Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Petit Fours

Petit Four literally means "little fire" or "little oven", depending who you ask.  What it really amounts to is a chance to eat more than one slice of cake, because no one counts how many you take from the platter.

Prepared fondant can be found at most grocery stores and craft stores like Michaels.  It makes for beautiful cakes and even someone as bad at icing as I am can create masterpieces.  All it requires is patience.  You can't force fondant to do anything or it will tear.  You have to convince it to mold into whatever shape you need, like edible Play-doh.  Well, I guess homemade Play-doh is edible, but you get the point. The only problem is that, like Play-doh, it doesn't taste very good.  Sure it's sweet, but pasty, like stale icing or dried-out Oreo filling.  The way around this defect is to coat the cake with some kind of thinned-out jelly or syrup and then a thin layer of decent icing.  Then you can put the pretty cover on.  It's kind of like making a bed: fitted sheet, top sheet, and decorative comforter.  Any decorations you put on top are the throw pillows.

The recipe I'm using is basically a half-recipe from the Bible, but in an 8"x8" pan and slicing one layer in half instead of stacking two layers.  I did the math and knew the cake would come out thicker than the one in the book.  I've made the full batch and thought those were too tall, so this would have been even taller.  For the tea party, I was going for cute and no more than two bites big.  I also didn't need that much.  As is, I got sixteen 2"x2" cakes.

2 eggs
6 Tb sugar
6 Tb flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp vanilla extract (or almond for a different flavor)
1/2 C filling of choice
*1/2 C buttercream icing
approx 4 oz fondant

1. Grease 8x8 baking pan, line with wax paper, and grease the paper.  Preheat oven to 350º.

2.  Beat eggs at high speed until foamy.  Gradually sprinkle in sugar and continue to beat until mixture is pale and fluffy, about 7 minutes.

3.  At low speed, mix in flour, baking powder, salt, and extract until just combined.  Pour batter into pan and bake for about 20 minutes, until cake springs back when touched.  There is no added fat or liquid in this cake, so the toothpick test won't work.

4.  Allow to cool in pan 10 minutes, then invert onto wire rack and remove paper.  Allow to cool completely.  At this point, the assembly becomes easier if you freeze the cake solid, then allow it to thaw halfway.  Wrap it in plastic, then foil, and freeze on a level surface.

5.  When cake defrosts enough to slice, slice horizontally into two layers.  Place the top one upside down on work surface and spread with filling.  Top with upside-down bottom half, leaving you with the level bottom of the cake as your top.  Having the two cut sides together will make these more finger-firendly and less likely to lose crumbs out the bottom.  Freeze cake again, but it doesn't have to be solid.  Maybe half an hour.

6.  Frost top of cake.  I colored the icing.  You can sort of see the color through the white fondant, but it's mostly a neat surprise.  Trim edges even (and snack on them), then divide cake into sixteen squares.  I guess you could do other shapes and sizes, use cookie cutters, whatever.  It depends how much effort you want to put into it and how much cake you don't mind wasting in scraps.
7.  Get out the fondant.  Knead in color or flavor if desired.  Roll very thin, using powdered sugar to dust the surface of the board.  Gently place piece over one cake piece and drape down the sides until smooth.  This is such a small cake that you probably won't get any air pockets, but pop them with a toothpick if you can't get them to move out the sides.  Trim the edges and place on serving platter.  Decorate tops as desired.  I did colored fondant cutouts, using a cookie cutter tool from my Easy-Bake Oven that I got when I was eight.  Yes, I love cookie cutters that much.  Then I was able to stick on some flower sprinkles using a dab of water.
8.  If cakes are filled with anything that could go bad (I used that first fluffy batch of lemon curd), refrigerate until serving time. Otherwise, cakes can be stored at room temperature for up to 3 days.

Makes 16

Difficulty rating :-0

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Lemon Curd

This is one of the ideas in the ways to use up extra egg yolks post.  After my first test batch of macarons, I had one egg yolk to kill, and decided to make a small batch of lemon curd.  It turned out to be just the right amount to pass around a table for one meal, and I don't know why most recipes make up to a pint.  Maybe because it takes a lot of attention, and you might as well make a lot while you're at it.

