Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Birthday Buche de Noel

As I lick the last crumbs of orange-almond cake with chocolate buttercream frosting from my fork today at tea time, I realize it is this delicious Buche de Noel cake that should bring me back from my sabbatical. I’ve taken a few months off to deal with morning sickness – that hormone-induced nausea that saps all energy and makes you feel rotten no matter the time of day. I’m five months pregnant and again able to indulge in sweet delights, like the traditional French Christmas cake shaped like a Yule log.

I decided to make this sweet indulgence for my little girl’s second birthday. We wanted it to be a special day for her – even though the date is so close to Christmas.

Despite the fact that the Buche de Noel was for her, my precious toddler was more of a hindrance than a help baking the cake. I used Julia Child’s recipe (I found it in Food & Wine’s Holiday Favorites not in Mastering the Art of French Cooking) and now I know why Julia did not have toddlers helping her in the kitchen. The second that I turned my back to reach for a spatula to scrape the last of the ground almonds and sugar out of the food processor, my daughter was upsetting the bowl of egg whites I’d just separated. And so it went with me measuring and re-measuring, mixing and folding very, very slowly through the creating of an almond, orange chiffon jellyroll cake using orange zest and juice, almond extract and a scant amount of cake flour. My daughter watched the entire process from the second rung of the step-stool. Luckily I started two days before her party.

What fun it was to show my four-year-old daughter that after taking the jellyroll cake from the oven, it was to be rolled up in a dishtowel! She’s baked many a cake with me, but never a jellyroll. She was flabbergasted!

The next day, both girls helped me knead the food coloring into almond paste (inside a plastic bag to avoid red/green stained little fingers) to create marzipan insects. Julia didn’t suggest them; and I suppose there aren’t many bugs crawling around the snow-covered logs in French forests...but it was a kid’s birthday cake. And while we didn’t resort to gummy worms, we thought a few bright green caterpillars with red spots and red ladybugs with yellow spots were in order.

That night, after the girls were in bed, I made the meringue mushrooms. I felt like a French pastry chef! Well, almost; they easily turned out looking like real mushrooms. Without a Julia-prescribed pastry bag, I used a plastic sandwich bag and piped them onto parchment paper; just little 2-inch wide domes and then a separate stem that stood straight up on the paper. They baked to a golden-cream mushroom color.

And on the day of the birthday party, I whipped up the chocolate buttercream with yummy ingredients like brandy (because our liquor cabinet is fresh out of rum), rum flavoring (just in case the rum was an essential flavor), coffee, rich chocolate and leftover meringue.
Decorating the cake was tricky at first, but easier once I discovered that Julia’s chocolate buttercream could cover a multitude of torn jellyroll cake sins. (Yes, when I unrolled the cake, it cracked quite a bit; more powdered sugar on the cake and dishtowel next time.) Seeing the evergreen boughs on our advent wreath made me think that dying coconut green would make it look like pine boughs. It didn’t. Instead, sprinkled around the cake, it looked like bright green grass. However, it was perfect into which bright green and red marzipan bugs could nestle. Thus I held off on the traditional dusting of snow on the log, since that would confuse obvious summer seasonal look of our log.
The buttercream was lovely glue for attaching the mushroom stems to the tops. Dusted with cocoa, they were fine looking mushrooms; melt-in-your-mouth tasty ones too! And they were the finishing touches to the Yule log.

All the kids, adults and my little girls devoured what became a whimsical (and not very traditional) but most scrumptious Buche de Noel birthday cake.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Organic Brown Eggs $2

We just returned from what I’m calling our ‘farmcation,’ (similar to the popular and economical staycation, but instead of staying home for our summer vacation, we stayed on Grandma’s farm.)

The hand-made brown wooden sign down the road from Grandma’s was painted in white, hung from a tree, and advertised “Organic Brown Eggs $2.” The new neighbor had around 50 beautiful Isa Brown laying hens; he also had new baby chicks only a few days old. My little girls adored seeing the chicks under a heat lamp in a cardboard box in his garage. The neighbor told us they were even hatched by the hens. (We didn’t have chickens on our farm when I was young, but all our neighbors ordered their chicks from a catalog and they arrived in a box by mail.) The lone rooster, it was reported, crowed every morning at 4:17!

My baby was so excited to see all the fluffy brown hens running around – and also, no doubt, to know where the eggs she was about to eat came from – she screeched with joy! We bought two dozen of the beautiful brown eggs for $4.00. (We would have paid $10.00 at our local farmers market.)

