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cherries are more patriotic

By on Jul 7, 2013 in baking, dessert, fruit | 1 comment

I needed to make a pie. The farmer’s market was in full swing.  The 4th of July was upon us. If I followed the saying “as American as apple pie,” well… I would be out of luck. You see, this is the Midwest. Apples are still tiny little hard things dangling from craggy branches. Cherries. Cherries are in season. And yes, I could go to the grocery store and find some sad apples that were trucked in from thousands of miles away, but I would rather support my local farmer, and notably cherries are red, and the word “red” is even in our national anthem. Need I say more? Why yes, yes I do. There once was a time in our history where the government actually encouraged people to grow their own food for the greater good of the whole country. Victory Gardens from WWI and WWII. Yes, of course, agribusiness was made very nervous by these, and reportedly they did actually produce as much as the commercial farms when they were in full swing, so they were nervous with good reason. But not so much today. Today agribusiness is definitely at the fore, and it’s not all bad, but I am always disturbed by the lack of variety that is presented to us. Nature is far more a cacophony of choice than the local produce section would have us believe. How many of you knew there are multiple types of strawberries? The only place I have ever seen a differentiation in strawberries is at the farmer’s market, where they are more than happy to tell me about the different varieties and flavor differences. In the produce section? Not so much. Which brings me back to cherries. American cherries, in season, from local farms. Sweet, delicious cherries, which have come into season. They sit, glistening in the sunlight, tempting you in with the promise of their succulent juices. Pale yellow Rainiers, with faint blushes hugging their curves. Deep succulent Bings, winking from their piles, coyly suggesting that you to come and spend a little time on the dark side. And then… the sour cherries. There they sit, radiant and unapologetic, the harlots of the cherry table (if their color is any indication.) If you try one, your eyes will open wide as it grabs your tongue and smacks the inside of your mouth with it. A flavor as aggressive as the stereotypical American tourist, marching loudly into a foreign country, bedecked in socks and sandals, asking in a loud, slow voice “Where are the bathrooms?” Sour cherries are something generally only found at farmer’s markets. You might be able to find them frozen in some supermarkets, or you could always find a can of those gloopy sad things labeled “cherry pie filling.” But you would be doing a disservice to the sour cherry. This definitely takes work, hard work and determination. Having made many an apple pie, I can tell you that prepping for a cherry pie definitely takes more work. But that is what makes it great. And how many of those phrases have you heard when hearing about the American spirit? So go find those sour cherries. Spend the time pitting them (although if you can, I would suggest finding multiple cherry pitters and luring a few people in to help. It should be easy, just tell them there will be pie.) Take the few extra minutes to make your own dough, which is always more delicious, and free of bizarre chemicals and preservatives, and never as terrifying as people seem to think. Add some cornmeal to it, a very American food. Assemble this glorious pie, being thankful we live in a country where there is access to such a thing as these sour cherries, and raise a fork to all the pies that have come before.   Cherries Are More Patriotic Than Apples Pie   The crust (based on the Michael Ruhlman ratio idea, so it is weight-based. If you do not have a kitchen scale, the cup measurements are approximated.)   10 oz. (a scant 2 1/2 c.) Unbleached all-purpose flour 2 oz. (a scant 1/2 c.) medium grind cornmeal 1 tsp. salt 1 Tbsp. sugar 8 oz. (2 sticks, you know you love it) of cold unsalted butter, cut into chunks 4 oz. ice water   Combine flour, cornmeal, salt and sugar in a bowl. Add in the butter. Using two knives or a pastry blender (or your hands, but remember you need to keep this as cold as possible), cut in the butter until it is in about pea-sized chunks. I usually like to stick the bowl in the freezer for ten minutes after this to make sure the butter stays super cold. That is the key to a flaky crust. Add in almost all of the ice water, tossing with a fork. Dough can be somewhat temperamental in how much water goes in, and it’s usually based on the humidity of that particular day. When the dough holds together when you squish it in your hands, you are pretty much good to go. Form it into one mass, adding a hair more water if it’s too dry, or flour if it’s too wet, until you have a cohesive ball of dough. Do this as quickly as possible. Next comes the fun part, because you get to sound all fancy and French, because...

