Friday, August 27, 2010

cake dreamer

Dear Elise,
Usually, we write about some thing we have made, or something we have baked. But I haven't been cooking very much lately. Tired from training and not too much time and lazy about going to the store. Hence all the dinners of frozen green beans and scrambled eggs. But there are a lot of things I want to make. I ride along on my bike and fantasize. A dessert that was composed entirely of peaches; peach ice cream and peach cake and peach caramel sauce and a grilled peach on the side. But I would never make that. Way too time consuming.
Remember when we took that tremendously long hike up to some distant lake and for the final few miles we talked ravenously about what would be the perfect meal to be waiting for us when we arrived? It's like that, for hours on the bike.
But I also plan meals and design dishes and invent new twists on old favorites.
Since I am such a fan of the corn and tomato pie, I started there. One of the things I love about that pie is the biscuit crust, so I started to think about what else could go in a biscuit crust. A sloppy joe could work. A gooey burger, perhaps? I wondered about sausages with red peppers and onions, the sort of ragout that is usually served with polenta. I wonder if polenta is a better accompaniment? Maybe sausages with onions and apples? Then I thought maybe my famous meatloaf. I think I would have to saute the meat loaf first, at least the meat and veggies part, then add the flavorings and bread crumbs and put it in the crust. I think the biscuit crust would be burned by the time the meat cooked if I just put it in raw. But this sort of opens all sorts of possibilities, beef stew, pot roast, short ribs, all good with biscuits, so why not in a biscuit crust? I realize we are entering beef pot pie territory, but it would be different because the crust is thinner and crispier and also there is a bottom as well as a top. And really, does it matter if we have one more beef pot pie?
And because it is nearly fall, I am back on the spice cake quest. There is a marble spice cake I want to make and I still want to make the perfect spice cake. A cake that is aggressively spicey, perhaps with a soft filling and a caramel frosting, or maybe easier to go with caramel filling and whipped cream. I love cream cheese frosting but it tends to run right over anything you put it on. Maybe a spice cake with a roasted apple filling, a caramel frosting and whipped cream on the side. I just read a quote in the NYer where a Chinese high school student said, "Americans have a way of taking a good thing and adding to it." Words to live by, and as soon I start cooking again, I'm going to put them in action.
love, Marg

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Problem with Cakes

Dear Elise,
I have lost my baking confidence and I blame it on unreliable ovens. That and the altitude. Also, there may be a reverse magnetic field around me.
Despite the limited white sugar, white flour guidelines, I have been doing a bit of baking. I baked a lemon cake for Ab. You know that cake that everyone in the family, except me, loves? The one that calls for whole cups of lemon zest, the one that usually has more than a few knuckle shards in it bc of all that hateful zesting? But Ab wanted it and I was visiting her, and bc she is nursing, she can't have chocolate so really, what's left?
I baked the cake and tested it and it seemed that the tester came out clean and I took it out of the oven and let it rest for a few minutes and then turned it out onto a plate to cool, whereupon, it fell into pieces and raw batter ran out and puddled all over the counter. Well, I popped it back in the pan, salvaged as much raw batter as I could scrape off the counter, and put it back in the oven for another half hour. Naturally when I tried to turn it out of the pan again, it came out in pieces. For this cake, other than making it unsightly, that's not a bad development bc you have so many more cracks and crags to catch and absorb the glaze, which is really the only tasty part of that wretched cake.

Because of that debacle, I am now nervous about under-baking and I don't trust the time that recipes recommend and I don't trust my oven temp because as everyone knows, reverse magnetic fields wreak havoc with electric ovens and the whole thing is fraught. So last Sunday I had a few people for dinner, otherwise known as an excuse to bake. I wanted to do something with all the lovely local peaches we get this time of year. And I wasn't up to making a pie crust and I wanted something sweeter and softer than a crisp. I considered Mrs. Bently's peach cake since you have been raving about it, but you also recommend doubling it and I didn't have enough eggs. So I went with Dorie Greenspan's Summery Peach Upside Downer.
This is the summer version of the Cranberry Upside Downer. We worked with the cranberry version quite a bit, if you recall. The peach one needs some work too. Part of the problem was my under-baking anxiety. To compensate, I over-baked it. But it is also a lackluster cake. Not as warm and sweet and soft as I wanted. I served it with whipped cream and no one complained. But next time I think I'll make a pound cake and use that over the peaches, flavored with the barest intimation of almond. As everyone knows, almond is an antidote to reverse magnetic fields.
love, Marg

Corn and Tomato Salad

Hi Marg,

This is an old favorite of mine and I made it last week. I cook the corn lightly, say about 4 or 5 minutes in the boiling water, and then cut it off the cob. Add cherry tomatoes, basil (chiffonaded of course), salt, pepper and dressing. I put some fresh zucchini slices in this one because we had such beautiful little ones in the garden.