At home, I curiously conducted a taste test against conventional store-bought eggs. At 20 months and 4 years, the members of my tasting panel did not have most discerning palates; they liked all the eggs hard-boiled and scrambled. My husband and I also participated. Here are our results:
· Egg shells: Conventional – pale brown; organic brown – darker, but still relatively pale brown with (pretty) brown speckles
· Egg yolks both when raw and cooked: Conventional – yellow; organic brown – brighter orange-yellow
· Taste: Conventional – the egg-y taste I’m accustomed to and adore; organic brown – richer, deeper egg flavor

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Sweet Donuts

We turned off Interstate 94 in hopes of locating the ice cream shop I’d read was in Kalamazoo. (I later remembered it was Tommie’s Goodie Shop and is known for its creative homemade flavors.) We never found the ice cream shop.

What we did discover was Sweetwater’s Donut Mill. It was just a few minutes off the expressway on the main drag, Stadium Drive. Always on a quest for a good plain unglazed cake donut (the standardized test for a donut shop), I am not one to pass up a promising-looking independent donut shop. There are a few good ones in my area of western suburban Chicago: Kay’s Bakery in Forest Park, Honey Bee Bakery in Downer’s Grove and Bridgeport Bakery on the South Side of Chicago. They all have what I consider their specialties – but none of them do all things donuts well. For example, Bridgeport Bakery’s Boston Cream donut is tremendous (with homemade vanilla cream), but their chocolate glaze is too sweet on the chocolate cake and the plain unglazed is passable.

The perfect donut shop must also have a lunch counter with stools for patrons to sit upon and drink black coffee from white enamel diner cups. The donut shop I discovered in tiny Peru, Illinois, on the way back from a camping trip has such a lunch counter, which is frequented by older gentlemen catching up on town gossip. The fact that donuts in Peru are also only 50 cents a-piece adds a great deal to the shop’s charm.

Donuts at Sweetwater’s are 84 cents a-piece and I have no problem paying this price for any donut worth its sugary, fried weight. I am happy to support a good old-fashioned donut shop. And Sweetwater’s Donut Mill was that type of shop; with a lunch counter to boot!

As we walked in the door, the Sweetwater’s counter attendant was just bringing out a fresh wire tray of hot cinnamon and sugar dusted cake donuts – at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. And I can nearly guarantee the same experience for you, whenever you should arrive. Sweetwater’s makes fresh, hot donuts all day long because they are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Sweetwater’s plain cake was rich and cakey, but not too heavy. Tiny dark specks in the donut confirmed the ever-so-subtle flavor of sweet nutmeg. But there wasn’t even a hint of old-grease flavor. It was a sweet and simply delicious product; and it passed the quality test with very high marks.

The Peanut Butter Cup donut was an entirely different breed of donut. Smothered with home-made peanut frosting and generously filled with chocolate buttercream, it wasn’t very simple – but it was delicious. The cherry cake was heavy with tiny pieces of maraschino cherries and was truly pretty in pink. Even the French Crueller, which the counter attendant threw in for free, “Because I think they’re only good when they’re still hot,” was light, fluffy, egg-y and sweet fried goodness. The chocolate cake was deep dark cocoa. There were over twenty varieties; many were original like Snickers, Banana Cream Pie and Reeses.

The shop doesn’t have a web site, but they do have three locations in Michigan: 3333 Stadium Drive and 2138 Sprinkle Road both in Kalamazoo, and I-94 at Capital in Battle Creek.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Back to Say Hi....And Some Cherry Pie

I’m back. Life has been nutty lately; mostly in a good way, but there’s been a few trials sprinkled in too. Most importantly, we are thankful we all healthy now and it’s my intent to post to this site regularly.

It’s perfect timing that I’m resuming this post immediately after sour cherry pitting time. For the past three summers, we’ve pitted cherries together with my grandmother’s antique cherry pitter. At two, my daughter was interesting in standing on a very tall stool and turning the crank a few times; at three she was excited about the whole process until the crank got stuck on a stubborn pit and she got frustrated. This year, I gave her the small crate of cherries and a few instructions and she did everything from washing to dumping the pits at the end.

First we made muffins with the freshly pitted cherries. To our old-standby muffin recie, we added a ½ cup of whole wheat flour for nuttiness and a bit of healthfulness. We also added a whole teaspoon of vanilla to the recipe for 12 muffins. Mmmm, the aroma of cherry vanilla muffins was sublime.

