Sunday, June 24, 2018

Buttercream Frosting

I've never posted a buttercream icing as a stand-alone post.  See, that's what this cake project is teaching me.

It's not like this icing is anything secret.  You can get it on the Wilton website.  Plus, it's pretty much the same everywhere you go.

The secret to a stable buttercream icing is not to use only butter.  Butter tastes good, but it melts.  Shortening doesn't taste good, but it holds its shape at room temperature.  Like with a good pie crust, a mix of the two provides the product you want.

"Wait, icing is pure fat and sugar?"  Um, yep.

1/2 C unsalted butter, cut into chunks
1/2 C shortening (butter flavored if you prefer)
1 lb powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla (vanilla powder for a whiter icing)
milk as needed

1.  Cream together butter and shortening.

2.  Gradually beat in powdered sugar, then finish with vanilla.

3.  If icing is too stiff for your needs, add milk a teaspoon at a time.

4.  Use immediately.  If not, seal air-tight in a plastic bag.  You can refrigerate it for a week, or freeze it for up to a month.  Let it come up close to room temperature, beat it again to loosen it, and it will be usable.


For chocolate buttercream, beat in 1/4 C cocoa powder.  You will need to add a bit more milk to keep the same consistency.

For an extra creamy buttercream, beat in leftover filling from the cake.  Not a lot, maybe 1/4 cup.

Makes 2 cups, enough for an 8" layer cake if you don't use it as filling.

Difficulty rating  π

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Vanilla Chiffon Cake

Ok, now we're doing cake.  I'm building up to a project that will be the last of this series of posts.  While researching various cakes online, I found it annoying that component recipes were all clumped together in a single post.  If I didn't like the filling, say, I had to go through cake recipes to find one I liked.  In the end, I had three or four sites bookmarked anyway.  Doing this separate here, it makes it easier to mix and match for different finished projects.

This is the "Party Cake" recipe from the Bible.  I used it for my brother's wedding cake because a full recipe makes enough batter for a 6", 10", and 14" pan.  That's what I had.  I'm cutting it down to 1/4 here for 8" or 9" pans, so there will be a few measurements that come out weird.  I'm also changing the method, baking temperature, and times.  The only thing I remember from the 2002 cake (other than the mixer being too small) is that the tops of the larger cakes burned, and the core of the largest was under-baked.  Fortunately, the tier supports were in that part.
Everyone at the wedding in 2002 said they loved the cake.  I assumed they were just being nice because the groom's sister made it.  I tasted the trimmings from this one, and it is absolutely fantastic!  Moist, crumbly instead of tough, and just the right amount of sweetness that it doesn't need to depend on the filling and icing.  Good, if I end up putting fondant on Cousin Smurf's.  I've already decided that this will be the Vanilla cake.  (I'm making multiple cakes on a theme instead of a single, tiered monstrosity.)

As a reminder, you're only getting the cake recipe here.  After that, you're on your own.  I'm going to be doing this for all of this summer's cakes.  The consecutive posts will work to build that particular cake, but I'm separating recipes to make them easier to find when I'm in Virginia.  I'm not taking photocopies from four cookbooks and links to multiple sites.  This blog is my personal recipe box.

3 eggs, separated and at room temperature
1 C plus 1/4 C sugar
6 Tb margarine, cut into small cubes
1/2 C plus 1 Tb milk
1-1/2 C cake flour
1/2 Tb baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla

1.  Grease three 8" baking pans, line with wax paper, and grease again.  I was using a 1/6 recipe on deep 6" pans, so one is a springform.  It worked, and one cake was just twice as high as as the other.
2.  In a medium bowl with an electric beater, beat egg whites on high until soft peaks form.  Sprinkle in 1/4 C sugar, 1 Tb at a time.  Beat until stiff peaks form.  Set aside.

3.  This is why I'm saving the stand mixer.  I did the whites in it without reading how long the batter needs to beat.  In the stand mixer, beat egg yolks and salt until smooth.  Add in remaining cup of sugar and the margarine in stages, beating until you get a light emulsion.

