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Posts Tagged ‘sugar’

I love lemons and I love old recipes. Recently, after a long hiatus that involved too much hither and yonning all over the state, I got on Google maps and actually found my kitchen again. The above and below are testament to what can be done while exhausted and needing to be comforted.

My friend Rachel loves to bring me little treats when she visits, and last September she brought me a copy of Woman’s Home Companion Cook Book (1942). I don’t mind relaying that I can do without their recipe for Boiled Asparagus, and don’t understand the preoccupation of the day with suspending almost anything in gelatin. But most of the recipes are true blue, and many more look really incredible; to my modern mind, the authors show a wonderful audacity with ingredients and flavors, and I really, really envy how common oysters, black walnuts, and persimmons were back then. Whew.

But a few days ago I was in the mood for lemons, certainly because it’s spring and they’re in season, and also likely because I was run down and in need of a smack of citrus. This was a treat: Called Delicate Lemon Pudding, it combines lemon juice and zest, sugar, milk, egg yolks, egg whites beat to stiff peaks, butter, and a little bit of flour to hold it all together. It gets poured into a baking dish, set in a bain-marie, and baked. Then it goes into the fridge to chill up.

I made this during last week’s heat wave and told my friends I imagined people in the ’40s pulling it out of the icebox on a sultry day. Did it myself. When you dip into it, the pudding has an appealing way of being dry and tender on top (that’s the browned meringue), frothy in the middle, and sweet and milky underneath, almost like a lemon milkshake. Next time I’ll use less sugar and more lemon juice and zest, but it was a really lovely win.

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The holiday season is a cranium-clocker of a monkey wrench when you’re told to keep an eye on your sugar intake. Ten years or so ago I significantly lowered the amount I eat, but of late, have had to reduce it further. A treat now and then is fine, but when you bake a cake for yourself, that’s some ten or twelve treats. And if you only eat certain cakes once a year, and really look forward to them…well, let’s just say the treat quotient adds up.

I wasn’t about to bend on making my favorite holiday cakes. I have to have two—sour-cream cinnamon chocolate chip cake, and sour-cream coffee cake. I’d already reduced the sugar in them, and had for a few years. But now I either had to reduce it further, or go without. I think we both know what happened.

Solid recipes stand up to almost anything, thank goodness.

The result was surprising. When you’re already accustomed to tasting less of one thing, everything else on stage steps forward to mug for the audience. (This is why I rhapsodize about restaurants who have the stones to serve a plain dessert on a plate. It means they trust that it can hold its own without a pile of goo on top.) Going even further: Making a cake with far less sugar, even than usual, made the other ingredients pop that much more…and the biggest diva in this cast of ingredients was butter.

As I ate, I thought about the things in our lives that we’re used to doing, and the things we’re obliged to change for whatever reason. Granted, some things just don’t fly, and never will.*

But who among us, biting into warm homemade cake and eagerly awaiting the first hit of flavor, would snub butter?

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*Things That Don’t Work Despite Any Amount of Optimism
1. Driving while eating yogurt
2. Bruce Willis’s 1987 R&B album
3. Me wearing anything Empire-cut

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Stollen

Short and sweet tonight, quite like the little number above. I love making stollen this time of year, and had some fun with the recipe, from The Joy of Cooking.

-Doubled the amount of raisins (I like a lotta fruit) and used orange rind instead of candied orange. Soaked them both in my homemade apple vodka to fatten them up.

-Decreased the amount of sugar to just two tablespoons and you couldn’t even tell. Although, now that I think about it, the apple vodka probably had a pretty solid hand in that.

-Used just shy of a stick of butter instead of the 1.75 sticks they called for. The dough was slippery as a politician in November even so. Wacky.

-I used half all-purpose flour plus half whole-wheat pastry flour in the dough. Again, couldn’t tell. I can’t imagine it would do much to counteract seven tablespoons of butter, but Lord knows I’m enjoying the pretense.

Took it out of the oven, ran an errand, got back a couple of hours later, and ate two slices just barely warm for lunch. It was tender and full of fruit, and had a crackly crust. On a chilly day—heck, on any day—it was profoundly soothing.

But I told my Facebook friends the hard truth.

Pros to living solo: having an entire stollen to yourself.
Cons to living solo: having an entire stollen to yourself.

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A few nights ago I made an apple cake with buttermilk and a good hit of my homemade apple vodka. I would have done it anyway; I love cake…it’s Fall…I love cake (this bears repeating).

