Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Hurricane Sandy by the numbers

During Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath, I made the following:

32 tomato-mozarella-olive skewers (eyeball skewers for potluck)
16 brownies
13 pumpkin muffins
3 small loaves of bread
1 pizza
1 batch of pumpkin seeds
1 pumpkin, carved

Achieved only because we were extremely fortunate and never lost power. The lights flickered a few times, and rain absolutely drenched our area for probably 48 hours straight, but at least we are not contending with 7-10 day outages like some people in my family who dealt with Sandy in central NJ.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Crockpot

Yes, we have discovered the crock pot.

I have never owned a crock pot in my life; however I fortunately married a man whose mother allows none of her children to leave home crock-pot-less. Therefore, we are the proud owners of one large hunter camo print crock pot. There's something about the deep woods camo that just screams "I am delicious!"

Because the crock pot definitely does make delicious foods. Its first use was for some pulled chicken, made for a football viewing party. It turned out deeeeeelicious and it stayed hot the whole time! Easy peasy. Thus, I am using it again for the crockpot pulled chicken to be served on delightfully soft potato rolls.

This was a boring post. I'll just link to the recipe here: http://www.food.com/recipe/pulled-chicken-sandwiches-crock-pot-242547


Saturday, September 8, 2012

Cooking Adventures of Late

As my (few) readers have reminded me, I am terrible at blogging. So consider this a peace offering, Stacy G. and LB!

1. My new go-to chocolate chip cookie recipe: A bastardization of the Cook's Illustrated cookie recipe, in which I swap out the 2 tsp of vanilla extract for 1 tsp vanilla extract + 1 tsp coffee emulsion. It's very good, consistently reliable, and easy to clean up. My friends have come to expect these cookies at every social gathering and I have also mastered the art of saving just enough dough for an emergency batch when my husband inevitably mentions how much he likes cookies two or three days after the fact.  Actually, the best part about these cookies is that they achieve my desired shape - sort of a cross between the humble homemade chunkiness and the beautiful, rolling undulations of a Mrs. Fields' classic.

2. Soup: Over the last couple months I've made a gigantic batch of soup on several occasions, which have fed us for about a week. T. loves soup of any kind so this works well whenever I have some kind of bone-in cut of meat that I need to use up - whether that be spare ribs, split chicken breasts, etc. Good additions: chopped bok choy, chopped carrot, chopped onion. I have actually taken a page from Kevin Malone's book - has anyone seen that episode of The Office where he talks about his chili recipe and how the secret is to undercook the onions, so that "everyone gets to know each other in the pot"? Lately I've wondered if cooking the onions to the usual point of translucency isn't evaporating all of the nice onion flavor, so I've taken to slightly undercooking them before adding them to [soup, chili, tomato sauce, whatever]. I think it does give a slight flavor boost. Thanks, writers of The Office.

3. Carrot cake: For a co-worker leaving on a temporary detail, I made a carrot cake using a recipe from the Smitten Kitchen (here). It was AWESOME. Wonderfully moist and flavorful. Many rave reviews. I did not use the (usually controversial) raisins and walnuts and I don't think the cake suffered for it.

4. Speaking of raisins: I love raisins and I love oatmeal raisin cookies. However, when I make them now I have to save half of the dough and use chocolate chips instead of raisins, because T. hates raisins with a fiery passion.

5.  A new fridge: I have a plan. The plan is to buy a refrigerator for the basement (the kind with the top freezer). The reasons for this plan? Although I have a perfectly good refrigerator upstairs, one that I like very much with all sorts of fancy drawers and shelves and a built-in icemaker/water cooler thingy, it is a side-by-side refrigerator. I actually prefer this configuration for everyday fridgery, because I absolutely hate the french door style where you have to open BOTH doors to see what you have and I don't like the deep pile-up that inevitably builds when you have a box freezer.  However, the drawback of a side-by-side refrigerator is that you don't have width enough for a full 9x13 sheet pan overflowing with cake and frosting - or if you do, you have to clear off an entire shelf of half-used ketchup bottles and lonely forgotten about dressings and yogurts you bought on sale for $.39. Thus, the basement fridge will provide the much-yearned for space to allow large-scale baking projects and my bread/pizza dough, which needs to live in a big ol' bucket that won't fit in my current refrigerator. Also, we can store sodas and beers there so they don't take up a lot of unnecessary room in the everyday refrigerator. Also, we can store ice cream and ice packs in the freezer down there. It's a win-win.