You may notice from the ingredients and method that this recipe is a close cousin to hollandaise.  It's the sweet version that tastes more like lemon and less like mustard.

The first batch I made, I thought you had to whisk it constantly until it thickened.  What that did was fluff it up into a whipped, lemon-flavored, creamy spread.  It tastes fantastic, but does not have the texture of traditional lemon curd.  I used it to fill the petit fours for the tea.

The second batch, I kept the whisking to a minimum.  At some point, I discovered that you could swirl the bowl on top of the pot of water, which would stir the mixture adequately to prevent egg curdling and not produce any bubbles at all.  I did stir a touch every minute or two, to scrape the edges, but this is my new double-boiler technique for anything in the liquid state.

3 Tb sugar
*1 egg yolk
*1/4 C lemon juice
1 Tb plus 1 tsp butter
drop of vanilla
dash of salt

1.  Set up a double boiler with a pot of simmering water under a heatproof bowl.  Whisk together sugar, yolk, and lemon juice in the bowl.  Then switch to a spoon or spatula.


2.  Keep the mixture moving.  A lot.  I didn't look at the clock, but it was probably close to 15 minutes.   At some point, it's going to gel up into a thick, glossy, golden mass of ooze.  That's the color of cooked egg yolk, and you're ready to move on.

3.  Remove from heat.  Stir in vanilla and salt, then drop in butter.  Keep stirring until butter is melted and incorporated, or you're going to end up with discoloration when the butter cools and forms globs.  If you notice the curd has grains of egg, strain it into a container.  If not, just pour it in.  Get a piece of plastic wrap and touch it to the surface of the curd before placing in the fridge, so it doesn't develop a skin.  Chill for at least 2 hours before removing plastic and serving.  Keeps about 3 days in the fridge, or you can freeze it and pull it out the day before serving.

Makes about 1/3 cup

Difficulty rating :)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Bacon and Goat Cheese Biscuits

I don't know where the idea of fancy breakfasts on Sunday mornings came from, but now that I have Sundays off (until we hire and train a new baker), I'm enjoying it.  Last week, I went to IHOP for the first time in ages.  Ended up finishing the combo for lunch, but it was very nice.

This week, I decided to eat in.  Besides, you try going to the LAX 24hr IHOP at 6am on a Sunday and see what kinds of crazy people you run into.  Actually, the one on Wilshire is scarier, and I know someone brave enough to work the night shift there. The service staff was very nice and I watched the NutriBullet infomercial in Spanish.  Watching anything about healthy food at IHOP - in any language -  is like some kind of real-world oxymoron.

I had bacon, I had some goat cheese, and this sounded like a really good idea.  I found a recipe for drop biscuits on Handle the Heat and decided they were necessary.  I subbed in regular flour for bread flour (and then realized I was almost out of flour and needed to get more before the tea) and sour milk for buttermilk.  It's all about what you have and what's on the verge of turning.  There's no sense in buying an ingredient if the portion you don't need for the first recipe goes in the trash.  I'm not getting a quart of buttermilk when the recipe calls for half that and I have some in the fridge a week past its date.

As for the onion, I'm so glad the green onions are in the back yard.  I was out there at 5 am on a Sunday in my robe with a flashlight pulling onions because I didn't think to do it the night before.  They definitely add a kick and blend very well with the other flavors.  Don't skip the onions.

*6 slices of bacon
3-3/4 C flour (yes, that much)
1-1/2 Tb baking powder
1-1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1/2 C (1 stick) butter, cut into chunks
*4 oz crumbled goat cheese
*1/4 C finely chopped green onion
*1-3/4 C buttermilk or sour milk (milk w/1 Tb white vinegar in it, let sit 5 min)

1.  Can be done in advance: preheat oven to 400º.  Line a baking sheet with foil to make cleanup easier.  Lay bacon on sheet and bake for 5 minutes.  Turn slices with tongs and put back in oven until crisp, less than 10 minutes.  When cool enough to handle, crumble and set aside.

2.  Crank up the oven to 425º.  Line another sheet pan with parchment or silpat.  Unless you already did the dishes, the bacon one is kinda gross.  In a medium bowl, stir together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.  Cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs or really lumpy flour.  Stir in bacon, cheese, and onions.  Slowly stir in milk until mixture is thoroughly wet, but not smooth.  Allow to rest for 5 minutes.  You don't want to overwork the batter, or the biscuits will be tough.

