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Posts Tagged ‘Saran Wrap’

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I just ate a chocolate chip cookie after going though the basket until I found the softest. I didn’t pull the Charmin bit because I only buy soft cookies, nor because I’m a really original narcissist who marks her territory by way of finger dents through Saran Wrap.

No, I did it because my jaw’s been on the fritz this week, and I can’t do any heavy-duty chewing. This happens. I was diagnosed with TMJ disorder in 2000. Google can tell you more, but the layman’s description is I’m a tooth grinder, and it takes a toll on my jaw. The cookie was really good, and I’m thanking my lucky stars, because I was starving and it was the sole soft cookie in the basket.

When you have this condition, being under stress often means pain—a little or a lot, depending on the stress in question. Many teachers have given me many ways to chill and to relieve the soreness.* It’s something I just plain manage. And with all of the problems in the world, especially of late, I’m not whining. It just led my brain to some connections.

As a kid I hated any food that was lumpy. Ix-nay on nuts in candy bars or brownies. Fie on chunky peanut butter and chunky tomato sauce. Ice cream had to be soft, the gooshy kind out of the machine. I didn’t even like chicken or beef on the bone.

Hindsight being what it is, I know why. It wasn’t because my jaw was acting up. That happened much later. I was stressed a lot, so I think I just wanted my food to be one less hassle.

And probably not surprisingly, the inclination toward smooth sailing back then went beyond food. This girl wanted simple, predictable, and routine…across the board. That’s common with very young kids, but I hung in with that a lot longer than most. If I couldn’t get smooth, I felt compelled to make it happen…or to tune out entirely.

Mind you, this is not to say smoothness is bad all the time and in every case. Sometimes it’s great. For some, it’s always perfect, and I bow to that. One should have what one wants. But for me it got old. I’d been stifling myself and didn’t even know it. For me, smoothness is fine. Too-smooth, though = too confining.

Things slowly started to change. I had the most delectable hors d’oeuvres here and there of a world that was bigger than the one I was in. A big friend here, three big teachers there. Travel, which can’t help but expand the old worldview. I started asking a lot of questions, talked to people without wanting to burrow into my very well-worn, self-conscious hidey-hole. I got normal answers and I got weirdo answers. I threw it all against the wall of my mind to see what stuck. Laced up my adventure boots. Even my laugh got bigger. It was crazy.

And you saw this coming: I started to eat stuff I’d never eaten before. Lumpy stuff. I ate walnuts in muffins. Grew to adore tomato sauce made with just skinned plum tomatoes. I was on chunky peanut butter like Homer on a doughnut. Spare ribs were cheerfully gnawed. I only wanted hard ice cream and only with a bunch of stuff in it—Moose Tracks, Cookies & Cream, Cherry Chocolate Chip. I’d switched out too-smooth for a crazy quilt of nubbly, and things were Finally Good. Life sparkled like a vampire.

Then whoops, the ancient stress I hadn’t resolved clobbered me. And food imitating life, I mellowed back down again. I had to—I was too spooked to do otherwise, and besides, my stomach wouldn’t let me eat much. Anything with power was strictly off the table, literally and figuratively. After about five years of these boring shenanigans, you’d better believe I went after it all—travel, adventure, FOOD—like a feral dog. And still do until I need a break, or my jaw cuts in for a slow dance.

Going smooth from time to time—this works for me. Sitting on the sand and watching the tide go out. Floating to the bottom of a really, really well-made vanilla ice cream, with only like four ingredients in it. Or when basic stress and my jaw sucker-punch me for a while and I have to soften my diet, as my oral surgeon says. I guess the Tilt-A-Whirl that’s been been my life was setting me up to figure out what’s the best way to get at all of it. A little gorge here, a little smooth there. Maybe I should be shooting less for a crazy quilt than the throw** I’m sitting under as I write this. I love this thing. It’s fleece on one side and nubbly faux fur on the other. It ain’t the fleece that makes it awesome and it ain’t the nubbly. It’s the both.

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*If you’re in the same boat, please Google myofascial release technique.

**Is it me or do I write about this throw a lot? Last week. Over a year ago. It’s totally that great.

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Last summer my neighbor, a lovely English lady, flattered me by asking if I would edit her family recipe for Traditional English Christmas Cake. She considers it an heirloom; and in the hopes that her children and grandchildren would make and enjoy it for years to come, she wanted it to be as clearly written as possible. I edit recipes often for the magazine I work with, but the prospect of doing this gave me chills—good ones.