That's all for now, I think. I am sure that I had many other culinary projects over the last few weeks (months?) but I can't recall them right now. Hopefully I will update this more frequently and it will actually fulfill its purpose of becoming a recipe journal instead of a sad, ancient archive of what once was.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Update on the Experiment

In a word: FAIL.

While the cakes puffed up somewhat nicely, and burnished to a nice golden-brown on top, they were fused to the muffin tins like someone had mortared them in there. I had considered greasing the tins, and/or using liners, but there was enough butter in the batter (ha!) that I thought I'd be OK. Well, I thought wrong.

It took me the better part of an hour to remove, chunk by chunk, the weird little puffs from each well, and then soak and scrape and soak and scrape, repeat x3, until my muffin tins were clean. My frugal little heart wept: all that batter, wasted!

Lesson learned: no matter how much butter is in the batter (ha!), grease the dang pan.


Saturday, May 19, 2012

A Tale of No Waffles

OK, so. This should be a lesson to you all.

Last night I got a hankering for some waffles, and turned to the always-trustworthy Molly and her recipe for Marion Cunningham's yeasted waffles. I sprinkled the yeast, scooped the flour, mixed the batter, and covered the bowl with plastic wrap. Easy peasy, macaroni-and-cheesy.

Except when I went to go get the waffle iron (I planned to set it out on the counter so that tomorrow I would not have to move around a bunch of pots and pans looking for it), I couldn't find it. It was GONE.

I searched every cabinet, every closet, and the basement. I still can't believe that it's not here. We recently moved and I felt sure that I had not given it away...or had I? Perhaps I gave it to my mom? Maybe it somehow fell off the back of the truck? Where art thou, waffle iron?

The missing-in-action waffle iron was a relic of the mid-nineties, given as a gift to my mother and used first by her and then by me once I moved out and appropriated it. It was a Betty Crocker automatic Belgian-waffle maker and it did a pretty good job. Notice that I speak in the past tense, because that waffle iron is nowhere to be found and I've already bidden it a mental adieu.

But! I had a huge bowl of waffle batter resting on the counter? Whatever was I to do?

Well, this morning, instead of letting the batter go to waste, I fired up the stove with a griddle pan (received as a wedding gift and never used until now, because we finally! have a gas stove, stirred in the eggs and baking soda as directed, and drizzled the batter into rounds that weirdly ran along the pan and turned instead to balloon-shapes. They did not rise or puff like normal pancakes, but they sizzled pleasantly and turned a beautiful golden brown. They were also an easy dream to flip. I took my first skeptical bite and...CREPE!!

Yes, that is what I ended up making. Although they are thicker than a traditional crepe, a little more savory (from the yeast) and not quite as lacy-delicate, they had that undeniably eggy, custardy, crepe-y taste. T. loved them and said that if I ever want to make crepes I should just use this recipe.

Not one to leave well enough alone, I realized that the volume of batter needed to make waffles far exceeds the volume of batter to make crepes. So I cooked a few more and then...poured spoonfuls of the batter into a non-stick muffin tin.

The muffin tin is now in the oven. I am following a rough version of the baking instructions for popovers, since this thin batter reminds me of pop-over batter (so I started them at 400 and after 15 minutes turned down to 350. I suppose I should have started them in a cold oven? But too late now). I am watching them like a hawk...they've started to puff up and the tops are browning, but I still see the unmistakable quiver of custard around the edges.

I'm not really sure what's going to happen with these...I sort of have the vague inclination that they'll be something like puffy biscuits? Or less popped popovers? Or those little tasty cake things you can buy from the street vendors in Chinatown (although I guess I should have used coconut milk if I was going for that)?

Who knows. Stay tuned! It's a culinary adventure!!

PS: The pot roast turned out great. I ended up putting it in the fridge and then cooking it stovetop for an hour the day of, and the juices and fat sort of reduced down and made a tasty sauce. With the same wine I had used in the sauce, it was fabulous over boiled potatoes.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Fly-by-the-seat-of-my-Pot Roast

My frugality sometimes works in mysterious ways.

See, e.g.: last night. The scene: Giant (chosen because of its proximity to Lowe's). The mission: buy supplementary ingredients for pho. One of our friends generously gifted us an entire pot of leftover pho broth, and I already had noodles and lemons (not limes, but the lemons were way cheaper) at home. So all I needed: bean sprouts, scallions, and meat.

