Sunday, August 31, 2014

Coconut Ice Cream

We lost another baker at work, so my schedule is all over the place.  For his last day, he wanted me to make him something.  I had already bought the ingredients for a coconut cake, so I made cupcakes for everyone, which was still only a half batch.  I had about half a cup of coconut milk left over, and only a mini-fridge to work with.  I just wanted to use it up and not deal with storing it.

So here you go: dairy free, gluten free, and vegan if you use an appropriate sweetener.  This isn't a health food; there's more fat in this ice cream than one made with dairy.  It's KLP if your extract was made with a KLP alcohol, or you can just omit extracts and use a natural flavoring like nutmeg.

As a variation, you could add cocoa powder to this, or coffee, or fruit.  To make an added-sugar free ice cream, toss a very ripe banana and the coconut milk in the blender and run until smooth.  Pour directly into the ice cream maker.

*1 (13-ish oz) can full-fat coconut milk, not the light kind
1/4 C sugar
unsweetened coconut for mix-in or garnish
1/2 tsp vanilla extract (I used lavender extract for mine, and it was awesome)

1.  In a saucepan, heat coconut milk and sugar until sugar dissolves and mixture is smooth.  All those lumps are coconut fat.  Remove from heat and stir in vanilla.  Cool in refrigerator until chilled, at least 2 hours.

2.  Process cream in ice cream maker until thick.  Add coconut shavings and allow the machine to distribute them.  Either serve immediately or place in a container to firm up another hour or so.

Difficulty rating  π

Thursday, August 28, 2014

My New Fridge

Ooh, a fridge with nothing on it
I unloaded my old side-by-side refrigerator after Roommate Smurf moved out.  The ice maker didn't work, who knows what was lurking in the water tube, it was old and energy-sucking, and platters don't fit in a side-by-side.  Plus, I do not need two refrigerators, even when throwing a party.  Technically, I had three, but usually turned off the mini-fridge in the bar.  Yes, my parents bought a party house all those years ago.  The family room even has an overhead light in an odd place which is for a poker table when you think about it.  Gotta love the 50s.

A month later, just as I was celebrating how much my electric bill had gone down, the other one started to go.  I turned on the mini-fridge and went online to get an idea of what I wanted before driving all over creation.

Ok, wow, I had a very unrealistic view of how much refrigerators cost.  That's what happens when you hang onto a fridge for 20 years.  It was also the first time I had bought a brand-new major kitchen appliance.  One side effect of a generation that lives in apartments is that we have no idea what it costs to keep up a house.  Something breaks and you call management.  I reviewed my finances and started visiting showrooms.

My parents built a cabinet for the fridge when they remodeled in the 90's.  It was a good idea then, but made it very hard to buy a refrigerator now.  I went shopping for several days with the dimensions and a tape measure.  At long last, I found a salesman who really knew his product and helped me to find something that fit my needs, cabinet, and budget.  He even did some online comparison shopping to price-match before ringing it up.  This guy was a great salesman and I would probably go back to him the next time I need an appliance (please, washer & dryer, just hang on until the fridge is paid off). I'm not mentioning where I got the fridge because I want to stress that it wasn't the company that sold it, but this salesman.

My new French-door fridge arrived last Monday.  I couldn't hook up the water right away because the valve needed to be replaced.  Again, 20 years old.  The wallpaper behind the fridge is even from the last kitchen remodel, before the 1990s fridge.  For one thing, the new fridge completely obscures the wall and it doesn't matter, and the other thing is that the pattern is so similar to the current wallpaper that you have to look twice to realize it is different.  Replacing the valve happened the next day, and I was in business.

