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Gosh, I hope you’re all braised meat fans, or I’m about to bore you. 🙂
Pulled pork for lunch was my buddy Casey’s* idea (and he’s actually prepared it umpteen times before, and has a fancy-schmancy Cuisinart slow cooker), so he took the reins on that. He rubbed the meat (pork butt, which is pork shoulder, but saying pork butt is far more appealing) with a mixture of brown sugar, chili powder, garlic powder, cumin, cinnamon, smoked paprika, and salt. Then he plopped it into the Cuisinart on a cozy bed, bath, and beyond of sliced yellow onions, fresh sliced garlic, and chicken broth. It dozed in there for a blissful five hours. I know they were blissful because when we sliced off the first piece of meat and tasted it, it was nearly liquid.
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Here it is, singing ‘Swanee River’, in a very happy puddle.

Wait…let’s back up to that morning. Case assigned rolls and barbecue sauce to me. Finding the sauce was easy, thanks to another buddy, Ray, who makes BBQ Buddha Memphis Mop sauce**. The rolls I wanted to make myself, so I used a recipe from my well-worn, duct-tape-spined Joy of Cooking, adding whole-wheat pastry flour in place of some of the all-purpose flour called for. I also tossed in a handful of yellow onions that I caramelized in olive oil.

Every time I make bread I forget how easy it is.

I packed up the sauce; all of the rolls in a half-opened Ziploc (because they were still cooling); my laptop (because Casey also offered to help me design a postcard); and a box of homemade Nutella truffles (to thank him for the aforementioned), and headed north.

We kibbutzed and worked on the postcard, during which it became more and more obvious that my computer skills took a decade-long sabbatical sometime in the ’90s. Then we ate.

I pulled out the fluffy underside of the top of the bun and popped it into my mouth, then I piled on the meat. This is what my sandwich looked like…for about four minutes.

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*Just as an aside: Case’s blog—part snarky, part poignant essays on modern relationships—is here.

**Local guy makes good! If you want to try this, and/or Ray’s other barbecue products, his site is here.

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I’ve always been crap at making pie crusts. Fillings, I’m good. Like the above. It has organic apples and pears in it, plus I threw in some brown sugar (didn’t measure), cinnamon (ditto), and gooshed the whole thing with some of the crab apple liqueur I made last fall. It all went into a really wide pan and got sauteed for something like five minutes—long enough for everything to get juiced up and friendly but not so long that the fruit would start to fall apart.

When I make crust, I usually ease back on the fat because I used to have a weight problem, and even though I know in my brain that I don’t have one now,* an old self-image is not something a  person shakes off easily. So even when life’s going just swimmingly, when it comes to cooking for myself, I carefully measure and am all organized and I skim back on the butter. Like a lot. And I use the pat-in-the-pan method, pressing the pie dough into the pan instead of rolling it out. If I didn’t, it would crack like the Mojave in August.

Last week, though, I was chilly, exhausted, and generally fed up with life. Life was going sinkingly. I cook when I need normalcy, so enter pie. And I broke out a new recipe: Martha’s pate brisee, which calls for two sticks of butter—a goodly amount, as Martha would say. Please know I did not use two sticks on a pie I was going to eat myself. But I did dump in a bunch, and fairly indiscriminately. Into the Cuisinart went the flour and salt, then in went the butter. Plop, plop, plop. Blitz, blitz, blitz. Ice water, more blitzing.

I thought not. I simply did. It needs this, and it needs that, make a mess, well done, into the fridge to firm up.

Suddenly this…I was able to roll out.

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I didn’t say I was any good at it, but I WAS able to roll it out.

I pricked the crust with a fork (what pastry chefs call “docking,” to keep the crust from puffing up in the oven) and then I spread a raw egg white across the bottom. I read somewhere that that keeps the bottom of the crust from getting goopy from the filling and not cooking. Call it the barrier method.

