Monday, December 21, 2009

Chestnuts Roasting

Hello, my friends.  I have some good and some bad news.

First, the bad news.  I was not, as I hoped, able to make sufganiot today.  This is my own fault, because I neglected to realize that the dough needs time to rise, and there just wasn't time to make them.  I'm sorry.  I will write about Hanukkah Moon shortly, however, and again I will try to make them at some point, though it's already past Hanukkah for the year.  I'd promise, but my promises don't seem to make it to the end lately, and I do hate breaking promises (though I don't do it intentionally).

Now, the good news.  Guest Chef Theone, the one who helped with the potato latkes, has made us something very very special today.  I'm talking, of course, about a Christmas tradition that I've never actually taken part in - roasting chestnuts.  You can read about the joys of roasted chestnuts in Dickens' A Christmas Carol (in the scene where Tiny Tim says, "God bless us, every one!"), but I know that's not exactly children's fare, so! I'm going musical today, instead.

In 1944, Mel Torme and Bob Wells wrote "The Christmas Song" during the hot hot summer months.  The story goes that Mr. Wells was trying to think cold thoughts in the hot days, and had written down "chestnuts roasting... jack frost nipping... yuletide carols... folks dress up like Eskimos" in a notebook near his piano.  When Mr. Torme saw this, he suggested they turn it into a song, which we all know and love today.  You know, the one that starts out, "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire! Jack Frost nipping at your nose..."  The one that I have heard at least twice on television commercials from the other room while I'm typing this up for you.

Well, Theone may have been influenced by Dickens, or perhaps she liked the song a lot, or maybe her mother used to make them when she was a child (I'll have to ask), but in any case, she made us some awesome chestnuts!  Since I can't explain things as well as she, who does this every year, can, I'm going to quote for you.  Until you see the **below, these words (and pictures) are Theone's.

Chestnuts Roasting
Most American recipes use the boiling method & that's just foolishness. This is the British/English method.

Please stress to your readers that:
1. Sharp knives are involved, so this is not a good recipe for kids to be involved with. Ever.
2. Chestnuts have a slight anesthetic quality, so it's necessary to exercise good safety precautions (otherwise it's entirely possible to grab the corner of a hot cookie sheet & not realize it, thus resulting in painful burns while saying, "my god, i didn't feel a thing")
3. You *WILL* stab yourself, so remember to be up on your tetanus shots & practice good wound care. Also, go slowly.
4. If you do not cut an "x" into a chestnut, it will explode. Seriously. Kapow. The skins are pretty thin, so there's no excuse to be lazy.

Roasted Chestnuts
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

2. Place chestnut, flat side down on a stable cutting surface.
3. With a small, sharp knife (preferably with a blunt/broken tip), cut a large "x" into the curvy side of the chestnut. The bigger the "x", the easier it will be to peel later on.  Repeat for all chestnuts.
4. Place cut side up on a cookie sheet or cast-iron pan & roast for 10-30 minutes. Cooking time will depend on the size & age of the nuts. Nuts will be done when the nut-meat is soft and the "x" has peeled back.

5. When warm, peel.

** Thank you, Theone!!! Again, you are awesome.
And P.S.! Let's all give a huge congratulations to Theone, who has just earned her Master's Degree in Library and Information Science (the same one I'm working on, but she did it faster.)  CONGRATULATIONS, THEONE!!!!!!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Polar Express Cocoa

Have you ever read The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg?  You haven't??  You need to!!

Polar Express is the story of a man, who is telling about one Christmas Eve when he was a young boy.  He lay in bed, deep in thought.  It's about Santa Claus.  See, his friend had insisted that Santa didn't really exist - but he must exist, right?  That couldn't be true.  Our hero was listening for sleigh bells.  But it wasn't sleigh bells that brought him out of the house at night.  It was a train, called the Polar Express, that he climbed aboard with other children, to take him to the north pole, where he found a "huge city standing alone at the top of the world, filled with factories where every Christmas toy was made."

It was our narrator who was chosen to be given the very first present that Christmas, by Santa Claus himself!  This is quite an honor, of course, as only one child a year gets to be the first child to recieve a Christmas present.  Knowing he can have anything in the whole world, he chooses a sleigh bell from Santa's sleigh.  Unfortunately, there is a hole in the pocket of his bathrobe, and by the time he gets home, the bell is gone - but! It's ok.  Santa has left the bell with the rest of his presents. The best thing about the sleigh bell is that, while the narrator and his little sister can hear it ringing, his parents can't.  Only those who truly believe in Santa can hear the bell ring.  The book concludes by saying that, "though I've grown old, the bell still rings for me as it does for all who truly believe."

This is a great story (the movie was an interesting take on the book, which I think I would have liked much better if it wasn't in creepy CGI), made even better by the descriptions the author uses, and by the beautiful illustrations.  My favorite description, of course, is that of the hot cocoa that the children on the train are given to drink, which was "as thick and rich as melted chocolate bars."  Mmm.... I had to come up with something for that.

Polar Express Cocoa
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup water
4 cups milk
1/2 cup chocolate chips
1 cup mini marshmallows
1 tsp. vanilla
pinch of salt

1. In a medium saucepan, heat the water, sugar and cocoa powder over medium heat until boiling; let it boil for two minutes.
2. Add the milk, chocolate chips, marshmallows, and pinch of salt (it brings out the other flavors), and heat until everything has melted together - don't boil it at this stage.
3. Add the vanilla and stir to combine.  Pour into mugs and enjoy!  This makes about four servings.

This recipe is (slightly) adapted from one that I found on the AllRecipes website, listed as a comment to another recipe - I'm not sure who to credit here, but the commenter whose recipe I've taken is listed as Elizra.

I really like this one - it's thick and rich and... well, tastes like melted chocolate bars.  The marshmallows melted into the cocoa as it's cooking add a nice thickness and richness of flavor that it otherwise would be lacking.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A Note on Hanukkah Books

My friends - success!!! I have found a book that features Sufganiot!!  I'm excited.  However, I don't have access to a deep-fryer until Monday, so this recipe will have to wait until then.  In the meanwhile, if you'd like to pick up Hanukkah Moon by Deborah de Costa and flip through it, you'll be all prepared.

There are lots of holiday stories out there... just, most of the ones I've found either deal with the meaning behind the holidays (no food) or else feature potato latkes.  I promise, I'm not trying to ignore Hanukkah.

Some good titles I've found that I won't be writing about (with and without food involved) include:

Mrs. Greenberg's Messy Hanukkah by Linda Glaser (also, The Borrowed Hanukkah Latkes, which features the same characters - so cute!)

Zigazak! A Magical Hanukkah Adventure by Eric A. Kimmel
Moishe's Miracle: A Hanukkah Story by Laura Krauss Melmed
Hanukkah at Valley Forge by Stephen Krensky

Runaway Dreidel! by Leslea Newman (which is set to the same cadence as The Night Before Christmas)

Also! The American Girl series has a new girl (Rebecca) - their first Jewish character.  And The All-of-a-Kind Family series by Sydney Taylor features a Jewish family... though, I haven't read these since I was a kid, so most of what I remember of their religion is the Purim celebration, and I thusly can't tell you which books to pick up off the top of my head for this particular holiday.

Lemony Snicket's Christmas Latke

Aaaaaaaaaaaand, we're back!  My many and varied apologies for the huge lags between posts - but finals and projects and starting to work and Christmas shopping... Well, you know how being busy can be.  Now, on with the show.

Hanukkah, oh how little I know ye.  How little a lot of us do.  And that's the point of The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story by Lemony Snicket.  As the book begins, we meet a potato latke (a potato pancake usually made at Hanukkah) as he is being fried in oil - the traditional method of preparation.  As the title suggests, the latke is screaming, and he jumps out the window to escape.  Unfortunately for him, leaving the safety of the kitchen means that he has left the safety of the Hanukkah celebration, and he finds himself in a Christmas-centric world, where nobody - rather, nothing - understands him. 

AAAAAAAAAUGH!  No, he's not a big hash brown! AAAAAAAAAUGH!  No, he shouldn't be served with a Christmas ham!  AAAAAAAAAUGH!  No, he doesn't want to smell like peppermints like the candy canes do!  AAAAAAAAAUGH!  No, he doesn't want somebody to write a carol about him!  He eventully finds his way into a Hanukkah celebration and stops screaming finally - as he is being eaten.  A somewhat happy ending.

The book serves as a reminder to those who know the story (and a primer for those who don't) that Hanukkah is not "Jewish Christmas."  It has its own traditions and symbols, and gifts aren't a huge part of the celebration for most Jewish families.  Also, since the book is a Lemony Snicket, it is pretty darn awesome. 

Now, here's my story: I grew up in a town with a fairly large Jewish population, so every December in elementary school, my classmates' mothers would come to school and tell us the story of the holiday.  I loved Hanukkah day at school! Not because of the storytime, or the gelt, or that we'd spend half a class playing dreidel, though that was all fun.  No, I loved those days because the class moms would bring in potato latkes.  I'm fairly sure that none of those moms will ever read this blog, but just in case they do - thank you for the latkes!!  I tried once or twice to make them by myself, but I'd never been able to make them taste right, until I tried the recipe I'm sharing with you now.

