully whole earthy and romantic AND kindhearted.

We all know that homemade gifts are the best, even if we also know in our heart of hearts that they were probably assembled in haste, with clumsy fingers, but all the best intentions by people we love, who do not want to slide down that slippery slope to Valentine’s Day purdah. Homemade granola says loving better than the hurried purchase of the last sad, droopy bunch of red and white carnations from the grocery store. Plus, there is chocolate. But no preservatives. And no plastic wrapping! What an intuitive, environmentally sensitive person you are!

Go rummage around in the kitchen cabinets and pull out the rolled oats, the cashews, some raisins, dried cherries, honey, peanuts, almonds and cinnamon, and hope that you have chocolate chips tucked away under the rafters someplace. You are about to make a sweet Valentine’s Day present, and you are also solving snack and breakfast issues. You are practically noble for your efforts and concerns! Look at the cute snacks! Look at those little hearts! And won’t the crumbly bits be great stirred into breakfast yogurt? Amazing. I bet the executives from The Great British Baking Show are going to get in touch with you any minute now! Granola is much more complex than Rice Krispies Treats…

We are also attaching a Valentine card image at the end of the article today that you can print, so you look like the authentically kind, considerate, caring and loving person that you really are if you could just remember that Christmas AND Valentine’s Day roll around every year. Unlike the political cycle, Valentine’s Day is dependable and returns every February, just like the groundhog. But it can be a day rife with romantic neediness and it can be an emotional minefield.

I’ve included the links to a couple of cutting edge granola theories. The folks at Slate Magazine had a granola competition a couple of years ago – it must have been a slow news week – and four varieties of granola were blind taste-tested. Stephen Metcalf’s did not win. But you can judge for yourself.

Get cracking! Romance is in the air. Or is it the roasting nuts?

http://www.rippedrecipes.com/recipe/homemade-granola-honey-nuts-and-zante-currants-2467.htmlF

http://www.mybakingaddiction.com/homemade-granola-bars-recipe/

Homemade Granola Bars
YIELD: 24 servings

INGREDIENTS:
2 cups rolled oats
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup wheat germ
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup honey
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3/4 cup dried sour cherries, chopped
3/4 cup dark chocolate chips
3/4 cup slivered almonds

DIRECTIONS:
1. Preheat the oven to 350° F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. Mix together the oats, brown sugar, wheat germ, cinnamon, flour, and salt in a large bowl. Make a well in the center, and pour in the honey, egg, oil and vanilla.
3. Mix well using your hands, add in cherries, chocolate chips and almonds. Pat the mixture evenly into the prepared pan.
4. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes in the preheated oven, until the bars begin to turn golden around the edges. Cool on wire rack for about 30 minutes before cutting. Do not allow the bars to cool completely before cutting because they will crumble.

http://www.slate.com/articles/podcasts/culturegabfest/2012/02/downton_abbey_moneyball_and_great_granola_on_this_week_s_culture_gabfest_podcast_.html

http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2012/01/25/homemade_granola_that_s_easy_to_do_right.html

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tgrUkUko5mc

“Nobody has ever measured, not even poets, how much the heart can hold.”

― Zelda Fitzgerald

Food Friday for Valentine’s Day Card 2015

Food Friday: Weekend Pancakes

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It is almost time for the weekend! And weekends mean real breakfasts. Eggs, bacon, pancakes…Traditionally, eggs and fats were forbidden during Lent. On Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent starts, pancakes were rustled up to make good use of any of the tempting sinful ingredients that were cluttering up the larder. Pancakes are the last indulgence before the forty days of slim pickings during Lent. We don’t often eschew pancakes. We tend to err on the side of pleasure – ascetics are not us. So in the scant time before Lent, let the pancake flipping begin!

Pancakes are weekend food. Unless you happen to be a Walton, and have Ma and Granny downstairs puttering around in the kitchen every morning, whipping up biscuits and oatmeal and rashers of yummy bacon. We tend to be grouchy crunchy cereal people during the week, barely looking up from the newspaper to make civilized chatter. Peeling a banana is about as fancy as we get in food prep on a workday morning.

