Tag Archives: mmm food

Baking challenge

My challenge: to make a cake that looks like Mickey from In The Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak with minimal equipment and without using any traditional (commercial) food coloring.

First, we ran out of propane, so I had to bake the cake at a friend’s house. Oops.

Second, I have almost zero experience in making cakes look pretty (I bake a lot, but I don’t DECORATE them much) and no icing tips or bags or supplies.

Third, the cake was in honor of my sister, who can’t eat commercial food colorings or dyes.

Fourth, it needed to be a SHAPED cake. A cake shaped like Mickey. Which I’ve never done before.

So! A challenge!

I experimented with what might make a dark-colored dye after soliciting some suggestions from friends. (The suggestions included beets (!)(How on earth would BEETS make a BLACK dye?), squid ink (because I can just go pick that up here at the fish monger here in BFE), and corn smut (aka huitlacoche, because nothing is more delicious on a cake than agricultural mold). I ended up using ground-up black tea and poppy seeds (done in the spice grinder) and it made a dark gray-brown icing that wasn’t objectionably flavored.

I found a spice cake recipe, multiplied it by 1.5, and added some cocoa powder to it to add a bit more flavor, and baked it at my friend’s house in two pans (a 9×13 and an 8×8). The 9×13 became the base of the cake and I cut the 8×8 up into a variety of pieces to make the added on parts of Mickey (head, elbows, milk bottle, feet). To my delight, the 8×8 cake gave me exactly the right number, size, and shape of pieces. I had none left over.

I covered some cardboard with freezer paper and set the 9×13 and the 8×8 pieces on it for display, then made some buttercream frosting and did a crumb coat over the whole thing, using some icing to stick the pieces onto the main cake. I reserved a bit of the plain white icing and juiced a carrot and half a small pomegranate in our juicer, using cocoa powder and some of the carrot juice for the brown ‘cake’ part of Mickey and a splash of the pomegranate and tiny bit of carrot juice for his face skin. I iced the brown parts of the cake, the face, and the white milk bottle, which took up the entire batch of buttercream. Then, I made up a new batch of plain icing (powdered sugar with a bit of milk) and added the ground black tea and poppyseeds. It all mixed up into a goopy dark mass, which I scooped into a plastic quart baggie and snipped the tip off one of the corners. I piped the dark icing on to outline details on the cake and gave Mickey his features and hair, with a printed out picture that Dan photoshopped for me as a guide.

Here’s how Mickey turned out. He was pretty delicious, completely homemade, and had zero artificial coloring.

I’m in the milk and the milk’s in me!

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A plethora of pomegranates

Our friends with the superproductive garden have a pomegranate tree that produced an overabundance of fruit this year. While I was visiting today with my lucky friend who had a five day weekend (she works four ten-hour-days each week and Monday’s her scheduled day off), she offered to give me some of the pomegranates, since they have far more than they can eat or use before they go bad or dry out. I left with a bag of 12 medium-to-large gorgeous pomegranates, most with just a slight split but none completely closed so I need to use them soon. Any ideas for how to best use these ruby beauties? I’ve got one idea for making pomegranate-infused vodka, but that won’t take my whole stash. I’ve already made chocolate-covered pomegranate clusters, which are delicious but don’t keep very long even in the refrigerator. So I’m opening up the floor to suggestions. What’s the best use for a dozen organic, homegrown pomegranates?

Food on Friday: Two pies edition

Yesterday’s post wasn’t 100% fictional. I did, in fact, make two pies in the morning: a pumpkin pie made from a sugar pumpkin I processed a week or so ago, and an apple-blackberry pie that included blackberries I picked and froze this summer. I don’t bake all that often these days except when I’ll be sharing what I make with other people, so Thanksgiving was a good excuse to try out a new pie crust recipe I’d been wanting to try. Dan insists Thanksgiving isn’t complete without pumpkin pie, and my mom insisted I bring a fruit pie, so these were my two contributions to the family’s Thanksgiving meal.

Pumpkin pie (from a sugar pumpkin), adapted from standard Libby’s pumpkin pie recipe

One sugar pumpkin, processed and water squeezed out of the flesh (should leave about 1.5-2 cups of pumpkin)
1 14 oz can evaporated milk (full, low, or nonfat)
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp cloves
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp salt
1 unbaked pie shell (see recipe below)

Preheat oven to 425F. In a medium bowl, combine pumpkin, evaporated milk, eggs, spices, and salt until thoroughly mixed. Pour into unbaked pie shell and bake for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 375F and bake for another 35-40 minutes or until filling is set and no longer runny. Serve with freshly whipped cream.