The recipe said I could split the dough in half and make a top crust, too, but I only have one pie pan: deep dish. So I sort of folded the upper part of the bottom crust over the fruit, brushed it with an egg wash, sprinkled it with sanding sugar, and put it in the oven.

It was tender and flaky and lovely—the best crust I have ever made, the bouncing baby of enough fed-up-ness and enough experience to let my hands do the thinking. And enough butter.

Go Martha, and go me.

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*A weight problem, not a brain.**

**Well. Depends on the day.

 

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Most tales that include cold-cured marinated brisket evoke joy and good will. Not so this.

I mean I made sure the story wrapped up on a good note, but there was the cost which whirled away down the potty, don’t think that didn’t hurt, and the time I’d spent each night giving the meat its massage of spices and salt. If I knew what I did wrong I’d just kick myself and learn and be done with it, but I don’t know what I did wrong. And what really got me bummed was missing out on the flavor that Laurie swooned over.

I know, I always get ahead of myself.

Let’s make like Julie Andrews and start at the very beginning: years ago I became enthralled by a recipe for Spiced Beef, a traditional Christmastime treat in the UK, in More Home Cooking. The book was written by Laurie Colwin, who passed away suddenly some 20 years ago, who I’ve never met, and yet miss like a best bud. We’re cut from the same cloth, as two of the 11 people on Planet Earth who champion English recipes. Hers was Elizabeth David’s version. I saw a recipe for Spiced Beef again in a vintage collection of UK recipes I bought at a used book sale. And there was a version of it on Nigella’s site, and another on boston.com. This looked Promising.

Laurie’s recipe made too much (it feeds 8-10), so I went with the recipe in my vintage cookbook instead. Whole Foods kindly sold me 3 lbs. of lean brisket, and I snatched up black peppercorns (1 tablespoon), whole allspice (1 tablespoon), dried juniper berries (1/4 cup), dark brown sugar (1/4 cup), and coarse salt (1/4 cup). It was a combo I had never tasted, and it sounded wild. Laurie called it magnificent. Game on.

The recipe said I was to coat the meat with the brown sugar, place it in a casserole dish, cover it, and let it sit in the fridge for two days. Then I was to crush the spices and salt, then scatter and press a tablespoon of it into the meat every day for 12 days. This dry rub would act as a preservative to seal in freshness*.

I followed the recipe to the letter. I’m a good listener. Okay, one thing—I finished in 11 days and not 12 because the rub ran out. But I coddled that meat like a flat pink newborn. I also took three more precautions:

1) To be sure it would keep four weeks after cooking, as it said it would, I called a butcher for a professional opinion. Went straight to the top—Lobel’s, NYC, five generations. Evan Lobel, who I saw a few years ago on television talking beef with Martha Stewart, picked up. I read the recipe to him and he disagreed with the longevity, thinking it would keep 10 days, tops. I found another opinion online that said 4-5 days. Fine, we’ll polish it off in a week.

2) I had a feeling my oven thermometer was slowly going on the fritz, so I replaced it.** I was right.

3) I set the pan on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator, all the way in the back where it’s coldest.

Yesterday was cooking day. You take some or all of the spices off, drain off the liquid in the casserole dish, put the meat back in, add 3/4 cup of cold water to the dish, and cover it. Then you cook it on the middle rack of the oven for 3.5 hours at 275 degrees F. This is how it looked just before cooking time. I swear I sang little songs to it.

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Can you tell anything’s wrong? Me neither.

After a half hour, I could smell it. That’s when I started to worry, and that’s when it started and ended—right there with my nose. It wasn’t horrible, just…off. I went through all of the question marks in my head.

Will it smell better once it’s finished cooking? Does it smell this way because it’s coated with sugar and a mix of spices I’ve never cooked before? Should I taste it?*** Do I lose my mind now, or wait until I have the meat nicely settling on a cooking rack?