3.  Drop by giant soup-spoon-fuls onto baking sheet.  Leave a little room for them to expand, but it's ok if they touch while baking.  I ended up with more than 12, so I probably under-portioned.  Bake for 14-16 minutes, until medium gold and well-risen.  Allow to cool a few minutes before serving so no one burns their mouths.  After that, it's open season.  Serve with butter on the side.

Makes about 12

Difficulty rating :)

Monday, July 14, 2014

Macarons

Happy Bastille Day!  Here's a French recipe to make the day special.

A macaroon - with two Os - is ground up almonds, sugar, and an egg white which may or may not be whipped.  A macaron  is the complicated version.  It's a meringue cookie that is stabilized by a base of very finely ground almonds.  Macaroons are easy and quick-to-make drop cookies; macarons are a process.

I hate to admit it, but I'm going with Martha Stewart's recipe on this one.  A large part of the choice was the idiot-proof directions and American measurements by volume.  I'm not weighing egg whites.  I'm using helpful tips from various sites.  It is also very easy to make half a recipe, if you only want a dozen or so cookies, and that's the version I'm posting here.

A huge, unfortunate problem with all macaron recipes is that you can't use boxed egg whites.  You have to separate an egg, then figure out what to do with the yolks.  I found this masterful post about how to use up extra egg yolks, listing it by how many you have.

As for flavoring, you technically don't have to use any.  They already taste like almond, which can be heightened by a drop of almond extract.  I chose to make this batch lavender, to test my homemade lavender extract.  Future batches may include coconut, chocolate, lemon, peanut butter, grenadine, or pretty much anything else I can think of.  Coloring can be achieved by gel food coloring if the ingredient doesn't have enough color of its own.

As for the filling, I totally cheated and used plain buttercream out of the tub with a bit of lavender extract and food coloring.  I'm not making my own and creating an even bigger egg-yolk discrepancy.

1/2 C powdered sugar
6 Tb almond flour (also called almond meal)
1 egg white
pinch cream of tartar
2 Tb sugar (superfine if you have it)
flavorings and filling of choice

1.  In a food processor, combine powdered sugar and almond flour until blended, but don't overdo it or the oils in the almond will start to make a paste.  Sift mixture twice and remove any large flakes.

2.  Preheat the oven to 375º.  Beat the egg whites until foamy.  Add pinch of cream of tartar and whip to soft peaks.  At a low speed, beat in sugar until incorporated, then turn it up to high until the whites are shiny and stiff.  Martha says it takes 8 minutes, but my mixer did it in about 3.  Sift the flour mixture over the whites and fold until smooth and shiny.  If dividing batter for several flavors or colors, do that now.  In each bowl, add flavoring and/or color and fold until fully incorporated.

3.  Line a baking sheet with parchment or a silpat.  Fit a pastry bag with a 1/2" plain round tip and fill with batter.  Pipe into 3/4" rounds about an inch apart, lifting the tip on an edge so the point disappears.  Don't worry if you end up with an uneven number; one will inevitably break or you'll have an odd man out that doesn't match any of the others in size.  Tap the pan to release air bubbles and let sit for 15 minutes for the bubbles to work their way to the surface.  It's like watching pancakes cook.  When the bubbles stop coming up, the cookies are ready to bake.  This is a good time to do the dishes or mix up your filling.


4.  Before putting the pan in the oven, turn it down to 325º.  I forgot that part for the first couple of minutes, and a lot of the cookies got crackly.  They do that because the outside cooked before the inside was finished rising, and it broke the shell apart.  Bake for 5 minutes, turn the pan around, and bake for another 5 minutes or until the cookies are crisp.  If you need to bake more than one tray, turn the oven back up to 375º for five minutes, turn it back down, then put in the other tray.


5.  Cool the cookies on the baking sheet for 2 or 3 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.  This is when you find out how many have air pockets from unreleased bubbles.  Don't worry, the icing will fill it in and no one will know the difference.  If you have trouble removing them from the parchment, place it on a damp towel for a few seconds and they will come off.  Silpats won't have that problem.

