Saturday, August 18, 2012

Baking Supplies That Make Things Easier

Every serious baker has a few tools that seem indispensable - equipment and supplies that just make things easier. Here's a list of some of my essentials, none of which are exotic or costly in the long run and all of which can easily be found:

The Kitchen Holy Trinity: Stand Mixer, Food Processor, Blender: These three small appliances will make your life in the kitchen easier. I use a 5-quart Kitchen Aid stand mixer with a tilt back. KA mixers are available in 4.5, 5, 6, and 7-Quart models. The 5-Quart Artisan is available in nearly 30 colors - so you can have fun choosing your favorite. I recommend at least a 5-Quart. The 6 and 7-Quart are bowl-lift design. The 7-Quart, at the time of this writing, is a Williams-Sonoma exclusive and comes in four colors. The Viking comes as a 5-Quart or 7-Quart, which, like the KA 7-Quart, has the capacity to handle multi-loaf whole grain bread recipes and triple batches of cookies. Both are tilt-backs and have wheels on the bottom for easy moving across your counter.

Both Cuisinart and Kitchen Aid make excellent food processors. I have a 12-cup Cuisinart and it has served me well. A 14-cup is great if you do a lot of entertaining. There's a 20-cup, too which could put you in the catering business! The Mini-Prep Plus is great for chopping small quantities of nuts, chocolate, cheese or herbs. 

Aside from Emergency Blender Chocolate Cupcakes (recipe on this blog), pureeing fruit, and a few frostings, I don't use my blender as much for baking tasks. It does yeoman's duty for many other jobs, however. I've gone through four or five blenders over the years and they have ranged in price from $40-$125. Price and brand didn't seem to matter - all eventually broke down. I now own a Vita-Mix, which is like a blender on steroids. More than just a blender, the Vita-Mix is a commercial quality utensil that can chop, blend, puree and pulverize. All come with a wet-blade container. A dry-blade container (purchased separately) is designed for grinding grains, cereal, and coffee. It can also be used for kneading bread dough. I have both the 4-cup and 8-cup wet-blade containers (the 4-cup fits nicely on the counter). The first time my daughter saw the 8-cup nestled in its motor base (I call it the "launch-pad"), she said, "Does JPL (Jet Propulsion Lab) know about this?" Seriously, the Vita-Mix is one fine machine that can tackle jobs that other blenders can't touch. Available at www.vitamix.com, Sur la Table, and occasionally at Costco.  

Each of these small appliances will set you back a few dollars but like great cookware and fine knives, they are essentially a lifetime investment (food processor workbowls and Vita-Mix containers will occasionally need to be replaced). All are available at multiple outlets online. 

A Back-up Bowl for Your Stand Mixer: Especially handy for those times when you have to beat egg whites separately or make a buttercream that you want to store in the mixer bowl - and your regular mixer bowl is already in use. Depending on the mixer and model, a bowl can run $25-60, but it's essentially a lifetime investment.

Bench Scraper: (aka "bench knife" or "dough scraper"). This handy tool is essential for bread-making, scrapes work surfaces clean, gathers and divides dough, cuts bar cookies with ease and collects shaved chocolate and chopped vegetables. Some have handy ruler markings (mine is a 6") and others have sides built in, making it a sort of shovel. I have one of those, too. They're inexpensive and can be found just about anywhere cooking gadgets are sold.

Cookie Scoops: These scoops look just like an ice-cream scoop with a release mechanism. They come in three sizes for making uniform cookies. Another bonus is no sticky fingers! They're available from The Baker's Catalogue individually or as a set, but the small and middle sizes can be found anywhere cooking gadgets are sold. Oxo also makes three sizes and they have a soft grip. The small size is nice for forming truffles. (see links)
  
Magi-Cake Strips or Rose's Heavenly Cake Strips: If you bake layer cakes, you'll love the results with these cake strips. You'll achieve perfectly level cakes with no doming! The strips keep the crust tender and they help prevent over-baking, as well. With Magi-Cake strips, you wet the strips and fasten them outside your cake pans - that's it! The strips can be reused several times. They're available from The Baker's Catalogue, Sur La Table, and Wilton. The ones from The Baker's Catalogue fasten with Velcro, others use a T-pin. Wilton sells longer strips for rectangular or larger pans. A set of two for 8" or 9" cake pans is about $10. Rose's Heavenly Cake Strips are made from silicone so there's no need to moisten them, no fastener required and they stay clean. They can be purchased from LaPrima Shops (www.laprimashops.com) for $10 (one strip). 

Offset Spatulas: These spatulas make frosting cakes and cupcakes a breeze. Buy two - a standard size for layer cakes and a little one for cupcakes. Available from Wilton, Sur La Table, The Baker's Catalogue and most places where kitchen gadgets are sold. 

Pre-cut Parchment Rounds/Baking Liners: Sure, you can cut your own parchment rounds but these very inexpensive liners streamline the process of cake baking - one less step to worry about and they save time. They come in 8" and 9" (and sometimes 10") rounds and half-sheets. They can be found at Sur La Table, Wilton, and other outlets. Sur La Table also sells them pre-cut for tube pans - great for chiffon cakes! 

Reynolds Release Nonstick Aluminum Foil: This stuff is fantastic for effortless cookie removal and hundreds of other tasks. Widely available at grocery stores.

Kitchen Scale: Many recipes now specify the weight of flour - as opposed to or in addition to - cup measurements. Measuring by volume, even when sifting, can be off by as much as a half-cup! Weighing ingredients is a more accurate method of determining amounts than measuring by volume. A scale is great for weighing yeast doughs, chocolate purchased in bulk, and many other ingredients, as well. The most accurate is an electronic/digital scale. A really fine quality model can be had for $30-65 - a wise investment. Most are attractive and have a small enough footprint to reside permanently on your kitchen counter. Some are slim enough to slip into a kitchen drawer. They can be found at The Bakers Catalogue, Williams-Sonoma, and other outlets.

Silicone Pastry Brushes: Great for brushing on glazes and essential for coating decorative Bundt® pans with shortening or butter (the brush can get inside all the intricate patterns). A plus is that silicone brushes clean faster and more effectively than old fashioned bristles. Inexpensive and available wherever kitchen gadgets are sold.

Digital Instant-Read Thermometer: The best way to test if bread is done is with an instant-read thermometer. It's also essential for assuring that warm liquids added to yeast doughs are below 138° and that eggs for buttercreams and ice cream bases reach a safe temperature of 160°. Some double as a candy thermometer, although the clip-on type is a better option for candy and fudge making. Digital thermometers run $10-100 and are widely available at kitchen supply outlets. The Baker's Catalogue offers several in a wide price range.

Microplane Grater: A Microplane rasp grater very effectively removes the zest from oranges, lemons, and limes without taking the bitter white pith underneath. It's much easier to use than a box grater for this task and yields more zest to boot. The tiny shreds of the zest are just the right size to incorporate into recipes. Microplanes now come in different sizes for different tasks with comfortable handles. They can also be used for grating whole nutmeg (so much better than preground nutmeg!), chocolate, and some cheeses as well as almond paste and marzipan. These handy tools can be found at http://www.microplane.com/ as well as Sur La Table and virtually all kitchen supply outlets.