Note that the exterior has no water/ice dispenser.  I don't use them a lot, and they tend to rust the exterior of a fridge.  The ice maker is in the lower freezer compartment, and the water dispenser is inside the left side of the door.  How cool is that?
Side note, because it happened yet again.  When I gave the salesman my house phone number, up came my parents's names and the address.  This happens a lot, even with a random plumber I picked out of the phone book.  I guess it's a good reason to keep the land-line.  Initially, I was keeping it for friends of my parents who didn't know they had passed away, then later as an emergency phone if the power went out and my cell's battery died, which did happen when a transformer on my block blew last year and the power was out for almost 24 hours.  (Also why I hang onto the actual phone book.)

Anyway, that's why this post isn't about something I cooked.  When you're only keeping as much refrigerated food as fits in a mini-fridge for two weeks, not a whole lot of cooking happens.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Spinach and Plum Salad with Balsamic Vinegar

My boss is on a diet for medical reasons.  She's doing an excellent job of it, which has guilted me into monitoring my own salt and nutritional balance.  It's amazing how quickly you lose weight when your system is balanced and not bloated on things you know you shouldn't be eating anyway.  It's all water and intestinal weight and the hard work starts when that is under control, but your pants fit better and you feel like the results are much bigger than a week of oatmeal for breakfast should accomplish.

I needed something to accompany the falafel-crusted chicken, preferably something with next to no fat. Fiber wasn't an issue because of the chickpeas in the falafel, but there was bound to be quite a bit of oil in the crust.  I have no problem with using vinegars straight as dressings or dipping sauces.  You just have to watch the flow.  It is very easy to pour too much.

You can see in the photo that I used almonds as the nut, but I'm recommending candied walnuts as the garnish.  I hadn't realized I used the last of my walnuts on the pumpkin tamales and didn't want to go back to the store.  The almonds weren't bad, but walnuts are more traditional.

8 C raw spinach leaves (about 1 lb or a bag)
2 black plums
1/2 C candied walnuts
2 oz crumbled tangy cheese such as gorgonzola, feta, or chèvre
about 1/4 C balsamic vinegar

1.  Rinse spinach, remove stems, and tear into bite-sized pieces.  If plating, place about 2 C on each salad plate.  Otherwise, place in serving bowl.  Everything else is going to go on top.

2.  To slice plums, run knife around groove in the plum, and you can twist it into two halves.  Remove pit and slice each half thinly.  Arrange slices over spinach.

3.  Sprinkle cheese and nuts around top of salad, then drizzle with vinegar (1 Tb per individual salad, or all of it on the bowl).  Do not toss salad, just let the vinegar work its way down.  The plums will absorb some of it, making a tangy sweetness.  Serve immediately, or chill for up to 1 hour.

Difficulty rating  π

Friday, August 22, 2014

Falafel-Crusted Chicken

I'm calling this the Chilafel, even though that really should be reserved for a fried patty of falafel mix and ground chicken.  I just wanted to use the word.

I'm finally out of bread crumbs!  That only took four years.  So, what else to use for coating skinless chicken?  Let's face it, chicken skin provides flavor and keeps the meat from drying out.  I recently stocked up at Sprouts with stuff out of the bins, and one of the bags was full of garbanzo beans.  Every recipe for something similar that I found online uses boxed falafel mix, and there is nothing wrong with that if you happen to like the stuff.  I find it too salty and spicy and make my own.  Plus, now I know how much of it you need to coat four thinly-sliced chicken breast pieces.

And you do need to cut them in half the hard way.  The pieces should be no more than half an inch thick, or the falafel will burn before the chicken is done.  You could use chicken tenders, but then the chicken may cook before the falafel is crispy.  I got lucky and found the right thickness on the first try.

1/2 C dry garbanzo beans
1/4 C yellow or green onion
*2 cloves garlic
*1 Tb parsley flakes
*1 Tb flour or matzoh meal
*1/2 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp salt
*2 Tb fresh cilantro
*1/4 tsp coriander seeds
*dash pepper
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 1 lb)
Vegetable oil or Peanut oil, for frying (Not olive oil)

1.  The day before, start soaking beans in 2 C water.  Garbanzos can soak up to 24 hours.

2.  Drain beans and dump in food processor with onion, garlic, parsley, flour, cumin, salt, cilantro, coriander, and pepper.  Pulse until beans are all broken up and mixture is a coarse paste similar to lumpy oatmeal.  Do not make it too smooth.  Refrigerate for 30 minutes to 1 hour for flavors to meld.