The meat was what got to me. They didn't have the kind that I normally buy. I don't know the name of it; I just look and poke at all the cuts of beef until I find one that kinda sorta looks like what I normally use. If you slice it thin enough it doesn't matter anyway.

Well, the only beef that was on sale at Giant was Bottom Round Roast. Like, 3 lbs. And they were priced at $3.49/lb, which isn't the best deal ever, but certainly better than the $6.99/lb sirloin that was on the next shelf up.

So I ended up buying the roast and shaving off some thin slices for us to eat with pho, and that worked great. But then! I decided that I would actually roast the roast. I rubbed it all over with salt, pepper, and some garlic powder, and put it in a plastic bag with four cloves of peeled garlic, several generous dashes of Worcestershire sauce, and about a half cup of water. Then I stuck it in the fridge.

Then, on my way home from work today I stopped and bought a bottle of merlot (Hayes Ranch, a good wine for a good price). I got home, popped it open and poured myself a glass while I got to work on tomorrow's dinner. Yes, that is right. Because pot roast takes forever to cook.

I browned the roast on all sides and then poured the marinade (such as it was) into the pan to deglaze. Then I glugged in probably a good 1/2 or 3/4 cup of the wine. Then I stuck the whole thing in the oven, where it has been sitting happily for the last two hours. I'm going to give it another hour I think. But I started it at 375 for about an hour; reduced to 350 for another 45 minutes; then covered it and reduced to 200. We'll see how this goes; part of me says that anything with wine that sits in the oven for that long is bound to be good. The other part of me says "What were you thinking to combine Worcestershire and merlot!?"

Cross your fingers that we don't have to order pizza tomorrow!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

A Daring Substitution

I have cinnamon raisin bread dough (hopefully) rising in a cold oven right now and I did something bad. I subbed half-and-half for milk.

Now, I have played fast and loose with the liquids called for in various recipes before. I've subbed soy and/or almond milk for regular milk in scones to no ill effect (and actually I might have made it a bit more vanilla-y, since the almond milk was vanilla flavored). I've also subbed different milks (skim for whole) and have not noticed a detrimental effect.

However, half-and-half is another beast. The fat content is higher, so it could actually affect whatever magical chemistry is going on in my bread. To make matters worse, I only had 1 cup of half-and-half and the recipe called for 1 1/2 cups. So (instead of waiting until I had all the right ingredients, like normal people do) I scaled the entire recipe down by a third, resulting in odd measurements like 5 1/3 cups flour, etc. I've heard that bread recipes don't always scale or halve well, but I crossed my fingers and threw caution (and flour) to the wind. Besides, if I hadn't used that half-and-half by today it probably would have been on its way to funkytown (anyone recognize the quote?). So I HAD to use it.

I've got probably another hour of rise to go so we'll see what happens. For some reason I got a bug in my head about raisin bread and all I wanted was raisin bread and holy cow Pepperidge Farm raising bread is like $3.99 at the grocery store and I can do better than that and look the special baking raisins are on sale for a dollar and...well...turning and turning in the widening gyre, I suppose.

Wish me luck! I will report back (if I remember) on the results of this daring substitution.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Trust the truss

The other day I roasted a chicken. Incidentally, it is the same chicken that my husband is currently gnawing on. We ate pretty much all of it but there's still a carcass, so there you go.

Anyway, to get back on topic, I tried to truss the chicken. The chicken I tried to truss. But though I tried to truss the chicken, the chicken made a fuss and did not truss.


I watched a video made by Michael Ruhlman, starring Chef Brian Polcyn from Detroit, in which he very succinctly and matter-of-factly explained and demonstrating superb chicken trussing technique. Despite this excellent instruction, I failed. Here are the reasons:

1) I did not have enough twine. Strictly speaking, I did not have any twine. What I DID have was a "Roast Lifter" purchased from the post-Thanksgiving clearance bin and made on nothing but some twine fastened with plastic. Supposedly, you lay this contraption in your roasting pan, place your turkey upon it, and hey presto, four hours later you can remove the turkey from the pan with ease. I have my doubts about this "E-Z No-Mess" device, but will never get to test it out because I unceremoniously snipped the plastic off and was left with nothing but a few six-inch pieces of twine that were ridiculously eager to unravel.

2) My chicken was really fat in the breast and really puny in the leg. The correct method of trussing is to tie the legs, crossed over the tail (and cavity) of the chicken, in order to draw the entire bird into a more consistent shape that allows for even cooking. However, my lack of twine meant that all I could do was tie the legs together, shove them downward (and keep doing so, as they resisted my efforts by popping up now and again) and hope for the best. I did tuck the wings underneath the breast, but they migrated outwards during cooking.