lemony bitchet cookies

By on Jan 8, 2013 in baking, dessert, experimenting, fail... or not | 0 comments

I know, I know… “lemony bitchet cookies? What the heck do you mean?” Well, obviously there is some reference to the delightful children’s books by the fictional Lemony Snicket wherein an unfortunate batch of orphaned siblings battle and endless string of disappointments, but still I know you are thinking, “yes, yes, but isn’t that a rather lame name for a cookie? Isn’t that a little bit much of a stretch?” And I would agree. Except it was catchy sounding and more, shall we say, ‘family-friendly’ than the alternative title I gave them. Which was “When life gives you lemons… well fuck you” cookies. Uncensored. Because who are those three asterisks after the ‘f’ really going to fool? And why, you ask? Well therein lies the story. We all know the phrase “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Which is all well and good, but sometimes it seems that life is more content to fling sacks and sacks of lemons at you all at once, and even the most optimistic people at some point just want to start flinging the lemons back, because frankly that much lemonade is just bad for your dental work. And sometimes those of us who are more on the more cynical/realistic end of things want to yell out obscenities in the face of flying citrus, since all that lemonade was starting to cause cavities. And they made me think of a couple of friends of mine, who shall remain nameless, but suffice to say they had a horrible year in 2012. Flaming lemons aplenty came pouring out of the sky. A series of unfortunate events, if you will. And they are definitely of the ilk to yell obscenities back at the flaming lemons while grabbing them out of the sky and winging them back at high velocity. Yes, this does relate to the cookies, just bear with me. The cookies begat their name on a sort of cold winter’s night (sorry, Mother Nature, but this Wisconsin girl thinks you are cheating Chicago out of another winter.) I needed to make cookies that evoked lady-like airs, or at least what I imagine lady-like airs to be, as I was going to a viewing of Downton Abbey (sidebar: I beg of anyone who has already downloaded and watched the 3rd season, do NOT tell me what goes on. I prefer the mystery.) I had plans for a light and delicate shortbread, laced with lemon zest and a hint of orange blossom liqueur. I would pull out the prettily patterned Swedish cookie stamps I had and imprint them all with a pretty little floral motif. It would be grand. Butter and sugar were whipped together, a hit of vanilla here, another hit of a fancy orange blossom liqueur I had on hand (Koval Orange Blossom Liqueur, it is a fantastic local distillery on the north side of Chicago), a bit of flour, and voila! A simple, succulent little log of cookie dough that was swiftly wrapped and set in the refrigerator to chill. And then I poured myself a glass of wine. This is where things went wrong. Not the wine part. The cookie part. I pulled the log of dough out, and it sliced up just fine and dandy. But then came the stamps. I stamped one into the waiting cookie as it laid innocently on the baking sheet. It smooshed out into an irregular oval, and then decided to exact its revenge upon the cookie stamp by refusing to let go and embed raw dough into the crevices. A small bit of oil was poured out, and a pastry brush deployed to delicately oil the surface of another stamp in an attempt to thwart the clinging phenomenon. Again the oval, and this time a small oil slick, pooling in some vague indentations. Ew. I rummaged around and eventually found the original instructions, which claim you are supposed to warm the damned things first in the oven as it pre-heated. Of course at that very moment the oven dinged, signalling it had finished pre-heating. I took a long, slow pull off of my wine glass and squinted at the cookies. I decided that a more simple form was ultimately more appealing, sponged the offending pooling oil off of the few experimental stampings gone wrong, and shoved the tray in the oven, deciding that the cookie stamps were more lemony than I suspected. I wrote it off to having a Norwegian heritage, and somehow, somewhere, the cookie stamps, which are from Sweden, knew this and decided to mess with me as a part of that age old Scandinavian rivalry. Yes, that’s right, the cookie stamps are sentient. Let’s move on. But of course in the spirit of making lemonade of a lemony situation, I still felt compelled to try something else. Maybe a lovely light icing would do, made with the lemon juice of the very lemon I had just zested to put in the cookie dough. I pulled out some organic powdered sugar, and I will stop right here to say… never buy organic powdered sugar. Maybe it was the brand, maybe it was my distrust of it from the beginning, but seriously? So bad for the icing I was attempting to make, and so unbelievably clumpy and every so slightly pale grey. I dutifully sifted the powdered sugar, and squeezed the lemon in. It turned…...