3.  Pour enough oil into a 10" skillet to coat the bottom.  The reason you're not using olive oil is because olive oil has too low a smoke point to cook meat.  We need this to get up to about 350º.  Start heating oil on medium while you prepare the chicken.

4.  Slice chicken in half horizontally, like you're cutting cake layers.  It isn't easy, and I tore the first one a few times.  The great part is that you can't tell once it is coated.  Rub oil on all sides of chicken so the falafel can stick to something.
5.  Transfer falafel mix to a shallow pan for easier coating.  Press chicken into mix until both sides are covered.  My falafel didn't want to stay on at first.  Just keep sticking it back on like spackle.  If you have extra, just make falafel balls out of it.  They won't be vegetarian because the mix has touched chicken, but at least you're not wasting it.  I got one falafel ball, meaning that this is very close to the exact amount of coating you need for the chicken.
6.  Test oil with a drop of water to make sure it's hot enough.  If the drop pops or dances, you're good to go.  Turn on fan and maybe open a window.  Gently place chicken in skillet, because it might splatter.  Cook until coating is lightly browned and crispy, about 5 minutes.  Turn with tongs or a spatula and cook other side for slightly less time, 3 or 4 minutes.  Only turn the chicken once.  I found out that turning it again makes the coating fall off.  Remove to paper towel-lined platter and serve hot.

Difficulty rating  :)

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Pumpkin Dessert Tamales

I went back and forth a lot with this one, trying to decide if I should make these sweet or savory.  But after the little overdose of cumin in the pumpkin hummus, I decided to sweeten them up.  I could also keep them in the freezer for tea snacks at a later date, or even breakfast.

For the most part, I followed my apple tamale recipe and just made a few substitutions for the new flavors.  Pumpkins have a lot of water in them, so I reduced the amount of apple juice.  As an experiment, I decided to use cream cheese instead of butter.  The apple recipe only replaces half of the butter with cream cheese.  I'm not trying to make a low-fat tamale, but I don't see the need for half a stick of butter when the pumpkin provides a substitute texture.  Anyway, I had half a brick left over from the danishes, and those things don't keep.

Before and after:
2-1/2 C pumpkin + 1/2 C roasted seeds
I'm reducing the difficulty rating for these because I realized that they are basically cookie dough minus the egg and the only hard part is wrapping them.  I'm guessing the active work time to be less than 45 minutes, with an hour before for soaking the husks and the hour of steaming.  I will definitely make these again during the holiday season, if for no other reason than there's plenty of pumpkin left.  I roasted up two in case the yield was low, and now have over a pint of purée in the freezer, plus three more pumpkins waiting their turn.

20-24 corn husks
*1/2 C (half a brick) cream cheese
1/2 C brown sugar
*1/4 tsp nutmeg
*1 tsp cinnamon
*1/8 tsp cloves
*1/4 tsp ginger
1 tsp baking powder
dash salt
2 C masa harina flour
1 15oz can pumpkin purée (not pie mix) or 2 C homemade purée
1/2 C apple juice, or as needed
1/2 C raisins
*1/2 C chopped walnuts

1.  An hour before starting, place husks in a deep pan.  Pour boiling water over them and let sit to soften.

2.  In stand mixer, beat cream cheese with paddle until fully creamed.  Add brown sugar, baking powder, and spices and beat until combined, about a minute.  Scrape sides and bottom and beat again until fluffy.