Whisks: Whisks are indispensable in the kitchen as they are used for so many tasks. A whisk can be used to effectively blend dry ingredients and can even aerate flour in the absence of a sifter. They are frequently used to beat eggs as they incorporate air and are the right tool for blending and stirring hundreds of mixtures on and off the stove. It's good to have several whisks (mine range from 8" to 12") along with a balloon whisk for whipping eggs. Some whisks are coated with silicone so they're safe for non-stick pans. They can be found at Sur La Table, The Baker's Catalogue (King Arthur Flour) and kitchen supply stores. 

Revolving Cake Stand/Turntable: For frosting layer cakes, a revolving cake stand can't be beat. Combined with an offset spatula, you'll be able to turn out professional looking cakes without much effort. The best ones are metal (I like Ateco brand available from amazon.com as well as many other baking supply outlets) as they are studier, provide more control and will last a long time. The better ones run about $55 but you can get them for as as little as $12.   

Oven Mitts:
I know this seems ridiculously obvious, but a couple of bargain-brand pot-holders just won't suffice. You need high-quality insulated heat-safe mitts - and they should be at least 13" long. Most quilted terrycloth mitts are 11". While adequate for some tasks, they're not ideal. OXO makes a great fabric lined silicone mitt (available at www.oxo.com and www.amazon.com, as well as many retail outlets) that costs about $15. Features and benefits include:
  • Heat-safe to 600°F
  • Flame, stain and heat resistant silicone grip
  • Insulated fabic liner
  • Non-slip silicone rib design for improved dexterity and grip
  • Convenient storage with embedded magnet and silicone hanging loop
  • Easy to clean with a damp cloth
  • Machine washable
  • 13" length for added protection
  • Comes in several colors including cherry, key lime, blueberry, licorice, and lemon      

   

Monday, January 25, 2010

Pizza Memories

Yes, I know, I walk down memory lane a little too often. When it comes to the pizza of your youth however, many of you probably reside in the land of nostalgia as well. Not all of my childhood food memories are good. This might be the time to mention that my older brother once challenged me to a slider eating contest, which I won. We both got sick and my mother was furious. "What were you thinking! I believe that we have already established that your sister can out eat anyone in the family! What in God's name were you trying to prove?" To this day I cannot drive by a White Castle without getting a wave of nausea. For some reason though, I still love pie despite the fact that I got sick after winning the Barat College pie-eating contest, which I won hands down.

When I was growing up in the South Shore neighborhood of Chicago, there was a pizza place called Rossi's. I believe it was on east 79th Street. They made hand-tossed pizza and half the fun of going there was watching the pizza chef toss the dough in the air. Most of the time we had the pizza delivered but every now and then on a Saturday night, my father liked to visit the restaurant. There were six or eight booths and about a dozen tables, all covered with the requisite red and white checkered tablecloths with a Chianti bottle in the center. It reminded me of the spaghetti and meatballs scene in "Lady and the Tramp". The place was permeated with the scent of oregano, basil, fennel, cheese, and freshly baked bread. It was fantastic! The pizza was thin-crust and cut in squares rather than wedges that radiate from the center. I liked to first go around the entire outer edge and eat the little pieces with a bit of crunch. Then, on to the squares of cheese and sausage, which were divine. Sandwiches and pasta were also on the menu but the pizza was so good, I doubt we ever had anything else. To this day I have not found any pizza anywhere as satisfying as Rossi's and I still prefer squares to wedges.

Chicago is somewhat famous for deep dish pan pizza (we're also known for Italian Beef Sandwiches, Chicken Vesuvio, and Chicago-style hot dogs, which are always sprinkled with celery salt and day-glo green pickle relish). Uno's seems to have pioneered the deep-dish trend and it is very good - but to me, it's not really pizza. It's almost a casserole. When I want pizza, I want as close to Rossi's as possible. I don't even like the way pizza is delivered today - in a cardboard box with one of those little plastic "tables" in the center to keep the box cover from smashing the contents (the person who invented those little plastic do-dads is probably living on a tropical island, however). Although the boxes are often placed in an insulated bag, the pizzas are rarely hot upon delivery. They invariably take on the the taste of the cardboard and the crust is flaccid. Rossi's pizzas were delivered hot in a puffed-up paper bag and when the bag was opened, usually by a poke in the center by yours truly, the scent of Heaven was released. Oh, for the good old days ... no California Pizza Kitchen, no bagel pizzas (real bagels are hard to find, too, but that's another subject for another post), and no plasticized flavorless fake mozzarella.

I'd love to hear your pizza stories and your recommendations for the the best pizza joints in your area, which I'll be happy to publish. By the way, the best way to craft good pizza and bread at home is with a clay pizza stone, which absorbs moisture producing a dry heat which keeps the crust crisp. The King Arthur Baker's Catalogue sells an excellent quality pizza stone for $55. A 13" round version can be had for $45. Several of their flours produce superb pizza crusts including their Perfect Pizza Blend, Durum and Sir Lancelot Hi-Gluten Flours (see link below). Mangia bene!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Comfort Cookies: Orange Chocolate Crisps

My daughter lost her beloved cat, Kashie, on New Year's Day of this year. I was with her at the time and it was very sad. In the weeks to follow, Annie continued to grieve. One Sunday afternoon in January we decided to visit the Museum of Science and Industry - as a distraction and to get Annie out of the house for a bit. I wanted to bring her some cookies on that day as a gesture of my love and concern. Cookies of the decadent sort - big, gooey chocolate chip cookies, lemon bars, or brownies just didn't seem appropriate. In fact, they might have even seemed an affront, almost disrespectful at such a sensitive time.

Oranges, particularly navel oranges, are at their peak in January. I picked up some beauties at Whole Foods with a thought toward using their rind as well as their juice. Then I remembered a cookie I had adapted from a recipe found in "Gourmet's Best Desserts" published by Condé Nast in 1987. The original recipe was a butter cookie made with both flour and cornstarch and contained dried currants. Cookies made with part cornstarch have a melt-in-your-mouth quality that is simultaneously crisp and tender (Australia's "Melting Moments" Cookies are in this category). The recipe as written resulted in a rather ordinary finished product - acceptable but lacking panache. The cookies seemed to be missing something. I played around with them, baking several batches and finally, I had a winner. I substituted cranberries for the currants, incorporated orange rind and extract, and added mini chocolate chips. The ratio of orange to chocolate was just right and the cranberries added flavor, texture and color.

These are a tea cookie - elegant, small, crisp - perfect with a cup of Earl Grey or Darjeeling, coffee, or perhaps a glass of Chardonnay or a snifter of Grand Mariner or Cointreau. They are meant to be eaten two or three at a time with some deliberation, not wolfed down randomly. They keep nicely in a cookie tin for about a week. If you know someone who is going through a rough patch, these cookies would make an especially thoughtful gift. Please note that the cookie dough must chill for at least three hours or overnight before baking.

ORANGE CHOCOLATE CRISPS

1-1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup cornstarch
1 teaspoon non-aluminum baking powder, such as Rumford
1/2 teaspoon noniodized salt or fine sea salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar (superfine or C & H Baker's sugar preferred)
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon pure orange extract
1-1/2 tablespoons grated orange peel (about two large oranges), colored part only
1 cup (one 5 oz. bag) moist dried cranberries, chopped
1 cup mini chocolate chips

In a medium bowl, stir the flour, cornstarch, baking powder and salt together with a wire whisk until well-blended. Set aside. In the bowl of a standing mixer, cream the butter at medium speed. Add the sugar and beat for about two minutes. Add the egg, orange extract, and orange peel and beat for about a minute. Add the flour mixture in two batches, blending at low speed after each addition until the flour is just incorporated. Stir in the chopped dried cranberries and chocolate chips. Chill the dough for at least three hours or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 375°. Line baking sheets with parchment paper or Reynolds Release foil.