6.  To fill, find two cookies about the same size.  Smear the icing, peanut butter, chocolate mousse, jam, or whatever on one and sandwich it with the other.  Serve immediately or store in the freezer between sheets of parchment or wax paper.

makes roughly 15 sandwiched cookies, depending on size

Difficulty rating :)

Friday, July 11, 2014

My First Pumpkin

The song "Finishing the Hat" from Sunday in the Park with George keeps running through my head.  Specifically, the next-to-last line "Look, I made a hat!"  That's how I feel about the pumpkins.

With the under-performance of the fountain garden this year, I'm putting all my gardening mojo into the pumpkins.  I won't have a Halloween pumpkin patch, but at least I'll get to eat something I've grown.

The first pollinated female flower is coming to maturity much earlier than I expected.  It took almost exactly six weeks from pollination to ripe.  Pumpkins in July are definitely something you only get in warm climates.  There are places in this country where it is only now warm enough to start the plants.  Of course, then they will have October pumpkins, like normal gardeners.  I'm actually grateful that some of my vines were less robust at first and are only now starting to fruit.  It will make my season last into August.

As you can see in the photo, there's only a little bit of green left before I can cut it from the vine.  Good thing, too, because the vine has a pretty bad whitefly infestation.  I've been turning the fruit, to point the greener parts toward the sun.  What's on the bottom now is ready to go.

Pumpkin #2 is one of the small twins.  In the photo, it looks the same size as the one above, but it's really less than half as big.  Note the 6 oz tub it is sitting on, as opposed to the large tub that holds almost 2 lbs of cream cheese.  I've been collecting those for several weeks as props for the pumpkins.

I'm definitely in the mood to try out some pumpkin recipes I've been collecting.  As for whether I'd do this again, maybe I'll wait until the drought is over.  I feel extremely guilty every time I water them, even though hand watering is less wasteful than the sprinklers.  And I will most certainly wait until late June or the first week of July to do it.  Next time, I'm doing this to get on the Great Pumpkin's list.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Spinach Salad with Quinoa

I worked ten days straight and had pretty close to no food in the house except for ice cream.  As wonderful a condition as that sounds, I needed real food.  The McD's drive-thru was starting to memorize my order.

This is a basic, nutritionally complete, and pretty salad that used most of the basil growing in the pot.  The mint is optional, but I have so much of it at the moment that it seemed an appropriate accent.  I was going to use kale from the front yard as the green, but the spinach at the market looked especially lovely.  The only bad part about fresh spinach is how much effort it takes to clean and remove the stems.  I guess I could have bought a bag of pre-washed baby spinach and spared myself the effort, but I wasn't doing anything else while the quinoa was cooking, and I do like to do the nit-picky aspects of preparing a meal.

Oh, and from now on, green onions are getting a star, since I appear to have a lifetime supply of them growing in the back yard.  Use it or lose it.


1 bunch raw spinach (about 1 lb)
2 Roma tomatoes
*2 stalks green onion
*1/2 C dry quinoa
3 Tb olive oil
*1 clove garlic, minced
*juice and zest of 1 lemon
salt and pepper
1/4 C packed fresh basil leaves
1 Tb packed fresh mint leaves

1.  Cook the quinoa according to package directions.  Fluff with a fork and place in fridge to chill.

2.  De-stem spinach if necessary, then tear into manageable pieces.  Cut tomatoes into small dice and chop green onions.  Cut mint and basil into chiffonade.  Toss veggies together in a bowl with basil and mint leaves.

3.  In a separate bowl, make the dressing.  Whisk together lemon juice, lemon zest, olive oil, minced garlic, salt, and pepper.  Not too much of the last two, just a generous shake.

4.  Before serving, top salad with quinoa and add dressing over all.  Toss if desired.

Serves 4 to 6

Difficulty rating  π

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Stuffed Pumpkin Blossoms

Squash blossoms of all types are edible, but most of the recipes you find are breakfast items because they bloom in the morning and are too difficult to handle once they close.  The petals stick together.  This isn't a problem if you want to chop or tear them for salads, but you can't stuff them easily.  If you don't have your own zucchini, pumpkin, or other squash plants, farmer's markets carry them once pollination season passes.