Apple-blackberry pie, loosely adapted from apple pie recipe in red plaid Better Homes & Gardens cookbook

3 large granny smith apples, peeled, cored, and thinly sliced
3/4-1 cup frozen or fresh blackberries
juice of 1/2 lemon (optional)
*3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 tbsp corn starch
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
double crust pie recipe (see recipe below)

Preheat oven to 375F. In a large bowl, mix all filling ingredients and let sit for a few minutes while you prepare the bottom pie crust in a deep dish pie pan. Pour apple/blackberry mixture into pie pan and add top crust, crimping edges. Poke several holes in the top of the pie with a fork. Slide a baking sheet or pizza pan onto the bottom rack to catch potential drips and the pie onto the middle rack of the oven. Bake for 40-50 minutes or until top crust is golden and juice is bubbling up through the top of the pie. Serve with freshly whipped cream, if desired.

* You can increase the sugar up to 1.5 cups if you like a sweeter pie. I like my fruit pies to be more tart and offset the tartness with whipped cream

Recently, I saw something on America’s Test Kitchen on PBS about using vodka in place of some of the water in a standard pie crust recipe because alcohol will help wet the ingredients but won’t cause the gluten in the flour to develop, which helps keep the crust flakier and less dense/heavy. I was excited to try this out, and found a recipe for vodka pie crust (the alcohol bakes out and doesn’t flavor the crust at all). After sampling both of my pies last night, I feel the experiment was a smashing success, and I plan to use alcohol in place of some of the water from now on.

Recipe for single pie crust (will make enough for single crust pie, plus some extra)

1 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
small amounts of pie-appropriate spices (cinnamon, cloves, etc.)(optional)
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1/4 cup butter flavored vegetable shortening cut into small pieces
2 tablespoons of cold vodka
2 tablespoons cold water

Store all ingredients in refrigerator or freezer or chill them before using. In a medium bowl, sift flour, salt, sugar, and spices if using. Using a pastry blender, cut cold fat into flour mixture until the largest lumps are the size of small peas. Put in the freezer for about 10 minutes. Remove and pour vodka and water over mixture, then use a rubber spatula to mix liquid into dry ingredients until just holding together. Gather into a ball, cover with plastic wrap, and put it in the fridge for an hour (or up to 24 hours) or, if time constrained, in the freezer for 15 minutes to cool it down again and let it rest.

Cover a flat surface with waxed paper and sprinkle with flour. Plop crust dough onto floured surface and sprinkle with more flour. Using a rolling pin and working as fast as possible, roll out until crust is about 1/8 inch thick and big enough to fit in a pie pan, adding small amounts of additional flour if needed to keep dough from sticking to rolling pin. You will see pieces of fat that are not worked all the way into the dough and this is a good thing. Lift waxed paper and flip crust into pie pan, then peel waxed paper away. Trim overhang edges of dough (you can use them for other small projects, like cinnamon sugar crust twists) and crimp remaining dough. Fill and bake with your filling of choice.

Recipe for double crust pie

2 cups unbleached all purpose flour
1 tablespoon plus 1.5 teaspoons sugar
3/4 tsp salt
small amounts of pie-appropriate spices (optional)
1 stick cold unsalted butter
6 tablespoons cold butter flavored vegetable shortening
3 tablespoons cold vodka
3 tablespoons cold water

Follow as above for single crust recipe, but divide dough roughly in half before rolling, using larger ball for bottom crust. When bottom crust is in pan, add filling of choice. Roll out and add top crust over filling. Trim overhang and crimp edges, making sure to poke holes in the top of the pie with a knife or fork so steam can escape.

Food on Friday, Wednesday edition: The Real Meal

One of the drawbacks of mostly being by myself for most of the week is that I’m not especially motivated to cook elaborate things for myself. Part of the fun, for me, in cooking is to share what I’ve made with my husband or my friends, share the enjoyment of the meal rather than just eating it all alone. When I’m by myself most of the time, food is more fuel than anything else, and I’ve found that I tend to eat off of one or two large batches of something for most meals in the week.