3.  Add 1 C masa flour and beat until incorporated.  Add half of the pumpkin and beat until smooth.  Repeat.  If batter is too thick to shape easily, add apple juice a tablespoon at a time until the consistency is like a soft sugar cookie dough.  Refrigerate 10 minutes to allow the moisture to distribute evenly.

4.  Set up a steamer pot with 2" of water.  My setup is a 2-gallon stock pot with a strainer that happens to fit the rim perfectly.  Any kind of drop-in steamer insert will work, but it should be big enough to hold 18-24 tamales.  If you have to steam them in batches, you'll be there all day.  You don't actually have to turn on the heat until you're down to the last 4 or so, but remember to get the water simmering before you're done wrapping.

5.  For the filling, stir together raisins and walnuts.

6.  Lay down a clean kitchen towel on your work surface.  Get out a corn husk and lay it flat.  Place about 3 Tb of batter in the middle of the upper half and spread it out slightly.  Spoon on about 1-1/2 tablespoons of filling.  Fold in the sides, fold up the bottom, and if you don't trust it to stay there, wrap it with a strip of corn husk.  Place in your steamer basket and move on to the next one.

7.  When all are wrapped, place basket over now-simmering water.  Cover tightly and steam for 1 hour.  Check the water at least once and add more if necessary.  After the hour, remove basket from heat and let tamales sit for about 10 minutes before serving, to firm up.  Leftovers are easy to freeze and microwave later.
Makes 18 to 24

Difficulty rating :-0

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Danish Pastries

I made croissants for the tea party, and it reminded me once again that I have never tackled the Danish. The method is very similar to a sweet, eggy croissant, so there was no reason for me to put it off yet another year.  Besides, I had a whole lot of blueberry and cherry preserves that I could use as filling, plus some almond flour left over from the macarons that I could use for bear claws.

One apology, and that is that this is the one-egg version.  It makes a lot.  The main difference between croissants and danish is that the danish dough uses an egg.  You're actually going to go through three by the time you make the fillings and egg wash the pastries.  I'm using the Bible's recipe because it was the smallest one I could find, but I'm reducing the butter by a stick.  They specify two dozen pastries out of the batch, but I made them out of 3" squares instead of 4" and ended up with more.  It's a good thing they are freezable.
You'll notice the weird ones that are squares with turned-up edges.  Those were supposed to be the diamond pattern you sometimes see.  They came undone in the oven.  I just dropped some jam on them and called it a day.  The pinwheels and bear claws came out the best.  I would do those again and skip the basket and diamond shapes.

Pastry
1/4 C sugar
1 tsp salt
*1/2 tsp nutmeg
2 packages (5 tsp) dry yeast
about 4 C flour
*1-1/4 C milk
*1 egg
1 C (2 sticks) butter - not margarine

1.  Warm milk and sugar to 100ºF.  Stir in yeast and let sit until foamy, about 5 minutes.

2.  In stand mixer with paddle, stir together 1-1/2 C flour and the salt.  Stir in milk mixture and beat on medium until smooth, about 2 minutes.  Add egg and beat until incorporated.  Add 1-1/2 C flour to make a soft dough and beat until stringy, about 2 minutes.

3.  Turn out dough onto liberally floured board and knead until smooth, about 5 minutes.  Because of the egg, the dough will remain sticky.  Do not add too much flour, hoping it will firm up.  Place in lightly oiled bowl and turn to coat all sides.  Let rise in a warm place for 30 minutes.  There's a lot of yeast in this dough; it won't take long.