Roll teaspoons of the dough into balls and arrange them two inches apart on the baking sheets. You should be able to comfortably fit 20 cookies on a 13"x17" cookie sheet. If your kitchen is very warm, keep the remainder of the dough chilled. Flatten each ball with the tines of a fork, pressing the tines in one direction only to form an oval cookie with a ribbed design. Bake the cookies in the middle of the oven for 10-12 minutes until they are golden around the edges. The cookies will remain rather pale and delicate looking. Transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool completely. Store in cookie tins for up to a week. Yields about 100 cookies, enough to keep a tin for yourself.

Note: The orange flavor predominates in this recipe. If you would like the flavor more subtle, just reduce the orange extract to 1-2 teaspoons and cut the amount of grated rind in half. I also see no reason why lemon rind and extract cannot be substituted for orange except that I am very fond of orange with chocolate. I have also substituted dried cherries for the cranberries and almond extract for the citrus rind. I am also considering a Rum-Raisin version, substituting 1/2 cup brown sugar for the white and adding 1 tsp. vanilla and 1-2 tablespoon(s) dark rum.   

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Fly Tying, Bread Baking, and the Lost Art of Things Built by Hand


I tied my first (and perhaps only) fly today. It was a Woolly Bugger with a gorgeous blue marabou tail, orange chenille body, and hackle from what appeared to be a Rhode Island Red Rooster, all tied together with a Rumplestiltskin-like silk filament. It was a serendipitous event that came about while shopping for a silk shirt at the Orvis store near my home. A couple of guys from a local fly fishing group were demonstrating their fly-tying skills and offered me a seat. "Would I like to try my hand at fly-tying?" "Yes, yes I would. I've always wanted to try - at least once."

Today's instructor, a boyish and affable man in perhaps his late thirties, is a research chemist when he's not tying flies. As he worked with me (all thumbs) we spoke of carbon nanotubes and the Space Elevator. We moved into a theological discussion of the ramifications of the First Law of Thermodynamics and then things really started to get interesting. Clearly, this had the beginnings of a Renaissance discussion had we more time. Fly-fishermen are are a fascinating lot, those among them who who tie flies, even more so. They are nature lovers of course, conservationists (nearly all of them employ catch-and-release), and inherently philosophical.

My dear old friend Hawthorne was a ravenous golfer, a one time pilot of a Cessna 172 Skyhawk, and a dedicated fly-fisherman. The thought of him with his Winston rod and waders, fishing in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, warms my heart to this day. Years ago, I bought him a few exotic flies (with names like "Orange Sprite", " Dark Montreal", "Parmachene Belle" and "Telephone Box") for his birthday. He was moved by their beauty and handiwork and, I suppose, the uniqueness of the gift. He appreciated the lost art of things made by hand, things made by artisans who were in it for the love of the craft and the satisfaction of seeing something from inception to the finished product. My chemist-fly-fishing-teacher (whose nimble hands have produced more than 10,000 flies) spoke of hand-building a split bamboo rod, a one hundred hour commitment. He crafted the rod and the flies and took them out in the stream and watched as the fish took the bait on the side of its mouth, at which point all was right with the world in a Zen-like moment of near perfection and calm.

In this world of fast food, electronic wizardry, assembly-line cars, and instant gratification, we have lost ourselves. If fly-tying isn't your thing, craft a loaf of homemade bread. Skip the bread machine and build it by hand. Bake a cake that doesn't come out of a box. Try your hand at painting or pottery. Plant flowers, take up woodworking, quilting or weaving. Build a house as a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity. Do something creative with your hands. It doesn't have to be perfect. My fly was off-center with the rooster feathers lying haphazardly among the chenille valleys, but it was mine. For a few moments on a bitter cold Saturday afternoon, I was at peace with myself and the world.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Big Storm Coming? Stock Up on Flour and Yeast! Bake Rosemary Asiago Bread!

Today's Winter Storm Warning:

"ANOTHER ROUND OF WINTER WEATHER IS EXPECTED TO IMPACT THE MIDWEST BEGINNING LATE THURSDAY AND CONTINUING INTO FRIDAY MORNING. THIS STORM SYSTEM WILL BRING AN EXTENDED PERIOD OF SNOW... FREEZING RAIN AND SLEET..."

How to prepare? I stock up on flour and yeast! I'm "on vacation" until January 6 (I'm self-employed so I asked myself if I could take a Christmas break and the answer was "yes"). What do I do when I'm snowbound? I bake! There's no better time to bake bread than during a winter blast - I'm ready!

My favorite bread flour is King Arthur brand. Its high (12.8%) protein level assures a strong rise every time, which is essential as I most often combine it with rye or whole grains. This dependable flour, which is milled from hard red spring wheat grown in the Dakotas, is the best I've ever used. The King Arthur folks offer this tip when using their bread flour: "High-protein flour absorbs more liquid then medium-protein flour. When baking with bread flour, add about 2 teaspoons extra liquid for each cup of flour (or more, in order to produce dough that's the consistency the recipe calls for)."

My favorite yeast? SAF Instant Red - and for high sugar doughs, I use SAF Gold. Both are reliable, reliable, reliable. You don't need to proof these yeasts - just add them along with the dry ingredients. Stored in the freezer, SAF yeast will stay vigorous for up to a year.

King Arthur Bread Flour is widely available here in the Chicago area, along with King Arthur whole wheat, white whole wheat, and all-purpose flours. I buy SAF Red at GFS retail outlets (Gordon Food Service) and have also spotted it at Costco. SAF Red and Gold can also be ordered from the Baker's Catalogue at King Arthur Flour. Both products will produce excellent results even in the hands of beginning bakers. Now get out there and bake! Here's a recipe to get you started:

ROSEMARY ASIAGO BREAD

2 packages active dry yeast or 2 teaspoons SAF Instant Yeast
1 cup warm water (105º to 115º)
6 cups bread flour (King Arthur preferred)
1 tablespoon dried rosemary, crumbled or other single or mixed dried or fresh herbs
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 cups (16 oz. container) low-fat small-curd cottage cheese, at room temperature
1 large egg, at room temperature, plus 1 extra egg for brushing the loaves if desired
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil or butter, plus extra for greasing the rising bowl
1 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
1 cup grated/shredded Asiago, plus additional Asiago for the top of the loaves
2 red bell peppers, roasted, peeled and diced (jarred in water is fine - drain well) (optional)

In a medium bowl, dissolve the yeast in the warm water for 5 minutes, or until the mixture is foamy. Add 1 tablespoon of the sugar and 1 cup of the bread flour, stir, and set the sponge aside for ten minutes (it should rise substantially). In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine 4 cups of the bread flour, rosemary, remaining sugar, and salt. Add the cottage cheese along with the yeast sponge, egg, olive oil, additional cheeses, and bell pepper. Mix on low speed, using the paddle attachment, until the dough comes together, adding the additional 1 cup flour if needed. Switch to the dough hook attachment and knead for about five minutes at medium speed. Drop the dough (it will look shaggy) onto a lightly floured surface and knead for an additional 2-3 minutes by hand, or until the dough is smooth and elastic. Transfer to a large oiled/buttered bowl and turn it over to coat with the oil. Cover with a tea towel and place in a warm place free of drafts until doubled in volume (about 1 to 1-1/2 hours).