On Sunday, Dan made a big pot of split pea soup and I ate split pea soup for lunch or dinner both Monday and Tuesday. Today, I went on a long and challenging bike ride (nearly 27 miles, all hills, no stops other than one brief seat adjustment) and my body just wanted something more interesting/substantial than yet another bowl of split pea and cheese toast. So I decided that for dinner tonight I’d make myself a real meal, as though I were feeding another person. Because there’s really no reason that I can’t make good food just for me.

As with most of my meals, I didn’t use any sort of recipe, and instead just threw some things together that we had in the fridge, things I knew would probably taste good together, and I managed a full and satisfying dinner and enough leftovers for two lunches or a dinner.

MLE’s Real Meal (serves 2 full dinners, or one dinner and two lunches)

2 medium yukon gold potatoes
2 large cloves garlic
1 pat butter
2 splashes milk
1/2 pound green beans, ends trimmed, cut halves
6 button mushrooms
1 small kohlrabi, peeled and chopped
1/3 yellow onion, diced
1 chicken breast, cut into 1-2 inch pieces
2 glugs olive oil
teriyaki sauce
rice vinegar
other seasonings to taste

1. Chop potatoes into rough pieces and remove peel from garlic cloves. Boil together in a pot of water until squishy but not mushy. Drain, then add butter and let sit covered a few minutes.
2. While potatoes are cooking, toss chicken with teriyaki and cook in a seasoned cast iron or nonstick skillet with olive oil until nearly cooked through. Add vegetables and sautee until all veggies are cooked. Add splashes of teriyaki and rice vinegar as needed to keep pan from drying out or veggies from sticking to pan. Add seasonings (salt, pepper, specific spice mixes – I used Penzeys Singapore Seasoning) to taste.
3. When veggies/chicken is nearly done, add a few splashes of milk to the potato/garlic/butter pan and mash with a potato masher. Serve veggies/chicken over mashed potatoes.

Food on Friday: Seasonal edition


Any longtime readers may remember that once upon a time, I wrote about food all the time. Then, for several years, Dan did almost all of the cooking and so I stopped having much inspiration. I’m great at coming up with good food combinations (the idea person) and Dan’s great at turning my ideas into actual food. But now that he’s spending every weekday away from home, I’ve had to start feeding myself again. Cooking for one isn’t my favorite thing, and I’ve actually lost some weight that I probably didn’t need to lose because I’m so uninterested in spending time to make a good meal for just me.

That being said, I tend to make really yummy things on Friday nights, so when Dan gets home he gets a good homecooked meal. Sometimes I feel like Donna Reed, but mostly I’m glad it’s given me a chance to branch out a bit more and remember why I liked cooking in the first place. So here are the two things I made this week that I liked and I bet you’ll like, too.

First, we still have a meellion apples on one of our apple trees, and second, it’s suddenly gotten really cold. I’ve been loathe to turn the heat on because propane is expensive (and also because why heat up the whole house when I’m pretty much just using one room during the day?), so yesterday when it was 57 degrees inside I decided to bake something with a few of the unidentified apples leftover from this week’s apple butter. I decided to bake something in easy-to-grab form, and settled on cupcakes (or, really, muffins, because they aren’t that sweet). I adapted a recipe I found for an apple spice bundt cake on allrecipes.com and made it my own.

MLE’s Spiced Apple Cupcakes (makes 12)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup (one stick) butter, softened
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tbsp warm water
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 small apples – cored and chopped into small pieces. I decided to leave the peels on for extra fiber, and because I know they’re organic and unwaxed.

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Prepare your cupcake pan/muffin tin (add paper cups, grease& flour, or if you have silicone ones like I do, do nothing).

2. Cream together butter and sugar. Mix in eggs and vanilla. Stir together soda and 1 tablespoon warm water, and mix into the sugar mixture. Stir in flour, spices, and salt. Stir in apples.

3. Fill each cup about 2/3 full with batter. Bake at 350F for about 30 minutes or until a tester comes out clean. Let cool before icing.

Apple cupcakes with browned butter icing

OM NOM NOM

Note: Last weekend Dan made biscuits that turned out like hockey pucks, and my cupcakes didn’t rise very much. This leads me to believe we need new baking soda. It can get too old to function properly!

If I weren’t married to a crazy person that doesn’t like cheese involved in anything that could remotely be considered a dessert, other than tiramisu, I would have made cream cheese frosting for these cupcakes because it would be a perfect marriage. Sadly, had I done that he wouldn’t have eaten any of them, so instead I made browned butter icing.