Weekends are different. And glorious. It seems as if there is an abundance of leisure time; when it is pleasurable and we feel unrushed and we can actually talk and laugh and plan how many trips to the hardware store we think we are going to need to make. And will we be able to pencil in a nap? Or a movie? The endless possibilities that present themselves at the beginning of a weekend!

We have noticed that the meals over which the most time is devoted are the meals that get eaten in the shortest amount of time imaginable. Thanksgiving takes at least a day to prepare, and the meal’s temporal length is about 20 minutes. Pancakes practically disappear in a snap as they are transported from the griddle to the plate. A nanosecond is spent pouring the maple syrup and cutting a little square of salty butter. Then the pancakes vaporize as quickly as the dog’s kibble is scarfed up. Ten minutes to mix, 20 minutes to let the batter rest, 20 minutes to cook, equals about three minutes to devour.

There is a nice rhythm and tempo preparing the pancakes, though. (Assuming you square away the bacon before you start pouring pancake batter.) Measuring and stirring, testing the griddle with a drop of water, tasting the bacon, wasting the first batch, pouring out the second, third and fourth servings, watching the pancakes bubble, dropping one for the dog, flipping pancakes one-handed with Merrie Melody aplomb. Whoops. Another pancake for the dog. Maybe it is just the good Saturday-morning-cartoon vibe. It is time to enjoy. I remember watching my brother make pancakes when I was a tot, and thinking how wise he was in the ways of the kitchen, because he knew to wait for the bursting bubbles to slow down before turning the pancake. What a brilliant guy!

We are getting a little fancier these days. We remember fondly the Maine vacation where we picked our own Sal-like blueberries for the breakfast pancakes. Another summer trip is remembered mostly for the friend who added peaches to the pancakes– amazingly deelish. The Tall One likes chocolate chip pancakes. The Pouting Princess likes bacon “infused” pancakes. I spent a summer during college waitressing at an iHop, which, amazingly, didn’t cause any sort of lifelong aversion to the humble flapjack. This is a good thing, Martha.

Buttermilk Pancakes

3 eggs, separated
1 2/3 cups buttermilk
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups flour
1 tablespoon sugar
3 tablespoons butter, melted
Beat the yolks until pale and smooth.
Beat in the buttermilk and then the baking soda and mix well.
Sift in the dry ingredients mixing as you add; make sure the batter is smooth.
Add in the melted butter and mix well.
Beat the egg whites in another bowl until stiff.

Fold into the batter until no white bits are visible.
Let batter stand about 20 minutes before pouring out pancakes.
Make sure your griddle is really hot – do the water test.
Ladle batter onto griddle; turn when bubbles form across the cakes and allow to lightly brown on the second side.
Serve with lots warm maple syrup and sweet salty butter and lots of bacon. And tall glasses of cold milk. Yumsters!

Impressive vacation-worthy pancakes from our friends at Food52:
https://food52.com/recipes/1843-lemony-cream-cheese-pancakes-with-blueberries

And if all else fails – Bisquick pancakes taste fine, too!

“Hope makes a good breakfast. Eat plenty of it.”
― Ian Fleming

Food Friday: Simply Chicken Potpie

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I have been out of town this week, so here is a merry little stroll back in time, in our own Spy Tardis:

On a recent dark and stormy night I was about to go through the motions of whipping up an uninspired stir fry of chicken, peas, onions, carrots and some celery for crunch, but it didn’t seem like a warm, inviting meal for a raw winter day. It’s not that I harbor any illusions that coming home to our house every night is a journey to Martha-in-Wonderland, but sometimes I like to pretend that Mrs. Cleaver lives here. Even though I do not wear the high heels and the starched shirtwaist dress, I am wearing pearls along with the scarf, the sweater and the turtleneck. I bet even Mrs. Cleaver would be wearing woolies this week! And clad in her double-thick black leggings, Mrs. Cleaver would use these same ingredients to bake an amazing chicken potpie.

Here is something to keep in your freezer at all times of the year – a package of puff pastry. This is essential, Home Ec 101 information. Write it down. In cursive! Or tell Siri to remind you the next time you go to the Food Lion: “Buy puff pastry.”

