Sunday, July 3, 2011

Adventure: Four kinds of flour

At 2 p.m. today, it suddenly dawned on Carl and I that tomorrow is the Fourth of July and we had no food plans.


But, having hankered after fried chicken for two weeks, the main course was a given. I pulled out two recipes: the fabulous buttermilk fried chicken from friend and amazing cook, Ann, and a "classic" fried chicken recipe from a magazine. In the meantime, Carl decided he wanted homemade bread. Shortly thereafter, we also stumbled across a recipe for root beer cake, which we had to try. 

As we looked over the recipes, we an essential ingredient we were missing: flour.

And, not just flour, but three different kinds: all-purpose (root beer cake), bread (traditional white bread) and self-rising (fried chicken).

Now, it just so happens that several months ago, we ended up buying cake flour for a now-forgotten recipe, poured it into our big container and forgot to label it. The next time Carl made pie crust, it was dense and crumbly, without the long, thin flakiness for which pie crust is known. It was a lesson in the differences between cake flour and all-purpose flour, for which most pie crust recipes call.

So, today when we realized all of the recipes called for different types of flour, we knew we needed to actually follow those directions.

Each flour is ideal in certain situations. The New Food Lover's Companion denotes the distinct makeup and characteristics of each kind of flour: all-purpose flour is a blend of high gluten hard wheat and low gluten soft wheat blend; bread flour, in addition to a higher gluten content, also contains malted barley flour to increase yeast activity and vitamin C to increase gluten elasticity and the dough's gas retention; cake flour has a softer texture and lower gluten, but with a high starch content; self-rising flour is all-purpose flour with salt and baking powder added.

While using the wrong flour won't, in general, completely ruin your dish, as Carl's cake flour-pie crust showed, the recipes do not turn out exactly the way you would wish. The cake flour is labeled now.

The results from our Fourth of July meal brainstorming are three new bags of flour, one loaf of homemade bread, and this:
Root beer cake
Today's lesson: When you don't have a cake plate, a large turkey roaster works perfectly well.

Find the recipe for root beer cake here.

Happy Fourth of July!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Tradition: Ravioli with spinach-tomato sauce

The spinach, tomatoes and basil complimented the cheese ravioli nicely.
Okay, the meal might not be entirely a tradition, although my college roommate and I certainly ate enough refrigerated ravioli to make it one.

Unless you make it yourself, pasta is pasta, as far as I am concerned. What sets it apart is the sauce.

Now, I've made some mean spaghetti sauces in my day, including one when I was a teenager that basically includes large chunks of whatever fresh vegetables we had lying around and a can of chunked tomatoes, spiced up with some herbs and a pinch of cinnamon. It was good, I promise.

Last night, having realized that I recently bought two packages of pasta and no sauce, Carl and I got creative.

What we ended up with was a spinach-tomato sauce that complimented the cheese ravioli perfectly. It also went nicely with Newcastle.

Spinach-tomato pasta sauce:

Dice half a small onion and a couple large cloves of garlic and saute in a bit of olive oil until the onions are clear.

Using your kitchen shears, cut apart whole tomatoes. One can is enough, depending on how much you like tomatoes. Add the tomatoes to the pan with the onions and garlic.

In the meantime, put a package of frozen spinach in the microwave to thaw. Two minutes or slightly more should be enough. Empty the package into a clean dishcloth (preferably not white!) and squeeze the water out of the spinach. Add to the pan.

Add a fourth of a cup of fresh, chopped basil, a teaspoon dried oregano, a fourth of a teaspoon salt, a fourth of a teaspoon pepper, a pinch of nutmeg and a small pinch of sugar.

Add a teaspoon of capers, with liquid.

Add about a cup of water (more if necessary), bring to a boil, then lower the temperature, cover and simmer for 10 minutes.

In the meantime, cook the pasta. By the time it is finished, the sauce should be ready.

Add fresh parmesan as a topping.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Adventure: Acorn squash

When Carl and I got married, his dislike of bell peppers and sweet potatoes were high on my list of things I was unhappy about (it was a short list).
Two and a half years later, he’s conceded that sweet potatoes are good if roasted with salt, pepper and a little olive oil instead of covered in sugar and marshmallows, and even bell peppers are edible if cooked.
But, one of the biggest concessions – even bigger than that kale now appears regularly on our table – is squash. Acorn, spaghetti, butternut or pumpkin, winter squash is a fun and tasty vegetable just perfect for cool evenings.
Carl has never been quite sure though.
The first time I fixed acorn squash and served it, he looked skeptical, especially when he saw me spoon a little honey over top. He chose to try it with a little salt and butter and a lot of pepper, his face slowly changing from dubious to neutral to not-quite-happy-but-far-from-disgust. “Hey,” he said. “This isn’t too bad.”
A slight victory, perhaps, but a victory nonetheless.