4.  Start preheating the oven to 350º.  Stir together baking powder and flour.  Add milk and flour mixture in alternating additions.  After the last one, add the vanilla and beat everything until very smooth and frothy, about 5 minutes.

5.  Fold in egg whites until no lumps remain.  Divide cake batter between the pans.  I recommend weighing the pans to ensure each cake is the same height.
6.  Bake at 350º for 30 minutes.  Check with a toothpick in the center.  The top will brown before the inside is done, and these are thin layers.  They can go from raw to dry quickly.  Check every 5 minutes until the toothpick comes out clean.

7.  Remove pans to a cooling rack.  Let the cakes cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then turn out and remove the wax paper.  Allow to cool completely before frosting.  Cakes can be wrapped and frozen once cooled and frosted another day.

Difficulty rating  :)

Monday, June 18, 2018

Roasted Balsamic Carrots

How have I not made something like this before?  Two years of carrots in the Pond, and I never thought of it.

When I went online to get opinions for the oven temperature and whether or not to enclose the carrots in foil, it turned out there are a lot of recipes out there for these.  Most of them were exactly what I had already scribbled down.  Great minds think alike. ;). Then I decided to barbecue, so both questions became irrelevant.  If you're using the oven, it's 375º for 20-30 minutes, stirring halfway through.

*1 lb carrots
2 Tb olive oil
1 Tb balsamic vinegar
2 tsp honey
1/4 tsp each salt and pepper

1.  Peel carrots and cut in two at the halfway point to make the next slices easier.  Then cut into quarters the long way.  If you have a fat carrot, cut the top half into more sticks.  They should all be about the same size so they cook evenly.
2.  Whisk the remaining ingredients into a dressing in a large bowl.  Place the carrot sticks in the bowl and toss to coat.

3.  Lay out a piece of foil large enough to hold all the carrots.  Arrange slices in the middle, then pour remaining dressing over them.  Seal foil into a pouch and place on baking sheet (if using oven).
4.  Grill (or bake) packet for 15 minutes (at 375º).  Open packet, stir slices around, and cook another 10-15 with it open to get the more burnt flavor that comes through in roasted veggies.  If you only cook it closed, you're getting balsamic steamed carrots.

5.  Serve hot as a side, or chill for later to put on a salad.

Difficulty rating  π

Friday, June 15, 2018

Beet and Asparagus Salad

I'll get to the cakes in a bit.  First, I need to use some beets in the Pond.  The butternut is coming up any day now, and it's going to need space.  Like, a lot of space.  Pumpkin space.  I've seen photos.

While I splurged on some good bleu cheese, I went cheap on the lettuce and got red leaf.  After months of picking it out of the front yard, I could not justify $3.50 for a small package.  The seeds didn't cost that much.  We're letting the asparagus be the "fancy" here.

*1 bunch (3) red beets
1/2 lb asparagus
4 oz salad greens of choice
*1/2 C walnuts
4 oz bleu cheese, crumbled
*1 Tb orange juice
1 Tb champagne or white wine vinegar
3 Tb olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
*1 Tb fresh chives, minced

1.  An hour before, start soaking the walnuts in water.  You don't have to, but I love this trick to make them softer and draw out some of the bitterness.

2.  Cut off the root and stem ends of the beets and place in a pot with water to cover.  Bring to a boil, then simmer until soft, about 15-20 minutes.  The skins will slide right off, and you can slice them into strips.  Chill until ready to use.

3.  Cut 2" pieces of asparagus and discard the tough ends.  Place in water to cover, bring to a boil, and blanch for 2 minutes.  I admit to liking asparagus on the mushy side.  It probably comes from eating it canned often when we were growing up.  I let mine go a bit longer before draining and refrigerating.

4.  To make the dressing, whisk together orange juice, vinegar, oil, chives, salt, and pepper.  It's ok to go a little heavy on the pepper; the bleu cheese can take it.  Refrigerate if not using within the hour.  It will settle out and get hard, so you'll have to bring it back up to room temp and whisk it again.