I have used store-bought pie shells in the past because I am hopeless at home made. Everyone would politely shovel the chicken concoctions into their hungry little mouths. But the puff pastry made this pie an occasion! It was spectacular! It was as if Jiffy Pop Pop Corn had waved a magic wand over my chicken pie ordinaire, and puffed it upward and outward with importance and historical significance. Well, it looked very pretty when it came out of the oven, and was warmer and more comforting than that pedestrian chicken stir fry would have been.

I used the same ingredients that would have gone into the stir fry, with the addition of the puff pastry, and some chicken broth. And a little flour. I’ll trot out some other recipes for you later – but you need to keep it simple, for your own sanity. I read one recipe that wanted me to weave strips of pastry into a latticework on top of the pie. That was sheer foolishness. The pastry rises and looms like ocean cliffs – do not diminish that drama by getting all crafty. Use that time you would have been weaving pastry strips (like those long ago potholders) wisely. Dig out the latest Garden & Gun Magazine and plan your Mardi Gras strategy instead.

I boiled a boneless chicken breast, although if you have a leftover roasted chicken, you can pull off enough meat for a pie for two people. After boiling the breast, I chopped it up and shredded it – the howling cat was very grateful that my knife skills need some polishing, as some shreds flew off the cutting board into her KP area. I chopped up a couple of carrots, some celery, and half an onion, and tossed them into a frying pan with some butter for a few minutes. The onion should be translucent and fragrant. Then I added a handful of flour and 2 cups of chicken broth and the chicken. (Sometimes I skip the flour and the broth and just add Campbell’s Cream of Chicken Soup and a little milk.) After everything heated up and bubbled along nicely, I poured the mixture into my cute little Le Creuset baking dish. But a pie pan works just as well. (Remember, I am waiting for Mr. Cleaver, and want to make a favorable impression. Sometimes Ward has had a rough day down at the insurance office, or wherever it is that he works…)

Roll the thawed dough out on a floured surface, just to take out the creases. Then lay it on top of your pan, and with kitchen sheers, or even your office Fiskars, trim the excess dough, leaving about half an inch hanging over the edge of the pan, for drama.

Whisk an egg with a little water, and then brush it across the pastry. It will add color and a shiny surface to the pastry. Then remember to cut a few slits in the dough to let steam escape during the baking process.

Put the pastry-topped pan on top of a cookie sheet, and pop in a 375°F oven for about 30 to 35 minutes. See – you didn’t need to waste your time basket weaving at all. And now there is a little extra time to read a The Goldfinch, or chill the wine, or to watch last night’s Daily Show. Ward wouldn’t have enjoyed the spectacle of woven pastry as much as he is going to enjoy this huge, flying buttress of a chicken potpie.

I like The Pioneer Woman website. She has a droll sense of humor. I could imagine spending a little quality time with her out on the prairie. Although I do not have turmeric – so I will never know exactly what her pie tastes like: http://thepioneerwoman.com/cooking/2013/08/pot-pie/

Here’s Martha’s take, although she spends quality time worrying about the crust. “Pshaw!” I say! Worry about your time with young Theo Decker instead! http://www.marthastewart.com/891257/classic-chicken-potpie

“Promises and pie-crust are made to be broken.”
-Jonathan Swift

Food Friday: National Pizza Week

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Please accept my deepest apologies for never having recognized (or celebrated) National Pizza Week before this year. What could I have been thinking? The second week of January is a time to revel in hot cheese, good sauce, toppings (or not) and fabulous crust (thin, thick or deep dish). Pizza, like cake, is the perfect food. Long live the pizzaterians!

I grew up in a household where going out for pizza was the supreme treat. We were even permitted to have a glass of orange soda! Of course, we only ate plain cheese pizza pie. My parents grew up in New Haven, home of Sally’s Apizza; in their hearts the home of the purest, best American pizza. They were stodgy, no nonsense New Englanders, by gum. Plain and simple pizza only, thank you; unadorned by unnecessary. What more could you possibly want or need? The slices at Pellicci’s (our hometown favorite Italian restaurant) were the size of formal dinner napkins, so my brother and I learned early on how to fold the molten lava slices into airplane shapes which fit nicely in our hungry, gaping maws. But it wasn’t until junior high and experiencing hot lunch in the cafeteria that I found out about pepperoni pizza. Holy smokes! What a revelation, and such beauteous gilding on the pizza lily!

