Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Comfort & Joy: Happy New Year!

This week many people will be making a self-improvement list for 2010.

But I won't be making any resolutions for 2010.

As did many other people, I have found this year to be filled with turmoil.

In fact, it seemed like the entire year was one long resolution -- I resolve to get through 2009!

This week I find myself thinking about things that I don't want to change -- things that bring me comfort and joy.

I came to this realization as I prepared my menu for a New Year's Eve supper with a few friends.

Normally, I can't wait to try out new recipes -- especially desserts.

But this year I find myself making a shopping list for dishes like beef stew, biscuits and chocolate cake.

Comfort and Joy.

I also find myself pulling out my brownie recipe more and more -- especially this week.

I have made it so many times I can make this recipe with my eyes shut and my wooden spoon tied behind my back.

I like to call them Boyfriend Brownies.

Brownies are often the first sweet a girl makes for her sweetie.

Growing up, I used the recipe on the back of the Hershey Chocolate tin. Yes, it was still made of metal then. And the lid wasn't plastic but a metal oval. When I was really little, my mom would give me the empty tin to use as a piggy bank. The coins made a very satisfying clink as they hit the bottom of the tin.

Later, I baked brownies using Katherine Hepburn's brownie recipe after reading the essay about it by the writer who died much too young, Laurie Colwin. Colwin wrote about this recipe in her collection of essays, More Home Cooking.

If you love brownies, you have strong opinions on what you think makes a perfect brownie. Some love nuts or other additions to their batter, some use gourmet chocolate and some prefer brownies with a cake or fudge-like texture.

I still prefer to use Hershey's cocoa powder and I like them plain -- no additions.

And as Colwin best described it in her essay, "I myself like brownies that are what I call slumped and the English call squidgy, which means slightly undercooked but not quite runny in the center."

I agree.

These days I use a recipe my mother-in-law gave me more than 20 years ago. I still have the chocolate stained slip of paper she wrote it on during a long ago visit. I bake them quite a bit less than my mother-in-law specifies so that they are "slumped."

I can have them mixed and out of the oven in 20 minutes. As soon as I hear a few teenagers come through the door, I start melting the butter.

They are great eaten right out of the pan but can also be dressed up with powdered sugar and a fancy platter. I also might serve them with caramel sauce and bit of ice cream on the side.

But the best part of this recipe is that it makes a great back up plan. There has been more than one fancy dessert gone astray where I've quickly mixed up a batch and served them to my unsuspecting guests.

Comfort and Joy indeed!

Boyfriend Brownies
Adapted from a recipe by Marrianne Scotten

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

1 stick of unsalted butter (1/2 cup)
3 Tablespoons of cocoa

Remove from heat and add
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 eggs
1 cup of sugar
3/4 cup of flour (spoon and sweep)
1/4 teaspoon salt

Pour into 8-inch round or square pan

Bake for 18-20 minutes.

Monday, December 21, 2009

How To Make A White Christmas

No matter what the temperature is outside this week -- my kitchen will be tropical.

This week I will bake at least 15 Christmas cakes for family and friends as well as several types of cookies for the family cookie platter.

As I bake, I will think of each person who will receive the treat. It is my meditation time.

This year after more than a decade of making my traditional Christmas cake, I will be making a few of them a bit differently. Several of my friends and family members are gluten intolerant. After many trials and lots of errors, I've developed a flour mix that works in this Christmas cake so that it actually still tastes good.

I was very happy to offer someone their chance to once again eat a favorite sweet.

Every year I also try out a new cookie recipe. I still hadn't chosen one until just a few weeks ago. One afternoon I decided to head up to St. Helena in the Napa Valley for a quick road trip. This time of year is so beautiful up there and I needed a break.

No trip to St. Helena would be complete without a trip to the Model Bakery. This bakery has been part of the downtown scene for more than 80 years. They make the best ginger molasses cookie I have eaten - it is soft in the middle with a chewy edge - heaven.

As I strolled down the street admiring all the festive shop windows, I remembered that the test kitchen for the Los Angeles Times had just published the recipe for the Model Bakery molasses cookie. That sealed the decision - this cookie would share the Christmas cookie platter with the Peanut Butter Blossoms that I make each year.