Start with the fact that I am an Anglophile who has seen many recipes for this iconic cake but have never tasted it. Next, add in the fact that my neighbor is a graduate of London’s Cordon Bleu; she actually made Coronation Chicken for ambassadors and dignitaries for the Queen’s coronation in 1953. Wow. Lastly, throw in the history of the recipe, which goes back centuries. (To give you an idea of how far back I’m talking, a variation calls for 12 marzipan balls to be placed on top, and some historians believe they represent the 12 Titans.) This recipe is a piece of living history, and I was offered the chance to be a part of it. I couldn’t wait.

My neighbor asked that I get the edited recipe back to her sometime in the fall, so in early October I delved into it. She was very happy with my edits and reformatting. Last week she gave me a slice of the fruitcake, which she had made for a garden club holiday party. It was like nothing I have ever tasted, surprising and complex. And a couple of days ago, I made the cake for myself—a little version of it.

The recipe predates refrigeration by hundreds of years, back when brainy and resourceful women figured out how to make food last. This is an example of what they learned. We know adding alcohol to foods preserves them. Here, the extra addition of a double layer of icing to the cake acts as a yummy edible Saran Wrap, helping it to stay fresh for a good month.

Which brings me to my next point, which you were waiting for. The traditional holiday fruitcake is much maligned, and generally I’ll agree it’s well deserved. Store bought fruitcake can be leaden, tough to swallow and moreover dangerous to drop even at short distances. But a homemade fruitcake, made with care and beautiful ingredients? I wanted to see if it was worth making, whether it’s been passed down for so many generations for a good reason, one this generation has missed.*

The first thing you do is roughly chop up dried fruits, like fancy raisins, cherries and unsulfured apricots, and soak them in brandy overnight. Or you can use fruit juice. The next day you make the cake batter and mix the fruit into it. My neighbor said to use only dark colored fruits because it’s supposed to be a dark cake (hence why I used unsulfured apricots), and indeed it is; the addition of brown sugar and a bit of molasses to the batter helps keep it dark, too.

Once baked and cooled, you release the cake from the pan and put it on its serving plate, tucking strips of parchment underneath. This way, after you’ve iced it, you can pull the strips out and discard them. Your plate stays clean as a whistle.

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Next you roll out some marzipan (I used my own, but a good quality store bought brand like Odense works, too) that you’ll use to cover the top and sides of the cake. Set it aside for a minute. Then put some apricot jam and a little water into a saucepan and heat it up so the jam loosens and becomes syrupy. That gets brushed on top of the cake, then you cover it with your marzipan. Here’s how mine looked. It’s a bit of a patch job, but this is home cooking. And Martha I ain’t.

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Royal icing comes next. I have never made it before and was amazed at how easy it is. You put a couple of egg whites into a bowl, beat them a bit, then add confectioners’ sugar spoonful by spoonful until you get the consistency and amount you like. That’s it. If it gets too thick, add a little lemon juice or milk. Mine was almost as gooey as honey, thin enough to pour. I used an offset spatula to coax it down the sides and made sure all surfaces were covered.

Royal icing dries at room temperature, or I should say the top of it dries to a delicate crispness, like the top layer of newly fallen snow. Underneath it stays a bit creamy and soft. Luscious stuff.

If you come from the south of England, you decorate this cake with lots of Christmasy embellishments. If you come from the north, you decorate sparingly or not at all. My neighbor friend is from the south, so I followed her lead.

Below is the cake just after I put on the icing. I put the little bottle brush trees on at this point so their bases would stay affixed to the top of the cake.

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I added tiny pine cones around the perimeter, then while the icing dried I made two rabbits, a fawn and a squirrel out of more marzipan tinted with gel paste. (If I added the animals before the icing dried, their color would stain the icing.)

I’ve been making marzipan animals for years, but they’re always somewhat stylized, less realistic. They’re also quite a bit larger. I have never worked so small as I have here: the largest figure is 1.5″ and the smallest is just 3/4″. But when I started thinking about how to decorate the cake, the thought of making this little woodland scene jazzed me. I loved the challenge, and I love working with my hands. This is something I really needed, especially after the grueling past couple of months. Made me feel human again, like myself again.

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This morning I had a little piece of the cake. The allspice, cinnamon and freshly grated nutmeg are what come through first, heady and wonderfully fragrant. I didn’t taste a whole lot of the alcohol, but that might be because I have a dopey oven, and when I turned the temperature down from 325 to 295 as the recipe instructs, the cake finished baking before it made it to 295. So most of the alcohol probably burned off, and the cake was less moist than it should have been, but I still love it. I was worried that the marzipan and royal icing that covered the already sweet cake would make it molar-looseningly cloying, but I was surprised to find that they were less sweet than the cake, and actually mellowed it.