Pizza is so very customizable. There are myriad variations on the pizza topping theme. First there are your basic Mozzarella cheese, meats, and veggies, excellent tomato sauce, a soupçon of garlic and a pinch or oregano. Other toppings may include regional favorites: barbeque, chicken, oysters, crayfish, shrimp, bacon, artichoke hearts and tuna. In Japan the favorite toppings are squid and a mayonnaise mixture of mayo, potato and bacon. A very fancy pizza was once concocted with caviar, lobster and crème fraiche. Hmm. Not up to Sally’s standards I’m afraid.

What do your pizza toppings say about you? Are you quirky, well-traveled, catholic, risk-taking and fearless? Bland, smug, uncurious, timid and hide-bound? Further trolling of the internets reveals that some people add these peculiar toppings (remember now, I am a snobby, unadventuous purist):
• Squash pizza (zucchini, summer squash and zucchini flowers)
• Macaroni and cheese (complete with breadcrumbs)
• Pesto
• BBQ sauce
• Alfredo sauce
• Bacon and egg
• Eggs Florentine
• Spinach and artichoke
• Tex-Mex pizza (pepper Jack cheese, salsa, beans and avocado
• Fig, prosciutto and chili jam
• Sweet potato and Kielbasa
• Lemon and smoke Mozzarella
• Arugula
• Ground lamb with an egg
• Prosciutto, basil and mozzarella
• Ricotta, prosciutto and mint
• Chicken and cranberry relish
• Brussels sprouts, roasted and shaved

A good idea comes from Serious Eats – try par-cooking vegetables to get eliminate some of the moisture and to intensify their flavor. Carmelized onions and peppers go a long way to making pizza a rich tapestry of woven, complimentary flavors, instead of just a slippery bunch of layers.

According to Pizza.com, “eating pizza once a week can reduce the risk of esophageal cancer.” But Elitedaily.com warns that “34% of the average American adult’s body fat comes from pizza.”

We still make pizza most Friday nights. When our kids were little, pizza wasn’t cause for celebration as it was in my distant youth. Their elementary school held pizza parties at the drop of every possible hat. They had it so often that it was de rigueur and not the least bit ritualistically special. They were growing accustomed to cold, cardboard-tasting (literally) Papa John’s and Domino’s pizzas. Heresy! We wanted them to know what real pizza tasted like.

It pushed our little Kenmore oven to the brink, firing it up to 500°F every Friday night for almost 20 years. We couldn’t achieve the blistering hot 600° and 800° temperatures that special wood burning or coal-fired pizza ovens reach, but we did our suburban best. And it was a great time to be spent together. They learned how to measure, how to wait for dough to rise, how to roll out circles (or amoebas) how to grate cheese, how to feed the dog indigestible pepperoni slices, how to draw pictures in flour (highly marketable art) and how to put up with their parents for a couple of hours every week. We also learned to appreciate getting blisters on the roofs of our mouths from gobbling down fresh, hot out-of-the-oven homemade pizza. No cardboard here! We never got good enough to toss the dough in the air, we still roll it out on the floured counter and we have only achieved the thin, crispy perfection of a crust a dozen or so times. Each week we hope. So many lessons learned from one dish.

This Friday we have some leftover Italian sausage, leftover meatballs and a fresh stick of pepperoni for a mélange of a meat topping. There is some basil growing on the windowsill, and we will toss a handful on top of the pizza when it emerges from the furnace of an oven. Our dough is rising in a bowl in the kitchen right this minute, waiting for pizza magic tonight. How about you?

“But magic is like pizza: even when it’s bad, it’s pretty good.”
― Neil Patrick Harris

And your pizza is nothing without good dough. Our friends at Food52 have many suggestions, but we like this recipe: https://food52.com/recipes/28124-homemade-pizza-dough

And if you want to adapt a pizza theme for every meal possible, visit this site:
http://www.buzzfeed.com/mackenziekruvant/pizza-power#.tsbvxZdMJ7

http://www.sallysapizza.com/

http://slice.seriouseats.com/archives/2011/09/a-pizza-snobs-approach-to-toppings.html

http://www.delish.com/recipes/cooking-recipes/unconventional-pizza-toppings#slide-1

http://www.taste.com.au/gallery/12+perfect+pizza+toppings,454?ref=,

Food Friday: Oh My Darling Clementine!