I don't bake fancy or decorated cookies. I generally like to bake homey cookies with big flavor - like the ginger molasses cookie. So I had never mastered my mom's Spritz cookies. These buttery cookies were always her contribution to the family Christmas cookie platter. Since my mom had been in poor health for several years, one of my sisters had generously assumed the family tradition of baking the Spritz cookies each Christmas.

This year will be the first Christmas without my mom; she passed away in February 2009. This year I was determined to master this cookie.

My mom tried to encourage me one year by buying me my own cookie press. It remained unused in the back of my kitchen pantry until I finally gave it away.

Any cookbook with a Spritz recipe will warn the baker that getting the dough out of the press is the hardest part of making these cookies and that had certainly always been my experience. These recipes recommend making sure the dough is at just the right temperature although they never actually give a temperature range in their recipes.

Last week my sister generously gave up an afternoon to show me how to be one with the cookie press and to show me her secrets for getting the dough out of that device of the devil!

In memory of my mom, I turned to the cookbook she used the most for all her cooking and baking for the Spritz recipe: the 1963 edition of the McCall's Cookbook.

Spritz cookies are made from a simple butter dough that is pushed through a cookie press fitted with decorative disks. The resulting Christmas trees, wreaths, snowflakes and flowers are then decorated with gumdrops, red hots and sprinkles.

My mom would save white shirt boxes from her job at J.C. Penny's to package the dozens of Spritz cookies she baked each Christmas. As a child, I always thought the cookies looked like pieces of jewelry nestled in their white jewelry boxes.

Most recipes consist of just a few ingredients: flour, salt, sugar, butter, egg yolk and vanilla. Some recipes also add baking powder. Although my family prefers the plain butter dough, this type of dough adapts well to other flavorings like almond or peppermint.

I mixed up two batches of dough the night before my cookie tutorial - one of the plain butter dough and the second of a chocolate dough. Anita Chu's Field Guide To Cookies had suggested combining the two doughs in the cookie press for a marble effect. That sounded fun and not too far of a departure from the traditional family offering.

My sister was patient with me as she showed me how to work the cookie press. Turns out she gets just as frustrated with the process as I do but for the sake of that Christmas cookie platter, she has sacrificed her sanity each year to make them for the rest of us.

We decided to see if we couldn't come up with a way to ensure each cookie came out of the press easily (almost) every time. It was a fun couple of hours as we tried all kinds of experiments with the dough. In the end, we made an interesting discovery - despite what the cookbooks tell you, it really doesn't matter what temperature the dough is as long as you avoid the two extremes of too warm or too cold.

The real secret is to chill ungreased cookies sheets before trying to coax each gem out of the cookie press.

No go forth and press on!

Oh yes, and Happy Holidays!

"Unless we make Christmas an occasion to share our blessings, all the snow in Alaska won't make it white."
Bing Crosby

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Do, or Do Not

Sometimes I long for the days when ignorance was bliss -- before we all knew that sunburns and cigarettes could kill us.

I'd kill for a good doughnut.

Ok, maybe those three things aren't exactly equal on the scale of vices but seriously, who doesn't love a good glazed doughnut or a bite of a doughnut just dipped in cinnamon sugar?

And my preference leans toward the yeast doughnut, not those heavy cake-like numbers.

In my hometown in Indiana we pretty much excelled in frying just about anything. In fact, the Indiana State Fair is certainly a candidate for the fried food hall of fame: fried strawberries, fried green beans, fried snicker bars and even deep-fried Pepsi.

If it can be breaded it can be fried. Not a bad motto to live by.

So I should be forgiven if I mourned the passing of each of my favorite food groups from my life once I moved to California and became enlightened to the horrors of the fryer.

But still, the doughnut never left my mind.

Because I give myself free reign to try all foods when travelling, I've encountered some pretty spectacular doughnuts across the world. Of course these treats go by much better names than the American word for fried dough.

In Italy we fell in love with ciambelle. We had rented a small apartment in Rome near the Piazza Farnese. Each morning we walked to our corner cafe. The first morning we saw the businessmen leaning against the bar sipping their cappuccino or espresso and eating what looked like a filled doughnut.

