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Why I Do What I Do

19 Sep
cranberry ketchup

Hello, thick-luscious-tangy-umami-wonderful cranberry ketchup that-I-made-up-all-by-myself. This would never have happened before I had my food revelation.

*Voting is now open through Thursday, September 23.  To vote pour moi, click here.  Just scroll on down to the “P’s” until you get to Pastry Methods and Techniques.  Then, click the cute little gray heart to turn it red for me!

Oh, but you should have seen me when I first decided I wanted to cook and bake.  I was a trembling little thing, sweating with apprehension as I approached a recipe.  Here’s how it went:

  1. I would decide that I needed to cook a Dish of Some Sort
  2. I would pour through my cookbooks, trying to find the Perfect Recipe.
  3. I’d painstakingly copy said recipe onto a wee sheet of paper.
  4. Paper clutched in sweating hand, I’d head out to the grocery store.
  5. I’d wander up and down every aisle, searching for the Mandated Ingredients, checking them off (!) as I found them and placing them reverently in my cart.
  6. Having bought Said Items, I’d go home and follow my recipe blindly.
  7. Usually, and through no fault of my own, my Dish was generally edible, and even quite tasty.
  8. I’d breathe a sigh of relief and accept the Kudos of the Masses.

I went along for quite awhile thinking that my Seven Step Process was just the way it was.  That’s how to cook.  Right?

Wrong.  I was so wrong.

I didn’t realize this at first, of course.  It took years of obsessively buying and reading cookbooks, watching cooking shows on PBS, experimenting on my own, and finally going to culinary school for baking and pastry before I gradually came to the conclusion that nobody really wants us to learn to cook.  Sure, they want us to follow their recipes and then give them full credit when serving to a crowd–“These are She-She-Frou-Fee’s Brownies!” “Why,yes, isn’t it wonderful? It’s Monsieur Hoo Ha’s rack of yak.”

Here’s what I have come to understand over the years, and here’s what I want to share with you, dear readers.  And not just share it, I really want you to internalize it:  Recipes are Tyrannical.  I’ve written about it at great length on many occasions, but it’s impossible to say this too frequently:  a recipe isn’t the Word of God Writ Upon a Stone Tablet.  It’s just a list of ingredients married to a list of techniques.  The most important part is the techniques.  Where recipes fall down, and where I pick up, is in explaining that most of the techniques described are applicable to a wide range of dishes.  Yup, recipes tell us what to cook and how to cook the particular dish described in the recipe, but I walk you through the techniques, explain them in detail (some might say excruciating detail), and help you internalize the idea that once you’ve learned the techniques, you can apply them to many lists of ingredients.

Nutella cheesecake

Learn the Rules of Cheesecake, and this can be yours whenever you want it!

‘Member back up in the list at the top where I said I’d blindly follow my recipe?  Well, recipes tend to keep us in the dark and effectively blind by allowing us to assume that Recipe is Law and must be followed.  Blindly.  New cooks, especially, fall into this trap, and the myth is perpetuated by the majority of food magazines and cooking shows through omission.  It’s not that they are all telling you, “this is the only way to make Dish X.” It’s that they’re not telling you that it isn’t the only way to make Dish X.  So, we cook or bake with our lights out, relying on the road map of the recipe to lead us to our destination without really seeing where we’re going.  But, if I can show you that it’s the technique part of the recipe that’s the most important part, your lights will come on and you’ll be able to see your way to your destination before you even start cooking.  Glory, Hallelujah.

If the recipe rules start off “cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy,” I want you to know that the recipe is describing the creaming method.  I also want you to know how to perform the creaming method from start to finish without having to keep referring to your cookbook.  Furthermore, I’d like you to know that you can probably use the Two-Stage Method instead, if you’re feeling scrappy. I want you to be able to read through the technique portion of a complicated recipe for Gateau St. Honore and know that you’ll be rolling and folding in butter to make puff pastry, bringing some ingredients to a boil and then adding flour and beating in eggs to make pate a choux and making a starch-thickened custard (pastry cream) for the filling.  The rest is just assembly, a craft project.

I am absolutely passionate about this.  I share my knowledge freely, from how and why to do the Sneaky Egg Test to The Right Way to Whip Cream.  I try to answer all questions, even down to taking a look at the way folks find me in my Great Search Term Round Up posts.  Sometimes, I give out certificates, and sometimes I make videos.  I also try to knock the snobbery right out of cooking in as many ways as I can.

Can a Suc Puzzle Sugar

Want the low-down on what you need--and don't need--to be a better baker? I'm here to help.

Baking and cooking should be fun.  Unfortunately, most folks get stuck in “fearful,” leaving them unable to advance to “fun.”  If I can make you laugh while you’re learning, that might just be the spoonful of sugar you need.

My wee blog might won’t win any awards–yet–for Most Visited, but it is the Next Big Thing.  I’m not your typical food blogger.  I don’t take the most mouth-watering photographs.  I don’t even always rely on my own photos.  My goal isn’t necessarily to make you drool (although I give myself a Gold Star if I do), but to give you the confidence to go and make your own family and/or guests drool.  I don’t believe in secret recipes.  I believe in cooking and baking with real ingredients, and I enjoy Ridiculing fake food I hate Cool Whip with the burning passion of a thousand suns.  I believe in laughter.  I believe in knowledge. I believe in this blog.

If you believe in this blog, please vote for Pastry Methods and Techniques in Project Food Blog.  Take a look at my Contestant Profile.  You can also follow me on twitter, friend me on facebook and/or subscribe to my RSS feed to make sure you know when my challenge posts are up.  Here are the challenges and the dates for voting:

  • Challenge #1:  Ready, Set, Blog!September 20-23
  • Challenge #2:  The Classics September 27-3
  • Challenge #3:  Discovery Dinner Party October 4-7
  • Challenge #4:  Picture Perfect October 11-14
  • Challenge #5:  Recipe Remix October 18-21
  • Challenge #6:  Road Trip!October 25-28
  • Challenge #7:  Video 411 November 8-11
  • Challenge #8:  Piece of Cake November 15-18
  • Challenge #9:  You’re the Critic November 28-December 2
  • Challenge #10:  The Final Post December 6-9

Thank you, friends.

If You Don’t Believe Me, Maybe You’ll Believe Julia

16 Jun

Julia Child was just The Best, wasn’t she?!

Often, I am amazed by the small coincidences that can add up over time to equal Kismet.  The following is just such a case.  Read on, won’t you?

In 1988-ish, my Auntie Ev and Uncle Ray retired from Plainfield, NJ to Pinehurst, NC.  They looked at many different retirement options, but settled on Pinehurst because of the golf, the weather, and maybe because it was only a couple of hours from my parents’ house.

Their next-door neighbor is Tris.  She is a delight, and we’ve known her as “the lovely neighbor,” since they moved.  Over the past couple of years or so, with Auntie Ev’s decline and eventual death as well as all the other changes going on with Uncle Ray and Auntie ‘Leenie, we’ve gotten much closer to Tris.  She is a Point of Contact and usually knows what’s going on over there.  She is also smart, sarcastic and hilarious.  Plus, she curses, which I appreciate A Lot.

