My Pastry Secret

I’ve been told that the quickest way to make any dessert look fancier is to put it on a cake stand. I don’t personally own a cake stand, but I have seen this principle in action and it seems to be sound. There is a corollary to this rule which applies specifically to pies, however, with which I do have a good bit of experience: the quickest way to make any pie look fancier is to put a lattice top crust on it.

I learned to make lattice tops while when I was seventeen and interning in the eighteenth-century kitchens at Colonial Williamsburg. Truth be told, there isn’t really a lot of technique involved, it’s more about patience. Honestly, I love making lattice tops for a couple or reasons: The first is that I have not yet perfected a pie crust recipe (or found one with which I am completely happy) and in some ways lattice tops are more forgiving if your crust wants to crumble. If you’re making the top crust one big piece and it cracks, it’s going to show in the finished product. If you’re making a lattice top, you just make sure that the cracked part falls underneath another piece and you’re good to go. The other reason I love making lattice tops is that it feeds all of my obsessive tendencies: cutting straight strips and having them all be about the same width; finding where to put each strip so you have the most efficient used of pastry possible; and then all the folding back and forth to achieve the woven effect. Way more fun than writing a dissertation.

And when you show up to a potluck carrying a pie with a perfectly (or, who am I kidding, less-than-perfectly) constructed lattice top, you are guaranteed to get oohs and ahhs. Followed by a chorus of “Did you make this yourself?” “Did you do that crust yourself?” and other similar exclamations. People will be so impressed by your fancy crust, they won’t even notice if the pears in your pie are slightly under cooked and the proportion of cherries is slightly off (ask me how I know). Because when something looks fancy, people assume it tastes fancy.

Now a lattice top pie on a cake stand… that might just make you legendary.

Trivia: In the eighteenth century in order to be considered a “pie” something had to have a complete top crust. A lattice topped pie or an open top one (think pumpkin) would be considered a “pudding.”

The Olive Oil Conspiracy

As alluded to from time to time I’m not good about using recipes when I cook. But lately I’ve been trying to branch out in my cooking and this has meant using recipes. In doing this, I have noticed an odd phenomenon. I was sort of aware of it before, but only realized now exactly how pervasive it is.

Have you ever noticed how any time a recipe includes olive oil, it is almost invariably 2 tablespoons?

If you’re sautéing something in olive oil, no matter how much something there is, you’re going to use 2 tablespoons of olive oil. If you’re throwing a little olive oil into a dish to give it some moisture and fat, it’s going to be 2 tablespoons. Almost always.

So what gives? Is it some sort of conspiracy? Some sort of code? Some heretofore unexplored aspect of the universal unconscious?

My theory? It’s laziness. Be honest, how often do you actually measure out ingredients like olive oil? Tonight I did measure the amount I was putting in my chickpea cutlets, but really only because my chickpea cutlets came out so badly the first time I tried to make them, but that’s the first time in a very long time. I never measure the amount I’m using to sauté something. And I suspect the people who write cookbooks don’t either. So they need an amount and they just crib from some other recipe which included two tablespoons of olive oil. Like how sometimes forty articles have something cited incorrectly and it’s all because they’re cribbing from one article which cited it incorrectly years ago.

Then again, maybe that’s just what the aliens want us to think.

Multi-Dish Meals (And a Cookbook Idea)

I’m actually a fairly decent cook. At least I like to think so. Not brilliant or anything, but totally passable. I can’t follow a recipe to save my life, but that’s another blog post. But I struggle with something that I find a lot of people my age struggle with—multi-dish meals.

As a single woman on a minimal budget I’ve made a lot of one pot meals. Mostly beans and rice, I’m not going to lie. I eat healthy though—I make sure to get my vegetables. Mostly I’ve done this by having a salad for dinner. Again, as a girl on a budget they haven’t been super inventive. It’s mostly been spinach. Lots of spinach. But I like spinach and it’s a supervegetable, so I’ve told myself it was okay. But it does get boring. And now that I am marginally more financially stable and live in a town with a great farmer’s market, I’m trying to have other vegetables.

The problem is I make a vegetable and a protein and maybe a grain or carb (because they will not make me fear carbs, damnit) and my grain is ready early and getting cold while my tofu is getting crispy and my veggies are barely done. Hell, I have a hard time managing stir-fry and rice at the same time. But I know it’s possible, because my mother did it every day for years. With seemingly no effort. Is this a skill you magically develop when you get married or have kids? Crap, I knew there was a downside to perpetual singleness.

I’ve half wondered if there would be a market for a cookbook that breaks these things down—you know, gives you a full meal and has it structured step-by-step. First cut up your veggies. Then set it to the side while you boil the water for your quinoa. Just before you put the quinoa in to cook throw your chicken on the grill. Five minutes later put your vegetables in the steamer.