We asked the incredibly chic and snooty cashier what the name was of this breakfast treat and she said, "ciambelle." Of course, we didn't pronounce the name exactly right and every morning she would correct us as we asked for a jambelle.

But that turned out not to be a problem. In fact, by the end of our visit the not so snooty cashier would smile when she saw us coming -- knowing we were about to butcher her beautiful language asking for this delicious treat.

In other parts of Italy they call a similar treat bomboloni. I have been fortunate enough to find two shops in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live that sell them. One is in the beautiful S.F. Ferry Building. They only have a few each day so I always head there first.

The other is a small cafe in Palo Alto that sells bomboloni on Saturday nights only. Not a bad reason to venture out.

And in Los Angeles, the Three Square Bakery in Venice makes a German version of a doughnut called a Berliner. They only offer this treat on Fridays.

It seems a limited time offer lessens the guilt.

But doughnuts were not in short supply in my childhood home.

Despite working full-time, my mom routinely made doughnuts for her five kids. She thought nothing of mixing together a batch of dough and frying them up for us.

One of my sisters still fondly remembers watching my mom slip each piece of dough into the frying pan and waiting and watching until she turned the doughnut over to brown on the other side.

I remember the doughnut holes the best -- I always wanted to shake them in the brown paper bag filled with cinnamon sugar.

And perhaps the best part of making doughnuts is that they really don't keep well. You just had to eat them right away or they became greasy and heavy.

It probably isn't too surprising that when I was pregnant, my craving was for doughnuts -- the glazed ones.

And no wonder one of my daughter's favorite treats is a glazed doughnut. I routinely buy them for her each week as I'm shopping for groceries. Nothing like a cold glass of milk and a glazed doughnut after a hard day of teenage drama.

A long time ago I had acquired a doughnut pan for making baked doughnuts. I enthusiastically followed the recipe that had come with the pan. I couldn't wait to try them.

But they looked and tasted like what I imagined my dog's doughnut shaped chew toy to taste like: blah.

But now that my craving was growing, I either needed to find or develop a baked doughnut recipe.

Many of the recipes I found weren't really doughnuts but rather were cupcakes that resembled doughnut holes that once baked, were rolled in butter then cinnamon sugar.

I came across quite a bit of positive Internet chatter over the Baked Doughnut Recipe developed by Heidi Swanson of the website 101cookbooks.

I was all set to try it then I remembered to check The Breakfast Book by cooking legend and Bakers Dozen founder, Marion Cunningham. Sure enough, she had a recipe for baked doughnuts.

The recipe couldn't have been easier -- it mixed together quickly, the dough had to rise for only one hour and it took just ten minutes to bake each batch.

I even got to use the doughnut cutter that my mom used all those years ago -- thankfully one of my sisters had grabbed it while we were closing down my mom's house. It is a very retro cutter -- it has the piece for the doughnut hole attached to the middle of the bigger cutter, you can choose to leave it in or twist it out if you are baking cookies.

The doughnuts were delicious. But you really can't compare a baked doughnut to a fried one. It is just too different. They taste and have the consistency more of a cinnamon roll than a light as air fried doughnut.

And then I thought about the person that the recipe had come from and I adjusted my attitude.

As food writer Jeffrey Steingarten described her in his essay on making pie crust in his book, The Man Who Ate Everything, "Marion is a calmly fanatical believer in simplicity..."

And according to cookbook author, David Lebovitz, Marion "didn't suffer fools gladly.."

In other words, I think Marion would tell me that if I wanted a doughnut that tasted like the ones I remembered from my childhood to quit messing around with imitations and make the real thing.

Thanks for the reminder Marion. And I will use your recipe.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Even the Dalai Lama Can't Resist This Christmas Cake

Dundee Cake. Now why was that written on my clipboard? I was back at the farmers' market selling my ipies. As I mentioned in my last post, I keep a clipboard nearby so I can take notes about the different pie stories and dessert memories customers share with me.

But I didn't remember speaking to anyone about Dundee Cake. Intrigued, I looked it up once I got home and found that it is a popular cake similar to a fruitcake served throughout the United Kingdom -- primarily during the Christmas season.