I didn’t even throw it away immediately. Almost went through the last steps of weighing the meat under a board and letting it press down overnight. With as much as I pampered this brisket, it felt like it should be interred, maybe with chanting and a few carefully chosen words, not just tossed away. I put it in a Hefty freezer bag first, which isn’t the same as interment after a soak in myrrh, but decent.

Reliving this has been less than enjoyable. For you, too, right? Let’s bring on the holiday cheer.

I am a stage tech in my down time, and we learn to be problem solvers. If we don’t, we can at the very least foul up the show; and at the very most, get hurt or hurt someone else.**** And yesterday, after it hit me that the meat was gone, I was in a state: I’d eaten half a 72% blueberry-chocolate bar to drown my sorrows, so I was hopping. Plus I have a very big problem, in general, with failing *entirely*; if I fail at something, I want either to fix it or to wring the best out of it, and that’s on me to make happen. So I thought about it.

Replacing the brisket and starting over entirely without the benefit of knowing what went wrong—obviously that was out. I knew I wanted to taste what I should have tasted, that strange primitive combination of flavors with meat. THAT I could do, in a different way.

Night had fallen and it was still raining—had been all day. I put on my coat and turned my collar to the cold and damp. Then I went to the store and bought fresh ground turkey.

When I got home, I formed three patties and into them pressed 1 tablespoon brown sugar. Then I covered the pan and set it on the cold shelf of the fridge to soak overnight.

This morning with my mortar and pestle I crushed 1 teaspoon each of juniper berries, whole allspice, black peppercorns, and salt, pressed it into the patties, and set them back in the fridge for an hour. I sliced a wedge of seeded semolina bread for a roll, which is about as English as baklava, but so what, and I tossed some potatoes from the organic farm with some fresh horseradish from my friend Peggy, who grows it for Passover and always ends up with a yard full. Nigella said the beef goes well with horseradish potatoes.

Then I cooked everything, and then I ate everything, and it was freaking spectacular. I’m not even BSing you to make up for the lurid saga above. I got to taste those flavors. Serious happiness. And tomorrow’s and Tuesday’s burgers will probably be even better because they’ll have had a chance to marinate in the spices more.

Yes, I am going to try Spiced Beef again sometime. And if any readers out there have made it and have pinpointed where I screwed up, speak right up and help a girl out.

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*I sound like a Gladware commercial.

**My oven’s 25 degrees off. The joy of cooking, indeed.

***This was the toughest to resist. You will be glad to hear I did not taste it.

****Or God forbid, hurt the set.

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There’s no rhyme or reason behind some compulsions. Take the tart above. I bought some rhubarb and wanted to make something other than the hackneyed strawberry-rhubarb pie, so one night I chopped up the stuff into a saucepan and stewed it down with a little brown sugar until it softened. Made Martha Stewart’s vanilla pudding and set it to cool in the fridge. Then made pie dough, pushed bits of it into brioche pans to make cute little tarts, and blind baked them.

When they cooled, I loaded them up with the pudding and rhubarb. Start to finish was about an hour. Righteous breakfast for the next few days. But the weirdest thing was that I didn’t really have a plan; I just knew the type of flavors and textures I wanted to taste that day. So I sort of walked around the kitchen until I got them.

(An aside: a friend’s son saw the above picture posted on Facebook, said his wife loves rhubarb without strawberries, and would I make a full-sized pie for them for that weekend? Well, yeah. Pucker up, buttercup. They dug it.)

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It happened again earlier this week, this freaky burst of inspiration, and this time with strawberries. For eve’s apple newbie types: I’m a born harvester. Why I don’t know;  I didn’t grow up on or near a farm, so it’s one for the ages. I’ve talked about my craziness for picking stuff, like here and here and also here. Hang tight for more; it’s inevitable, lucky you.

So here’s me going strawberrying twice this week since it’s a short season, and in New Jersey you never know when rain will wipe them all out in a crimson tide o’er the land.