4.  While dough is rising, roll sticks of butter between two pieces of waxed paper to make a 12" by 8" rectangle.  It isn't easy and you have to lean on it pretty hard to get the sticks started.  Place sheet in freezer to firm.
5.  Punch down dough and turn out onto lightly floured board.  You don't need to let it rest.  Roll out into an 18" by 9" rectangle.  Get butter out of the freezer and remove the top sheet.  Lay the sheet over 2/3 of the dough and remove the other piece of waxed paper.  It's ok if the butter cracks or sticks to the paper.  Just patch it back together.
6.  For the first "turn", first fold the unbuttered 1/3 over the butter, then fold in the exposed buttered side, like a tri-fold takeout menu.  Then roll out the dough again to 18" by 9", which should make the open ends on the 9" side and the folds the 18" side.  Fold those ends in again in the tri-fold pattern.  Cover and refrigerate the dough for 30 minutes to let everything rest and the butter re-solidify.
7.  Do two more turns of rolling, folding, and refrigerating for 30 minutes.  At this point, the dough is ready to shape.  Or, you can freeze it for up to a few weeks and let it rest at room temperature for an hour before rolling.  I chose to refrigerate it for two hours, then proceed to the shaping.  But first, you need to prepare fillings.


Almond Filling
*3/4 C almond flour
1/4 C sugar
*1/8 tsp almond extract
1 egg white
*sliced almonds for decoration

1.  Stir together almond flour and sugar, then stir in extract and egg white.  Refrigerate for 10 minutes to firm.  Fills  about 12 bear claws.

Cream Cheese Filling
1/2 C cream cheese (half a brick)
1/4 C powdered sugar
*1 egg yolk
*1/8 tsp vanilla extract

1.  Beat together cream cheese and sugar.  Beat in yolk and extract until mixture is smooth.  Place in fridge to firm up until needed.

For Jam fillings, have the jar ready.  You don't put it on the danish until it comes out of the oven because the high baking temperature will turn the jam into hard-crack candy.  I made that mistake once with jam tarts.

Also, beat another egg with 1 Tb of water to make the egg wash.

Bear Claws
1.  Remove dough from fridge and cut in half.  Rewrap unused half and return to fridge.  Roll on lightly floured board to 1/4" thickness.  Cut into 3" or 4" squares, whichever comes out more even.  Place a tablespoon of almond filling down the middle of each square, then fold over in half.  Make 4 slashes in the open end to be the "toes" and place on a parchment or silpat-lined baking sheet.  Brush with egg wash and sprinkle with almond slices.  Allow to proof at room temperature about 30 minutes, while you're working on the other half of the dough.

Pinwheels
1.  Roll out other half of dough to 1/4" and cut into 3" or 4" squares.  Cut a slash in each of the 4 corners reaching at least halfway to the center.

2.  Fold half of one corner in until it touches the center.  Move on to the next corner and fold the same half in, and so on around the square.  Either fill with about half a teaspoon of cream cheese filling or press down to seal pinwheel and put jam in it after baking.  Brush with egg wash and allow to proof at room temperature for 30 minutes.

Folded Danish
1.  Roll out dough to 1/4" and cut into squares.  Place one tablespoon cream cheese filling in center and fold in two opposing corners.  Pinch to seal.  Brush with egg wash and allow to proof at room temperature.  If you want to bake the jam in, fold all four corners so the jam isn't directly exposed to the heat of the oven.

To bake: Preheat oven to 400º while danishes are proofing.  Bake for 11-16 minutes, until golden brown, crisp, and puffy.  Remove to cooling rack and place half a teaspoon of jam on the ones that need it.  Before wrapping for storage, either at room temperature for one or two days or frozen for longer storage, allow to cool completely.

Makes 2 to 3 dozen, depending on size

Difficulty rating  $@%!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Pumpkin Hummus

I bought the tahini paste for this before the pumpkins were even ripe.  I like baba gannouj, and this is the same concept with pumpkins.

I'm descended from farmers on Papa Smurf's side.  How is it the only gardening I'm good at is trimming away dead plants?  Two of my pumpkin vines died before their pumpkins were ripe.  From what I understand, that's ok.  Just put the pumpkins somewhere warm and sunny until they ripen, like setting pears out on the counter if you buy them too hard.
I have something like ten pounds of pumpkin now and one more on the vine, if you count the stems, skins, and seeds.  I think I came out ahead if you only count the price of the seeds versus buying about six cans of pumpkin purée.  But that wasn't the whole cost.  There was the soil, water, blood meal, and pesticide/fungicide.  Even with doing half of the watering by using groundwater collected by the sump pump, this was definitely not as cost-effective as growing tomatoes.