Now, all that said, I used Thomas Keller's excellent recipe for roast chicken (salt and pepper a chicken; roast) and it turned out beautifully, defunct truss and all. We enjoyed the bounty for several days and the carcass is now to become stock. But I still have the truss on my mind and, provided I find a ball of butcher's twine for a decent price, next time, OH NEXT TIME, I will conquer. Truss me.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Also known as, why didn't I think of this before?

Some of you may know that I am an extremely frugal in an extremely odd way. I am not averse to the spending of money; I am averse to the spending of TOO MUCH money on any one particular item. I will not ever buy a shirt for $60. But I will buy ten shirts at $6 each. That's just the way I am.

I am the same way with grocery shopping. Aside from a few staples, I don't ever buy food that isn't "on sale." In fact, once when I was a little kid, I asked my mom at the store if we could buy a box of cereal (I forget which kind). She said no, we couldn't, because it was not on sale. My little seven-year-old brain processed this and I asked "So, if it's not on sale, we can't buy it?"
She said yes, and of course my brain made this absolutely logical connection: if something is not on sale, no one is permitted to buy it. The store just puts it out on the shelf but you CANNOT purchase it and take it home. No one can!

Although I later found out that this was my money-saving mother talking and not the rule of the store, I still have that conviction in me. So certain things I never buy unless they are on sale. One such thing: salad in a bag.

I love salad in a bag, mostly because it is so convenient and also because my least favorite thing to do in the kitchen is to wash greens. Seriously, I would rather pick the fat off a piece of raw meat or skim foam off the top of soup. I HATE washing greens. But salad in a bag is expensive, and a lettuce head is cheap. Carrots are cheap. Celery and cucumbers are cheap. So until very recently (as in, last night) I settled for washing leaves and peeling and chopping every time I wanted a salad.

But no longer! NO MORE. Because I have learned to make my own salad in a bag.

Last night as I was washing lettuce for our salad, I had a moment. An epiphany. What if I washed a BUNCH of lettuce, and chopped and peeled a BUNCH of celery? What if I put the excess into a gallon size zip bag? What if...what if...I made salad in a bag!?

Well, I did. And I had salad at lunch and dinner today. And I didn't have to wash a single leaf or peel a single veggie. And it was freaking awesome. Especially with the honey mustard dressing I made and saved in a little plastic container.

Open bag. Take out handful of veggies. Shake dressing and pour. Eat.

Easiest salad I ever made. And I didn't even have to wait for it to go on sale!

Friday, February 3, 2012

Kick-off: The Cookie Diaries - Intro and Practice, Part 1 of ?

The goal of creating a new blog, after many (well, a few) years of random what's-going-on-in-my-life blogging is this: keep all the recipes and experiments in one place. I love to cook and bake, but am terrible at keeping track of what I've done successfully (and worse, what I've done that has miserably failed). So this is more like a stream-of-consciousness diary that will track my cooking and baking progress, with the ultimate goal of making me better and, most importantly, more consistent in the kitchen.

Now to the meat (the cookie?) of this post.

We are tracing the chocolate chip cookie evolution of me by examining my cookie technique and practice. My mom is not a baker, so I don't think I ever baked cookies from scratch until I went away to college. Before this the only experience I had baking chocolate chip cookies at home was taking the frozen ones off the cardboard and putting them in the oven. There were also Chips Ahoy involved, I believe.

Anyway, I started baking cookies in college using the recipe on the bag of the Tollhouse chocolate chips. I remember several things: that recipe makes a goobledy-gork amount of cookies, most of which ended up undercooked because I was in a rush and also ill-equipped with sheet pans of varying sizes and thicknesses and an unfamiliar oven. I also (shamefully) used margarine almost exclusively, because that was what we usually had around. Only later did I convert to the church of all-butter, all the time (or did I? Stay tuned!).

[The word "cookie" is used throughout but means "chocolate chip cookie," as opposed to the abstract "cookie" which can mean any of several hundred varieties. I realize that noting this distinction marks me as slightly loony. But I am also writing this ridiculous tome on how I bake cookies, so it's all relative.)