And it was a little piece, not a big one. My neighbor tells me another reason why Americans aren’t fond of fruitcake is because we’re used to cutting cake in large slices and eating the whole fat slice. But this cake is very rich, very intense. It is not meant to be cut the way you would a Bundt cake. It is meant to be cut in what she called ‘fingers’, in inch-long lengths, the way my mom cuts a slice of banana bread into fifths. That’s all you want at one time from this cake; a little goes a very long way. Which is good because you’ll want the cake made from this ancient recipe to last, you’ll want to have some to nibble on each day as you watch the sky darken, as our ancestors did before us.

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*Guess the answer 🙂

Post script: This is my 100th blog post! Thank you for reading, and I’m looking forward to playing with my food, with you, as long as I can.

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There are times during this chronicling that I play the arrogant card and tell you I have a recipe that trumps whatever it is others are making. I’m afraid this is another one of those times.

I grew up eating banana bread. It’s one of my mom’s specialties, but it’s not her own recipe or a family one, either. It’s Lady Bird Johnson’s. Mom clipped it from our local paper, The Asbury Park Press, sometime in the 196os. I like to picture old Lyndon padding downstairs to the White House kitchen in his jammies on sleepless nights during Vietnam to have a slice of this. Any port in a storm, I guess. I imagine the bread also made a nice dessert if Lady Bird’s guests still had an appetite after all of that barbecue.

While pregnant with my brother, my mother had a nauseous reaction to the smell of fresh bananas. Some forty years later, the smell still turns her stomach; but she can eat banana bread, and was always able to make this as long as she added the bananas to the batter quickly enough. Which she did, and often, for which I’m grateful.

The bread cooled on the kitchen island and there it stayed, still in its loaf pan, with a piece of Saran Wrap over it. We ate it all week for breakfast or for a snack. It was probably the first thing I ever baked. Once I got cocky and added toasted walnuts to the batter and made it into muffins, much to my dad’s delight (and indeed, I was not allowed to make ordinary banana bread ever again). Toasted walnuts, as opposed to those just shaken out of their bag into the batter, make a marked difference in flavor, by the way.

This banana bread recipe is the best because unlike others, which are simply generic batter with chunks of banana here and there, this batter is permeated with banana. Your taste buds don’t have to hunt for bits and pieces of it as you go, which is a sorry way to eat anything.

I substitute whole wheat pastry flour for some or all of the flour it calls for (all-purpose works well) and cut back the sugar. Can’t taste the difference. The recipe calls for sour milk, a quaint addition that hearkens back to when people used everything, even milk that had naturally gone a little sour. (Regular milk, what we buy today at Shop-Rite, was called ‘sweet milk’.) You can use buttermilk or plain yogurt instead of sour milk if you like. Mom used regular whole milk.

The recipe calls for soda. This means baking soda.* It also says a ‘moderate oven’; 350 degrees works fine. (People also used to describe oven temperatures as low, slow, moderate, hot or fast. One imagines chasing their giggling ovens down the street, swearing and balancing a pan full of batter.)

As far as bananas go, the recipe is extremely forgiving; fresh yellow bananas work fine, spotty old bananas even better. Or you can be lazy and put them, in any state, right in the freezer until you want to make banana bread. They’ll turn the color of your bedroom armoire, but that’s okay. When you’re ready, put them on a plate on your counter and let them defrost for an hour or so. Now this is fun: Just tear open one end of each banana, hold it upside down over the bowl, and it will slide right in with a satisfying sploop, just like a boat on the Log Flume.

Here’s the yellowing, stained original recipe Mom cut out of the paper. Note the word written at top, in caps, lest we forget to add them.

This is a wet batter, so it takes a while to bake in a loaf pan. Use a tester to be sure it’s fully cooked. If you don’t feel like waiting, bake it in a shallower brownie pan or make muffins. Bake for 20 minutes to half an hour. Just like cupcakes, they’re ready when you can smell them, when they’re a little golden around the edges, and when they spring back when gently pressed in the middle.

A final note: Adding great-quality semisweet or dark chocolate chips to the bread makes a perfect house gift for people you really, really like or a luxurious treat for you should you not be able to part with it after all.

Here’s the bread the way my mom used to slice it, when we ate it for breakfast on school mornings.

* My cousin once passed along a cake recipe to an aunt who apparently wasn’t much of a cook. The aunt called her and asked, “It calls for soda. Do they mean…like…Coke?’

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