blackberries and basil

By on Jul 29, 2012 in baking, dessert, dinner, experimenting, fruit | 0 comments

I am deeply suspicious of anyone who claims to know exactly what they want. Is it what they want right then? What they think they are supposed to want? What they wanted ten years ago but never got and are still telling themselves they want it? Does it take into account the myriad situations life throws at you that might make you reconsider everything you know? And if you achieve exactly what you want… what next? And what do you do if you can’t get what you want? Do you listen to the Rolling Stones, who sing that you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need? In the fluidity of our everyday existence, there is always uncertainty. And uncertainty is an excellent pairing for food. Yesterday morning I found myself finally with the time and means to go to the farmer’s market proper (a big one with multiple vendors, not the single farmer that shows up on Sunday mornings a few blocks away who is always appreciated but somewhat lacking). This is my candy store, and I have sorely missed it this summer. I wandered slowly through the aisles, drinking in the sight of piles of fruits and vegetables, hunks of cheese, the giant paint buckets filled with brilliant flowers. I made a lap, even being so lucky as to encounter a dear friend I had not seen in a while, and we made another lap, chatting and soaking in the rarely beautiful summer morning. I had come in search of peaches, one of my favorite summertime finds. I craved the soft orange fruit, the fresh ones off the tree so juicy you have to eat them leaning over a sink. And then my eyes lit upon the darkly glistening rows of blackberries, softly sleeping in their little boxes. At the urging of the farmer, I tried one. You know those moments where something dramatic happens in a movie and there is a quick cut or zoom in to the eye where you see the pupil contract in this act of awe and wonder? It was like that. One bite through the subtly sweet and tart pillow of juiciness that was that blackberry, and I was done. I close my eyes briefly to enjoy and raised up two fingers. “I’ll take two boxes of those, please.” I had recently read this article on NPR and was intrigued. The idea of a foccacia with these coquettish berries was appealing. But of course I couldn’t follow the recipe exactly. So I wandered around the market until I found a few flavors I thought would work with it, and excitedly went home. Sadly, after a triumphant return from the market, laden with summer-warm fruit, that day was still filled with more work, frustration with technology surrounding work, and the nagging sensation of nauseating uncertainty that has been a part of my daily existence as of late. I sat down and perused the NPR recipe again. The dough had to be made the day before. I almost called it off. It almost never happened. But good things can arise from patience, and the part of my brain that is made giddy by the sight of rising dough kicked through the rubble of angst and demanded that I give it a try. And so at 11 o’clock at night, I made the simple slack dough, exactly as prescribed, and shut it away to slowly rise and ferment in the refrigerator. Then the morning came. There were other distractions to be had, like a glorious french press of coffee, and the making of a large quantity of dill pickles (another consequence of wild abandon at the market and a markedly good stress reliever), but eventually it returned to the foccacia. It was made during a time of day that doesn’t know if it should be early or late afternoon, it was uncertain of whether or not it was lunch or a substantial afternoon snack. And then there were the ingredients in question. The article had called for blackberries and rosemary, creating a dish that was neither sweet nor savory. I wanted more. I wanted something that couldn’t decide if it was sweet or savory, and demanded that you listen to its conundrum. Out went the rosemary. In went the basil and goat cheese. It made no sense. Fruit and herbs are not a foreign combination, and that article even had a gin drink using blackberries and basil, but goat cheese? I will eat it on anything, but blackberries? Really? I shut my eyes, breathed in the imagined flavors, and there was a flicker of “well maybe…” and so I tried it. Foccacia born of uncertainty. If worse came to worse, I could pick the toppings off and devour the airy dough. And there it was, a savory golden pillow of foccacia dough pocked with air pockets, gently laiden with fruity olive oil, the sweet yet tart blackberries, heady basil, and gently salty goat cheese. Salt and sugar topped the whole bit off. It was delightful. I sat quietly, enjoying the quiet sourness of a dough risen long and slow, the complex fruity song of the blackberry, the hit of basil that always seems to sneak up into my sinuses, and the welcome creamy salt of the goat cheese. I tried to listen to it, but I...