I decided to stuff my flowers when the time came, and found this recipe from Giada.  It's a basic Italian flavoring that goes well with marinara or a similar sauce.

I waited until I had a few days between pollinating female flowers, so the male buds I left on the vines would have a chance to mature in time.  My vines are almost done putting out female flowers and the pumpkins that pollinated in the first couple of weeks are ripening.  This whole project will probably be done in about six weeks.  So much for a Halloween patch.  I snipped off every open bud, leaving about half an inch of stem.  I did wear gardening gloves, both because pumpkin plants are almost as prickly as cactus and I was competing with bees.  This recipe says eight, but I ended up with nine buds of various sizes.  As long as the amount of filling works, I'm fine with you dividing it any way you want.

I've never made tempura batter before.  It's much easier than I realized.  The secret is carbonation.  You can use any carbonated beverage, and beer is traditional.  I would stick to something less sweet, but some of Giada's comments include sweetened soda as the liquid.  I just used an unflavored sparkling water.

As for the taste of the flowers, I mostly tasted the cheese.  Supposedly, there's some faint kind of pumpkin flavor to them, but I didn't taste it.  So use a cheese you like.

1/2 C flour
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 C sparkling water
2 oz goat cheese, room temperature
*2 Tb cream cheese, room temperature
1 Tb heavy cream
*1 tsp Italian seasoning mix
dash black pepper
8 pumpkin blossoms, stamens removed
oil for frying

1.  In a small bowl, stir together flour and salt.  Add sparkling water a little at a time.  It fizzes up like a science experiment.  In the end, you should have a very thin batter, like crepe batter.

2.  In another small bowl, beat together goat cheese, cream cheese, cream, Italian seasoning, and pepper.  Start heating 1/2" of oil in a saucepan or skillet.

3.  Place cheese mixture in a pastry bag or a ziplock with a corner snipped off.  The latter makes for easier clean-up.  Carefully pipe about 1-1/2 tsp of mixture into the base of each blossom, then twist petals together to seal.  At this point, prepared blossoms may be stored in the refrigerator until later in the day.
4.  Once the oil it heated to about 350º, dip blossoms in batter.  Coat well.  Place in oil and allow to cook until crispy, about 3 minutes.  To turn, gently use tongs on petal end, so the filling doesn't squirt out.  Figuring this out took me quite a few blossoms.  I was grabbing them by the stem end, figuring it was tougher and less likely to tear.  Everything came out the petal side.  Cook another 2 minutes, then drain on paper towels.  Continue with remaining blossoms.

5.  Serve immediately as a side dish with sauce, or just a light sprinkling of salt and herbs.

Difficulty rating :)

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Beef Wellington

I found half a package of puff pastry in the freezer.  It was this or cherry turnovers, and I had not had red meat in a while.  I'll eat some of the cherries fresh, then make preserves of the rest.

The first time I had this dish was at Sir Winston's restaurant at the Queen Mary.  The meat was so tender I barely needed a knife.  I'm sure they used the best high-end ingredients and knew what they were doing because they made it every night.  While it would be fantastic to recreate that wonderful meal, I knew I would be satisfied with something at least as good as the Individual Meat Pastries I made a few years ago.

Beef Wellington is another one of those "classic" recipes that everyone thinks they know what it is, but everyone makes it different.  The fanciest, most expensive version I found used truffles for the mushrooms and foie gras for the paté.  I'm not shelling out for real truffles and foie gras is illegal in California.  The next step down used portobella mushrooms, chicken liver paté, and wrapped up the meat in prosciutto before the pastry.  I have no urge to make chicken liver anything.  (PTSD from my mom's chopped liver molds in the 80s.)  I could use canned paté, up to the word "canned" in reference to any kind of paté.  The Bible uses plain old white button mushrooms and yellow onions, with no meat other than the tenderloin.  What I came up with is somewhere in-between these recipes, using the better version of the less-expensive ingredients, like shallots instead of yellow onions and portobella mushrooms instead of button.  There's no way around the price of the beef, so it might as well be the best quality you can afford and let it be the star.  For the method, I'm following the Pepperidge Farm recipe, since it's their puff pastry.