Tris is facing some open heart surgery in a couple of weeks, so I’ve already put a sticky note on her cookbooks in case of her Untimely Demise.  Of course, she offered first.  But you’d better believe that I jumped on it.  I’m a little mercenary that way.  I blame The Beloved.

I went down to Pinehurst last Wednesday to join The Family for luncheon, and we all wandered over to Tris’s house to say “howdy.”  She said that I could go ahead and pick a cookbook or two.  Sort of like a drug dealer gives you a free sample before sealing the deal.  I know, because I watch a lot of television.

Anyway, I opened her Cookbook Cabinet and spied Julia Child’s The Way to Cook.  I held it up with a raised eyebrow.  I got an immediate  and emphatic NO.  Then, I picked up an old copy of the Fannie Farmer Cookbook.  Again, I got a NO.  So then I was all, “You’re a little bit Take-Backsie what with all the you-can-have-one-just-not-that-one nonsense.”  She unashamedly agreed.  She’s that way.  Then she told me to pick another.  I grabbed a Maida Heatter staple, Maida Heater’s Book of Great Desserts.  I didn’t exactly get a yes.  It was more like an “Okay, fine.”  Then she said that she wanted a recipe out of it–one for some sort of ganache-y topping/frosting stuff.  She started looking for it, and then she saw her mother’s notes in the margins.  And that, my friends, was the end of my Very Brief Ownership of Maida’s book. (To be fair, I wouldn’t have parted with a cookbook with my mom’s notes in it.  But I don’t really want to be fair).

I made a face at old Tris, and she sighed and said, “Fine, take Julia and leave me Maida.”  Then, just to be mean, she made me take some other crazy Scottish cookbook with Ye Olde Scottish Recipes in it.  You know, like southern cornbread and American haggis.  She told me I had to take the good with the bad.  Just like life.

I’ve looked through the Scot-esque cookbook and have duly Set it Aside.  Forever.  And then, saving Julia for dessert, I opened it up and began to read.

And guess what I read?  The same stuff I’ve been telling you guys forever.  Seriously.  Like how if you learn the cooking and baking techniques, you can make a ton of stuff just by switching up ingredients.  And how, as long as you understand how to cook, you can put together a list of ingredients even if it doesn’t come with its own set of instructions.  But, since it’s hard to believe a crackpot with a blog, I’m going to quote–at length–from Julia’s forward to her wonderful The Way to Cook.

The more one knows about [cooking], the less mystery there is, the faster cooking becomes, and the easier it is to be creative and to embrace new trends and ideas–in addition, the more pleasure one has in teh kitchen.

I have broken with the conventional organization of a cookbook,where all lamb is together in one section and all beef in another, all carrots or salmon or game hens in their separate places, and so on.  Wherever possible, I have put things together by method–veal chops are with pork chops because they cook the same way.  Chicken stew in red wine is with turkey-wing ragout and rabbit stew–if you can do one, you can do the others because they are assembled, simmered and sauced the same way.  It makes sense to me, also, that all braised meats be grouped together so that their similarities are clearly evident.  And since you can boil-steam butternut squash in the same way you boil-steam carrots, pearl onions, and green peas, I have grouped them together also.  You use the same base for clam chowder as you do for corn or fish chowder, and that base can also be used for a fish casserole; they, too, are a group.  The technique is what’s important here, and when you realize that a stew is a stew is a stew, and a reoast is a roast whether it be beef, lamb, pork, or chicken, cooking begins to make sense.

–excerpts from the Introduction to The Way to Cook, page ix (that’s not a six without an “s.”  It’s a tiny Roman numeral 9)

She goes on giving other examples and explaining how once you make a basic dish a couple of times, it’s a part of your repertoire.  Once you’ve gotten it down, you can start playing with it a bit.  Changing it up and varying ingredients to suit your and your family’s tastes.  And where have I heard that before?  I know:  I mutter that stuff in my Sleep!

And that’s what I have to say about that.  Maybe Julia said it better.  After all, her introduction is printed in a Real Live Book between two covers.  A book that she wrote twenty-one years ago.   As for my repetitive exhortations to have fun and learn techniques and stop stressing so much over recipes, I can only hope that they are one day printed between the covers of a Real Live Book.

So, thank you to Auntie Ev and Uncle Ray for moving to Pinehurst and being neighbors with the Divine Tris so that I could one day snake one of her favorite cookbooks even before she passes beyond this Veil of Tears.  I fully expect that, once Tris recovers from her surgery, she will be her usual spry, spectacular shelf.  We will invite her to come hang out with us at our beautiful house, drink wine and maybe eat something inspired by Julia.  But she ain’t gettin’ her book back.

And thank you, Julia, for being so far ahead of your time that folks might just now be catching up to you, even though you left us in 2004.

And Now is the Time on PMAT When We Poke the Anthill. Join Me, Won’t You?

7 May

Oooh, an anthill! Let me get my stick! (Click on the picture for attribution)

I am a bit of a Rabble Rouser.  I always have been.  See:

Scene:  Holiday dinner table with adult guests all around including my 3-year-old brother and 5-year-old me.

Uncle Ray: Male ballet dancers are athletic.

My Father: Oh, please.  They’re a bunch of sissies.

Uncle Ray (raises voice): You live in the dark ages. You know that lots of football players take ballet?!

My Father (raises voice): Well, then, they’re sissies, too!

The argument goes on for a few minutes.  My brother begins to cry.  I raptly take it all in.  Fade out.

Scene:  Dinner table the next evening.  Adults are talking amongst themselves.  My brother and I are quiet, listening to the conversation.  Or counting peas.  Whatever.  There’s a lull in the conversation. Into the silence, a small voice pipes up.

Jenni:  Let’s talk about the ballet!

If there’s a serene-looking anthill, I am not above poking it with a stick–just a little– to watch the ants come out.  If Ruthie looks antisocial, which is often, I will pick her up and hug and kiss her.  As much as I try to be well-behaved and let small cuts heal on their own, I tend to scratch them until they bleed again.  I am a Card Carrying Rabble Rouser.

And I’m about to rouse some Serious Rabble right now, so consider yourself Forewarned.

If you’ll notice over in my sidebar, sort of down towards the bottom, I have a red circle with a bar across it with the words “Secret Recipes” in it.  And that means No Secret Recipes.  I got said badge from Drew, from How to Cook Like Your Grandmother.  I wear it proudly.  Or rather, the blog wears it proudly.  I truly believe not only that people shouldn’t keep recipes secret or be too proprietary about them, but that original recipes are about as common as Dodo birds and to say that Your Recipe is Original is maybe a bit of an Affectation.

Let that one sink in for just a moment.

For example, I recently read a recipe over at the venerable Coconut & Lime for a lemon-chive asparagus risotto.  It, like all the recipes on that site, is touted as being completely original, and readers are exhorted not to reproduce it for profit and to always provide a link back should they reference it.  Further, and perhaps more upsetting to me, the blogmistress wants us to explain how we change any of her Ingredient Selections and still link back to her recipe.