5.  To assemble the salad, place the greens on each plate (tear if whole-leaf).  Drain the walnuts.  Distribute beet strips, asparagus, cheese, and walnuts to all four salads.  Sprinkle with a generous tablespoon of dressing and serve.

Difficulty rating  :)

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Part XI: Self-taught Pastry Chef

I'm making my cousin's wedding cake in October, only the second time I've done one.  The last was Techie and Writer Smurfs' in 2002.  I went to find all the math I'd done for the cake batter, and realized I don't bake that many cakes.  Time to brush up.
In French, there is a sharp distinction between a Patissière and a Boulangère.  The first is a (female) pastry chef, while the latter is a bread baker.  I'm a Boulangère.  I made a distinct effort to become good at breads, to the point that I sometimes make bread instead of going to the store as the path of least resistance.  Icing cakes, not so much.  I know the techniques, but I'm not all that interested in it.  I prefer pies, which kind of fall into the bread baking category.

This summer, I'm going to make close to a cake a week.  Yes, I could practice my icing skills on cardboard, but that feels like a waste of butter.  Besides, I need to find cake recipes I like.  I don't even know what kind of cake my cousin wants, other than one she gets as a wedding present and doesn't have to buy.  I'm going to have to UPS and Amazon stuff to Virginia and bake it at her apartment.  Part of this practice is going to be how to streamline the process so I can go only two days in advance.
Some of the tips I'll be sharing are pretty basic, and are often included in a recipe or on the box of cake mix or tub of icing.  Others, I learned in my one pastry class.  Mainly, I'll be showing how to make a pretty dessert with limited artistic skills.  I'm terrible at pastry bag artistry, have made maybe three passable icing roses in my life, and forget writing.  If you go with the less is more approach, the look is far more elegant and hides the fact that you suck at icing cakes.

So enjoy a few months of the occasional cake!

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Spaghetti with Parmesan Meatballs

I wasn't going to post this, as it was mostly a way to use half the fennel in the garden before it bolted, but the meatballs looked and smelled so nice in the pan that I got out the camera.

This was going to be entirely store-bought except the veggies.  I didn't like the frozen meatball options and came up with some of my own that would go well with the free Alfredo sauce I had a coupon for.  They would work just as well with a marinara, but that's what I had.

Because we're in canned-sauce land, I didn't add any salt or pepper to the dish.  Depending on the sodium in your jar, adding any is up to you.  I like to taste my food, not just the salt.

1 lb 80/20 ground beef
1/2 C fresh breadcrumbs
*1/4 C grated or shredded Parmesan cheese
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp dried basil
*1/2 C slivered red onion
2 lbs pasta-friendly vegetables.  I used *carrots, *artichokes, and *fennel
8 oz dry spaghetti
*16 oz canned Alfredo sauce
*1/2 C diced fresh tomato for garnish
*2 Tb fresh basil for garnish

1.  Cut vegetables (excluding onions) into bite-sized pieces.  Place in water to cover in a large pot and bring to a boil.  Lower heat to a simmer and cover while you make the meatballs.
2.  In a bowl, combine ground beef, breadcrumbs, cheese, oregano, and basil.  Knead until uniform.  Heat a wide, deep skillet with a lid over medium.  Mold meat into 1-1/2" balls and place in pan.  Sear until bottoms are done, about 5 minutes.  Turn and add onions to the pan, which should now have a small layer of fat in it.  Cook another 5-8 minutes, to brown the other side and cook the onions.
3.  When meatballs are browned, dump that entire pot of veggies and water into the meatball skillet.  Cover and lower heat to a simmer.

4.  Rinse out that large pot the vegetables were in and refill it with water for your pasta.  Bring water to a boil and cook pasta according to package directions.