This recipe is Steven Gold's recipe, that won the James Beard Foundation's Third Annual Latke Lover's Cook-Off in 1997.  I made these yesterday with my friend and guest-chef Theone, who not only did a bulk of the work, but let me use her kitchen AND her camera!  Theone, you are awesome.

These latkes are different from the more traditional grated potatoes because you use the food processor to make the batter, which is then more pancakey and less hashbrowny, and fully delicious.  Latkes are traditionally served with applesauce or sour cream. 

Latkes Who Can't Stop Screaming
2 large russet potatoes (about 1 lb.)
1 medium onion (about 1/2 lb.)
1 large egg plus 1 egg yolk
4 tbsp. self-rising cake flour OR 4 tbsp. all-purpose flour with 1/2 tsp. baking powder and 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. kosher salt
Vegetable oil for frying (about 3/4 a cup)
Sour cream or applesauce (optional)

1.  Thoroughly wash the potatoes and cut them into quarters.  Peel the onion and cut that into quarters, too.  Using a food processor with a coarse shredding disk, shred the potatoes and the onion (this will turn the onion to mush and the potato into long strands).  Put them into a clean bowl.
2. Put the chopping blade into the food processor, and put the potatoes and onions through the machine again, pulsing 4 or 5 times, until the potatoes are finely chopped.  Add the egg and pulse until the mixture is combined.
3. Put this entire mixture in a large mixing bowl, and add the flour and salt, mixing until the flour disappears.  Meanwhile, set a medium saute pan over medium-high heat and pour in enough oil to cover the bottom of it about 1/4 inch deep.  The oil is hot enough when a drop of batter sizzles as it enters the pan.
4. Once the oil is hot, spoon the batter into the pan to your desired latke size - I think we used about 2 tbsp. per latke.  Flatten and shape the batter quickly with the back of a spoon. 
5. When the edges of the latkes are golden brown and crisp, flip them over.  Cook until the second side is brown, then remove to paper towels to drain.  If you're making a large batch, you can keep them in a warm oven until you're ready to serve. Otherwise, eat and enjoy!

As I said earlier, latkes are traditionally served with applesauce or sour cream.  Ours, as you can see from the photo, were eaten with a very tasty sour cream, as dinner, though they are traditioanlly a side dish.

My friends, we have a slight issue.  You see, while Christmas food references in children's literature are wide and varied, the only Hanukkah books I can find with food in them feature latkes!  I know that Sufganiot (jelly donuts!) are also traditionl Hanukkah food, and I'm trying to find a good book that features them, but if anyone has any suggestions - please let me know!!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Dear America: Indian Pudding

It isn't pretty, but it smells divine and tastes pretty darn good.  This, my friends, is Indian Pudding. 

But first things first.
The book we're going to talk about today is A Journey to the New World: The Diary of Remember Patience Whipple, Mayflower, 1620 by Kathryn Lasky, which is part of the Dear America series.  Dear America, for those who are not familiar, is a series of books written as if they were diaries of young girls living at various points in American history, from the Pilgrims to the Vietnam War.  Scholastic also publishes the My Name is America series for boys; the My America series, in which characters write multiple diaries; and The Royal Diaries, which chronicle the lives of girls who would grow to be powerful (royal) women, from Cleopatra to Anastasia.  They are all written for ages 9-12.

This is my first Dear America book, and I think it's pretty good.  Out of curiosity, I read the reviews on Amazon, and while I know that's not the most authoritative source, it isn't bad for finding out what people think.  For the most part, reviews on this book are positive except for the "antiquated language" (though I don't think the language should be much of a problem for most readers) and the fact that people found out after the fact that this book is fictional.  This part confuses me.  It's a part of a series that you find in the fiction section of a bookstore or library.  But I guess not everyone knows the series or they may not get the book that way... Anyway.  If you know from the start that this is historical fiction, you should be okay.

So.  This book is the (fictional!) diary of a 12-year-old girl who sailed to Plymouth on the Mayflower in 1620.  She details her life on the boat, her friendship with another girl her age, getting to shore, the expedition parties to find a good place to build a settlement (she didn't get to go, but her father did), meeting Samoset and Squanto, and the first year of living in the colony.  While the harsh truth is sugarcoated to a point, our heroine (who goes by "Mem," short for "Remember") does talk about death quite a bit - some friends or friends of the family and Mem's own mother - and of being hungry all the time, working to the point of exhaustion, crops not coming up, and the like, as well as the more mundane aspects of life, like boredom and the excitement of getting a present when you don't expect one.

My only issue with this book comes from the over-the-top political correctness.  Mem is fascinated by Native Americans, wants to see them and talk to them, even goes out to meet Samoset without consent from her parents and dreams of going swimming like the native children do (which is forbidden by her society, because too much contact with water is believed to be dangerous).  She admires the Wampanoag people with a sort of cultural respect that just wasn't there in the 1620's.  Not that this is a bad thing - it's just odd in this placement.

Anyway.  Mem talks about food mostly in the sense of growing it, but she does also mention cooking a few things, including pudding made with cornmeal and cranberries - what we today would call Indian pudding.  This she cooks for Samoset and again for Squanto, and is nicknamed by them Miss Pudding because of this.  So, in honor of the fictional Miss Remember Patience Pudding Whipple, I give you... Indian Pudding.

Mem's Indian Pudding
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. ginger
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. salt
3 cups whole milk
1 tbsp. butter
1/2 cup maple syrup
3 tbsp. packed dark brown sugar
2/3 cup dried cranberries or raisins
2 large eggs
1/3 cup of light or heavy (whipping) cream

1. Position a rack in the middle of your oven and set it to preheat at 300.  Grease or cooking-spray an 8x8 or 7x11 inch pan.
2. In a large pot, whisk together the cornmeal, spices and salt until combined.  Whisk in the milk gradually until it is all blended.  Turn on the burner to medium-high heat and whisk the mixture constantly until it is boiling, being careful not to let it scorch.
3. Once the mixture is boiling, reduce the heat to medium and stir constantly for two to three minutes, until it gets thick.  Immediately remove the pot from heat and stir in the butter, maple syrup, brown sugar, and cranberries, whisking until combined.
4. In a large bowl, lightly beat the eggs with a fork.  Very slowly - a spoonful at a time - add the cornmeal mixture into the eggs, whisking constantly.  You have to do this a little bit at a time or the eggs might scramble from the heat, and that's not good.  Once it's all mixed together, pour the mixture into the prepared dish and bake it for one hour.
5. After the hour is up, pour the cream over the top of the pudding and tip the pan so the cream sloshes to cover the entire dish.  It will soak in, don't worry.  Bake this for 15-20 minutes more, until the pudding comes out solid but somewhat jiggly.
6. Let the pudding rest for at least 15 minutes before spooning it out and eating it.  I topped mine with homemade whipped cream, but vanilla ice cream would be nice, too.

This is what it looks like when you first take it out of the oven:

That's right: it's not pretty (in fact, when I took it out of the oven, the pudding skin on top had set but the mixture underneath was bubbling a little, making it look like something was alive inside my dessert).  But by this point, your house will smell like gingerbread and you won't care what it looks like.  I had it for dessert tonight with homemade whipped cream (we had to buy the whipping cream for the recipe anyway -why not?), and it was delicious.  It might not replace pumpkin pie on your dessert table, but it's good enough that I will most likely be making this again at some point.

I got this recipe from the All-American Dessert Book by Nancy Baggett, published in 2005.  This book is great.

I hope you enjoy this blog post, since I've been looking forward to writing it for a while.  I know the Thanksgiving countdown isn't working like I wanted it to, but I'm going to stop apologizing because I'm doing my darndest to get everything up, and I have a few great recipes (and great books!) coming.

And lastly.  It has come to my attention that, while I've been bugging you all to email me and tell me what you think, I haven't actually told you what my email is for a while.  (This is one of those facepalm moments.)  It's

Friday, November 20, 2009

Tappleton Liverwurst

My friend Christy said, when I complained that my last post was the lamest blog post ever, "you're allowed one lame recipe."  But I'm breaking that rule and posting another lame recipe.  But it's only so I can tell you about this book!

Thanksgiving at the Tappletons' was written by Eileen Spinelli and illustrated by Maryann Cocca-Leffler in 1992, and re-illustrated by Megan Lloyd in 2004.  In the original book, the Tappleton family is human; in the remake, they are wolves.  I like both versions, but I'm leaning toward wolves on this one.  Since this is a picture book, I'm going to spoil the entire plot, I'm warning you right now.

We meet Mrs. Tappleton and she is getting the turkey ready for the oven on Thanksgiving morning.  The milkman comes and, while she reaches for the holiday egg-nog, the turkey gets knocked off the counter and through the open door.  She chases it down the steps and away but - oh no!!! - the turkey falls into the lake and is lost forever.  Mrs. Tappleton decides that there will be enough other things for dinner, and puts the empty roasting pan in the oven.  Meanwhile, Mr. Tappleton goes down to the bakery but - oh no!!! - they're sold out of pie.  So he buys two empty boxes tied up with string, thinking that there will be enough for dinner that lack of dessert won't matter.  Similar fates befall the sister's mashed potatoes (put in the blender to be extra-smooth, and exploded all over the walls), and the brother's salad (the components of which he fed to the school's bunny rabbit the day before). 