Well, well, well. And well again.  As far as I know, risotto has been around for a Very Long Time.  So have asparagus, lemons and chives.  I myself have paired asparagus, lemon and chive together Upon Occasion.  Shocking and scandalous, I know.

While I don’t advocate stealing from folks, and I always provide a link to the original Creative Commons licensed photos that I sometimes use as well as links to other folks’ blogs or sites when I’ve been inspired to make something based on their idea, I consider recipes to be very fluid.  Like a song that an artist switches up a bit with every performance, a recipe is meant to be shared and altered.  It’s meant to inspire creativity in people who read it.  A recipe is meant to instruct, but making a recipe exactly the same way every time after you understand the principles and techniques, is C work.  Folks earn A’s and B’s by working a little bit higher than the Knowledge and Comprehension Levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Before you yell at me, and I fully expect to be yelled at least a little bit, I understand that everyone has to start somewhere. You’re looking at the girl who once asked the guy at the supermarket what to substitute for creme fraiche, and he said a mixture of cream cheese, sour cream and something else, so I bought all three of those things and mixed them to get the stupid tablespoon or so that I needed.  But the thing is, each cooking experience we have should serve to build our confidence and our abilities.  Don’t look at a recipe as a discrete thing describing one dish-in-a-vacuum.  Rather, look at them as mini lessons in cooking techniques.

Okay, back to the Original Recipe theory.  Just as literature lends itself to multiple interpretations, so do recipes.  When we read literature or follow a recipe, we look at each through our unique filters, shaped by our experiences.  Food tells a story.  Food is about family, memories, highlights, lowlights.  It is woven into the fabric of our celebrations and of our times of mourning.  If we only ate when we were hungry, if we only looked at food as something to eat to keep us alive, then we wouldn’t be human.  I’m pretty sure that humans are the only species who eat for emotional reasons.  We eat to evoke a certain time or place.  Maybe our mom’s macaroni and cheese isn’t all that great, but it’s our favorite kind because we associate it with mother’s love.  Comfort food is not about feeding the body.  It’s about feeding the soul.

When I read a recipe, I make associations with each ingredient.  I almost always “see” twice the salt than is called for.  I automatically substitute chicken or pork for shrimp, because I’m not a fan of seafood.  If starch is involved–pasta, rice, quinoa, etc–I’m all over it.  If there’s no starch in it, I think of a way to add starch.  Since I’m not a huge vegetable fan, I plan on adding extra vegetables, maybe blending them in with my immersion blender.  I get excited about tomato-based recipes because they are familiar and bring to mind my mom’s spaghetti sauce.

The point is, I bring my experiences and associations to recipes, and you bring your own.  So, as far as I’m concerned, once a recipe is attempted by another cook, it is no longer original.  Let’s go back to that risotto, shall we?  Like most recipes, it starts with a list of ingredients.  And guess what?

Copyright law does not protect recipes that are mere listings of ingredients. Nor does it protect
other mere listings of ingredients such as those found in formulas, compounds, or prescriptions.
Copyright protection may, however, extend to substantial literary expression—a description,
explanation, or illustration, for example—that accompanies a recipe or formula or to a combination
of recipes, as in a cookbook.       —

Since ingredient lists aren’t protected by copyright, the litmus test for “original recipe” must come from the substantial literary expression that accompanies the recipe.  And that means the rules.

The rules that accompany the risotto recipe are the rules for making risotto.  Seriously.  Heat broth.  Saute aromatics.  Add rice and cook a couple of minutes.  Add broth some at a time, stirring in between additions.

I’m paraphrasing, of course, but the rules for making risotto are the rules for making risotto.  How can a list of ingredients for risotto accompanied by the rules for how to make risotto be original?

Now, maybe the author of the risotto recipe perfected the dish to her taste.  That’s cool–that’s what cooking is all about.  She states on her site that, if One were to make substitutions or changes to her original recipe and then want to post about it, that One should make crystal clear the changes One made.  Because apparently she does not want to be held responsible for One’s desecrations.

But at what point is the recipe altered enough–keeping in mind that the substantial literary expression in this case is just the rules for making risotto which has been around since the 1500’s–that it becomes a completely different recipe?  If I decide to substitute sugar snap peas and mint for the asparagus and chives and then add some lamb, making the risotto with a vegetable, lamb or beef stock as opposed to chicken stock, do I still have to credit the original?  I mean, seriously.  I might see her recipe and be inspired to make risotto, but if I change it up to suit my tastes and the ingredients that I have on hand, doesn’t it become my original minted lamb risotto with sugar snap peas?  If I see someone’s recipe for red velvet cake and I get inspired to make devil’s food cake, do I have to credit the red velvet recipe?

Confused yet?  Well, let me further muddy the waters.  I found this Enlightening and Informative article regarding Intellectual Property in regard to “copyrighted” recipes over at the Washington Post:  Can a Recipe Be Stolen? The article states that Rachel Rappaport, the very lady from Coconut & Lime, understands the issue this way:

Rachel Rappaport, a Baltimore teacher, operates a blog called Coconut & Lime in which she shares recipes she has liked. She says her understanding — a common one — is that if she changes two or three ingredients in a recipe, it becomes her own and requires no attribution.

This is the same Rachel Rappaport who submits on her FAQ page that:

I am glad you enjoyed my recipe enough to want to post about it! Please credit me and Coconut & Lime and post a direct link to the recipe. If you make changes to the recipe, include a note making it clear that any changes were your own. Do not post or directly reproduce the actual recipe or picture(s), these are copyrighted materials and represent hours of hard work. Unlike food bloggers who post recipes from cookbooks, magazines and newspapers, I only post recipes that I personally created and developed in my own kitchen. This is tremendously time consuming, requires a great deal effort and is deserving of credit.

Très intéressant, non?  Let me stop poking at that Particular anthill right now.

I don’t mean to be Unkind, nor do I mean to make Rebels out of all of you.  I just want us to start thinking about recipes in a new and different way.

If I am inspired by a recipe, I gladly link to the original as my inspiration.  When you’re starting out, by all means follow recipes as written.  Just know that you will do it just a bit differently than “the original” was done.  Maybe you cut your onions differently.  Maybe you saute for a little longer than the original.  Your stove, pots, pans and even your ingredients are not going to be exactly like the stove, pots, pans and ingredients used in the version that you are trying to duplicate.

I also don’t want to take anything away from the lady from Coconut & Lime.  She’s been around for at least six years (which is Forever in web-terms), posting recipes that she has perfected.  And that’s fantastic.  Her recipes all sound wonderful, and she often uses interesting flavor combinations.  I just wish that she not be so proprietary with them.  I wish she would say, “Here, take these recipes and run with them.  Please credit me as your inspiration, but build on the recipes and make them to your taste.”  Or something like that.