For this batch, I cut open the smallest pumpkin, the one on the right, because it weighed the right amount to sub in for a can.  Turns out, even a tiny pumpkin has normal-sized seeds.  I was nervous about how this would affect the yield of the pumpkin flesh, but they don't weigh much and it came out how I was expecting.  Still, it's something to consider before I crack open another.
Be warned, this is a savory recipe.  And it came out a bit spicier than I expected, so maybe cut down on the cumin if you want to taste the pumpkin more.  As much as I would love to turn the whole harvest into sweet treats,  I really want to use the fresh pumpkin for as many squash-style recipes as I can.  You can get the slightly sweet canned stuff any time of the year.

1-1/2 lb raw pumpkin or 1 small can pumpkin purée
1/4 C tahini paste
*3 cloves garlic
1/4 C lemon juice, or to taste
1/4 tsp salt
*1/2 tsp cumin
olive oil as needed
paprika and roasted pumpkin seeds to garnish

1.  If using canned pumpkin, skip to step 2.  If starting from raw: preheat oven to 350º.  Split pumpkin in half and remove seeds and strings.  Lightly coat pieces of pumpkin with olive oil.  Place pumpkin cut-side down on cookie sheet (lining it with foil is a good idea) and roast until tender, about 40 minutes.  Then it will be easy to scrape the flesh out of the skin and into the food processor.

2.  Place first six ingredients and a light sprinkling of paprika in food processor and run until smooth.  Taste and add more lemon juice or garlic as needed.  If too thick, add a bit of olive oil.

3.  Place in serving bowl and garnish with paprika, pumpkin seeds, and maybe a little more olive oil.  Serve with pita chips and veggies.

Makes about 2 cups

Difficulty rating  π

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Blueberry Jam

I bought an 18oz package of blueberries because they were on sale for $1.88.  I figured I could make enough jam to last the year, and I think that's about right.  It's a lot of blueberries.

In the past, whenever I have made blueberry jam, it hasn't really worked well.  That's why I've never posted it.  This time, I checked out Food in Jars to find out what I was doing wrong.  Oh, you smash them first.  I've always tried soaking them in sugar like you do other berries, which inevitably doesn't work because the skins are too thick.  Then I have to add more lemon juice and water than I ought to, to keep the sugar from burning until the berries pop.  Basically, I used a cranberry sauce recipe on the blueberries.  Yeah, that was the wrong thing to do.

So here's what I should have been doing all along.  You can either refrigerate the product for up to several weeks, freeze it in small batches to use later, or go ahead and do the whole canning thing.

I'm scaling down Marisa's recipe to the 18 oz box, or 1/3 of her original recipe.  That's about the biggest box I will ever buy.  If you get the more traditional 6 oz container, cut this in thirds again and you'll get less than a cup of jam.  I'm also using ginger instead of cinnamon.  I just felt like it.

Oh, and one last tip.  If you were planning to clean your stove or kitchen floor any time in the near future, wait until this is done.  You're welcome.

*18 oz fresh blueberries (or 2 C smashed)
1-1/3 C sugar
*1 Tb pectin powder
2 Tb lemon juice
1 tsp grated lemon zest
*1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
*1/4 tsp ground ginger

1.  Wash and sort blueberries, removing stems and any moldy ones.  Drain, then smash with a fork or potato masher until they have all popped.  Wash jars or containers.  If canning, start the sterilization process.

