Saturday, September 29, 2012

Birthday Traditions


As you know (as everyone in the entire world surely knows) I had a birthday last week.  My birthday is my favorite day. Whenever anyone asks which I prefer, Christmas or Thanksgiving? My answer is, “My birthday.” 

I like that the entire day is all mine, and everyone has to pay attention to me, and do nice things for me, and give me presents, and unlike Christmas (my least favorite holiday) all I have to do is graciously accept the generous attentions. I kind of like a birthday week, several parties and taken out to restaurants and presents that trickle in for days. But this year, it was a birthday day, not week and it was a great one.

As with any significant holiday, my birthday has a few traditions. I wake up, roll over and wonder if I have to get out of bed yet (Nancy says YES! Kima says, Be quiet!) and I think Oh yeah, it’s my birthday! I’m allowed to have anything I want for breakfast, whipped cream on my coffee, chocolate before the dog walk, anything. I save all the birthday messages I get all day and then play them again and again for the next few days. I save my presents and open them all at once in a frenzy, like a shark with blood in the water. And I bake myself a disappointing cake.

This unintended but very regular tradition begins weeks ahead of the actual day. My birthday is coming!! Opportunity to bake. I read cook books; I look on line at all my favorite blogs, at different web sites. I go thru all the recipes I have clipped and saved all year. I make a decision, Prune Walnut Cake with Chocolate Mousse icing. I live with that decision for a few days and then change my mind. Carrot cake. There are a lot of carrot cakes. I read many recipes for carrot cake. I buy 5 lbs of carrots. I change my mind again and settle on a spice cake. Every year, I settle on a spice cake.

This year I settled on Martha Stewart’s sugar and spice cake with mascarpone frosting. The recipe looked good. The reviews were all raves. (I have since come to suspect that the reviewers on MS’s web site are shills.) I don’t even want to go into it.

You make a spice cake in two 8” layers. You cut each layer in half for a total of four layers. I got to use that nifty wire cake cutter that we found together in one of those stores in Seattle. So there was that. 

You make a frosting of mascarpone mixed with very little sugar folded into a pile of whipped cream. This is where the endeavor went south. I should have known. The frosting tasted like extremely bland whipped cream. And as you know, I like whipped cream, but this one needed more sugar and maybe some vanilla and forget the Mascarpone. That stuff brings nothing to the table. Oh, and you spread jam on each layer before the frosting goes on. 

Well, it was bland and uninteresting and completely dominated by that pallid, soggy whipped cream frosting. Ugh!

We ate it. But after the party, I left it with Chris, never wanting to see it again.

Luckily there is also the birthday tradition of a second cake. It is always Chocolate Dump Cake from the first California Heritage, with white frosting, the kind made with butter, confectionary sugar and vanilla. And it always satisfies. This year I colored the frosting pink for extra festiveness.

The final result of this year’s birthday cake debacle, is that I am cured of my spice cake longings. I’ll make apple cakes and pumpkin cakes, persimmon cakes and sweet potato cakes and maybe a carrot cake, there is that 5 lb bag of carrots still in the fridge. But I am over the spice cake.

Love, Margaret

I like a lotta Caponata


This is my new favorite thing. A vegetable disguised as a condiment. 

Now, most people (who shall remain nameless) have an aversion to eggplant and wouldn’t go near caponata even though it tastes about as much like eggplant as chocolate cake tastes like flour. Eggplant is the Jimmy Carter of vegetables. The victim of broad condemnation for no good reason. So, of the people who eat caponata, most use it as a dip, a topping for bruschetta or a kind of chunky sauce, something with a serving size of a tablespoon or two. I eat it by the cup full.
Caponata is an ideal platform for my culinary tradition of more.
I begin with a recipe from Martha Rose Schulman’s Recipes for Health. She starts you off with celery, and even though I don’t generally submit to the tyranny of celery, I added it here. Maybe the unfamiliarity of the dish made me anxious, maybe there just aren’t that many ingredients and I wanted to have enough finished product, a different form of anxiety. Maybe I was just feeling compliant.
Back to the recipe. So you have sautéed your celery and onions and then you add some chopped red bell pepper, and after that has softened, you toss in some garlic but don’t let it brown, then add the flesh of the eggplant which you have previously roasted. Add some chopped tomatoes and let the whole thing simmer and soften while flavors meld. 