I think the whole Crux of the Matter rests in what folks call Intellectual Property.  And here’s what the World Intellectual Property Organization has to say about Intellectual Property:

The term intellectual property refers broadly to the creations of the human mind. Intellectual property rights protect the interests of creators by giving them property rights over their creations.The Convention Establishing the World Intellectual Property Organization (1967) gives the following list of subject matter protected by intellectual property rights:

  • literary, artistic and scientific works;
  • performances of performing artists, phonograms, and broadcasts;
  • inventions in all fields of human endeavor;
  • scientific discoveries;
  • industrial designs;
  • trademarks, service marks, and commercial names and designations;
  • protection against unfair competition; and
  • “all other rights resulting from intellectual activity in the industrial, scientific, literary or artistic fields.”

Intellectual property relates to items of information or knowledge, which can be incorporated in tangible objects at the same time in an unlimited number of copies at different locations anywhere in the world. The property is not in those copies but in the information or knowledge reflected in them. Intellectual property rights are also characterized by certain limitations, such as limited duration in the case of copyright and patents.  —The World Intellectual Property Organization

Surely any copyright on the Risotto Technique is long since expired.  When I list some ingredients and tell you to use The Creaming Method to put them together, I am not stealing anyone’s intellectual property by using the term The Creaming Method.  Or the laminated dough method. Or the confit method.  Or the braising method.

Here’s my rule.  I follow the rules that each food blogger has.  If they explain their rules for using their recipes in detail, I follow them.  If they don’t explain their rules, I cover my bases by linking to the post anyway.  I don’t begrudge a person the belief that their recipe is set in stone, unalterable and Eternal (to be redundant to the third power).  I don’t share that belief, however, and I wish fewer people believed that they have the corner on the market for any recipe.  I firmly believe that recipes are meant to be changed up, expanded upon, altered to suit one’s taste and shared freely.  As a food blogger/writer, I am honored when someone references one of my recipes as an inspiration.  I want to inspire.  I don’t want to dictate.

I will leave you with one more quote from the Washington Post article:

Washington chef and cookbook author Nora Pouillon said she would not sue if she saw her formula for, say, cherry clafoutis, on a Web site. She’d be the first to say that she based her recipe on versions of the French specialty featuring kirsch-soaked fruit that she had seen or eaten during her childhood in Austria.

Wonderful food, she points out, is more than a recipe. It also is the sum of a cook’s experience, eye for detail and technique, plus the quality of the ingredients.

Pouillon said she’s flattered if somebody passes along one of her recipes. “It’s nice to get credit, but I really feel that a recipe is something to share,” she said. On the other hand, if someone is a terrible cook, she said, she would rather that person not tell people that the formula for yam vichyssoise came from her.

I think Chef Pouillon and I would get along famously.

And now I think I’m done.  Agree or disagree, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

You Know It’s True: Every Pound Cake I Bake, I Bake It For You

11 Mar

Okay, I might be the only game in town that revisits the humble pound cake on a regular basis.  But, you’ll thank me.  Honest.  Soon, all of you I Don’t Bake people will be riffing on the basic pound cake and coming up with All Manner of Variations because I refuse to let the subject go.  You’re welcome.

So, here’s how this most recent pound cake came about.  You guys heard about my lovely Auntie Ev, right?  Well, she passed away last Thursday morning, and The Beloved and I went to Pinehurst to meet her son, clean up the house and deal with Funeral Arrangements and such.  Then, their son Ken came and stayed with us Saturday evening before driving back home to Virginia.

This posed a bit of a problem:  what to feed Cousin Ken.  We had some leftover baked rigatoni-type stuff I had made a couple of days before and also 2 bunches of lovely asparagus, so along with a loaf of Italian bread, that took care of dinner.  But I felt that we needed a dessert to round out the meal.  Plus, desserts are comforting when people are sad, and we were all a little sad.  Not so much for Auntie Ev who really wasn’t living any kind of life at the end, but for Uncle Ray who was left behind.  And for ourselves a bit because now everything has changed.  Anyway, I looked in the fridge and in the cabinets to make sure I had enough of the Right Ingredients to make a version of Van Halen Pound Cake.  And guess what?  I did.

Remember the base recipe:

  • 20 oz. sugar
  • 12 oz. butter
  • 5 large eggs
  • 13 oz. cake flour
  • 10 oz. dairy/liquid
  • leavening, salt, extracts, zests, etc of your choice

And this is how I changed it up.  I’ll tell you what I call it in just a minute.

  • 20 oz. sugar
  • 12 oz. butter
  • zest of two oranges
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/2 teaspoon lemon extract
  • 2 teaspoons of Cointreau (just for fun)
  • 5 large eggs
  • 13 oz. cake flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda (added to balance the acidic sour cream and OJ concentrate)
  • a little more than 1 teaspoon salt
  • 6 oz. orange juice concentrate, thawed
  • 4 oz. sour cream

I used The Creaming Method, as it is the Preferred Method for mixing pound cake.  I creamed together the butter, sugar, zest, extracts and Cointreau.

I added the eggs one at a time.

I whisked together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.

I added them alternately with the OJ concentrate and then the sour cream.

Of course, there was plenty of Bowl Scraping as well.

Once all of your ingredients have been incorporated and the batter is thick and fluffy and smooth, scrape it into a sprayed and floured Bundt pan and bake at 325F until it’s done.  In my oven, it took an hour and ten minutes.

This cake is extremely moist and somewhat dense due to the extra sugar in the orange juice concentrate.  You could certainly cut back the granulated sugar to 17-18 ounces to keep things balanced.  The cake will rise a bit higher and have a more even crumb.  The Up Side of keeping the sugar at 20 oz. despite the OJ concentrate is that the cake is very moist and keeps well for at least a week.  That’s good news if you’re baking for only a couple of folks.  No one likes dry pound cake, and this is certainly not dry.

We loved it.  Ken loved it and took some home to his wife.  His wife Candace loved it, too.  I talked to her on the phone the other day, and she said that her usual prerequisites for Loving a Cake are that 1)it be chocolate and 2)it have frosting.  This cake was Unchocolate and Naked, and she still loved it.  High praise, indeed.

For those of you who have been following along with the Saga of the Van Halen Pound Cake, do you see how I changed things up?  And you can do the same thing.  Play with different seasonings, spices, herbs, fats, dairy, sugar, glazes, etc.  Just stick to the basic Recipe Scaffold (I just made that up), and you’ll always end up with an edible cake, even if you don’t Love It.  And how can that be wrong?

Besides, you will eventually come up with Your Perfect Pound Cake.  Make sure you write down the ingredients and amounts for all your attempts, and behold, you’re creating Original Recipes, and you’re not even Colonel Sanders!

Do try this particular cake toasted for breakfast.  After all, it contains eggs, orange juice and dairy.  Sounds like breakfast to me.

Oh, I call this guy the Anita Bryant Sunshine Pound Cake.  I don’t agree with her politics, but I will always associate her with orange juice.

Garnish: It’s More Than Just a Sprig O’ Mint

3 Mar
dessert garnishes

This lovely sorbet could certainly use some garnish buddies. Ideas?