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Loves me a mutant strawberry.

I decided to make a free form, small rustic tart and fill it with sweetened ricotta and berries. Another first. Cooked the fruit down* with brown sugar again, since it’s a little weird versus regular white sugar, and I was in a weird mood again, and it worked with the rhubarb, so etc.

Brushed an egg wash on the dough and sprinkled it with white sugar (brown would have melted or burned) and blind baked that little dude. When it cooled I topped it with my ricotta + a bit of sugar (this is the traditional filling for cannoli, by the way. It is not pudding, nor icing. Gah to the preceding.) I made the ricotta by putting two quarts of milk into a heavy-bottomed pan with 1/4 cup of fresh lemon juice. I brought it to 200 degrees F on low heat. Takes about an hour. It’ll curdle. It’s supposed to. Then I put a lid on it and sat it in a cold oven overnight.

The next day (or 6 hours later, whichever comes first), I put some cheesecloth in another pot with some ends hanging over, and I rubber banded it to the pot.** Then I poured the cheesy goo into it and stuck it into the fridge. Do this, and a few hours later most of the whey will have drained out, and you will have ricotta.***

The happiest part of this: you spent WAY bloody less than buying it at a store, it’s almost no effort, you know precisely what’s in it, and you can use any percentage of milk fat. I am a 1% fan, so that’s what I use. But you can use anything, even skim.

Here’s Mr. Purty. I cut it into three long slabs, and it killed. Making another one tonight.

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I always freeze some strawberries for use later, sliced and very lightly sugared. Many think the inside of a strawberry is white, and that’s because most supermarkets buy them before they ever had the chance to ripen. They’re flavorless, just to tempt us further. Ripe strawberries, right off the field, are red—clear through the middle.

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Like this.

It’s a delirious luxury to buy strawberries you picked yourself, when you can choose the perfect degree of ripeness and flavor; and having them be small, sweet, and organic are major plusses. Christian Louboutin shoes aren’t my bag. A girl needs some luxuries.

Just now hit by the wacky idea lightning again, halfway through prepping more strawberries for jam. It would be wild to make a spread by mixing the jam into melted bittersweet chocolate and milk. Right?

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*I have a reader in Athens who doesn’t say ‘stewed’ or ‘cooked down;’ she says ‘melted’. I love that. Hi Katerina! 🙂

** Can you tell I was classically trained? No? You’re perceptive.

*** If you have a pig handy, they love whey poured into their slop. Just a tip. Charlotte’s Web says so, and we can believe anything it says.

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So begins the first installment of my cooking project! I chose Anita’s cookies because every ingredient in them is like butter on a burn* to me, and because right now I want to expend only the barest amount of effort while still getting a fat payoff. What we cook should work for us. And for where I am right now, these cookies do that.

To be more specific, this month I’m backstage, crewing two theatre shows. And while I love it, it’s hard physical work. Factor in the frosty 95-degree weather, and my head feels like drywall. I hope you’re all less in the mood to dig into Big Thinking and more in the mood for goofing off a little, because I sure am.

I took a page from Anita’s book with this recipe and did my own thing in a few places: I added good-quality 60% cacao chocolate buttons instead of chopping up chocolate (zero energy for that today) and toasted the walnuts before adding them (a very nice thing to do to a nut). I also used organic whole wheat pastry flour for half of the flour called for.  Stirred it all up, scooped it onto cookie sheets, put the sheets in the oven, then I…

…Oh, you think that’s it?

No, right about here let’s throw in a monkey wrench, something completely screwed up, like having my oven refuse to go past 300 degrees, then slowly shut itself off and start emitting gas, like something out of a 1970s made-for-TV movie starring Dirk Benedict.

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Bring on your Battlestar Galactica plastic weaponry. I smite thee with stink.