I usually make the dressing by mashing up an anchovy or two with some lemon juice and salt. Then I whisk in olive oil, add a spoonful of plain yogurt and a pinch of sugar and fresh ground pepper. I learned about the sugar from Erin when we were in Switzerland. She copied a dressing that we had at a restaurant and put in a bit of sugar. I'd always scorned sugar in salad dressings but this was such a little bit that you didn't taste it at all. It just softened the acidity a tich.

Taste and correct and taste and correct until you are happy. It's important to taste it on the vegetables bc they influence the final outcome. Obviously.

I'm hungry and there is no corn and tomato salad here.

Love, E

Friday, August 20, 2010

Can she bake a cherry pie?

Hi Marg,

The answer is yes. Definitively yes. Will it be a good pie? The answer is sometimes. Sometimes it will be good and sometimes it will not be so good.

Yesterday we harvested Montmorency pie cherries from the tree that I planted many years ago. Probably about 15 years ago, thought it's hard to believe. We harvested what we thought was enough for 2 pies, but once pitted turned out to be enough for one real pie and a baby pie.

I made the usual pate brisee crust with the ingredient list you sent me, and then had to ad lib the pie part bc I forgot to ask you to send those ingredients and my copy of Martha Stewart Pies and Tarts is in Seattle. Besides Martha uses flour to thicken her cherry pie and I don't like the raw flour taste, so I was happy to experiment.

I added 1 and a half cups of sugar, 1 and a half T of cornstarch, a squeeze of lemon (possibly too much in hind sight) to enough cherries to fill a large Emile Henry ceramic pie plate.  Tossed it all together, into the crust, sealed it up, and realized I'd forgotten to dot with butter. Considered stuffing chunks of frozen butter through the vent holes but rejected the idea, mostly out of laziness mixed with a tinge of vanity over the perfection of the crust and its current vent holes.

I know you'll say I'm my own worst critic, but the pie was very runny and a bit tart. I think more sugar and definitely more cornstarch. Also, could the butter help it to set up? I think the butter would have added a richness that would have counteracted the tartness and maybe helped me to get away with less sugar.

Everyone ate it up, and there were no complaints. A did say that the last one I made (when I had the recipe) was better.

Lessons learned - put in the butter even if it messes up the pristine crust, cherries that are really ripe have a lot of juice so go heavy on the thickener (come to think of it, they'd be a great candidate for tapioca at thickener since it takes a lot of liquid to dissolve the pearls), pie cherries are tart so use plenty of sugar, juice of half a lemon is excessive.

I'm taking your advice and making peach crisp tonight so I'll let you know how it goes.

love, Elise

sorry, can't make image right side up...

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Signature Dish

Dear Elise,
As you know, I was recently in the Mid Pyrenees, and we went to Lourdes and then we went to Toulouse. I knew, from reading, that Cassoulet is the signature dish of the region. In Toulouse, it wouldn't matter if you hadn't read up on the local signature dish because it is served everywhere, all the time, stuffed into omelets, rolled into crepes, mixed into gelato, with afternoon tea and of course, at dinner. It seems Cassoulet is a bit like macaroni and cheese, many variations, only a few of them worthy. I had one at a good restaurant, and while it was very tasty, it didn't have duck and I think confited duck legs should be de rigueur for Cassoulet because otherwise it's just a stew.