Okay, it probably exists already. And even if I knew where it was, I wouldn’t buy it. Because I’m no good at following recipes and inevitably I wouldn’t be able to find a recipe that had everything I like in it. You know it would be two wonderful things like roasted broccoli and couscous and then one horrible thing like fish. But sometimes… I think developing this skill would be so nice, I might actually learn to follow recipes for it.

The Magic of Cardamom

My parents came to visit a week and a half ago.  While they were here I took my mother to the local hippie/ethnic  grocery where I convinced my mother to buy a couple of things.  Mostly fair trade decaf coffee and juice concentrates she can mix with club soda to help reduce her diet soda intake.  I also convinced her to buy cardamom.

I wouldn’t say that I’m obsessed with cardamom lately, but I will admit that I have become a very faithful devotee of the spice in the last few months.

It started with ice cream.  What in my life doesn’t these days?  I discovered that I can create magic by infusing a bit of cardamom.  First it was my cardamom rose which people still refer to as “transcendent.”  Then it was a recipe called “East India Trading Company,” also heavy on the cardamom.  When I made this one and brought it to a gathering one of my friends said, “I really hope you don’t open an ice cream shop.  If you do, I’m going to go broke buying this stuff.”  So when I wanted to make pecan praline ice cream this weekend I knew what I needed to add to the praline part—yes, cardamom.  As expected it was amazing.  One friend said, “I think it’s getting to the point where you’re going to have to open a shop.”

It’s not me.  It’s the cardamom.

I’ve also discovered (though I suppose it shouldn’t be a revelation) that it can add a mysterious little something to curries.

And a crushed cardamom pod in the basket with my coffee grounds?  Creates a dangerous cup of coffee.  The kind that makes you just want to wrap up in a fuzzy blanket on the couch for hours.  Deliciously dangerous.

I guess what I’m trying to say here, is that since discovering the magic of cardamom, I almost (though of course not really) understand why people used to go to war over control of spices.  Because they are magic.  Deliciously magic.

Caramelizing: It’s Not Just for Onions Anymore

I think anyone who’s ever cooked with me or eaten a sandwich with me knows that I love caramelized onions.  I’m not sure when this loved developed.  It might be slightly strange given I don’t generally care for sweet onions like Vidalias.  I like my onions strong and pungent.  But as long as I’m starting with the right kind of onions I love them when they’re cooked in a way that brings out the sweetness they do have.  It’s not just the sweetness I love—really that’s incidental—it’s the depth and richness of flavor.  It’s that hint of smokey burntness.  Nom.

About a year and a half ago my Aunt introduced me to a whole new dimension in caramelization.  Cauliflower.  Now I don’t know, scientifically, culinarily speaking how caramelization is defined, so maybe these aren’t really caramelized.  They’re basically roasted at a high temperature until they start to get caramel colored and just a little crunchy.  What I know is, they are delicious.

Last night I made a new discovery:  caramelized Brussels sprouts.  For context, I’ve never had Brussels sprouts before.  When my parents were first married my mother cooked them once and my father begged her to never do it again.  Since that’s the only thing he ever made that request about, she agreed.  In undergrad I remember Cammy getting them a couple times at the caf in some sort of sauce that smelled like Kool-Aid.  That didn’t inspire me to try them.  But lately I’ve been thinking I should:  they’re high in iron and I tend towards anemia.  Also the farmer’s market in my town has lots of them in the fall so I could feed my urge to buy local.

So my mom and I got brave and bought some at Trader Joe’s and decided to look for a good recipe.  We knew we’d found it when we found one that was basically: cut in half, cook in olive oil till they start to caramelize, sprinkle with asiago cheese.

All I can say is:  Serious nom.  They were freaking delicious.

So what say you readers?  Are there other things out there I should be caramelizing?  I cook plantains in caramelized sugar, but I’m not sure that counts.

Crunchy Caffiene

For some reason I’ve been craving chocolate covered coffee beans lately.  I don’t have them often as they seem too decadent and expensive to make a habit of purchasing.  And normally my cravings for them hit late at night when I have no intention of getting dressed to go out and scour the grocery store shelves.

But this evening, the craving would not be staved off by other things.  I had to do something about this.

So I decided to make my own.  After all, I had chocolate and I had coffee beans.  Really couldn’t need more than that, right?

I melted a little over 1/4 of a Hershey’s special dark bar in a double-boiler on the stove.  When it was nice a gooey, I dumped in somewhere between 1/3-1/2 cup of coffee beans I had on hand.  Stir to coat them.  Then I laid out wax paper on a cookie sheet and scooped the chocolate-bean-mush onto it and sort of smeared it about to separate the beans some.  Into the freezer, and wham, 15 minutes later I’m crunching away on a chocolate caffeine fix.  And while I waited, I got to lick the chocolate out of the pot.