rise of the popover

By on Jan 24, 2012 in baking, breakfast | 2 comments

After weeks of raising a wary eyebrow to the kitchen, eschewing all self-held beliefs about cooking at home and dining on an endless line of sandwiches from the local sub shop, one morning the cook arises to brilliantly cold winter sunshine. She stands in the kitchen, hair a wild mass, bleary eyes surveying the pile of dishes she neglected to do last night because she did not want to empty out the dish rack. Her eyes raise again to this strange world outside where the world appears full of light and life, and somewhere, deep in the recesses of her brain, there is a click. Dishes get put away, dirty ones get washed, and somewhere in the middle of that the oven gets heated to 425°, and a fresh clean small bowl and whisk are pulled out, and the decision to stop writing her food blog in the third person constantly is thrown out the window. One egg is cracked in, clean fresh-smelling flour is added, a bit of milk, a dash of vanilla, salt, and sugar are swiftly whisked together. Two ramekins are greased up and the batter divided evenly between them, then slid into the hot oven. All of this before I have even had the wherewithal to make coffee. 25 minutes later, there is a delicately sweet scent wafting out of the oven and a gigantic French press of coffee waiting to kick my brain into overdrive for the day. The addition of sugar has added an extra alluring bit of crunch and lusciously deeply browned crust to these delightful morsels, which have exploded to over five times the size of the batter that was poured in. The proof of their airiness is locked in crisply outline bubbles of air along the surface, each cranny holding a promise of how rewarding such a simple assembly of food can be. I pour a generous mug of coffee, adulterating it to my liking, and crack open the popovers, letting forth a glorious cloud of gently sweet steam. In one last run of inspiration, a generous scoop of a Nutella-esque substance (not really Nutella, since it has high fructose corn syrup in it, and this was purchased at a store that will not carry items with HFC in them) is slathered on the steaming halves, melting into impossibly tempting chocolate-y hazelnut puddles that flow into the larger air bubble caverns. If only every morning could be this grand. I really need to cook more. (seriously, how beautiful are they?)   Popovers, just like before (makes 2) note: I have made these before and posted on them, but to save you the search…   1 large egg 1/3 flour 1/3 milk splash vanilla extract (probably only 1/4 tsp., if I was pressed to give an amount) generous pinch salt really generous pinch sugar (again, maybe 1 1/2 tsp., if you want to get all precise) butter for greasing 2 ramekins   Preheat oven to 425°. Generously grease the ramekins. Seriously, don’t be stingy. This makes it so you can just pop those suckers right out as soon as they come out of the oven, and trust me, you want to do this as fast as possible. They start to deflate the second you pull them out of the oven, like a surly souffle. In a small bowl, whisk together the rest of the ingredients until thouroughly combined. If you see lumps, well… then you’re doing it right. Keep whisking, they’ll disappear, I promise. Divide equally amongst the ramekins. Slide into preheated oven and bake for 20-25 minutes. While baking, make some coffee. Have to remeasure the beans for grinding three times because the cruel irony is that you need the coffee to have enough presence of mind to properly measure the coffee will not happen until you actually have the coffee. Be grateful when it appears to be brewing properly. Check on them after 20 through the window. They will have exploded into delightful golden brown clouds. When they are good and golden brown, remove from oven, swiftly run a knife around the edge of the ramekin, and they should just pop right out. Cut in half, being careful while you do, since they will vent a lot of REALLY HOT steam. Top with Nutella-esque stuff, or just butter, or a bit of butter and jam. Eat while drinking sweet glorious...