Dispense with compliance and on to the good part, raisins, capers, olives (black, of course) and then more of each. Pour in a TB of sugar and 3 TB of sherry vinegar.  More softening and melding of flavors. Really, at this point you can’t even identify the eggplant.

With so much more, the final result is very flavorful, which is, I imagine, why people think of it as a condiment. But I like flavor and there are a lot of vegetables in there, so I eat it like a vegetable, hot or cold, with a pan-sautéed chicken breast, in a salad or straight from the bowl. 

Even you might like it.

Love, Margaret

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Plum Cake

Dear Marg,

My discovery for the year is plums. I know. You'd think I'd have discovered them before now. They always seemed kind of squishy and oozy, overly sweet and messy to boot. But this year? They are tangy and sweet at the same time. They yield perfectly to my teeth, not too firm and not too soft. They are the Baby Bear and Goldilocks of fruit.

My friend Cindy gave me a huge bag of them from her tree and I've been eating them in smoothies,  out of hand, and for dinner, in this wonderful cake. Elizabeth gave me the recipe last year when I had it at her house and I've been waiting since then for the annual plum-bundance to make it. Ok, so I may have discovered cooked plums last year. Fresh ones are definitely a this year thing.

It's a simple yellow cake baked in a regular cake pan. I kinda changed the recipe, by accident. Elizabeth had written 1/2 a pound of butter which to my mind seemed like a lot of butter, so surely that must be 2 sticks. Not wanting to waste precious time with thinking I used twice as much butter as the recipe called for. It was fine. More is More, right? I also added vanilla. You press the plums into the batter after it's in the pan and they settle into it as it cooks. OMG it is good. I had a piece for breakfast the next day. It's important to eat fruit for breakfast.

Plum Cake

1 cup sugar
1 stick butter, room temperature (or two, depending on your level of attention)
2 eggs, room temperature
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt

12 italian plums, halved with pits removed (duh)

cinnamon sugar
lemon juice

Cream the butter and sugar. Add the eggs one at a time beating well after each one. Add the vanilla. More beating. Add the dry ingredients. Elizabeth said to sift but as we know Mrs. Bentley never sifts.

Put the batter in a greased 9" pan. It won't pour, at least not if you use 2x the butter called for, so plop it in and smooth it out. Then put the plums on top, skin side up. I just made sure that the surface was mostly covered. They sink so you don't have to worry about a pretty pattern.

Sprinkle with lemon juice and cinnamon sugar. Don't be parsimonious with the sugar, it makes a nice crisp topping. 

Bake for 50-60 minutes at 350.

The dilemma I had was that it was so pretty on top I didn't want to flip it like an upside down cake and it wasn't going to hold up to any rough un-molding. I served it in the pan, but I think next time I might try a spring form.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Fifth Season

There are five seasons in Chinese medicine. We are at the tail end of Late Summer now, which comes between Summer and Fall. It is the time of ripeness, of harvest, of plenty, of stillness and fading heat. It is a time of abundance, when all the Earth's fruits and vegetables are full and ripe. It is a time for slowing down and gathering in, a time for holding and appreciating the fruits of our labors.

Each of the five seasons carries associations with specific things - directions, colors, organs in the body, elements, emotions. The element of Late Summer is Earth, the color is Yellow, the taste is Sweet like ripe fruit and the bodily organs are Stomach and Spleen.

Not surprising then that the food of this time of year is so lush and abundant, and we eat so much of it. I am a regular at the local farmers market but this fall I've been haunting farm stands outside the city. It seems like things have been drawing me out of the city and into the farm country where every road has a farm stand. The produce isn't  always organic but it is always fresh and perfectly ripe.

We've had corn, tomatoes, zucchini, beans, peaches, and nectarines every way possible. I've eaten so much corn on the cob that I'm practically sick of it. Peaches don't move me any more, which seems so odd that I can't even believe I just typed it.