The NJNG tech told me the igniter in the oven was busted and needed replacing. I asked my downstairs neighbors if I could use their oven. They said they were sorry, but they didn’t want the extra heat on a day like today. They did offer to see if they could relight it, something about kneeling on the floor, reaching through the broiler drawer with an Aim ‘N Flame and brute ambition. I know nothing about this method. It might have worked finely and dandily. But I couldn’t stop picturing a Hiroshima-styled mushroom cloud over the spot where my house had been and brioche tins flying out over the Atlantic. So I called my friends Kim and Doug, who are endlessly amiable and happy to help in a cookie crisis. Within an hour both batches were done.

These cookies are hearty, homey, flavorful, and textured in a very appealing lumpy bumpy way. As Anita points out, they lend themselves well to additions and substitutions. They’ll keep well frozen, I’m sure, and will defrost to keep my stomach full this week as I zip around the county. Thanks, Anita.

Here she is:

This is based on my mother’s oatmeal cookies, but I changed it up. Instead of cinnamon, I added cardamom. Instead of raisins, I used home-dried apricots (although commercially-dried apricots would do as well). I substituted chocolate chips (which I think are rather tasteless)** for chopped dark chocolate. I also added coconut.

I can’t keep these in the cookie jar. Heck. Half of the time they don’t even make it that far—they are eaten right off of the cooling rack.

Oatmeal Cardamom Chocolate Cookies

2 c all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp baking soda

1 tsp salt

2 tsp ground cardamom

1 1/2 c butter, softened

1 c brown sugar, packed

1 c granulated sugar

1/4 c molasses or barley malt syrup

4 eggs

1 tsp pure vanilla extract

3 c old-fashioned rolled oats

1 c chopped dried apricots (if unsulphured, slightly reconstitute by soaking in warm water)

1 c chopped walnuts (optional)

1 1/2 c shredded coconut (unsweetened)

1 1/2 c chopped dark chocolate. (I put the pieces in a big plastic bag and whack the bejeezus out of it with a meat tenderizer.)

Preheat oven to 350° F. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. In a separate bowl combine flour, soda, salt and cardamom, and set aside. Cream butter and sweeteners together. Add eggs to butter and sweetener mixture, one at a time, incorporating each one before adding the next. Add vanilla. Add oats, flour mixture, apricots, walnuts and coconut. Mix on low speed. Add chocolate. Combine.

Scoop by spoonfuls, about 2-3 tablespoons each, onto cookie sheets, leaving a couple of inches in between. Bake for 11-13*** minutes. Cool on a rack, then feast.

Anita Burns

Corona, CA

USA

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Do I seem obsessed with shiny chocolate?

 

*Especially the butter.

**Absolutely the case with Nestle.

***Mine took 18 minutes.

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From the Couldn’t-Make-This-Up files: When my college boyfriend and his best buddy were working long hours at the pharmacy downtown, I’d sometimes bake them raisin bran muffins as a treat. One time I dropped off a bag of them to the buddy (Jimmy) while my boyfriend (Frank) was out on a delivery. I called Frank later to ask how he had liked them and he said, ‘What muffins?’ Then, ‘Jim—Marisa brought muffins? Where are they?’ With remarkable shamelessness Jimmy showed him the inside of the empty bag. Then he put Jimmy on the phone. I asked, ‘The bag’s empty? What about the paper muffin cups?’ He said, ‘Muffin cups?’

You know what you’re thinking happened? Yeah. Happened.

These are pretty much that good, though, not that I advise you to be as indiscriminate as Jimmy. There are better ways to get fiber in your diet.

This recipe was given to my mom by a fellow mom from our little town. She jotted it down onto a recipe card—women in the early 80s and prior were wont to recipe-jot—and it has been a favorite of mine ever since.

Bran muffins, in my experience, are either oily, dry as asbestos, or weigh as much as a Hyundai Elantra. These are light and finely textured at 20 minutes in the oven. I like them darker and slightly chewier at 30 minutes (see helpful pic above). If you can find non-GMO cereal, I salute you. Extra raisins are a plus, too.