Punch the dough down, cover, and let rest for 10 minutes (this gives the gluten a chance to relax). Divide the dough in half and shape into 2 free form rounds, pinching together the seams at the bottom. Place on a greased sheet (or use Reynolds Release foil or parchment paper). Lightly coat the tops with olive oil or very soft butter*, cover, and let rise until doubled in volume, about 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 400º F for at least 20 minutes (you may use a baker's/pizza stone).

Score the loaves with two deep slashes or a crosshatch pattern using a very sharp knife or baker's lame, and lightly press about 1/4 cup grated or shredded Asiago onto the top of each of the loaves. *Alternatively, for a crisp crust, brush each loaf with an egg wash made with one beaten egg and 2 teaspoons water. Sprinkle each loaf with about 1 teaspoon dried or fresh rosemary. Place in the oven and immediately turn the oven down to 350º. Bake 40 minutes or until the loaves sound hollow when tapped on the bottom or a thermometer inserted in the center of the loaf reads 190º to 200º F. Remove loaves immediately and cool completely on a rack before cutting or storing.

Feel free to experiment with different cheeses (the cottage cheese is a fixed ingredient, however). Sharp Cheddar is very good. I also like this bread with dill weed replacing the rosemary.

Note: Shaping the loaves takes a little practice. Fashion the dough into a ball and flatten slightly. Turn the ball clockwise while simultaneously stretching and smoothing the dough under with your other hand. Turn the dough over, pinch the bottom seam, and press it with your fingers. Eventually you will get the hang of it. The seam is on the bottom, so it’s not important if it’s not perfect. The bread can also be shaped into conventional loaves or dinner rolls.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Swedish Cardamom Bread

One of the first fragrances that I can recall was my mother's Swedish Cardamom Bread fresh out of the oven. It's a scent that takes me back to the Christmases of my childhood and they are fond memories indeed. Swedes use cardamom extensively in baking - in breads, coffee cakes, cookies, pastries, and Swedish pancakes. Cardamom also marries well with fruit and is used in Swedish Fruit Soup, a poached dried fruit mélange that is equally delicious hot or cold for breakfast or dessert.

A member of the ginger family, cardamom's flavor is difficult to describe (but it doesn't taste like ginger). It's strong, spicy-sweet and has a distinct lemon profile with a faint nuance of pine. Like other spices, it carries a degree of warmth. Indian restaurants often offer cardamom pods after dinner to cleanse the breath and palate. If you haven't consumed Indian or Scandinavian cuisine, you may not have experienced the exotic pull of this wonderful spice. Trust me, it's worth a try.

I buy my ground cardamom from Penzey's and replace it often - once you open the jar the flavor begins to diminish. Keeping cardamom in the fridge helps keep it fresh. You may, of course, grind your own cardamom from the pods. The seeds from inside the pod may be ground or you can grind the entire pod. I like the convenience of pre-ground cardamom - I just remember to replace it often. Penzey's sells ground cardamom in both 1.2 ounce and 2.4 ounce jars.

This bread is very rich - more like a coffee cake - and makes three braided loaves. It's delicious the day it's made but is even better on the second and third days when the flavors have had the chance to develop. It's wonderful toasted and makes an excellent - and different - French toast! The loaves freeze beautifully for a month if wrapped in a double layer of heavy-duty foil.
Although my Cardamom Bread is equal to my mom's in taste and texture, I've never mastered the braiding. I fashion the loaves into three braids. Feel free to shape yours into a four or five-braid. It helps to start in the middle. Don't worry if your braids aren't perfect!

SWEDISH CARDAMOM BREAD

6-1/2 to 7 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (King Arthur preferred)
2 1/4 ounce packages Fleishmann's "Rapid Rise" yeast, or 2 teaspoons SAF Instant or SAF Gold yeast
1 cup regular or superfine sugar
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 rounded tablespoon ground cardamom
Zest (colored part only) of 1 large orange
2 teaspoons pure orange extract
2 cups whole or lowfat milk
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature plus extra for greasing the rising bowl
3 eggs (2 for the dough, 1 for brushing the loaves)
1-1/2 cups dried cranberries (such as "Craisins")
1 cup sliced blanched almonds
Granulated sugar

In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine 2-1/2 cups of the flour, yeast, sugar, salt, cardamom, and the orange peel. Heat milk and butter in a medium saucepan until warm (120-130F) (the butter does not have to be completely melted). Add to flour mixture all at once. Add 2 of the eggs and the orange extract and beat on medium speed for 2 minutes. Scrape down the bowl and beat for another minute. Add the dried cranberries (light or dark raisins may be used in place of the cranberries. If the fruit is a bit too dry, it can be plumped by letting it steep in boiling water for two minutes (drain well) or by letting it macerate in Grand Mariner or Cointreau for a day or two.) Gradually add the rest of the flour by hand to make a soft dough. Turn dough on to a floured surface and knead with floured hands for about 7-8 minutes (form dough into a ball, fold edges of dough toward center and push dough down and away with heels of hands. Give dough a quarter turn and repeat until dough is smooth and elastic, adding flour as needed. Feel free to knead by machine - mixer or food processor - but knead by hand for 2-3 minutes afterward.) Liberally grease another large bowl with unsalted soft butter. Place dough in the bowl, turning to grease it on all sides. Cover with a tea towel and let rise in a warm place free of drafts until doubled in size - about 1 hour.

Punch dough down. Cover again with the tea towel and let rest 10 minutes. Divide dough into thirds. Divide each third into 3 equal size pieces. Roll each piece into a 16" rope on the floured work surface. Braid the ropes and pinch and tuck the ends to seal. Place on a greased cookie sheet. Repeat twice with remaining dough. Cover with tea towels and let rise in a warm place until almost doubled - about 30 minutes. Heat oven to 350F. Brush loaves with beaten egg and press about a 1/3 cup of the almonds onto each loaf. Sprinkle liberally with granulated sugar. Bake until golden brown - about 30 minutes. Let cool on pan 5 minutes and transfer to racks to finish cooling.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Swedish Limpa (Rye Bread with Orange, Molasses, and Anise)

Do you know where Santa's reindeer are raised and trained? Sweden! The guy in the middle is Blitzen, who is charged with training the other two, Erik and Axel. They've been going through several exercises in preparation for the big event on Christmas Eve. Word has it that Santa now has an on-board satellite navigation system. That plus his Blackberry should keep him on track (he probably subscribes to Wired magazine). Erik and Axel will be filling in for Dancer and Prancer, who will be taking a much needed vacation after 20years of service.

Word has it too that Santa loves Limpa and takes a loaf along in his sleigh. He gets mighty hungry during the long winter night of delivering gifts! I don't have a photograph of my Limpa because I haven't made it as yet this year. I might not get to it until after Christmas as my cookie baking will be taking much of my time in the kitchen. Nevertheless, I keep getting requests for the recipe. So ... here it is, sans photo.

Limpa is a bit sweeter than New York /Jewish Rye, Russian Rye or Pumpernickel. I love eating and baking rye bread - all kinds. In his book "The New Complete Book of Breads", Bernard Clayton says, "rye is the glamour flour of the dark grains". I agree. If you haven't worked with rye flour before, this is a good recipe with which to begin as it doesn't require a starter or sponge and comes togther rather quickly (yet is full of flavor!). Carefully read through the recipe and you'll be fine. Questions? Just send me an e-mail or contact The Baker's Hotline at King Arthur Flour (802.649.3717).