Fast forward to law school, when I suspect that I used the same recipe (or at least, whatever chocolate chip bag recipe was at hand) but did several things differently: preheated the oven, used an ice cream scoop to make truly monstrous cookies, and added nuts. I still employ the ice cream scoop trick when I want to impress strangers, but have mostly abandoned the nuts because I find that there are more nut-haters than nut-lovers in the chocolate chip cookie world.

Nowadays, there are several additional changes I have adopted to aid my pursuit of cookie perfection. Which is a slight misnomer, because I am not really seeking cookie perfection per se (I'm too fickle to stick to any one recipe), but rather am seeking a sort of cookie-omniscience: an in-depth understanding of what each element of the recipe adds to the finished product, so that I can tinker accordingly.

Here are the things that I now do: allow the butter to soften completely. Pre-heat the oven. Use a Silpat (also because parchment paper can be expensive and I hate scrubbing cookie sheets and because they are awesome, as is my friend L. who gave me mine). Mise en place (to a certain extent; this usually consists of just taking everything out and putting it on one counter). I also have an oven thermometer, which allows me to bake cookies at 350 instead of believing I am when really blasting them at 425 and wondering why they're burnt after seven minutes.

I really believe that practice and knowledge are the key here. Because I bake cookies so often, I know instinctively what I have to do (whereas previously I would read a recipe and panic because it called for softened butter and I only had half an hour). Conversely, this works against me when I want to try a cookie recipe that calls for something different (e.g., Nigella Lawson's chocolate chip cookie recipe requires melted butter, but I haven't worked up the nerve to try it yet because it seems so...wrong).

Moving on.

If I were planning to bake cookies for dessert after a dinner party, here is what I would do (my current habit): the morning of, I would remove the butter (2 sticks, usually, even if the recipe I am using calls for 1.5 sticks) and put it on the counter. Approximately 6 hours before the guests arrive, I would mix the actual dough. Note: If I plan to bake immediately, I turn the oven on as soon as I enter the kitchen, which is also when I take the egg (or two) out of the refrigerator. Most recipes tell you to use a room-temperature egg, but as cookie recipes are generally forgiving and leaving eggs on a counter skeeves me out, I will usually settle for a not-quite-refrigerator cold egg. I have learned that other recipes calling for eggs (such as yeasted breads or rolls, where the warmth of the dough highly affects the rise and flavor) do require room temperature eggs.

If the oven is hot, then I put my dough on the cookie sheet (I usually bake in batches for evenness, but if pressed for time will use two sheets). Whereas I used to crowd the cookie sheet with dough (a side-effect of my terrible impatience), I have since learned to value adequate space between cookies and usually place about 11 cookies per sheet (four, three, four, staggered). Not surprisingly, this has also vastly reduced the number of cookie sheets that need to be cut apart.

Then I bake for the allotted time.

If I am not baking immediately (usually for a dinner party I prefer to bake the cookies right as we are finishing dinner, so they are delicious and gooey right out of the oven), I will chill the dough in the refrigerator. This step alone shows my growth as a baker throughout the years. If baking has taught me anything, it has taught me patience. You just can't rush something like a second rise or stiff peaks.

I prefer a chilled dough, because the cookies retain their shape better and something about the sit-time makes them taste a little better. Numerous bakers and food writers have discussed this technique (most notably the NYT recipe for the perfect chocolate chip cookie). Whereas many of these recipes call for a 24 hour rest, I just settle for however long I have until I need the cookies baked. I don't think I have that discerning a palate, especially not when I've burned my tongue with the first cookie off the sheet.

The chilled dough is also easier to scoop and less messy. I don't really find that I need to adjust baking time, but cookies are all about degrees of doneness anyway. For frozen dough, however, I do add a couple of minutes. When I freeze my dough I roll it into balls, freeze the balls on the sheet pan, and then keep them in a big gallon zip. This is an amazing way to make just two chocolate chip cookies when you have a craving for a homemade treat.

So that concludes our discussion of technique. Right now I feel that my chocolate chip cookie technique is pretty good. I have begun to naturally intuit when to stop mixing the dough, and when the cookies are done. One thing I have been unable to perfect is to stop eating said cookies, but that's another matter entirely.

Tune in next time when we discuss the three chocolate chip cookie recipes I currently alternate between and what makes them different. I appreciate the virtues of each, but have some ambitious thoughts about combining what I like from each recipe into some kind of...master cookie. But again, this is not a pursuit of cookie perfection - well, it might be a suit of PERSONAL cookie perfection, because my "Master cookie" would have all the things I like in a cookie - but not what others might enjoy.