If you look at an acorn squash in bewilderment, here’s how to cook it:
Cut it in half from top to bottom using a large, sharp knife. It’s a bit like cutting a melon, except the squash is a lot denser.
Put the two halves, cut-side down, in a microwavable dish. I use a 9x9 glass baking dish.
Add just a bit of water to the dish. A fourth to a half of a cup should do it.
Cover the pan lightly. If you use plastic wrap, be sure to leave a corner slightly open so the steam can escape.
Microwave for about 12 minutes. The flesh of the squash should be tender and easy to mash with a fork when done.
Add a bit of salt, pepper and butter or butter and honey (or brown sugar) and eat straight out of the shell. 

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Tradition: Cast-iron skillets

I admit, I wouldn't know how to make several dishes without my cast-iron skillet.

German pizza, sausage, breakfast steaks and spaghetti sauce all necessitate Carl and I pulling out the cast-iron.

But, the main item that just isn't the same without a cast-iron skillet is cornbread.

No matter what kind, the trick is to put a thin layer of vegetable oil in the bottom of your cast-iron skillet and put the skillet in the oven while it pre-heats.

Once the oven is hot, take out the pan (remember the handle is hot!), and carefully pour your batter into the hot oil.  Put the skillet directly back into the oven and set your timer.

It comes out beautifully crisp on all sides and wonderfully moist inside.

And, the best part is, the oil helps keep your cast-iron skillet in top shape.

I learned when I was young that proudly showing Mom the cast-iron skillet I scrubbed and scrubbed at meant I was in trouble. Funnily enough, Mom has a similar story of the time she worked and worked to get all that built-on grease out of Boo Boo's iron skillet.

In case you have a child who is so proud of having "helped" or new to the iron skillet world, here's what you need to know about seasoning your skillet.

Lightly coat the entire skillet with vegetable oil and wipe out the excess. Put your skillet upside down in a 250 degree oven for 20 to 30 minutes. Let it cool, then repeat the process three more times.

Don't clean your skillets too aggressively. A nice layer of grease is what gives cast-iron skillet cooking its distinctive flavoring. Instead of soap and steel wool, use sea salt for any stuck-on food. Otherwise, just use hot water and rinse well.

Once clean, wipe a thin layer of oil on the inside of the skillet to keep it from rusting. If you have a lid, store the skillet with the lid askew so the pots can breathe.

Adventure: Maple syrup brunch

Looks tasty, but ended with maple syrup overload.
Carl and I got ambitious this morning thanks to our latest Food Network magazine and a half- bottle of pure maple syrup in the 'fridge.

You see, last spring, the magazine included a recipe for Maple Oatmeal Scones, which sounded delicious. In October, they included Spiced Maple Sausage, which also sounded pretty good. So, since we had the maple syrup, we decided, why not?

On a side note, when I was in Germany, I attempted to explain biscuits to my Scottish and Irish friends by explaining that they were similar to scones. They aren't really. Scones and biscuits have entirely different textures. But, they sort of look the same. And, it is really hard to explain biscuits to someone for whom that word means "cookie."

But, back to brunch.

While tasty, the meal ended in maple syrup overload.

Unlike biscuits, the scones were much drier and more crumbly. They sort of fell apart in an almost cake sort of way. We made a powdered sugar, maple syrup and vanilla glaze to spoon over the top, then sprinkled a few oats on that. I liked the oats. It made them look healthy.
Before baking, we brushed the scones with an egg and milk mixture.
The sausage was where we went wrong. The original recipe called for 1 3/4 pounds of pork sausage. We only had one pound and that conversion gets a little sticky. What ended up happening is that not all the ingredients, including the maple syrup, got cut as they should have.

After you mix all the ingredients, including the maple syrup into the sausage and cook it, it ends up concentrating the syrup. Since we had too much in the meat, that was not a good thing. The end result was too sweet, and with nothing savory to contrast, the whole meal just didn't quite come together.

Never mind, though. We will try again another day.

After all, the scones were delicious!