5.  When the pasta is about halfway done, the meatballs should be cooked through.  Drain off the water (I used the sieve I was going to use anyway for the pasta) and return anything that fell out into the skillet.  Stir in the sauce.  Drain the pasta and add it into the skillet, tossing to coat.

6.  Plate the spaghetti, veggies, and meatballs.  Garnish with fresh diced tomato, fresh basil, and more  Parmesan if you have it.

Difficulty rating  :)

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Planning the Summer Garden

I'm rapidly eating my way through the spring's bounty.  There are a couple of carrots left from the winter planting, with new sprouts ready to take their place.  The last of the beets and fennel are maturing.  One fennel is bolting, so I'll keep it for this year's fennel seed.  I'm eating the rest of the radishes in the next post.  Basically, it's time for summer gourds and melons to sprout.

I planted the last of last year's pickling cucumber and watermelon seeds, just to see what would happen.  As expected, the germination rate was low.  I'll have some, but not a lot.  That left room for one more variety of something viney.  There weren't any pie pumpkin left, so I picked up butternut squash.
Butternut is considered a "winter" squash, part of the gourd family.  You grow it in the summer.  The Winter part is because it keeps.  Melons, you have to eat or they spoil.  Gourds, especially the hard-skinned ones, can be kept in a cool and dark place for several months.  That's how markets can supply them into the early summer, when the earliest of the new crops come.

Gourds are also dependent on warm soil to germinate, which is why I planted the melon family first.  It was cool all May, then warmed up last weekend.  It will cool down again, maybe next week, for June Gloom, but the soil is warm enough for something to come up.

The minimal research I did on butternut shows vines as elaborate as pumpkin.  The cucumber and watermelon produced surprisingly small leaves and flowers, so there should be room.  And I haven't forgotten that I'm allergic to gourd pollen.  Things are going to get sniffly in about a month.  However, I now have a deep fryer for stuffed blossoms.

I'm also taking advantage of the nice weather to transplant the strongest celery sprouts.  One survived out of the first two I took out a couple of months ago and is taking root.  Someone found the catnip I tried to hide in the tomato pot, so I'm going to wait a bit longer before putting those somewhere.

What I'm really hoping for with this diversity is not ending up with too much of any one thing.  Also, you don't have to worry about kids smashing a butternut on Halloween.  Nutritious vegetables would be the scariest part of any Halloween decoration.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Pancake Sausage Dogs

Yes, I got out the deep fryer at 4:30 in the morning.  Sorry about the poor lighting in these photos.  These actually took far less time than I was expecting, maybe 45 minutes, mainly because I used frozen microwavable sausages.  You can also cook the sausage the day before, and even mix the pancake batter the day before, so all you have to do in the morning is dip and fry.

This is a Thrillist recipe that I picked because it makes a very thick batter.  If you use a boxed pancake mix, reduce the milk or water you add to it.  By how much will depend on the brand.  I do recommend making this from scratch.  It's a good pancake recipe.

You'll notice that this makes two dozen.  That's just how much batter you get with one egg.  You can freeze the leftovers.  Instead of breaking out a second package of sausages, I chopped up an apple and made fritters with the other half of the batter. They were at least as good as the sausage dogs.

1-1/2 C flour, plus 2 Tb for coating sausages
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 C buttermilk
1 egg
2 Tb vegetable oil
24 link breakfast sausages
2 qt canola or peanut oil for frying
syrup for serving
12 wooden kabob skewers, broken in half

1.  In a bowl, stir together dry ingredients.  I tossed in a shake each of cinnamon and nutmeg, but you can make these plain.  Separately, combine egg, milk, and 2 Tb oil.  I know, you're thinking why should I put oil in something I'm going to fry?  It will give the batter the proper consistency.  Pour the wet into the dry and stir into a batter.  Let sit for at least 10 minutes, or overnight in the fridge.