When the rest of the guests arrive, they are as hungry as an elephant.  The roasting pan comes out of the oven but! - no turkey! Oh no! They're as hungry as two elephants!  The bowl of mashed potatoes comes out but! it's empty! Oh no! They're as hungry as three elephants!  So they pull out the salad and pull the tin foil off but! - no salad! Oh no! They're as hungry as four elephants! So they untie the strings from the baker boxes but! - no pie! Oh no! They're as hungry as FIVE elephants!

After laughing about the fates that befell the various Thanksgiving dishes, the family decides that they are thankful to all be together, and they eat a festive meal of what they have in the fridge: liverwurst and cheese sandwiches, pickles, and applesauce.

Tappleton Liverwurst
2 slices of your favorite bread. I used the end of a loaf of French bread, cut in half.
Slices of cheese
Slices of liverwurst
Various condiments, such as mayonnaise

My aunt actually made this sandwich because she likes liverwurst and I do not, but here's the procedure:

1. Find two slices of bread and spread on condiments as desired.  We put mayonnaise on both bread halves, then layered cheese on one side and liverwurst on the other.  Stack together and enjoy.

You can tell this sandwich is very happy to be included here, as he is sticking his tongue out at us all.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Peanut Butter Pilgrims

First, apologies for no posts yesterday, and more for the lame recipe today.  I had a big project due this morning, and while I think (I hope!) I did well on it, I just didn't have time to make something yesterday... and today, I'm just plain tired.  But I will get to all the recipes, I promise.

Anyway.  Today's sandwich is an excuse to write about Peanut Butter Pilgrims, a Pee Wee Scouts book by Judy Delton.  As a kid, I was a huge fan of the Pee Wee Scouts.  The series (there are 40 books, written for ages 4-8) stars Molly Duff, a little girl who is a proud member of the Pee Wee Scouts, which is a co-ed scout troop akin to the Boy or Girl Scouts - they do good deeds, earn merit badges, and get through everyday life with humor.  The books are illustrated by Alan Tiegreen, who also illustrated Beverly Cleary's Ramona books, which is a great bonus.  I always loved his work.

In this particular story, Molly and the Scouts make baskets to fill with canned food for a food drive - Molly's basket is way too tight, and she has to re-do it, but she gets her Basket-Weaving Merit Badge in the end.  Then they all go to a turkey farm, and get to meet and pet turkeys; Scout Sonny falls in love with a turkey with two black tail feathers and somehow manages to get his mother to allow him to adopt the bird, who he names Tiger. Tiger, by the way, gets treated like a dog throughout the book; he's led around on a leash, and Sonny earns a merit badge by building him an enormous birdhouse.

The book progresses through some other fall-time fun before it's announced that the Scouts will be presenting a Thanksgiving play.. in front of the whole town!  The mayor will be there!!  That. Is. Huge.  Molly is terrified!  She's going to forget all her lines, and everyone will laugh!  The mayor himself will laugh at her!!  This is a very big deal. 

Of course, everything works out in the end... Molly is a big hit and the mayor himself congratulates her on her fine performance.  But, because of the visit to the turkey farm, and because Tiger was in the play with her- she's spent so much time with him! - she just can't bring herself to eat turkey.  So, she has a peanut butter sandwich.  And mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce and stuffing.

Peanut Butter Pilgrim Sandwich
2 slices of your favorite bread
Peanut butter of your choice

1. Spread the peanut butter evenly on one slice of bread, then cover with the other slice of bread.  Cut into pieces and enjoy.

Yes, yes.  This is easy.  But allow me to add an insight that I find to be fascinating.  Alton Brown says that "squishable spreads go on squishable breads."  I put my peanut butter on hard or soft bread, but I take it the other way around - crunchy peanut butter goes best on toasted breads.  And peanut butter sandwiches are always always always better when cut on the diagonal.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Pilgrim Cat Cornbread

Happy Thanksgiving!!!
Today marks the start of the Happy Fun Enjoyable Thanksgiving Food-And-Book-O-Rama!  Hooray! Every day until Thanksgiving, I will be posting a new recipe from a holiday-themed book.  I have 10 recipes ready and standing by, and 10 days in which to make them (excluding Thanksgiving itself), so I will do my best to post one each day.

There are several great Thanksgiving-y books out there that I did not pull from - of course, how could I get them all?  Many of the ones I did not choose have Thanksgiving pageants or costumes or visiting relatives as the main story, and the meal spoken of in them is usually the typical turkey-and-stuffing fare.  I chose a few books with typical dishes - like today's cornbread - but I did my best to get some of the more off-beat fare, because not everybody eats that stuff, and most of us already know how to make it, or at least where to find a recipe.  But without further ado or distraction, I give you...

Pilgrim Cat by Carol Antoinette Peacock
Pilgrim Cat is a picture book that follows a young girl, Faith, who sets sail on the Mayflower with her family; as the boat is about to leave the dock, she sees a cat jump on board.  The cat, later named Pounce, is a welcome stowaway, as he is an excellent mouser, and Faith adopts him as her own, making sure he is safe in the rough weather and has a home when they reach Plymouth.  All is going well, despite the town's hardships, until Pounce disappears - oh no!  With the help of a friendly Wampanoag, Faith finds Pounce nested in a hollow log with kittens, and we learn that - surprise!! - Pounce is a girl cat.  The feast follows, and everyone is happy.

I really liked this book.  The story begins with an introduction where the author explains what is fact and what is fiction, and though the hardships are sugar-coated, it is historically accurate in age-appropriate way.  The illustrations, by Doris Ettlinger, are beautiful watercolor paintings.  This is one of two titles that I chose from the stacks (and at this point I will admit that I read every Thanksgiving picture book that happened to be on the shelves at BPL when I was there last Friday) where the food is traditional Thanksgiving fare.  Now, traditional feasts, I have learned, are not just turkey and stuffing - in fact, there was no turkey listed in the one eyewitness account available from the first Thanksgiving - but I was not about to make eel pie for you all (SO sorry), and I am not willing to go hunt up a deer, so you're getting cornbread.  And a very tasty cornbread it is!

Pilgrim Cat Cornbread
1 1/2 cups cornmeal
2 1/2 cups milk
2 cups flour
1 tbsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
2/3 cup sugar
2 eggs
1/2 cup vegetable oil

1. Preheat the oven to 400.  Grease a 9x13 pan, or two round cake pans.  In a small bowl, mix the cornmeal with milk and let sit for 5 minutes.
2. In a larger bowl, mix the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar.  Stir in the cornmeal mixture, eggs, and oil, and whisk for 5 minutes (this adds air and makes the resulting bread much lighter).
3. Bake for 30 to 45 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the bread comes out clean.

Seriously, this cornbread is delicious.  I put some butter on it, and I ate a big slice in about 30 seconds flat, without even trying to speed-eat.  I got the recipe from the AllRecipes website, where it is listed as Homesteader Cornbread.

I hope you enjoy this one.  Be sure to check back tomorrow for another fun dish.  I'm not sure what it will be yet.

Random Things

Hello everyone!  I'll be posting the food in a minute, but I wanted to address a few things first. 

*Thing One: It has come to my attention that some people stop reading a post once they come to the recipe, and I wanted to let you know that, given my penchant for rambling on and on, there is MORE texty goodness under the recipe, and occasionally my dorkiness even shines through in the instructions themselves, if you're into that sort of thing.

*Thing Two: Why, yes!  I do take requests!  If you haven't seen what you requested here yet, please don't lose faith in me, it'll be up soon.  Also, there is a difference in my head between a request (which I will definitely make) and a suggestion (which I put on my to-make list and may eventually get around to), so if you really want me to make something please let me know and I'll get to it ASAP.

*Thing Three: I love email! And I will write you back, I promise!  And comments! I've been told that a few people have had trouble posting comments, and I don't know why that is, but I set things so you can post without logging in (it will show up as Anonymous), so please keep trying.  I love comments - it lets me know people are actually reading this.

I think that's it. :)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Gecko Treats

I walked through the library like a hot knife through butter - smooth and easy.  Coupla books caught my eye - wouldn't ya know it?  Had a detective in 'em.  Gecko.  Say what you will about the lizard, he knows his detective work like he knows his bugs.

Okay, so I'm not all that hardboiled.

I found Bruce Hale's Chet Gecko series of books by random chance in my local library, and they are awesome.  The series, which currently has twelve books, follows Chet Gecko, hardboiled 4th grade private eye, who just so happens to be a lizard.  They are very film noir, reminiscent of Dashiell Hammett, Mickey Spillane, Raymond Chandler and the like.  They make me want to re-read The Maltese Falcon.  For those out there who still don't know what I'm talking about, here's a few of lines I wrote down when flipping through the books:
"I followed a lead as thin as a dragonfly wafer."
"She was as stiff as a grasshopper popsicle."
"In my time, I’ve tackled cases stickier than a spider’s handshake and harder than three-year-old boll weevil taffy."
Did that help?  If not, go on YouTube and search for "film noir."  I'm sure that even if you haven't read the books or seen the movies, you'll know the cliches.