SWEDISH RYE BREAD (LIMPA)

• 3 to 3-1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour or bread flour (King Arthur brand preferred)
• 3 cups medium or dark rye flour (Bob's Red Mill Dark Rye Flour is excellent and widely available)
• 2 envelopes Fleishmann's "Rapid-Rise", Red Star "Quick-Rise", or 2 teaspoons SAF Instant Yeast (preferred)
• 2 teaspoons vital wheat gluten* (optional but helpful)
• 2 cups milk (nonfat is fine)
• 1/2 cup light molasses (such as "Grandma's Original")
• 1/4 cup orange marmalade mixed with a one tablespoon orange juice.
• 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter - plus extra soft butter for greasing the rising bowl
• 1 teaspoon fine sea salt (do not use iodized salt)
• 1 tablespoon anise seed (or 1-1/2 teaspoons ground anise)
• 1 tablespoon fennel seed (or 1-1/2 teaspoons ground fennel)
• 1 tablespoon caraway seed (or 2 teaspoons ground caraway)
• 1 teaspoon ground coriander seed
• Zest of 1 large orange (colored part only)
• 1 egg yolk lightly beaten with 1 tablespoon of water
• Cornmeal (if using a baking/pizza stone)

In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine 2-1/2 cups of the unbleached flour, yeast, vital wheat gluten, salt, spices, and the orange peel and blend well. Heat milk, butter, molasses, and marmalade in a medium saucepan until warm (120º) (the butter does not have to be completely melted). Add to flour mixture all at once and blend at low speed, using paddle attachment, until moistened. Beat at medium speed for 3 minutes. Scrape down the bowl and beat for another minute. With mixer running on low speed, add rye flour and additional all-purpose flour 1/2 cup at a time and knead until dough pulls cleanly away from sides of bowl and forms a ball - about 2 minutes. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let dough rest for 20 minutes. This autolyse period gives the flour a change to hydrate.

Turn dough onto a floured surface and knead for about 5-8 minutes (form dough into a ball, fold edges of dough toward center and push dough down and away with heels of hands. Give dough a quarter turn and repeat until dough is smooth and elastic. Feel free to knead 3-4 minutes with the electric mixer using the dough hook but knead by hand for 2-3 minutes afterward.) Rye flour is inherently sticky and recalcitrant. Use a metal dough scraper to gather up the dough. Resist the urge to add additional flour - the dough will become less difficult as you work with it.

Liberally grease another large bowl with unsalted soft butter. Place dough in the bowl, turning to grease it on all sides. Cover with a tea towel and let rise in a warm place free of drafts (the oven is a good place - turned on for one minute at 300º and then turned off) until almost doubled in size, about 1 hour.

Gently deflate dough. Let rest 10 minutes, covered. Divide into two equal parts. Shape into round loaves, seam side down (this takes a little practice - just keep rotating the dough in a circular motion on the work surface between your hands, while keeping it taught. It doesn’t have to be perfect). Place on a baking sheet covered with Reynolds Release foil or parchment paper or directly on a baking/pizza stone sprinkled with cornmeal (you don't need to preheat the stone). Cover with a tea towel and let rise in a warm place, about 30 minutes. You can also shape into traditional loaves. Scoring of the crust before baking is not necessary but as Bernard Clayton advises, prick the top of each loaf with a toothpick, 1" or more deep in a dozen places so that steam can escape.

Preheat oven to 375º for at least 20 minutes. Combine water and egg yolk and brush on loaves. Reduce the oven temperature to 350º and bake for 45 minutes or until loaves sound hollow when lightly tapped and/or an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of the loaves read between 190º and 210º (most reliable method). Ovens vary so your loaves make take more time. Cool on wire racks. When completely cool, store in plastic bags, leaving the bags partially open (round loaves fit perfectly into gallon size Ziploc bags). For a softer crust, omit the egg wash and brush the loaves with very soft butter immediately after baking.

Notes: Limpa is delicious the day it is made but is even better on the second and third days when the flavors have had the chance to develop. It's wonderful toasted and great with cheese and/or a well-crafted beer, ale or stout. *Hodgson Mill Vital Wheat Gluten with Vitamin C and Bob's Red Mill Organic Dark Rye Flour are widely available in the baking isle of most supermarkets. Similar brands can also be had from The Baker's Catalogue at King Arthur Flour. Rye flour has very little gluten. The Vital Wheat Gluten helps to ensure a higher rise (as does the higher protein bread flour) and the Vitamin C extends freshness. Yeast dies at 138º. Liquid should feel comfortably warm on the wrist, as with a baby's bottle. For accuracy, use a thermometer. For seedless rye, ground anise, fennel and caraway may be used. All are available from Penzey's.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Have Yourself a Vegetarian Christmas - Pumpkin Lasagna with Rosemary and Four Cheeses

This Pumpkin Lasagna is a gorgeous vegetarian main dish - fragrant and full of flavor. For those of you who might think to turn your nose up to pumpkin in lasagna - think squash - not pie!

Serve with green beans ( I buy the frozen haricot vert from Trader Joe's) dressed with butter, hazelnut oil, toasted hazelnuts, and shallots; homemade cranberry sauce; and a green salad with pears and cider vinagrette. The colors on the plate are festive indeed! Serve something chocolate for dessert.

Please use high quality cheeses. Inferior cheeses will render this dish ordinary.

PUMPKIN LASAGNA WITH ROSEMARY AND FOUR CHEESES

Pasta

One pound dried lasagna noodles, preferably De Cecco brand (do not use “no-boil” lasagna)

Filling

1 large can (29 ounces) pure pumpkin puree (do not use pumpkin pie filling)
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
2-3 fresh sage leaves
1 teaspoon dried crushed rosemary
2 teaspoons Mrs. Dash Original Blend
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/3 cup seasoned breadcrumbs
1/2 cup mascarpone
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1/2 cup freshly grated Asiago
1/2 cup freshly grated Gruyère
1/4 cup creamy goat cheese
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
1 teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground pepper

Béchamel Sauce

1/4 cup (½ stick) unsalted butter
1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
3 cups whole milk
2 tablespoons fresh creamy goat cheese
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg

Topping

1/2 cup seasoned bread crumbs mixed with ½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
3 fresh rosemary sprigs

Heat a large stockpot of lightly salted water to a boil; fill a large mixing bowl with ice and water. Boil the noodles until al dente, about 8 minutes; drain. Transfer to the ice water. Drain the noodles well in a large colander and toss with a teaspoon of oil to keep pasta from sticking. Set aside.

Meanwhile, for the sauce, melt butter in a large saucepan over low heat; sprinkle in the flour, stirring continuously with a wire whisk. Cook, stirring constantly, 5 minutes. Whisk in the milk; whisk in the goat cheese, salt and pinch of nutmeg. Heat to a simmer; cook, whisking often, until thick and creamy, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat, cover with waxed paper to prevent a skin from forming, and set aside.

For the filling, combine pumpkin puree, thyme, sage, rosemary, Mrs. Dash, nutmeg, breadcrumbs, mascarpone, additional cheeses, brown sugar, goat cheese, salt, and pepper in a very large mixing bowl. Taste the filling and adjust seasoning as necessary.