2.  Start heating 2 quarts of oil in a heavy pan or deep fryer to 375º.  It's going to take about 15 minutes, which should be plenty of time to cook the sausages to package directions.
3.  Pat the sausages dry, then roll in remaining 2 Tb of flour.  This will help the batter to stick.  Impale each sausage with a half-skewer about 2/3 of the way through.  Dip in the batter.  I used the spoon to encourage the thick goo to stick, then left them sitting in the bowl of batter until it was their turn.
4.  When oil is ready, gently lay the dog, stick and all, in the pot.  Fry until golden, turning if they don't submerge in the oil, about 4 minutes.  Remove from the pot with tongs and place on a paper towel-lined plate to drain.  Continue until all sausages are done.  If there's more batter left than you feel comfortable throwing away, drop it in the oil in soup spoon sized dollops and fry as fritters.
5.  Serve hot, with syrup for dipping.  Freeze leftovers as soon as they cool.  To reheat, warm in the microwave until at least room temperature, then finish in a 300º oven.

Makes 2 dozen, 8 to 12 servings

Difficulty rating  :)

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Fig Cookie Bars

I was complaining that I've lost muscle mass since I lost all my baking days.  It's why these recent recipes look like I'm on a constant diet.  I've had to decrease my intake to compensate for the slowdown in my metabolism.  Then our two-day baker put in his notice.  Screw it, I'm baking cookies.

I've actually been meaning to make these for years.  I like Fig Newtons, but they're too sweet for my taste.  Fig jam wrapped in a whole wheat sugar cookie.  I found this recipe, then reduced the sugar in it, as suggested by a commenter.  I also cut the recipe in half, and it's still a lot of cookies.  I think the other half of the package of figs is going to become this year's batch of fig mustard.

This recipe is from Genius Kitchen, but I'm cleaning up the directions.  For one thing, I'm not going to have you preheat the oven two hours before you need it.  Also, and it seems to be a problem across the internet for this kind of cookie, they always put the jam recipe at the bottom, when it takes longer for it to cool than it does for the cookie dough to firm up.  We're going to fix that here.

Fig Filling
4 oz dried figs
1/3 C water
1-1/2 Tb orange juice (zest it first; you'll need it for the dough)
1-1/2 Tb sugar
1.  Cut off any stems or hard pieces from the figs and cut in quarters.  Place in a small saucepan with the remaining ingredients.  Bring to a boil, then simmer until very soft and most of the water is absorbed, about 10 minutes.

2.  Purée the jam, either with an immersion blender or in the food processor.  Stir in a couple of tablespoons of water if it seems too thick to pipe in a pastry bag.  (Or plastic zip bag with the corner cut off.)

3.  Allow jam to cool until it won't burn you or melt the bag.  Fit a bag with a 1/2" plain round tip, fill with the jam, and set aside until you need it.

Cookie Dough
1/6 C (2-1/2 Tb-ish) margarine
1/3 C brown sugar
1 egg
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 C + 2 Tb AP flour
1/2 C + 2 Tb whole wheat flour
1/8 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp orange zest
pinch of salt

1.  Cream together margarine and brown sugar.  Add egg and vanilla and beat until blended.  Add both flours, baking soda, baking powder, zest, and salt and beat into a dough.  Form into a square, wrap in wax paper, and chill for about 1/2 hour.

2.  Preheat oven to 375º and line two baking sheets with parchment.  On a lightly floured surface, roll dough into a square 1/4" thick.  Cut into 3" wide strips.  Pipe a strip of filling down the middle of each piece, all the way to the ends.  I ran out of filling on the last half strip and subbed very thick apricot jam.  Didn't work as well.  Maybe one of those all-fruit pastes would hold up better.
3.  Carefully fold the sides up over the filling, overlapping slightly.  Transfer strips to the baking sheets, seam-side down.  Brush off any flour from the rolling board.  Cut strips crosswise into 1" cookies, but don't separate.  Bake for 13-15 minutes, until lightly browned and firm to the touch.
4.  Allow to cool on the sheets for 5-10 minutes, for the filling to set.  Break apart cookies and transfer to a cooling rack.  Once cooled, store in an airtight container.