But I wanted to try making a recipe with even less sugar than I normally use. In the past 10 or so years, I’ve been typically cutting back the sugar in recipes by half or more because sometimes I’ll have the cake for breakfast. Too much sugar in the morning grosses me out, and moreover sends me into a stupor. But my doctor told me I should be moderating my sugar even more, so I added just two heaping tablespoons of organic sugar to the batter along with something like a half cup of apple vodka, which contains sugar. So the cake is somewhat bland—I might have gone overboard—but I’ve been dressing it up with a blop of plain yogurt. The sour tang is surprising against the gentle sweetness and tender texture. So I’m proud that I made it work and that it works beautifully. Every day I’m looking forward to a piece of my apple cake.

*

Tonight I worked at a soup kitchen a few blocks away. It was a Thanksgiving feast for the needy in the community, a couple of days early. When I arrived I saw a young lady wearing a cocktail dress, with her hair in an upsweep, crouching and peering into a rolling cart of canned soft drinks. She asked if there were any iced teas that weren’t diet. (Can’t blame her.) We scanned the cart and said we were sorry, but didn’t see any.

The young lady sighed and frowned, thanked us, and turned to go. Then suddenly the event organizer said, ‘Wait!’ She reached into the back and pulled out some regular iced teas that had been hidden. I started laughing as the young lady started loading them under one arm, and she turned to me with a big grin and a question in her eyes.

‘It’s just—really wanting something, and then getting it,’ I said. She laughed with me and said, ‘Yeah.’

The world is a spinning top—it always has been, if we’re going to be honest. There will always be things we want and don’t get, and we need the strength and tenacity to keep moving forward when that happens.

But I’m not going to sit here and say it doesn’t get tiring when, over and over, we don’t get what we want, or have it and lose it. And this year has been a doozy. I’m wishing you your regular iced tea, at the very least one, whatever that is to you…more even, as many as you can carry.

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Maybe 30 years ago I read Katherine Paterson’s brilliant Bridge To Terabithia*. There was a note at the end which said the illustrator drew the pictures while listening to the music of the Beatles. (To see one of Donna Diamond’s beautiful drawings from that book, click here.) Her work was so ephemeral and dreamy, and I was not surprised to learn of the particular musical influence. I’d bet you aren’t either.

In my Advanced Studio Art class in high school we always had the radio on, set to a local station, while we drew. My work was inevitably co-authored by Mister Mister, Heart, and Dream Academy. By college I’d graduated to Belinda Carlisle and MC Hammer.

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This is a Lady’s Speed Stick. Hammer would be proud.

Sometimes I listen to music while doing busy work like cutting and freezing produce. Once I wrote to Gourmet Magazine** and told them I spent the afternoon slicing organic strawberries while accompanied by Led Zeppelin. It was a solid choice, I thought. Gourmet agreed. They printed my letter.

But back to the vein of Donna Diamond, Bridge drawings, and the Beatles; and me, my drawings, and late ’80s power ballads: I think the music I’m listening to when I’m creating has a hand in the product. That includes cooking. This past few weeks I’ve needed some deep rest—soul-core rest. Aside from sleeping, that means comfort food; and in my case, making it.

First I went to my farm and bought some local, low-spray, ripe peaches. Then I sliced them and tucked them into a butter crust, latticed and sprinkled with demerara sugar. My co-author was The Carpenters. I felt like I was moving not through air but through Karen’s exquisite honey-colored contralto. That was a mellow-tasting pie, indeed (there it is above).

A couple of days ago I became oddly obsessed with a recipe I’ve had for years but have never made: blackberry brown-sugar cake. I took some liberties, since it was to be a breakfast or teatime cake for me, not a celebration cake for others. Omitted the buttercream and jam and half the sugar, swapped in some olive oil for part of the butter and whole-wheat pastry flour for some of the all-purpose. The recipe also called for ground walnuts and a little sugar at the base of the pan, but I didn’t have any walnuts, so I used hazelnuts instead. They were so heady and delicious that going forward I’ll never use walnuts. I topped the cake with tangy, organic plain yogurt and blackberries I’d just picked at the farm. The result was subtle and moody and surprising.

Nat ‘King’ Cole made this cake with me. You might not be able to tell by the photo, but you’d know for sure when you ate a slice.

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*The movie is rubbish.