Preheat oven to 375°. To assemble lasagna, spread a third of the pumpkin mixture on the bottom of a lightly greased 13“ x 9” baking pan (Pyrex or Corning Ware are fine). Cover with a layer of lasagna noodles, placed lengthwise side by side, overlapping the edges. Spread another third of the filling over the noodles; top with ¾ cup of the béchamel. Top with another layer of noodles, the remaining filling, and another ¾ cup of béchamel. Cover with a final layer of noodles and the remaining béchamel. Sprinkle with breadcrumb/Parmigiano-Reggiano mixture. Place the rosemary springs diagonally across the top. Cover the lasagna with lightly buttered Reynolds Release foil, folding the edges over the sides of the pan. Bake lasagna until heated through and bubbling, about 50 minutes. Remove the foil and continue to bake until the topping is golden brown, about 7-10 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven; cool 10 minutes. Cut into rectangles or squares.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Easy Chocolate Crinkle Cookies

These cookies are so easy, you should smudge your face with a little flour before you serve them so your friends and family will think you've been working really hard all afternoon. (Remember those old '80s Rice Krispies commercials where the mom tosses flour on her self because her family was too stupid to know that Rice Krispie treats are ridiculously easy to make and she figured manipulation is a good a way as any to have fun and get attention?) These cookies are great for dunking in milk and are also good for breakfast!

Remember: Always use the finest ingredients you can afford. It makes all the difference in the world.

Chocolate Crinkle Cookies
(Adapted from Williams-Sonoma's "Essentials of Baking")


4 oz. unsweetened chocolate chopped
1/4 cup unsalted butter (1/2 stick)
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup Dutch process cocoa
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs (room temperature)
2 cups granulated sugar
1 tablespoon Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Extract (splurge on Nielsen-Massey or Penzey's brand ("Double Strength" if you can find it.)
1-1/2 cups (9 oz.) semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup confectioners sugar

Melt the butter and chocolate on top of a double boiler, over simmering water, and stir often. Remove and set aside to cool.

In a small bowl, sift together the dry ingredients — flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

In a large bowl, combine eggs, granulated sugar, and vanilla and beat 2 -3 minutes. Mix in the melted chocolate mixture until blended. Gradually fold in the dry ingredients and mix until incorporated. The dough will be very stiff! Mix in the chocolate chips.

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

Place rack in center of oven and preheat to 325F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. (This keeps cookies from sticking to the pan or overbaking on the bottom. It also makes for easy cleanup.) Sift the confectioners’ sugar into a small bowl.

Roll a rounded tablespoon of dough between your palms into a 1 inch ball (don't make them any bigger unless you want GIANT COOKIES), and roll it in the powdered sugar. Place the cookies about 3 inches apart on the cookie sheet.

Bake the cookies, 1 sheet at a time, until the tops are puffed and crinkled and feel firm when lightly touched, about 13-17 mins. Let the cookies cool on the baking sheets for 5 minutes, and then transfer the cookies to wire racks to cool completely.

These cookies will stay fresh for up to three days when kept in a sealed, airtight container and stored in a cool place.

Today's post is courtesy of my daughter Annie, who is in the middle of a baking marathon. I can only hope she is gearing up for St. Lucia's Day (December 13), the beginning of the Christmas season for Swedes. I'm counting on freshly baked Lussekatter.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Cranberries Grand Mariner with Crystallized Ginger

Ahh ... cranberries ... the jewel of the holiday season. I buy at least a dozen bags of fresh cranberries beyond what I use during the winter holidays. Properly stored in heavy duty freezer bags, fresh cranberries keep for up to a year. I can make Cranberry Upside Down Cake (recipe is on this blog); Cranberry Chutney, Cranberry Quick Bread, Cranberry Catsup, Cranberry Apple Pie, and Roast Pork with Cranberries throughout the year. When the freezer gets bare midwinter, those scarlet berries seem as valuable as bags of rubies. I'll be putting more cranberry recipes on this site in the weeks to come - but I'll start with this easy twist on Classic Cranberry Sauce. This is a large recipe - enough for a crowd with plenty for next-day Thanksgiving leftovers.

CRANBERRIES GRAND MARINER WITH CRYSTALLIZED GINGER

2-12 ounce bags fresh cranberries (direct from freezer is fine)
1-1/2 cups water
1-3/4 cups sugar, superfine preferred
1/2 cup Grand Marinier, Cointreau, or Grand Gala liqueur
Zest of one large lemon (colored part only)
Zest of one large orange (colored part only)
4 tablespoons finely chopped crystallized ginger (found in the spice section)
1/4 teaspoon noniodized salt

Give the cranberries a quick rinse with a colander and pick out any stems or shriveled berries. Combine sugar, water, and liqueur in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil and add the cranberries, lemon and orange zest, ginger and salt. Return to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for ten minutes, stirring occasionally. Cover and cool to to room temperature. Divide into two serving bowls and refrigerate until serving time.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Make Room at Your Thanksgiving Table

My mother believed that no one should be alone during the holidays, especially Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day. From the time she and my father were first married, she established a tradition of extending invitations to those who had no where to go on any given holiday. Consequently, we always had a diverse and colorful crowd at the table! Once, when I was a child, there was an unfamiliar woman sitting across from us. My brother asked if I knew who she was. I said, "mom met her at the pharmacy while getting a prescription filled." He said, "do we know her?". I replied, "well, we do now!".

One year, when my mom was in her late sixties, she invited more than 40 people for Thanksgiving dinner. I should mention that she lived in a one-bedroom condo, albeit with a formal dining room. I said, "where in Heaven's name are you going to seat these people?" She said, "you worry too much! We'll borrow chairs and tables and put some people in the living room and foyer and set up a long table in the entrance hall!" "Across from the elevator?" "Sure, that way if they're late they can step off the elevator and go directly into a chair!" "Uh, mom, how are you going to feed all these people?" "Stop worrying! Charlotte and Rose (the neighbors across the hall) have a commercial stove and two wall ovens. We'll have two turkeys. It's all arranged!" She managed 38 at tables and I went over and ate my dinner with the neighbors. My mom sat in a corner adjacent to the dining room table and close to the kitchen. There were only two condo units per floor - so both front doors were propped open and it became a two-condo flowing party. It was great! There was only one mishap. Mom had borrowed an extra bowl from Charlotte. It was a bowl that had reputedly once belonged to the Romanovs - Nicholas II used that bowl! It was worth a small fortune! Somehow, in carrying the mashed potatoes from the kitchen to the dining room, she dropped the bowl and it shattered. Mom felt terrible but Charlotte was a real sport. In Charlotte's mind, the greater sin would have been to be unforgiving or ungracious. "No sense crying over mashed potatoes!"

When I was in college, my mom always encouraged me to bring a friend or two home for Thanksgiving dinner. When her grandchildren when off to college, they were likewise encouraged. The older mom got, the more liberal and tolerant she became. She didn't care about a person's sexual preference, color, or ethnic background. Jew, Bahá'í, Hindu or Atheist - you were always welcome at her table. It didn't matter if you were a bricklayer, physician, or postal worker, if you didn't have a place to go, mom would see to it that you were included.