I started thinking about what makes a signature dish. I think when you have a signature dish for a region, it should be made from local products. I guess there are lambs and pigs and ducks and beans all over the mid Pyrenees.
The signature dish for PEI should be oysters in potato baskets. The signature dish for PEI is poutine. French fries with mozzarella cheese and gravy. It is nearly gross, but hard to stop eating. That's both a signature and a metaphor.
I can't imagine what the signature dish for my part of VA would be. Something cooked on a barbecue in your driveway.
Then I tried to decide what my signature dish would be. It could be meatloaf, that's what I am most famous for. But I think a signature dish should have many variations and while meatloaf does have many variations, I only make one, so that doesn't seem right. It could be chicken salad, many variations and I make most of them. But if chicken salad is my signature dish I may as well start scrap-booking and wearing leatherette shoes. Ice cream Sundae could be my signature dish. I have a long history with this. It has a number of very worthy variations, caramels sauce, chocolate chip ice cream, salted walnuts, butterscotch sauce, raspberry sauce, coffee ice cream, several different kinds of ice cream and several different sauces. The only constant would be freshly whipped whipped cream. But it seems off to have a signature dish that I so rarely make any more. Then there is cake, but cake is too general. That would be like saying casserole is my signature dish. It's not exactly a signature, it's more of a tome, an entire address card, a memoir. I could choose roast chicken but that has the same problem chicken salad has. I could choose curry, but that seems to falsely imply some sort of exotic heritage.
I think I'll go with Pastitsio. I love it. It is a go-to recipe for company, at least company I care about. You can vary it a bit, and it is super forgiving. I crave it, even when it is hot out. And everyone likes it, even though it isn't that healthy.
What is your signature dish?
love, M

Saturday, August 14, 2010

If I were there

Dear Marg,

If I were there I would make dinner for you. I would start by making some homemade lemonade with a sprig of mint in it bc I know it's hot. Then I'd make turkey meatloaf, bc even though it's hot it's so very comforting. We could turn up the AC. I'd make it with shiitake mushrooms in it for the umami. I'd probably also make a big green salad with crunchy baby carrots from the farmers market and an English cucumber. The dressing would be a lemon vinaigrette, with maybe an anchovy mushed up in it for flavor complexity.

Or tomato corn pie bc I know you love it, and since I've never made it you could show me how. Or gougere, bc it's light, and would be good with the salad, and has eggs in it. Everyone knows eggs are soothing. 

Maybe a cold poached salmon with a yogurt and cucumber saucy with just a touch of cumin. Or chicken kabobs marinated in a turkish sort of marinade with olive oil and cumin and some fresh oregano. Both would be good with cherry tomatoes tossed with olive oil, S&P, and some cubes of feta, with chopped parsley sprinkled on top. Some crusty bread too, with butter.

For desert I'd make a peach blackberry crumble, mostly fruit and an oatmeal/nut topping with barely any sugar at all. We could  have it with ice cream or not, your call.

Love, Elise

Monday, August 9, 2010

Chocolate, Cubed

Dear Marg,

I'm sorry about this post. I know you are in your my-race-is-two-months-away-so-can't-sully-my temple body-with-white-sugar-and-fats mode, and I was going to blog about this really great pasta I made, since it would help you with carbo-loading. (Does anyone do that anymore?)

Anyway, I can't remember how I made the pasta, even though it was only a week ago and I have good pictures of it. I'm blaming it on jetlag. 

Instead, I am posting about the Chocolate Chunkers I made tonight from Dorie Greenspan's Baking From My Home to Yours. Do you remember when Mom gave us the list of words she thinks are tacky? Home, as in you have a lovely. Gift, as in I brought you a hostess. Do you remember any of the others? Tangent...

I made the cookies bc lately I've been fantasizing about making a cookie that tastes like Raisinettes. Since I've been in my oh-my-god-I'm-existing-on-sweets-and-this-has-got-to-stop mode lately, I've been having a handful of raisins with a few milk chocolate chips mixed in for desert. This tastes a lot like Raisinettes, which reminded me how much I love them. 

When Mot was living with us, we used to buy them by the gallon at Costco. No one in the family but me liked them and I LOVED them, so Mot would hide them and only bring them out when we were going to the movies. I'd take a plastic bag of them in with me bc the Costco variety tasted so much better than the brand name ones. Another tangent...

These cookies seemed like they might be an approximation. I was tempted to leave out the nuts since that seemed to put them more in the Chunky corner than the Raisinette corner. Wasn't that the name of that square candy bar with raisins and nuts in it? But I figured I owed it to Dorie to at least try to follow the recipe, at least once. 

My analysis - really excellent batter. Ratio of mixed in chunks of chocolate, raisins and nuts to batter is very high. Consequently, I won't really know for sure until they cool enough for the chocolate to harden. This hasn't stopped Amos and me from sampling extensively and pronouncing them quite good. Sorry.