a pot pie to summon the snow

By on Dec 18, 2011 in baking, dinner, experimenting, love | 0 comments

The calendar clearly says December. For two days a hale crisp chill permeated the atmosphere, and it seemed winter had finally arrived. And then as quickly as it came, it left in favor of strange 40 degree weather that leaves you on edge, unsure if the coat you wear out at 4PM will be heavy enough once the night descends in less than an hour, or if that pair of gloves will even be necessary. No matter. It is still the time of year for pot pie, a giant colorful pile of vegetables swimming in savory herbed sauce, topped off with a decadent layer of flaked pastry goodness. Traditionally this would be a full crust, but this particular cook loves a good biscuit. When done with a little patience, you can produce a biscuit at once light and flaky and dense and doughy, perfectly perched on the delicious melange of vegetables.   It begins with a simple layer of humble cooked potatoes, generously salted and peppered. Carrots and celery are cooked in butter just until they begin to soften, unlocking their deepest flavors. They are removed and left to brood in a warm bowl. More butter is melted and thickly sliced mushrooms are allowed to cook just until they begin to exude their earthy juices. They join the carrots and celery. Another pat of butter is released into the sizzling pan, and onions are added, emitting one of the most savory of perfumes. If you have never cooked an onion in butter, you have been missing out on one of the finer pleasures of life. Flour is added in and allowed to soak in liquidy goodness. Beef broth is poured over and whisked vigorously, then cooked ever so slowly until it begins to thicken. Salt and pepper are added alongside a hit of tarragon. Rehydrated porcinis make their entrance, letting loose an almost primeval earthy scent. After this has simmered down to a saucy form, it is tossed with the vegetables and poured over the patient potatoes. Biscuits are cut out and laid across the top. A brief turn in the oven, and your kitchen is ready for winter. Now if only it would snow. Beef-esque Pot Pie (serves 6-ish) note: I only say beef-esque because the beef broth is the only beefy thing in here. Pot pies tend to be so big and me but one person, I usually just like to load them up with vegetables so I’m eating plenty of those rather than all meat. The excessive amounts of mushrooms are only because I LOVE mushrooms. You could also add a nice cooked turnip, stick with just carrots, celery, onions, and potatoes, or maybe go nuts and add in a bit of kohlrabi or something. the only thing I can imagine not working is greens. Maybe I’m just being stubborn, but I just don’t think greens belong in a pot pie.   Biscuits note: This is a slight shortcut to a technique of making biscuits that will make them have loads of layers and get all super flaky. The basic dough recipe is your basic biscuit recipe, it is how you subsequently handle the dough that makes it flaky. This requires a little planning in advance. Due to the large amount of veggies you have to chop and cook for this recipe, I would suggest working in making the dough around the veggies. If you don’t have the time or patience, totally fine. Just make the dough in advance, and skip the middle rolling and re-chilling part, cut the biscuits, and lay them out on top. It will still be dang tasty. I swear. 6 oz. unbleached white flour (app. 1 1/4 c.) 1/2 tsp. baking soda 1 tsp. baking powder 3/4 tsp. salt 2 oz. (1/2 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into dice 4 oz. (1/2 c.) cold buttermilk (note: if you do not have buttermilk, just use regular, do not add the baking soda, and up the powder to 1 1/2 tsp.)   In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Using a pastry cutter (or two knives) cut in the butter until the dough resembles coarse crumbs. There can be some larger globs of butter, just make sure none are larger than the size of a pea. Pour in the buttermilk and toss everything together with a fork. When all the liquid has been absorbed, gather the dough up into your hands and knead briefly (only a few times, you do not want to work this too much) until it forms a cohesive mass. Pat out into a rectangle about 1″ thick, wrap tightly in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least half an hour. Here is where you can do one of two things. You can leave the dough refrigerated until you are ready to bake, then roll out, cut up, and bake, OR… you can work in a small trick around the rest of the prep. After at least half an hour (preferably an hour, if you have that kind of foresight), remove the dough and unwrap, keeping the plastic wrap. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out into a long rectangle, then fold it in thirds, like you would fold a towel. Roll it back out into a rectangle perpendicular to the folds you just made. Once you have made another long rectangle,...