Growing up, I thought that garnish was green frilly stuff.  It was the anemic lettuce leaf under the crab salad, the parsley nestled between the steak and potato, the mint shoved into the whipped cream on top of the chocolate cake.

My definition stayed narrow until I met Monsieur Escoffier.  Okay, I didn’t actually meet him, being that he’s all Dead and stuff, but I met his work.  And what I realized was this:  when he used the term garnish, it pretty much meant everything on the plate that wasn’t the protein.  So, a stew could be garnished with tourneed vegetables, sauces, a small salad, a puree, etc.

I was raised thinking that a garnish was a throw-away.  No need to eat that parsley or that piece of lettuce.  After meeting Escoffier, I began to think of the garnish as components that harmonize with the Main Event–not at all throw-away-able, but integral to the whole presentation.

One cool thing that comes from understanding the classical meaning of garnish is that you come to realize that the main event can be garnished in any number of ways, as long as the garnishes that you choose complement and harmonize with the main event.

Desserts can be served at four basic temperature ranges:  frozen, chilled, room temperature and heated.  Textures can be creamy, crunchy, crispy, chewy, dense, light and airy, silky, etc.  A well plated and garnished dessert should contain elements from three temperature ranges and at least two complementary textures.  For example, a “simple” piece of apple pie is generally served heated and with two basic textures–a fruity bite and a crisp/flaky pastry.  Appropriate garnish could consist of frozen/creamy ice cream and/or crunchy/room temperature nut brittle and/or light and airy/chilled whipped cream.  You probably intuitively do this anyway.  Who doesn’t like warm apple pie with ice cream or some whipped cream, right? Just do like mom used to do:  elevate a bowl of sherbet from a one note frozen treat to a study in contrast of texture and temperature by sticking a couple of wafer cookies into it.

Make sure you consider the dish as a whole and take care that all the components make sense together.  If the dessert doesn’t have any mint flavor in it at all, just walk away from that leaf of mint you’ve been eying.  If there’s nary a berry in the dessert, put away that insipid strawberry fan.  Likewise, if the only strawberries you can find in the middle of December are white and green, that is nature’s way of telling you that they are Out of Season and it’s best to just wait for the summer.  Only a dish with orange notes in it requires that jaunty twisted orange slice, so just give it back to the bartender right now.

When you begin to conceptualize a dish, consider the texture and temperature of your main dessert and then design the garnishes accordingly.

Here are some examples to get your creative juices flowing:

1.  Toasted pound cake (heated/toasty/cakey) with fresh berries (room temperature or chilled/juicy/fruity), lemon curd (chilled/silky) and a shard or two of caramelized sugar (room temperature/shattery).

2.  The hot fudge sundae:  frozen/creamy ice cream, heated/smooth/almost chewy fudge sauce, chilled/light and airy whipped cream, room temperature/crunchy nuts

3.  Syrup-soaked genoise (cool/light/airy/cakey/moist) with Italian buttercream (*room temperature/light/smooth/creamy/poufy) and macaron shells (crisp/light/chewy) with a quenelle of sorbet (frozen/icy-smooth).

Now, none of this seems like rocket science, mainly because it isn’t.  It really is pretty intuitive, especially when you keep the temperature ranges and textures in mind.  Of course, we haven’t even touched upon harmonizing flavors.  Stay tuned, as they say, for the rest of the story…

*If you take your cake out of the fridge 30-45 minutes before serving, the frosting on the outside will be room temperature while the inside is still cool.  Very nice.

Smashing the Culinary Ceiling, or How to Overcome Recipe Anxiety

19 Jan

No pretty pictures here, people.  Just the cold, hard, sometimes uncomfortable facts of how I got to be a better cook than I used to be.

Off and on, I spend time talking about becoming an automatic cook:  about letting go of fear, divorcing yourself from rigid recipes and having fun in the kitchen.  People seem to appreciate the sentiment, but I often get comments about how to do it:  Do you have to go to culinary school to become an automatic cook?  How do you learn the skills and techniques in order to become automatic?  How do you make that first leap from Recipe to No Recipe?

Well, here’s the thing, I can’t really answer those questions for y–No, wait!  Don’t go.  Please, stay, and let me ‘splain.  If you had let me finish what I was saying you would have heard me say “I can’t answer those questions for you; I can only tell you what worked for me.”  Everyone is differe–now, wait a minute. It’s not a cop out!  Sheesh, you’re pretty touchy.  Everyone is different.  We all have our strengths and weaknesses, both in and out of the kitchen.  My huge kitchen weakness is impatience.  Yours might be entirely different.

On top of our differences, we all have our own learning styles.  Some of us are visual learners–show us (or let us read about it), and we’re ready to go.  Other folks need to walk through the steps with someone who knows what to do.  These are the kinesthetic learners.  There are even auditory learners out there who can just hear a lecture about how to make a souffle and just go for it.  I am Not one of Those People.  But you might be.

So, the first step on the road to automaticity is knowing your learning style.  If you’re a visual person, learn by watching videos or reading cookbooks with lots of procedural photos.  If you’re kinesthetic, take a class or two and get your hands dirty.  Or open up your cook book and get your hands dirty.  If you’re one of those auditory folks, go to some cooking seminars.  You can also watch videos, too, especially if the person is good at explaining what they’re doing (and why) while they’re doing it.

None of this has to be expensive.  The Hinternets are full of free resources.  The Cyberworld practically bursts at the seams with Helpful Cooking Videos and Treatises.   Go borrow some DVDs and/or books at the library.  Find some classes in your area at a gourmet shop, community college or even at a cooking school or restaurant.  Just learn in the way that works best for you.

So, now I’m going to tell you about how I went from being Completely Tied to Recipes (and I mean completely) to being able to cook with what I have on hand, knowing it’ll turn out to taste good, if not fantastic.

Circa 1986
I had a wonderful friend in college, Kenny.  He loved my mom’s chocolate pound cake.  I decided to make him one when I was home one weekend.  Mom gave me her recipe, and I “followed it,” only to end up with runny, scary batter instead of the thick, creamy batter that she always turned out.  The problem?  I put all the eggs in at once and tried to mix them in.  I know that now, but then, I just figured that I was cursed and called my mom.  She told me that I had to put the eggs in one at a time.  Round 2 turned out just fine.  I didn’t really know why I needed to add the eggs one at a time, but I learned a valuable lesson:  knowing what to put in the bowl isn’t enough.  You also have to know how and in what order to put stuff in the bowl.  It’s also a good idea to know why.

Damn, I love me some Oodles of Noodles.

Collected all sorts of cook books–even the wee stapled ones at the check out at the grocery store.  I remember one time I wanted to make lemon chicken.  It had five ingredients.  I actually checked off the ingredients I needed as I purchased them.  During this time period, I a)made special trips to the store on many occasions to purchase silly stuff like 3 sprigs of mint or 1/2 teaspoon of sage.  Speaking of which, have you guys seen these?  Not a bad idea, just to get an idea of what flavors go together to evoke certain cuisines.  McCormick has a whole line of them.  I say, study them at the store and then buy the spices separately.