Yesterday I bought the first apples of the season from the Jerzy Boyz. They are a great couple who come to our farmers market and let you taste every kind of apple they have (I bet I've sampled 25 different varieties over the years) and tell you stories of the tree it came from. 

Now it feels like time to shift from peaches to apples, from zucchini to acorn squash, from haricot vert to Great Northern beans. Oh right, the autumnal equinox was last week.

Friday, September 7, 2012

How to get an ice cream headache

Berry Smoothy

Berries, I used assorted frozen
lemon flavored fish oil, sounds gross but itsn't
flax seeds
Good Belly Pomegranate and Blueberry juice or other juice. I like the Good Belly bc it has all those good bacteria
plain yogurt

Whir it up. Mot said it wasn't sweet enough but she'd just had a piece of chocolate cream pie so I maintain that her palate was compromised.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

You Won't Believe What I Did!

Hi Marg,

Brace yourself. I bought pre-made pie crust! and I used it! I know - shocking - given my long standing opposition to this sort of lazy-ass baking. I'm a little embarrassed about it, but obviously not too embarrassed. Although since no one but our mother ever reads this its not exactly broadcasting. Didi you get her email where she said I love Sisters Cook? Of course you do. You're our mother.

Anyway, it's almost like I feel the need to confess. And to be absolved of my sins. How many Hail Julias will it take?

So here's the deal. I really wanted a blueberry pie. I'd wanted one for days but sacrificed myself to make Chocolate Cream Pie for Mot bc it's her favorite. And I wanted to try the Corn and Tomato Pie again to see if I could work out some of the issues. But I didn't want to spend my whole day baking bc I am working on a new sweater design and need to do that while my brain is functioning. Complicated life I lead, I know. Then, out of the blue, in the freezer case at WF, I saw this -

 And this - 

I was all over it! Brought it home, thawed it out, read the instructions that said to remove wax paper before thawing, froze it, removed paper and thawed it again. It went into the pan smoothly, the filling was ready, the top crust went on easily, and it went into the oven.

And then???? It was PIE!

And you know what? It was good. It really was. The crust wasn't great, but homemade crust isn't always great either. And the filling was wonderful. And I got to have a blueberry pie which no way would have happened if I'd been dragging out the Cuisinart to make a crust. And that's worth a lot.



Lazy Ass Blueberry Pie

Buy a precooked pie crust and follow the directions. There, got that out of the way.

Preheat oven to 400.


2 and 1/2 pints blueberries
3/4 c sugar
3 T tapioca. I love pies thickened with tapioca but they do have to be totally cool before they set up.
2ish T lemon juice

Mix all together and let it sit for about 15 minutes to soften the tapioca up. It can sit while you thaw and otherwise fuss around with the crust.

Put the filling in the crust, dot with some butter, about 2 T or so, and then put the top crust on and seal the edges and crimp.

Lower oven to 350 and bake for about an hour.

Congratulate yourself.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

You know that thing on the radio...

Hi Marg,

you know that show on NPR where people call up and tell the professional chef what's in their fridge and the chef has to make a meal out of almond butter and lemons and eggplant? That's kinda what happened here.

I had a few bags of frozen tomatoes from last year that I wanted to get rid of so I can feel good about putting up more this summer. Side note - this year I'm going to make the sauce first. The frozen tomatoes got a lot of frost in their bags which turned into tomato flavored water when it melted. Tasty but odd looking.

I had a shallot. There was basil in the garden. And some leftover fresh crab meat. The chef on the radio never has it so good.

a bag of frozen tomatoes, about 6. would be better with fresh
half a green pepper
Put it all in the Vita Mix and whir the shit out of the fucker. To quote Bill Buford.

Crab Toasts
fresh crab meat
mayonaise, ideally not the gross kind from Whole Foods made with olive oil, but you do what you can
Mix together the first 3 ingredients and apply to 4th ingredient.

We ate it on the back porch as the sun set behind the hill. Not half bad.

love, Elise