crispy sweet childhood

By on Dec 6, 2011 in baking, dessert, love | 0 comments

Crispy, buttery sweet dough cradles the dense chew and subtle grassiness of whole oats. Chocolate chips hide coquettishly amongst the oats, batting creamy eyelashes at the small warm bits of pecan that lie sleepily in the nooks and crannies. Joy has already been found in the slicking of the dough from beaters and fingers as haphazard piles of dough, made spiky with the whole oats, get dropped onto a waiting cookie sheet. The joy compounds when the cookies emerge, freshly baked and smelling of happiness, from the oven. There are those who swear by a chewy cookie, those who swear by a crispy, and who am I to argue with either? This is not an adherence to a strict line of cookie ethos. This is an attempt to return to the beloved cookies of my youth, the ones from before I knew about (rudimentary) baking chemistry, real butter, and parchment paper, when all that mattered was that Mom handed over the beaters to slick, and the constant sneaking of bits of raw dough as the cookies got dropped onto the cookie sheet. In my world there are still no better chocolate chip cookies than those. Recently I was reunited with the sacred vessel that held those cookies, a simple ceramic jar that had been on the counter my entire living memory. Even the simple sound of the lifting of the lid (because trust me, that ceramic always scrapes just a little bit… just enough to make it hard to sneak a cookie…) makes me feel like I am eight. There is only one cookie fit enough to be the first batch I stash in here. Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies (this is only a half recipe of the one we made when I was a kid, and it makes a little over 2 dozen, give or take how much you eat raw) 3/4 c. flour 1/2 tsp. baking soda 1/2 tsp. salt 1/2 c (1 stick) butter at room temperature (you do not need fancy pants European cultured butter, but please… it is such a strong flavor, get a good butter, not generic. Good old fashioned Land O’ Lakes is delightful.) 1/2 c. brown sugar 1/4 c. white sugar (small note here… the original recipe calls for a dead even mix of brown and white sugar. I happen to prefer brown, so I tipped the scale and added more brown. Do what you will, just add it up to 3/4 c.) 1 egg 1/2 tsp. vanilla 1 c. oatmeal (NOT the quick-cooking kind… technically you could use it, but they won’t have the same chew. If you live near a food co-op or a Whole Foods, get the regular rolled oats from the bulk bins, which will be cheaper than you think, and OH so very tasty) 1/4 – 1/2 c. chopped pecans (the original recipe had walnuts, I had pecans on hand, or you could dispense with the nuts altogether) 3 oz. semi-sweet chocolate chips   Preheat oven to 350°. Grease or parchment line two baking sheets. Cream butter until fluffy. Add sugars, cream well (until they begin to lighten in color.) Add egg, beat well. Add vanilla, beat well. In a separate bowl, sift together flour, baking soda, and salt. For any who scoff at sifting, likely because you do not have a sifter, I ask you to sift a bit of flour and set it next to unsifted flour. If you don’t see the difference, go turn on the lights or get your eyes checked or something. This DOES make a difference. If you don’t have a sifter, put the ingredients in a mesh sieve over a bowl and tap the sieve until all the stuff has worked through. Then go buy a sifter. With the mixer on low, thoroughly blend in the flour. Remove beaters, give to the person you like best at that moment to slick. This may be you, and that is perfectly all right. Return to the bowl. Add in oats, chips, and nuts (if using) and fold in thoroughly with a spatula. Make sure you get everything mixed in from the bottom of the bowl so you have a fairly even distribution of oats and chips throughout. Drop the dough by tablespoon onto the prepared baking sheets, leaving at least 2″ between them. Bake for 5 minutes, rotate the pans top to bottom, bake for 5-6 more minutes until beautiful and golden brown. Remove immediately to a cooling rack. If you are me and greased the sheets out of some weird irrational childhood nostalgia, curse yourself a thousand times over because you know perfectly damned well your weeny kitchen sink can’t properly fit one of those in to clean it. And now you have two filthy ones. Awesome. Grab a warm cookie and a cold glass of milk. Decide the dishes can wait.  ...