Moving on.
The Chet Gecko titles are fun: The Malted Falcon, The Possum Always Rings Twice, Key Lardo, Farewell My Lunchbag, The Big Nap.  The only one I've had time to read through so far is Trouble is My Beeswax, but I assure you that I will be reading the entire series.  They're that good.  I love the writing style - I can hear the piano music and the Sam Spade narration in my head when I read.  The plot-lines are fun, they're not girly (which I've found to be an issue lately - too many girl books!), and the names of the characters are great stupid puns: Noah Vail? Natalie Attired? Sweet!  AND!! Chet Gecko eats pillbug crunch bars and wolf spider lasagna!

Now, author Bruce Hale has made a Detective Handbook and Cookbook that I have not yet been able to get my hands on, so I didn't want to make any of the specific things that Chet eats in the books, because I don't know what's in the cookbook.  I decided to make some generic buggy treats for Chet, in the hopes that I don't repeat what Mr. Hale has already done.  Somehow, it seems different to me than using the Anne of Green Gables cookbook for raspberry cordial.  So, I made some chocolate covered spider legs instead, and I think they'd be pretty good as an after-school snack.

Chet Gecko's Chocolate Spider Legs
1 cup chocolate chips
1 cup butterscotch chips
2 to 2-1/2 cups chow mein noodles

1. Pour the chocolate and butterscotch chips into a microwave-safe bowl and zap on half-power for 30 seconds.  Stir.  Repeat this process until the chips are all melted.
2. If your chips are melty but not liquidy (more like a paste), you can add a tablespoon of milk and stir to integrate, repeating until smooth; I needed to do this twice to be able to get a fully-melted and not pasty bowl of chocolate.
3. Stir in 2 cups of chow mein noodles; add more noodles as necessary so there isn't excess chocolate pooling at the bottom of the bowl. 
4. Using a spoon, drop piles of the noodles onto wax paper and allow to dry.

This is a simple one, but yummy.  And versatile! Don't like butterscotch?  Use peanut butter chips, or all chocolate, or white chocolate, or Andes mints!  And you can mix in other things with the noodles, too - peanuts! Raisins! And you can swap out the noodles for other things, if you want... The possibilities are endless.  White-chocolate-cranberry-chex?  Sure!  It won't look like spider legs, but it will be tasty.

Here's a photo of one piece - I made them pretty big (unless my hands are very small... no comment).  I know they're not actually spider legs, but having told myself that I was making chocolate spider legs, I found myself a little grossed out by them toward the end.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Marilla's Raspberry Cordial

Dear friends, I had a stroke of inspiration today.  It was a beautiful day outside, much warmer than it has been lately, and I was thinking about lemonade, and how in days not even 100 years ago, lemonade on a warm day is about as refreshing and enjoyable as things could get.  And I wanted some.  But I didn't want just lemons, I wanted lemons and berries (I love berries), and that reminded me of a recipe that I read recently.  So, in honor of the beautiful weather, I give you Marilla's Raspberry Cordial, from L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables

Anne of Green Gables is the story of Anne Shirley, who is a very lively 11-year old girl who has an imagination as big as the sky, and who can never be perfectly happy because "nobody could who had red hair" (which is her lifelong sorrow), but she tries her best, and sees the world as a place full of wonder and exciting things, even though she knows that she will likely never have any of these things because she is an orphan, and she speaks in very long, run-on sentences that make one understand exactly the kind of energy that she has because you end up breathless just reading them.

In the first two chapters of the book, we find out that Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, a brother and sister of both around 60 years old, have sent away to adopt an orphan to help around the house - but they wanted a boy, and got Anne instead.  They decide to keep her anyway, and Anne gets into scrapes and small adventures around the town and with her "bosom friend" Diana.  In one memorable scene, Anne has gotten permission to serve Marilla's Raspberry Cordial to Diana before tea time, and serves her currant wine by mistake.  Diana goes home, drunk, and giggles all the way, ultimately getting Anne banned from Diana's house, much to Anne's dismay. 

In the Anne of Green Gables Cookbook by Kate MacDonald (granddaughter of author Lucy Maud Montgomery), the recipe for raspberry cordial is, as in the story, non-alcoholic, though in popular vernacular a cordial is an alcoholic beverage - so, look out when you go out to a restaurant and order one.

This recipe falls into the category of Deceptive.  In theory, it is quite simple.  It doesn't even look that impressive once it's done (though it is delicious).  In practice, it was one of the messiest, most frustrating things I've made in a long time.  But if you have an afternoon on your hands, it may be worth a try.

Marilla's Raspberry Cordial
1 lb., 3 oz. frozen raspberries
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 lemons
4 cups boiling water (or more, to taste)

1. In a saucepan or small pot, cook the raspberries and sugar over medium-low heat until all the sugar is dissolved, about 20 to 25 minutes.
2. Mash the mixture and pour it through a strainer, discarding the pulp (the pulp, once you get all the flavor out of it, will be a sickly mauve color).
3. Add the strained juice of two lemons.  Stir in the water, and allow the drink to come to room temperature.
4. Chill, serve, and enjoy.

I did my best.  I strained and stirred and discarded pulp... perhaps it's the way I did it, but it took a really long time, and I still ended up with seeds in the drink because I'm fairly clumsy.  Maybe 10 seeds instead of the 500 that would have been in there, but still.  And berry juice all over my favorite too-big-and-baggy sweatshirt.  And a seed stuck to my forehead.  Sigh.

It's funny, come to think of it.  I started this project thinking it would be the most wonderful thing in the world, and it was a lot more work than I'd bargained for.  Does this remind anyone else of some of Anne's escapades?  And in the end, it's very tasty - there's no way to get that taste without actual raspberries - a beautiful color, and smells like raspberry heaven.  I'm not sure if I'd make it again, but there is a definite possibility.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Boxcar Beef Stew

The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner is another one of those classic books that everybody has heard of, but I never read as a kid.  There's a huge series of these books - according to Wikipedia, 121 of them - but only the first 19 were written by Ms. Warner.  The first book was published in 1924, but like all good classics, it doesn't seem dated much - no more than the Little House books are. 

The books follow the story of orphans Henry, Jessie, Violet and Benny Alden, who run away from an orphanage and from anyone who tries to send them to their grandfather, who they believe to be cruel, though they have never met him.  I won't spoil what happens, because this really is one of those books that people should read for themselves.

 The siblings set up house in an abandoned boxcar in the woods, and Henry does some odd jobs for a local doctor, so they can get money for food.  They set up a fire pit in woods near the boxcar and, between a few handouts of too-small vegetables and some money that Henry earned, were able to cook tasty things for dinner, like stew.  I left the turnips out of my stew recipe, because I am not particularly fond of turnips, but they are specified in the story, so do what you will.

My friend Christina - the one we can all thank for the If-You-Give-A-Mouse-A-Cookies - recommended that I make a beef stew like the Boxcar Children had.  She is full of good ideas!  Thank you!!

Boxcar Beef Stew
2 tbsp. vegetable oil
2 lbs. stew beef, cubed
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 cups water
1/2 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
1/2 tsp. dried parsley
2 bullion cubes, crushed
1 tsp. salt
2 tbsp. corn starch
4 medium potatoes
3 whole carrots or a small bag of baby carrots
Other veggies as desired, like peas or green beans

1. In a 6-quart saucepan or pot, heat the oil.  Coat the beef in flour (I put the beef and the flour into a lunch-bag-sized paper bag and shook it to coat it) and brown it in the pan.  You may have to work in batches, but it'll be worth it, since this is the only time to get that nice brown texture on the outside of the beef.
2. Once the meat is all browned, add the water and spices (through corn starch, above), and bring to a boil.  Cover the pot, reduce heat and simmer for about an hour and a half, until the meat is tender.  NOTE: If you don't want to bother with all the spices, use a beef stew spice pouch that you get in the grocery store.  It's about 50 cents and tastes pretty similar.
3. Peel the potatoes and cut into fork-sized pieces; my potatoes were cut into 8 pieces each.  Cut the carrots into one-inch pieces; baby carrots can be cut in half.  Once the meat is tender, add the potatoes and veggies and cover.  Let this simmer 45 minutes or until the vegetables are tender.

This recipe is easy, but time consuming.  But, let me tell you, this was so worth the time, I can't even tell you.  I had this for dinner, and it's supposed to make 8 one-cup servings, but maybe because I was hungry, or maybe because it was tasty, I ate at least two cups of it.

Here's a better view of my dinner, because I know you're all so curious.  It was so good!  And I re-read the book while I ate, making it all the better. 

Monday, November 2, 2009

Alice's Eat Me Cakes

Oh, Alice.  How many mishaps will you get into?  Won't you ever learn that eating something that has been sitting around in a strange place may be a bad idea?