FF_Clementine_slide

The Doctor Who Christmas special, Last Christmas, caused a lively debate here: what is the difference between Clementines and tangerines? Maybe we had a little too much vacation down time and togetherness, plus we were avoiding the inevitability and disappointment of dismantling the Christmas decorations. Still – inquiring minds want to know.

In Doctor Who, Santa’s trademark gift is a tangerine in every stocking; a sweet, juicy orange jewel, the symbol of innocence. The Doctor scoffs at that gesture, declaring, “Nobody likes tangerines!” I remember growing up that we did have oranges in our stockings a few times, but never consistently. And Santa never left oranges or tangerines for my children. (Especially this year when we forgot to leave him Christmas cookies and milk! Payback!) Instead he tucked small books, and dolls, and toys, and tiny boxes of Legos, and candy canes (gasp!), and other quiet diversions into their capacious stockings, which would temporarily distract and charm the early rising children, so that the poor beleaguered parents could sleep a wee bit longer.

It seems to me that I had oranges in my lunch quite a lot as a child. I know tangerines were substituted a few times, but tangerines had more seeds than most oranges, and so I registered a few complaints. Did you ever believe that swallowing watermelon seeds would eventually result in catastrophe? I think we swallowed them only when dared, and suffered no consequences, and otherwise tried to enjoy a legit opportunity for spitting. And that was only in the summertime, sitting on the back porch, with an available sibling sitting nearby. No seed spitting was tolerated in our school cafeteria. Alas.

We did not have Clementines when I was a child. I don’t know if they are more fashionable, or more readily available, but they seem ubiquitous now. Maybe they were exotic and hideously expensive in New England back in the day. The packaging is very appealing, so much more so than a plastic sack o’oranges. I’ll haul home a small crate of Clementines with the idea that I can recycle it, fill it with potting soil and use it to start spring and get a jump on my summer garden. That has never happened, but I can assure you that I enjoy the fantasy every time.

Both the tangerines and the Clementines are varietals of the mandarin orange, which is slightly smaller than a standard orange. Nutritionally tangerines and Clementines are very similar – a 100-gram tangerine has 53 calories and a 100-gram Clementine has 47. There is more Vitamin C and Potassium in a Clementine, but more Magnesium and Calcium in a tangerine. I think the Clementine tastes sweeter – more like an orange than the watery tangerine. But both are easy to peel. The Clementine is seedless, however, which gives it the advantage. I can remember trying to peel oranges, and how hard it seemed sometimes, even if my mother scored the peel with a knife before tossing it in my lunchbox.

So listen up Santa, could you make the Clementine your signature gift now? The Doctor will approve: sweeter, no seeds and very easy to peel. Perfect for Tardis travel.

(McDonald’s has jumped on the Clementine bandwagon, and will be offering Clementines in Happy Meals now, on a seasonal basis. http://nrn.com/food-trends/mcdonald-s-introduces-clementines-happy-meal-option!)

Here is a nifty sounding recipe for an orange cake. I need to rethink my whole approach to baking, and get some metric scales and so I can start to bake the Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood way. They are the professional cooks and judges on a delightful BBC import on PBS on Sunday nights, just before Downton Abbey: The Great British Baking Show. It is deeelightful! This is my new guilty pleasure. Butter, cream, chocolate, English accents, bad teeth and crazy baking. Everyone is sweet, and determined, and thoughtful of others as they compete to become the Best Amateur Baker in Britain. I have never watched TV reality shows, but this is just wonderful. I got this first recipe from Mary Berry:

http://www.maryberry.co.uk/recipes/baking/whole-orange-spice-cake

Who would have thought of boiling a whole orange for an hour? We would have gone to the fridge and poured out some orange juice. But Mary is thrifty. She once commented that you should be economical, and save the leftover lemon wedge for a gin and tonic! Our kind of baker!

You can catch up on the first couple of episodes here: http://video.pbs.org/program/great-british-baking-show/

Clementine Cake from Nigella:

http://www.nigella.com/recipes/view/clementine-cake-2559

http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=28573

“we went into a market—they call it a grocery—and you can’t imagine. fruit brilliant as magazine photos. all kinds of different oranges, grapefruits, mandarins, some tiny clementines with a blue sticker—Morocco—they’ve come so far…”
– REINA MARÍA RODRÍGUEZ
http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/242094

Food Friday: Hash Browns or Home Fries?