Browned butter icing

1/3 cup butter
~3 cups powdered sugar.
splashes of milk
1 tsp vanilla
pinch of salt

Brown butter in a saucepan and let cool. Transfer to a mixing bowl. Add 2 cups powdered sugar, a splash or two of milk, vanilla, and salt, and beat with a hand mixer. Add more powdered sugar and another milk splash if needed to get icing to spreading consistency.

The truly spectacular part of our dinner tonight came from a recipe that my friend Caitie posted on twitter for pumpkin gnocchi. I’ve always wanted to try making gnocchi but never got around to it, and when I saw how simple the recipe was I decided I had to try it. The only change I made to this recipe was to substitute a gorgeous butternut squash that Karen and Andriy grew in their yard for the pumpkin, which turned out to be a great choice, especially considering how sweet it ended up being.

Delicious orange flesh

So first, I roasted the squash.

All cooked!

Once it was finished, I decided to rock it old-school style and put it through the ancient food mill rather than get the food processor down and have to clean it. I’ll say one thing for that Foley mill; it cleans up really easily. Plus, that way I didn’t have to add any water and the puree was already at the perfect consistency and moisture level for the gnocchi recipe.

Perfectly riced texture

A hollow shell of its former self

I added the egg yolk, flour, salt, and nutmeg, and followed the rest of the recipe as written. It cooked beautifully and I made the suggested browned butter sage sauce to go with it. It was amazingly delicious, and definitely a recipe I’ll make again!

Labor-intensive, but worth the effort

Solo culinary adventures, part deux: Apple Butter


One of the things I’ve been trying to do while we’re still here is to preserve all this free fruit coming out our ears. The blackberries have been producing madly for months (and still going, in some spots), and the apple trees in the yard started dropping their fruit a few weeks ago. I made blackberry applesauce a couple of times and even turned it into fruit leather, but I knew I wanted to make some apple butter: I’ve got the time and the ingredients, so why not?

Apple butter is more of a process than a recipe, and I first attempted it after reading a few different recipes online. I figured I could just pull the best of everyone else’s methods together to make my own delicious apple-y spread. Basically, you make applesauce and then add some spices and then cook it for a long time until it’s thick and rich-tasting. Not too difficult, right?

Well, my first go-round sat in the pot for hours and hours, and I stirred and stirred, and it got to the point where it was hardly moveable and I was afraid it would burn on the bottom. But it never got to where it looked or tasted like the apple butter my mom used to make. It tasted good, sure, but just wasn’t right. I asked my mom to send me the recipe she always used and I immediately saw why mine hadn’t come out the same: I didn’t add any sugar; I didn’t add nearly as many spices; and I didn’t add any lemon juice or zest. Time to try it again, only this time I followed the 1970s-era recipe exactly as written.

Step 1: Process the apples

Bowlful of appley goodness

For most people, this would be the easiest part of the recipe. With store-bought apples, all you need to do is cut them into quarters and toss them in a pot, cores, peels, and all. But these are the apples that come from a tree that doesn’t get sprayed with pesticides.

Cores were completely out of the question (a drawback, also, to trying to make one’s own pectin, another semi-failed experiment) as nearly every apple from the trees in the yard has, um, creatures living inside the core. I also had to cut out the bad spots, bruises, and other nasties from either apples having fallen and been on the ground or just from being on a tree that’s organic. I’m not entirely sure what kinds of apples these are – mostly, I think, golden delicious, but one of the trees has about four different varieties grafted on and I have no idea what some of them are.

Pot full o' apples

I ended up with 14 cups of de-bugged, de-bruised, and de-bad spotted apple pieces and a huge pile of crud.

YUM.

The recipe calls for four pounds of apples, but I didn’t have a kitchen scale. I knew I wanted to make as much as I had apples, and so I just threw everything I had in the pot. I added 2 cups of real apple juice (ingredient: apple juice) and let it cook until the apples were mushy.

Ready to be milled

Now comes the part I remember best about processing apples: the food mill. This food mill, borrowed from my mom, dates back to sometime in the 1940s. It has a bakelite handle. It was used to make my baby food, and probably used to make my mom’s baby food. It has seen many an apple over the years, and still works exactly the way it’s supposed to.

