Wednesday, April 29, 2009

On Letting Them Eat Cake

Making a birthday cake is the second-most high-pressure baking assignment there is, second only to the wedding cake (which is once-in-a-lifetime, as opposed to annual). To those who think birthdays are important, the cake is the esteem in which you are held by friends and family expressed in pastry form. If your loved ones buy you a Wal-Mart cake and write your name on it with the ossified candy letters they sell at the grocery store, well, you might as well just curl up and die. I realize that my moral universe vis-a-vis baked goods is warped, but when I step up and offer to make a b-day cake it's going to be PROPER.

Above is the cake I made for my niece Nora's fourteenth, on somewhat short notice. Her desire was for an intensely chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, which was delivered as ordered. Unfortunately, her expectations for greatness have been permanently and unfairly raised by the replica Titanic cake we designed, built together and delivered to her class at school several years ago, a flour-and-butter monstrosity that was heavy enough to have served as an anchor on the ship in whose image it was baked. Compared to that one, this cake was fairly pedestrian in appearance, but it tasted OK. I always beat myself up over the gulf in textural moistness between scratch cakes and box cakes. The latter tend to be designed for pure deliciousness rather than the ability of the cake to stand up to vigorous decorating. Box cakes taste awesome but tend to tear and fall apart if you try to spread real buttercream on them. What can you do? If we can put a man on the moon, you'd think this troubling conundrum would be solvable. Maybe Obama can throw some TARP money at cakes.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Pizza: Homemade vs. Delivered

I've been making my own pizza for a long time- more than ten years. This isn't because I'm a crazy-ambitious home cook who makes everything harder than it needs to be (I am) or because I like to look smugly down my nose at others with less time and kitchen-savvy as they funnel their dollars into the pizza-industrial complex (I do). It's because I took a cooking class at a local shop on the subject of pizza, a class that empowered me to DIY the pie from then on. This is principally due to cheapness. Pizza is one of those foods that is, I suspect, marked up astronomically, and that orderers are charged a premium for the alchemical combination of flour, yeast, tomatoes and cheese and the subsequent delivery of same. Factoring in travel time, homemade pizza (with dough made from scratch) doesn't take that much longer than delivered.

Over the years, my recipe has acquired a few tweaks, most notably the substitution of specialty pizza flour for bread flour (which works fine, but yields stiffer/less elastic dough). But it's essentially the same recipe I scored over a decade ago at Orange Tree Imports. I use 6-In-1 ground tomatoes straight from the can as my sauce and top it with whatever appeals - here, pepperoni. I had to splash out for a baking stone and wooden peel which paid for themselves very quickly in conserved 'za expenditures. It makes for a very easy and interactive dinner party at which guests are easily impressed by homemade dough. All would be dandy in the pizza department chez dudes if only the dudes themselves would abandon their fixation on "delivered pizza", their conviction that it is superior in every way and that the sight of a beat-up 1992 Accord with a light-up delivery sign on the roof pulling into our driveway is cause for delirious celebration.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Vegetables On Parade

When I was a kid, a "balanced meal" included one of each of the following:

A Meat/Protein: some of my mom's standards included oven-baked chicken, filet mignon wrapped in bacon (watch out for the toothpick!), meat loaf, burgers, kielbasa, and the occasional beef stew.

A Vegetable: salad, or some frozen or boil-in-bag. When fresh, broccoli or brussels sprouts (which I liked as a kid - SO???), corn on the cob, nothing too exotic. And the final and most controversial category in my household:

A Starch. That would entail some kind of rice or noodles or potato, generally. My husband insists that this is NOT a category of food, but I think that most kids growing up in regular Seventies families are familiar with the notion of the Starch Course. His own parents were quite young and hippie-ish and he actually got to eat things like fresh beets as a kid. I've recently been trying to re-calibrate my meal paradigm so that the meat is not the main event, for nutritious and environmental reasons. I'm finding myself preparing meals like the one pictured above, in which one or two fairly elaborate vegetable dishes take center stage. What you see here is a cabbage gratin made with Gruyere cheese, shown on the plate alongside some sauteed kale, a standby in our diet. My kale is not perfect - I make it with two slices of bacon - but I like to think the overall result is more halo than devil-horns from a dietary standpoint.

I'm actively looking for good vegetable recipes. It's all too easy to just saute or roast with olive oil and salt and just let the variegated flavors of the vegetables stand out in their delicious simplicity. Okay, that doesn't sound so bad, right? But a little variety never hurt anybody, and my CSA box is going to start arriving one of these days. So if any of my numerous readers have good veg recipes to share, please do. I'm particularly looking for a vegetable curry that will rock my socks off.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Easter Baking: The Only Acceptable Use for Pastels

The poorly-focused snap above depicts the cupcakes I was requested to bring to my in-laws' family Easter gathering. I have a well-documented (by me) love-hate relationship with the cupcake. I love it as food, I hate it as pop-cultural phenomenon replacing chocolate/kitty cats/painful shoes as the go-to emblem for Things That Make Women Act Irrationally. When assigned the cupcake project for Easter, I naturally made things more difficult than they needed to be by (a) making the cakes from scratch, (b) frosting them with a cooked Swiss meringue buttercream, and (c) decorating them in a floral theme with lots of colors. Frosting flowers get a pass from me when it comes to my general dislike of food that's been manipulated to look like something else. Maybe because one is exposed to the icing flower at such a young age that it seems only natural that sweetened butter should be extruded through a metal tip and made to look like the sexual organ of a plant. Why not?