The only problem I found while researching recipes is that they were all for a 10-serving loaf of an entire tenderloin.  For one thing, that takes two pieces of pastry and I had one, which totally defeats the purpose of this being a Pantry Project recipe.  The other thing was that I only wanted a four-serving recipe.  Just because this is a famous and fancy dish, it doesn't mean you can't serve it for a family meal.  It isn't even difficult, which I quickly realized as I broke down the steps.  It can make a weekday dinner special, if you have an afternoon free.  I had the butcher cut me a one-pound filet mignon (the steak made from the tenderloin) instead of tying together two smaller steaks.  You just have to catch them while they have a spare that hasn't been fabricated for the case.

I had to look up a culinary term I hadn't used before, duxelles.  It's a French term meaning that you sauté mushrooms and onions together in butter and use them to stuff something.  I'm rather proud of Pepperidge Farm for just telling you to cook the mixture and use it.

You will notice there is no salt in this recipe.  That is not a mistake.  The sauce has a whole bunch in the canned broth.  Put a salt shaker on the table.  Ideally, the ingredients will blend so well that the natural salts provide sufficient flavoring.

1 lb beef tenderloin or filet mignon steak
ground black pepper
oil for pan (do not use olive oil)
1 Tb butter (not margarine; salted butter ok)
1 C minced mushrooms
1/2 C minced shallot or onion, divided
Flour for dusting board
*1 sheet puff pastry, thawed
1 egg, beaten with 1 Tb water
1 10 oz can beef consommé (beef broth may be substituted, but isn't as rich)
*1/2 C fortified wine such as marsala, madeira, or brandy
*1/2 tsp whole peppercorns

1.  The night before, place puff pastry in fridge to defrost.

Step 2
2.  2-1/2 hours before dinner, preheat oven to 425º.  Lightly grease a roasting pan with oil.  Place meat in pan and dust lightly with pepper.  Roast until thermometer reads 130º, which was 25 minutes in my oven.  Just check every 10 minutes until the meat hits 100º, then every five.  Pull from oven, cover, and refrigerate 1 hour, to let the juices settle and so the meat won't overcook when you put it back in to bake the pastry.

Duxelles
3.  Halfway through that hour, start the filling.  Melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat.  Add mushroom and all but 2 Tb of the shallots and sauté until cooked dry, stirring often to avoid scorching.  If the mixture is not dry, it will not absorb juices from the meat and the pastry will get soggy.

4.  Reheat the oven to 425º.  If you're serving this with roasted vegetables, put them in the oven now.  Sprinkle a pastry work surface with flour.  Unfold puff pastry sheet.  Sprinkle more flour on top and roll out pastry 4 inches longer and 6 inches wider than the beef.  Don't worry if it rolls out uneven, just trim off the edges to use as decoration.  Brush the surface with the egg wash until damp.  You'll have a lot left.  Spoon the mushroom mixture onto the pastry to within one inch of the edges.  Place the cooled roast in the center, upside down.  You're going to flip this thing over.  Pull up pastry, enclose meat completely, and pinch all the edges to seal.

Yes, I know it looks like a chicken
5.  Place seam-side down on a baking sheet.  I recommend lining the sheet with parchment or a silpat because the next step is to use more of the egg wash on the outside of the pastry.  You will probably still have a bunch left, but you can't beat half an egg.  If you have trimmings of pastry, decorate the top and brush them as well.  Using a toothpick, poke two or three tiny vents in the top of the crust, to reduce sogginess and uneven steam bubbles, and to provide an entry for a food thermometer.

6.  Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until pastry is golden and the internal temperature of the meat reaches 140º.  (Turn oven down to 350º if the veggies aren't done.)  Allow to rest for 10 minutes before slicing.

7.  During step 6, make the sauce.  You can rinse out the duxelles skillet instead of getting another pan dirty.  Bring consommé, wine, peppercorns, and reserved shallots to a medium boil.  Continue to boil until reduced to about 1/2 C, or whenever the meat is ready.  That will boil off the alcohol as well.

8.  To serve, first present the pastry, maybe surrounded by the roasted vegetables, so everyone can see it, then make an event of slicing off individual steaks.  The sauce can either be drizzled onto the plates or served on the side.