I love love love the way that Ms. Alice, of In Wonderland fame, gets to eat and drink her way through the fantabulous place in which she finds herself.  I love that she finds a jar of marmalade when she's falling down the rabbit hole - even if it was empty - and the chocolates as prizes in the caucus race, and don't get me started on the Mad Tea Party.  But my favorite thing of all was the Eat Me cakes and Drink Me bottles.

One of the most fun things about Alice in Wonderland, I think, is that there is very little description given, but we get amazing mental pictures, anyway.  You know, there is no physical description of the Mad Hatter or the March Hare at all?  Or, for that matter, of Alice - the blond girl in the blue dress and pinafore that we associate with Alice are partly due to the illustrations of Sir John Tenniel, the original illustrator, and partly Disney's fault.  Alice Liddell, the inspiration for the title character, actually had dark brown hair.

So, because the cakes have no description, excepting that they have Eat Me "beautifully marked in currants," I've decided that I could do pretty much whatever I wanted with them.  And since it's Wonderland, how about something a little different?  It could be anything!  What sounds good today? Hmm... chocolate, always.  And how about, oh, I don't know.... orange frosting?  Why not?!
Also - because I don't have currants, and am not particularly fond of them anyway, I'm going to use craisins.  They're pretty, and tasty, and go well with orange, both in color and in flavor.  One last note: I'm aware that "cakes" in the time that this book was written may very well refer to "tea cakes" which are actually scones or cookies, rather than cupcakes, but... it's Wonderland!  My apologies for the not-the-best photo, but my penmanship in craisin-form leaves much to be desired.  I'll practice for next time.

Alice's Eat Me Cakes
1/2 cup butter
1 cup water
2 (1 oz.) squares unsweetened chocolate
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups white sugar
2 eggs
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 cup sour milk (or, milk with 1 tsp. white vinegar mixed in, and left to sit for 10 minutes)

1. Preheat the oven to 350.  Put cupcake papers into muffin tins - this recipe made me 31 cupcakes.
2. In a microwave-safe bowl, microwave chocolate, butter and water in 30-second bursts, stirring after each time, until chocolate is smooth.  Allow this mixture to come to room temperature.
3. In a large bowl, mix together the flour, sugar, salt and soda.  Pour in the sour milk and soda and mix.  Mix in the chocolate mixture, and pour into the muffin cups.
4. Bake at 350 for 20 to 25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean.  Frost with the frosting of your choice - I prefer Orange Buttercream - and decorate!

Orange Buttercream
1/2 cup butter, softened
3 1/2 cups confectioner's sugar
Pinch salt
2 tbsp. orange juice
2 tbsp. light corn syrup
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. orange extract
Food coloring

1. In a large bowl, beat the softened butter, 3 cups of the sugar and the salt until smooth.  Add the orange juice, corn syrup, and the extracts, and beat until well mixed.  Add food coloring as needed to make it whatever color you like - even with the juice, it's a pale, creamy color without coloring.

You can use a stand-mixer for this, but it's hard to get everything all the way on the bottom of the bowl that way.  I like to use a hand mixer, because it's quick and easy, and fresh-made frosting tastes so much better than the stuff you buy in a can!

 So, today's recipe blog is a two-fer, and I really like this one.  I'd make it again... maybe with polka dots, next time.  Because it makes so many cupcakes, I thought I'd show you roughly what size one cupcake is.  And - double bonus!! - you get to see my hand, too!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween!

Hello, everyone.
I have read no less than a dozen Halloween books, and flipped through stacks of picture books, and excepting the two (well, one and a half) recipes I've already posted, I can find NOT ONE book that has anything for the holiday excepting store-bought candy.  There are some great Halloween books out there, don't get me wrong, but they're all either about costumes or about candy, so... sorry, my friends.  I'll try harder for next year.  Suggestions are welcome.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Francine's Bat Wing Brownies

Arthur the Aardvark is one of the most fun kid lit characters I can think of.  He's a little bit of a goody-two-shoes, but for a picture book character, he's a lot of fun, and definitely not boring.  And because the series of books was out for about two decades before the television series started, I think I can use these on the blog.  I will not, however, be doing anything with Dora the Explorer.

Anyhow.  Arthur's Halloween, written and illustrated by Marc Brown, is the story of Arthur, an aardvark who is afraid of Halloween.  He doesn't recognize anybody in his class - even the teacher has been replaced by a giant robot! - and nothing is the way it should be.  And why on Earth would anybody want to touch eyeballs, even if they are just peeled grapes?  Arthur doesn't even want to go trick-or-treating, because it's too scary. 

It all turns out okay in the end when Arthur and his sister meet a "witch" and find out that she's really just an older woman whose house is in disrepair because she can't take care of it easily.  He's such a nice aardvark, he even promised to come help her around the house on the weekend.  I love a happy ending.

Before all this, though, while they're at school, Arthur's friend Francine brings in a special treat, that Arthur is too nervous to enjoy - Bat Wing Brownies and Blood Punch!  The Blood Punch in this photo is just cherry Kool-Aid, but the brownies... now, those are special.

Francine's Bat Wing Brownies
1/2 cup of butter, melted
1 cup white sugar
2 eggs
1/2 cup flour
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla extract

1. Preheat the oven to 350.  Grease an 8x8 or 9x9 pan.  If you want to make a larger pan of brownies, you will need to double the recipe; this isn't one of those where they say to use a small pan but it can fit in a big pan and be thinner, as they aren't that thick to begin with.
2. Mix together the melted butter and white sugar.  Add the eggs and beat well.  Add the rest of the ingredients, and mix that together.  Pour into the prepared baking pan.
3. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the edges are firm. 

To make them into bat wings, I contemplated a cookie cutter to get a real bat wing shape, but I figured that Francine's poor hard-working parents would have enough to do without cutting brownies into individual bat shapes, so I found another way.  I cut the brownies into rectangles and then bisected the rectangles to get two right triangles.  I then put a dot of decorator's gel on the inner points for spooky red bat eyes.  Serve with Blood Punch and you're all set!

The Happy Golden Popcorn Balls

Halloween is just around the corner, and I have been remiss in not providing holiday-related goodies.  So in the next three days, I'll see how many I can pop out, and I promise to plan ahead for Thanksgiving.

Now, I have been trying my best not to only write about sweets, but since this holiday abounds with candy, and I can't very well put up a recipe about peeling grapes and calling them eyeballs, healthiness will have to wait a few days.

One of the things I like about Halloween is the popcorn balls.  My sources tell me that popcorn balls are not a Halloween-only thing - when the Ingalls family makes their popcorn balls, it's at Christmas time - but I only ever see them in the fall, usually with wrappers illustrated with spiders, besides the fact that they're in the treat bags of the kids in It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, so they count as Halloween in my book.  And that, children, is a run-on sentence.

Speaking of books, popcorn balls play a big part in the Christmas traditions of the Ingalls family in Laura Ingalls Wilder's These Happy Golden Years.  This book was not my favorite of the Little House series, because I liked the young and impulsive Laura, and this one has her teaching at a school and getting ready to marry Almanzo, but that didn't stop me from reading it a few times.  I loved this book series, particularly Little House in the Big Woods.

The book, the eighth in the series, was set in the 1880's in or around what is now DeSmet, South Dakota; it's a semi-autobiographical series, based on the author's real life but not necessarily true all the way.  In the spirit of this, I made mostly-true popcorn balls; that is, I didn't use the molasses that the book specifically says that the Ingallses used, because I don't like the flavor of molasses all that much.  I used a recipe that makes the popcorn more caramel and less treacle instead, though I did pop the popcorn on the stove-top like Mrs. Ingalls did when she made them with Laura, Carrie and Grace.

Laura's Popcorn Balls
4 tbsp. vegetable oil
2 cups unpopped popcorn
1/4 cup butter
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
2/3 cup sweetened condensed milk
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

1.  Add 1 tbsp. of oil and two unpopped popcorn kernels to a large pot or saucepan, and heat over medium-high until the kernels pop.  Add a 1/2 cup of kernels to the pot and cover.  Shake the pot over the burner in a back-and-forth motion constantly until all the kernels have popped (by this, I mean you'll be scraping the pot over the burner, as it needs to stay near the heat).  Move the popped popcorn to a large bowl and repeat with the remaining kernels until all the popcorn has popped.  NOTE: If you don't want to pop the popcorn on the stovetop, use three bags of unflavored or natural microwave popcorn.
2. In a small saucepan, heat the butter, brown sugar, and corn syrup over medium high until melted together, and bring to a boil.  Add the condensed milk and simmer until the mix gets to the "soft ball" stage of candy making, or roughly 240 degrees on a candy thermometer.  Stir in the vanilla.
3. Pour the mixture - which is now caramel, by the way - over the popcorn and stir with a spoon to coat.  Once the mixture is cool enough to touch, butter or cooking-spray your hands and roll them into balls, in the same way that you would pack a snowball.