2.  In a medium, non-reactive saucepan or deep-sided skillet, stir together sugar and pectin.  Add blueberry mash and stir to combine.  Allow to sit about five minutes so all of the sugar can dissolve.
3.  Bring mixture to boiling over medium heat.  Skim off foam as needed and continue to boil for 10-15 minutes, until mixture thickens and falls in ribbons from the spoon.  Stir in lemon juice, zest, ginger, and nutmeg and boil for 5 more minutes, until mass is sticky.

4.  If canning, process in water bath for 10 minutes.  To store for immediate use, allow boiling to subside and refrigerate uncovered until it stops steaming.  Then transfer to clean containers and freeze or refrigerate.

Makes about 2-1/2 cups

Difficulty rating :)

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Barbecued Kale Chips

I'm not a fan of potato salad.  It's the mayo.  If I can taste mayo more than something to hold everything else together, I don't like the whole thing.  Paradoxically, I don't like German potato salad either, specifically because it doesn't have mayo.

So I needed something else to have with my burgers.  Hey, there's a kale plant in my front yard!  And I hadn't trimmed it in a while.  Meaning, if this didn't work, I still had plenty left to do a more traditional oven version.

Really, this isn't much different than the average kale chip recipe done in the oven, you just leave the stems on while cooking so they're easier to turn.
*4 leaves of kale (or 8 if they're as small as mine), stems intact
2 Tb olive oil
salt or other seasonings for dusting

1.  Trim stems close, then rub leaves with olive oil until thoroughly coated.

2.  Line a spot on the grill with foil.  I did this originally so they wouldn't stick to the grill or fall through.  At one point, one of the leaves was hanging over the edge of the foil and caught fire, so I guess this is a necessary step to avoid kale flambé.  Place leaves on preheated barbecue grill and roast until crisp and slightly browned, turning every few minutes to avoid burning or catching fire.  This may take up to half an hour, but every grill is different.

3.  Dust with salt, garlic, chili powder, or whatever else sounds good at the time.  Either cut leaves from center ribs or serve whole and let everyone tear off as they go.

Difficulty rating  π

Monday, August 4, 2014

Pastry Bagging

A lot of people read a recipe up to the point where it requires a pastry bag, then move on.  They think it's too hard, or they don't have the right equipment.  Both assumptions are usually false.

Let's start with the latter.  Unless a fancy tip is required, most people have the means to MacGyver a pastry bag right in their kitchen.  Any resealable plastic bag will do, but some brands are stronger than others and will hold up to a stiffer mixture.  Pick one of the bottom corners and snip it off to the right size after filling and voila, instant pastry bag.  Even if you need a tip, it can be dropped into that corner prior to filling and works just the same.
Um, no, I don't think that's too many pastry tips.  Why do you ask?

As for how hard it is to use one, that's a matter of opinion and practice.  There are lots of tricks you can use to make the experience less stressful.  A paper clip behind the tip will seal it sufficiently while filling and between uses, for example.

The best trick is to get out a glass.  Place the tipped bag/baggie in the glass and fold the open end down.  Then you can fill it with the glass acting as a third hand.  Plus, anything that falls out the tip just goes into the glass and not all over your counter.  The glass also makes a great bag stand if you're working with multiple pastry bags.  If you lay them down on a counter, they tend to squirt under the pressure of their own contents.

While using, the tip-end hand should be to guide the bag and the back hand controls the pressure.  Using the tip to manage the flow results in product flowing out the back of the bag.  The tip hand can stop the flow by folding it upward if things start to get out of control.

Most of my recipes that require a bag use a plain tip, which is the same thing as snipping the corner off a ziplock unless you have to use it to puncture something you're going to fill.  I don't even know what all my tips do, and I'm awful at using the Rose Nail.  I'm a bread baker, not a pastry chef.  And yes, there is a difference.  That's why they have two different terms for baker in French.  I suppose I could take a cake decorating class.  Michaels sponsors them, I live in driving distance of several culinary schools, and one of my friends is awesome at it.

So, the next time you see a recipe that mentions pastry bags, don't panic.  I bet it's something you can do.