If you want to try them for yourself, the recipes are here: Maple Oatmeal Scones and Spiced Maple Sausage Patties.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Tradition: Pantry meals

A regular occurrence at our house is pantry meals. You know, the type of meals that you throw together out of whatever you have in the pantry because you haven't gone to the grocery store in awhile and/or it is too late to make anything too complex.

The other night, this ended with pantry enchiladas.

First, you have to understand, they aren't exactly enchiladas. And, they weren't entirely from the pantry either, although if I hadn't had left-over rotisserie chicken in the 'fridge, they would have been.

Here's what you do:

Mix chicken (about 1 1/2 to 2 cups of shredded left-over chicken or one large can, drained) with a can of some sort of cream soup. I used mushroom the other night, but cream of chicken is a good option.

Add about a cup of any of the following: small can of diced green chili peppers, small can of diced tomatoes (drained), canned or frozen corn, canned or frozen green beans, etc. Really whatever vegetable-like item you have will work, including spinach (If frozen, thaw in microwave, then squeeze out as much liquid as possible first). A drained can of Ro-tel adds a nice kick.

Then, add lots of grated cheese. At least a cup and more, depending on how much other stuff you have added. Use your judgement.

Spoon the mixture into the middle of large tortillas and fold over like a taco. Put enough in there to fill it out well, but not so much that it immediately squirts out the sides.

Put the tortillas on a cookie sheet with a raised edge and bake in a 350-degree over for about 10 minutes.

Top with salsa and sour cream.

The entire process takes about 20 minutes and that recipe will serve fill about three large tortillas.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Adventure: Blintzes

These lovely concoctions are blintzes, which we made for the first time Sunday. Basically, they are crepes with a cheese-based filling inside. It reminded me of the cheese-filled pastas at cheap Italian restaurants.

In other words, tasty.

Carl and I love crepes, so when faced with the prospect of filling a crepe with cheese, we were excited.

We had a recipe, but, as usual, ended up improvising. Turns out, farmer's cheese just isn't a staple food item for us. It's a type of cottage cheese from which most of the liquid has been pressed out, according to my handy Food Lover's Companion.

Okay, we said, we're hungry. What DO we have? The answer was Neufchatel, a softer type of cream cheese. Not the same, but it has worked quite well in creamy eggs recipes before, so we tried it.

At first, as Carl blended the cheese with a couple of eggs, it looked like it could be a disaster. But, the eggs helped the mixture firm up considerably once we cooked it, and the soft cheese gave the filling a nice texture.

Meanwhile, I was making the crepes. I inherited/claimed a crepe pan from my mom minutes before it was consigned to the garage sale box several years ago. She has no idea how much I have used that pan. It's a metal pan with some sort of coating that makes it extraordinarily non-stick. It fries beautiful crepes.

Once the crepes and the filling are both cooked, you put some filling in the middle of the crepe and fold it up like a burrito. Then, you fry it again until it crisps up a bit.

We topped ours with various jams, our favorites being apricot, which brought out the tartness of the lemon zest in the filling, and a jalapeno-blueberry that Carl puts on everything.

As always, we made too many even though we cut the recipe by a third. But, not to worry, you can re-fry them again the next morning. They were just as good today topped with the strawberries we froze last spring!


3 eggs
1 3/4 c milk
1 c flour
4 tbsn melted butter
Pinch of salt

Mix with a hand-mixer until smooth.
Pour about 1/4 of a cup of batter into a medium-hot non-stick pan, making sure to tilt the pan a bit to spread the batter out as thin as possible. Cook until set (this batter doesn't bubble as much as pancake batter, so watch it closely), then flip and cook just until slightly browned (literally 20 or 30 seconds).

1 8-oz package Neufchatel cheese
2 eggs
3 tbsn powdered sugar (or a little less)
Zest of one lemon
Cinnamon (how much do you like cinnamon? Add that much.)

Mix together, then cook like scrambled eggs, until the mixture thickens. It will look a bit like Ricotta cheese.
Spoon the mixture into the center of the crepes, and fold like a burrito.
Brush a little egg white onto the last fold, and fry in a hot buttered skillet, folded side down first, until crisp.
Top with jam, jelly, preserves or fresh fruit or whatever else you think would be good.

You can alter the recipe by adding herbs instead of the powdered sugar, lemon zest and cinnamon, to make it more savory instead of sweet.

To warm them back up, just re-fry in a buttered, non-stick skillet. I used a slightly lower temperature so as to warm the filling without burning the outside.