Makes about 3 dozen

Difficulty rating  :)

Monday, May 28, 2018

Rainbow Summer Rolls

My first taste of Vietnamese food was at the mall this February.  I got a couple of these rolls when everyone else wanted lunch and I wasn't very hungry.  The only reason I had shied away from this cuisine in the past was the risk of chilis.  That day, I was on two different antihistamines and decided to take the leap.  They were very good, so when I came across a recipe I pounced on it.

This particular version comes from What's Gaby Cooking: Everyday California Food by Gaby Dalkin, adapted by the Los Angeles Times.  (Side note, I'm not sure why a California cookbook calls green onions "scallions".  That's the East Coast term for them.  I'm restoring the local name here.)

Anybody want a radish?
The ingredient list is daunting, but not impossible, and I left off the avocados as one layer too many and probably only included as part of a "California" cookbook.  The ingredients also are not cheap, even though I scraped together all the herbs from the garden to save $8.  I kind of broke the dinner budget on this one, then picked up some chicken to have alongside the rolls when I realized how low in protein they are.  Unless you're Asian, you probably don't have half of these ingredients on hand.  I skipped the chili garlic sauce (allergy) and subbed adding sesame seeds to regular oil.  I did save a few cents by pulling the carrot out of the garden. And I subbed in radishes instead of a pepper - because I grew a boatload of radishes.

Gaby has you make all the fillings separate and layer them in.  That's fine if you don't have to wash the half-dozen bowls such a mise en place would create.  To prep the filling before, or to keep it in storage for leftovers, it's easier to toss everything in a single bowl and stir it around.  The rice noodles even toss in well.  You won't get the stained-glass artistry that you would by composing one element at a time, but it tastes the same.

I did double the dipping sauce recipe when I made it, so I could use it to marinate the chicken.  Mm, hoisin peanut chicken thighs...

Dipping Sauce
1/2 C hoisin sauce
2 Tb smooth peanut butter
*1 tsp rice vinegar
*2 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp chili garlic sauce
1/2 tsp toasted sesame oil

1.  Whisk together all ingredients.  Taste and add soy or vinegar to taste and for consistency.  If making ahead, refrigerate.  Otherwise, set aside at room temperature for up to 2 hours.  Makes scant 1/2 C of sauce.

Summer Rolls
12 rice paper wrappers
1 C dry vermicelli rice noodles, cooked to package directions
2 Persian cucumbers, julienned
*1 large carrot, peeled and julienned
1 red bell pepper, julienned
1 mango, pitted, peeled, and finely diced
3 green onions, white and light green parts, julienned
*1/2 C fresh mint leaves
*1/2 C fresh basil leaves
1/2 C fresh cilantro leaves
1 head butter lettuce

1.  Decide if you're going to roll this as a tossed salad or in artful layers.  For the former, toss together  all the herbs and veggies except for the lettuce.  Stir in cooked rice noodles if desired.  For the latter, start making piles.
2.  In a 9" or 10" cake pan, place one sheet of rice paper.  Pour hot water over it and let it sit until softened, about 30 seconds.  If your work surface is big enough, soften several a time so you can set up an assembly line.  I had to do one at a time because I picked a small cutting board.  I also should have picked one that wasn't white.
3.  Lay softened circles on a work surface.  You're going to put all the fillings in the bottom 1/3 of the circle, staying away from the sides.  For the arty version, arrange bottom layer of veggies in a way that will create a design through the translucent material.  Maybe a few herb leaves and some veggies to make a flower, or just an attractive arrangement.  Top with rice noodles and lettuce.  If you tossed everything together, it doesn't matter what order you do it in.

4.  To roll, turn up the top 1/3 with the fillings in it.  Fold in the sides, then continue to roll until you reach the end, like a burrito.  Place seam-side down on a plate and cover with a damp towel until finished.  Move on to the next.
5.  Once all the filling is used, you can plate the rolls and serve with the dish of sauce.

Makes about 12

Difficulty rating :)