Another time, I wanted to make some chili–it had a billion ingredients in it, and I made sure that I had Every Single One, right down to infinitesimal amounts of herbs and spices.  That’s a long way from this:  How to Make Intuitive Chili.

Slowly, I began to notice patterns in recipes:  Lots of Italian recipes start with cooking down some onions and garlic in some oil.  Cajun recipes often start with either a roux or cooked down onions, celery and bell pepper (trinity) with maybe some garlic.  Many French stews start with cooking down some onion, celery and carrot with maybe some shallot.  Lots of Spanish recipes start with cooking down some onion, sweet and bell peppers, tomatoes and garlic.  I began to recognize the common themes running through recipes from the same culinary heritage.

How did I learn this stuff?  Well, I’m a visual learner–I’m a voracious reader, and I read every cook book I had from cover to cover.  I also obsessively watched PBS Cooking Shows, as far back as my Oodles of Noodles phase.  As a matter of fact, my roommate Jeff and I lived in a rickety blue house with no heat that was owned by a person who I believe might have had a side business of dealing in illicit drugs.  We had no heat and no cable TV.  So, all we had to do was huddle by the space heater and watch either Star Trek: Next Generation or PBS cooking shows.  Good times.  But I learned a lot from Nathalie Dupree, Marcia Adams, Justin Wilson, Jeff Smith (and poor old Craig), of course Julia, and Martin Yan.

I also experimented on Friday evenings by making the most difficult recipes I could find–usually from the annual Gourmet Magazine Cookbooks.  One time I made a chocolate-raspberry layer cake with whipped ganache filling and poured ganache glaze.  It took me Nine Hours.  And I didn’t get paid.

My Ah-Ha Moment
I am not a fan of the term “ah-ha moment.”  It sounds like Oprah, and while she’s great and all, her halo blinds us and makes us squint.  Never the less, I had Such a Moment in regard to cooking, and it changed Everything.  Seriously.

I decided I wanted some rice.  I had always made rice by adding 2 measured cups of water to 1 measured cup of rice, putting in one measured teaspoon of salt and 1/4 teaspoon of black pepper.  And a pat of butter.  One day, I saw Martin Yan show me that I could measure the liquid for the rice with my finger.  This meant I’d never have to measure again.  Hooray. But that wasn’t the Real Ah-Ha Moment.  This was:

One day, when making rice, I realized I had some coconut milk in the fridge that I needed to use.  Before I knew it, I was just tossing that coconut milk in there with a Damn the Torpedoes sort of abandon.  Next, I thought in my brain, “Jenni, you also own coconut.  It wouldn’t be so wrong to put some coconut in there, too.  Plus, you’ve had rice at Asian restaurants that is sometimes flavored with cloves.  Put a couple in.  You also know that folks in India lots of times put some sweet yummies in with savory items. Why not throw in some raisins?” Well, I’m not sure if that was the exact order, but the end result was creamy good rice with yummy raisins.  I threw in some chopped peanuts at the end, too.

Now, I’m not saying that this was a Show Stopping dish.  It probably wasn’t even a really good dish.  But, I can remember how I felt while I was making it.  I was scared and exhilarated at the same time.  It sounds kind of stupid, but if you’re passionate about cooking, you probably know the feeling.  I felt like I was on a trapeze without a net.  The cookbooks were all on the shelf, and I was just winging it, pulling in ideas from things I’d read and eaten that seemed to evoke “Eastern” to me.  Looking back, I’m not sure there is any cuisine whose hallmarks are coconut/raisin/peanut/clove, but I was very proud of myself.  And guess what?  The best part was that it tasted pretty good.  Okay, maybe the rice was a little overcooked, and maybe I hadn’t yet fully embraced the Power of Salt, but still, it was Not Bad At All.

And, like they say, the first time is always the hardest.  Since then, I’ve been trying to make connections between and among recipes.  I’ve given myself permission to play with flavors and to build flavor profiles based on previous eating and cooking experiences.  If something seems a little tart, I add some sugar.  If it seems a little bland, I’ll add some salt.  If it needs a green note, I’ll pull out some herbs.  Not hot enough?  I’ve got all sorts of hot sauces and ground peppers I can add.  I’ve come to look at recipes as ingredient lists and a list of techniques/methods for how to put those ingredients together.  That’s pretty liberating right there, let me tell you.

Even in baking, which has many more rules due to all that pesky chemistry, I find that I can alter “recipes” to my taste by introducing different spices, zests, extracts, liquids.  (If you’re not familiar with the Van Halen pound cake and all its iterations, go check it out).  I can even use different mixing methods for the same list of ingredients to get different results.  If I want a fairly sturdy cake, I’ll use The Creaming Method.  If I’m looking for a more tender cake, I’ll go with the Two-Stage Mixing Method.

And I think I’ll stop now.  I hope this helps you.  As you stand in your kitchen cooking, just think of me ruining my chocolate cake batter.  It will make you feel better.  And if a quiet little voice speaks up and says, “How about adding a bit of sage?”  go with it.

Another of my posts you might find useful.  It covers some of the same ground, but repetition is not a bad thing when it comes to building confidence:  Oh, Look What Has Come Around on the Guitar Again

All January ad revenue goes to Haitian earthquake relief.  Read more here.  Thanks.

Oh, St. Cecile, How Sorely They Have Used You.

19 Nov
how to make your own hot cocoa

Poor, poor Cecile. She never saw it coming. Literally.

Dear Miss Swiss Miss,
I wonder what your real name is? I took the liberty of doing some research, and I’ve decided that your given name, heretofore lost in the sands of time, is probably Cecile. You must be Cecile, the blind patron saint of music. First, the ConAgra people told you that they were naming a Wonderful New Chocolate Beverage in your honor, and then they made you sing their Inane Advertising Jingle. You see, they knew they had to choose a blind spokesperson. Otherwise, you would have looked at the ingredients listed on the box of “your” eponymous hot cocoa and refused to be a part of such a Travesty.  There is precedent for this.  I give you:
Unless you have tons of time on your hands, go to 5:01.

Unfortunately for the Farmers’ Pride folks, Leopold had a sense of taste. Hard to tell just by auditioning. But you, oh Unfortunate Cecile, with your red-tipped cane, dark glasses and harnessed German Shepherd–it was glaringly obvious that you were blind. Alas for you; they pounced.  You were duped into shilling for ConAgra. And now, I’m here to read to you the ingredient list from that box of Evil Brown Powder that you are selling.

  • Sugar–check
  • Nonfat Dry Milk–okay
  • Modified Whey–because the milk powder isn’t milky enough
  • Cocoa (Processed with Alkali)–Dutched cocoa is pH balanced; okay
  • Corn Syrup–because I guess the sugar isn’t sugary enough
  • Hydrogenated Coconut Oil–because you can never have too many trans fats

Less than 2% of:

  • Salt–Nice
  • Dipotassium Phosphate–another salt that is Extremely water soluble.  Because apparently salt isn’t salty enough
  • Carrageenan–seaweed!
  • Sodium Caseinate–more milky-type stuff
  • Disodium Phosphate–to keep the powder nice and powdery
  • Artificial Flavor–because cocoa and sugar and milk aren’t tasty enough on their own
  • Mono- and Diglycerides–emulsifiers, to keep the transfatty goodness nicely mixed with the seaweed, et al

Oh, Cecile.  I’m sure you a damp towel for your forehead and a cold beverage to refresh you.  I hate to be the bearer of Ill News, but you needed to know.  After all, your integrity is At Stake.