FoodFriday_January 12015_hashbrownsorhomefries

Regional differences in food can sometimes be subtle and confusing. I know I have ordered hash browns in restaurants and expected to get a crispy pile of tasty grated potato, when what I get is a side of cubed potatoes, mixed with browned onions and peppers. And vice versa. I guess I have used the term interchangeably – and that is wrong. Who knew? Even when I went exploring Martha’s brain trust I found hash brown recipes cheek and jowl with home fries recipes. Perhaps Connecticut, where I grew up, has a little problem differentiating between such deliciousness?

Dan Pashman, who has recently written a delightful book about food and eating, “Eat More Better”, http://www.sporkful.com/ posits that this is a crucial point – because how will you cure your New Year’s hangover without a good side dish of potatoes? I like both hash browns and home fries, because really, how could you not? But if I am struggling with a New Year’s Eve cheap-white-wine-induced hangover, please (silently) hand me a plateful of crispy butter-fried hash browns. Home fries just won’t cut it.

This is probably why McDonald’s is so popular in college towns. Their hash browns come as little oval patties, which don’t even require a fork, and have been deepfried and are hot enough to scald you into mindful awareness of your misadventures. I would suggest as a resolution that you cut back on the alcohol and boost your potato consumption this bright and shiny new year.

I prefer my hash browns pure and naked, with some salt and pepper, or if you are lucky enough, a dash of Lowry’s Seasoning Salt, which brings bliss and joy to everything it touches. (When we make potato pancakes with leftover mashed potatoes, a casual toss of Lowry’s adds a crisp, salty crust and life is again wonderful.) We fry our hash browns in butter, or sometimes with a little bacon fat if we are daring, though I have heard that some folks use duck fat! What a concept! If I can ever make myself part with the cash for an expensive jar of duck fat you can believe that hash browns will be the first dish I try out. The mind boggles!

We spent a few years early in our marriage preparing Betty Crocker boxed dehydrated (and subsequently rehydrated) hash browns on Sunday mornings, which were fine for the entry level of our cooking. (The college cafeteria was still a threatening recurrent memory…) But honestly, how hard is it to grate a potato? Today you can cheat and buy bags of pre-shredded hash browns in the refrigerated foods section of the grocery store, near the eggs and the inert plastic-bagged bagels, you lazy git. My new school of thought is to peel and boil the potatoes, allowing them to cool so I retain my fingerprints and my future life of crime, then grate the potatoes before frying them to crunchy, crispy nirvana in a non-stick pan with lots of butter. This eliminates the need for soaking the raw, grated potatoes in water to get the starches out. And it also eliminates that vision of grey, stringy potato shreds, which is much too sad and mournful to contemplate.

But this is in my dream world, where someone has iced up my Diet Coke, ironed the New York Times Style section, cooked and served the hash browns and bacon, and with attentive mercy has doled out a post-breakfast dark chocolate Milano cookie. The real world is less perfect, but no less fascinating. We had breakfast at the luncheonette in Green’s Pharmacy in Palm Beach the other morning. The cooks were silent and completely syncopated in their morning balletic grand jetés and glissades in their tiny communal cooking space. We watched as omelets were poured and twirled and folded in mid-air, scrambled eggs tossed lightly skyward, poached eggs landed lightly in small white bowls while the hash was browned and the bread toasted. A good quarter of the gridiron-sized griddle that was covered with browning, fragrant home fries, which smelled terrific as they sizzled and were spooned onto waiting dishes. The dinner plate-sized pancakes appeared, flipped, and disappeared with a repeating beat all their own. One could not be so rude as to intrude and beg for off-the-menu hash browns. The towering stack of crispy, salty bacon I gobbled up took care of that yen. And it was an powerful performance by grand masters.

P.S. We did not see any Kennedys having breakfast at the legendary Green’s as many gossips avow, but there were enough knuckle duster sparklers, Belgian shoes (sans socks), Lilly shifts and popped Lacoste collars mixed in with our rank and file ordinariness to make the visit to Green’s a worthwhile cultural (and culinary) event. Thank you Green’s Pharmacy! Your cooks’ skills are a virtuosic tour de force!