This recipe is another example of what Sara Moulton, formerly of Gourmet magazine, would call a dump recipe. You can make it happen from scratch in the morning with no problem, bake just enough for breakfast, and keep the rest of the batter in the fridge for the rest of the week.

1 15 oz. box raisin bran

5 c all-purpose flour

1 c granulated sugar

1 c packed brown sugar

5 tsp. baking soda

2 tsp salt

4 eggs

1 qt. buttermilk or plain yogurt

1/2 c (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted

Combine first six ingredients in a really big bowl. Add remaining and mix until moist. Fill greased or paper-muffin-cup-lined muffin cups 2/3 full. Bake at 375 for 20 minutes or longer. Serve warm or at room temperature. Peel off the paper muffin cups and discard. For crying out loud.

Batter can be covered and stored in the fridge for up to a month.

Here’s how much it serves:*

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*If you look closely you’ll see that my mom originally wrote ‘halve the recipe’, then scribbled it out. These are addictive. Don’t half.

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Cheerful reminder: June 27 is the deadline for recipe submissions:

https://mcproco.wordpress.com/2013/05/26/project-you-me-and-the-world/

Totally loved the creative and homey recipes I received this week. Please send more. Feed me, Seymour.

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I love pumpkin pie as much as the next chick, really I do. But October has this treat written all over it.

Cider syrup does not come in a jar or a bottle (not that I know of, anyway; and even if it was, this version is probably better just because it’s homemade in your own cute little cucina). You can cook it up in about 20 minutes, your house will smell incredible, and your family will think you’ve been sneaking away for private lessons with the Barefoot Contessa.

Take out a small saucepan and put in 1/2 c sugar, 2 tbsp cornstarch, 1/2 tsp cinnamon and 1/4 tsp nutmeg.* Mix it up.

Next add 2 c apple cider, and if you can get it with nothing added, all the better, because the flavor will be more intense.**

Add a couple of apples, peeled and sliced as thickly or as thinly as you like. Use different varieties, if you can get them. Any will do except maybe Macintosh, which tends to plotz in the pan. Hang onto those for applesauce.

Boil, stirring, for one minute. Take it off the heat and add a pat of butter for richness. Stir. Done.

The syrup should be goopy and gorgeously aromatic. It’s great hot over pancakes or waffles, which is how I grew up eating it (Dad would make pancakes with apples in the batter and then we’d spoon this stuff over it). Put a square of hot gingerbread or hot pumpkin bread in a shallow bowl and dump some of this, cold, on top, for breakfast, and you’ll feel like you have nothing to do all day but putter around the bed-and-breakfast wearing Ugg slippers and reading House Beautiful. Or do what I do: put the syrup in a Tupperware, stick it in the fridge until it gets good and cold, then take a spoon to it. Sometimes I feel guilty doing this, knowing full well how many other worthwhile ways I could be enjoying this, but it doesn’t last long.

I just bought little local, organic Bartlett pears from the farmers’ market and am going to try them in a riff off this recipe, with cardamom, my current obsession, substituted for the cinnamon, and pear brandy, steaming hot over vanilla ice cream.  Brown sugar instead of regular granulated sugar would be good too. Any other riffs you can think of? I’m all eyes.

*Saigon cinnamon, available in my local supermarket and possibly in yours, makes such a difference in pungency and fragrance that I don’t bother using any other kind of cinnamon in any of my baking. Same goes for using nutmeg in its original seed form. It’s about the size of a hazelnut, and again, can be found fairly easily. Just grab a cheese grater, or better, one of those neato microplane graters, and grate some right into your bowl. Don’t fret too much about measuring. Yes, you can use ordinary cinnamon and ground nutmeg and get decent results. But only decent.

** NJ shore residents: Don’t fool around and just head straight to Delicious Orchards.

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