The following is for Cecile and for anyone who wants a nice cup of hot cocoa without worrying about, you know, dying from Phosphate poisoning.

St. Cecile’s Most Excellent Hot Cocoa

  • cocoa powder–Dutched is preferable
  • sugar–I use demerara.  You could also use agave nectar or Your Preferred Sweetener
  • pinch of salt
  • wee splash of vanilla
  • milk–whatever kind you like.  Except buttermilk (But I shouldn’t even have to say that.  You’re just being difficult).
  • Optional–a sprinkle of cinnamon or cayenne.  Maybe some orange zest or extract.  Or mint extract. 

There are no measurements, because I don’t know how you like your hot cocoa.  Do it to your taste, and taste it frequently.  Write down what you did, and then you’ll have the formula for Your Perfect Cup.  Here’s how to put it together.

  1. Put all the ingredients in a large-ish saucepan.
  2. Whisk and heat over medium heat until all the cocoa has dissolved into the milk.  Don’t let it come to a boil.
  3. Put in mug.
  4. Drink.

Cocoa really doesn’t like to mix with milk, especially cold milk.  If you want, you can make life a bit easier by whisking the cocoa with a little bit of milk to get a thickish paste.  Then, you can whisk that into the rest of the milk, sugar, etc.

Rich Caramel Cocoa for the Daring

If you’re feeling spunky, you can caramelize some sugar–take it to medium to medium dark–and stop the caramelization with some half and half.  Off the heat, stir until smooth.  Add milk, cocoa, salt and vanilla or other flavoring of your choice, and whisk over medium heat until hot.  You won’t be sorry.

Two Things

  1. If you’re interested in winning a copy of Starting from Scratch, make sure to enter by going to my Pastry Chef Online post and commenting on the new site design and giving me an idea for my first book title.  The Beloved will be choosing a winner on Tuesday, November 24. 
  2. There are Fun Pastry Polls up at PCO.  Please go take a look and vote.  I’ll be using the polls to see what folks are most interested in.

If anyone is in need of a Spokesperson with Integrity, Cecile needs a job.  ‘Kay, that’s it. 



The World Loves French Toast

26 Aug
French Toast--Way more versatile than you might think.

French Toast--Way more versatile than you might think.

See:  Oooooh–French Toast!  There’s a version or eight in tons of countries, whether they call it French toast or pain perdu or roti telur.  But why?  Why does everyone love this stuff?  What makes it so great?  Here are my thoughts.  I know, I know–you’ve been Dying to hear them, right?

As with many dishes, necessity is the mother of invention.  The necessity, in this case, is how to use up some Stale-Ass bread and make it palatable.  Enter eggs.  Hello eggs.  Why eggs?  ‘Cause back in The Day, tons o’ folks had chickens.  Chickens=free-ish eggs.  And enter eggs’ buddy, milk.  Hey, milk.  Why milk?  ‘Cause the chickens needed Company.  Eggs+milk=custard, so a quick dip (or a long soak) in some custard, a sizzle on a slick griddle, and otherwise wasted bread turns into a free-ish meal.  Waste not, want not.

When I sat down today to Write, I had not Clue One what I was going to write about.  It’s that Planning Aversion that I have.  So, I looked at my referrers so far, and I saw a post from Nate Cooks.  And here it is:  Yay for Leftover Bread–Making French Toast.  Like Nate says, leftover baguette makes fantastic French Toast.  Here are some other options for your Delectation (read stale before each Item):

  • English muffins
  • cinnamon rolls
  • croissants
  • Cuban bread
  • Italian bread
  • Hamburger or hot dog buns
  • Hawaiian bread (exceptional, I might add)
  • yeast-raised doughnuts
  • ciabatta
  • brioche
  • challah
  • panettone
  • Et Cetera

And don’t limit yourself to sweet custards.  Why not a savory French toast?  Any neutral-flavored bread (eg: not doughnuts or cinnamon rolls) would work great for that.  You could even use focaccia.  Go crazy.  Savory French toasts could make a Killer Appetizer.  Fry it up so it’s nice and crisp, cut into cute canape shapes or just squares and top with a crumble of goat cheese and a bit of roasted red pepper.  That’s just One idea.  I’m sure you can come up with others.

Here’s another thought about French Toast–Any strata recipe, any bread pudding recipe, any quiche recipe can be turned into French toast, or stuffed French toast.  For stuffed French toast, you could just put the fillings between two pieces of cooked bread, or you could cut your pieces twice as thick as you normally would, cut a slit in the side and stuff it, then brown it and finish it in the oven to make sure the filling is nice and hot.

One of the best French Toasts I have ever eaten is Deep Fried French Toast.  Yes, you heard me Correctly.  Susie Friou, a friend of my folks from church, brought the technique with her from New Orleans.  I haven’t seen or heard from those guys in decades, but I still remember her French Toast.  Susie, your legacy is assured.  To make it, for every cup of milk and 2 eggs (the standard French toast custard), use 1 cup of flour and 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder.  Make sure you add a healthy pinch of salt and whatever flavorings you like.  Just soak your Bread of Choice in the batter and then Deep Fry It.  You will not be Sorry, I promise.

And that’s pretty much all I have to say about French Toast.  And, if you don’t read Nate Cooks, you should.  His last post is from May, so he might be busy, but the archived stuff is great.

PS Make a sammich with ham, turkey and Swiss cheese, dunk it in the Deep Fry Batter, fry it up and serve it with raspberry jam, and you have one of the Best Sammiches Ever–the Monte Cristo.  Thank you, God, for the Monte Cristo Sammich.

U-PMAT in Action, or Uncle Ray Meets the Muffin Method

25 Aug

Fun Muffin music for you.

You guys know my Auntie Ev and Uncle Ray.  You met them in the Chicken Noodle Soup Episode, and some of you may have read my tribute to them in my post Anniversaries and Alzheimer’s.  The Beloved and I go and visit together about once a month or so, and I generally get down there during the week to see them when my folks drive over from the Charlotte area.  A couple of Wednesdays ago, I went down to see them and my parents, and Uncle Ray was in the end stages of making muffins.  A delightful friend of theirs had come over to Supervise, but alas, she was either not Proficient in The Muffin Method or not up to the task of making Uncle Ray do it correctly.  More likely the latter.  The man needs a Strong Hand, I’m telling you.  At any rate, they ended up with some impressively chewy muffins that kind of rose like bread.  I told him not to worry, that The Beloved and I would be back down soon, and I would take him In Hand and help him make some Truly Excellent Muffins.