NOTES: Two cups of unpopped popcorn makes a very large amount of popped popcorn, and I needed three large bowls to hold it all, which I poured the caramel over as evenly as I could divide it.  You can cut down on the popcorn if you want your popcorn balls to be more caramelly.  Also, please note that if you leave the popcorn alone until it is fully cool, it won't be very easy to roll into balls, but it is still quite tasty as caramel popcorn.  This recipe made me 25 4-inch popcorn balls and a zip-top freezer bag full of caramel popcorn.

 These are awesome.  If you don't want caramel popcorn, there are lots of marshmallow-based popcorn ball recipes out there, too.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Series of Fortunate Puttanesca

I admit, my title is somewhat misleading, as there is no series involved here.  But how else was I to explain both the dish and the title in one fell swoop?

The first book in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events was published in 1999, making it a bit too new for me to have read as a kid.  Also, since I don't have children or younger siblings, and am not working in a school yet, it's not like I have other people in the house who would be reading the book.  It wasn't just laying around for me to pick up.  But given my love of children's literature, after I saw at least five children reading this series within the span of a week, I had to read it.  And yes, as a would-be (will-be!) librarian, I have every reason to have read this title, but this happened roughly seven years ago, when I had no reason at all.

In any case, I read The Bad Beginning (the first book in the series), and really enjoyed it.  And then when a friend of mine asked me if this blog was desserts-only (I do have a sweet tooth, don't I?), I sat down and thought about food from books that isn't coated in sugar.  The first thing that came to mind was, "hey! Didn't Lemony Snicket make puttanesca?"  Indeed, he did.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with these books, let me sum up.  In the 13 books of the series, orphans Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire go through, as you would expect, a whole series of unfortunate events.  Some parents dislike these because they're so unhappy, and people do get hurt and occasionally die... but, even from reading the back cover of the book, you can tell that the author takes a fun look at even the sad things in life.  Some of the issues that the children face in book 1, for example, include "itchy clothing, a disastrous fire, a plot to steal their fortune, and cold porridge for breakfast."  (This marks at least the third appearance of kid-lit porridge.)  I appreciate that the horrible things in life are taken in stride with the generally annoying, and the children do seem to get through everything in good spirits.

In this book, the three orphans are forced to make dinner for the nasty, greedy Count Olaf and his theater troupe.  Given little money and no supplies, they looked up recipes and found one for puttanesca, which is, as Klaus explains, "an Italian sauce for pasta.  All we need to do is saute olives, capers, anchovies, garlic, chopped parsley, and tomatoes together in a pot, and prepare spaghetti to go with it." 

I love that the author explains what the hard words mean ("capers, which are flower buds of a small shrub and taste marvelous"), so readers can learn something new without having to use the dreaded dictionary.  When I was a kid, I hated to be told to go look up a word I didn't know; it would ruin the flow of the story, and I'd more often than not skip over a word and guess at the definition.

Anyway, I admit that I personally dislike olives, capers and anchovies, but this blog is not just for me, and the magic word here is "puttanesca," which my uncle loves - serendipity to have found the reference! So, thanks again to Uncle Hawk, who not only made this, but ate it so I didn't have to.  And to top it off, it's his very own recipe!

Baudelaire Puttanesca
 2 tbsp. olive oil
1 tin anchovies
1 3.5-oz. jar capers
1 can whole olives
1 28-oz. jar crushed tomatoes
1/2 jar tomato sauce, any variety
2 tbsp. garlic
herbs to taste

1. Open the tin of anchovies and chop the fish into very small bits.  In a large frying pan, add the olive oil and the chopped anchovies, as well as the liquid from the anchovy tin.  Drain the liquid out of the jar of capers and add the capers to the pan.  Drain the olives and add them, too
2. Cook over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes, stirring often and breaking up the anchovies and olives if you like.
3. Add the tomatoes, tomato sauce, garlic, and whatever herbs you like (oregano, basil, or parsley would be nice) and cook for 5 minutes, then reduce to low and simmer until ready to serve.

As I said, this is my uncle's puttanesca.  He doesn't usually cook from a recipe, so I watched over his shoulder while he made it, and wrote it all down.  I have the following notes for you:
* If you like, you can chop the olives into pieces, or use chopped olives to start out with.  Uncle Hawk says he enjoys the olives whole, because then you get a whole bite of olivey goodness instead of just a small piece.
* Depending on how salty you want your sauce, you can add the juice from the caper jar and olive can, or add one of those instead of the liquid from the anchovies.
* The amount of tomatoes and tomato sauce also depend on whatever mood you happen to be in that day.  The less sauce you add, the thicker the sauce will be; tomatoes add chunkiness that tomato sauce does not.

Since this is cooking and not baking, this recipe can be a great jumping-off point for your personal likes and dislikes; add mushrooms, or chicken pieces, or take out the capers if you like.  If it were up to me, I'd take out the olives, capers and anchovies and add peppers, onions, broccoli and carrots, but that makes this dish a primavera and not a puttanesca, so it doesn't go quite as well with the book. 

Charlotte's Web: Wilbur's Ancient Jelly Roll

Wow... that jelly roll looks dusty, doesn't it?  Old, and dusty and leaking?  Well, it had just been made when the photo was taken, but if it looks old, that's ok, too.

We've all read E. B. White's Charlotte's Web, haven't we?  Who couldn't love Wilbur?  He's awesome!  And he gets so excited when he eats - hey, just like me!  Even slops sound good with the descriptions we're given.  On one memorable occasion, our piggy friend eats "leftover pancakes, half a doughnut, the rind of a summer squash, two pieces of stale toast, a third of a gingersnap, a fish tail, one orange peel, several noodles from a noodle soup, the scum off a cup of cocoa, an ancient jelly roll, a strip of paper from the lining of the garbage pail, and a spoonful of raspberry jello."

Is it me, or does that sound oddly appealing?  It's like a combo platter - a little breakfast, a little dinner, a little dessert... The ancient jelly roll always sounded so fancy to me, and when I had jam to use up (see the previous post about Bread and Jam for Frances) my friend Allen reminded me that Wilbur had one at slops.  Perfect!  (And thank you, by the way.)

I contemplated cotton candy cobwebs, and placing doughnut pieces and an orange peel on the plate for the photo, but I think the powdered sugar "dust" worked well enough to imply the age of it.  There's no need to put garbage with the food, after all, since we will be eating it later... though this project does make me want to make Templeton's Smorgasbord at some point, and I know that's mostly garbage.  Now, if I can only find a good way to make half a funnel cake.

Anyway.  I got this recipe out of the New York Times International Cook Book from 1971, which was actually owned by my great-grandmother before it was passed along.  My aunt and uncle actually cooked this one up for you, so all thanks are due to them for its yumminess and photogenic-osity. 

Wilbur's Ancient Jelly Roll
3 tbsp. butter, melted
4 eggs
1/4 tsp. salt
3/4 cup plus 2 tbsp. sugar, plus extra for rolling
3/4 cup sifted flour
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 tbsp. confectioner's sugar, plus extra for dusting later
3/4 cup jelly or jam

1. Preheat the oven to 350.  Brush a jelly roll pan (a cookie sheet with edges) with half the melted butter.  Line the pan with a large sheet of wax or parchment paper, letting it hang over the sides of the pan.  Brush the paper with the remaining melted butter.
2. Break the eggs into the bowl of an electric mixer.  Add the salt and 3/4 cup of sugar.  Beat until stiff "or until the mixture forms a ribbon and falls back on itself when the mixer is lifted from the bowl."  (I took that directly from the book, as I wasn't sure how to say that in any better way.)  Fold in the flour and vanilla.
3. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and spread it smooth with a rubber spatula.
4. Bake for 15 minutes.
5. Sift together the confectioner's sugar and white sugar.  Lay out a clean dish towel or cloth and sprinkle the sugar mixture over it.  Once the cake is done, when it is still warm, loosen the cake from the pan and lift out using the parchment or wax paper; turn it out on to the towel and peel away the paper.
6. Sprinkle the cake with sugar and quickly - but gently!! - roll it up like a jelly roll with the towel inside.  Let this cool for 15 minutes.
7. After the wait time is up, carefully unroll the cake and spread the jelly as evenly as possible on top.  Roll the cake back up (without the towel inside) and let it cool completely before cutting.  Lightly sprinkle with confectioner's sugar "dust" and decorate in any way you like.  There are times like these when I sincerely wish that I had a feeding trough to serve out of.  Yes, sometimes I'm a little strange.

Our cake didn't crack, but if yours does, please remember that whipped cream makes a lovely topping that hides many flaws, and the roll is supposed to be ancient anyway.  And if all else fails, I bet it would be really good in a parfait.

I have a confession to make.  I have never had a jelly roll before, and I didn't think I'd like it as much as I did.  I found this to be very tasty, and it wasn't too sweet.  I think it would be especially good with whipped cream, since that would add a creaminess that I love in desserts that just wasn't present here.