**Requisite whimper that they’re gone. 😦

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Dear Bakers,

First, mad props to you. Honest. Life is hard; you make us treats. Without you*, how could we forget about the workaday world of Cadillac SUV drivers who don’t signal, about 16-page apartment leases, about presidential candidates who strut and fret their hour upon the stage? A cinnamon croissant roll takes five minutes to eat, but what a blissful five minutes. How unburdened an experience. You are gods and archangels.

Thank you for the variety on your menu, thank you for offering both plain and fancified, thank you for blueberries in high summer and spiced pumpkin in the fall. Thank you for little saucers of broken-up scones to try while we wait for service. (Full disclosure: Sometimes I pop one to soothe a hungry stomach and then go. But you know I spend liberally the rest of the week. We’re cool.)

Thank you, so many of you, for making pie crusts with lard, or butter, or a combo of the two. Thank you, others of you, for eschewing shortening entirely for the glory of butter. You know your cookies will be flatter, but firmly avow that flavor must never fall to the ax of showboating.

But I must take exception to those of you who bake with excessive amounts of sugar. Of course America has a sweet tooth. We just don’t need as much sugar as you’re adding. Many of your cakes and cupcakes are too darn sweet, and lots of bakers don’t stop there: even a corn muffin these days can make a girl’s mouth pucker. My argument:

  1. If the first and last ingredient we taste is sugar, the product is dull.
  2. If the first and last ingredient we taste is sugar, the rest of the ingredients don’t get their say.
  3. Ibid., the structure will be gritty.

I love chocolate brownies, for example. But when did we make sugar more important than the quality of the chocolate, the richness of the butter, and the fudginess or cakiness of the square itself? I ate a brownie on Sunday that was gorgeous to look at. But it was so packed with sugar that I crunched my way through it.** The chocolate, fat, and texture were very much an afterthought.

Last point:

4. If one ingredient isn’t allowed to be a diva, we can appreciate the subtlety and balance of the other ingredients.

Like seals being tossed fish time and again, pushing sugar into the spotlight of baked goods narrows our thinking, dulls our senses, and deprives us of a fuller experience. Let us taste the almond extract in your cherry scones; we’ll be excited to learn they’re such a winning pair (cousins, almonds and cherries, you know). Let us search for a hint of orange peel, or come to adore exotic cardamom on first taste. We love to learn. Let us get excited by the nuances of your work.

The brownie above, now. Good example. Much less sugar, in the European tradition. More excellent-quality chocolate, cream, and butter. It was dense, sticky—a deep and powerful experience. I’ll drive a half an hour north for this thing, and I cannot imagine I’m alone.

Being active observers of flavors and textures is a positive; looking for them with eagerness and learning from them is a blessing. Conscious, discerning eating can’t help but inform conscious, discerning thinking outside the bakery, and goodness knows we can all use a little more of that.

Two thumbs up, and best regards,

~M (and my dentist)

*And maybe Lin-Manuel Miranda.
**Of course I ate the whole thing. It wasn’t a good brownie, but it was a brownie.

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The above is what happens when you’re hungry, you’re about to crew an enormously demanding show (The Who’s ‘Tommy’), and you need energy to make it through to 6pm (or later if we’re striking, or breaking down, the show. We were).

I have been wanting to try this newish place nearby, called Broad Street Dough Co., but held off until I had an excuse to consume such calories. This was one. That, and I tend to cast a skeptical eye on this treat-everything-like-a-sundae food trend that’s been going on for some time. Cupcakes, muffins, doughnuts, even coffee drinks have become bases for piling on heaps of candy and icing. It seems mildly hysterical, and is often a cheap way to disguise a poorly-made product beneath.

But I am always elated to support the exceptions, and yesterday’s doughnut was one. It’s essentially a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich (with black raspberry jelly), on a doughnut that’s been sliced in half standing in for bread. The doughnut was hot, tender, and right out of the fryer; it softened the creamy peanut butter and jelly and made them gooshy. A bit heavy on the fillings, but delicious. I ate it in maybe four bites.

A place with integrity will be proud to offer their product in the simplest manner, as an ice-cream shop that makes their own ice cream will be as proud of their vanilla as of their Rocky Road. The shortest distance between you and determining the quality of a place that cooks from scratch is to try that vanilla (or the simplest version of whatever they make) first. It’s a rule I made that has never failed me. I’m going back to Broad Street for a maple-walnut doughnut, which looked lovely, and I’m going to try out what they call old-school doughnuts—plain, sugar, and cinnamon—per my rule.

Crewing shows and doughnuts. I can live with this.

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