And like the Lafayette Gingerbread, its creation involved yet another story that supposedly took place in the 1700s!

This time the location was Dundee, Scotland in 1797. There a Spanish ship carrying oranges sailed into a fierce storm. The ship took shelter in Dundee Harbor. Its cargo included Seville oranges, which were then purchased by a Dundee grocer named James Keiller.

Seville oranges aren't your typical sweet orange -- they are bitter. Mrs. Keiller decided to boil the oranges with sugar and the resulting product became known as Dundee Orange Marmalade.

But what about the cake? Most likely Mrs. Keiller created the cake so there would be something to spread all that lovely marmalade on. The marmalade is also used as a glaze for the cake. She created the concentric circles of whole blanched almonds on top of the cake to distinguish a Dundee Cake from other fruitcakes.

Mrs. Keiller obviously had quite a talent for marketing.

Both the marmalade and the cake became famous through the United Kingdom and continue to be extremely popular today.

I must admit I'm not a fan of fruitcakes. The cakes I have had the misfortune to taste have been very dry and the fruit overly chewy. The experience led me to almost believe that old joke by comedian Johnny Carson that there really is only one fruitcake in the world and it keeps getting passed down from one family to the next each Christmas!

And I don't think Italy's Panettone or Germany's Stollen taste much better. So I wasn't too motivated to experiment with Scotland's Dundee Cake.

But all this reading about Christmas cakes did get me thinking about my family's own Christmas cake tradition. I hadn't actually thought of the cake I make each Christmas as an official Christmas cake. But I guess it really is.

At least it is certainly an American version of what I think a Christmas cake should be: cinnamon and chocolate are important ingredients in this cake!

I'm not exactly sure when the tradition started. At least ten years ago -- maybe more -- I came across a recipe in a cookbook for a Chocolate Chip Coffee Cake. I decided I would bake one for each family and give them out when we gathered for Christmas Eve.

Now, I have a large family so that often meant at least ten cakes. But my family loved the cake so the Chocolate Chip Coffee Cake has become an annual Christmas tradition.

Then I thought how nice it would be to make each neighbor a cake. And the cleaning lady, dog sitter, dry cleaner, hair cutter......

My Christmas cake production was a bit out of control. And no, it hasn't changed -- I still bake at last 20 cakes during the Christmas season. Nothing like the smell of cinnamon and chocolate to get me in the Christmas spirit!

So maybe I should give the Dundee a try. Maybe it would become a favorite cake, maybe even a tradition.

There are many recipes claiming to be the original Dundee Cake recipe. All are pretty similar in that they use raisins, spices, and some type of candied fruit. Most also include a small amount of whisky. My 1959 edition of the Fannie Farmer Cookbook has a Dundee Cake recipe that includes almonds in the batter as well as on top of the cake but interestingly, no whisky.

I came across a few recipes that called for sultanas -- a very exotic sounding ingredient, which I found out, is another name for golden raisins. I think I like the name sultana better!

In the end I used a recipe from the May 2004 issue of Bon Appetit Magazine. The recipe dresses up the small town Dundee Cake by including a sauce made of (of course) orange marmalade, whisky and orange sections.

Imagine my surprise when I found out that the James Keiller & Son Company (no credit given to Mrs. Keiller though) still makes the original orange marmalade! Of course I had to buy a jar to use in my Dundee Cake.

The cake uses almost a cup each of sultanas, dark raisins and dried currants so the batter was extremely thick. I hoped my Dundee didn't turn into a hockey puck.

But the finished cake was anything but heavy. Yes, it was a dense cake but the texture was crumbly but still moist because of all that fruit.

It was also delicious and addictive. I couldn't stop shaving off bits to nibble on. It was also a beautiful cake and wouldn't look out of place on a dessert or breakfast buffet.

Now I can understand why according to the Europe Intelligence Wire Service, when the Dalai Lama visited Scotland in 2005, he expressed his hope that he would be able to enjoy a slice of the "rich, fruity cake." It seems the Dundee Cake was a favorite of his!

Of course a Dundee Cake was quickly dispatched to His Holiness and we can only assume he was deeply contented.