Pastel colors are one of the spring phenomena that irritate me. Notwithstanding the fact that the brown of mud and earth is the real predominant color of spring, clothing and other retailers seem to think that rising temps will cause us all to take leave of our senses and want to wear things like pale-yellow pants and baby-pink sweater sets. For the love of Pete, I just want to wear grey and aubergine all year long. Is that so much to ask? That said, pastel makes a dandy color scheme for cake frosting. A light touch with the food coloring is, I think, leaps and bounds more appetizing than the alternative, and has the added advantage of not discoloring one's teeth. These cupcakes were a modest hit. The centers of the sunflowers are made with wee chocolate chips. Only one guest REFUSED A CUPCAKE, claiming she "doesn't like chocolate cake." What next? She doesn't like puppies and sunshine? Puh-leeze. I've got your number, great-grandma Lois. You WILL eat one of my cupcakes. (cue sinister laughter)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

On Being An Adventurous Eater

When I was about nine years old, my parents took our family to a restaurant in Boston called Durgin Park. As the story goes, I asked if I could order the leg of lamb off the menu. My mother said, "Absolutely not. She'll never eat the whole thing." And my father, probably with some sort of twinkle in his eye, said, "Let her order it. She'll eat it." And so I ordered it, and ate the whole thing. This anecdote is trotted out as proof that I've always been an adventurous eater, eager to try new things. My memory corroborates this; I recall being taken to the Candlewood Inn for our annual fancy dinner out, at which I invariably ordered a lobster, and requesting Perrier with my meal. Why? Because it had an aura of chic glamour about it. The word, "Perrier," with its French pronunciation, and the drink itself in its distinctive green bottle.

I'm trying to raise Oscar and Ike to have curious palates, or at least to be game to try just about anything. Oscar is being conditioned like a child in a gustatory Skinner box to have a slightly broader food-horizon than most kids his age, but Ike seems to have a genuine gourmet streak. At the grocery store recently, he spotted a display of enormous globe artichokes on sale and immediately seized one, requesting it as his "treat." When asked if he had ever eaten an artichoke before, he responded, "Yes! You dip the leaves in melted butter and scrape off the white part with your teeth!" I think he may have even pantomimed the consumption of an artichoke leaf right there in the produce section. (I suspect he was given one on a recent trip to visit my mother, who likes a good 'choke.) So we brought the thing home.

I had to consult the helpful diagrams in my ever-more-warped copy of "Joy Of Cooking" to dismantle the thing preparatory to steaming it. An artichoke, as it turns out, is a type of thistle. It has to be extensively defanged before you can even think of ingesting it. This one had a lot of fight in it. Once the beast was trimmed and de-choked, I steamed it and served it to the boy with a teacup full of melted butter. He was happy. This will likely become the incident we talk about years from now when we are discussing the early indications that Ike, the James Beard Award-winning chef, had an innate interest in food. We hope.

Saturday, April 11, 2009


The not-terribly-picturesque tableau you see above is the top of my stove (known by, I think, elderly women as the "range") on a typical weekend afternoon. I usually spend the first day of any weekend trying to undo the chaos that has entropically overwhelmed the house during the week, and the second day cooking all manner of random foodstuffs to make up for neglecting my family over the course of the previous five days. Particularly during the winter months I hole up in the kitchen, giving myself an excuse to stand next to a hot stove. From left to right you see: the dough for the loaf of whole-wheat bread that's meant for the evening's dinner; a pot of chicken stock for the evening's soup; and a batch of pretzel dough for my second attempt at replicating the soft pretzels one buys from carts and stadium vendors. My house was warm and smelled good all day. I haven't posted in a couple of weeks for no real good reason, but I'm going to try and catch up soon. I have a mental queue of cooking projects, much like a Netflix queue but with food. My projected lineup includes dishes featuring squid and rabbit (not at the same time), something with a moleh sauce (I don't know how to do accents, so that's my phonetic spelling), chicken doro wat (an African dish), etc etc. If you asked my kids, they might consider these things more threats than menus. I apologize for any typos in this post - I was chopping collards for dinner this evening and nearly took my right index finger clean off. Not to get into too much graphic detail, but the fingernail is hacked just about in half. The entire bloody business is now mummified in three foamy "sport" bandages, creating a blunt instrument with which to tap out hy rapier-sharp prose. Hah! (yes, this was a boring post. mea culpa. better ones to follow.)