Sunrise, sunset

A cup or so at a time, I ran the apple mush through the food mill to get all the applesauce separated from the skins. When it was all finished, I measured the amount of applesauce I had (6.5 cups. From two cups of juice and 14 cups of apple pieces. YES.) and followed the recipe to add half a cup of brown sugar for every cup of applesauce. (I rounded down and only added 3 cups, since that’s all we had!). The recipe also said to add 2 teaspoons of cinnamon, a teaspoon of cloves, 1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg and 1/2 teaspoon of allspice. We were out of ground cloves so I did cinnamon, 3/4 teaspoon of nutmeg, and a full teaspoon of allspice. I then added the zest and juice of our last lemon from the yard. After this stuff was all stirred into the applesauce, I moved the pot to the small burner and set the heat to the lowest flame, stirring occasionally.

That is a LOT of sugar.


It sounded like kind of obscene.

The recipe said to cook the apple butter down until “very thick” (which it was) and was ready when a teaspoon of it on a plate stuck to the plate when turned upside down.

nom nom

Defying gravity

Check.

Apple butter is super delicious but probably not best to be preserved in large quantities; mostly because it would be difficult to eat it all from a large jar before it went bad. I’d bought some 8 ounce jelly jars at the hardware store because they were having a sale (and because now that Dan is working and getting paid actual money I don’t have to be QUITE so frugal) and sterilized them, so that they were hot and ready to go when the apple butter was done.

Finished product

My friend Carissa had suggested to me on twitter that I try a salted caramel version of the apple butter by adding salt to an already caramel-like apple butter (brown sugar instead of white sugar) and so I did a few taste tests and added some to about two jars’ worth. The recipe itself made 7 full jars and one nearly-full one that is now half-empty in the fridge, having been spread liberally and gleefully over some sourdough toast over the weekend by my husband who loves apple butter on sourdough toast.

Solo culinary experiment #1: Vegetable lasagna

Dan’s got a temp job in the city for this week and maybe part of next, so I’ve been by my lonesome since Monday night. I’m actually enjoying the solitude this time, and have been working on a variety of projects that I’ve been intending to get around to doing, and being by myself is a good excuse. I’d eaten leftovers from the tomato and corn pie Dan made this weekend for dinner the last couple of meals, and decided I needed to finally make that vegetable lasagna I’ve been thinking about with the zucchini friends have given us in place of noodles. Also, I really needed to eat something with greens in it.

So here’s my (very, very rough) recipe for vegetable lasagna. It’s a good way to use up one of those great big zucchinis you find in your yard that hid from you while they were still of manageable size. And for those of you who don’t feel like hassling with lasagna noodles, or for those who are watching gluten etc., it’s an easy substitute. Enjoy!

MLE’s Vegetable Lasagna (serves four)

Ingredients:
One large or two medium zucchinis, sliced thinly, outer slices (peel-only) discarded
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped
1/4 yellow bell pepper, chopped
5 or 6 button or cremini mushrooms, halved and sliced
1/2 medium onion, chopped
large handful of baby spinach, chopped
1 spicy precooked chicken sausage, sliced thinly (optional) (I used a chicken andouille sausage from Trader Joe’s)
1 14 oz can of tomatoes
Seasonings to taste (I used lemon pepper and garlic powder)

1 cup cottage cheese or ricotta cheese
1 egg
1 dollop (about a teaspoon) caesar salad dressing (can substitute some vinegar and spices)
salt and pepper

about 1/2-1 cup shredded italian cheeses (mozzarella, parmesan, etc.)

Method:
Preheat oven to 400F
Layer slices of zucchini in the bottom of an 8×8 dish.
Sautee onion, bell peppers, and mushrooms with some olive oil in a skillet until softened. Add tomatoes, spinach, and sausage if using. Add seasonings. Sautee until it all looks and smells cooked.
Meanwhile, combine cottage cheese or ricotta, casear dressing, egg, and seasonings. If using cottage cheese, blend with an immersion blender for a minute or so to break up curds.
When vegetable sauce is done, add a layer over the sliced zucchini. Top with a layer of cottage cheese or ricotta mixture. Top with more slices of zucchini. Top with more sauce, more cheese mixture, and one more layer of zucchini. Finally, top the entire thing in the shredded cheese and bake about 30 minutes until bubbly and cheese top is browned. Remove from oven, let sit about 5 minutes before cutting into four servings. Bon appetit!