Now, I’ll grant you, they don’t look all nice and smooth and shiny like store-bought versions (you know the ones that kinda look like a yogurt covered raisin?), but they taste good.  In fact, because I didn’t waste a lot of time separating the beans, what I got is kinda like chocolate-coffee-bean-brittle that I broke into chunks. After I’d completed my experiment I read up on some other methods of getting “nicer” looking beans–using candy molds and doing this one-by-one was a popular method.  Way too labor intensive for me.  But I liked another idea about adding cocoa powder or sprinkles before the whole thing dries.  Now that I could go for.

And at the rate I’m consuming these things?  Not only will I have an excuse to try again for the sake of replenishing my depleted supply, I will also be wide away to do it.

Delicious Paper-Thin Time Vampire

I ran into an unexpected Time Vampire this week.  As you all know Tuesday was Mardi Gras, perhaps better known as “Pancake Day.”  I’m very devoted to Pancake Day—just ask Bridget about that time she said that we would maybe get pamcakes on Pancake Day. Maybe?  Oh no.  Pamcakes must be had!

I’ll confess that last year I did not observe Pancake Day.  There was just too much going on and no one to fix me pamcakes.  Truth is, I do not make good pamcakes.  I’ve tried (not for a while, I maybe should since I have seemingly overcome my inability to make hashbrowns) and they just never come out right.  The strange thing is that I can make pamcake variations:  blueberry cornmeal pancakes?  That I can do.  Pumpkin pamcakes?  Done and done.  But standard pamcakes are just beyond my cooking abilities.

This week I found myself craving crepes.  I’ve never attempted crepes before, but my crazy ex-roommate used to make them a lot, so I’ve at least seen the process.  And I had the ingredients, so I thought, “what the hell?  Crepes are almost like pamcakes!”

Turns out I make a fairly decent crepe.  Tuesday I just made four which I had with Nutella, because that’s what I was craving.  Meant to cook the rest of the crepes and store them in wax paper, but was short on time, so the batter went back in the fridge.  Wednesday I wanted something a little more savory (showing uncharacteristic foresight I followed a recipe for sweet crepes but only used half the sugar, so they could really go either way.  Yes, that’s right, I made bisexual crepes).  So I searched my fridge for something that would work as a filling and wound up with a mix of cream cheese, Monterey jack and cheddar.  Sounds strange, but it was good. (Also had two crepes with Nutella.  Because it’s delicious).  I didn’t get around to finishing up the batter until tonight, which was largely a repeat of Wednesday with the addition of one crepe filled with locally made cherry amaretto preserves (which are just as delicious as you’re imaging).

Now I’m kind of in a total crepe phase.  I want to make more batter tomorrow.  I want to make some with chickpea flour (crazy ex-roommate did this once and they were delicious).  I want to experiment with different fillings.  Crepes, crepes, crepes, crepes, crepes.  Nom!

Yeah… I’m gonna make myself give it a week or so, so as to avoid crepe burn out.  But it was good three days!

Time Vampire: Eating Away The Minutes

I’m a passable cook.  I don’t have a stand-out dish, and my tastes are hardly refined enough to render my fare as superb cuisine, but I’ve yet to kill anyone with my cooking.  I won’t say I hate to cook–at times I find it relaxing, particularly if there’s someone who stands ready to clean up the kitchen later– but I also don’t spend time with the Food Network, or take great joy in a walk through a cooking store.

So why the hell have I lost hour upon hour of my life at All Recipes?

It tends to happen when I’m at a loss for what to eat for dinner on a night when I have the time an inclination to cook.  I take it into my head to go out and look for some fun new flavor to try and about 2 hours later, I’ve day-dreamed and drooled my way through thousands of food combinations to tempt any and all taste-buds, but haven’t eaten a darned thing.  At that point it’s usually so late that I have no time to even think of concocting any of the scrumptious creations I’ve been perusing on-line and I settle for an apple and some crackers (it’s no wonder my pants are starting to fall off).  It would all be worthwhile if the next time I went in search of culinary inspiration I recalled something I’d seen before to try.  But no, each time I find myself starting over and being sucked into the vortex of foody-wonder.

I do, occasionally manage to make it out with a recipe I actually use.  I got a great lentil salad recipe from the massive collection.  I’ve also used the “Ingredients” search to help me find something to work with whatever I have on hand.  It’s not a perfect feature and unfortunately it usually returns enough ideas based on my cabinet contents that I still find myself being sucked into salivating over the possibilities.

Oh well.  At least I’m not stuck cleaning up the kitchen.