We were, and I did and they were, so I asked him if he’d like to write a Guest Post.  And here we are.  The rest is his story, except for Italicized Items–those are my notes:

Blueberry muffins have been a favorite of ours since our son’s college days.  (He is now 61 and I am 93, moldering away though not yet senile).

Our son went to Emerson college where he majored in theatre and communications.  Will say with some pride that he today is quite a communicator and a very good actor, but not in the theatre world.  When his Mom and I visited him in Boston we would stay at the Ritz Carlton Hotel which in that day was famous for its dining facilities. It was there that we were served with the most good looking and delicious blueberry muffins known to mankind, but when we asked for the recipe, we were told that it was almost a state secret and if they gave it to me, they would then have to assassinate me. Not yet having a death wish, we thanked them for their courtesy, left a minor tip, and gently stole into the night.

Lo and behold as they say in our hymnals, not more than one month later, the recipe appeared in the NYTimes which by virtue of some legerdemain, had procured said recipe and printed it in large bold type.

It now must be stated that I am neither cook nor chef and I have the kitchen dexterity of a rag doll, but suddenly I had the urge to create this delicacy as my dear wife Evelyn had done for many years.( Not to be maudlin, but Evelyn now has Alzheimer’s, and can no longer create kitchen works of art, so in memory of her better days I decided to step in the act.)  My first attempt was fair (too much mixing, mainly), but certainly not great (I’m still chewing), so when Jenni heard that story, she asked if I would like her to step in and she would guide me through the shoals of proper Blueberry Muffin baking. I would have to be the class idiot to turn down such an offer, so just this past Saturday she and her Beloved graced our home with one of their visits, and I got all the fixin’s to make the muffins (I brought the lemon and a Microplane). They turned out superbly and due solely to her (Very Stern) guiding and Julia Child’s touches (and encouragement and in general good teacherliness) that they were Muffins of great style, appearance and most importantly TASTE. For those of you, proficient as I hear you are, I am outlining below the base recipe to which you should not substitute one smidgen of your own imagination, because you will break the spell and I might add, the Muffins. (Don’t listen to him–we made some of our own additions as we went). Lots of good fortune and great tasting to you all.

The Ritz Carlton’s Blueberry Muffins

3 and 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons baking powder
3/4 cup sugar plus two pinches of salt (a scant teaspoon)
5 eggs slightly beaten (Use large eggs) (Uncle Ray had purchased Jumbo Eggs, so we used 4 plus one of the yolks)
1/2 cup homogenized milk
5 ounces unsalted butter, melted and cooled
4 or 5 cups blueberries, fresh or frozen
Additional sugar for topping

Heat oven to 425 degrees.

Mix all dry ingredients together.  Stir in eggs, milk and butter: Don’t overmix.  Jenni urges us (sternly) to fold not to mix. Carefully stir in berries.

Grease the tops of the muffin tins.  Insert paper cups and spoon batter to the top of the paper cups.  Sprinkle generously with sugar.

Reduce heat to 400 degrees F.   Place muffin tins on middle shelf of oven.  Bake about 25 minutes until muffins are golden brown. Remove from muffin tins and cool.

Should yield 15 large muffins. (We ended up with 21 regular-sized muffins).

Remember these muffins have been in flux for 35 years, ever since Charles Bonino, the executive chef who retired in 1971 decided he wanted to make a better muffin.  The Ritz Carlton has been serving some version of this muffin since it opened in 1927.

Good fortune to you all, and may your muffins rise to the occasion.

Uncle Ray the Muffin Man

Need a refresher yourself?  Here you go:  The Muffin Method

So, there you have it, Uncle Ray’s first hand account of the Importance of Using the Muffin Method when making Muffins.  We added some lemon zest and a pinch or two of cinnamon and freshly grated nutmeg this time.  The next time we go visit, we’ll probably make some more, and I will quiz him on Proper Procedure.  When he gets comfortable, maybe we can get Auntie Ev in on the action, putting the liners in the muffin cups and scooping the batter into them.

For those of you who can Handle It, here’s some hard core muffin music courtesy of Frank Zappa.

My Cook Book Dilemma, Or Why Cook Books Make Me a Little Squidgy-Feeling These Days, Part: The Second

6 Aug

I wonder how many basic cook books actually focus on the hows and whys...

So, my best friend that I’ve never met, Linda, left a comment yesterday over on fb.  Here it is:

I love my cookbooks. I read them like novels. A really good cookbook writer brings much more to the party than merely recipes. You can learn the culture of countries, the history of their food and why certain peoples eat certain foods. I adore heirloom recipes and enjoy reading the memories associated with them. Call me sappy – I like knowing that the cake recipe presented was handed down from someone’s grandmother who was conducting a secret love affair with Calvin Coolidge and served him this particular cake post coitus.

As usual, Linda made me laugh and think.

And then, I received a comment on Ye Olde Blogge from Jessica.  Here’s what she said:

If you have any pointers to cookbook titles that actually explain the whys of different ingredients/techniques/etc I would be most obliged if you could share, I’ve been having a hard time finding cookbooks that don’t have exactly the problem you’re describing. And you should definitely consider writing a book! Forget the recipes, I just want a book about cooking techniques, I can find recipes a dime a dozen…

Okay, so here’s the dilemma:  I agree with Linda that cook books are an endless source of culinary and cultural history, but I also agree with Jessica that recipes are a dime a dozen and that basic cook books should focus on the science and process of cooking.

I love to read cook books that focus on a particular state, country or region.  I love to look at the beautiful, full-color photographs and drool and drool.  I own quite a few of those Coffee Table-type cook books, and I’m becoming reacquainted with them now that I’m finally Unpacking.  I’m still looking for the anecdote about the post-coital cake.  I will find it one day–maybe in the First Ladies’ Cook Book

I also have more than my share of basic cook books that cover everything from Soup to Nuts, as it were.  I already railed against BH&G for awhile yesterday for leaving so many questions unanswered.  For keeping us ignorant of the basics of cooking.  Sure, there’s a Glossary of Terms so I can look up sauté, but I can’t find what mirepoix or soffrito is or how to make one and why they are important.  I can look up weep and find out what it means, but it doesn’t tell me why it Happens.  And, get this one:  it tells me that a dash is 1/16 of a teaspoon and I can measure out a dash by filling a 1/4 teaspoon measuring spoon 1/4 full.  Seriously?!  If I measure any less than that, I might start splitting atoms and cause a Monumental Explosion.

Ahem.  On to Jessica’s question.  She wants to know if there are, indeed, any cook books out there that teach How to Cook as opposed to just What to Cook.  Aside from my as-yet-unwritten book, of course.

The answer is “yes.”  I will only comment on the books that I own, otherwise I’m not Being Fair.  For some great basic cook books that teach the hows and whys, try:

There might be others, but these are the ones that immediately come to mind.

I must be off now to Clean the House.  We are having some friends over for dinner, and I have made a Yummy Vegetabletarian Meal for them.  Because the wife is a Vegetabletarian, and I am nothing if not Accommodating.  Next up, the Mopping of the Floors and the Cleaning of the Bathrooms.  Yay.

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