Difficulty rating :)

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sun Tea vs. Cold-Brewed Tea

I still have some Lipton
Another one of those things I never thought I would have to explain.  I'm always surprised when something I consider basic is foreign to someone.

The fastest way to make Iced Tea is to boil water, brew tea a little strong, and add lots of ice.  This is fine, but it lacks a depth of flavor.  For that, you need a longer brewing time.

I grew up with Sun Tea.  You add one tea bag for every pint of leukwarm water and set in the sun for 3 to 4 hours.  If you want to pre-sweeten the tea, you can do that when you pull the tea bags and the water is still warm, stir everything together, and refrigerate.  Any flavor of tea works, but we always used basic Lipton because it was the '80's and no one knew of any other tea besides Nestea, Lipton, and the green tea you got in Chinese restaurants.

Cold-brewed Tea takes considerably longer than Sun Tea.  It is also best to use loose-leaf teas instead of tea bags, so the leaves have plenty of room to expand and infuse the mix.  Use 1 Tb of tea per pint (or whatever is 1-1/2 times what you normally use).  Place cold, filtered water and leaves in a container, close the lid, and let it rest in the fridge for at least 12 hours, and as many as 24.  Strain out the leaves before serving.

So why plan a day ahead for Cold tea instead of the Sun version?  It's less bitter and contains less caffeine than any warm-brewed tea, as both qualities require heat to separate into the infusion.  There's less chance of any stray mold or bacteria from the leaves growing and becoming part of the tea.

Does that mean that Sun Tea is on its way out?  Not by a long shot.  It will always exist, for no better reason than it does not require any electricity or gas to make.  It is a solar-powered drink that you can make while camping, if the power goes out, or you're spending the afternoon on the porch and want something to look at besides a TV.  The bitterness is part of its charm, and speaks of that homemade quality.  It's just traditional.  As for the bacteria issue, that is why you don't leave it out longer than four hours.  If you brew it without any sugar in a freshly washed jar and use filtered or bottled water, the odds of a tainted batch are infinitesimal.  It also helps if you only make as much as you plan to drink in a few days.

Now that I've had my say, it's time for you to start thinking about which kind to serve at your 4th of July picnic!

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Simple Syrup

As it gets warmer, I start to think about all the cold drinks I can make.  It's easier to open a bottle, but way too sugary.  My cousin showed me how to make Southern Sweet Tea, and I thought she should have frozen the tea into a popsicle, it was so sweet.

So how do you sweeten an iced drink just to your liking?  Stirring in sugar doesn't work because it never dissolves all the way.  You end up with a pile of it at the bottom.

Simple Syrup to the rescue!  This versatile staple can be used to moisten cakes before icing, as a dressing for fruit salad, and of course in any drink you can name.  It takes barely five minutes to prepare, is shelf-stable, and keeps pretty much indefinitely when covered because it contains only sugar and water which has been boiled.  You can put it in any old ketchup bottle from the dollar store and have it ready at a moment's notice.

You can also flavor the syrup.  Drop in a cinnamon stick, vanilla bean, or even a savory herb like rosemary while it's boiling, then strain it out when you place the syrup in the bottle.  Think of all those flavored syrups you get at coffee bars.  That's basically what they are, just more concentrated and usually containing corn syrup.

I'll give amounts for the sake of a recipe, but it's just a 1:1 ratio.  Make as much or little as you want.

1/2 C sugar
1/2 C water

1.  Bring sugar and water to a low boil in a small saucepan.  Stir lightly and continue boiling until sugar is completely dissolved, about 5 minutes.  Don't go away and forget about it.  If the water boils off, you're going to start making candy.

2.  Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.  If it cools too quickly, it may form crystals.  Pour into a bottle or jar and store in a cool place.  Refrigerator is ok.  You'll notice that the syrup has the faintest amber color.  Perfectly normal.

3.  To use, 1 tsp of syrup is equivalent to slightly less than 1 tsp of sugar.

*For fun, dissolve 1 C sugar in 1/2 C water and boil to make a double-strong syrup.  Allow to cool, refrigerate slightly, then drop in some more sugar.  It makes cool crystal formations, kind of like rock candy.  Cute demonstration of super-saturation if you have any kids in a chemistry class.

Makes about 2/3 cup

Difficulty rating  π