Next, we made a 4th of July rhubarb cherry pie. The rhubarb was from our garden and I had to pick it in the rain. (Yes, it rained on our parade yesterday.) The deep red, sweet-sour pie was the perfect end to our meal of burgers from the grill – eaten inside – as we waited for the rain to stop and fireworks to begin.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Eggs twice her age

My daughter turned four a couple days ago. We made her lime chiffon birthday cake together. In a chiffon cake recipe, egg whites are beat until stiff, and then folded into the batter before it’s poured into cake pans. The fluffy egg whites produce a cake with a wonderfully light texture.

The recipe called for eight egg whites. So I set my daughter up with an egg separator – a small plastic utensil that is placed over a cup/ramekin. When an egg is cracked into the egg separator, the white drips through the holes in the bottom and the yolk stays in the utensil.

Now, for a little girl who is a few days away from being four, it is quite an exercise in concentration to keep all the steps of separating the yolks and whites of EIGHT eggs. First, there is the whole egg cracking process. I remember the first time, a couple months ago that I let my three-year-old crack an egg. I was prepared for egg carnage all over the kitchen. In actuality, she was so careful, she didn’t crack it hard enough for the first several tries.

When cracking eggs into an egg separator, my daughter had to remember to place the egg separator on top of the ramekin BEFORE cracking the egg into the cup – otherwise the yolk must be fished out of the ramekin with a spoon – defeating the entire purpose of the egg separator. If the egg separation has been successful, she then had to remember to dump the egg yolk into the bowl with egg yolks and the white into the bowl with other whites, and NOT visa versa and BEFORE she cracked another egg into the separator. Like I said, it took a great deal of concentration.

We had a few mishaps along the way; a few fishing excursions for egg yolks. But in the end, I was impressed. My daughter completed the egg separation process eight times. And then we measured, dumped and mixed our way through the rest of the recipe.

The resulting birthday cake was light and fluffy with a light lime flavor to complement the texture. To top it off, we didn’t use artificial whipped topping as specified in the recipe. We used real whipped cream and flavored it with lime zest and powdered sugar. However, after all that, I think my daughter liked blowing out the candles even more than eating the cake; such is the magic of having a birthday when you’re four.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Superdawg Lounges Inside

It was sunny spring day on Lake Michigan today.
The photo speaks for itself: There were lots of people out buying the Chicago favorite; the hot dog. (Yes those are giant hot dogs on top of the building.)
Some of the purchased dogs were Superdawgs, "comfortably lounging in Superfries." And all of them had NO KETCHUP.
Hot dogs - or red hots - are not served with ketchup in Chicago. Instead the traditional dog is served on a warm poppy seed bun, with sweet pickle relish, chopped tomatoes, pickeled green tomoato, chopped onions, a dill pickle spear, "sport peppers" (they're hot!) and mustard.
We were lucky enough to visit the friendly car hops at Superdawg. The dogs and the hand-cut fries (that still included some 'tato skin) were delicious. All those flavors of sweet, sour, spicey and meaty umami were delicious. And of course, the sunshine made them taste even better.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Homemade Bread with Honey

A few days ago, on a snowy afternoon, I decided we should bake some bread to help warm up the house (yes, in March!) My 3 1/2 year old daughter and I had also been reading a book about baking bread and she asked how bread rises. So the two of us set out to make homemade whole wheat bread.

Since we do quite a bit of baking, I knew my daughter would be able to do many of the steps required to make the dough: leveling the cups of measured flour, dumping in the package of yeast, stirring the sludgy mixture of yeast and warm water. But when it came time to do the kneading, I was amazed. It only took a few (like three) demonstrative turns of the dough before I gave in to her pleading to give kneading a try.

I told her to lay her thumb on top of the dough, fold the top over her thumb and turn. She couldn't quite get her thumb to lay at the right angle at first. But it didn't take long and my little girl (who still needs a large stool to stand at the cupboard) was kneading bread!

She loved the step in which she got to punch down the dough.

And then the light in the oven went on and off many, many times while it was baking.

The conclusion was the best: a thick slice of crusty warm bread, with a smooth and soft interior all slathered with butter and honey. The aroma and taste took me back to my own mother's kitchen where she made homemade bread every week! I won't be making bread every week, but I do pledge to bake even more with my daughter. It is so rewarding for everyone - (ok, I'm going to be really cheesy now) it warmed my heart and my kitchen.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Recipe testing with a kid

When it comes to the tasting of chocolate and/or peanut butter, it’s hard for a kid to be completely objective. Case in point: Subjecting my 3 ½ year old to a taste-test of one chocolate peanut butter dip compared to a second chocolate peanut butter dip will probably yield results like, “I like them both, they’re both my favorite!” Not surprising.