In my research, I found a recipe that would fix that problem by making the following addition: before spreading the jelly, spread a layer of a mix of 8 oz. of cream cheese beaten with 1 cup confectioner's sugar and 1 tsp. vanilla.  Then spread the jelly on top of that and roll it up as planned.  I'd love to try this, but I have a whole list of other recipes to make, besides the Christmas cookies that are already starting to fill the freezer, so I'm going to rely on you, faithful friends, to try it out and let me know what you think.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Jam for Frances

First and most importantly, my apologies for not having posted for several days.  Life has been a little busy, but things should be back to normal now.  So, on with the show!

Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Lillian Hoban, is one of my all-time favorite books.  For the uninformed, this is the story of Frances, a young badger, who only ever wants to eat bread and jam.  Her mother makes her a lovely soft-boiled egg, but she doesn't like the way it's wobbles on the spoon.  Or the way sunny-side-up-eggs look at her.  Or how sunny-side-down eggs "just lie on their stomachs and wait."  (This book is the reason that I never remember that sunny-side-down eggs are actually called "over easy.")

Frances may not eat eggs, or string beans, or veal cutlets, or anything else, but she will eat and enjoy some bread and jam, and sing about how happy it makes her, too.  At least, at first.  As the book progresses, and her parents only ever give her bread and jam, she realizes that she would like the option of eating other foods, and learns that she does enjoy things like spaghetti and even hard boiled eggs. 

But before we get to the food-tolerance lesson part of things, she is a jam-loving, jump-roping badger.  And this jam is for her.

Jam for Frances
2 cups of sugar
1 large lemon
1 1/2 pints of strawberries
1 small package of blackberries (about a cup)

1.Put a small plate in the freezer for later.  Take the zest off the lemon and put it in a saucepan.  Be careful to only get the yellow zest and leave behind the white pith.  If you can, use a zester or a grater, as large chunks of zest will not be tasty in the end product.
2. Juice the lemon into the pot, and pull out all the seeds.  This should leave you with a hollow-ish, naked lemon.  Note: it doesn't really matter which order you juice or zest in the end product, but I juiced first and the lemon was slimy and the rind had a lot of give, so it made zesting difficult.
3. Add the sugar to the pot with the lemon juice and zest, and cook over very low heat for about ten minutes, or until all the sugar has dissolved into a syrup.  It will look, at first, like there is not enough liquid, but it will be ok.  Stir often; it will help.
4. While the sugar and lemon is cooking, cut the tops off the strawberries and cut them in halves (large berries can be quartered).  After the ten minutes are up, stir in the strawberries and blackberries.
5. Cook the berry mix over low heat for about 20 to 25 minutes; the berries will have given up a lot of their juice, and the mixture should be slowly bubbling.  Keep the berry mix cooking until a few drops on a very cold plate (the one from the freezer) gel right away.
6. Put into canning jars right away, and either seal in a warm-water bath or put in the fridge and enjoy.  It makes about two cups of jam.

This is a soft-set jam with no added pectin.  I like pectin-added jams and jellies, which are firmer, like the ones you buy in the store, but I wanted a totally natural jam for Frances, like her mother might make for her.  The I adapted this one from an Ina Garten recipe that I found on the Food Network website.  And if I may toot my own horn for a moment... holy crap, it's really good.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Captain Underpants: Stinky Taco Surprise

The Adventures of Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey is, let's be honest here, an awesome book.  I took it out of the library to read for my Children's Literature class and strongly recommended ("insisted" is such a negative word) that my aunt and uncle read it, too.  Despite initial hesitation - scatalogical humor is not to their taste - both of them read and enjoyed the book.  I caught my aunt laughing out loud when she saw that our main characters - George and Harold - were having Stinky Taco Surprise for lunch.  (And they both loved the Flip-O-Rama pages.)

I had to make Stinky Taco Surprise.  There was no question.  So I needed to figure out exactly what would be in such a dish that made it so stinky.  (Yes, my friends, these are the questions that keep me awake at night.)  Onions, of course.  But that's not enough.  What else smells so strongly?  Bad fish?  Unsafe for consumption.  Feet?  That doesn't even make sense.  Garlic?  In tacos? Well, maybe, but not what I was looking for.  At last, I had it - stinky cheese!

I made the tacos the usual way, but instead of cheddar and lettuce, I used red onions and smelly blue cheese.  And they were wonderful.  I guess that's the surprise - smelled iffy, but tasted great (okay, that's a cop-out.  I seriously considered adding bacon as a surprise but it just didn't need it).

I have to say, I feel silly telling you all how to make tacos.  Like you don't already know.  And obviously, this can be customized to suit your personal tastes.

Stinky Taco Surprise
1 lb. ground beef or turkey
1 package taco seasoning, and whatever else it says on the package you need (such as water)
Taco shells - the one pound of meat made me 6 average-sized tacos
1 onion, sliced
Blue cheese crumbles
Additional toppings, such as lettuce, tomato, or pico de gallo

1. Brown the ground beef and drain; prepare taco seasonings as directed on the package.  (Note: I usually make my own taco seasoning, since it's cheaper and has less sodium to do it that way.  If anyone is interested in that recipe, let me know and I'll post it.)
2. Fill the taco shells with taco meat and add onion slices, blue cheese crumbles, and additional toppings.  For the photo, I used pico de gallo because it's pretty and I enjoy it, and it was my dinner after I took pictures.  If you think it's easy explaining that "I can't eat right now, I need to photograph my food first," chances are that you haven't done it recently.
3. Enjoy with whatever side dishes you like.  I had Spanish rice with mine, and it was very tasty.

As a variation, this would be quite tasty as a Frito Pie.

I suppose this post was not so much the recipe for stinky tacos as the idea to make them, but that's ok.  Not everything I do will be exciting.  Indeed, much of my life is rather dull.

On a somewhat-related topic, I'm wondering what people think of giving Captain Underpants to students.  I have always been of the school of thought that, if you give a person a book they enjoy, then they will enjoy reading, and that's a good thing.  Even if you personally don't like the book, you realize that other people do and that's that, right?  For example, I am the biggest anti-fan of Twilight, but if I see a student returning the book, I'd chase them down and give them New Moon.

I recently learned that a classmate of mine has a different philosphy; she doesn't allow her students to read Captain Underpants or Shel Silverstein poems or anything like that, because they're not valuable academically.  "If you let your kids read Shel Silverstein," she told my class, "they'll never want to read any real poetry."  I didn't say anything because it confused me to no end.  What do you think?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Little Red Hen Bread

"Hey, everyone!" said the Little Red Hen one day.  "I have some grain here.  Who will help me plant the grain?"
"Not I," said the dog.
"Not I," said the pig.
"Not I," said the goose.
"Not I," said the Kat.  "I'm kinda in the middle of a project here."

"The grain has grown into wheat!" said the Little Red Hen one day.  "Who will help me harvest the wheat?"
"Not I," said the dog.
"Not I," said the pig.
"Not I," said the goose.
"Not I," said the Kat.  "I'm just getting over a cold, and it's wet and muddy out."

"The wheat must be milled into flour!" said the Little Red Hen one day.  "Who will help me mill the wheat?"
"Not I," said the dog.
"Not I," said the pig.
"Not I," said the goose.
"Not I," said the Kat.  "Seriously, can't you just buy a bag of flour like a normal person?"

"The flour must be baked into bread!" said the Little Red Hen one day.  "Who will help me bake the bread?"
"Not I," said the dog.
"Not I," said the pig.
"Not I," said the goose.
"Aww, what the heck," said the Kat.  "I have this great recipe for honey wheat bread I've been wanting to try out..."

Little Red Hen Honey Wheat Bread
2 tbsp. white sugar
3/4 cup warm water
1 tbsp. active dry yeast
1/4 cup milk
1 tbsp. vegetable oil
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
2 tbsp. honey
1/4 cup water (may not be needed)
1 egg, beaten

1. In a small bowl, dissolve the sugar into the warm water.  Make sure the water is tepid-warm, not hot, not cool.  Stir in the yeast and let it sit until it appears creamy and bubbly, about ten minutes.  (This is called "blooming the yeast," by the way, and what it does is wake up the freeze-dried yeast so it starts to make bubbles.  Skip this step and you have flatbread, which is all well and good, but not really what we're after here.)
2. In a large mixing bowl, combine the yeast mixture with the milk, vegetable oil, whole wheat flour, 1 cup of the all-purpose flour, the salt, and the honey. Mix well.
3. Add in the remaining flour, half a cup at a time.  If the mixture is crumbly and will not hold together, add the water a little at a time until it forms a ball.  You don't want sticky, but you don't want it to crumble, either.
4. Either use an electric mixer's dough hook for about 5 minutes OR turn the dough out on to a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic-y, about ten minutes.
5. Oil or no-stick-spray a large bowl and place the dough in, turning it over so it gets oil on all sides.  Put the bowl in a warm place and cover it with a slightly-damp cloth for about an hour or until the dough has doubled in volume.  (Note: the oil and the damp cloth keep the dough from drying out on the outside.  The world won't end if you skip this, but it tastes better if you don't.)
6. Grease a loaf pan.  Place the dough on a lightly-floured surface and punch it down.  Form it into a loaf and set it in the pan, covering again with a damp cloth to let it rise for another 40 minutes.  Preheat the oven to 400 so it's ready when your dough is done rising.
7. Brush the loaf with the egg (this will help it to brown - butter would also work).  Bake it for 30 minutes, covering with tinfoil mid-way through if the top is getting too brown.
8. Let the loaf rest for a few minutes before cutting into it, as it may otherwise not set right. 