This year, consider inviting someone new to your table. We often assume that people we know have a place to go on a holiday. I can assure you that this is often not the case. It could be a colleague or co-worker, a neighbor, a lady at church who recently lost her husband, or a college student from a foreign country. We've become an isolationist society, afraid to move out of our comfort zones. We're afraid to share our comforts too, as if we might somehow lose them in the process. Nonsense! Don't worry if you don't have enough chairs or dishes - make it work. Even Martha Stewart says that mixing and matching china is fashionable! Reach out to others - you'll have a wonderful time, it'll be good for the kids, and you'll make new friends.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Tinker, Tailor, Baker, Pie

My father's brother married a woman who could do practically anything. Her skills in the kitchen were equally matched by her green thumb. Her garden boasted more than a hundred rose bushes which produced some of the most exquisite blossoms I have ever seen. Louise could sew - but more than that, she was a tailor who designed and made dresses and suits that rivaled that of the "28 Shop" at Marshall Field's. She could hang wallpaper, fix plumbing, install windows, upholster furniture and once, when I spent the weekend with my aunt and uncle, I observed her changing the oil and replacing the spark plugs in their car. She accomplished all of these things while maintaining a full time job. To say that Uncle Roy was living large is an understatement. Louise was everybody's favorite relative. She was so popular, that one of my nieces is named for her. If there is one thing for which Aunt Louise is remembered, however, it is her Apple Pie. She's been gone for 35 years but at family gatherings, the subject of the pie still surfaces.

The fact of those 10-inch mile-high beauties was not lost on my mother, who never ever baked an Apple Pie. Frankly, she couldn't stand the competition. In terms of the sheer number of baked goods, my mother had Louise beat by a mile. My mother was an extraordinary baker - the stuff of legends - and she baked scores of fabulous pies. During the summer months we ate Blueberry Pie until our collective teeth were stained. In the spring, we ate Rhubarb Pie and lofty meringued Lemon Pie so tart it would make your eyes water, because that's the way the family liked it. Come Thanksgiving, there would be Mincemeat Pies with Brandied Hard Sauce and Pumpkin Chiffon Pies adorned with Orange Glaze. There was a Sour Cream Raisin too, that probably contributed to my father's demise. But Apple? No, that wasn't going to happen.

When we visited Aunt Louise and Uncle Roy's, Louise always made an Apple Pie for my father. It was accompanied by a generous slice of extra-sharp Cheddar Cheese from someplace in Vermont. It was so sharp that it made the roof of your mouth sting with delight. Louise served it to my father with a cup of coffee - percolated coffee - for which Louise would grind the beans herself. Hoo-boy! Now the entertainment would start - this was more fun than a barrel of monkeys. My mother made coffee the "Swedish way", in an enamel pot on the back of the stove - a gas stove. My mom prepared coffee that way until the day she died, eschewing percolators, drip machines, French press, or any other method of brewing. Dad would eat the Apple Pie with gusto and when asked if he would like another slice ( and a refill of the coffee), he would saddle up to Louise and say, "Oh yes 'Weezie' that would be wonderful" - and my mother would be quietly seething in the corner: "I don't know how Louise does it in that electric oven. You just can't control those electric ranges! Everything comes out dry! Any cook who has any sense uses gas, for God's sake! Percolators ruin coffee! All that bubbling over and over just kills the flavor!" (My father was as kind a person as could be found, but somehow he seemed to be enjoying the scenery). Then there was the matter of the dishwashing liquid. My aunt used a different brand than my mother, who claimed that "dishpan hands" would eventually claim Louise and render her forever useless.

Louise made a three-layer German Chocolate Cake, too and it was to die for - suffice to say that there were no such cakes to be had at home. My favorite "Aunt Louise dessert" was an Angel Food Cake baked in an extra-long loaf pan. She split it horizontally, filled it with vanilla pastry cream, and iced it with billows of light caramel frosting. I'm happy to say that is one cake I have since mastered.

My mom baked hundreds of fantastic cookies at Christmastime (all packed up in Marshall Field's boxes which she saved throughout the year), regularly crafted homemade bread, and in her lifetime produced probably a thousand Lady Baltimore cakes, three-layer Chocolate Cakes with Apricot Filling, and Coconut Cakes filled with lemon curd. There were Profiteroles, Eclairs filled with Coffee Cream, Napoleans, Palmiers, Tortes, giant Cinnamon Rolls, Coffeecakes, and Jelly Rolls, but no Apple Pies. My mother was relegated to cooking with an electric range the last 25 years of her life because that was the hook-up in her condo. She complained about it but everthing that came out her kitchen was sublime.

In 1972, when my uncle was dying of cancer, we went to see him at home. Louise served slices of Apple Pie. Sadly, it was a frozen pie. Uncle Roy's illness had eclipsed the crafting of homemade desserts. There was very little time for such things and not much inclination. Louise succumbed to cancer eleven months after her husband and that, I'm afraid was the end of the Apple Pies. My mother lived another 20 years and although the pie making continued, there was no mention of Apple Pie. Some things are sacred.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Computer Diet

At some point you have undoubtedly been where I was last week - in the middle of a computer nightmare. If not, rest assured you will be. Like death and taxes, computer crashes will happen - it's only a matter of time. I'll spare my readers the gory details except to say that I was on the phone with tech support for more than 47 hours over a six-day period. During this time I spoke with not less than a dozen international technical support "specialists" at various levels of expertise. Not possible you say? I should know - I was there. I consider myself a sophisticated computer user as I've been working with PCs in a business environment since 1984. If this were not the case, I most certainly would have been committed to Shady Pines by now - if for no other reason than being forced to type long strings of seemingly unrelated letters and numbers repeatedly in the search bar.

I was told I had a corrupted hard drive (I didn't), a seriously infected system (despite two leading edge programs to prevent such an occurrence), and a "known registry issue" with my operating system. No one really knows for sure what happened or why. It all started when my computer wouldn't load my user profile. I couldn't get past the password portal. It was like going to someone's home and looking for the front door. It wasn't as if someone inside couldn't hear the doorbell - it was if if there were no door at all. An impenetrable brick fort that could not be scaled. About a quarter of the way into the entire episode, the technicians began to take over my computer by remote (with my permission), each person escalating the problem exponentially. Sometimes when you give up control, you only make matters worse. I should have trusted my instincts.

Futurists tell us that the next revolution in computing will lie in the development of quantum computation - an advance known as "The Feynman Processor". These computers (at least according to the futurists) will provide lighting fast capabilities with unbreakable codes (which is probably why government and military agencies most likely support its research). Theoretical physics professor Gerard Milburn, in his book "The Feynman Processor" said ", ... classical computers are not protected from the arrow of time. Errors creep in along the way as the computer manipulates bits of information. Parts of the world external to the computer get mixed into the computation and, in effect, rewrite bits. Errors reverse information and are thus due to physically irreversible processes." Believe me, as soon as you take your new computer out of the box, the little ghosties and beasties are trying to corrupt and manipulate your system. Until the "Feynman Processor" becomes a reality, all you can hope for is to stay one step ahead while trying to maintain your investment, your composure and your precious data.

Of course quantum computation appears to have a few problems of its own. It seems that in order for a quantum computer to run properly - that is in a reversible way - it cannot have any contact with the outside world during computation (how do you prevent THAT?). Apparently, this would cause it to "decohere". Quantum computers would also employ the principle of "quantum entanglement", a phenomenon which Einstein called "spooky action at a distance." Uh ... somehow, none of this seems quite stable... but then physicists who study the strange world of quantum mechanics deal with concepts such as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and Chaos Theory.

What does all of this have to do with food? Everything - as any microwave snack eating teenager can tell you. In a computer crisis, there are only two ways to go - the junk food diet (remember Wayne Knight's computer programmer character "Dennis Nedry" in the film "Jurassic Park"?) and the no food diet. I found myself in the midst of the latter. As the problem escalated, my appetite waned - and frankly, there wasn't much time to eat. When I shut down for the evening, I just sort of fell into bed in a stupor watching old episodes of "Murder, She Wrote". By the sixth day, I was blabbering incoherently. At one point, however, I made a deliberate trip to the all night gas station for a chocolate candy bar. I also vaguely recall eating some unbuttered toast and a banana. The rest is a blur.