In my most recent recipe development endeavor, the final result needed to be kid-friendly. And although I can’t share the final recipe since it’s for a client, I can tell you it contains super secret ingredients like low-fat plain yogurt, chocolate and peanut butter. But get creative; really, you can’t go wrong. Most kids I know will eat any vegetable dipped into any of the just-mentioned dippables – even if they are not combined into a super secret dip recipe.

Now I am a very strong advocate of cooking with your kids. And although it always takes longer to make a recipe with kids than without, it’s almost always worth the effort. There’s a million reasons this is so, but a few include: The kid will eat the final product – even if it’s just a taste and even if the food is healthy, it teaches math and reading skills, and cooking with kids teaches a life-long skill that could make them live more healthfully. However, don’t do any sort of recipe testing with your kids. On the 4th batch of chocolate peanut butter dip, it gets frustrating to hear, “Can I have a taste of (fill in ingredient currently being weighed and measured for the forth time.)” And yes, she’d already tasted peanut butter, chocolate and yogurt three other times earlier in the day, not to mention the fact that she eats peanut butter on her sandwich practically every day for lunch. But it’s my fault. Every time I pull out a recipe book or turn on the stove to make dinner, my daughter pulls her step stool out of the closet and climbs up to look over my shoulder and ‘help’ measure. She can already identify each measuring cup size. Maybe that’s because her tongue has licked over the top of the “1 cup”, “½ cup”, “1/3 cup” and “¼ cup” on the bottom of the cups so many times.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Perfect Muffin

It was an unlikely spot to find the perfect muffin. But it was: The perfect muffin. And we found it in a tiny store-front bakery on the relaxed, touristy Sanibel Island, Florida. This little vacation to stay in the sunny home of some dear friends is the reason I haven’t posted for so long. And then there’s been the recent illness in our family. But we’re back on track. And in order to help cure my sick husband, I went about recreating the perfect muffin that we’d tasted in the Florida sun.

So what made it perfect? In many ways, it was what it was not that made it perfect. It was not a mega-muffin – like those large rounds of sickeningly sweet blueberry or chocolate chip cake that are sold in oversized muffin papers at wholesale stores. (Why don’t they just label them more appropriately as “Unfrosted-prepared-cake-mix” and merchandize mega-tubs of frosting near them?)

The perfect muffin from the Island Bakery was dense but not heavy and had a very tender crumb. Since it was fresh from the oven, the edges were still a bit crispy. Buttery rich aroma wafted up as I took a bite. The muffin was of the Apple Cinnamon variety but it was not too sweet. In fact, it wasn’t very sweet at all; if it were, it would be a cupcake. Only the top was sugary it was smothered in perfectly cooked apples that roasted in the oven to a golden, caramel color. Speaking of caramel, that’s what the sugar that was sprinkled liberally on top did. And the namesake cinnamon? It wasn’t speckled throughout, instead it appeared in little surprise swirls that were ribboned through each bite.

I’m pleased to recount, we got a fairly close reproduction from my own kitchen. I began the muffin making by searching through some old-fashioned basic muffin recipes. Several called for only a few tablespoons of sugar but used oil as the fat. In my recipe, I kept the small amount of sugar but used butter to add richness and wonderful aroma. I also decreased the salt. Making the apple topping wasn’t difficult; making it turn golden instead of into chunky applesauce was. So when in doubt, add more butter. And making those cinnamon ribbons was also a bit of a trick. But my three-year old and I managed with the help of her sister’s baby spoon.

Sugared Apple Cinnamon Muffins
These MUST be eaten warm. If there are leftovers, warm gently before eating.

3 apples, peeled, cored and chopped
1 tablespoon cold butter
2 cups sifted flour
¼ teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons baking powder
2 tablespoons sugar
1 egg
1 cup milk
¼ cup melted butter
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1-2 tablespoons sugar

To make the topping, combine apples and sugar in a saucepan and cook until the apples are tender. Using a wooden spoon, push the apples to the side of the pan and drop in the butter. Melt the butter until it begins to brown. Quickly toss the apples (which will have become slightly golden and crusty as the butter browned) with the butter. Remove from heat.

Sift together the dry ingredients and make a well in the flour mixture. In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg and milk; continue whisking while adding the melted butter in slow steady stream. Stir wet ingredients into dry ingredients just until moistened. Divide the batter among 12 muffin cups using a scooper. Sprinkle the muffins liberally with cinnamon and then using a small spoon, make an ‘X’ in each cup to produce ribbons of cinnamon. Top the cinnamon with about a tablespoon of the apple mixture. Sprinkle muffins liberally with sugar. Bake at 400° for 20-25 minutes.