“What I say is that, if a man really likes potatoes, he must be a pretty decent sort of fellow.”
― A.A. Milne

http://southflorida.menupages.com/restaurants/greens-pharmacy/)

http://www.sporkful.com/tag/hash-browns/

http://www.bonappetit.com/recipe/skillet-hash-browns

http://www.imafoodblog.com/index.php/2009/03/31/oven-baked-hash-browns

http://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2011/11/ultra-crispy-roast-potatoes-recipe.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/06/hash-browns-vs-home-fries_n_4538508.html

Food Friday: Holiday Breakfasts

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If you are entertaining over the holidays, or have wayward college students wandering into the kitchen at all hours demanding more food, or even if you are going to be visiting family or friends over the holidays, it is a good idea to have some easy peasy breakfast recipes on hand that you can whip up with the minimum of fuss, or trips to the grocery store.

We always have day old French bread (in fact we have a collection of French bread in the freezer – we will never starve) and it always seems a sin and a shame to pitch it, so this is a delightful and economical way to be frugal consumers. And Best Beloved loves the added kick of the rum on these festive mornings…

Weekend French Toast

Serves 4
1 cup milk
1 pinch salt
3 brown eggs
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 generous dollop rum
1 tablespoon brown sugar
8 1/2-inch slices day old French bread

Whisk milk, salt, eggs, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla extract, rum and sugar until smooth. Heat a lightly buttered griddle or frying pan over medium heat. Soak bread slices in mixture until saturated. Cook bread on each side for a couple of minutes, until golden brown. Serve with maple syrup and powdered sugar. If you add some raspberries and whipped cream it will remind you of the Belgian Waffles from the World’s Fair in the 60s. Childhood bliss!

Here are Amanda and Merrill from Food52 preparing Weekend French Toast. http://www.food52.com/blog/796_weekend_french_toast

Also in our Christmas Cornucopia of Necessary Foodstuffs are

Sausage Balls!

The Tall One loveslovesloves these. Of course, he is a tall, lanky, long drink of water and can afford the calories. The rest of us will have to get by smelling the blissful clouds of temptation…

1 pound ground sausage (we like the “Hot” variety, just for a little morning kick)
3 cups Bisquick
4 cups grated Cheddar cheese
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

(We are never certain how many this recipe serves, but it seems to keep someone very satisfied…)

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Line a cookie sheet with miraculous parchment paper. Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl. (Living as we do in the South this might be as close to making snow balls as we come this year.) Form into 1-inch balls, shmushing the balls so they hold together. Place the balls on the cookie sheet and bake for 18 to 20 minutes. They should be golden brown. If you are the fussy sort with lots of spare time on your hands you can turn the balls halfway through the baking time. Drain on paper towels and stand back. They are excellent warm for breakfast, but the Tall One can attest to their delicious qualities cold, right out of the fridge. We bake them the day before Christmas and re-heat in the morning.

The folks at Food52 also have some clever breakfast ideas up their sleeves, and I have included their links below. You can always whip up a batch of cornbread for dinner, and repurpose it in the morning – it never lasts long around here. And while I will not share the Roman Punch with the visiting undergrads, I will probably enjoy a cup or two of its cheer when we are gathered around the Christmas tree, playing with our new igadgets and toys.

http://food52.com/recipes/1799_perfect_pancakes

http://food52.com/recipes/8195_doublecorn_corn_bread_with_fresh_thyme

http://food52.com/recipes/7635_nineteenth_century_roman_punch

“When the girl returned, some hours later, she carried a tray, with a cup of fragrant tea steaming on it; and a plate piled up with very hot buttered toast, cut thick, very brown on both sides, with the butter running through the holes in it in great golden drops, like honey from the honeycomb. The smell of that buttered toast simply talked to Toad, and with no uncertain voice; talked of warm kitchens, of breakfasts on bright frosty mornings, of cosy parlour firesides on winter evenings, when one’s ramble was over and slippered feet were propped on the fender, of the purring of contented cats, and the twitter of sleepy canaries.”

Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

Happy Holidays!