My computer appears (the operative word being "appears") to be working at ninety percent capacity. I have a telephone appointment with a "senior level" technician tomorrow to perform what I hope will be the final exorcism, after which I will no doubt regain those pesky five pounds I lost last week.

Gerard J. Milburn obtained a PhD in theoretical physics in 1982 and has since become a world expert in quantum information theory, currently working at the University of Queensland, Australia.

Feed the Hungry

Here I am, writing about food, when so many have so little. Inspired by my friend Heidi's commitment to providing nutritional lunches to disadvantaged children, I feel compelled to do something positive toward alleviating hunger. The cost of wheat, rice and milk are going through the roof. Gas prices are forcing food distributors and manufacturers to increase their prices dramatically across the board. Traveling back and forth to work is costing more than ever. Combined with a job loss, the effects of the current economic downturn and the cost of fuel on a family can be truly devastating. Add the high cost of health care and you have a nightmare. Hunger is also a serious concern for many elderly people with fixed incomes and limited mobility. What can be done?

My parish has an ongoing food drive 12 months of the year. They understand that hunger knows no season. We tend to help during the winter holidays, forgetting that people are hungry during the rest of the year. We're encouraged to bring canned and jarred goods, as well as rice, pasta, cereal and other essential non-perishables on a regular basis. If every parishioner brought a canned good or a jar of peanut butter every week, it would go a long way in helping those in need. If your church, temple or employer does not have a food drive, perhaps you can set things in motion. Not sure how or where to begin?

Feeding America, the largest domestic hunger-relief organization in the United States, feeds over 25 million Americans each year. Approximately 80 percent of all food banks in the U.S. are part of the Feeding America Member Network. They need donations of funds and food, as well as volunteers. They can direct you in how to hold a food drive in your neighborhood, place of worship, organization, or with your employer. They also have a list of food banks and emergency food providers in your area. Visit them online at www.feedingamerica.org.

One of the organizations within Second Harvest's network is the Greater Chicago Food Depository. They distribute more than 41,000,000 pounds of food annually through qualified agencies to feed hungry people in Chicago. They also need funds, food, and volunteers and can help you organize a local food drive. Those in the Chicago area can go to http://www.chicagosfoodbank.org/.

Chefs for Humanity is an alliance of culinary professionals and educators working in partnership with U.S. and global organizations, providing nutrition education, hunger relief, and emergency and humanitarian aid to reduce hunger across the world. Founded by renowned chef Cat Cora, Chefs for Humanity directly manages programs and partners with world organizations to care for people who have been affected by natural disasters, war and drought. They can be found online at http://www.chefsforhumanity.com/

Share our Strength ® is a national organization that works to make sure no child in America grows up hungry. They partner with the culinary industry to create fund-raising programs such as Share Our Strength’s Taste of the Nation® and Share Our Strength’s Great American Bake Sale®. Award-winning chef-restaurateur, cookbook author, and television personality Rick Bayless is one the organization's most ardent supporters.

According to share our Strength , "More than 12.6 million (one in six!) children in America are at risk of hunger. These children will endure lifelong consequences as a result of having limited access to nutritious foods. In fact, they’re more likely to suffer poorer health, fatigue, hospitalizations, behavioral difficulties and impaired performance at school. Despite the good efforts of governments, private-sector institutions and everyday Americans, millions of our children still don’t have daily access to the nutritious meals they need to live active, healthy lives." To help further Share our Strength's mission to end childhood hunger in America, go to http://www.shareourstrength.org/.

Finally, a person or family without groceries may be closer than you imagine - it could be a neighbor, a fellow church member, a relative, or a co-worker. According to America's Second Harvest, 36% of the 25 million people they serve live in a household where someone works. Some families have to make difficult choices whether to pay the rent, make a car payment, buy prescription medicine, or buy groceries. In fact, more and more families are facing hunger for the first time. If you know of someone who has lost a job or been devastated by a health care or other crisis, lend a hand. An anonymous note with a $25 gift card toward a purchase at a local supermarket will bring relief for someone in need, and you will sleep better - I promise.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Early Days of Television - The Antoinette and François Pope Cooking Show

A decade before Julia Child gave us "The French Chef" and more than 40 years before the launch of "The Food Network", there was a program hosted by Antoinette and François Pope. It was my first cooking show. I was about five years old when I began to watch the broadcast on our Magnavox television set (and had to miss it when I went to morning kindergarten). Although it wasn't the the first cooking show in the history of American television (that distinction belongs to James Beard's "I Love to Eat" which appeared on NBC-TV from 1946-1947 - well before my time) it was most certainly one of the earliest and most popular. Along with "Ask Mr. Wizard", the Antoinette and François Pope endeavor was, at least for me, a must see in the early days of "educational" programming. The show was Chicago-based and came on, I believe, at 10:00 a.m. on Channel 7. The Popes ran a cooking school, "The Antoinette Pope School of Fancy Cookery" and they published a cookbook appropriately titled "The Antoinette Pope School Cookbook". It was one of the cookbooks in my mother's library along with "The Joy of Cooking" and "Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book", all of which I perused on a regular basis. It's how I learned to read! I honestly don't remember a time when I wasn't interested in food and cooking. My mother told me that my first "toys" as a toddler were pots and pans which I banged with a wooden spoon while sitting on the kitchen floor. So by the time the Popes cooking show was being televised, I was already a student of the culinary arts.

Back in the late 50s, my mother joined a book club. Mom wasn't too enthusiastic when it came to women's groups but since books were the focus, she signed on at the encouragement of a neighbor. There were about 16 active members and they met monthly for lunch and discussion. It was agreed that the ladies would take turns hosting to spread the workload. Once the members sampled mom's cuisine however, it seemed that she hosted about every three months! One of her most requested luncheons consisted of a chicken and wild rice casserole and hot curried fruit. She baked her famous potato rolls and always provided two spectacular desserts, one of which was a three-layer cake of one kind or another. I believe the casserole and curried fruit recipes came from the Pope cookbook. I'll know for certain once I manage to snag a copy - perhaps from Bonnie Slotnick or eBay - and then I'll be happy to share my findings.

In the meantime, if you're a parent or grandparent with small childen in your care, let them watch lots of cooking shows. You'll help them to develop an appreciation for all things culinary while keeping them out of trouble. Let them assist in the kitchen, too. In his book "Cooking in America", Pierre Franey said, "Cooking is one of those adult-and-child activities that really works ... Kids need to get the feel of real food early on. They need to get their hands into the raw ingredients and then witness what happens when those ingredients are combined and transformed into wonderful foods. This is an important way to teach kids - without belaboring the pedagogical intent - that the preparation of food is a creative process with great rewards beyond the mere elimination of hunger. How else are they going to learn that those paper-wrapped hamburgers hurled over the fast-food counters of America aren't the real thing?"

ADDENDUM: Alas, neither the chicken casserole or curried fruit appears in the Pope cookbook. Perhaps mom found the recipes in another book, magazine, or the Chicago Tribune's food section. Maybe a friend shared the recipes - or most likely, she simply developed them on her own. If I may add a lesson - before your grandmother, mother or favorite aunt go to that great kitchen in the hereafter, ask them for their recipes! Better still, get them on tape during a cooking or baking session. You'll be glad you did!