This bread is pretty tasty as-is, but if you want to sprinkle, say, some sesame seeds on top before baking, that would be a nice addition as well.  You can also use this dough to make rolls, which would be nice, but be sure to adjust your cooking time.

Hmm... I have all this bread now, and nothing to put on it...

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Besty-Tacy Unfrosted Cake

I've had my first real request for this blog: from the Besty-Tacy books, could I replicate Mrs. Kelly's unfrosted cake?  Well, I tried.

First off, I went to the library and got Besty-Tacy and Besty-Tacy and Tib by Maud Hart Lovelace, the first two books in a series that I'd never read before.  Having read the first two, I'm really surprised I'd never read them before, because they're right up my alley.  (While I was there, I also picked up Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield, which I had also never read.  How did these slip past me?)

Anyway, after I read the books, I found that the only real description given of the cake is that it's unfrosted and good to take on picnics.  I was thinking to myself, what kind of cake would be good without frosting and not too crumbly to take on picnics?  Maybe lemon cake.. but lemons weren't readily available to people in Minnesota at the turn of the century.  Apples, on the other hand, were all over the place.  I found a good apple butter cake recipe with a brown sugar and cinnamon topping and middle, and thought that, perhaps that was just the thing. 

I'm not sure how accurate this recipe is to the time period, but it is a good solid unfrosted cake.  If this doesn't fit your mind's-eye picture of what this cake should be, let me know and I'll try again, but for now...

Mrs. Kelly's Unfrosted Cake
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 cup chopped nuts (I used pecans)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup white sugar
3/4 cup apple butter
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 cup wheat germ or rolled oats
1 cup sour cream
2 eggs, beaten

1.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Spray or grease one 9x13 inch pan or one bundt pan. 
2. Prepare the topping by mixing together the brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and chopped nuts.  Set aside. 
3. Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.  Set aside.
4. Blend together butter and sugar; add eggs and beat well. Add the apple butter, vanilla, and wheat germ or rolled oats, and mix to combine. 
5. Add the sifted dry ingredients alternately with the sour cream, mixing well after each addition. 
6.  Pour half the batter into the pan and sprinkle half the topping over the top. Pour remaining batter and top with remaining topping. (Note: If you use a bundt pan, you'll want to reverse the layers, so the topping is on the bottom when baking, which is the top when you flip the cake out.)
7. Bake for 40 minutes. 

I know this is a longer and more detailed recipe than  usual, but it isn't difficult, and I think it's worth it in the end.  This recipe did come out pretty sweet, so I think you could cut down on the sugar in the topping and still have a good dessert-quality cake. 

I hope I did Mrs. Kelly's unfrosted cake justice.  I considered making Everything Pudding, but I didn't want to deal with the cleanup, so we're going to leave that one out.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Chicken Soup With Rice

It's been so cold outside lately that I thought a nice warm bowl of soup would be nice to warm up with.  And what better way to start off the chilly season than with Chicken Soup With Rice by Maurice Sendak? 

If anyone is not familiar with Chicken Soup With Rice, I urge you to head on over to YouTube and watch the animation of it, with the story sung by Carole King.  Basically, it's a little boy who sings about the months of the year and how his favorite dish - chicken soup with rice - fits into the grand scheme of things.  In June, for example, chicken soup with rice is used to perk up wilting flowers, and it (in bowls, of course) decorates a Christmas tree in December. 

I had originally thought to make this a nice, neat, relatively healthy recipe, until I looked at the pictures in the book again and talked to a few friends who told me that chicken soup with rice is wholly unacceptable unless it was creamy chicken soup with rice.  It doesn't look especially creamy in the illustrations, but I suppose that's open to interpretation.  And it tastes pretty good that way, though, yet again, it is not healthy.  And it has a few more ingredients than I usually use.  But who wants directions to make a salad, anyway?

Chicken Soup With Rice
2 tsp. olive oil
3 cups chicken meat - 4 thighs or 3 breasts should do
1 stalk celery, chopped
1/2 onion, chopped
2 cups uncooked brown rice (note: don't use minute rice! It mushes into the soup)
1 tsp. chicken boullion powder
2 (14 oz.) cans chicken broth
1 1/2 cup water
1 cup butter or margarine
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
6 cups milk, divided
Salt and pepper to taste

1. In a large pot (one of those big spaghetti pots),  heat the olive oil and sautee the chicken.  After it is cooked, remove it from the pot, cut the chicken into soup-sized chunks and set it aside.  I used chicken thighs because that's what I had on hand.
2. Put the onions and celery into the pot and sautee until its soft and partially translucent.  Add the broth, bouillon, water, and rice, and heat on medium until boiling, then reduce heat to low and let it simmer for 30 minutes.  Remove from heat.
3. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter or margarine. Slowly add the flour, stirring often, to make a roux. 
4. Add 4 cups of milk to the roux, 1/2 cup at a time, while constantly stirring. Add this and the chicken to the rice mixture and return the rice mixture to the stovetop over low heat. 
5.  If the soup seems too thick, add some or all of the remaining 2 cups of milk. Season with salt and pepper to taste and allow to simmer for at least an hour, stirring every 15 minutes. 

This soup will be pretty thick - almost like a stew.  I didn't add either of the extra two cups of milk, and I don't think it needed it.  It's creamy, kinda like a pot pie filling.  As I said, my use of minute rice backfired a bit, since they dissolved a bit into the soup, but it's still delicious.  I would celebrate a snowman's anniversary with this soup.

Oh, and one more thing.  No matter how good it smells, let it cool down before you eat it.  I burned my tongue.

Ice Cream For Samantha

When I told some friends that I was going to be writing this blog, the one of the first responses I got was, "Are you going to write about the American Girl books?" As a kid, I loved the American Girls - four books to a series, each series highlighting a girl from somewhere in the United States at some point during its history. They were interesting, and fun, and those of us who grew up with them, love them.

When I started reading them, the girls were Samantha (from 1904), Molly (from 1944) and Kirsten (from 1854). Then Felicity came out (from 1774), and it was a huge deal. (Well, to me, it was.) My sisters and I had several of the books, and we got the catalog that had the dolls in it, even though we never had the dolls.  The company has now grown exponentially, and there are books about the friends of the original girls, books about girls I've never even heard of, and books about modern girls, and dolls you can customize, and self-help for pre-teens, and... gah! So much! American Girl, I love you, but how am I supposed to catch up?

Anyway. In several of the books, the authors mention cooking; Molly makes Boston brown bread, Kirsten makes St. Lucia buns, and so on. In Happy Birthday Samantha, our title character has a birthday party with pink peppermint ice cream. It shows up at the beginning of the story, at the party, but the batch is ruined by the annoying neighbor-boy, Eddie. Samantha goes to visit family in New York City, though, and she finally gets her ice cream there - again, pink peppermint. It's her favorite.

So, in honor of Samantha's birthday (which is in the spring in the book, but let's not be too picky, here), I made some pink peppermint ice cream. This recipe is adapted from the French Vanilla ice cream in the Ben & Jerry's cookbook.

Pink Peppermint Ice Cream
2 large eggs
3/4 cup sugar
2 cups heavy or whipping cream
1 cup milk
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 drops red food coloring
Enough crushed-up peppermints to make about two cups

1. Whisk the eggs in a mixing bowl until light and fluffy, 1 to 2 minutes.
2. Whisk in the sugar, a little bit at a time, and then continue for about a minute after all the sugar is added.
3. Pour in the vanilla, cream, milk, and food coloring, and whisk that together until everything is blended.
4. Transfer into an ice cream maker and freeze according to your manufacturer's instructions.
5. About half-way into the freezing time, add  the peppermints.  If you crushed them like I did (in a zip-top bag, with a hammer), you'll have pieces of all different sizes and a fair amount of peppermint dust that should blend right in.

Samantha has her ice cream frozen into molds, but there wasn't room in the freezer for a bunch of molds, and I wasn't sure how it would take to a mold made for jell-o, besides my being lazy, so I just put it in a large tupperware and scooped it out as needed.  Judging by the trouble I had getting a good photo, that's probably a good thing - this is a very soft ice cream due to the high sugar content. 

I am lucky enough to have family who not only indulges my odd quirks of needing to randomly cook something from a story, but also has the fun kitchen tools I need to make things like ice cream on the spur of the moment. If you don't have an ice cream freezer, run a Google search on: "how to make ice cream" and you will find methods that don't need the ice cream freezer, such by using two zip-top bags or two empty coffee cans.

And yes, I will make both St. Lucia Bread and Boston Brown Bread at some point in the future. And just about anything else. If anybody has any requests or comments, please feel free to leave a comment, or send me an email at

And lastly, thanks to my aunt, who crushed the peppermints with the hammer for me while I was whisking the rest of the ingredients together.  You're the best.